The early history of Norway is characterized by powerful seafarers, traders, and warriors and by ambitious chieftains. The fierce sons of these northern lands dominated the sea routes of northern Europe for centuries and singlehandedly changed the course of many a nation's history. Yet, the might of the Viking was never a single and dominant force.
Instead, they were divided up into many small, petty kingdoms, ruled by overly ambitious chieftains - each one wanting the finest loot and the perfect raids. That was, until a man stepped up - a man to unite them all and form a new, vast kingdom with a single ruler at its head. That man was Harald Fairhair.
In Viking era Norway and Scandinavia, literacy was largely nonexistent, with very few able to read the runes. While great deeds and great heroes were the subject of songs and tales, spread with honor by skalds (bards) in mead halls these stories were written only much later.
Oral tradition tends to fade out in time, and the only written accounts mentioning Harald Fairhair - less than a dozen of them - were assembled substantially after his life and deeds had ended. The main sources are the sagas, written poem-like stories such as the Heimskringla, which contain the Saga of Halfdan the Black and the Saga of Harald Fairhair; the Orkneyinga saga; the Floamanna saga; Egil's Saga; and a few others. Another good source is the Historia Norwegiae from Theodricus Monachus. All these sagas share a similarity, as none none of them were written before the XII century, at least a century after the end of the Viking Age (VIII to the XI century).
The single surviving page known as the ‘Kringla leaf (Kringlublaðið)’, kept in the National and University Library of Iceland, is one of the main sources of the history of Harald Faihair.
Harald’s father, Halfdan the Black
The unification of Norway arguably began under Harald’s father, Halfdan the Black (Halfdanr Svarti), born around 810 AD into the legendary Scandinavian dynasty of the Ynglings. Having inherited the title of the King of Agder from his maternal grandfather, and he quickly showed his skill in ruling, enlarging his lands and wealth. His careful and tactical subduing of the lesser kingdoms around him clearly paved the way for the future and for his son to successfully unite them all. Halfdan first managed to take half of Vingulmark - a petty kingdom ruled by King Gandalf Alfgeirsson. Then came Raumarike - a kingdom he subdued by strength of arms.
After that, through a cunning marriage he managed to claim the kingdom of the Sogn fjords. He married the daughter of Sogn's king and had a son. This son was named the heir of Sogn, but died young - leaving the kingdom to Halfdan, his father.
Through cunning, tactic warfare and shrewd politics, Halfdan the Black managed to expand his inheritance and create a large kingdom. His plans, sadly, fell into water - quite literally - when his carriage fell through ice in Randsfjorden. Halfdan the Black and all his party drowned. He left behind an heir - Harald Fairhair.
Harald Fairhair Secures His Crown
Right from the start, young Harald and his uncle and protector, Guthorm, were under threat. With the death of Halfdan, the kingdoms he conquered quickly turned to revolt, seeking to retake their lost independence. His first opponent was Hake Gandalfsson, son of the deposed and killed King of Vingulmark, Gandalf Alfgeirsson. Hake’s brothers, Hysing and Helsing, were killed in battle years previously, by Harald’s father, and sought revenge.
Hake – now considered a berserker – quickly sought to depose of young and seemingly inexperienced Harald. He assembled a vast army from Vestfold that numbered some 300 well-armed warriors. In early medieval Norway, this number was a large army and one tough to defeat. The saga then tell us that – as great heroes do – Halfdan and Guthorm cunningly defeated Hake Gandalfsson with a much smaller army, through an ambush.
Through skillful governance of his territories, Harald managed to raise a large army in hopes of securing his kingdom, an army that would soon see action. In the turbulent times soon after Harald got his crown, an opposition force was formed in Norway, seeking to reinstate lost kingdoms and to destroy the unification efforts of Harald and his father before him.
This opposition was leaded by Sulki, petty King of Rogaland and his brother Earl Soti, then Eirik, King of Hordaland, with them Kjotvi the Wealthy, King of Agdir with his son Thorir Haklang. They were joined by two brothers who ruled Telemark – Hadd the Hard and Hroald Hrygg.
Their conflict culminated in 872, at the Battle of Hafrsfjord near Stavanger one of the largest battles fought in Norway at the time.
Battle of Hafrsfjord
The vast armies clashed in a great naval battle in the fjord that was part of Rogaland. Most of the opponents of Harald fell in battle – Eirik was killed, Sulki and Soti fell, and Thorir Haklang went berserk and was slain. His father, Kjotvi the Wealthy was the only opponent to survive, fleeing as he witnessed the overwhelming defeat. He is not mentioned again after that.
Harald Fairhair’s victory at Hafrsfjord is widely considered the birth of an independent and unified Kingdom of Norway and after that great victory, Harald proclaimed himself as the sole king Norway.
After his victory, Harald quickly sought to cement his rule. At the time, Denmark was the foremost and powerful nation to his south, and he wanted them as allies. Showing his shrewd diplomacy, he married to a daughter of a Danish king. Harald Fairhair not only secured an alliance, but also portrayed himself as a true monarch of Norway – a confirmation of his kingship.
Plenty of skaldic poems that were made during the lifetime of Harald Fairhair survived, giving us both actual historic facts and some details that seem larger than life. One such aspect is a highly romanticized tale of just how Harald decided to unite Norway.
As the poems and stories tell, Harald fell in love with a certain woman, Gyda, which was among the fairest in Norway. But she refused his declarations of love, teasingly saying that she will only accept a king of a whole Norway for her husband. He then swore to do exactly that, in order to gain her love.
Another romantic detail says that Harald swore not to comb his hair until he became King of Norway. He then became Harald Lufa (Harald Matted-Hair). After his conquests were finished, the tales say he was given a rich feast at Maeri, by Earl Rognvald.
The same earl then proceeded to at last comb Harald’s long hair, showing to all how beautiful it was, and the king finally earned the epithet Harald Fairhair. These are almost surely skaldic embellishments and have no basis in reality, even though Earl Rognvald is a historic figure – one of the first supporters of the newly crowned Harald, alongside Earl Atli the Slender.
Harald Fairhair’s victory at Hafrsfjord and his rise to power as a monarch also had influence on neighboring lands – most notably the settlement of Iceland. A good number of nobles, warriors, and their families, who were against Harald in the conflict, chose to flee rather than be subjugated. And their destination was Iceland – freshly discovered and barely settled at the time.
Harald Fairhair also extended his influence onto the Orkneys and Scotland, as the Vikings who ruled there as Earls were obliged to pay tribute and accept him as their king.
Harald was eventually succeeded by his sons and grandsons, but not in the orderly fashion one could expect. The early history of Norway was marked by the warlike nature of the Norsemen. Intrigue, hidden plots and open warfare never ceased to accompany the lineage of Harald. But then, what would anyone expect from a true Viking?