Harald Sigurdsson was the half-brother of King Olaf II of Norway (r. 1015-1028). The half-brothers shared the same mother, Ásta, and she curiously gave birth to Harald around 1015, the same year that his half-brother, Olaf, launched his successful bid to claim the throne of Norway. Very little, unfortunately, is known about Harald’s early life—the Icelandic historian, Snorri Sturluson (c. 1179-1241), a major source for information on Harald, bemoaned that “We have no particular accounts about his youth until the age of fifteen, when he took part in the Battle of Stiklestad with his brother, King Olaf the Saint” (Heimskringla, King Harald’s Saga, chapter 99). Despite that statement, he did his best to find tales about Harald’s youth. Likely aided by his trips to Norway in 1218 and 1237, Snorri Sturluson uncovered three folkloric stories about the childhood of Harald Sigurdsson. As all three tales involved young Harald interacting with his reigning half-brother, King Olaf II, Snorri Sturluson filed the stories away inside his Saint Olaf’s Saga instead of the saga he wrote specifically about Harald.
All three of the stories about Harald Sigurdsson’s childhood were set around 1017, when he was three years old. To set the scene, King Olaf II had just crushed a conspiracy, toppling five minor kings in Norway during the process. After succeeding in his counter-intrigue, King Olaf II attended a feast prepared by his mother, Ásta. The feast proved to be a family reunion, as Olaf’s half-siblings were all present. Ásta, after remarrying following the death of Olaf’s father, had two daughters (Gunnhild and Ingrid), and three sons (Guthorm, Hálfdan and Harald). At the time of this feast, King Olaf did not yet have any known children, and, consequently, he was keeping an appraising eye on his half-brothers during the time they spent together, assessing which of them might be a worthy heir.
King Olaf II, for his first test, reportedly decided to see how his male siblings would react if he scared them. Acting like a typical older brother, King Olaf II found a good place to set an ambush for his unsuspecting siblings and waited for one of the boys to fall into his trap. When Guthorm and Hálfdan were caught by the king, all it took was for Olaf to stare at them with his fiercest, angriest countenance to make the two boys whimper and cry. When three-year-old Harald similarly found himself face to face with Olaf’s ferocious stare and scowl, he acted much differently than his older brothers. Under pressure from the king’s mightiest expression, the boy did not flinch, or squirm, or whimper. Instead, Harald stared right back at Olaf without showing any fear. Impressed (or frustrated), Olaf went a further step and tugged on a lock of Harald’s hair. Young Harald, however, did not take this lightly; he went on the counter-attack against Olaf. According to Snorri Sturluson, “The boy grabbed the king’s mustache and twitched it. Then the king said, ‘You are likely to be vindictive when you grow up, kinsman’” (Heimskringla, Saint Olaf’s Saga, chapter 76).
After the scare campaign, King Olaf II decided to conduct the rest of his appraisals in a less obtrusive way. The next trial for the boys occurred a few days later, when Olaf found his young half-brothers playing by a pond. Guthorm and Hálfdan, at one end of the pond, had used materials scattered around the yard to build themselves makeshift farmhouses and animal sheds. Within this miniature play-village, Guthorm and Hálfdan pretended to be farmers. Leaving those two to their play, King Olaf II found three-year-old Harald at another end of the pond. Instead of pretending to be a farmer, young Harald was amusing himself by placing small chips of wood afloat on the water of the pond. After watching Harald set many of these woodchips out to sea (or pond), Olaf finally asked the boy what he was doing. According to Snorri Sturluson, “He replied they were his warships. Then the king laughed and said, ‘It may well be, kinsman, that the time will come when you will be in command of ships’” (Heimskringla, Saint Olaf’s Saga, chapter 76).
Snorri Sturluson’s third tale about Harald Sigurdsson’s childhood occurred in a similar setting as the story laid out above. One day, reportedly still in 1017, Olaf II called together his three young half-brothers, Guthorm, Hálfdan and Harald. For his final test, the king simply asked the boys, “What would you most like to have?” Guthorm answered first, exclaiming that he wanted ten farms with fertile lands that would grow grain every summer. Halfdán agreed with his brother’s wish, but, instead of fields of grain, he wanted his ten farmlands to be filled with cows. Finally, it was young Harald’s turn to speak. After giving the question some thought, the boy proclaimed that he wanted loyal warriors. According to Snorri Sturluson, when Olaf asked how many warriors Harald wanted to lead, the boy answered, “So many that they would eat up all of my brother Hálfdan’s cows at a single meal” (Heimskringla, Saint Olaf’s Saga, chapter 76). As the story goes, King Olaf was extremely pleased with Harald’s response. He made a note of it and the next time he saw Ásta, he referenced Harald and told her, “In him you are likely to bring up a king, mother’” (Heimskringla, Saint Olaf’s Saga, chapter 76).
Despite these few interactions between King Olaf II and his young, promising half-brother in 1017, the rest of Harald Sigurdsson’s childhood remains incredibly obscure. Perhaps, this is because King Olaf II later had a son named Magnus in 1024, who became the assumed heir of Norway. Whatever the case, Canute the Great of England and Denmark would expel King Olaf II from Norway in 1028. Yet, King Olaf II returned to Norway in 1030, campaigning to regain his throne. It was at that time that Harald Sigurdsson finally reappeared, as a tall and strong fifteen-year-old warrior who joined the army of King Olaf II. According to Snorri Sturluson, King Olaf II was unsure if his teenage half-brother should fight in the upcoming famous Battle of Stiklestad, but Harald reassured him by saying, “By all means I shall take part in it, and if I am so weak as not to be able to wield a sword, then I know what to do: let my hand be tied to the haft” (Heimskringla, Saint Olaf’s Saga, chapter 209). During that fateful battle in 1030, King Olaf II was slain and Harald wounded.
After Stiklestad, Harald Sigurdsson fled to the Rus and then to Constantinople. Back in Norway, Magnus Olafsson, Harald’s nephew and son of Olaf II, regained the throne of Norway in 1035. Meanwhile, Harald Sigurdsson became an accomplished mercenary and member of Constantinople’s Varangian Guard. Fighting battles throughout the Mediterranean, Harald gained renown as a warrior and amassed an unimaginable treasure, which he hid from his Byzantine employers. With his armed followers and his great haul of plundered loot, Harald Sigurdsson returned to Norway in 1045, where he negotiated a deal with his nephew, Magnus, in which he reportedly bought half of Norway in exchange for half of his treasure. As Olaf had predicted, Harald became a king (King Harald III of Norway), and gained such epithets as “the Ruthless” or “the Hard Ruler.”
Written by C. Keith Hansley
Picture Attribution: (19th-century Image from page 39 of “Art and artists of our time” (1888), depicting Frithiof and Ingeborg, [Public Domain] via flickr.com and Creative Commons).
- Heimskringla, by Snorri Sturluson and translated by Lee Hollander. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1964, 2018.
- King Harald’s Saga, by Snorri Sturluson, translated by Magnus Mangusson and Hermann Pálsson. New York: Penguin Books, 1966, 2005.