At the tip of Norway, overlooking the sea, there stand three sentinels that overlook an ancient, rocky fjord: three bronzeswords towering over thirty feet tall, embedded in the rocky hill. They stand firm through the fiercest snowstorm and all the rain and wind the sea can send at them. These three swords are called: “Sverd i Fjell”, the swords in the rock, and they commemorate a historical badass named Harald I, better known as Harald Fairhair, the first king of Norway.
Last week on History’s Badasses, we covered WWII war hero Audie Murphy. This week’s badass is a little bit different. He lived thousands of years before Audie Murphy was ever born, and he was a kind of war hero himself. His story has been immortalized in a poetic epic by the same writer who wrote the Prose Edda.
Not much is actually known about about Harald’s early life. What we do know is he was born c. 850 AD, long before William the Conqueror would set foot on England at the Battle of Hastings, in a time before Norway was ever a country. Back in the 800s, Norway was simply referred to as “North Way”, and it was a bunch of tiny Viking kingdoms ruled by a number of different Viking lords, called jarls (yes, jarls, like in Skyrim).
Harald was the son of one of these jarls, called Halvdan the Black, who ruled the northeastern part of Norway. Harald succeeded his father at the ripe age of ten years old, when his father drowned because he crashed his sleigh. Well, now Harald was the young king of little Vestfold. Most of the jarls in the area weren’t too happy that they had to listen to a ten year old. It insulted their manliness. So, they staged a revolt. Well, Harald responded by going to war. Adding insult to injury, the ten-year-old won. He solidified his power in Vestfold, and, eventually, probably around the time when he was fifteen, Harald decided he’d like to get married.
He sent envoys to the princess of Hordaland, a nearby kingdom. The princess’ name was Gyda, and I guess she thought that marrying a fifteen-year-old boy-king wasn’t on her list of things to do with her life. Apparently, she was way too good for Harald. She wanted to marry someone like Gorm the Old, uniter of Denmark, or Erik Weatherhat, uniter of Sweden, not someone like Harald with a tiny kingdom of Vestfold. What even was Vestfold, anyway? She hadn’t ever heard of it.
When Harald’s envoys returned with the message, his thanes offered to raze Gyda’s castle to the ground for him and carry her off, but Harald had had his manliness insulted. He liked Gyda’s spirit and thought she had a point. The princess had given him an idea. He was going to unite Norway as one kingdom, be the greatest king ever, and, as the legend goes, he wouldn’t cut his hair until he’d done it.
Not a lot has been written about Harald’s ensuing ten year campaign to unite Norway. All we do know is that he grew the most metal head of blonde, flowing locks north of Britain and nobody could stand against him and his huge bronze sword. He just kept conquering kingdom after kingdom and adding their forces to his army. At one battle, the battle of Trondheim, he defeated eight kings in eight different battles in order to take the city. In another battle, he defeated three other kings at once. Jarls submitted to him left and right, yielding their lands to his rule.
The story goes he’d personally charge into combat at the head of a force of over 60 Viking beserkers who would literally go nuts, froth at the mouth, and rip apart armor with their bare hands.
Harald let his conquered kingdoms live in peace, so long as they submitted to him. He only imposed a land tax and took twenty thanes from each king to add to his army. Eventually, Norway was cut in half: Harald Fairhair’s side, and an coalition of Norwegian rulers who decided it was better to try and work together rather than to fall to the manic, long-haired Jarl of Vestfold.
The final deciding battle of his career took place at Hafrsfjord around 880 AD. There, the coalition of enemy jarls had quartered their fleet of Viking longships. Harald took his own fleet into the fjord and rammed headlong into the enemy ships, unloading hundreds of raging Viking beserkers. They set fire to the enemy ships, sank them, and cut everyone they could find into bits. The battle lasted an entire day, it was hard fought, but in the end Harald, his team of Viking thanes and beserkers, and his glorious flowing hair finally won the day.
At the battle of Hafrsfjord, the opposing jarls bent the knee. All of Norway had been conquered and united. Harald’s conquest was finally finished.
Harald finally cut his hair and returned to Princess Gyda. The two of them got married and had five kids together. Unfortunately for Gyda, a lot of ladies thought Harald was pretty hot. He had about ten different wives and anywhere from sixteen to twenty different children, all who would fight over his lands after his death.
Harald Fairhair ruled Norway as a fair, just, and powerful king for over 50 years. He died in 933 AD, at the age of 83, and today Norwegians call him the father of Norway, the greatest king in Norwegian history, and he’s recognized as a central figure in Viking history. He was buried Viking-style on the grounds of his favorite palace.
Around 1983, sculptor Fritz Røed created Sverd i Fjeld, the Swords in Rock, to commemorate Harald Fairhair’s epic battle at Hafrsfjord where he gathered all of Norway under one crown. The largest sword represents Harald, and the two smaller swords represent the other jarls he defeated. The monument stands for the peace Harald created in Norway. They stand, embedded in rock for eternity so that they may never be removed.