Contrary to the cliché, history is not only written by the victors. Katherine Weikert explains how those chronicling the 11th-century conquests in England and Scandinavia tried to rehabilitate the reputations of the vanquished.

On August 10th, 991, Ealdorman Byrhtnoth allowed a Viking troop across the causeway from Northey Island onto the mainland of his domain in Essex and was promptly dealt a crushing defeat. His head or his arm was hacked off, depending on which source you believe, in fighting that lasted either three or 14 days – again, pick your source. In the short term, the Vikings had won the decisive land battle which led to Danegeld – a tax levied in England to pay off the Vikings – in the medium term and, perhaps, even cleared the path for the Danish kings Svein and Cnut to rule England. 

Following Byrhtnoth’s defeat, the propaganda machine went into action. Ælfflæd, his widow, gave Ely Cathedral a wall-hanging illustrating her husband’s illustrious deeds, though what those deeds were we do not know. Ely had already received a laundry list of estates and gifts from Byrhtnoth pre-battle, for which he was praised in Liber Eliensis, the Book of Ely. And the poem ‘The Battle of Maldon’ was produced, which contrasted Byrhtnoth’s valour and bravery with that of his men who ran away from the fighting. The conversion of Byrhtnoth’s reputation, from being a man defeated at a crucial encounter to one who would be remembered for his glory, was underway.

Yet this was a man who failed. 

Byrhtnoth is a fascinating case of a failed man and one who in many ways set the model for justifying defeat within the acceptable boundaries of what it meant to be a man in the central Middle Ages. ‘Maldon’, for example, celebrates honour, valour, camaraderie, bravery in battle, all poetic tropes and a particular version of masculinity, in the face of an event that was bloody, painful, deadly and brutal. We remember Byrhtnoth in a version of the story that was far removed from the reality of either him or the event. He became glorious in his defeat, thanks to those crucial few actions post-battle that give us small glimpses of him.

Throughout the 11th century we see time and again the brave hero cut down in battle. Both Harald Hardrada and Harold Godwinson fall into this category, in the face of their attempts to conquer or avoid conquest, within a few weeks of each other in 1066. These men bear striking similarities: both died in battle, for example. They were both kings, although not uncontested ones. In the central Middle Ages, a king who won in battle had a certain kind of authority because of it; if Harold Godwinson had won the day at Hastings, it would have lent an immense amount of support to his authority and legitimacy. So what then happens to those men who fail? How did the world of the North Sea justify these defeated kings? What meaning could be made of a vanquished warrior?


Harald Hardrada comes to us in a variety of texts, from Scandinavia, England and beyond. To most English audiences, Harald is familiar as the Norwegian king who attempted to invade England from the north in 1066. He defeated the English under Morcar and Edwin at Fulford, but was then killed at the Battle of Stamford Bridge by Harold Godwinson’s forces a few days later. This defeat is generally seen as the effective end of the major Scandinavian attempts in England, other than King Sweyn of Denmark’s failed campaigns in 1069 and 1074-5. Thus, for an English audience, this northern campaign tends to be the bulk of Harald’s story and his place in the events of 1066.

Harald Hardrada frieze, Oslo

But Harald’s English campaign is only one aspect of a colourful life, told to us through the later Scandinavian sources. He was a warrior with an international career before coming into his kingship. Theodoricus Monachus notes the breadth of his earlier career: 

This Haraldr had performed many bold deeds in his youth, overthrowing many heathen cities and carrying off great riches in Russia and Ethiopia … from there he travelled to Jerusalem and was everywhere greatly renowned and victorious. After he had travelled through Sicily and taken much wealth by force there, he came to Constantinople. And there he was arraigned before the emperor; but he inflicted an amply shameful disgrace upon that same emperor and, making an unexpected escape, he slipped away.

After these adventures and misadventures, Harald returned to Norway and attempted to form a treaty with Magnus I (‘the Good’) for his share of the kingship of Norway. Goods and money exchanged hands. Theodoricus seems particularly annoyed at these events. He states that a counsellor for Magnus informed Harald that, if Magnus gave him half of Norway, Harald should give Magnus half his money, a request that Harald took rather poorly: he had not exposed himself to perils in foreign lands to amass wealth in order to enrich Magnus’ men. In Theodoricus’ version, Harald goes off in a huff after this and is noted as eventually killing two men who were critical of his attempt at gaining the throne. Theodoricus then goes on a chapter-long diatribe against ambition, targeted specifically at Harald. 

