Gateway to the Classics: Stories of the Vikings by Mary MacGregor
Stories of the Vikings by  Mary MacGregor

Harald Hardrada

After the death of Magnus the Good, Saint Olaf's brother, Harald Hardrada, became king over all Norway.

When he was but fifteen years of age he fought in a battle by his brother Olaf's side. But as the war-trumpet sounded, Olaf had looked at the lad and said, "I do not think it is right for my brother Harald to be in the battle, for he is a child."

But Harald had even then the spirit for which he became famous as a man. He heard his brother's words and cried aloud, "I shall certainly be in the battle, but if I am so weak that I cannot wield the sword, I know what to do. My hand shall be tied to the hilt, and no man shall have a better will to do harm to the enemy."

After he had spoken there had been none to gainsay the lad, and he had fought, and won for himself great renown.

Here is what the old Chronicles say about Harald Hardrada when he grew to be a man:

"He surpassed other men in wisdom and sagacity whether a thing was to be done quick or in a long time, for himself or for others. He was more weapon-bold than any man. He was handsome and majestic-looking, with auburn hair, an auburn beard, and long moustaches. One eyebrow was a little higher up than the other, and he had large arms and legs well-shaped. His measure was more than six foot. He was cruel toward his foes, and punished all offences severely. He gave his friends great gifts when he liked them well. He lived fifty years, and, from the age of fifteen, uproar and war were his pastime. His expeditions were perhaps more frequent than those of any other Viking in earlier times. He swept over the shores of the Mediterranean to the land of the Turks, to Africa, Sicily, Italy, Greece, Constantinople, Jerusalem, and Bulgaria. He took part in more than eighty battles, and his life ended at the famous battle of Stamford Bridge."

Harald's wisdom was shown in a strange way at Sicily, where he was laying siege to a strongly fortified town. Growing impatient because he could not make a breach in the wall, he thought of a plan by which he could speedily reduce the town to ashes. He had noticed, with those sharp eyes of his which nothing seemed to escape, that sparrows flew out of the besieged town every day to feed in the fields, and at night flew back again to their nests in the thatched roofs of the houses.

The king ordered that a great number of these sparrows should be caught, and lighted sticks tied to their tails. No sooner did the sparrows feel the flames than they flew in terror home to their nests, and the thatched roofs of the houses were soon in a blaze. As the fire spread rapidly, the whole town was soon destroyed, and the inhabitants were at the mercy of Harald Hardrada.

The last great battle in which Harald took part was fought in England at Stamford Bridge.

When Edward the Good died in 1066 his foster-child Harold was proclaimed king. Harold was the son of Godwin, the most powerful earl in England.

As Edward lay in bed, Harold had bent over him to hear his last words. Then, drawing himself up, he had turned to those who stood in the royal chambers, saying, "I take you all to witness that the king has now given me the kingdom and all the realms of England."

It was for this reason, and because they knew Harold Godwin to be both brave and wise, that the people of England placed the crown upon his head, and shouted, "God save King Harold!"

But among the courtiers was one who scowled and muttered bitterly to himself as he heard the shouts of the people. Earl Tostig, Harold's eldest brother, thought that he had as much right to reign as Harold, and in his wrath he stirred up others to speak against the new king.

Harold, hearing of his brother's discontent, and knowing that he could not be trusted, took from him the command of the army, which post he had held while Edward was alive.

Then Earl Tostig left England with his followers and went over the seas to the King of Denmark, and invited him to come to England and take the crown from Harold. But the Viking spirit was not alive in the King of Denmark, and he feared to undertake so great an expedition.

Earl Tostig then went to Harald Hardrada, and had little trouble in persuading him to come to England. For Harald Hardrada was a Viking at heart and loved adventure, and also he was ambitious and loved to rule.

Harald of Norway then at once gathered together a fleet, and when a fair wind arose, he sailed with a great army to the coasts of Northumberland. But as they sailed, Harald was haunted by dreams and evil omens. One night his men could not sleep, for the air around them was full of songs. At first the sailors could see no one; then, as they looked aloft, they saw a witch riding on a wolf in the air. She had a chest on her knees, and it was filled with bones. Three staves did she sing, and this was one of the staves the sailors heard:

"Westward ho, with noise and rattle,

Rushes on the King to battle;

Helter-skelter, hurry-scurry,

'Tis for me they waste and worry.

Soon my raven's darling brood

Will fatten on their dainty food,

Tit-bits torn from sailors stricken.

Where I am disasters thicken,

Where I am disasters thicken."

Harald also saw the witch and heard her terrible song. "I have been in many battles," said the bold Viking, "and never have I seen such tokens before."But Earl Tostig laughed at his fears.

When his soldiers had landed in England, the king, however, flung aside his fears and led them bravely on. Not far from York they were met by the Earl of Morcar with a large force. So severe was the Norsemen's assault, that the English gave way before them. Those who escaped the sword fled to the castle in York.

King Harald then advanced to take York. But the townsfolk had heard of the victory which Harald Hardrada had won without their walls, and they sent heralds to the Norse king offering to surrender themselves and their town.

