History & Analysis

The King Lives! Scandinavian Legends of Hastings and Svolder

Tradition (and most chroniclers) tell us that on 14 October 1066, the Anglo-Saxon army saw their King, Harold Godwinson, killed on the field of battle. It was a moment upon which the battle hinged for, seeing their leader dead, the Anglo-Saxons fled the field, pursued and killed by the Normans in their unruly rout.  But is all as it seems? There is also a tradition that Harold in fact survived the battle and, deciding the loss of the kingship was God’s will, devoted his life to God as a hermit (or anchorite). Well, if I am being honest, all is as it seems and, removing the debate about exactly how Harold died, it is pretty clear he did not walk away from the battle. But such legends are a bit of fun and it is not entirely uncommon to find them attached to kings who enjoyed a certain amount of popular support, and who ‘apparently’ lost their lives and kingships in battle (and had no known burial place). Indeed, I have previously written about Olaf Tryggvason’s death at the naval battle of Svolder, and he too is reputed to have survived his fully-armoured plunge into the open ocean, and thereafter journeyed on pilgrimage to Jerusalem. What we see with both men is an element of hagiography creeping into accounts of their defeats, in which martial loss is divinely ordained, thus necessarily turning temporal defeat into spiritual victory. It speaks to a kind of cultic reverence (and nostalgia) among their supporters.

So, on the anniversary of Hastings, this is a post of a different type to our usual historical analyses. Hopefully, it is just going to be a bit of fun story-telling as I provide a selection of four Scandinavian accounts of Harold and Olaf surviving their respective battles and heading off on pilgrimage/into hermitage (with a tiny bit of commentary).

Harold’s survival is well recorded in Scandinavian sources – as I have noted elsewhere, Anglo-Saxon kings are known to frequent the pages of saga literature. Indeed, in our first account of Harold’s survival, we double-down on English kingship, as the text known as Játvarðar Saga is an account of the life of King Edward the Confessor. As a fourteenth-century text, the account is far removed from the events and, while it does provide some unique insights into the immediate post-Conquest world, its anonymous author is deeply influenced by hagiography. It is a text requiring deep scepticism.  But putting that aside and turning to the narrative, it is no surprise to find an account of Hastings and its immediate aftermath in its pages, Edward and Harold’s stories are deeply intertwined.

When William heard of the death of king Edward, and that Harold had let himself be chosen king in England, he raged at the thought Harold had broken his oath. Straightway he summoned all the chiefs he could get and a mighty host beside.  He made ready that force for England.  He came there just at the time when the two Harolds had fought (Stamford Bridge).  Then he began to harry the coast where he landed.  But when Harold, Godwin’s son, heard of William’s arrival in the south by Helsingport, and that either side had a very great host, his brother, Earl Gurth spoke to Harold, saying:

“I am fear that you would transgress in holding a battle against duke William for you are bound by oaths to him, and have sworn not to hold England against him.” 

King Harold answered, “It may be that you are better fitted to fight with William, but I have not been known to stand idle when other men have fought, and William the bastard shall not hear that I dare not look him in the face.” 

After that King Harold made them set up his banner before him and went out to against William, and there was the greatest battle, and it seemed long uncertain which side would win the victory.  But, as the fight went on, the loss of men turned on the English side, and a great host fell, and all fled who chose life.  There fell king Harold and his brother Gurth, but Valtheof their brother fled out of the fight.  William the bastard caused him to be burnt afterwards in a wood, and a hundred men with him. It is the story of Englishmen that in the night after the battle, some friends of king Harold fared to the battlefield and looked for his body, and found him alive, and bore him off to be healed;  he was cured in secret.  And when he was made whole, it was offered him by his friends to make war on William, and get the land whatever it cost.  But king Harold would not do that, stating he understood that God would not grant him the realm.  And perhaps it is better so.  Then the king took a better plan to give up this world’s honour, and went into a cell and was a hermit while he lived, so serving Almighty God unceasingly both night and day.

Remaining with obscure Scandinavian texts, the fascinating Hemings þáttr predates Játvarðar Saga by around a century. The þáttr follows the adventures of a fictitious Norwegian protagonist – a surprising hero for an Icelandic text – who finds himself entangled in events in England in 1066. (See this article by The Clerk of Oxford for greater detail on this text). This account is loaded with great detail, so I will select passages with a focus on Harold’s survival.

The night after King Haraldr Guðini’s son had fallen, then a certain peasant and his wife drove to where the dead lay to strip the dead and get themselves some wealth. They see there great heaps of dead. They see there a bright light. They discuss this together and say that there must be a saintly man there among the dead. They now begin to clear away the corpses from where they saw the light. They see a man’s arm lift up from among the corpses and there was a large gold ring on it. The peasant took hold of the hand and asked whether the man was alive.

