This image, created by the Norwegian artist Wilhelm Wetlesen (c. 1871-1925), was produced for an 1899 reprint of the Heimskringla—a medieval collection of sagas composed by Snorri Sturluson (c. 1179-1241). The illustration re-creates a battle that was said to have occurred during the Sicilian campaign of George Maniakes, who momentarily conquered the island of Sicily for Emperor Michael IV of Constantinople between 1038 and 1041. During this operation, George Maniakes supplemented his forces with mercenaries, the most notable of them being Harald Sigurdsson, an exiled member of the Norwegian royal family who had become the leader of the emperor’s elite Varangian Guard. The aforementioned Snorri Sturluson, in his Heimskringla, included a saga about Harald Sigurdsson, in which the Norwegian mercenary leader was accredited with capturing four separate (but unfortunately unnamed) Sicilian cities. Wilhelm Wetlesen’s artwork, featured above, depicts one of those conquests, with the third city being the most likely bet. Snorri Sturluson described the initial phase of Harald’s siege of the town, writing:
“They besieged the town for a long time without making any headway against it. At this, the townsmen were so emboldened that they drew up their troops on the walls, opened up the gates, and shouted at the Varangians, jeering at them and challenging them to come inside, telling them that they could fight no better than hens” (Heimskringla, Saga of Harald Sigurdsson, chapter 9).
As a direct assault was not getting the job done, Harald Sigurdsson and his army reportedly decided to transition to a more deceptive strategy. In front of the city’s insultingly-opened gates, Harald directed a portion of his troops to remove their gear and play sports, for all of the Sicilian defenders to see. After this had gone on for several days, and the presence of opposing army’s athletes had become normalized for the Sicilians manning the walls, Harald’s troops suddenly stopped playing their sports and instead rushed for the city’s open gates. As the athletes were wearing concealed armor and weapons for that day’s game, they managed to hold their own, keeping the city gates open while Harald Sigurdsson brought the rest of the besieging army into action. Such, then, is the story of what is unfolding in the image created by Wilhelm Wetlesen. As for Harald Sigurdsson, he would eventually become King Harald III of Norway (r. 1045-1066). He died while battling King Harold Godwinson of England in 1066, at the Battle of Stamford Bridge. For more articles about King Harald III of Norway, click HERE.
Written by C. Keith Hansley
- 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.