It was therefore agreed that the next Sunday Harald Hardrada should assemble a Thing and speak to the people. Sunday dawned, and the king held a meeting outside the walls of York. The townspeople were quiet, and promised to serve him; they even gave the Norse Harald, as hostages, the sons of their chief men.

Harald of Norway had forgotten all about his evil omens now. York had been won right easily, and so, he began to believe, would all England. In a merry mood he went down to his ships and feasted with his men.

Meanwhile tidings had reached Harold, King of England, that a great host of Norsemen had entered the land, and that with them was his brother Tostig.

The king at once gathered together a large army and marched to York. When he reached the city, the people, heedless of their vows to Harald Hardrada, flung their gates wide, and King Harold of England entered in with his army amid the shouts of the citizens. Then the gates were closed, the roads guarded, so that the Norsemen might not hear that the King of England had reached York.

Early next day Harald Hardrada divided his men into two companies. One company should stay to guard the ships, the other should march into York in triumph with their king.

The sun shone so hotly that the Norsemen marched without armour, but they carried with them their shields and arms.

As they drew near to the town, the Norsemen saw great clouds of dust in the distance, and soon the sun glinted on the shields and armour of a great host.

An armed force was before them, but was it as friend or foe that it came?

Harald Hardrada called a halt, and asked Earl Tostig what the host might be.

Tostig saw that the army was led by his brother Harold. He therefore begged Harald to hasten back to his ships that the men might put on their armour, and also that those who had been left to guard the ships might join in the approaching battle.

But the king refused to do this. "I will follow another plan," he said; "I will put three brave men on the swiftest horses and let them ride to our men as fast as they can, and tell them what has happened. Their aid will soon come, for the English will have a hard fight before we are defeated."

Then Harald drew up his men in battle array, and as he rode before them on a large black horse, the animal suddenly stumbled, and the king was thrown forward over its head. Getting up in haste, he cried, "A fall bodes a lucky journey!" and this, he said, lest his men should count it an evil omen.

But as he fell the English king caught sight of the tall figure of Harald Hardrada, and he said to his men, "Do you know the tall man with the blue kirtle and the fine helmet who fell from his horse?"

"It is the King of Norway himself," they answered.

Then said the English Harold, "He is a tall and noble-looking man, but nevertheless it is likely that his fall forebodes misfortune."

A few moments later three men rode up to the Norseman and asked to speak to Earl Tostig. One of the men wore a gilded helmet and carried a red shield on which was engraved a gold hawk. It was he who spoke to the earl. "Harold, thy brother," he said, "sends thee greeting, and the message that thou shalt have peace and all Northumberland, and rather than that thou shouldst not join him, he will give thee one-third of all his kingdom."

"If I accept these terms, what will my brother Harold offer to the King of Norway?" asked Tostig.

"To Harald Hardrada," said the stranger, "will he grant a space of seven feet of earth, and it is so long because he is taller than other men."

It was but ground enough in which to bury him that Harold of England would give to the king who had invaded his realm and brought war upon his people.

But Tostig would not forsake the man he had persuaded to come to England, and he said, "Go, tell my brother Harold to prepare for battle. It shall not be said by Northmen that Earl Tostig forsook the King of Norway for his foes."

Now Harald of Norway had listened to the stranger's words. "Who is he who spoke so well?" he asked.

"It was the King of England himself," answered the earl, for indeed he had known all the while that it was his own brother who was speaking. But he had given no sign, lest Harold's life should be in danger from the fierce Norsemen.

Soon after this the battle began. The English rode down upon the Norsemen only to find themselves met by the spears of the enemy. Then they rode round in a circle, but the Vikings had their bows ready, and shot at them from all sides until the English were forced to ride back.

Thinking that the English were fleeing, the Norsemen broke their ranks and pursued them. This was what the English had hoped for, and at once they turned and charged again up to the foe, brandishing their battle-axes.

When Harald Hardrada saw his men falling on all sides, he rushed forward and fought where the fray was fiercest—with the strength of ten men he fought. The Englishmen were on the point of retreating when an arrow hit Harald Hardrada in the throat.

It was his death-wound, and the brave Viking fell, surrounded by his men, who fought but the more fiercely when they saw their leader fall.

When Earl Tostig saw that Harald had fallen, he seized the standard and led the Norsemen on to a desperate struggle, until the trumpets were blown that both armies might rest.

Harold of England now once again offered peace to Tostig, his brother, and quarter to all those Norsemen who were still alive. But they, hearing his offer, spurned it, and cried out that they would rather die than accept life from an enemy.

Then once again the battle raged, and Tostig fell wounded to death. At that moment, when the Norsemen were left without a leader, their comrades who had been left to guard the ships reached them. They had, however, come in such haste, that they were already exhausted before they began to fight, and soon they were at the mercy of the English. Harold, King of England, had gained the victory, but at the cost of many lives.

With the death of Harald Hardrada the Viking age ended—the age of daring and of wild adventure. It is true that from time to time there were still flashes of the old spirit, but as the years rolled on the wars of the Norsemen became less formidable, their adventures less perilous.

A year after the battle of Stamford Bridge, the body of Harald Hardrada was taken to Norway and buried in Throndhjem, in a church which he himself had built.

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