Harald Hardrada and Elisiv of Kyiv

Elisiv of Kyiv

One of my favourite characters of the 1066 story is the Norwegian king Harald Hardrada. Harald led a fascinating life, even before his ill-fated attempt on the English throne; exiled in Kyiv at 15, while seeking his fortune in the east he became captain of the famous Varangian Guard before returning to his native Norway to become king.

When I started writing Silk and the Sword: The Women of the Norman Conquest I discovered that there were several Kyivan links to the story of 1066. The baby sons of England’s short-lived king, Edmund II Ironside, who reigned and died in 1016, were given sanctuary and protection in Kyiv, saving them from the clutches of Edmund’s successor, King Cnut. And after the Conquest, Harold II Godwinson’s own daughter, Gytha, would make her life in Kyiv as the wife of Vladimir II Monomakh; she was the mother of Mstislav the Great, the last ruler of a united Kyivan Rus. Vladimir was the nephew of Harald Hardrada’s first wife, the Russian princess, Elisiv.

Harald Hardrada’s story had been one of almost-constant conflict since he was a teenager. At the age of 15 he had fought alongside his half-brother, King Óláf, at the Battle of Stiklestad, in an unsuccessful attempt by Óláf to regain the throne. The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle recorded: ‘This year returned King Óláf into Norway; but the people gathered together against him, and fought against him; and he was there slain, in Norway, by his own people, and was afterwards canonized.’ [1]

Following Olaf’s death, Harald Hardrada first fled to Sweden before moving on to Kyivan Rus. Harald spent 3 or 4 years at the court of Yaroslav I (the Wise), Prince of Kyiv. Yaroslav was the husband of Óláf’s sister-in-law, Ingergerd (sister of Óláf’s wife, Queen Astrid). At only 15, Harald’s military skills were already impressive and Yaroslav made him a captain in his army; the young Norwegian fought alongside the Kyivan prince on his campaigns against the Poles in 1031.

Coin of Harald

Having gained a reputation that spread throughout eastern Europe, in 1034 or 1035, Harald and his force of 500 men moved on to Constantinople, where he joined the ranks of the Varangian Guard, in the service of the Byzantine emperor, Michael IV (reigned 1034–1041). A formidable warrior and commander, Harald eventually became leader of the whole Varangian guard, seeing action against Arab pirates, and the towns of Asia Minor that supported them. Throughout his adventures in Byzantium, Harald sent his plunder back to Prince Yaroslav in Kyiv; treasure which, given the number of towns he had taken, must have been quite considerable.

On the death of Michael IV Constantinople proved a less friendly place for the Scandinavian and after a brief imprisonment and daring escape from his cell, Hardrada decided that it was time to return home. It is said that the new empress, Zoe, refused him permission to leave, but the Norwegian managed to escape Constantinople with two ships and his most loyal supporters. One of the ships was destroyed by the iron chains which blocked the seagoing entrance and exit to Constantinople, but the other made it through by shifting the weight in the ship so acted like a seesaw and it effectively jumped over the chain.

Harald returned to his friend Yaroslav I in Kyiv, to whom he had sent his vast amounts of plunder. In 1044, whilst still at Yaroslav’s court, Harald married the Kyivan prince’s daughter, Elisiv (also known as Elisiff, Elizabeth or Elizaveta). Elisiv was born around 1025 and would probably have met Harald when he first appeared at her father’s court, in 1034-5; when she was 9 or 10 years old and he a 15-year-old fugitive from Cnut’s conquest of Norway. Elisiv was probably the oldest daughter of Yaroslav’s eleven children with his wife, Ingegerd. Through her mother, Elisiv was the granddaughter of Sweden’s king, Olof Skötkonung. Her father, Grand Prince Yaroslav, was responsible for the rise in power and influence of Kyiv in the 11th century; his court was considered modern and cultured.

Yaroslav’s children were well-educated and able to read and write, including the girls; Elisiv’s sister, Anna, who married King Henry I of France, demonstrated her superior level of education when she signed her marriage contract with her full name, in her own hand; King Henry, her new husband, could only manage to write a cross. Although we have no description of Elisiv, we know that Anna was renowned for her ‘exquisite beauty, literacy and wisdom’ and we can assume that Elisiv, having shared in her sister’s upbringing, was no less accomplished. [2]

It is possible that marriage between Harald and Elisiv had been discussed during the Norwegian’s first visit to Kyiv in 1035. However, given that she would have only been nine or ten years of age when Harald left for Constantinople, it seems hard to believe the claims that Elisiv had refused him on the grounds that he was not wealthy enough to marry her; her father, on the other hand, may well have done so. This may also explain Harald sending his plunder back to Kyiv for safekeeping, as proof of his increasing wealth and eligibility as a husband for Elisiv, even if he still held no princely title and was exiled from his homeland. In 1044, therefore, there was no financial objection to Harald and Elisiv marrying and there is evidence that Harald was genuinely in love with his Kyivan bride. Harald wrote poetry to his princess:

Past Sicily’s wide plains we flew,
A dauntless, never-wearied crew;
Our Viking steed rushed through the sea,
As Viking-like fast, fast sailed we.
Never, I think, along this shore
Did Norsemen ever sail before;
Yet to the Kyivan queen, I fear,
My gold-adorned, I am not dear. [3]

Contemporary image of Yaroslav the Wise, from his seal

With the treasure Harald amassed during his sojourn in Constantinople and Elisiv’s dowry, Harald now had the means to return home. He initially made for Sweden, arriving there in 1046. By the end of the year, he was co-king in Norway, under Magnus the Good, who left Harald to rule Norway while he concentrated on Denmark; the two kings had kept separate courts. Harald’s court in Norway was presided over by his queen, Elisiv. Within a few of years of arriving in Norway, the couple had two daughters, Ingegerd and Maria Haraldsdóttir. Ingergerd was probably born in 1046, with Maria arriving a year of two after.

Married life, however, was about to get more complicated, when Harald took a second wife, without setting aside Elisiv. 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.’ [4] 

It has been suggested that the marriage may have come following the death of Elisiv, or that Elisiv never even left Kyiv, but given that her daughters are believed to have been 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 Eystein Orre, who would have been her 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 the most prestigious, while the second was politically expedient. And it was this second marriage which gave Harald his sons; Magnus and Olaf, both later kings of Norway.

Battle of Fulford, 1066, taken from ‘The Life of Edward the Confessor’

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 it was 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.’ [5]

Battle of Stamford Bridge, 1066, taken from ‘The Life of Edward the Confessor’

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. Though this does not make sense, unless Maria had travelled to Riccal, where Harald moored his ships before marching to York, with the army and awaited the outcome of the battle with the ships; or the timing of her death has been altered for dramatic effect. Maria 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. She was first married to Olaf I, King of Denmark who died in 1095, with whom she had a daughter, Ulvhild. Following Olaf’s death, Ingegerd married Philip, King of Sweden. She was widowed again in 1118 and died around 1120, having been consecutively queen of Denmark and Sweden.

Of Harald’s queen, Elisiv, little is known after King Harald’s death, not even the year of her own death. This Kyivan princess, who captured the heart of one of the greatest Viking warriors of all time, just disappears into the mists of history.


[1] The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle translated by James Ingram; [2] Prominent Russians: Anna Yaroslavna (article), russiapedia.rt.com; [3] Quoted in Fulford: The Forgotten Battle of 1066 by Charles Jones; [4] Heimskringla. The Chronicle of the Kings of Norway, by Snorre Sturluson; [5] ibid.


Courtesy of Wikipedia


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 Conques tby 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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