Harald “Hardrada” Sigurdsson was the brother of the saint-King, Olaf II (r. 995-1030), and he would eventually become the last great Viking warlord of Scandinavia. Even though that was in Harald’s future, it took him a long blood-stained time to realize his destiny of becoming king of Norway. In the year 1030, Harald had to flee from his homeland after his brother, King Olaf, was killed by rebels in the battle of Stiklestad. For more than a decade, Harald stayed in a self-imposed exile, honing his military skill by becoming a successful mercenary commander, first employed by the Russ and then by the Byzantine (Eastern Roman) Empire.
In the service of the emperors at Constantinople, Harald Hardrada led mercenaries in campaigns that took him to places such as the Caucuses, Jerusalem, Bulgaria and Sicily. Harald’s military talents were best showcased in the Sicilian campaign. There, Harald Hardrada commanded a section of the army headed by the skilled general, George Maniakes, who, from 1038 to around 1041, brought most of the island of Sicily back under the control of Constantinople. The Greek historians, such as Michael Pseullus and John Skylitzes, largely erased Harald from their accounts of the Sicilian campaign. At most, they would acknowledge that foreign mercenaries were present on the island and that Harald, or “Araltes” as the Greek scholars would sometimes call him, accomplished some impressive feats while on Sicily. They, however, reserved their highest praise for George Maniakes, who, by 1039, had conquered most of the island, and was said to have personally captured thirteen Sicilian cities.
Scandinavian sources gave more credit to Harald for the Sicilian campaign. Snorri Sturluson (c. 1179-1241), in his saga about King Harald’s career, wrote of four impressive sieges that Harald orchestrated in Sicily. Unfortunately, Sturluson did not provide any names for the four towns, and the accounts could very well be more folklore than fact. Nevertheless, the tales about Harald’s achievements in Sicily showcase his military ingenuity and gives insight into the fearsome reputation that he achieved in 11th-century Europe.
In the Sicilian campaign, Harald often had too few troops to directly storm a town, so he had to either starve his enemies into submission, or defeat them with cunning. In the case of Harold’s fourth siege, ingenuity was apparently the only available option—the town was too well defended for an assault and too well supplied for a prolonged siege. To add to the frustration, Harald Hardrada fell ill while he was camped outside the city’s walls.
Whether or not he was truly sick is unknown. Did his weakened condition give him inspiration, or was it all a ploy from the beginning? Sturluson did not provide an answer in the saga. Whatever the case, Harald stopped making appearances and stayed in bed. If someone wanted to talk, they had to seek the bedridden commander in his tent. Something was so visibly amiss that even the besieged townspeople believed that Harald was gravely ill.
After more time had passed and Harald still had not been seen or heard, death was on everyone’s minds. Eventually, the grief-stricken mercenaries requested a parlay with the townspeople, proclaiming that their leader was dead. The soldiers explained to the townspeople that Harald had been a Christian prince of Norway, the brother of Saint Olaf, and on his deathbed he had wished for his body to be put to rest in one of the town’s beautiful churches.
As the story goes, the townspeople did not want to deprive the Christian prince of a proper funeral, so they agreed to entomb the body inside their city. Sturluson left much of the agreement vague, but the funeral was apparently quite the ceremonious spectacle. The clergymen of the town were said to have shown up in their robes to the entrance of the gate. There, the clergymen awaited an honor guard of Harald’s best soldiers, who respectfully carried a large coffin on their shoulders. They brought the morbid box out from the mercenary camp and approached the audience at the gate. It is unclear what they had planned—whether the soldiers would have been let inside the town, or if the coffin would have been handed over to the townspeople. It does not matter, the funeral never reached that point.
As the Scandinavian honor guard solemnly marched toward the open gate, their steps became more purposeful and their speed began to gradually increase. When they finally reached the gate, the procession of grieving Scandinavians had transformed into a band of hardened soldiers determinedly charging toward the open doors. Before the townspeople could react, the mercenary honor guard jammed the gate open with the wooden coffin that they had been carrying. Then, they readied their weapons and kept the gate clear until the whole of Harald’s army came rushing through the open gate into town. Harald supposedly showed no mercy to the inhabitants of the town or to the plentiful wealth that was stashed inside. The loot that Harald Hardrada acquired from this and other conquests gave him such riches that he was able to purchase half of Norway from his nephew, King Magnus the Good, in the year 1045.
Written by C. Keith Hansley.
Picture Attribution: (14th-century depiction of the Funeral of Jeanne of Bourbon, wife of Charles V, [Public Domain] via Creative Commons).
- John Skylitzes. A Synopsis of Byzantine History: 811-1057, translated by John Wortley. Original text c. 11th or early 12th century. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2010.
- King Harald’s Saga, by Snorri Sturluson, translated by Magnus Mangusson and Hermann Pálsson. New York: Penguin Books, 1966, 2005.