Harald Hardrada: Overthrowing of an Emperor
Posted in Medievalists.net
August 2, 2022

Harald Hardrada: Overthrowing of an Emperor

By James Turner

The warrior who fed the wolves
Ripped out both the eyes
Of the emperor of Byzantium;
Strife was unleashed again.
The warrior-king of Norway
Marked his cruel revenge
On the brave emperor of the East;
The Greek king had betrayed him

~ a poem from The Saga of King Harald in Heimskringla

So far in our examination of his career Harald’s time within the Byzantine Empire had been broadly contiguous with the reign of Emperor Michael IV. Reference in the sagas to the number of palace-plunders Harald participated in, a possibly mythical or barely semi-formalized practice in which the palace Varangians helped themselves to a portion of the imperial treasury upon the death an Emperor, suggest he joined Byzantine service just prior to Michael’s accession to power and the death of Romanus Argyrus in 1134. Harald had served under Michael in his ambitious and ultimately triumphant campaign against the already embattled Fatimid Caliphate. Harald and his warband of Varangian mercenaries had accompanied the Byzantine Navy as it had swept the Mediterranean clear of pirates and Fatimid-aligned privateers, fought across Anatolia and the Levant and possibly even escorted members of the Imperial Household on a visit to Jerusalem.

During Michael’s reign Harald had also gained first-hand experience of the cracks appearing within the edifice of imperial power; the initially successful campaign to conquer the strategically and symbolically important island of Sicily was undermined and then outrightly abandoned as a result of fractionalization within the imperial court. Likewise, the campaign in southern Italy against rebellious elements of the Lombard aristocracy and their increasingly autonomous and proactive Norman allies led to the defeat of two byzantine field armies and irreparable damage to Byzantine hegemony within the region. A state of affairs that can, to an extent, be attributed to poor prioritization by the central government and the appointment of a regional military governor on the strength of his political and dynastic connections to the Imperial family who was unequal to the challenges of the position.

Michael IV in the Madrid Scylitzes – folio 217.v

A possible reason for this lack of central leadership and imperial vigour at this point in Michael IV’s reign was that the emperor was plagued by poor health and appears to have been chronically ill during this period. In what many regard as the military highwater mark of his reign, Michael, accompanied by Harald as the commander of the army’s substantial Varangian contingent, successfully quashed the Bulgarian revolt, preserving Byzantine dominance of the Balkans and forestalling the re-emergence of one of the empire’s most persistent and dangerous rivals. However, the rigours of the campaign caused the already seriously ill emperor to decline further, precipitating his death in December of that year and triggering a secession contest at the heart of the Byzantine government.

As previously discussed in this series, as a direct continuation of the Roman Empire, the Byzantines had in addition to their economic advantages, vast reserves of what Joseph Nye refers to as soft power. The Byzantine Empire maintained cultural and geopolitical importance which was at certain times in their history completely divorced from their current military position because of the intangible allure of their imperial legacy and the ideological and religious apparatus which underpinned it. The empire’s ever-rotating cast of enemies, allies and trade partners were to one extent or another all tempted to come to individual arrangements or rapprochements with the Byzantines to gain heavily mediated access to elements of this ideological legitimacy and the trappings of imperial authority. Following its Christianisation, the Roman Empire had merged its new creed with vestigial belief in the intrinsic sacredness of Rome and an empire whose leadership drew little distinction between patriotic and religious duty. The pre-eminence and anima of the Roman Empire were retained and recontextualized through Christian dogma transforming it into a part of the cosmic order, a Universal Christian Empire unlimited in its remit and writ that served as the earthly reflection of the Kingdom of Heaven.

The Byzantines, who of course referred to themselves as the Romans and drew no distinction between themselves and their Roman ancestors, nurtured and developed this ideology. More impressively they succeeded in disseminating elements or impressions of this ideological construct to their neighbours. The Kyivan Rus’ of the tenth century did not surrender themselves to Byzantine sovereignty but as their envoys found as they surveyed the wondrous interior of the Hagia Sophia it was hard to deny that they had a special relationship with the divine. Usurpingly, given their nominal position in the cosmic order as the rightfully deputized custodians and rulers of the temporal world, much of the Byzantine’s prestige and reserves of soft power were tied into the imperial throne and title.

