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  • Writer's pictureElliott Holley

What if Harald Hardrada had won in 1066?

The Norman conquest of England is one of the most well-known events in history. But what if the feared King of Norway had conquered England instead?

On 8 September 1066, sails appeared on the horizon opposite Tynemouth, near Newcastle in northern England. It was a sight that would have struck fear into the hearts of anyone who witnessed it. A fleet of 300 Viking longships and supporting vessels had descended from the north - and they intended nothing less than to claim England. On board was the famed Norse warrior Harald Hardrada (the name means hard ruler), a man with a fearsome history of battle, plunder and conquests. He had with him an army 8,000 to 15,000 men strong, mostly from Norway.

Viking longships were known and dreaded across the medieval world.

The Vikings had a long reputation for their ferocity and brutality in battle. Ever since the brutal sack of Lindisfarne monastery in 793, the Viking age had seen repeated attacks by the Norsemen on the coasts of England. Few had ever stood against them with much success. In the 9th century, King Alfred the Great had been lucky to even hold onto half the country by resisting their invasion. Viking prowess seemed certain to carve a bloody swathe through England once more.

Harald Hardrada: a brutal warrior

Hardrada was a tough, experienced man of war. He had fought in the East for decades as leader of the famed Varangian Guard, an elite unit of Viking bodyguards that served the Eastern Roman Emperor in Constantinople. He had won great treasures and glory in battle. He had visited Jerusalem. After the death of the emperor Michael IV, whom he had served loyally, Harald was arrested. Accounts vary; some say he assaulted a noble woman; others say his crime was murder; others say the the new emperor Michael V simply feared him.

If so, the emperor was right to fear. Harald escaped during a revolt; joining a plot against Michael V, Hardrada personally blinded the terrified, cowardly emperor, who sought refuge in a monastery. Michael V was castrated and sent into exile, where he died shortly after. Meanwhile Harald set sail via the Black Sea to Kiev, and later made his way home through Russia back to Norway on a ship so overloaded with gold and other treasures, that it was unbalanced in the water, according to legend.

The Vikings were fearsome warriors, as this image illustrates well.

Harald's invasion of England

Harald Hardrada set sail for England because the death of the king Edward the Confessor in January 1066 left no clear heir to the throne. Hardrada's invasion was not unrealistic in its goals; it had been done before with success by other Viking rulers in the near past. The Danish king Canute, who was also king of Norway, ruled England from 1016 to 1035.

Before that, the Danelaw - Viking territory in England - extended from Cumbria and Yorkshire in the north, through the midlands and east Anglia, down as far as London and the north bank of the Thames valley from 867 to 954. The last Viking king of York was Eric Bloodaxe, whose name hints at his violent demise under suspicious circumstances in 954.

This map depicts the Danelaw in the 9th century, a period of Viking rule over much of England

So when Harald reached England on 8 September 1066, he would have been reasonably confident of his chances. He also had some local support, including a force of 2,000 men provided by Malcolm III the king of Scotland, and the support of Earl Tostig, the brother of the new English king, Harold Godwinson.

Tostig had his own reasons for supporting the invasion. Earlier, Tostig had been appointed Earl of Northumbria. But when he doubled their taxes, the Northumbrians rose up against him. Instead of supporting Tostig in this dispute, Harold Godwinson sided with the Northumbrians, and deposed Tostig, replacing him with Earl Morcar. Tostig was angered by this turn of events, and so he sided with Harald Hardrada. Tostig had 12 ships with him, consisting of his supporters. This was a small force, but Tostig's local connections would have been more useful to Hardrada.

Harald's conquest of York

After landing near Tynemouth, the invasion force raided the coast, burning down the town of Scarborough when its people resisted. This prompted several other towns in Northumbria to surrender. Harald and Tostig sailed down the Humber river towards York. The Earls of Northumbria and Mercia heard about the invasion, and gathered an army to stop Harald.

On 20 September, the two armies met in battle at Fulford, two miles south of York. The Norwegians had the larger army, but the Anglo-Saxon Earls decided to attack rather than wait behind the defences of York. The English seem to have hoped to catch Harald before he could deploy his whole army. Harald lined up his men, but he knew it would take hours for the full army to arrive. The Earls charged forward. At first they were able to push back the Norwegians a little, but gradually more and more Norwegian reinforcements arrived. Eventually the English found themselves outflanked. Part of the army began to retreat towards York to make a final stand there. The rest of the army was pushed back and defeated.

