Thursday, February 10, 2022

The Last Viking: The True Story of King Harald Hardrada (Don Hollway)

Harald Sigurdsson, also known as Harald Hardrada, was a well-traveled Viking mercenary who ended up as King of Norway in the middle of the 11th Century. He fought from a young age, forced into exile in what is now Ukraine on account of losing a battle in 1030. From there, over the course of the next fifteen years, Harald served in a number of military roles for two kingdoms, eventually finding his way back to Scandinavia where he ultimately became a king in his own right. His demise while attempting to take over England in 1066 at the battle of Stamford Bridge set the stage for William the Conqueror’s defeat of the Anglo-Saxons shortly after. 

Don Hollway captures this mercenary-turned-ruler’s lifetime account in The Last VIking: The True Story of King Harald Hardrada. In it, Hollway traces the steps of Harald from Norway to Kyivan Rus’ (made up of modern-day Poland, Lithuania, and Ukraine) to Constantinople. While serving the Byzantine Empire, Harald fought through the Mediterranean and even in the Holy Land. It’s clear Harald got around - not just militarily, either! In the book, you’ll find he was very much a guy who couldn’t remain committed to a single woman.

In the last twenty years of Harald’s life, he gradually returned to Norway, eventually becoming king of his home country. Harald’s rule was not particularly popular, with a standing army putting down any opposition in often brutal fashion…even by Viking standards of the time. Ultimately, driven by a desire to claim land, he attempted to conquer England and suffered a fatal wound in the Battle of Stamford Bridge. With Harald’s death, the Viking impulse to conquer slowly ebbed over subsequent decades.

Hollway’s book combines a number of sources from Norse sagas, Byzantine texts, and elsewhere to capture the story of a warrior that fought and lived life hard, similar to many other Viking warriors of the Middle Ages. It is a well-researched, thoughtful, and entertaining read.