The word “nostalgia” was first coined in the 17th cen­tury, from the Greek words for “homecoming” and “ache”. It was used to describe the homesick­ness experienced by Swiss mercenaries who were serving abroad for long periods. Literally, it means an ache or longing for home, but as much as home, it is a longing for the way things used to be, a longing for the past. It’s like a distorting mirror that scrubs away the unpleasant and lifts the mundane smells, tastes and feelings to the sublime.

Nostalgia is a powerful emotion that strikes often at the old, or adventurers, or expats. It was part of the reason why, then living in Hong Kong, I decided to write a series of books that examined England and Englishness through the stories surrounding 1066 and the Battle of Hastings, nearly a thousand years ago.

I might have been living on the 20th floor of a Hong Kong high-rise but I could imagine myself back in a field, kicking leaves, on a frosty autumn day. Or perhaps it was because I was living in a small Hong Kong apartment that I had to imagine myself in an English field. And so started a literary journey that has taken up the best part of a decade and spawned two novels, the second of which, Viking Fire (Little, Brown), has just been released.

As the nations of Britain tug at the bonds that have kept them together since the 1707 Acts of Union between England and Scotland, it seems a good moment to examine those relation­ships, and there’s nowhere better to start than 1066. The decades before were crammed with national heroes: Brian Boru in Ireland; the last Llewellyn to be king of all Wales; Macbeth, Duncan and the whole Shakespeare cast in Scotland; and, in England, there was Ethelred the Unready, Edward the Confessor, Harold Godwinson and then, of course, William the Conqueror. And their stories are all entwined. I wanted to capture that within the prism of fiction. ­So what, you might ask, is so important about a battle that took place 950 years ago this month?

It was late in the Battle of Hastings when King Harold II (Godwinson) was hit by an arrow. With his death, the English resistance broke and William of Normandy became king of England. That afternoon on a bare hillside, 95km south of London, was that rarest of occasions when the course of his­tory really did change, with repercussions that are still resonant.

William replaced the government and aristocracy with Frenchmen. French became the court language, English systems of gov­ernment and law were overturned and much of the 500 years of Old English literature, poetry and storytelling was lost, as Old English texts were cut up and used as, among other things, kitchen wipes.

English would not be a written language again for more than 300 years, and it was not until Henry IV (of Shakespeare fame), who came to the throne in 1399, that England had a king whose mother tongue was English, not French. But Norman French struggled on, remaining the legal language in England until 1483, when laws ceased to be translated from English. Even now it is used in formal rituals in the Houses of Parliament; bills are read aloud and passed into law with the phrase “La reyne le veult” (“The queen wills it”).

The Norman conquest explains why English has so many words with similar meanings; two dictionaries were crammed into one language and had to find their own territory. It is the shades of meaning that learners of English take so long to master. So we have both “kingly” and “majesty”; “start” and “commence”; “freedom” and “liberty”; “fairness” and “justice” – where the (former) English words have a more down-to-earth sense, and the (latter) French words are more elaborate or abstract.

The social divide is shown up in words for meat, which are at complete variance with the words for the animals themselves, and this is explained by the fact that the animal names came from the English-speaking peasants who were raising them while the meat names came from the French speakers who were eating them: hence “pig” and “pork”, “ox” and “beef”; “deer” and “venison”; “sheep” and “mutton”.

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The differences between French and English are even apparent in the wealth and life expectancy of modern Britons. A 2011 study by Gregory Clark, a professor of economics at the University of California, in the United States, showed that people who, like me, have “common” English surnames, such as Hill or Brown, or names that indicate manual work, such as Butcher, Smith, Shepherd, Mason, Cooper and Baker, are on average, poorer and have a shorter lifespan than those with surnames that indicate membership of William’s French elite; the likes of (Jane Austen hero) Darcy, Baskerville, Bruce, Glanville, Lacy, Mandeville, Montgomery and Venables.

So what actually happened in 1066? Not only was it the last time the country was conquered, but an extraordinary series of events led to England being invaded by not one, but two armies. One of the traps we fall into when looking at the past is “hind­sight bias”, which means we assume what happened was somehow bound to happen. It is some­thing that has coloured our view of that year, but if you were a betting man looking at the contenders for the throne, the wise money would have been on a third figure in 1066, one who’s often overlooked. Harald Hardrada was among the most extraordinary figures in medieval history.

Harald was born in 1015, the youngest half-brother of Olaf, then king of Norway and now better known as St Olaf, the patron saint of the Scandinavian nation. Olaf had gone a-vikinging when he was 12 years old, and came back the year of Harald’s birth loaded with silver that he had taken largely in the wars that surrounded the reign of English king Ethelred the Unready.

While Olaf and Harald shared a mother, their fathers were different. Harald’s father, Sigurd Sow, was better known as a farmer than as a warrior, and there’s a story recount­ed in Heimskringla – A History of the Kings of Norway of a time when Olaf visited his family and asked each of his half-brothers what they wanted in life. One wanted the whole headland to sow with wheat each year, another wanted so many cows they would line the waterfront. When Olaf got to Harald, who was playing with wood chips, imagining they were longships, the lad said, “I want warriors. So many warriors that they would eat all my brother’s cows in one sitting.”

“You’d better watch that one,” Olaf no doubt thought.

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Harald was 15 when he fought his first battle, at Stiklestad. Olaf had been driven into exile and was coming home to retake his throne, and Harald had brought the people of their homeland to join him. It was fought high in a valley in the central fjords of Norway, with forested slopes rising up on both sides. It went badly for Olaf and Harald, and when there was an eclipse of the sun, they must have thought the world had ended.