Again, to briefly recap a discussion from earlier in the series, in Scandinavia and the vast majority of eleventh-century Europe, rulers claimed mutable titles, the authority of which was purely personal rather than structural or systematic. Their authority was entirely predicated on and defined by the extent to which their personal connections and relationships allowed it to be enforced. Harald’s elder half-brother, Olaf, had declared himself King of Norway with the backing of a cabal of regional aristocrats, but this authority was successfully challenged by other factions within the broader Norwegian aristocracy who refused to acknowledge his overlordship. In contrast, the Byzantine Emperor held a ritually formalized office, the authority and parameters of which were nominally already established. While individual emperors may succeed or fail to varying extents in their manipulation of the levers of Byzantine power, the office of Emperor would as a matter of theological and legal reality endure undaunted and untarnished by the fate of its incumbents. In short, the Byzantines drew a far sharper distinction between public and private authority than almost any of their contemporaries in the eleventh century.

Emperor Michael IV

The Byzantine’s investment of ultimate legitimacy and authority within the position of Emperor, rather than the personage of individual emperors combined with the highly centralized nature of Byzantine bureaucracy meant that in theory at least, all that was needed to rule the empire of empires and gain control of the mechanism through which it ran was the ability to exert power at certain key junctures within the highly convoluted and idiosyncratic court. The permeability and corresponding vulnerability of the imperial office is rendered immediately evident by a brief recap of Michael IV’s rise to power.

Born of peasant stock in Paphlagonia, the northernmost region of central Anatolia, Michael began his career as a money lender working in Constantinople. While this seems like an inauspicious start for a potential emperor, Michael’s brothers John, Constantine and George were all eunuchs holding important positions within the imperial court. John, in particular, was of unparalleled status and importance within the labyrinthine mechanisms of imperial governance, having been a close advisor and confidant of the legendary Emperor Basil II who elevated him to the position of chief clerk, the effective master of the Byzantine bureaucracy. John introduced Michael to court, where it appears he began an affair with Empress Zoë Porphyrogenita. Zoë was a member of the Macedonian dynasty who had over the previous century presided over the resurgence of Byzantine power; she was a niece of Basil II and the eldest daughter of his co-emperor, the deeply unremarkable Constantine VIII. Together the trio, John, Michael, and Zoë contrived the assassination of her husband, Romanos Argyros, in 1034 and her immediate marriage to Michael.

The wedding of Michael and Zoë, as depicted in the Madrid Skylitzes

If you’ll permit me to be indelicate for a second, it is perhaps unsurprising in light of the Empress’ age at the time of her marriage to Michael, fifty-six, that the imperial couple had no children of their own. As it happened, the prospect of producing a legitimate heir born in the purple was further undermined by the way that Michael and John turned against the Empress almost immediately following the former’s coronation, relegating her from any real power and virtually confining her to the palace’s women’s quarters. Although I suppose in Michael’s defence, she did have a track record of disposing of husbands she felt had overreached themselves. While Michael was clearly dying in late 1041, John and the remainder of their extended family were still firmly entrenched in the heart of the imperial government and in dire need of a replacement emperor amenable to their cause.

Emperor Michael V

Perhaps inevitably they were resolved to maintain their family’s grip on power through the accession of one of their own. According to certain Byzantine sources, Zoë was despite everything deeply distressed by the dying Michael’s refusal to see her. The gravely ill Emperor, with some reservations, appointed his nephew Michael as his co-ruler while John prevailed upon the politically isolated Empress to formally adopt this new junior emperor as her son and recognize him as her legitimate heir. This Michael, Michael V, was the nephew of John and son of Michael IV’s sister, Maria, and her husband Stephen, the Byzantine admiral whose feuding with George Maniakes had led to the abandonment of the Sicilian campaign. Prior to Michael IV’s accession to the throne and his subsequent whisking away to high political office, Stephen had worked as a caulker, waterproofing ships, an appellation that was somewhat derisively applied to his imperial son. Very little is known about this Michael prior to his dramatic rise to power sometime around his mid-twenties and the extent to which his uncles had prepared him for the position is unclear.