But it comes to pass that Magnus and Harald do share the kingdom and, at Magnus’ death a year later, Harald takes over as sole king. The assessment of his kingship comes with mixed reviews, leaning towards the negative. According to the Ágrip, written around 1190 and probably based on Theodoricus, he ‘ruled with great severity, yet peacefully’. For Theodoricus, he was ‘a vigorous man, far-sighted in his decision-making, quick to take up arms, jealous of what was his and covetous of what was another’s’. The saga Heimskringla records some disapproval, but in general is largely supportive of Harald, recording that: ‘He was also brave above all other men, bold, brave and lucky, until his dying day … and bravery is half victory.’

Most of the judgement of Harald’s character actually derives from comparisons with his son and grandson: Olafr, who is Olaf III, and Magnus Berfoettr (Barefoot). According to the Ágrip, Olafr ‘mitigated much of what Harald Hardrada had harshly begun and kept up’, pointing out that Olafr was open-handed with his gold and silver, but that ‘In [his father’s] day men lived in great awe and fear, and most hid their gold and treasure’. Harald was clearly tight-fisted with his wealth and riches, something not wholly acceptable in a society where gift exchange cemented important social bonds (and already suggested by Theodoricus’ account of Harald not wishing to enrich the pockets of Magnus I’s men). But Magnus, Harald’s grandson, was cut from the same cloth and both the Ágrip and Theodoricus point this out explicitly: the Ágrip says Magnus was ‘in disposition in every respect more like his grandfather Harald’; to Theodoricus, ‘Magnus was very unlike his father in character, and resembled more his grandfather, Haraldr’.


It is in Magnus’ death, though, that we start to see what Harald’s reign and his ultimate demise in the act of conquest meant, or seems to have meant, to the Scandinavian sources. Magnus also died on foreign soil, also in the act of conquest: as the nominal king of Dublin, he was killed attempting to expand his territory in Ireland in 1103. The historian Peter Foote has pointed out the similarities: ‘Grandfather and grandson … are alike, the one grasping, the other restless, both aggressive and both killed fighting on foreign soil.’ It is these similarities which point out to us the ostensible purpose of writing about Harald’s and Magnus’ defeats, with Magnus more or less a cypher through which we need to view Harald. In the Ágrip, Magnus ‘won part of [Ireland] straight away and, as a result, grew bolder and then became more unwary, because it all went well for him in the beginning, just as it had for his grandfather Haraldr, when he fell in England. And the same treachery drew him to his death’. Similarly, in Theodoricus, ‘after winning control of part of the island [Ireland], hoping the rest might be conquered with ease, he began to lead his army with less caution, and fell into the same trap as his grandfather Haraldr in England’. Harald and Magnus both failed in the act of trying to conquer foreign lands, two generations apart, and in the process got themselves killed. 

Conquest in the early Middle Ages is not necessarily a frowned-upon action, particularly if it is successful and (more crucially) the side that documents that conquest is the victorious one. Being on the losing side is a different matter. So here, Harald’s and – by extension – Magnus’ failure has to mean something else. In the Middle Ages, a king who won in battle had a certain kind of authority because of it. So what then of these men who fail? Of his fall at Stamford Bridge, the Heimskringla records a comrade stating immediately after the action:

Harald is dead, and with him goes
The spirit to withstand our foes.
A bloody scat the folk must pay
For their king’s folly on this day.
He fell, and now without disguise
We can say this business was not wise.

