As I have told you, the history of the Vikings became the history of the kings of Norway. Harald Fairhair was one of the foremost of these. He was so brave a Northman that he became king over the whole of Norway. In eight hundred and sixty-one, when he began to reign, Norway was divided into thirty-one little kingdoms, over each of which ruled a little king. Harald Fairhair began his reign by being one of these little kings.
Harald was only a boy, ten years of age, when he succeeded his father; but as he grew up he became a very strong and handsome man, as well as a very wise and prudent one. Indeed he grew so strong that he fought with and vanquished five great kings in one battle.
After this victory, Harald sent, so the old chronicles of the kings of Norway say, some of his men to a princess named Gyda, bidding them tell her that he wished to make her his queen.
But Gyda wished to marry a king who ruled over a whole country, rather than one who owned but a small part of Norway, and this was the message she sent back to Harald.
"Tell Harald," said the maiden, "that I will agree to be his wife if he will first, for my sake, subdue all Norway to himself, for only thus methinks can he be called the king of a people."
The messengers thought Gyda's words too bold, but when King Harald heard them, he said, "It is wonderful that I did not think of this before. And now I make a solemn vow and take God to witness, who made me and rules over all things, that never shall I clip or comb my hair until I have subdued the whole of Norway with scat (land taxes), and duties, and domains, or if not, have died in the attempt."
Then, without delay, Harald assembled a great force and prepared to conquer all the other little kings who were ruling over the different parts of Norway.
In many districts the kings had no warning of Harald's approach, and before they could collect an army they were vanquished.
When their ruler was defeated, many of his subjects fled from the country, manned their ships and sailed away on Viking expeditions. Others made peace with King Harald and became his men.
Over each district, as he conquered it, Harald placed a jarl or earl, that he might judge and do justice, and also that he might collect the scat and fines which Harald had imposed upon the conquered people. As the earls were given a third part of the money they thus collected, they were well pleased to take service with King Harald. And indeed they grew richer, and more powerful too, than they had ever been before.
It took King Harald ten long years to do as he had vowed, and make all Norway his own. During these years a great many new bands of Vikings were formed, and led by their chief or king they left the country, not choosing to become King Harald's men.
These Viking bands went west, over the sea, to Shetland and Orkney, to the Hebrides, and also to England, Scotland, and Ireland.
During the winter they made their home in these lands, but in summer they sailed to the coast of Norway and did much damage to the towns that lay along the coast. Then, growing bolder, they ventured inland, and because of their hatred against King Harald, they plundered and burned both towns and villages.
Meanwhile Harald, having fulfilled his vow, had his hair combed and cut. It had grown so rough and tangled during these ten years that his people had named him Harald Sufa, which meant "Shock-headed Harald." Now, however, after his long, yellow hair was combed and clipped, he was named Harald Fairhair, and by this name he was ever after known. Nor did the king forget Gyda, for whose sake he had made his vow. He sent for her, and she, as she had promised, came to marry the King of all Norway.
Now the raids of the Vikings along the coasts of Norway angered the king, and he determined that they should end. He therefore set out with a large fleet in search of his rebellious subjects.
These, when they heard of his approach, fled to their long-ships and sailed out to sea. But Harald reached Shetland and slew those Vikings who had not fled, then, landing on the Orkney Isles, he burned and plundered, sparing no Northman who crossed his path. On the Hebrides King Harald met with worthy foes, for here were many who had once themselves been kings in Norway. In all the battles that he fought Harald was victorious and gained much booty.
When he went back to Norway the king left one of his jarls to carry on war against the inhabitants of Scotland. Caithness and Sutherland were conquered by this jarl for Harald, and thereafter many chiefs, both Norsemen and Danes, settled there.
While Harald Fairhair was ruling in Norway, a grandson of Alfred the Great became king in England. His name was Athelstan the Victorious. Now Athelstan liked to think that he was a greater king than Harald Fairhair. It pleased him, too, to play what seemed to him a clever trick on his rival across the sea.
He sent a beautiful sword to Harald. Its hilt was covered with gold and silver, and set with precious gems. When Athelstan's messenger stood before the King of Norway he held out the hilt of the sword toward him, saying, "Here is a sword that King Athelstan doth send to thee." Harald at once seized it by the hilt. Then the messenger smiled and said, "Now shalt thou be subject to the King of England, for thou hast taken the sword by the hilt as he desired thee." To take a sword thus was in those olden days a sign of submission.
Then Harald was very angry, for he knew that Athelstan had sent his gift only that he might mock him. He wished to punish the messenger whom Athelstan had sent with the sword. "Nevertheless he remembered his habit whenever he got angry, to first keep quiet and let his anger subside, and then look at the matter calmly." By the time the prudent king had done this, his anger had cooled, and Athelstan's messenger departed unharmed.
But with Athelstan Harald still hoped to be equal.
The following summer he sent a ship to England. It was commanded by Hauk, and into his hands Harald intrusted his young son Hakon, whom he was sending to King Athelstan. For what purpose you shall hear.
Hauk reached England safely, and found the king in London at a feast. The captain boldly entered the hall where the feasters sat, followed by thirty of his men, each one of whom had his shield hidden under his cloak.
Carrying Prince Hakon, who was a child, in his arms, Hauk stepped before the king and saluted him. Then before Athelstan knew what he meant to do, Hauk had placed the little prince on the king's knee.
"Why hast thou done this?" said Athelstan to the bold Northman.
"Harald of Norway asks thee to foster his child," answered Hauk. But well he knew that his words would make the King of England wroth. For one who became foster-father to a child was usually of lower rank than the real father. This, you see, was Harald's way of thanking Athelstan for his gift of the sword.
Well, as Hauk expected, the king was very angry when he heard why the little prince, had been placed on his knee. He drew his sword as though he would slay the child.
Hauk, however, was quite undisturbed, and said, "Thou hast borne the child on thy knee, and thou canst murder him if thou wilt, but thou canst not make an end of all King Harald's sons by so doing."
Then the Viking, with his men, left the hall and strode down to the river, where they embarked, and at once set sail for Norway.
When Hauk reached Norway and told the king all that he had done, Harald was well content, for the King of England had been forced to become the foster-father of his little son.
Athelstan's anger against his royal foster-child was soon forgotten, and ere long he loved him better than any of his own kin.
He ordered the priest to baptize the little prince, and to teach him the true faith.
Hakon grew up a tall, strong lad, and very fair. His father, Harald of Norway, he never saw again; but when he heard, in 934, that Harald was dead, he at once made up his mind to go to Norway.