He answers: ‘I am alive.’

The old woman spoke: ‘Clear off the corpses: I think this is the king.’

They lifted the man up and ask if it is possible for him to be healed. The king says: ‘I do not deny that I could be healed, but you cannot do it.’

The woman spoke: ‘We shall have a go.’

[Insert witty banter from the peasant fulfilling the archetype of the ‘trickster’ from saga literature. The full translation is available online from the Viking Society for Northern Research (see pages 43 – 45)].

The next day Hemingr comes to the king and there took place there a very joyful reunion. They talk together the whole of that day. Hemingr offers the king to go all over the country collecting an army together.

‘And you could soon get the kingdom back from Viljálmr [William].’

The king spoke: ‘I realise that this may be possible, but then too many will become perjurers. And I don’t want so much evil to happen on my account. Now I am going to follow the example of King Óláfr Tryggvason, who, after he was defeated off Vinðland, decided then not to return to his kingdom, but instead went out to Greece and there served God as long as he lived. Now I am going to have a hermit’s cell made for me in Kantarabyrgi [Canterbury], where I shall be able see King Viljálmr as often as possible in the church. And the only food I shall have is what you bring me.’

Hemingr agrees to this. The king gives the old man and his wife a suitable reward, and afterwards goes into a hermitage. He stays there for three years without anyone knowing who he is except Hemingr and the priest that confessed him.

Could the þáttr author have offered a better lead-in to the accounts of Olaf Tryggvason after Svolder? But we should pause for a moment on Harold. Firstly, to note the parallel stories. While Játvarðar Saga supplies less detail than Hemings þáttr, the core narrative – that Harold was found alive on the battle-field, was encouraged by his friends to contest the kingship, and chose hermitage instead – remains unchanged. Second is to note that, while the focus of this article is on Scandinavian texts, Harold’s survival is also attested in English sources such as Gerald of Wales’ Journey through Wales. Indeed, the Játvarðar Saga author is deliberate in informing us that he is drawing upon an English tradition, and we should presume that the Hemings þáttr author is similarly influenced by the English narrative.

Yet the Hemings þáttr author is clearly aware of the Scandinavian tradition of Olaf’s survival post-Svolder, presenting it as a known fact as opposed to reported rumour. Bearing in mind that the þáttr is intended as fiction, this assertion fits within the mould of the authorial style. Yet the rumours of Olaf’s survival are not restricted to fiction, and Snorri Sturluson reports it in his Heimskringla, though notably with a historian’s tone of scepticism and an acknowledgement that what he is reporting is hearsay:

But the cruiser of Vinðr that Ástríðr’s men were on rowed away and back off Vinðland, and there was already a report by many people that King Óláfr must have thrown off his coat of mail in the water and dived away from under the longships, afterwards swimming to the Vinðr’s cruiser, and that Ástríðr’s men had taken him ashore. And there have been many stories made since about these travels of King Óláfr’s by some people, though Hallfrøðr speaks of it in this way:

Whether the sater of seagulls

of the sound of the glow of Heiti’s

beast to laud living

or lifeless, I know not,

since both tales men tell me

as truth—the king is wounded

in either case—news of him

is always unreliable.

To briefly parse the skaldic verse, the first three lines are descriptors of Olaf as a heroic warrior which, when understood, renders the verse more simply as – Whether Olaf is living or dead I do not know, I have heard both recounted and news of him is always unreliable, though he is certainly wounded. As to the prose section in which Snorri posits that Olaf shrugged off his armour underwater, the logistical difficulties of removing any type of metal armour as it rapidly drags you toward the ocean floor barely need to be noted! It is a clear fabrication, and Snorri makes clear he is not quite comfortable with it. What makes that fact all the more clear is that, in writing his account of Olaf’s life in the Heimskringla, Snorri drew directly upon the twelfth-century text Óláfs saga Tryggvasonar of Oddr Snorrason, in which Olaf’s survival and subsequent adventures are extensively discussed, yet Snorri chose to ignored these accounts in his redaction. But we shall not!

However, before I get onto the tale, I should note the complicated nature of Oddr Snorrason’s text. The Latin original has not survived, and the extant Old Norse translation has significantly altered in transmission. For example, throughout its account of Svolder it refers to Snorri’s version of events in the Heimskringla – despite the fact the original text predated Snorri. So, it is difficult to say how closely the extant version of Óláfs saga Tryggvasonar resembles the original, and the tales I am about to relate may be later additions – once again, deep scepticism required!