In exchange for acquiescing to this somewhat dubious feat of dynastic engineering, Zoë was promised that she would be well treated by her adopted son who would recognize and uphold her status as Empress and co-ruler. Naturally the extent of John’s power over the court, his naked nepotism and his family’s growing stranglehold on the imperial throne engendered a degree of resentment and resistance from elements of the Byzantine aristocracy and establishment. Indeed, a number of leading politicians such as Michael Keroularios, a future patriarch of Constantinople, had previously been exiled from the capital by John and Michael IV. Many of these dissident elements rallied around the personage of the Empress, tacitly resisting the authority of John and the new emperor by emphasizing Zoë’s status as senior ruler and a member of the Macedonian dynasty. While other would-be rebels, perhaps feeling that the Empress was firmly under the thumb of John and his family began to agitate on behalf of Zoë’s younger sister, Theodora, who had previously been exiled for attempting to advance her own claim to the throne.

Michael V, depiction from the Madrid Skylitzes

Like Frankenstein, John had failed to consider the full consequences of his feverish and hubristic labours and like the doctor was dismayed by the reality of his now realized ambitions. Emperor Michael V quickly showed himself disinclined to be guided by his uncles or indeed share power in any way. Instead, the Emperor had John and his other surviving uncle, Constantine, imprisoned in the remote monastery of Monobatae. According to Michael Psellos, a contemporary and well-connected Byzantine historian in his great work of Imperial dynastic history the Chronographia, Michael felt threatened by John’s grooming of another of his nephews, Constantine, as his protegee and possible imperial successor. Indeed, there is evidence to suggest that this Constantine had been Michael IV’s preferred heir. In response to this perceived threat to his position, the impetuous new emperor had his remaining male relatives castrated, ensuring that none could ever hope to replace him upon the imperial throne.

Possibly emboldened by his success in disposing of John and seizing the reins of power, Michael V exiled his nominal co-ruler, Empress Zoë, to the island of Principo, modern-day Büyükada, supposedly in retaliation for her role in an attempt to have him poisoned. In doing so, he was casually discarding his regime’s only remaining link to the highly celebrated Macedonian dynasty, having already broken his family’s grip upon the administration of the Byzantine government.

Just as John had underestimated his nephew’s ruthlessness and hunger for power, Michael had drastically misjudged the people of Constantinople’s emotional attachment to Zoë or else her political allies’ ability to incite and direct the people’s ire. An ill-judged attempt to appease the mob that had encircled the palace and short circuit the escalating riots by recalling the Empress from exile and displaying her in the garb of a nun, signalling her retirement from secular life and removal from imperial office, spectacularly backfired.

The result was bloody street fighting between the supporters of the rival factions and an impromptu siege of the palace. Sections of which were looted by Zoë’s supporters, as the citizens of Constantinople and those military units that had sided with them clashed with Michael’s corps of mercenaries and imperial bodyguards.  This explosive upswelling of sentiment for the Macedonian dynasty extended to the Empress’ younger sister, Theodora, who was recalled from exile and invited by the senate to take her rightful place as Zoë’s co-ruler. Somewhere in the build-up to his orgy of intrigue, blood, and chaos, it seems that Harald Hardrada had been arrested by his imperial employers.

Harald’s arrest and imprisonment

The reason for Harald’s imprisonment, the exact circumstances of his release and the role he subsequently played in the overthrow of Emperor Michael are all maddeningly unclear and difficult to parse. Since it is always good for a laugh, we will first turn to the saga evidence and Snorri Sturluson’s Heimskringla written in the early thirteenth century. Snorri whose primary goal in writing was to provide contemporary Icelandic audiences with both entertainment and a glorious heritage, provides a characteristically thrilling and aggrandizing version of events. According to Snorri, upon receiving news of a momentous event within Scandanavia, the nature of which we shall discuss shortly, Harald was resolved to quit Byzantine service and return home, only for Empress Zoë to accuse him of theft and the misappropriation of the imperial treasury. The true reason behind the Empress’ persecution of Harald we are told is that she was in love with Harald, driven to anger and jealousy by his interest in her niece, Maria.

