Viking history has become more famous in modern culture due to how TV shows, movies, and books describe it in their stories.
Although several fictional stories take place in the Viking era, it’s essential to remember Vikings did exist, and most of the stories you are reading or watching are based on real-life stories. Unfortunately, historians often have trouble finding out what’s true and what’s not when researching Viking history.
The reason for this is most Viking stories are found in Old Norse poems that tell you the stories of legendary and semi-legendary kings and mythological creatures in the Viking lore. One of the most mysterious figures in Viking poems is King Harald Fairhair.
Some even doubt King Harald existed in the first place, and here, you can find more information about him and what we know about him. King Harald Fairhair was the first Norwegian king, so it’s essential to know what he did if you want to analyze and study Viking culture and stories more deeply.
Getting to Know King Harald “Goldbeard” Fairhair
Who was King Harald “Goldbeard” Fairhair? The first thing you need to know about him is he was the first Norwegian king and the one who unified Norway. He founded the Norwegian kingdom and the Fairhair dynasty when he started his reign in c 872 to end it in c 930.
While some poems disagree on the number of children he had, most say he had 10. Regardless of that, two of them took the throne after King Harald Fairhair died, and they were Eric Bloodaxe and Haakon the Good. The reason not many people know about this king and his stories is where people get the information from.
King Harald’s court poet Þorbjörn Hornklofi wrote several poems about the life of Harald Fairhair, but only a couple of them survived the passing of the years. Therefore, historians can only know the life of this king by reading the Kings’ Sagas and The Saga of Harald Fairhair.
Each poem describing the king mentions Harald Fairhair was a handsome man and a symbol of independence. Since Harald unified Norway into one nation, some call him the father of Norway. Harald Fairhair did that after winning the Battle of Hafrsfjord in ca. 870.
Others say he only unified Western Norway since his royal manors were mainly in Rogaland and Horlagand. Nonetheless, noble people administered other areas in Norway on the king’s behalf, so he technically did. It’s worth noting that Avaldsnes was Harald’s primary royal seat and headquarter.
As we mentioned before, the king’s children reigned in Norway after Harald’s supposed death, and they made the Harald Fairhair monarch the longest one in the history of Norway. Several historians call King Harald Fairhair the “king of kings” due to him being the founder of the first kingdom and royal dynasty in Norway.
After King Harald Fairhair died, everyone who reigned after him had to prove to everyone they had a direct and legitimate family tie to him before having the right to be on the throne. Naturally, anyone outside the Fairhair bloodline wasn’t able to be the King of Norway.
King Harald Fairhair was known for being a handsome man, and that’s something most sagas agree on when talking about him. Fairhair is often translated to Finehair, so some people refer to King Harald as King Harald Finehair instead of Finehair. The word “Finehair” was sometimes used in Norway as a synonym for fair-haired, which means he was blond.
Sagas describe Harald Finehair as a tall and strong person who cared a lot about local culture and loved to sail on Viking raids like many other Vikings did. Although he had a long dynasty, most people consider him a decent governor since he was generous and wise when making decisions.
There were several myths regarding the hair and beard of King Harald Finehair, and some even say that his beard and hair held a lot of power and strength. Thanks to that, historians often add “Goldbeard” to his name.
Other myths state that Harald Finehair didn’t always have that name. People knew him as Harald Tangle-Hair due to his long hair. The reason he didn’t comb or cut his hair was princess Gyda refused to marry Harald before he was king of Norway.
When that happened, Harald made a vow to not comb his hair until he could achieve that, so he trimmed his hair when he unified the whole region. That’s when people gave him the name “Fairhair.”
The Battle of Hafrsfjord
Although King Harald Fairhair had many followers, and many people believed in his goal of uniting Norway, not everyone wanted that, so he had to fight many battles to conquer new lands and merge them with his kingdom. The most important battle to unify Norway, and the one that made it possible, was the Battle of Hafrsfjord.
