Who was Harald Hardrada?
His original name was Harald Sigurdsson or Sigurdarson in Old Norse. Over the long years of his life, he received the nickname Hardrad, that is, "Severe" (an additional touch to the portrait of the Viking can be considered the fact that no one dared to call him that in person).
He was a true fantasy hero who traveled and fought throughout the medieval world, from Scandinavia to Russia, Byzantium and the Holy Lands before becoming king of Norway and making the last major Viking invasion of England.
Why do modern scientists call him "the last Viking"?
Historians generally regard Harald's death in 1066 as the end of the Viking Age. In those days, the Scandinavians, who had been such great explorers and conquerors for centuries, were involved in civil strife. The North Sea empire of Knut the Great fell to pieces. England and Scandinavia went their own way. As King of Norway, Harald waged a bloody 15-year war against Denmark, which he considered a rebellious province, before invading England.
How did he become king of Norway?
When Harald was 15, his older half-brother, King Olaf, was killed at the Battle of Sticklstad in 1030. Harald was seriously wounded, but escaped and went to Kiev, in the service of Prince Yaroslav the Wise. He even dreamed of marrying Yaroslav's daughter Elisaveta. However, his ultimate goal was to return to Norway and become king there. For this he needed money and military strength. And, realizing that in Kiev he would never receive either the first or the second, he soon left the lands of the principality.
He became a mercenary, selling his military skills to the highest bidder. After years of war, conquest and plunder, he returned as the richest man in Northern Europe, with a fairly large army behind him. By that time, his relative, Olaf's son Magnus, was sitting on the Norwegian throne. Harald basically offered to buy half of the kingdom, or else he would declare war, win and take everything. Magnus wisely decided to share. It wasn't until Magnus died that, a few years later, Harald began to fight to rebuild Knut's empire in the North Sea, against the Danes and then against his own people and the British.
His life as a mercenary
As a young man, Harald traveled from Kiev to Constantinople, the capital of the Byzantine Empire. At that time it was a large city (albeit decrepit) of a rather powerful feudal state.
Byzantium constantly fought with the Saracens in Sicily and the Middle East, while simultaneously fighting against usurpers and rebels. There was a lot of work for the mercenary. Harald enrolled in the Varangian Guard, an elite military unit made up of Vikings. He served as an imperial escort on one of the first Byzantine diplomatic missions to Jerusalem. There he fought off Arab bandits and even bathed in the Jordan River, although he was religious only to the extent that it served his personal goals.
Harald actually became the commander of the Vikings, the bodyguard of the Empress Zoya. He even became her lover. There were even rumors that she might make Harald the next Byzantine emperor. Zoya was already suspected of killing two husbands in order to put their favorites on the throne. However, she was much older than Harald and when he found a new, younger girl, Zoe became quite angry with him.
What were some of Harald's most memorable victories and battles?
He spent his entire life fighting Muslims, Christians, pagans and other Vikings.
The Battle of Sticklestad in 1030 was notable for being fought in part in darkness, with a total solar eclipse. Can you imagine how people of that time would have perceived this? The pagan warriors, seeing the ring of fire in the sky, naturally thought of the one-eyed Odin looking down at them. Christians, since the battle took place almost exactly 1000 years after Christ's crucifixion, would remember how the sky was rumored to have darkened that day. All who took part in this would believe that they are participating in the battle of absolute good against evil, in the last battle at the end of times: for Christians - Armageddon, and for pagans - Ragnarok.
Harald also took part in several sea battles. One of these happened while he was in Byzantine service, fighting against the Saracens in the so-called Battle of the Cyclades in the southern Aegean. Not much is known about this battle, although it was important and decisive. In the Byzantine stories, this is only briefly mentioned, and in the Scandinavian sagas it is only said that Harald fought with pirates (this is how the Byzantines thought of the Saracen raiders).
Almost at the very end of his life, Harald led the Norwegians against the Danes and fought the latter at the Battle of Nyssa, not far from what is now the Swedish coast. Viking naval battles were completely different from Roman or Byzantine battles. Viking naval warfare tactics were not to sink or burn ships that were extremely valuable, but simply to board ships and kill their crews.
In contrast to the Viking battles on land, which can be described as rapid surprise raids, the Viking naval battles were long, protracted, bloody. The Battle of Niza, for example, continued throughout the night.
Under what circumstances did Harald Hardrada die?
Unable to conquer Denmark, Harald was persuaded to invade England by Tostig Godwinson, brother of King Harold II, the last Anglo-Saxon king of England.
This was the last major Viking invasion and it is practically the largest. The Norwegians ravaged much of the East of England coastline, defeated the Northumbrians in battle, and forced York to surrender. To answer the Norse king Harald, the English king Harold was forced to travel all the way from the south, where he spent the summer defending against the invasion of Duke William of Normandy.
Near the Stamford Bridge crossing, near York, the Anglo-Saxons took the Norwegians by surprise and defeated them. In this battle, many Vikings died, Harold himself. Also in this battle, many Anglo-Saxons were killed. This battle, on the one hand, forced the remaining Vikings to flee from England, on the other, it weakened Harold's army, deprived him of time.
According to many historians, this battle is one of the reasons why the Anglo-Saxons were defeated at Hastings in October 1066. If not for Harald Hardrada, English story could have turned out quite differently.
You can also read about the Vikings against the Indians here.