National Geographic : 1970 Apr
The old gods fade. Gathered at the Althing in the year 1000, Icelanders debate whether to abandon Norse deities in favor of Christ's Cross. Conflict looms. Then a leader forces compromise: The island will adopt the new religion, but families may keep some pagan ways in private. The crucifix at left -oldest found in Sweden-dates from about 900. It was unearthed from a woman's grave at Birka. By the end of the 1lth century, Norse power waned and the Vikings aban doned their bloodstained web of conquest. KODACHROME© N.G.S.; CRUCIFIX,STATEHISTORICALMUSEUM,STOCKHOLM In Byzantium Harald joined the Varangian Guard and eventually became its commander. For 10 years he wielded sword and battle-ax for the empire, campaigning from the Greek islands to Asia Minor, from the Caucasus Moun tains to the golden walls of Jerusalem. In the process, he accumulated incredible booty. A fearsome figure, Harald towered well above six feet. His saga reports him as fair of hair and beard, but "one of his eyebrows was slightly higher than the other." In 1044 Harald sailed back to Kiev and found that his immense wealth had convinced Yaroslav of his merits. With Yelisaveta as his bride, Harald then returned to Norway. The combined thrust of his personality and his gold brought him the crown in 1047. His 19-year reign fully justified the cognomen Hardraa da. Byzantium had left Harald with a taste for autocracy, and within his kingdom he ruthlessly suppressed all op position. Any potential claimant to power he caused to "kiss the thin lips of the ax." On his longship Dragon, Harald bore his banner Land Waster through Scandinavia, harrying, looting, destroy ing. A contemporary, Adam of Bremen, called him the "Thunderbolt of the North." Still, amid the carnage, the king found time to explore "the expanse of the Northern Ocean in his ships." HEN, IN 1066, his misaligned gaze turned to the greatest prize of all-England. At the death of Ed ward the Confessor, Earl Harold Godwinson had seized the English scepter. But William of Normandy had a claim to the throne; so did Harald of Norway. Both acted. And in the autumn of that year, within the space of three weeks, these three protagonists, Harald Hardraada, the archetypal Viking, Harold Godwinson, himself of half Viking ancestry, and William of Normandy, descendant of Vikings, fought two battles that determined the fate not only of England but of all Europe. Harald Hardraada struck first. Accompanied by Harold of England's disaffected brother, Earl Tostig, he led 300 ships down the coast of Northumbria. The Norse army disembarked at Riccall, gained victory in a sharp battle, and entered York unopposed. Then, unaccountably and completely, victory-luck ran 538 PAINTINGBYTOMLOVELL© N.G.5 .