Normans – Varangian Guard

Varangian Guard was an elite Byzantine imperial bodyguard unit, consiting of Varangians – Swedish Norse, inhabiting Rus,  in some cases Anglo-Saxons (after conquest of Brittain by Normans) and Slavs (rarely). The guard was first formed under Emperor Basil II in 988, following the Christianization of Kievan Rus’ by Vladimir I of Kiev. Vladimir sent 6000 men as a part of a tribute to basileus (emperor) Basil II, who accepted it without hesitation. He didn’t trust his own Greeks, so having a personal guard recruited from foreigners seemed to be a good idea. I wasn’t. It was a brilliant idea, because Varangian Normans occured to be amazing warriors. From now on , every basileus would employ whole contingents of Varangians, from Rus, Sweden and other Norman colonies.

Wikipedia: “As early as 911, Varangians are mentioned as fighting as mercenaries for the Byzantines. About 700 Varangians served along with Dalmatians as marines in Byzantine naval expeditions against the Emirate of Crete in 902 and a force of 629 returned to Crete under Constantine Porphyrogenitus in 949. A unit of 415 Varangians was involved in the Italian expedition of 936. It is also recorded that there were Varangian contingents among the forces that fought the Arabs in Syria in 955. During this period, the Varangian mercenaries were included in the Great Companions (Gr. Μεγάλη Εταιρεία).”

Runic inscriptions in Hagia Sofia, Constantinople (Istanbul). A Norse graffiti.

Also Norse sagas like Laxdœla saga mention the Guard:

“Bolli rode from the ship with twelve men, and all his followers were dressed in scarlet, and rode on gilt saddles, and all were they a trusty band, though Bolli was peerless among them. He had on the clothes of fur which the Garth-king had given him, he had over all a scarlet cape; and he had Footbiter girt on him, the hilt of which was dight with gold, and the grip woven with gold, he had a gilded helmet on his head, and a red shield on his flank, with a knight painted on it in gold. He had a dagger in his hand, as is the custom in foreign lands; and whenever they took quarters the women paid heed to nothing but gazing at Bolli and his grandeur, and that of his followers”

Njal’s Saga  mentions Varangians in reference to Kolskegg—an Icelander said to have come first to Holmgard and later Miklagard (Constantinople), where he became a commander of the Varangians “The last that was heard of him was, that he had wedded a wife there, and was captain over the Varangians, and stayed there till his death day.”

The most notable member of the guard was one of the most famous Norman kings –  Harald Sigurdsson III of Norway, known as Harald Hardråde.

Varangian Guard Reenactors at Abbey Medieval Festival

An interesting story is told in Madrid Skyllitzes manuscript. A Thracesian woman killed a Varangian mercenary who tried to rape her. Comrades of the killed Norman praised the woman for her bravery and gave her his belongings as a sign of a respect. Normans always had a soft spot for shieldmaidens.

Thracesian woman and Varangians.