Norwegian King Harald Hardrada And The Burning Of Scarborough


Harald “Hardrada” Sigurdsson lived one of the most dramatic lives of the 11th century. At the age of fifteen (in year 1030), Harald was smuggled out of Norway after his brother, the King-Saint Olaf, was killed by rebels in the battle of Stiklestad. For more than a decade, Harald stayed in a self-imposed exile. Yet, the Norwegian prince did not spend those years idly—he became a successful mercenary employed first by the Russ and then by the Byzantine (Eastern Roman) Empire.

After serving in successful campaigns that took him to places such as the Caucuses, Jerusalem, Sicily and Bulgaria, Harald had enough plunder and prestige fit for a king. In fact, Harald was stashing away so much treasure that the Byzantine emperor had Harald momentarily arrested. Sometime after 1042, when Emperor Michael V was dethroned and blinded (the latter possibly done by Harald, himself), the rich Norwegian prince returned to Scandinavia. In 1045, Harald Hardrada negotiated a deal with his nephew, King Magnus the Good, in which he bought half of Norway in exchange for half of his wealth. Two years later, King Magnus died, leaving Harald with full control of Norway.

By 1066, King Harald had long been the sole king of Norway. At this point, his lengthy, but unfruitful, war against Denmark had also ended. Now, Harald set his sights set on another prize. It was a target that had a storied history of Viking invasions—Britain. With an estimated force of 9,000 troops packed onto 300 ships, Harald landed along the River Ouse around September 20, 1066, obtaining a foothold near the city of York. As he began his maneuvers around northern England, Harald’s first challenge came from the town of Scarborough.

The townspeople of Scarborough allegedly came out of their fortifications to fight the invaders, but they were quickly forced to retreat back into their town. With the townspeople manning their defenses, Harald scanned the countryside for weaknesses and opportunities. According to the sources of the Icelandic historian and saga writer Snorri Sturluson (c. 1179-1241), this ability to utilize nature and the environment for his military purposes was one of Harald Hardrada’s specialties. In King Harald’s Saga, Sturluson wrote of the king accomplishing feats such as tunneling under walls to capture cities, carrying ships across land to escape pursuing fleets, and even using birds with makeshift candles to set a fortified town on fire. Whether or not these extravagant feats actually occured as they were reported, Harald’s real reputation for military ingenuity and skill made the tales believable to the medieval Icelanders who wrote about his life. Therefore, when Harald Hardrada saw the huge hills and rocks towering over Scarborough, he undoubtedly had a few ideas.

According to Sturluson’s account, King Harald eventually started gathering firewood and had the pieces of lumber carried up to the top of one of the large rocky hills above the town. When the Norwegians had built a veritable pyramid of firewood, Harald had his soldiers ignite the combustible pile. Then, using pitchforks and other tools, the Norwegians shoveled the live embers and burning sticks down into the helpless town of Scarborough. Harald then looted what remained of the charred town and allegedly killed any survivors that were found. Nevertheless, the Anglo-Saxons would have their revenge—within days, Harald Hardrada was killed in battle after being surprised at Stamford Bridge.

Written by C. Keith Hansley.

Picture Attribution: (Painting of a castle and a city burning, by Aert van der Neer (1604–1677), [Public Domain] via Creative Commons).


  • King Harald’s Saga, by Snorri Sturluson, translated by Magnus Mangusson and Hermann Pálsson. New York: Penguin Books, 1966, 2005.

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