Historical Notes: William, Harold - and Harald - and all that

TEN SIXTY-SIX is the most famous date in the English historical calendar, and rightly so. Without the Norman Conquest, England would probably have developed as a Scandinavian rather than European culture, and the English language might not have developed to global linguistic hegemony. But how much do we know about the stirring events of 1066? From the viewpoint of the professional historian the answer must be very little. Even the old chestnuts - such as that Harold Godwinsson died from an arrow in the eye - are based on very dubious sources.

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 What if he had decided to deal with William and the Normans first or, even better, had withdrawn inland, allowing William and Hardrada to chew each other up, before re-emerging for the knockout blow as tertius gaudens?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)