Book Review: The Last Viking: The True Story of King Harald Hardrada


by Don Hollway

Oxford and New York: Osprey Bloomsbury, 2021. Pp. 368+. Illus., maps, biblio., índex. $30.00. ISBN: 1472846524

An Epic Hero in an Heroic Age

“He’ll fight for and against Christian, Muslim and pagan rulers. He’ll bed handmaids, a princess and an empress alike, writing poetry and amassing a fortune along the way, before returning home to claim his love, his crown and his destiny, ultimately dying like a Viking: in battle, laughing, with sword in hand.” — from the jacket blurb.

Scandinavia in the 11th century was a turbulent land where a series of ambitious rulers were imposing Christianity on a warlike, resourceful, and often resistant population. Harald Sigurdsson was born into this world about the year 1015. His father, Sigurd was a local warlord. Harald’s formidable mother, Åsta Gudbrandsdatter, bore two kings who were half-brothers: Saint Olaf Haraldsson, king of Norway from 1015 to 1028, and Harald, who was crowned as Harald III of Norway in 1046.

Harald’s mother tongue, Old Norse, is close to the language still spoken today in Iceland. The epithet “Hardrada” variously translated as “hard ruler” or “stern counsel” became attached to his name long after his death. Sources for his story include Norse sagas, preserved in Icelandic manuscripts, English monastic chronicles and in works of Byzantine historians, notably princess Anna Komnene, daughter of the emperor Alexios Komnenos (ruled 1081-1118.)

In 1030, Olaf and the 15 year-old Harald were defeated in battle for the Norwegian throne by Danish king Cnut the Great. They fled to exile in Kievan Rus, serving in the army of Prince Yaroslav the Wise (ruled 1019-1054). About 1034, Harald moved on to Constantinople, then the richest city of the world, where many Norse warriors served in the elite Varangian Guard, which protected the imperial palace. Tall, blond, strong and handsome, Harald rose to command the guard, fighting for the Empire in Bulgaria, Sicily, Italy, and Anatolia. He became involved in Byzantine palace intrigue, and helped to overthrow the hapless short-lived emperor Michael V Kalaphates (who ruled for just four months, 1041-2).

Escaping from Constantinople across the Black Sea in 1042, Harald married a daughter of Prince Yaroslav. By 1046 he arrived back in Scandinavia with an immense hoard of gold. Proclaiming himself king of Norway, he failed repeatedly to conquer Denmark. In 1066 he invaded England with an army of 9,000 warriors carried in 300 ships. At the battle of Stamford Bridge on 25 September he was killed and his army was annihilated by English king Harold Godwinson, who would die in battle just three weeks later against the Normans at Hastings (14 October 1066.)

Don Hollway, the author of The Last Viking, is a gifted story teller, with a firm understanding of the difficulties medieval texts present to the historian. He observes (page 17): “if some of those sources contradict…each other, or appear to be in error, we can only repeat them accurately, point out the contradictions, and try to winnow out the truth from among them.”

Readers with an interest in Vikings, Byzantium, or medieval England will find much to enjoy in The Last Viking.


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Our Reviewer: Mike Markowitz is an historian and wargame designer. He writes a monthly column for CoinWorld and is a member of the ADBC (Association of Dedicated Byzantine Collectors). His previous reviews include, The Grand Strategy of the Byzantine Empire, The Age of the Dromon: The Byzantine Navy, ca. 500-1204, Military Saints in Byzantium and Rus, 900-1200, Heroes and Romans in Twelfth-Century Byzantium: The Material for History of Nikephoros Bryennios, The Power Game in Byzantium: Antonina and the Empress Theodora, Siege Warfare and Military Organization in the Successor States (400-800 AD), Constantine XI Dragaš Palaeologus, Romanland: Ethnicity and Empire in Byzantium, The Emperor in the Byzantine World, The Politics of Roman Memory: From the Fall of the Western Empire to the Age of Justinian, Theodosius and the Limits of Empire, Byzantium Triumphant: The Military History of the Byzantines, 959–1025, Rome Resurgent: War and Empire in the Age of Justinian, and Bohemond of Taranto.




Note: The Last Viking is also available in several e-editions.


StrategyPage reviews are published in cooperation with The New York Military Affairs Symposium (

Reviewer: Mike Markowitz   

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