In the mid-to-late 9th century there lived a Norwegian noblewoman by the name of Gyda (or Gytha). According to legend, she was the daughter of King Eirík of Horthaland and had a reputation for great beauty, matched by even greater political ambition. Although minor kings from all over Scandinavia tried to court her, Gyda refused to marry a petty lord. Weak Norwegian kings with only a few shires to their name did not interest her. Instead, she wanted a Norwegian suitor with enough power to be called King of all Norway, just as Denmark and Sweden had arch-kings who ruled over their noble peers. As the story goes, the history of Norway changed forever when messengers from a certain King Harald came to ask Gyda if she was interested in marrying their liege.
King Harald I of Norway was said to have become the ruler of a minor kingdom in southeast Norway around 860. He was supposedly only ten years old at the time, and his survival in those early years was largely due to his skilled guardian, Guthorm. Together, young Harald and Guthorm survived invasions on multiple fronts and eventually counterattacked, leading to the deaths of several rival kings. According to the Icelandic historian and saga writer, Snorri Sturluson (c. 1178-1241), King Harald emerged from this first stage of his reign with a long list of conquests—during his teenage and early adult years, he supposedly added to his own kingdom such regions as Hringaríki, Heithmork, Guthbrands Dale, Hathaland, Thótn, Raumarí, northern Vingulmork and lands around the Glomma River.
The messengers of King Harald listed out these lands and conquests to the fair maiden, Gyda, feeling sure that she would see that their king was one of the most powerful men in Norway and that she would surely agree to a marriage. Gyda, however, countered the argument of the messengers by proclaiming that even though Harald wielded great power, he was still only a minor king in southeast Norway. As she had stated many times before, she stressed that she had no intention of marrying a petty regional king who had no ambition of ruling the whole of Norway. Therefore, she sent King Harald’s messengers away with a formal refusal to the proposed marriage. Yet, Gyda must have seen promise in young Harald, for she sent a second message to him—if one day he indeed became the king of all Norway, Gyda promised that she would marry him, but not a day before he conquered the whole land.
The messengers of King Harald were said to have been deeply offended by Gyda’s words. Yet, when they delivered her demands to their liege, King Harald reportedly found her challenge quite exhilarating. According to legend, it was after Gyda refused to marry Harald that the king vowed not to cut or groom his hair until all of Norway fell under his control. During the subsequent years of warfare, Harald’s tangled mass of hair became famous. Indeed, according to the 9th-century skald, Thorbjorn Hornfloki, King Harald was nicknamed Lúfa, which translated to something like “Slovenly Person.” Yet, when the conquering king defeated his last rivals in the momentous Battle of Hafrsfjord in the late 9th century, Harald finally cut his matted locks and adopted his more widely known name, Harald Finehair (or Fairhair).
Unfortunately for Gyda, Harald’s lust for conquest seemed to outgrow his lust for the woman who had once refused his marriage proposal. By the time Harald became king of all Norway, he had already supposedly married well over ten women. Even so, after Norway was his, King Harald Finehair remembered the noblewoman who had sparked his ambition for conquest. Almost as an afterthought, he reportedly sent his agents to fetch Gyda and she ultimately became one of the many women present in King Harald Finehair’s sizable harem.
Written by C. Keith Hansley.
Picture Attribution: (Painting of Gyda refusing the messengers of Harald Fairhair, painted by Knud Larson Bergslien (c. 1827-1908), [Public Domain] via Creative Commons).
- Heimskringla, by Snorri Sturluson and translated by Lee Hollander. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1964, 2018.