After the death of King Olaf the Saint, and after the Danes had for some years ruled over Norway, Olaf's son Magnus, who had been left in Russia, was brought to Norway and proclaimed king. The Danes had oppressed the people, and had put over them a woman and her son, and it was this that made the chiefs drive out the tyrants and put young Magnus, then a boy of ten years of age, on the throne.
A curious thing then took place, one of those strange political somersaults which at times come in the history of nations. For as the Danes had lately ruled over Norway, now a Norseman came to rule over Denmark. Thus it was that this odd change came about.
The great King Canute was dead and his son Hardicanute had succeeded him on the throne. This new king claimed Norway as his and prepared to fight for it. But the chief men in the two countries succeeded in making peace, with the agreement that if either of the kings should die without heirs the other should take his throne. A few years later Hardicanute died and Magnus was proclaimed king of Denmark. Thus, in the year 1042, the two kingdoms became united under a Norse king, a descendant of Harold the Fair-Haired.
Magnus, as he grew up, showed an ugly and revengeful temper. Very likely some of those around him told the boy that he should avenge his father upon those who had rebelled against and killed him. One of these men was slain by his orders, others fled from the country, and many were made poor by the loss of their cattle. This made the people very angry, and they were ready to fight for just treatment when peace was brought about in another way, the hot-tempered Magnus being subdued by the power of song.
One of the poets of the land—scalds they were called—made a song called the Lay of Candor, which he sang before the king. In it he warned him of the evil results of a revengeful spirit and told him of the duties he owed the people who had brought him to Norway and made him king. Magnus, who had now nearly reached the years of manhood, listened quietly to this song and afterwards sat long in deep thought. It had a wonderful effect on him, for it opened his eyes to the injustice of his course, and from that day he was a new man. All his plans of vengeance fled, he became kind and gentle and so mild and sweet in manner that he grew to be one of the best loved of kings. This may be seen in the name the people gave him, which was that of Magnus the Good.
Now we must tell the rest of his story very rapidly. As the heir of Hardicanute he claimed to be king of England as well as of Norway and Denmark, and he might have tried to win the crown of England, then worn by Edward the Confessor, had he not been kept busy at home. In fact, he had to fight hard to keep the crown of Denmark, for Sweyn, a nephew of the great Canute, claimed it and a fierce war followed. Magnus was victorious in this war, and in one great battle, in which ten thousand soldiers were slain, it was his skill and courage that won the field. This display of personal bravery gave him a great name in the north.
Now we must leave the story of Magnus for a time to take up that of another hero of the north. Those who have read the tale of Olaf the Saint will remember his amusing talk with his three little half-brothers, and how while the two elder had an ambition only for land and cows, Harold, the youngest, wanted men and ships, and Olaf prophesied that the boy would one day be a king.
When Harold grew up the spirit of the boy was shown in the man. When only fifteen years old he fought in the battle in which King Olaf was killed, and received a severe wound. Then he became a wanderer, going first to Russia and then to Constantinople, where he became the captain of the Varangians, the body-guard of Norsemen kept by the Greek emperors. A large, bold, strong, and reckless champion, Harold gained a great name in the south. He fought against the Saracens and won much treasure; he fought in Sicily and captured many cities; he had adventures in love and war and many wonderful stories are told of his exploits. Then he came back to Russia and married Elizabeth, the daughter of King Jaroslov, love for whom had sent him abroad to win fame and riches.
Norwegian farm buildings
Not long after this King Magnus, as he was sailing one day along the coast of Denmark, saw gliding along the most magnificent ship he had ever beheld. He at once sent men aboard to learn to whom the beautiful galley belonged, and they were met by a tall and handsome man, who said that he had been sent by Harold Sigurdsson, the uncle of King Magnus, to learn how the king would receive him. Magnus, who was then nineteen years old, sent word that he would gladly welcome his uncle and hoped to find in him a good friend. When they met the tall man proved to be Harold himself and Magnus was highly pleased with him.
He was not so well pleased when Harold asked to be made king also, laying claim to half the kingdom. And Harold himself was not well pleased when one of the Norse chiefs said that if Magnus was to share the kingdom with him, he should divide his great treasure with Magnus.
Harold replied hastily and haughtily that he had not dared death and won wealth that he might make his nephew's men rich. The chief answered that he and his friends had not won Norway from the Danes for the purpose of giving half of it to a stranger, and all the other earls and warriors agreed with him, so that Harold found that the apple which he wished to divide was not so easily to be cut.
After that there was war and plundering and the cruel deeds that take place when the sword is drawn, and a year or two later Harold called an assembly of the people of one district of Norway and had himself proclaimed king. Magnus, who did not want to fight his father's brother, finally yielded to Harold's claim and agreed that they should both be kings; not to divide the realm, but both to rule over the whole country together. Thus it was that Harold won the prize which he had craved as a young child.