Mosaic of Zoë at the Hagia Sophia

There are obviously certain difficulties with this version of events. While limitations in communications meant that the world of the eleventh century was in many ways far larger than our own, as we have seen time and time again throughout this series, the various cultures and polities of the era were permeable and unavoidably connected to one another, with individuals such as Harald passing through and interacting with them without significant obstacles. Without going into too much unnecessary detail at this stage, the news that supposedly promotes Harald’s burning need to return home was but a recent development in an ongoing situation that Harald could not have helped but be aware of given the highly active trade and cultural links that connected Scandanavia, the principalities of the Kyivan Rus and the Byzantine empire. When viewed in this light it seems probable that Harald’s decision to leave Byzantine service had as much to do with events within the empires i.e. his arrest and the disruption caused by Michael V’s brief reign and overthrow as it did events in Scandanavia. In addition to this, there is no evidence for the existence of Maria amongst contemporary Byzantine sources and the Heimskringla mistakenly conflates the reigning emperor, Michael V, who was Zoë’s adopted son, with her soon-to-be third husband, Emperor Constantine Monomachus. It is also worth noting that Michael’s antipathy towards his co-ruler and determination to side-line her made it unlikely that the Empress had the clout to arrest a senior member of a faction of such central importance to the Byzantine military.

Harald’s arrest by Byzantine authorities is also mentioned in the accounts of two historians, William of Malmesbury and Saxo Grammaticus, although neither were direct contemporaries of the mercenary commander turned Norwegian king. William of Malmesbury was a highly talented and largely reliable Anglo-Norman monk and scholar writing the early twelfth century. In William’s account of Harald’s life and career, which is introduced largely as background and context for his attempted invasion of England in 1066, Harald, the villain of the peace, was imprisoned by the Byzantines for sexually assaulting a noblewoman.

Saxo Grammaticus was an early thirteenth-century Danish historian and the author of the epic and bloody Gesta Danorum which, as the first attempt at creating a complete history of Denmark, was in some ways the Danish equivalent of the Gesta Regum Anglorum. The Gesta Danorum contains among many incidents the story of betrayal and vengeance which inspired both Shakespeare’s Hamlet and the recent film The Northman. Saxo Grammaticus suggests that Harald was imprisoned for murder, a version of events which aligns closely with the author’s Tarantino-like preoccupation with excessive violence.

Several historians have also advanced the possibility that Harald may well have grown close to Emperor Michael IV during the suppression of the Bulgarian revolt, he was after all granted the rank of Spatharokandidatos in the campaign’s aftermath which suggests he had caught the emperor’s eye. Indeed, how could he not as the principal commander of the victorious army’s primary shock infantry. According to this train of thought, it is possible that Michael V had Harald arrested as a potential threat during his purge of his uncle’s powerbase.

The saga’s account of Harald’s arrest also details an unworldly visitation he receives, while in prison, from his elder half-brother, King Olaf, who had by the thirteenth century came to be regarded as a saint for his now much-debated role in spreading Christianity throughout Scandinavia. In his vision, Olaf reassures his younger brother and former supporter that he will soon be delivered from captivity. The following night, Harald was freed from his cell by a noblewoman who had previously been healed by the intervention of Saint Olaf and sought to protect his kin.

The notion that a Byzantine noble would recognize the sainthood of a Norwegian pseudo-king, a mere decade after his death, is without a doubt a fabrication on Snorri’s part but one that is calculated to inflate and impress upon his audiences the importance and centrality of Scandinavian culture. Likewise, the saga’s depiction of Olaf’s role in rescuing Harald from captivity serves to strengthen the association between the two and positions Harald in the audiences’ minds as the king’s true and legitimate successor. Immediately upon being freed, the Harald of the saga rushes to rouse his fellow Varangians with whose help he captures and blinds the emperor before kidnapping the thankfully securely fictional Maria and escaping Constantinople.

While misidentified in the Heimskringla, it seems that Michael V was indeed blinded, in addition to possibly being castrated in the aftermath of the revolt. When it became clear that his forces were unable to subdue the rebels and that he had effectively lost Constantinople, Michael quit the city and fled to a monastery. There he took monastic vows, presumably in an attempt to forestall further retribution by removing himself from the secular and political world. Both Zoë and Theodora, however, knew from personal experience that this boundary could be permeable and that monasteries and nunneries could be infamously leaky places. Michael was therefore arrested and mutilated, possibly at the insistence of Theodora. Zoë was less than thrilled that the mob and senate had foisted another co-ruler upon her, and the two Empresses almost immediately began vying with one another for power.