Following the defeat, the city of York surrendered without any further fighting. Hostages were provided, and the Norwegian army moved a few miles away to Stamford Bridge, to wait for the representatives from York. It was agreed that they would meet to decide who should govern the city for Harald. It seems likely that Tostig would have expected to be restored to his position as Earl, in exchange for supporting Hardrada. This was the high point of Harald's expedition to England.

However, unknown to the Norwegians, king Harold had learned about the Norwegian invasion and had gathered an army. By marching day and night, Harold's army was able to arrive at York within a week (i.e. by 25 September). The Battle of Stamford Bridge took place that day, and the Norwegians were taken completely by surprise and defeated.

Harald Hardrada, dressed in blue, fought bravely and recklessly in battle, despite being caught off guard. This image by Norwegian painter Peter Nicolai Arbo shows Harald's demise, struck by an arrow in the throat.

Part of the reason for the defeat was that the Norwegian army had left most of its heavy armour, shields and equipment with the fleet (as they had no idea Harold's army was nearby). They tried to fight as best they could when attacked, but the lack of preparation really counted against them, and they were almost totally wiped out, including Harald himself, who fell in battle when he was struck in the neck by an arrow. Part of the army had been left behind guarding the ships; some of these men arrived just as the battle was ending, and briefly checked the English advance, but their leader was soon killed and the rest of the men retreated. Tostig was also killed. It is said that the Norwegian losses were so heavy that only 24 ships of the original 300 were needed to carry away the survivors of the battle. So many fell in battle that the field was said to have been bleached white with the bones of the slain, even 50 years later.

What Harald's victory would have looked like

The Norwegian attack on England in 1066 has become almost a footnote to history, but it could just as easily have been the main event.

There seems little doubt that if Harald had been aware that an English army was coming, he could have gathered his full force in one place, and had time to bring up their armour, shields and weapons. In that case, the outcome of the battle would likely have been much more uncertain. Properly equipped, the Norwegians could have fought back with greater success, and possibly even gained victory, as they had proved at Fulford five days earlier.

There's no guarantee of course. But the fact that Harald was killed wearing no armour and had no shield with him, suggests that he (and his army) almost certainly would have fared better if their armour and other equipment had been with them.

Assuming he had won the battle, it's likely Harald would have made York his capital. It is interesting to speculate what might have happened next. Would Duke William of Normandy have still invaded? If so, would Harald have marched south to face him, just as Harold Godwinson did in our timeline? And in that case, who would have prevailed? Or would they have split the country between them?

A re-enactment of the Battle of Hastings at Battle in 2016

Either way, it seems likely a Norwegian victory in 1066 might have decisively altered the course of English history. Without the Norman conquest, the whole trajectory of the past 1,000 years would have been different. England would have stayed much more aligned with the Scandinavian world of northern Europe, and might have had less interaction with France. Would North America and Australia still have been colonised by the peoples of the British Isles? Would Parliament have emerged? Would London have established itself as the capital? Would England have even continued to exist?

It's impossible to know for sure, but it's possible some other power might have colonised the Americas instead. The British Empire might never have existed. Who can say how the histories of Scotland, Wales and Ireland might have gone differently, without the Norman conquest of their lands? Perhaps some other empire might have formed. And what would have become of France, without the distraction of the 100 years' war, and centuries of conflict with the monarchs of England? Perhaps the monarchs of France would have achieved great things. And who knows how the history of Spain, Italy and Germany might have been altered? The modern world would be incalculably different.

The adventure of English

Anglo-Saxon England was a very different place to the country that emerged after centuries of Norman occupation. One of the best examples of this is found in the language.

Fæder ure thu the eart on heofonum;

Si thin nama gehalgod

to becume thine rice

gewurthe thin willa

on eorthan swa swa on heofonum.

urne gedæghwamlican hlaf syle us todæg

and forgyf us ure gyltas

swa swa we forgyfath urum gyltendum

and ne gelæd thu us on costnunge

ac alys us of yfele sothlice

- The Lord's Prayer, in Old English, AD 995

Some of the words might be recognisable to the reader with a keen eye; faeder is father; eart is earth; heafonum is heaven; todaeg is today; forfgyf us is forgive us; gyltas is similar to guilt. But nobody would expect modern readers to be able to understand it. Most probably wouldn't even realise that it is the Lord's Prayer.

