Thora, Harald Hardrada’s Other Wife

Coin of Harald Hardrada

The legend of Harald Hardrada, King Harald III of Norway, is one of my favourite stories of the 11th century. It is the tale of a warrior king, probably the best fighter of his generation, a poet and a lover. Harald’s marriage to his first wife, Elisiv of Kiev, is the stuff legends are made of; a landless prince making his fortune in Byzantium before returning to claim his bride and winning a crown. And they lived happily ever after …. or not!

Elisiv gave Harald 2 daughters, Ingegerd and Maria, but no sons. It may, therefore, have been a desire for sons that led Harald to take a second wife, although without setting aside his first. According to Snorri Sturluson, in the ‘winter after King Magnus the Good died, King Harald took Thora, daughter of Thorberg Arnason, and they had two sons; the oldest called Magnus, and the other Olaf.’ [1]

Thora (or Tora) was the daughter of Thorberg Arnason and Ragnhild Erlingsdottir and was born around 1025; her kinsman, Fin Arnason, was a good friend of Harald’s and was married to Bergliot, the daughter of Halfdan, a brother of Harald Hardrada and Saint Olaf.  The marriage also provided the desired son and heir, which his first marriage had failed to do; both of Thora’s sons would later become kings of Norway. Magnus succeeded his father in 1066, and was in 1069 succeeded by his brother, Olaf III, who had ruled alongside Magnus since 1067.

Gerhard Munthe: illustration for Olav Kyrres saga in Heimskringla (1899)

Harald probably went through some form of marriage ceremony, more likely a handfasting than a Christian marriage, with Thora in 1048. The marriage appears to have been a political arrangement, in order to garner the support of the powerful Giskeӕtten family, the chiefs of which played a significant role in power politics.

Of Harald’s two sons, Magnus, who succeeded his father in 1066, appears to have been as warlike as Harald. In 1058, aged no more than ten or eleven, he led a fleet to England in support of Earl Ӕlfgar of Mercia, after the earl had been outlawed only a year after he had succeeded to his father’s earldom. Magnus was probably little more than a figurehead for the expedition and unlikely to have been expected to make crucial military decisions, but it would have been good experience for the young prince, and a taste of what the future held for him. By the time he was sixteen, Magnus was a successful warrior and is said to have clashed with his father; the two almost coming to blows until the king was restrained by friends.

Coin dating to the reign of King Olaf Kyrre

It has been suggested that the marriage may have come following the death of Elisiv, or that Elisiv never even left Russia, but given that her daughters were born once Harald was back in Scandinavia, this seems improbable. Harald’s daughters are not likely to have been the daughters of Thora, as Maria was engaged to Thora’s brother, Eystein Orre; who would have been Maria’s uncle, had she been Thora’s daughter. Harald having two wives, simultaneously, seems the most likely explanation. As demonstrated by King Cnut and King Harold II of England, two wives and, therefore, two families, were not uncommon in Scandinavian culture; although in these two other cases an earlier wife was put aside for the sake of a more prestigious marriage, whereas Harald Hardrada’s first marriage was by far the more prestigious, while the second was politically expedient.

Thora was the kinswoman of Harald’s one-time friend, Fin Arnason, who was captured fighting for the Danes against Harald. When Fin refused Harald’s offer of quarter (life), Harald made a further offer:

‘“Wilt thou accept thy life, then, from thy she-relation Thorer [Thora]?”

The earl: “Is she here?”

“She is here, ” said the king.

Then Earl Fin broke out with the ugly expressions which since have been preserved, as a proof that he was so mad with rage that he could not govern his tongue: —

“No wonder thou hast bit so strongly, if the mare was with thee.”

Earl Fin got life and quarter and the king kept him a while about him…’

Heimskringla. The Chronicle of the Kings of Norway, by Snorre Sturluson.
Harald landing near York, 1066 (Matthew Paris)

At the beginning of September, 1066, Harald sailed his fleet of over 200 ships to Shetland and then to Orkney, where he gathered reinforcements and left his wife and daughters to await news of events. There is some confusion as to which wife was left on Orkney, some sources say Elisiv, who, as Harald’s wife and queen would have expected to become queen of England, had he been successful. Some historians argue that as Thora was a relative of the Earl of Orkney she would have been more likely to travel with Harald than Elisiv.