You need to understand several things about this fight to know how important it was and how Fairhair won it. As we mentioned before, he loved sailing on Viking raids, so he was used to naval battles. The Battle of Hafrsfjord was a naval battle, and that benefited King Harald a lot.
This battle was the largest one in the region up to that time, so it wasn’t an easy win. Harald had control over many Norwegian lands, but the Danish king of that time had a significant eastern portion of Norway, and he was one of Harald’s primary opponents.
There’s not an exact date that the sagas take as the start of the battle, but it’s said that it was between the years 870 and 900, although they didn’t have a Christian calendar at that time.
Despite King Harald winning that fight, some of his defeated opponents still managed to escape to Iceland.
Wealthy Norwegians from Iceland and Scotland didn’t like the idea of unifying Norway, but king Harald succeeded at the end of the day. Therefore, he didn’t have any problems merging petty kingdoms with his own.
King Harald’s supposed death is said to happen when he was 80 years old, so you could say he died of old age. However, sagas don’t say anything about how he died, so it’s difficult to tell if there’s another reason or specific disease that killed him.
Regardless of that, historians agree he died in Rogaland, Norway.
Is King Harald Finehair Based on Harald Fairhair?
Viking culture is famous worldwide due to how exciting it is and how unreal its stories seem compared to the world we live in now. There are several movies, TV shows, and book adaptations taking place in the Viking era and using its stories to create new fictional ones.
The most popular Viking-era adaptation is Netflix’s Vikings, and it’s still one of the most popular TV shows out there. Thanks to this TV show, many people have become interested in Harald and Viking culture. Since one of its main characters is named King Harald Finehair, some ask themselves if he is based on the real Harald Fairhair.
Answering this question: Yes, King Harald Finehair from Netflix’s Vikings is based on the Harald Fairhair we are talking about on this page. Naturally, Vikings’ King Harald Finehair has a different story from the real one to adapt to the TV show’s fictional version.
Regardless of that, it’s mesmerizing to see how much show runners studied the Viking culture to create each character. You can see that in King Finehair. His character shows many things that let you know it’s inspired by king Harald.
Here, you can see King Harald Finehair interact with different characters such as king Olaf, king Alfred, Ragnar Lothbrok, and Bjorn Ironside. However, it’s yet to be confirmed if other Norwegian kings such as king Olaf are based on real people like from the Viking era king Harald Finehair or only fictional characters made for the show.
Regarding the Vikings show, it’s worth noting Harald died differently from how he died in real life since, in the show, he died stabbed by another character, while most historians say Fairhair died from old age when he was 80 years old.
Did Harald FairHair Exist?
After reading everything you read on this page before getting to this part, it may seem odd to ask if Harald existed since we’ve been talking about him as a real person. The reason for that is that although many historians say Fairhair was the first king of Norway, some others say he never existed.
The reason for this is the only source we historians have to believe Fairhair existed is the Kings’ Sagas, and many of them say different things about who king Harald was and how he lived his life. Some of them don’t even mention him at all.
Poems that don’t mention Harald Fairhair often include people that represent the figure Harald was, but they have different names, so it’s hard to tell if they are talking about him. Some even say Norwegians made Harald Fairhair up to support Norwegian kings who agreed with unifying Norway into one nation.
Some historians don’t believe Fairhair was the first king of Norway who unified the whole region but see him as the counterpart of King Arthur in British histography. Many sagas talk about a king named Haraldr Lufa who fought in the Battle of Hafrsfjord.
Poems Describing King Harald’s Life
When we say people only have information about King Harald’s life from poems and sagas, it’s important you know there are many of those. Those poems don’t often follow the same storyline since they come from independent authors talking about Viking history, which is also one of the reasons people don’t think he existed in the first place.
Therefore, many people studying Harald’s life read all the sagas they can find and connect the dots in all the stories that mention Harald. It’s also helpful to see which people could represent Harald in stories that don’t name him.
