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  • That Was Genius Team

Episode 126 - Naked Swingball at the Gates of Hell (Security Week)

Tom's Notes:


I have a tendency to fall back upon certain periods in history – done it again! British Middle Ages this week. I’m talking about Harald Hardrada, aka Harald the Ruthless, aka Harold III Sigurdsson. Why? Well I didn’t know this when I started researching for this topic, but Harald Hardrada, who is most well known for being a claimant to the English throne in 1066, was actually a commander of the Varangian Guard – one of Sam’s favourite things ever. This subsequently fits in with the topic of security because the Varangian Guard were the personal bodyguards of the Byzantine Emperors from the time of Basil II, 988 in fact. Although it’s worth pointing out that when Hardrada was commanding them, they were doing a lot less bodyguarding, and a lot more fighting on foreign soil. The Varangian Guard was originally composed of elite soldiers from the Kievan Rus; a kingdom which, for want of a detailed description, that was located in a big chunk of land north of the Black Sea. It soon became dominated by Scandinavians, DANISH VOICE “Ooh hello, we have come here to fight, and listen to ABBA, and eat herring, and build cycle paths,” then after the Norman Conquest there were a larger number of Anglo Saxons, AMERICAN COCKNEY “Corr blimey good sir! We’re here to have a bloody good dust-up, I’ve brought my chimney sweep brush, lots of tea and some jellied eels! Have you got a piano? I feel like singing! Knees up mother brown!” That accent was brought to you by an American actor.

Harald Hardrada was born in 1015 in Norway, he fought at the Battle of Stiklestad in 1030, at the age of 15! That’ll toughen you up! None of this GCSEs crap! No working part time in the local chemist. Oh no no no… Incidentally this is a very famous battle in Norway. To summarise, King Olaf II of Norway fought forces loyal to King Canute, King of England, Denmark and Norway at this point. Olaf was killed and later made a saint. After the battle Hardrada fled to the Kievan Rus, where he served under Yaroslav the Wise, the Grand Prince of Kiev. I think Yaroslav chose his own titles. “I like the word ‘galactic’ too, can we include this? Yarsolav the Wise and Big-Nobbed, Grand Prince of Kiev, and Supreme Commander of the Galactic Forces of Mars.” Incidentally, Yaroslav’s name, in the Viking Saga I am about to introduce, is Jarizleifr, which reads very much like Jalfrezi. King Jalfrezi the Spicy, Grand Price of Curry, and Supreme Commander of the Galactic Nans of Lime-Pickle.

After spending some time with King Ring Sting, Hardrada ended up in Byzantium serving in the Varangian Guard under Emperor Michael IV. It didn’t take him long to become the commander of this elite unit. Now to introduce the Harald Sigurdsson Saga, part of a wider collection of Sagas of Kings written probably by old Snorri Sturluson, nope, that isn’t one of these odd medieval names, Snorri is spelt SNORRI, it isn’t to highlight that he had sleep apnoea.

There’s a lovely section in this saga that describes Hardrada’s time commanding the Varangian Guard. It’s essentially four successful attempts to capture cities in Sicily and possibly North Africa, and they’ll are quite silly and read like the exaggerated, peacocking boasts of a slightly drunk rugby player.

The first is a classic, it’s the oldest trick in the book. Hardrada is besieging a city, the city is well stocked with food and things don’t look too good for the besiegers. So what do they do? They set alight to some birds. Hardrada’s men captured a load of small birds that nested in the city, covered them in PVA glue from the local craft shop, smothered them in pine needles, waited 24 hours for that to dry, then poured wax and sulphur on them, be careful kids, get your parents to help with this bit, then the bird were lit. Obviously they flew home and set the city ablaze. Now that’s a Big Art Attack!

Hardrada’s second siege was, like the first, going nowhere. So Hardrada used another cunning ruse. His men dug hole under the city walls along the course of a gully. They managed to do this in complete secrecy whilst still engaging those who defend the city in more conventional ways (you know, catapulting cows, pea shooters with chewed up paper, spud guns, knock, knock run – psychological warfare, setting alight to a paper bag with a turd in it etc.). When the tunnel was long enough, Hardrada sent his men first thing in the morning into the tunnel. They dug upwards at the tunnel’s furthest point, came up against stone, removed the stone and would you believe it, they were in the main hall where people were drinking (quite why they were drinking at sunrise is beyond me, I also feel that halls should probably have stronger foundations that this). Regardless, Hardrada and his men popped up with a huzzah! We’ve got you!

Moving onto the third siege, again Hardrada was having no luck. The inhabitants were standing on the parapets taunting them. “I fart in your general direction. Your mother was a hamster, and your father smelt of elderberries.” Not really, less Monty Python and more “come on then if you think you’re hard enough you bunch of flat-pack Scandies! Piss of back to your fjords, and take your herring with you!” These taunters were trying to get Hardrada’s men to bite the bait and assault the fortifications. So, Hardrada told his men not to be so silly, but instead, to go as far as they could without getting into the range of ballistics, and then show the inhabitants of the city that you don’t give a monkey’s. Just play swingball in your pants, juggle poodles on a unicycle, set up a slip and slide, snort granola and smear yoghurt over your nipples, all whilst listening to peculiar medieval heavy metal. This weird behaviour continued for a few days until the inhabitants of the city left their gates open, daring Hardrada’s men to have a go. Hardrada took the bait and sent his men in. There was a battle which Hardrada’s men eventually won, and the city was taken.

And the fourth one! Hardrada was leading the Varangian Guard to take an even bigger city. This time, during the siege, Hardrada fell ill, very ill. His men started to believe that he was going to die so they invited the clerics of the city to take the body. The gullible idiots apparently put Hardrada in a coffin, and then took him into the city to be buried. There was a funeral procession through the gates of the city, then when the Varangians felt that the time was right, one of them blew a horn and they all drew the weapons that they had secretly been hiding. Bish, bash, bosh, the city was taken. Meanwhile, Hardrada was just chilling in his coffin, pretty damn sick but not quite dead and wondering what the fuck was going on.

The Saga then tells us about Hardrada fighting in Palestine, then going on pilgrimage to Jerusalem, then in around 1042 Hardrada left the Varangian Guard. The Saga tells us that Empress Zoe took a fancy to him, Emperor Constantine IX was unhappy and imprisoned Hardrada. Hardrada escaped his dungeon with some divine help, then found the men of the Varangian Guard. Together they found the Emperor and blinded him before Hardrada escaped back to Norway with a considerable amount of wealth, largely accumulated through looting. This is at least how it reads in the saga, there is a legend that Hadrada actually blinded and castrated Emperor Michael V, who came along after Constantine IX. Anyway, it probably doesn’t matter. Empress Zoe is an interesting character; she seemed to be willing to bonk anyone to get ahead. She hooked up with 3 Byzantine Emperors in succession. Michael V was the one who didn’t hook up with her. He in fact had her exiled, but was subsequently dethroned by a mob and exiled. Possibly blinded and castrated by Harald Hardrada.

Anyway, Hardrada returned to Norway, became King, eventually invaded England as a claimant to the throne. Was defeated and killed at the Battle of Stamford Bridge in 1066 by the Anglo-Saxon King Harold Godwinson, who was then killed at the Battle of Hastings later in the year. Norman Conquest and all that. The Viking Period is often thought to have ended with Hardrada’s death. I’ve very concisely summarised this bit of Hardrada’s life because it wasn’t relevant to his time in the Varangian Guard!

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