Harald and Magnus became cautionary tales. Their bravery, their daring, is tempered with charges of excessive pride, ambition and aggression. Even the Heimskringla, generally favourable to Harald, points out that ‘his pride was increased after he was established in the country; and it came so far that it was at last not good to speak against him’. The Heimskringla also pointed out, approvingly, that courage was half of success, but it does not mention what constitutes the other half, what Harald was missing in order to have failed as ultimately he did. The Ágrip argues that the same quality felled both Harald and Magnus: excessive boldness. Bravery is good; excessive bravery, particularly when it gets you killed in a foreign land, is to be avoided. Harald is your warning of what not to do: be proud, ambitious, confident, but not excessively so. Yet where does the line between appropriate and excessive bravery get drawn? It is probably the same line as that between victory and defeat. 


Harold Godwinson was killed at Hastings attempting to resist William of Normandy’s invasion of 1066. After a difficult campaign, fighting first at Stamford Bridge, where he repelled the Scandinavian invasion, Harold and the English were then defeated at Hastings by the Norman invaders. Many historians have examined the various chroniclers of these events and their political biases, discussing identity, nationalism, patronage and diplomacy. The men who chronicled these events wrote history at a time when cultural identity could and would be somewhat tempered by the political environment – it was ever thus.

The Anglo-Saxon Chronicles deal with Harold in ways ranging from mild to mildly enthusiastic. The historian Michael Swanton, for example, has marked the ‘note of enthusiasm’ with which the Worcester chronicler slips in an ‘our king’ in reference to Harold in 1066. But otherwise the Worcester Chronicle is strangely quiet about him: he plays a noticeably slim role in the events of 1066, with the narrative focusing on the roles played by other men in the various battles. The Abingdon and Peterborough chronicles are slightly more informative on his activities.

The Abingdon Chronicle for 1052 refers to the treaty between Edward the Confessor and Godwin, Earl of Wessex, and his two sons, Harold and Tostig, as an attempt to stop two English forces fighting one another.This would leave England open to foreign invaders and is perhaps an oblique reference to – and certainly a foreshadowing of – Harold’s depleted English forces at Hastings as a result of his victories at Fulford and Stamford Bridge. During the years 1065-6 Abingdon repeatedly refers to Harold as ‘King of the English’, in contrast to Hardrada, who is usually referred to as ‘king in Norway’. There is a certain level of distance and intimacy implied here, both in terms of geography as well as population. Harold is king of a people, suggesting a certain connection and agreement in a positive light. In contrast, Abingdon implies, Hardrada is a king of a geographical or political place: not necessarily a negative connotation, but without the level of connection and agreement of the population that ‘king of [a people]’ implies. The Peterborough Chronicle is even more explicit in its approval of Harold. It points out that he became king as granted by Edward and was further blessed with his kingship on Twelfth Night, giving him the sheen of godly approval by association with this important feast day. Peterborough portrays Harold as bravely overcoming the Scandinavian force at Stamford before falling at Hastings, due to his fighting with a weakened force as all of his men had not yet arrived at the field of battle.

As would be expected, some of the later chroniclers owe something to the Anglo-Saxon Chronicles. John of Worcester and Symeon of Durham refer to Harold as ‘subregulus’, an under-king of sorts, chosen as Edward’s successor, which gives him a strain of legitimacy. They both note his goodness as a king: patron to monasteries and to the church, a pious and humble man, a friend to all except evil-doers. He was also noted in both as working hard to defend England by land and sea: in a literal translation, working up a sweat to do so. To these chroniclers, Harold slew both Harald and Tostig at Stamford Bridge; he hustled to Hastings, even though some of his bravest had fallen, and stood bravely with the few who remained with him. But alas (‘heu!’) he fell at twilight. Both Worcester and Durham give Harold’s kingship a definitive end at Hastings – noting poetically that he ruled for the same number of months and days, nine apiece – but thus also casting his kingship as a legitimate one by giving him a term of rule. 


