I’m part-way through reading The Silk Roads by Peter Frankopan. The primary argument is that the Middle East and Central Asia played a much bigger and more important role in antiquity and medieval times than we generally realise in the west, and I’ve enjoyed it so far – especially his coverage of the period between the fall of Rome and the Crusades, though if you know me well, that won’t surprise you.
He makes the argument that, in the early medieval period, the Islamic world had much greater influence than we usually imagine. And he goes on to talk about the aspects of Viking society that we don’t think about: their perilous, frought journeys across modern Russia and Ukraine to reach the gigantic markets of the east – especially Baghdad, which may have been the biggest city in the world at the time. Our popular imagination of history cuts out this part of Viking history entirely – we tend to think of their activities when they went west, like raiding Britain, settling Iceland and discovering America. We pay very little attention to the Vikings who went east, to sell slaves, set up states in the land of the Rus and serve the Greek emperor as his personal bodyguard.
I wanted to use the case of Harald Hardrade, the King of Norway, to make my point.
If you’re familiar with Harald, you’ll know him as the king who tried to conquer England. He’s often called the last Viking king – and his defeat at the battle of Stamford Bridge in 1066 is used as a neat cut-off point for the end of the Viking age. We learn a lot about his role in English history, as the latest in a series of Viking marauders who came out of Scandinavia to terrorise and plunder, but we don’t learn much about his life before he was king.
He was a worldly man.
His story starts when he fought in the Battle of Stiklestad in 1030, at the age of 15. Having lost control of Norway to Cnut the Great (who was also king of England at the time), Harald and his half brother, Olaf, tried to take Norway back. They were soundly defeated. Olaf was killed, and Harald went into exile in what is now Russia – the land the sagas called Garthariki, or the land of the Rus.
He fled to the court of Yaroslav the Wise, ruler of Novgorod and Kiev, who quickly recognised Harald’s military talent and made him one of his captains. (No doubt Harald had brought fighting men from Scandinavia with him, too.) He was involved in Yaroslav’s campaign against the Poles, and may also have fought in the east against the steppe nomads who threatened the Rus. He became good friends with Yaroslav, and would send a large amount of treasure to him for safekeeping later in his life.
Around 1034, Harald led a band of a few hundred men to Constantinople, where they joined the Varangian Guard – a unit of semi-mercenaries recruited from northern Europe who served as the Byzantine emperor’s bodyguards, as well as an elite military unit.
Quickly becoming one of the most important men in the Varangians, Harald and his men fought for Byzantium in the eastern Mediterranean, where they countered Arab pirates and campaigned through modern-day Turkey to remove their bases. The Byzantines were conducting a wider campaign against the Arabs and by 1035 had all but driven them from Asia Minor, in campaigns Harald was almost certainly part of.
He led forces as far east as modern day Baghdad and Mosul, and when those campaigns were over, spent some time in Jerusalem (either as part of its conquest or to protect Christian pilgrims from bandits, depending on exactly when it happened) before joining the Byzantine reconquest of Sicily from Islamic control. He then fought against a Bulgarian uprising in the Balkans – and all the while, he was gaining considerable influence, ranks in the imperial court, and treasure – which he sent back to Rus for safekeeping.
However, he fell out of favour after the death of Emperor Michael in 1041. Feared for his loyalty to the old emperor, he was imprisoned – chroniclers disagree on exactly what his crime was. Either way, he was able to leave prison shortly after, in the midst of a revolt against the new emperor. He requested permission to leave Constantinople shortly after, but was refused – and escaped by sailing up the Black Sea, one of his two ships being destroyed by the huge iron chain which guarded the strait (and which inspired the chain of King’s Landing in Game of Thrones.)
He returned to Yaroslav’s court, where he might have given valuable information about Constantinople’s defences to the Rus, because Yaroslav attacked the empire shortly after. He was married, and a few years later made his way back to Scandinavia, laden with gold, to begin his capture of the Norwegian throne, which he successfully managed in 1047.
Of course, Harald, as a member of a royal family, didn’t have the same experience as a normal, average person at the time. But it’s a great example of how the figures we know in history were much better travelled and more aware of their worlds than we give them credit for.