Saturday, March 11, 2017

Who was King Harald Finehair?

Depiction of King Harald Finehair in his later yearsHarald Harfagre or Harald Finehair, an elusive leader that said to have unified Norway under his rule.

Name: Harald Finehair/Fairhair
Country: Norway
Position: King of Norway
Tenure: c. 885/890 - 932
  • Unified most of Norway
  • Inspired future Norwegian Viking leaders of a united Norway
  • Prompted many to leave Norway and colonize nearby lands

Problems Defining Harald

Harald Finehair’s life mostly came from sagas that were more of literature rather than historical records. As a result, there exist a difficulty in defining the real and the myth in the life of this Norwegian King. Snorri Sturluson wrote in 1230 the Saga of Harald Harfagre or Finehair as a part for his Heimskringla. The Fagrskinna on the other hand offered another account of King Harald Finehair. Sturluson himself used the Fagrskinna as a source for his work.

Early Life of King Harald

According to the Saga of Harald Harfagre, Harald descended from the Yngling Family, an old Norwegian ruling family shrouded in mystery and legend, claiming to have been link to the mythological Norse God Ing or Frey.

The family ruled a kingdom in the central and southern lands of Norway called Vestfold and Harald, only 10 years old, succeeded his father as king. The Fagrskinna described Harald by the time he rose up as King.
“He had a luxuriant growth of hair of wonderful color, most like beautiful silk in appearance. He was the handsomest and strongest of all men…. He was a man of great wisdom, far-sighted and ambitious.”

Harald was described as a generous leader, giving his warriors gold, women slaves, weapons, and other fine goods. This generosity earned him the loyalty of his warriors and chiefs or earls (jarls). 

His kingdom then was only one among numerous kingdoms across modern day Norway. Most of the kingdoms centered either in coastal areas or river valleys. Much of the kingdoms were made up of smaller communities led by earls. These kingdoms either raid Europe or fought each other for land and resources. This Norway greeted Harald in his ascension.

Few years into his reign, Harald began to pursue the expansion of his dominion, either through conquest or diplomacy.  He offered earls to retain their lands and wealth in exchange for their recognition of him as their overlord, otherwise, he waged war. As a result, Harald rose up as one of the most powerful petty kings in Norway.

Unification Campaign

According to Harald Harfagre Saga, Harald’s conquest for the unification of Norway began with a marriage proposal. He asked for the hand in marriage of Princess Gyda of Hordaland. He thought his previous achievements would be admired by the Princess enough to give into his proposal immediately. He was disappointed. The Princess rejected his proposal as she would only be married to the King of a united Norway. Unfazed, the rejection determined Harald to launch a war of unification for his most aspired princess. He also promised he would never cut or comb his hair as long as he have not succeeded to unify Norway, thus earning the epithet Shock Head.
Harald HÃ¥rfagre i slaget ved Hafrsfjord
 by Ole Peter Hansen Balling 
For the next decade, Harald fought battle after battle to subdue kings and earls into his will. Finally, around the year 885 and 890, Harald faced his greatest and most decisive battle of his unification campaign in Hafrsfjordr. A coalition formed by King Eirik of Hordaland, King Sulke of Rogaland, King Kjotve the Rich of Agder and the brothers Hroald Hryg and Had the Hard from Thelemark stood against Harald and his quest to be the King of a united Norway. Harald triumphed over this large coalition and in effect, unified Norway under his rule. Nevertheless, some earls and petty kings in the north continued to resist.

His victory and success in unifying Norway earned Harald the achievement of becoming the first King of Norway and receiving the approval of Princess Gyda in marriage. She became one of the women in Harald’s long list of wives and concubines. His victory also meant an end to another vow, he was then free to cut his hair and Rognvald Eysteinsson, Earl of More, did the honor cutting Harald’s hair. And so Harald’s epithet changed from Harald the Shock Hair and Mop Hair to Harald Finehair.

King of Norway

With all of the Norwegian kingdoms united under Harald’s rule, he then instituted a massive land and local administrative reform. Even during the war of unification, Harald already instituted these reforms. He took over all privately held lands and ordered payment of land taxes. This act led many to call Harald as a tyrant and fled Norway to seek new fertile lands in different places like Hebrides, Orkney, Shetland, and Iceland.

He also made Earls to serve as a judge, tax collector, and administrator for each communities. Earls received a third part of the dues and fines they collected to serve as their salary. As a result of this lucrative position, many sought the favor of King Harald. 

Relations with King Athelstan

According to the Fagrskinna, King Athelstan of England sent King Harald a fine sword, decorated with gold, silver, and precious stones. The gift, however, sent not as a sign of goodwill, but rather a “mockery” implying Harald’s submission to Athelstan’s influence. Harald was infuriated, but his counselors calmed him down and they decided to retaliate with same insult.

Harald sent his son Hakon (the Good) to England along with an emissary to Athelstan himself. When the emissary arrived, he placed Hakon covered in a cloak in the knees of the King. He then took off the cloak and revealed Hakon, who he introduced as son of Harald to a slave. He then stated Hakon was to be Athelstan’s ward and finally stating “the man who brings up another’s child is of lower status.”

End of Harald’s Reign

Harald's reign, however, ended in disaster. By fostering numerous wives and concubines, the offspring of these relations contended for the throne. The rivalry went so violent that Harald unfortunately divided the lands of his domain among his sons. When he passed away about the year 932, civil war erupted, plunging Norway once again into violent divide.


Harald’s unification of Norway was short lived yet profound. His policies of consolidation, specifically on land ownership, drove the colonization of many lands by Norwegian Vikings. Although Norway disintegrated after he passed away, his achievements served as a benchmark for succeeding Norwegian Kings. He became an inspiration for many rulers who later claimed their ancestry to him to cement their rights to rule a unified Norway.

See also:



Finlay, Alison. Fagrskinna, A Catalogue of the Kings of Norway: A Translation with Introduction and Notes. Leiden, The Netherlands: Brill, 2004.

Helle, Knut (Ed.). The Cambridge History of Scandinavia Volume 1: Prehistory to 1520. New York, New York: Cambridge University Press, 2003.


Carrol, Joseph. “Harald I Fairhair Halfdanarson of Norway.” In The Rise of the Medieval World, 500 – 1300: A Biographical Dictionary. Edited by Jana K. Schulman. Westport, Connecticut: Greenwood Press, 2002.


“Harald Harfager’s Saga.”  In the New Northvegr Center. Accessed on February 4, 2017. URL:

Carlyle, Thomas. “Early Kings of Norway.” In Project Gutenberg. Accessed on February 10, 2017. URL:

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