Every one would say that a compact of this kind could not work well. A gentle, kindly, generous-hearted man like King Magnus was ill matched with a haughty, wealth-loving, tyrannical man like Harold. No doubt many bitter words passed between them, and the peasants were so incensed by Harold's oppression and extortion of money from them that they would have broken into open rebellion only for the love they bore King Magnus. The latter was often so incensed that he was tempted to put an end to the double kingship even if he had to remove his troublesome partner by violence.
But this was not to be. One day, while out riding, his horse took fright and threw him, his head striking a stump. He was at first stunned, but seemed to recover. Soon afterwards he was taken sick with a violent fever and gradually sank, so that it became apparent that he would die. On his death-bed he decided that Sweyn, who had fought so hard to win from him the crown of Denmark, had a better right to that kingdom than Harold, and men were sent to inform him of his succession to the Danish throne. But he had barely closed his eyes in death when Harold sent other men to intercept these messengers. He proposed to keep Denmark for himself.
The death of King Magnus without an heir left Harold the undisputed successor to the throne, as the only living descendant in the male line of Harold the Fair-Haired. Yet the people were far from pleased, for he had already shown a disposition to treat them harshly and they feared that a tyrant had succeeded to the throne. By his stern rule he gained several uncomplimentary titles, the English calling him Harold the Haughty, the Germans Harold the Inflexible, and the Northmen Harold the Hardruler. Yet he was able to hold his own over his people, for he was strong and daring, skilled in the art of war, and a man of unusual intellect. He was also a poet and won fame by his verses. He would sit up half the night with the blind scald Stuf Katson, to hear him recite his stirring songs.
But if absolute ruler over Norway, Harold found Denmark slipping away from him. Sweyn had in him the blood of the race of Canute, and was no weakling to be swept aside at a king's will. Magnus had left him the kingdom and he was bent on having it, if his good sword could win and hold it. In this he was supported by the Danes, and Harold found that the most he could do was to make descents on the Danish coast and plunder and murder the innocent people.
After this idle kind of warfare had gone on for a number of years and Harold found that all he had gained by it was the hatred of the Danes, he made an agreement with Sweyn to fight it out between them. They were to meet at the mouth of the Götha Elv and whoever won in the battle was to be the king of Denmark. It was a kind of duel for a crown.
But Sweyn tried to gain his end by stratagem. When Harold appeared with his fleet at the appointed place Sweyn and his ships were not to be seen. Harold waited a while, fuming and fretting, and then sailed south to Jutland, where he ravaged the coast, took and burned the city of Heidaby, carried away a number of women of high rank, and filled his ships with plunder. Then he turned homeward, with so little fear of the Danes that he let his ships widely scatter.
The winds were adverse, the weather was foggy, and one morning while they lay at anchor by an island shore, the lookout saw a bright flash through the fog. The king was hastily called, and on seeing it cried:
"What you see is the flash of the morning sun on the golden dragon-heads of warships. The Danish fleet is upon us!"
The peril was imminent. It was hopeless to fight with the few ships at command. Only flight remained and that was almost as hopeless. The oars were got out in haste, but the ships, soaked and heavy from their long cruise, were hard to move, and as the fog lifted under the sun rays, the Danish fleet, several hundred strong, bore down swiftly upon them. The emergency was one that needed all the wit and skill of the king to meet.
To distract the enemy Harold bade his men nail bright garments and other showy spoil to logs and cast them overboard. As these floated through the Danish ships many of them stopped to pick up the alluring prizes. He also was obliged to throw overboard casks of beer and pork to lighten his ships and these also were picked up. Yet in spite of all he could do the Danes gained on him, and his own ship, which brought up the rear, was in danger of capture.
As a last resort the shrewd king had rafts made of boards and barrels and put on these the high-born women he held as captives. These rafts were set afloat one after another, and the pursuers, on seeing these hapless fair ones and hearing their wild appeals for rescue, were obliged to stop and take them up. This final stratagem succeeded and Harold escaped, leaving Sweyn, who had felt sure of capturing his enemy, furious at his failure.
At another time, ten years and more later, Harold again fell into peril and again escaped through his fertility in resources. Having beaten his rival in a naval battle, he entered the long and narrow Lim fiord to plunder the land, fancying that Sweyn was in no condition to disturb him. He reckoned too hastily. Sweyn, learning where his foe was, gathered what ships he could and took post at Hals, the fiord being there so narrow that a few ships could fight with advantage against a much greater number.
Though caught in a trap Harold was not dismayed, but gave orders to sail to the inner end of the fiord. He knew that it ended near the North Sea, only a narrow isthmus dividing them. Then, with great trouble and labor, he managed to have his ships dragged across the isthmus and launched on the sea waters, and away he sailed in triumph, leaving Sweyn awaiting him in vain.
