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Window with a portrait of Harald in Lerwick Town Hall, Shetland

A Military Life for Clever King Harald: Serving the Empire and Stopping the Pirates – Part I

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In 1015, Harald Sigurdsson was born. He was the youngest of three sons born to Sigurd Syr, who ruled over a petty kingdom in Ringerike, located in the region of Buskerud. Harald’s upbringing is not well documented. His father Sigurd’s nickname was Syr, which means sow, as in sowing the land.

While Harald’s father and brothers found husbandry interesting, at age fifteen, Harald had bigger ambitions then tilling the ground! He had great admiration for his half-brother, King Olaf II Haraldsson of Norway. However, Olaf would lose his throne to the Danish king, Cnut the Great, in a revolt in 1028, and Olaf was forced into exile.

Olaf and Harald Ride to Battle

Olaf remained a short time in Kiev before returning to reclaim his throne. Harald brought 600 men with him and rode out to meet the returning Olaf, but their joy of reunion would shortly turn sour. Harald, Olaf, and their gathered army met and clashed with Norwegians loyal to Cnut on 29 July 1030, at the Battle of Stiklestad. As the battle was ending, Harald, wounded and unable to flee the field, was rescued by Rognvald Brusason. Brusason managed to rescue him and bring him undercover to a remote farmhouse in eastern Norway where he would stay until he recovered from his wounds. Olaf, however, lost his life at Stiklestad.

Olaf falls at the Battle of Stiklestad. 1850.

Olaf falls at the Battle of Stiklestad. 1850. (Public Domain)

“At Haug the fire-sparks from his shield Bulgaria's conqueror, I ween, Flew round the king's head on the field, Had scarcely fifteen winters seen, As blow for blow, for Olaf's sake, When from his murdered brother's side His sword and shield would give and take. His unhelmed head he had to hide.”

Olaf – later known as Saint Olaf

Olaf – later known as Saint Olaf (Erik Christensen/CC BY 3.0)

During the time his wounds were healing, Harald states:

My wounds were bleeding as I rode; From wood to wood I crept along, And down below the bondes strode, Unnoticed by the bonde-throng; Killing the wounded with the sword, `Who knows,' I thought, `a day may come The followers of their rightful lord. My name will yet be great at home.”

Once Harald was recovered, he traveled across Jamtland and Halsingland, and from there into Sweden where he would meet up once again with Rognvald Brusason and others who managed to escape the battle.

A detail from Olaus Magnus’ Carta Marina (1539). Jämtland is Latinized as "Iempihia".

A detail from Olaus Magnus’ Carta Marina (1539). Jämtland is Latinized as "Iempihia". (Public Domain)

Kievan Exile and the Art of War

After spending some time in Sweden, Harald, Rognvald and his son, Eilif, along with some men, got some ships and sailed east. Once their ships reached the shores of Novgorod, they headed towards Kiev, which at the time was ruled by Yaroslav the Wise and were welcomed upon arrival.

Yaroslav I of Russia

Yaroslav I of Russia (Public Domain)

According to the Heimskringla, which is a collection of Old Norse kings' sagas, Yaroslav appointed Harald and Eilif commanders of the defense force. However, this seems unlikely. But given that Harald at the time was young and from royal lineage, it may be that he did receive some sort of subordinate officer's rank. In any case, Kiev was not too shabby of a place to further one’s political aspirations.

In the following years, Harald matured and went on to learn and master the art of war by taking part in Yaroslav’s campaign against the Poles in 1031. He may have taken part in fighting other enemies of Kiev, such as the Chudes in Estonia, the Byzantines, as well as the Pechenegs and other steppe nomad people. Furthermore, he learned the art of court politics due to his royal blood, possibly marrying Yaroslav’s daughter Elisiv.


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Cam Rea is an author and military historian. He has written numerous articles for Ancient Origins, Classical Wisdom Weekly, and has authored several books, including: March of the Scythians: From Sargon II to the Fall of Nineveh


Top Image: Window with a portrait of Harald in Lerwick Town Hall, Shetland (Colin Smith/CC BY-SA 2.0);Detail.

By Cam Rea



"Syr" does translate to the english word sow, but not in the meaning of putting seeds in the ground but rather sow, the female pig.

Cam Rea's picture

Cam Rea

Cam Rea is a Military Historian and currently the Associate Editor/Writer at Strategy & Tactics Press. Mr. Rea has published several books and written numerous articles for Strategy & Tactics Press and Classical Wisdom Weekly. His most current publication is... Read More

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