Harold I

Harold I (ca. 840-933), the first king of Norway, reigned from 860 to 930. He became the ideal for unification at the time of his great-grandson Olaf I Tryggvason.

Harold Haarfarer ("Fairhair") was a catalyst in his day and place. On the death of his father, Halfdan the Black in 860, Harold succeeded to the sovereignty of several small and somewhat scattered kingdoms which had come into his father's hands through conquest and inheritance. After his father's accidental death by drowning, his mother's brother, Guthorm, held his father's enemies at bay.

Harold was a man of legends. His mother, Ragnhild, perceived his rise to power from a thorn. The daughter of a neighboring king induced Harold to take a vow not to cut or comb his hair until he was the sole ruler of Norway. Two years later he was justified in trimming it, and henceforth he was known as "Fairhair" rather than "Shockhead."

From his ancestral lands in southeast Norway, Harold began in 866 a series of conquests over the many petty kingdoms which Norway then comprised. A smashing victory in 872 at Hafrisfjord near Stavanger made him king of the entire country. That battle was one of the most decisive battles in medieval Scandinavian history. There Harold met enemies from Iceland, the Orkneys, Shetlands, Hebrides, and Faeroes and from Scotland who were aided by malcontents who opposed Harold's land taxes.

As Snorri Sturluson pointed out, Hafrisfjord did not make it possible for Harold to trim his hair with royal ease. Norway was not accustomed to one-man rule. When Harold gained power, he appropriated hereditary estates, and all farmers were taxed. He appointed a jarl in each shire (fylki) to administer law and justice and to collect fines, one-third reserved for the Crown.

Actually Harold's policies in some ways added to the power of the jarls. Landlords who supported him held their hereditary rights, and he used assemblies of the strong to confirm his position and his authority. Thus the power of the assembled congregations was enhanced. Wealthy in his own right, Harold adopted measures to strengthen coastal defenses by increasing ship service. During his reign the Scottish islands came under Norwegian rule.

The latter part of Harold's reign was troubled by strife among his sons, who numbered between 16 and 20. One, Haakon the Good, was fostered in England under Athelstan. To all Harold assigned titles, lands, and rights of governing in designated areas. Toward the end of his life, he bestowed supreme authority upon a child of his old age, Erik "Bloody Axe."

Harold was the greatest Viking warrior chief of the 9th century. He controlled trade and collected gifts from traders. He confiscated estates but recognized the rights of legislative assemblies. He withdrew support from the Vikings in Northumbria, England, and was the only heathen able to claim kingship of all Norway. Under him the old Viking civilization of the 9th century reached a climax. His ideal for a united Norway became imperishable.

Further Reading on Harold I

Accounts of Harold I are in Knut Gjerset, History of the Norwegian People (2 vols., 1915); Karen Larsen, A History of Norway (1948); and Gwyn Jones, A History of the Vikings (1968). A detailed but not always accurate treatment of him is in Snorri Sturluson, Heimskringla and Egils Saga.

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