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A few weeks ago, I wrote a post about Peter Freuchen, Danish explorer, author, and political activist; this week, we’re featuring one of the men whose legends perhaps inspired Freuchen to be the incredible man he turned out to be. This week’s badass may or may not have actually existed, but for the sake of telling a great story, we’ll be talking about the legend of Harald Wartooth, Viking King of Scandinavia.
Harald “Wartooth” Hildetand
Born: c. 659, Zealand, Denmark
Died: c. 735 OR 770-772, Bråvalla, Sweden
Occupation: King, warrior, conqueror
Written accounts of ancient Scandinavia are spotty at best, due to the remote area, the questionable quality of education of its residents, as well as the tendency for grandiose, flowery language of scholars during the Dark Ages, but it’s safe to say that Harald Wartooth did indeed exist. Whether or not he actually did all of the things he allegedly did is still hotly debated, but we’ll talk a bit about some of his supposed deeds all the same.
- Harald’s father was King Rorek of Zealand; he was murdered by his own father-in-law, Ivar Vidfame, supposedly around 669. When Ivar died, Harald, who was just a boy of fifteen at the time, claimed the throne. With the backing of his mother’s family in Scania, he then sailed to Sweden to ensure continued fealty from the petty kingdoms his grandfather had conquered.
- Despite being a boy, Harald crushed all of the upstart lords, retaining all the lands his grandfather claimed, and later further expanding his empire. Harald would go on to unite Denmark, southern Sweden, Norway’s Vestfold region, Estonia, and Northumberland – which no one had done up until his time. Some (less trustworthy) Medieval scholars stated that his empire reached as far as the Mediterranean.
- The story behind Harald’s name “Wartooth” is unclear, but Danish historian Saxo Grammaticus, who lived in the 12th century, offered two possible stories: one is that his teeth protruded outwards, but the better (though less plausible) story is that Harald lost two teeth in a battle against Veseti, the lord of Scania, upon which they grew back right away. More modern scholars believe it to be more a mistranslated term for “war hero”.
- Harald’s reign lasted for a long time, and as such, he reached old age – uncommon for Vikings during this era, or anyone really… Saxo Grammaticus claimed at one point he lived to be a hundred and fifty.
- Harald, recognizing his time was coming, still wanted to reach Valhalla – which meant he’d have to die in battle. Harald asked his subordinate king, Sigurd Ring, who ruled Sweden and west Götaland on his behalf, to have a massive battle against him at Bråvalla so that he could die in glory. Sigurd happily obliged; despite their allegiance, both sides prepped for seven years for the battle, clearing entire forests to turn into ships, raising banners, and training armies of thousands (Saxo claimed that these were as large as 200,000, though that seems unlikely). Among the heroes enlisted by Harald and Sigurd to fight in this battle, who had some of the greatest names ever:
- For Harald and the Danes:
- Ubbi of Friesland
- Are the One-Eyed
- Dag the Fat
- Duk the Slav
- Hroi Whitebeard
- Hothbrodd the Indomitable
- For Sigurd and the Swedes:
- Egil the Bald
- Grette the Evil
- Blig Bignose
- Einar the Fatbellied
- Erling Snake
- For Harald and the Danes:
- It was, by multiple accounts, a hell of a battle – the biggest inter-Viking battle ever recorded. Ubbi fought valiantly for the Danes, killing many of Sigurd’s best warriors, angering Starkad, who went forth, killing Danes left and right, including hacking off the arm of the shieldmaiden carrying the Danish banner. Harald, who was blind as a bat by this point, was so fired up at this series of events that he went forth on his chariot, kneeling at the reins with a sword in either hand, riding into the fray and killing warriors left and right. Finally, upon seeing that the king had done enough to earn a place in Valhalla, his own steward, Bruni, bashed his head in with a club. Accounts from the era said that Odin himself actually came down from the heavens and dealt him the killing strike – pretty damn honorable. It’s estimated that fifteen petty kings and 40,000 warriors died in the battle to honor Harald.
- When word got to Sigurd that Harald had fallen, he called for an immediate end to the battle. The two armies spent the rest of the morning looking for Harald’s body, which they found at the bottom of a pile of corpses that was so high that a wagon couldn’t even be driven in. Later that night, his body was burned on a massive funeral pyre, with Sigurd baring his lord to ride forward straight to Valhalla. With Harald’s son also dead in the battle, Sigurd would then be crowned King of Denmark and Sweden. Sigurd’s son, Ragnar “Hairy-Breeches” Lodbrok, would rule after him; the show Vikings is based on him.
Harald Wartooth, while still a mythical figure, remains a focal point of Scandinavian history, and his bravery inspired much writing and legends passed down through the centuries. If he did even a fraction of the things that have been written about him in the centuries since… well, it’s fairly safe to say he’s one of the biggest historical badasses ever.