It appears that during the revolt, Harald was freed from captivity most likely either at the contrivance of the Empress’ faction or because his followers amongst the Varangians simply took the opportunity to free him in the midst of the chaos that was consuming the city. As we’ve previously discussed, the Varangian Guard was less a cohesively organized military unit and more a collection of warbands that Byzantine commentators grouped together because of their shared culture and martial practices; as such elements of the Varangians fought on both sides of the uprising against Michael V. It is therefore entirely possible, given his prominence amongst the Varangians, that Harald held a prominent position in the uprising as a supporter of Empress Zoë and that the Scandinavia oral and saga traditions reflect his role in the arrest and judicial mutilation of the deposed emperor.

Leaving Byzantium

In June of 1042, just a few months after the revolt, Zoë married Constantine Monomachos, a member of a prominent noble family, deeply entrenched in imperial bureaucracy, who had previously been exiled by Michael IV for his closeness to the Empress. This decision was almost certainly influenced by Zoë’s desire to curtail her more aggressive and vigorous younger sister’s attempts to exercise, perhaps even monopolize, imperial power. The power struggles that had consumed Constantinople and the Byzantine court and political developments within Scandinavia had evidently convinced Harald to leave Byzantine service in favour of chasing even greater opportunities.

The newly crowned Constantine IX exercised political power and authority by dint of his marriage to the Macedonian scion, Empress Zoë, but his position was complicated by the presence of Theodora, a second Empress and co-ruler.  With his grip on power not secure and the recent explosion of violence and bloodletting still fresh within the minds of the Byzantine court and people, Constantine and Zoë seem to have rebuffed Harald’s initial attempts to remove himself from Byzantine service. Harald was not only an experienced and highly competent military commander but his pull with the Varangians who formed a substantive contingent of elite troops based around the environs of the imperial palace, probably made him appear too valuable to lose in the febrile political atmosphere. However, with most of his looted fortune already safely deposited in Kyiv, Harald, who was no longer content to languish as a mere warlord and mercenary captain, simply absconded from Constantinople with a cadre of his most devoted followers.

Upon returning to Kyiv and the court of his ally and mentor Prince Yaroslav the Wise, Harald married the Grand Prince’s daughter Elisiv. Not only did this marriage solidify his alliance with Yaroslav, one of the most powerful and influential monarchs of the eleventh century but inducted him into a web of alliances and familial affinity that crisscrossed the highest level of secular society. In addition to Yaroslavs’ overlordship of the principalities of the Kyiv Rus, his six sons each controlled a principality while two of his daughters were Queens of France and Hungary. Harald’s marriage to Elisiv was not only politically advantageous for an exiled and landless Harald but it was in some ways a declaration of his intention to rise to prominence and claim a crown worthy of his new bride and extended family.

Looking back at the arc of Harald’s life up to this point, its messiness and moments of uncertainty ironed out by hindsight, it appears a heroic journey equal to any found within fiction or folklore. Our young but spirited hero is forced to flee to his home and finds himself a stranger in a strange land. There he partakes in many adventures, growing older and more capable as he cultivates the skills that will one day see him rise to greatness and triumphantly return home to reclaim what is rightfully his. However, history is seldom if ever as neat as in stories. King Olaf’s rival, Cnut the Great, King of the Danish, Norwegians, English and some of the Swedes, master of the North Sea empire died in 1035. His sons, both deceased by the end of 1042, had all but forfeited their overlordship of Norway having quarrelled amongst themselves over the rulership of the far richer England. Cnut’s Norwegian ally and proxy ruler Haakon Ericsson had actually predeceased Olaf, drowning in a shipwreck in early 1030. The Norwegian nobility that had refused to acknowledge Olaf’s authority and seen the king defeated and slain in battle had, broadly speaking, been convinced to bend the knee to a new monarch.

Rather than returning home to do glorious battle with his family’s foes, the relentlessly ambitious and well-bloodied Harald would by hook and by crook bully his way into a Scandinavia dominated by Magnus the Good. The illegitimate son of Olaf II and Harald’s own nephew.

James Turner has recently completed his doctoral studies at Durham University before which he attended the University of Glasgow. Deeply afraid of numbers and distrustful of counting, his main research interests surround medieval aristocratic culture and identity.

Click here to read more from James Turner

If you are interested in reading more about this important figure, see also the new book The Last Viking: The True Story of King Harald Hardrada, by Don Holloway. You learn more about this book from the publisher’s site, or purchase this book on Amazon.com | Amazon.ca | Amazon.co.uk

Top Image: Our illustration is by Julia Lillo

Medievalists.net August 2, 2022 at 07:48AM

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