You can learn a lot about Harald’s life from the Saga of Harald Fairhair by Snorri Sturluson. He was an Icelandic historian and poet who wrote several sagas about Vikings. This saga has 44 chapters that start with the early life of Harald and end with him giving the throne to his son Eirik Bloodaxe.
Regardless of that, Snorri didn’t make a saga describing the life of Eirik Bloodaxe, but we can know from him in Harald’s saga and the following one that shows the life of his half-brother Haakon the Good.
These are the different sagas that mention or talk about the history of King Harald:
- Ágrip af Nóregskonungasögum
- Historia Norwegiæ
- Egil’s Saga
- Grettis Saga
- Saga of Ragnar Lodbrok
- Ragnarssona þáttr
- Flóamanna Saga
- Vatnsdæla Saga
- Orkneyinga Saga
Studying the Viking culture is one of the most interesting things in the world, but it’s also a complex thing to do due to all the information you need to process.
Therefore, we understand if you have some questions about who Harald was and the things you just read on this page. These are some of the most frequently asked questions about Vikings and King Harald Finehair:
How Many Children Did Harald Fairhair Have?
This is a tricky question since you could get a different answer depending on the sources you follow.
Some historians state he only had 10 or nine heirs while others tell you he had 20 of them. It’s not difficult to believe he could have had 20 children since that wasn’t uncommon for people by that time.
Regardless of how many children he had, what most people agree on is only two of his heirs could become kings after him, so they were the most relevant ones to Viking history. We are talking about Eirik Bloodaxe and Hakon the Good.
Harald Fairhair had different children with all his wives, and princess Gyda was one of them since she married him after he became king of Norway.
What Happened After Harald Fairhair Died?
As we mentioned before, there’s not a lot of information regarding king Harald’s death or what happened to Norway after his death, so you could guess things went out smoothly when that happened.
Since he had already given the throne to one of his sons, Norway already had a new king when he died, and the other brother started reigning the region after Bloodaxe. The Fairhair dynasty was already a thing, so people respected and saw anyone from the Fairhair bloodline as the royal family.
What Are the Most Popular Adaptations of Harald Fairhair?
Although Netflix’s Vikings is the most popular TV show adaptation of Fairhair, it’s not the only one, and others have excellent quality, too. Regarding videogames, the most famous one is Assassin’s Creed: Valhalla, where he is one of the side characters. Mount and Blade is also a decent option but a less known one.
If you are looking for movies, there’s a recent option available for you out there. We are talking about The Northman, which just came out a few months ago. Northmen: A Viking Saga also mentioned King Harald, but he is not that relevant to the story.
Where Did Harald Fairhair Use to Live?
Although Harald was King of Norway and had control over all the region, it was odd for him to visit each part of it since he had different people administering those areas for him. Apart from that, he loved to go out on Viking raids, so he was often out looking for new lands to conquer.
Regardless of that, he took Avaldsnes as his main royal seat and said it was Norway’s oldest royal seat. Thus, when he wasn’t on a Viking raid or addressing anything specific on another place, he used to live in Avaldsnes.
Are Viking Sagas Reliable?
Everything depends on how you see it and how you perceive Viking sagas. These sagas were mostly written by Icelanders and their exact Old Norse translation is “a thing that is said.” Therefore, the ones who wrote them heard those tales from other people and then told the world about them.
Viking sagas are the closest thing we have to the Viking culture and recreating the real history behind everything that happened by that time.
In a nutshell, you can either choose to believe Viking sagas or not, but they are still one of our only sources of information on the matter.
Viking history is filled with the most interesting characters and tales you can think of, and learning about each of them helps you understand a lot about how things were by that time and how much our culture has changed with the passing of years.
Regardless of whether he existed or not, the figure of King Harald is one of the most important ones in Viking culture, and you need to know him if you want to study or talk about Vikings.
You can read more from this page if you want to learn more about Vikings and what they used to do!