King Harald II of Norway (r. 961-970) was one of several sons fathered by King Eirik Bloodaxe, ruler of Norway in the early 940s. Nevertheless, the usurpation of the throne in 945 by Haakon the Good, Eirik’s younger brother, caused Eirik Bloodaxe and his family to flee over to the British Isles. There, Eirik managed to set himself up as King of Northumbria in 947 and remained influential in the region until his death during a raid around 954.
After Eirik Bloodaxe’s death, his wife and sons left mainland Britain and temporarily stayed in the Orkney and Shetland Islands, but ultimately relocated to Denmark, where they were given shelter by King Harald Bluetooth of the Danes (r. 958-985). From Denmark, the sons of Eirik Bloodaxe raided Norway, where Haakon the Good was still in power. The Saga of Haakon the Good, written by the Icelandic chief Snorri Sturluson (c. 1179-1241), alleged that the sons of Eirik launched four major invasions into Norway. According to the saga, each invasion failed, yet Haakon the Good was mortally wounded while pressing back the final attack in 961. As King Haakon the Good had no male heirs, he reportedly named his troublesome nephews (the sons of Eirik Bloodaxe) as his successors.
At the time of Haakon’s death, Harald II was the eldest living son of Eirik Bloodaxe, and he therefore became the next king of Norway, although he did allow his surviving brothers to share in his power. When he first took the throne, the new king was apparently known simply as Harald Eiriksson. Yet, before the end of his reign, he would gain a stylish addition to his name.
According to Snorri Sturluson, Norway saw an influx of Icelandic trade during the time of Harald II. In particular, an unnamed Icelandic merchant reportedly sailed into the Hardanger region of Norway with a large cargo of sheepskin cloaks. Unfortunately, the Icelandic trader soon discovered that his cloaks were not considered fashionable in Norway. Wealthy Norwegians stayed away from the man’s Icelandic garments as if they were the plague. Yet, the merchant’s luck abruptly changed for the better when King Harald II decided to peruse the newly arrived wares. To the merchant’s delight, the king bought a lordly gray sheepskin cloak, which he draped across his shoulders, and it became an iconic part of his wardrobe.
King Harald II must have looked great in the cloak, for all of his thanes apparently scrambled to find their own sheepskin cloaks. The Icelandic merchant, who earlier had been avoided at all costs, now found himself to be the most sought-after fashion designer in the region. Before long, the merchant’s entire cargo of sheepskin cloaks was sold off to thanes and noblemen who were eager to keep up with the latest royal fashion. According to Snorri Sturluson, it was after this encounter that the king of Norway became known as Harald Graycloak.
Written by C. Keith Hansley.
Picture Attribution: (Frithjof, the Viking of Norway, and Roland, the paladin of France, (c. 1899), [Public Domain] via Creative Commons and Flickr).
- Heimskringla, by Snorri Sturluson and translated by Lee Hollander. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1964, 2018.