Harald Hardrada - The Last Great Viking Ruler

Harald Hardrada - The Last Great Viking Ruler

Harald Hardrada, as he is most famously known, was actually born Harald Sigurdsson. The Hardrada part of his name was given to him in the sagas – old Norse stories of history and myth – and it roughly translates as ‘stern counsel’ or ‘hard ruler’.

Harald was born in 1015 and later ruled as the King of Norway between 1046 and his death in 1066; he was the third Norwegian monarch to rule with that name, hence why he is otherwise known as Harald III. Harald was sometimes referred to as 'the last Viking ruler' and renowned as a military leader with fierce ambitions for expanding his kingdom, something that eventually proved to be his downfall when he died trying to claim the throne of England in 1066.

Early life

The youngest of three brothers, Harald was born in 1015 in Ringerike, Norway to Åsta Gudbrandsdatter and her second husband Sigurd Syr, one of the wealthiest chieftains in the country. In his early life he showed rebellious traits and high ambitions that distinguished him from his more conservative siblings. Later writers claimed that Sigurd and thus Harald were descendants of the earlier King Harald Fairhair, which would have provided a direct claim to throne, but this is often disputed as being merely the work of authors rather than historical fact.

In 1028 there was a revolt in Norway and Harald's brother Olaf was forced into exile in Kievan Rus (Kiev). When he returned two years later he was met by Harald and 600 men from the Uplands before they gathered an army and fought in the Battle of Stiklestad in July 1030. Harald fought alongside his brother Olaf against people loyal to Cnut the Great – a Danish King who had taken the Norwegian throne. Olaf died in the battle while Harald, although showing military talent at a relatively young age, was wounded and fled to a remote part of eastern Norway before heading north to Sweden then out east to Kievan Rus where he stayed with Yaroslav the Wise, the same Prince of Kiev who Olaf had escaped to in exile two years earlier.

Window with portrait of Harald in Lerwick Town Hall, Shetland
Window with portrait of Harald in Lerwick Town Hall, Shetland

Military campaigns and claiming the Norwegian throne

In the 1030's Harald went on to fight throughout Europe, travelling down to Constantinople, the capital of the Byzantine Empire, and Jerusalem. He became a renowned military leader and fought in many armies under the service of Byzantines. He came to spend a lot of time in the Byzantine Empire and became both well respected and prosperous. In 1042, after there had been a breakdown in relations between Harald and the eastern leaders, Harald returned north. Soon after his return to Kiev, Yaroslav attacked the Byzantines; it is thought that Harald advised Yaroslav on how to exploit weakness in the Byzantine defences that he had come to know well.

When back in Kievan Rus, the now wealthy and respected Harald married Elisabeth, daughter of Yaroslav, who he had intended to marry on his first stay in Kiev over 10 years earlier but was not wealthy enough at the time.

In 1045 Harald sought to return to his Scandinavian roots and reclaim the Norwegian throne that Olaf had died fighting for. Cnut had since abandoned Norway to focus his attentions on England, leaving the throne to Olaf’s illegitimate son Magnus the Good. Harald rallied support in Sweden and raided the Danish coast before heading to Norway. However, rather than the uncle and nephew going to war, a compromise was made; the pair would share the rule of Norway, although Harald had to share half of his sizeable wealth acquired in Byzantium and Kiev with the bankrupt Magnus. In 1047 Magnus died without an heir, declaring Harald as the King of Norway - though not Denmark, which was given to Sweyn. Harald named himself as ruler as both anyway and spent the next 20 years in constant, draining warfare with Sweyn over Denmark. They eventually signed a peace agreement in 1064.

Invasion of England

With peace between Norway and Denmark finally settled, Harald turned his attention to England. Harthacnut, son of Cnut, had reigned in England until he died childless in 1042. Harald believed he had a claim to the English throne based on an agreement made between his predecessor Magnus and Harthacnut, which stated if either died the other would inherit their kingdoms. As Harald had become sole King of Norway after Magnus, he felt that this right passed on to him, making him rightful King of England after the heirless Harthacnut died.

Edward the Confessor had made himself king in 1045 while Harald was reclaiming control in Scandinavia. When Edward died in January 1066, Harald was annoyed that the throne passed on to Harold Godwinson, a son of one of Edward’s advisers. It was here that Harald looked to stake his claim to be King of England, at the same time as the Normans would attempt to do the same. Harald allied himself with Tostig, Edward’s brother, and together the pair invaded England from the River Tees in September 1066.

In a battle at Stamford Bridge on 25 September Harald and Tostig met Harold Godwinson’s army, which greatly outnumbered theirs. The heavily armed and armoured English forces defeated Harald’s army, with the Norwegian King being killed in the process when he was shot in the neck by an arrow. Harald is said to have worn no body armour during the battle.

Harold Godwinson had defeated Harald, Tostig and the Norwegians but he himself would be defeated soon after by William the Conqueror in the Battle of Hastings, leaving England in the hands of the Normans. The fact Harold had to travel north to meet and defeat Harald in battle is often quoted as a major reason for why he lost to William soon after.


It was Harald’s military-first approach to ruling that earned him the tag of Hardrada, or ‘hard ruler’. He grew up in constant military action across Europe and then, having reclaimed the Norwegian throne, he settled any disputes at home or abroad with brutality. He is also credited with introducing Christianity to much of Norway, something influenced by his time travelling across Europe.

See also: 1066

MLA Citation/Reference

"Harald Hardrada - The Last Great Viking Ruler". HistoryLearning.com. 2015. Web.

Key facts

Name: Harald Sigurdsson or Harald Hardrada
Birth Date: 1015, Norway
Death: 25 September 1066
Reign: 1046 - 25 September 1066
Predecessor: Magnus I
Successor: Magnus II
Notable role: The last great viking king