Historical Notes: William, Harold - and Harald - and all that
Tuesday 10 November 1998
The key to understanding 1066 is to appreciate that King Harold faced an invasion on two fronts: in the north by King Harald of Norway and in the south by Duke William of Normandy. A war on two fronts is the abiding nightmare of the military strategist. Throughout history those who are caught between two such fires usually go under: Napoleon did in 1813, the Kaiser in 1914-18 and Hitler in 1941-45. The one chance Harold possessed in 1066 was that primitive technology and logistics and the consequent slow progress of the armies of the day enabled him in theory to defeat his enemies piecemeal.
William of Normandy enjoyed incredible luck in 1066. What would have happened if King Harold of England had not hurried north to confront Harald Hardrada of Norway? What if he had decided to deal with William and the Normans first or, even better, had withdrawn inland, allowing William and Hardrada to chew each other up, before re-emerging for the knockout blow as tertius gaudens?
Consideration of this possibility switches attention towards the figure who in most narratives of 1066 appears as a shadowy "third man", briefly popping out from obscurity only to be overwhelmed by Harold at Stamford Bridge. Harald Hardrada is far the most interesting of the three contenders for the English crown in 1066. He was a legendary warrior who, in a bloody 20- year reign in Norway, had made himself something close to an absolute monarch, had suppressed or killed off the previously powerful regional oligarchs, defied the Papacy and carried on an interminable war with his rival for Scandinavian hegemony, Svein Esthrithson of Denmark.
Hardrada was blooded in battle at the age of 15, when he supported King Olaf Haraldson in a civil war which ended with Olaf's defeat and death at the battle of Stiklestadt. During the next four years Harald completed his training as a warrior under Yaroslav, Grand Duke of Kiev. Proceeding from Russia to Constantinople, Harald enrolled in the Varangian Guard, a body of praetorians used both as shock troops and as the personal bodyguard of the Byzantine emperor. After distinguished military service he was promoted to commander of the Varangians. Returning to Russia in 1043, Harald married Yaroslav's daughter and two years later reappeared in Norway with a fabulous treasure. After an uneasy two-year joint rule with King Magnus, his colleague's convenient death made Harald sole ruler of Norway. It was at his capital at Trondheim in 1066 that Harold Godwinsson's treacherous brother Tostig talked Harald into making his calamitous bid for the English crown.
The dramatic events at Stamford Bridge near York on 25 September 1066 have been obscured by the more famous battle at Hastings three weeks later. All three contenders for the throne were brutal men, but in Harald's case the brutality was leavened by an aesthetic and poetic sense: he was a skilled composer of skaldic verses, who allegedly found time to compose valedictory "kennings" even when surrounded by Harold Godwinsson at Stamford Bridge. When Nero found himself in his enemies' net and signed off with "What an artist dies here!" he was posturing, but Harald Hardrada would have been justified in penning the Norse equivalent of qualis artifex pereo.
Frank McLynn is the author of `1066: the year of the three battles' (Cape, pounds 18.99)
Art Piece taken off website amid 'severe security alert'
Maisie Williams single-handedly rises to the challengeTV
Academy criticised after no non-white actors nominated
tvAn expose of hooliganism masquerading as an ideological battle
artLee Hadwin can't draw when he's awake, but by night he's an artist
‘Remember the attackers are a cold-blooded, crazy minority’, says Blek le Rat
Arts & Ents blogs
- 1 Benedict Cumberbatch says Hollywood is better for black British actors: 'I think as far as coloured actors go it gets really difficult in the UK'
- 2 Man who held up 'hire me' sign at Waterloo station returns a year later with 'I'm hiring' sign
- 3 UK weather: Snow to fall in the coming week with sub-zero temperatures to last until early February
- 4 Saudi preacher who 'raped and tortured' his five -year-old daughter to death is released after paying 'blood money'
- 5 Warriors in ancient Iraq suffered Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder more than 3,000 years ago, say researchers
Heavy metal producer's corpse to be mutilated by models as per his dying wish
Mr Selfridge series 3: Actress Kara Tointon says 'We're starting to see his demise'
Benedict Cumberbatch says Hollywood is better for black British actors: 'I think as far as coloured actors go it gets really difficult in the UK'
Downton Abbey season 5 episode 6 - review: Thomas and Lady Edith show sad signs of the times
Sia apologises for 'Elastic Heart' music video that sees Shia LaBeouf wrestle 12-year-old Maddie Ziegler
Nigel Farage: NHS might have to be replaced by private health insurance
'We would evict Queen from Buckingham Palace and allocate her council house,' say Greens
French court convicts three over homophobic tweets, in case hailed as a 'significant victory' by LGBT rights campaigners
George Galloway condemns 'racist, Islamophobic, hypocritical rag' Charlie Hebdo at freedom of speech rally
British Muslim school children suffering a backlash of abuse following Paris attacks
Islamic history is full of free thinkers - but recent attempts to suppress critical thought are verging on the absurd