Symeon also follows the lead of the earlier accounts by the chronicler Eadmer and delves back into the events in Normandy to try to explain the reasons for Harold’s defeat. Thomas Arnold, in his 1885 translation, even notes that: ‘The subdued patriotic grief and silent resignation of [John of Worcester] … do not entirely suit our Symeon … [he makes] the story tell somewhat less for the Normans, and less also against Harold.’ After telling the events of the Battle of Hastings, Symeon returns to earlier scenes in Normandy and Brittany familiar to us from the Bayeux Tapestry. In Symeon’s version, Harold asks the permission of Edward the Confessor to go to Normandy to free two political hostages. (Stevenson somewhat liberally translates this passage as Harold begging the king to ‘liberate’ them, giving a certain sense of passion and urgency to a situation that is probably an exaggeration; after all, medieval hostageship was not what we tend to think of as hostageship now or in the 19th century.) Edward advises Harold that he would not prevent him from doing so, but suspects it will ultimately cause more problems for England. When William has to rescue Harold from Ponthieu, in both Symeon’s telling and Eadmer’s earlier version, William tells Harold that Edward promised him the crown and proposes an exchange of betrothals to cement their alliance. Harold here is not in a great position: seeing danger everywhere and with no means of escape, he acquiesced. This gives us a reasonable excuse for both Harold’s kingship and William’s invasion, while for Symeon it offers an explanation for Harold’s defeat. Even though Harold probably – excusably – made promises he would not deliver on, George Garnett points out that he had perjured and was thus ultimately defeated.

For the pro-English, or at least the vaguely pro-English, sides, Harold does everything right (except for perjury). He upholds all of the various kingly things to do: piety, upholding law, working against Tostig when he ‘turns pirate’. He even ticks some of those same boxes of early masculinity that Byrhtnoth does: he stands bravely and resolutely with his men, even in the face of difficulty caused by a lack of them. Symeon and John both refer to him twice as strenuus, translated in the 19th century as – appropriate for 19th-century Anglo-Saxonism – brave and valiant, but perhaps more appropriately for the context, hard-working or resolute. Harold is a legitimate king in these sources, but he is, more importantly, steadfast and steely in the face of what are portrayed as overwhelming odds. Harold’s failure is not valourised, but it is passionately explained and excused. His legitimacy is not in question, so failure is a matter of regular odds. These sources have to explain this failure not as a matter of retribution, but rather a defeat that is understandable within the knowledge of what might constitute or explain legitimate failure to an early medieval king.

Interestingly, though, throughout the stories of Harald and Harold, there is not a single shred of doubt cast on any of these men’s masculinity. No unfavorable comparisons, no feminising of their character or characteristics. All are still viewed through masculine lenses. These masculine personae had their purposes: even if they flatten our understanding of what it meant to be a man in the North Sea worlds in the early Middle Ages, they were a certain type of shorthand that displayed what was acceptable within a cultural norm. These masculine personae are here on display alongside, or even despite, these men’s failures. Failure, in these cases, did not mean ultimately attempting to feminise the warrior masculinity that was so common in the 11th century. Failure did not mean emasculation. These failed men were still men, with all the masculine trappings. 


Bravery, though, was simply not enough if you were a failed man. If you failed at the one thing that was shorthand for your power as a man – your warrior prowess – you needed to be represented in another way in order to be remembered in a positive light. Hardrada became a cautionary tale. He was brave … but too brave. He made the mistake of being killed on foreign soil and in an unsuccessful invasion attempt at that. His international reputation in the Scandinavian sources was not solid enough to make him anything other than crafty, clever, harsh, aggressive, restless and overconfident following his failure overseas. The sources found use in Harald’s defeat as an example of what not to do as a Scandinavian king. Harold Godwinson is presented as steely in the face of overwhelming odds, a man who in dangerous circumstances agrees to a rival claimant. Ultimately he has to bravely face terrible odds in order to attempt to hold on to his kingship. He becomes a vaguely tragic hero: valiant and steadfast in the face of unfavourable odds.

But these failures still had to mean something to their audiences. Failure has to be turned into something else; alone it serves no purpose to the cultures that suffer it. A warrior masculinity, a common trope throughout the early Middle Ages, needed to be tempered by something else in order for that ‘appropriate’ masculinity to be still somehow usable in its representation. What happens to a warrior persona when the person gets struck down in battle? It becomes a heroic defeat. Failure becomes valourised because it is one way to rectify a social, cultural or individual identity in relation to the world around it when hierarchical positions are being upset. Being heroic in defeat allows for a false sense of superiority when prestige and authority has been undermined, when you no longer have mastery of the world around you.

Katherine Weikert is Lecturer in Early Medieval History at the University of Winchester.

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