Turning first to Svolder, while Snorri and others describe Olaf as committing suicide to avoid capture, Oddr describes quite a different scene:

The shower of weapons in the castle was so great that the shields of both King Olaf and Kolbiorn had the appearance of being covered with tassels, so pierced were they with missiles. And as the Earl’s men pressed into the hinder part of the ship to attack the castle, a great light seemed to spread over the King, so bright that no one could look upon it; and when the light passed off, King Olaf was nowhere to be seen.

Already we have stepped into a fictive space that places Olaf among legendary company, with parallels to be found in God’s intervention in the lives of saints and prophets, or even in Ovid’s account of the disappearance of Romulus, Rome’s founder. Any of these may have influenced the narrative, but let’s see what king of active afterlife Olaf enjoyed.

Olaf the humble in defeat (note the parallels to Harold – these are literary tropes)

After the battle, King Olaf was carried to Wendland … The King had received several wounds, all small, except two, which were somewhat serious … King Olaf stayed with Astrid, and was cured of his wounds; and during his stay with her he was recognised by many. Powerful persons offered to aid him in recovering his kingdom, but he declared that he would not fight against his god-relatives.

“I believe it to be God’s will,” he said, ” that they should now hold the realm of Norway; also, I am not without fear lest God has been displeased with my government.”

Olaf the humble pilgrim

Afterwards Olaf passed over-sea to Jerusalem, where he visited the Patriarch and the King of Jerusalem. They both received him with the highest honour, being greatly struck by his fine appearance, for they saw from his countenance that he was a man of high birth and noble disposition. When he told them that in his own country he had the title of King, they requested him to accept from them a large realm; but he refused their offer. Then they gave him two cities and three castles, which he accepted. Nevertheless he put on the habit of a monk.

Olaf the show-off

King Olaf Tryggvason had been five years absent from Norway when certain Englishmen visited Jerusalem. On their return to England they brought with them a book which Olaf Tryggvason had placed in their hands to give King Æthelred, and they presented it to the King with evident proofs of the truth of what they said. This book contained the Saga of King Olaf Tryggvason and six other sagas of holy men. It described clearly the manner in which King Olaf had escaped from the battle, and told of his subsequent journeys.

Oddr further provides many ‘eye-witness’ accounts of Olaf’s life after Svolder, clearly seeking to establish a evidential case for his survival, but I think we’ll leave it there.

The accounts I have provided of Harold and Olaf’s survival stories are by no means exhaustive. Indeed, Oddr Snorrason actually recounts Harold’s survival as well. However, it must be understood that we are dealing with a semi-hagiographical literary trope here, in which a dead but popular king (depending on audience), whose body lacks a known resting place, is seen to transform into a pious saint-like figure for their remaining life. It is clear fiction, but they are also enjoyable narratives that speak to a residual affection for these men.

-Matt Firth


  1. Feature image: The Bayeux Tapestry. hic Harold rex interfectus est – here king Harold was slain. Or was he? Yes, he was.
  2. ‘Edward’s Saga,’ in Icelandic Sagas, Volume 3, translated by George Webb Dasent, reprint, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2012 (1894), pp. 419 – 428. [English translation abridged by me].
  3. Anthony Faulks, trans., Hemings þáttr, Dundee: Thorisdal, 2016.
  4. Gerald of Wales. The Journey Through Wales and the Description of Wales. Edited and translated by Lewis Thorpe. London: Penguin Books, 1978.
  5. Oddr Snorrason, Óláfs saga Tryggvasonar, translated by J. Sephton, London: David Nutt, 1895.
  6. Snorri Sturluson, Óláfs saga Tryggvasonar,in Heimskringla, translated by Alison Finlay and Anthony Faulkes, 3 vols, vol.1, London: Viking Society for Northern Research, 2011 – 2014, 137 – 233.

 If you liked this post, follow this blog and/or read the following blog posts:

Danish Invasion, Viking Violence, and Cnut’s Mutilation of Hostages at Sandwich

Reading England in the Icelandic Sagas: Cultural Memory and Archaeology

Sweyn Forkbeard, Olaf Tryggvason, and the Kingship of Norway

Viking Identity & Christianity – The Performed Violence of Olaf Tryggvason 

See our bibliographies on the Viking World and Chronicles and Editions.

7 replies »

  1. You fail to mention the Vita Haroldi, the 12th century English account of Harold’s survival, attempts to recruit support overseas and eventual retirement to a hermitage in Chester? This is an extensive account, which goes into great detail as to the life of the king after Senlac.


    • Thanks for the comment Matt. The Vita Haroldi falls well outside the scope of this article as an Anglo-Latin hagiography. As noted in the title and throughout, here I am focusing on Scandinavian legends relating the survival of Harold at Hastings and Olaf at Svolder, with a particular interest in inter-cultural and inter-narrative exchange in saga and þáttr. Even within the Scandinavian corpus, this article is by no means a comprehensive survey of the texts relating Olaf and Harold’s survival.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.