Finally, with the desire to bring this useless strife to an end, if possible, a new compact was made to meet with their fleets in the Götha Elv and fight once more for the kingdom of Denmark. It was now 1062, thirteen years after the former battle. As before, on reaching the place designated, no Danish ship was visible. But it is difficult to credit what we are told, that Harold, after a vain wait, made the same error as before, dividing his fleet and sending the greater part of it home. With the remainder, one hundred and eighty ships strong, he sailed along the coast, and suddenly found himself in the presence of the Danes, with two ships to his one.
This time Harold did not flee, but joined battle bravely with his enemy, the contest lasting through a whole night and ending in a complete victory over the Danes. It was a great victory, yet it brought Harold no advantage, for Sweyn did not keep to his compact—if he had made one—to surrender his throne, and the Danes hated Harold so thoroughly for his cruel raids on their land that they had no idea of submitting to him. Two years more passed on, and then Harold, finding that the conquest of Denmark was hopeless, consented against his will to make peace. In this way Sweyn, after many years of battling for his throne, forced his powerful antagonist to give up the contest and promise never to disturb him again.
Two years after this peace was made, in the year 1066, King Harold took part in another adventure which brought his tyranny and his life to an end. It is worth telling for another reason, for it was connected with a great historical event, the conquest of England by William the Conqueror. For these two reasons it is very fitting that it should be told.
King Harold of England, who was soon to fall on the fatal field of Hastings, had a brother, Earl Tostig, who, fired by ambition, set out to conquer that kingdom for himself. He went first to Denmark and tried to get King Sweyn to join him in the enterprise, but the prudent Sweyn told him that he had no desire to follow in the footsteps of his uncle Canute, but was quite content to dwell at home and rule his own kingdom.
Then Tostig sought Norway, where he found King Harold far more ready to listen to him. So in September of that year, Harold sailed from Norway with the most powerful fleet and army that had ever left its shores. Counting what was added in the Orkneys and the force under Earl Tostig, it numbered about three hundred and fifty ships and thirty thousand men. Landing in Northumberland, a victory was won and the city of York taken. Then, leaving about one-third of the army to guard the ships, Harold and Tostig encamped at Stamford Bridge, seven miles from York.
It was a warm day, there was no reason to fear danger, and the men lounged about without their arms. In this unwary state they found themselves suddenly face to face with a large army, led by the English King Harold, who had marched north in furious haste. Tostig, finding that they had been taken by surprise, advised a retreat to the ships, but Harold was not the man to turn his back to his foe, and decided to stand and fight, ordering the men to arm and prepare for battle. While they were gathering in ranks for the fray, a party of English horsemen rode up and asked if Earl Tostig was there.
"You see him before you," said Tostig.
"Your brother Harold sends you greeting and offers you peace and the rule of Northumberland. If he cannot gain your friendship for less, he will grant you one-third his kingdom."
"Last year he had only scorn and disdain to offer me," replied Tostig. "But if I should accept his proposal, what has he to offer my ally, the king of Norway?"
"He will grant him seven feet of English soil; or more if his length of body needs it."
"If that is your best offer," said Tostig, "ride back and bid Harold to begin the battle."
Harold of Norway had heard this brief colloquy, and as the English horsemen rode away asked Tostig who was the speaker.
"That was my brother, Harold himself," answered Tostig.
"I learn that too late," said Harold grimly.
The battle that followed was hotly contested. It began with a charge of the English cavalry, which was repulsed, and was followed up fiercely by the Norsemen, who fancied the flight of the English to mean a general rout. In this way they broke their ranks, which the king wished to preserve until reinforcements could reach him from the ships. Forward rushed the impatient Norsemen, King Harold throwing himself into their midst and fighting with savage fury. His men seconded him, the English ranks wavered and broke before the fierce onset, and victory seemed within the grasp of the invaders, when an arrow pierced King Harold's throat and he fell in a dying state from his horse.
His fall checked the onset, and the English king, hearing of his death, offered his brother an armistice. Tostig refused this and led his men back to the fray, which was resumed with all its old fury. But Tostig, too, was slain, and the king's brother-in-law, who arrived with reinforcements from the ships, met with the same fate. By this time the battlefield was covered with the bodies of the dead, and the Norsemen, dispirited by the loss of their leaders, gave way and retreated towards the ships, hotly pursued by their victorious foes. Of their great host only a small remnant succeeded in reaching the ships.
Thus ended the great fight at Stamford Bridge, and with it the reign and life of Harold Hardruler, who fell a victim to his ambition and love of strife. For years thereafter the bones of men lay scattered widely over that field, for none stayed to bury the dead, the Norsemen fleeing in their ships, while news of the landing of William of Normandy called Harold hastily to the south—where he fell in the midst of the fighting at Hastings as Harold of Norway had fallen on Stamford Field. Harold's invasion of England was the last great exploit of the vikings of the north, and though Ireland was invaded later by a Norseland fleet, no foreign foe after the fatal days at Stamford and Hastings ever landed on England's shores.