Harald Hardrada (née Sigurdsson) was the greatest warrior of his age.
He was only fifteen when he fought and was badly wounded at the battle of Stiklestad (1030). During the following fifteen years he served first as a young mercenary in Russia before joining the Varangian guard, the crack regiment who guarded the Emperors of Byzantium. He fought in Sicily and the Balkans and Asia Minor to preserve the porous Empire, escorted members of the royal family to Jerusalem, and won immense wealth, before returning in 1045 to Norway with his banner, Land-Waster, to contest and win the crown. He was killed in battle at Stamford Bridge in 1066.
Harald was a man of ferocious energy, burning ambition, and a sense of destiny, with an imposing physical appearance (he had a blonde beard and floppy moustache, one eyebrow was higher than the other, and he was ‘a full hand’s height taller than other men’). But for all his innate gifts, he had to learn how to be a leader, to understand how politics was largely a matter of attending to personal relationships, and to grasp matters of precedence and status. His defects, moreover, were scarcely fewer than his skills. He was cunning and cruel and vengeful.
Unsurprisingly, Harald was hugely attractive to women. The elderly Empress Zoe unsuccessfully tried to take him to bed; he had a clandestine and passionate affair with her niece, Maria; and Harald’s Saga tells us how other well-born women risked life and limb to spring him out of prison…
The cycle consists of short poems in the persona of Harald during his formative years in Byzantium. Passionate and decided, fierce and terse and I hope sometimes witty, they’re not narratives but revelations, turning on Harald’s engagement with warfare, leadership, love and the contrasts between the appearance and values of the glittering hard-edged northern world, still half in thrall to the old Norse gods, and the softer, more seductive south.
Above all, they’re the words of a young man amongst men (most of them blue-eyed and tattooed) whose lives are in his hands, and on whom his own success and fame depend.