Of the various methods Vikings employed to plant fear in the guts of their enemies, perhaps none would have been as visually striking as the raven banner–a sort of warcloth flown by many famous Norsemen, particularly during the 9th through 11th centuries. From surviving accounts and a few visual depictions such as the one at the center of the coin shown at left (minted in York in AD 924), such banners would have been triangular in shape, with a rounded outer edge from which tassels might have hung. Scholarly conjecture suggests the raven was meant to invoke the power of Odin, chief god of the Norse pantheon, who was often depicted in the company of his two helper ravens, Huginn and Muninn (from the Old Norse words for “thought” and “memory”). The Anglo-Saxons, perennial targets of Viking raids, would have been aware of the banners’ significance and likely thought they were infused with evil pagan powers.
The earliest surviving reference to such a banner appears in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle’s entry for the year AD 878, when a raven flag was taken from a Danish invader who landed in Wessex and was soon after slain. Referencing the very same incident, the Life of King Alfred (written by the Welsh monk Asser in 893) indicates the banner possessed magical properties whereby a victory would follow if the raven was seen to be flapping its wings, but a limp, motionless raven meant pending defeat. Presumably the day of this particular battle was not very windy… From the 11th-century Encomium Emmæ Reginæ, we learn that at the 1016 Battle of Ashington, Danish Vikings under King Cnut carried a banner woven of unadorned white silk upon which a flying, open-beaked raven would magically appear in victory but upon which a drooping raven would appear in times of defeat. Similar raven banners are described in a number of other early medieval accounts, but none captures the imagination quite so much as that of the 11th-century Norwegian King Harald Sigurdsson (later known better as Harald Hardrada)…
Harald’s banner was called Landøyðan (“Land-Waster” or “Land-Breaker”), and he fought victoriously under it for two decades. As for its possible origins, it has been suggested that it might have come into a young Harald’s possession when he was an officer in the Varangian Guard, an elite unit of the Byzantine Army, composed almost entirely of foreign-born soldiers (mostly Norsemen), who acted as personal bodyguards to the Byzantine Emperor. The Tagmata regiments formed the central part of the Empire’s army from the 8th through the 11th centuries, and each had its own regimental standard which it honored in much the way that the Roman legions had once honored the Aquila eagle standards. Smaller units (banda) within each Tagma also had their own banners (bandophorai), and it’s conceivable one such banner was in Harald’s possession when he eventually left his service with the Varangians to return to Norway and reclaim the kingship that had been wrested from his half-brother, Saint Olaf.
Several references to King Harald’s Land-Waster appear in the 13th-century Heimskringla, a collection of Old Norse kings’ sagas written by the Icelandic historian and poet Snorre Sturluson. In the saga devoted to King Harald, the Danish King Sveinn Forkbeard asks Harald at one point which of his possessions he valued most highly:
He answered, it was his banner Land-waster. Svein asked what was there remarkable about it, that he valued it so highly. Harald replied, it was a common saying that he must gain the victory before whom that banner is borne, and it had turned out so ever since he had owned it.
Saga of Harald Hardrada, section 22, in Snorre Sturlusun. Heimskringla. Trans. Samuel Laing (London, 1844).
Later, when King Harald invades England in 1066 on the eve of the Norman Conquest, the first organized resistance he meets is at the Battle of Fulford Gate. There he faces the armies of the brothers Edwin (Earl of Mercia) and Morcar (Earl of Northumbria), who must fight the Norse invaders without the bulk of the English strength, which is still being force-marched northward by the English King Harold Godwineson. The Heimskringla relates the battle as follows:
When King Harald saw that the English array had come to the ditch against him, he ordered the charge to be sounded, and urged on his men. He ordered the banner which was called the Land-ravager to be carried before him, and made so severe an assault that all had to give way before it; and there was a great loss among the men of the earls, and they soon broke into flight, some running up the river, some down, and the most leaping into the ditch, which was so filled with dead that the Norsemen could go dry-foot over the fen.
Ibid., section 88.
Unfortunately, after that, things take a decided turn for the worse for Harald, notwithstanding his repeated employment of the raven banner. The English King Harold arrives faster than expected, and the Norsemen are ambushed and annihilated at the Battle of Stamford Bridge. Many consider Harald Hardrada to have been the last great Viking warrior, and his death at the battle effectively marks the end of the Viking Age.
But what of Landøyðan? The most likely answer is that it was trampled into the bloody muck of the battlefield and lost. But this is not known with any degree of certainty, and the raven’s fate is not mentioned in any surviving accounts. One tempting theory, however, has been proposed by scholar John Marsden. To this day, at Dunvegan Castle on the Isle of Skye, there is displayed a cloth fragment known by the Gaelic name Am Bratach Sidhe (“The Fairy Flag”). This item has long been deemed the most prized possession of the Clan Macleod, who are said to have held the castle as their primary stronghold since the 14th century. Several different stories relate how the cloth came into the clan’s possession–everything from its being a gift from the fairy folk to its having been brought back from the Holy Land during the Crusades. But one bit of folklore surrounding the flag remains fairly consistent: it has the power to save the clan in times of danger and has twice been unfurled to lead the clan to victory on the field of battle. Sound familiar?
As unlikely as it might seem, there are a number of factors which suggest Am Bratach Sidhe could in fact be Harald Hardrada’s Landøyðan. Firstly, the Macleod ancestor–Leod himself–for whom the clan is named descended directly from the Norse kings of Man and the Isles through a woman named Helga “of the beautiful hair.” Helga’s brother was Godred Crovan who was known to have fought with the Norsemen at Stamford Bridge and to have been one of the few to survive the battle, enabling him to later found the royal house of Man. The 13th-century Chronicle of Man specifically references the Battle of Stamford Bridge and notes that Godred fled the rout there and escaped to Man. Could Godred have snatched up the raven banner from the mud and carried it off with him to present as a gift to his sister? Perhaps, in which case he would surely also have told her of its legendary powers.
Most telling of all, however, is the fact that modern forensic examination of the Fairy Flag has determined it to be made of silk dating back at least to the seventh century and having originated in either Rhodes or Syria–each of which supplied silk to the Byzantine Empire where Harald Hardrada spent nearly ten years of his life before becoming king.
For more on Landøyðan, its origins and possible fate, see Harald Hardrada: The Warrior’s Way. John Marsden (Phoenix Mill, UK: Sutton 2007), and on Viking raven banners generally see this excellent summary by the aptly named Viking Answer Lady.