We know from Thora’s joining one of Harald’s expeditions to Denmark, that he was not averse to taking his wives with him to war. However, given that young Magnus was left behind to rule Norway, aged only sixteen, it seems likely that his mother was also left behind, to advise him. According to Snorri;

‘Thora, the daughter of Thorberg, also remained behind; but he took with him Queen Ellisif [Elisiv] and her two daughters, Maria and Ingegerd. Olaf, King Harald’s son, also accompanied his father abroad.’

Heimskringla. The Chronicle of the Kings of Norway, by Snorre Sturluson.

Harald fought two battles outside York. The first, the Battle of Fulford, on 20 September, against the brothers, Edwin, Earl of Mercia, and Morcar, Earl of Northumberland, ended in victory for Harald Hardrada and his ally, Tostig, the former earl of Northumberland and brother of the new King of England, Harold II. However, a second battle at Stamford Bridge, five days later, saw victory go to the English. Harold II had marched his men the 200 miles from the south coast to York, in less than 4 days, and confronted his brother and the Norwegian king on 25 September. At the end of the day, Harald Hardrada and Tostig both lay dead on the field.

Battle of Stamford Bridge, 1066 (Matthew Paris)

Harald and Elisiv’s daughter, Maria, is said to have died suddenly on 25 September 1066, the same day as the Battle of Stamford Bridge, on hearing of her father’s death. She had been betrothed to Eystein Orre, the brother of Harald’s second wife, Thora; Eystein was also among the dead at Stamford Bridge. Maria’s sister, Ingegerd, returned to Norway with her mother and half-brother. Olaf had traveled with the Norwegian army, but had not taken part in the battle, having been left to guard the ships at Riccal, near York. After the English victory, he was allowed to claim his father’s body and take the survivors home.

After Harald’s death, Norway was ruled successively by Harald’s sons Magnus II and Olaf III. Olaf III ruled until his death in 1093 and was succeeded by Magnus III, his acknowledged but illegitimate son.

Of Thora’s fate, little is certain. She may have remarried, although there is some confusion. According to Adam of Bremen, she married either King Swein of Denmark or an unknown Swedish king. [2] As with much of her life, the year of Thora’s death remains unknown.

Footnotes:

[1] Heimskringla. The Chronicle of the Kings of Norway, by Snorre Sturluson; [2] Fulford: The Forgotten Battle of 1066 by Charles Jones.

Pictures:

Courtesy of Wikipedia

Sources:

The English and the Norman Conquest by Dr Ann Williams; Brewer’s British Royalty by David Williamson; Britain’s Royal Families, the Complete Genealogy by Alison Weir; The Wordsworth Dictionary of British History by JP Kenyon; The Norman Conquestby Marc Morris; Harold, the King Who Fell at Hastings by Peter Rex; The Anglo-Saxons in 100 Facts by Martin Wall; The Anglo-Saxon Age by Martin Wall; Kings, Queens, Bones and Bastards by David Hilliam; The Mammoth Book of British kings & Queens by Mike Ashley; The Oxford Companion to British History Edited by John Cannon; The Anglo-Saxon Chronicles translated and edited by Michael Swaton; The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle translated by James Ingram; Queen Emma and the Vikings by Harriett O’Brien; The Bayeux Tapestry by Carola Hicks; On the Spindle Side: the Kinswomen of Earl Godwin of Wessex by Ann Williams; oxforddnb.com.

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5 thoughts on “Thora, Harald Hardrada’s Other Wife

  1. justhistoryposts 01/02/2020 / 09:11

    This is so interesting! I knew nothing about his family so was great to learn.

    Like

  2. sylvia wright 01/02/2020 / 11:25

    Very very interesting. Thank you.

    Like

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