But if Harald Hardrada had prevailed and made himself king of England in 1066, instead of William of Normandy, England - and the English language - would have remained a lot closer to the Old English text above. Indeed, it might have simply imported even more Scandinavian words, to resemble languages like Danish and Norwegian. Here's an Old Norse version of the same text, which is quite close to the Old English version:

Faðir vor, thú sem ert á himnum.

Helgist thitt nafn,

Til komi thitt ríki,

verði thinn vilji,

svo á jörðu sem á himni.

Gef oss í dag vort daglegt brauð.

Fyrirgef oss vorar skuldir,

svo sem vér og fyrirgefum vorum skuldunautum.

Og eigi leið thú oss í freistni,

heldur frelsa oss frá illu.

Instead, English evolved into the language that we know and can understand today - but in the process up to 85% of the Old English Anglo-Saxon vocabulary was lost. By 1389, the Wycliffe version of the Lord's prayer is in a language that we can pretty much understand without too much effort. The spellings are a bit different, but the words are much more recognisable.

Our fadir that art in hevenes,

halwid be thi name;

Thi kingdom cumme to;

be thi wille don

as in heven and in earthe;

giv to us this day our breed over other substaunce;

and forgeve to us oure dettis,

as we forgeve to oure dettours;

and leede us nat in to temptacioun,

but delyvere us fro yvel.

Here's the same prayer in modern Norwegian.

Vår Far i himmelen!

La navnet ditt helliges.

La riket ditt komme.

La viljen din skje

på jorden slik som i himmelen.

Gi oss i dag vårt daglige brød,

og tilgi oss vår skyld,

slik også vi tilgir våre skyldnere.

Og la oss ikke komme i fristelse,

men frels oss fra det onde.

Compare that again with the Old English version from AD 995:

Fæder ure thu the eart on heofonum;

Si thin nama gehalgod

to becume thine rice

gewurthe thin willa

on eorthan swa swa on heofonum.

urne gedæghwamlican hlaf syle us todæg

and forgyf us ure gyltas

swa swa we forgyfath urum gyltendum

and ne gelæd thu us on costnunge

ac alys us of yfele sothlice

The spellings are a bit different, but some of the words in the Old English version relate to words that are in the modern Norwegian. For example "rice" relates to "riket" in the Norwegian; it's the same word as the German "Reich", meaning "kingdom".

In any case, Harald's rule of England never happened in the end. It's impossible to know for certain what would have developed. But it seems a safe bet that we would have an easier time relating to other Scandinavian and Germanic languages than we do (but a harder time relating to Latin-based Romance languages such as French and Spanish).

Anglish - 'pure' Anglo-Saxon English?

As a side note - some linguistic fanatics have experimented with "Anglish", a form of English which only uses words of Anglo-Saxon origin and tries to avoid words from French or other origins. This can be quite difficult, but some people find it an interesting exercise. The result certainly sounds a lot more Germanic. Here's a sample from an article about Great Britain.

The Oned Kingdom, reevely known as the Oned Kingdom of Great Briten and Northern Ireland, is a land in the northwest of Europe. It is made up of four smaller lands: England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. It is a limb of the Europish Band, the Oned Lands, the Meanwealth and the 8 Band. It has the sixth biggest wealdship in the world.

About 61 micklered live in the O.K. Most speak English. Other tungs spoken are Welsh, Cornish, Scottish Gaelish, Lowlandish Scottish, and Irish. Geirrseitish, Manx, and Guerenish are also spoken, but in Kine-helm Offhangings not part of the O.K.

In the year 1800, the Behests of One 1800 were put forth, which put the Kingdom of Great Briten and the Kingdom of Ireland together. The Oned Kingdom of Great Briten and Ireland began thereafter.

More than a yearhundred later, the Irish Free Land was acknowledged in 1922, which made most of of Ireland its own folkdom, save for Northern Ireland. This Free Land came to be after the Wye of Irish Selfstandingness. After this, the name 'Oned Kingdom of Great Briten and Ireland' was othered to the Oned Kingdom of Great Briten and Northern Ireland, as it still is today.

In places this comes close to sounding like jibberish (the "Irish war of independence" becomes the "Wye of Irish Selfstandingness"), but if nothing else, it goes to show how heavily our language has been affected by the events of 1066 and its aftermath!

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