Olaf was killed and Harald was so badly wounded he had to be dragged from the battle. Rather than escaping over the moun­tains to Sweden, he was considered too stricken to survive, and was left in a woods­man’s hut. But the young Harald did not die, and once he had recovered, he set off alone, crossing the mountains in the teeth of winter, and made his way down to safety in the hall of the Swedish king, Anund.

The world Norwegian vikings knew was to the west: Iceland, Shetland, Scotland, Ireland and England. These were the places they had sailed to, colonised and fought in, and so you can imagine Harald growing up with tales of these lands and expecting to visit them when he could. But after his brother’s death, the political environment meant it would have been too dangerous for Harald to sail west, and the only other route to fame and fortune available to him was that which desperate men took: to the east, through the river systems of the Dnieper and Volga, in what is now Russia.

Russia was then a set of prince­ly states based around the “Rus” city of Kiev, in what is now Ukraine. “Rus” referred to Swedish adven­turers who had made their way along these river systems, trading in furs, mainly, with pagan tribes – the Livs, the Chuds, the Perm, Yam and Mordvin, ancestors of the modern-day Finns, Latvians, Lithuanians and Estonians.

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It has a name as a cruel land even now, having punished both Napoleon and Hitler, but nearly 1,000 years ago, Russia was still largely trackless birch forests and steppes. The Rus lived in fortified settlements, much like settlers in the American Wild West, with law extending not far beyond their gates. Outside was the original Mirkwood of Germanic imagination, popu­lated by heathen tribes such as the Turkic horse-riding Pechenegs, who, much like the Mongols, terrified civilised peoples. The tribe’s khan used the skull of a Kiev prince as his drinking cup. Defensive works would have been built in the sweltering summer and in winter, when the rivers and swamps were frozen solid, dog sleds would have been taken out to gather furs from the local tribes.

The 15-year-old Harald, it seems, was good at the tough, physical art of bluff and posture needed to succeed in these circum­stances. Within a few years he had moved from the northern outpost of Novgorod to Kiev, where the prince, Jaroslav the Wise, had grand pretensions for his embry­onic state. Facing raids by the nomadic Pechenegs, Jaroslav hit on a solution that would have been familiar to the Chinese emperors at the other end of that vast grassland, building what are now known as snake or dragon ramparts: ditch and bank walls topped with palisades of wood, which would delineate steppe from civilisation.

Harald learned statecraft, but he also would have encountered men coming up from the south bringing tales of Constantinople (Istanbul), the capital of the Eastern Roman Empire, then one of the most fabulous cities in the world. Swedes had been making their way to Constantinople for more than 100 years, both trading and serving as mercenaries. (You can find Viking runic graffiti carved into the Hagia Sophia church in modern Istanbul, and on a statue of a lion that once stood in the harbour at Piraeus, near Athens, but which is now by the Arsenal, in Venice.) From their gold and silver and robes of brightly coloured silk it would have been clear visitors from Constantinople were coming from a richer, more cultured world. The adventurer within Harald cannot have failed to have been stirred. So, aged about 20, he arrived in Constantinople.

Harald would have started out serving as a marine on a dromon, a war galley, and we can trace his movements through the ancient world by the poems he composed to record his achievements. He was in Asia Minor, the Greek Islands, and he was part of an expedition that probably accompanied the sister of Empress Zoe to Jerusalem, along with the stonemasons who would build the extant Church of the Holy Sepulchre. The places where Christ died must have had a powerful effect on a man whose brother had already been made a saint. He did all the things a pilgrim-tourist does still, visiting the site of Christ’s crucifixion, his ascension into heaven and his baptism. Within a few years, he had risen to command 1,000 Varangians, the elite troops involved in the reconquest of Muslim Sicily, a campaign that took two years and which ended in the crushing of the Emir of Sicily’s forces.

Harald was summoned to Michael IV’s side, promoted to a captaincy in the imperial bodyguard and accompanied the Byzantine emperor (and Empress Zoe’s husband) on a campaign, to crush a rebellion in Bulgaria. Within the space of 10 years he’d risen about as high as an adventurer could. In most stories this would be the crowning moment. But Harald was no ordinary man, and you wonder if he had started to think of his homeland, as travellers do, with that yearning named nostalgia.

We should say a little here about the political situation in Byzantium at the time, a state still famous for its intricate and convoluted system of government. Empress Zoe was the eldest daughter of a former emperor and, as such, her husband became emperor.

Unfortunately, she was beyond child-bearing age, despite a cocktail of quack remedies she is rumoured to have taken. With Michael IV dying, the chief of the eunuchs, a man named (in Game of Thrones style) John ThousandEyes, brought the emperor’s handsome young nephew into court. Zoe had a fancy for handsome young men and, as the emperor lay on his death­bed, Zoe and this toy boy, nicknamed Michael the Caulker, were rumoured to be sharing their own, adulterous bed. As soon as the emperor had died, the Caulker was elevated to the position.

Michael the Caulker clearly felt little for Zoe, and it wasn’t long before he started to lock up men he disliked and replace the guardsmen within the palace with men he trusted. Within months he had launched a palace coup, imprisoning the empress in a nunnery and declaring himself emperor in his own right. The city rose in rebellion to reinstate their empress. But they needed a leader, and in their moment of crisis they turned to Harald.

Harald had been one of the early victims of the Caulker’s reign of terror, and had spent his summer locked up in the basement of a tower near the palace. The patriarch of the city came to him, broke him free and imp­lored him to help. Harald’s first action was to gather his men before leading them in an attack on the palace gates, now held by the Caulker’s forces. In a bloody night of fighting – an echo of which could be heard in the events of Istanbul this July – the palace was stormed, the empress freed and revenge meted out to those who had planned the coup.

Harald Hardrada’s career has served as a template for fantasy char­acters such as Conan the Barbarian and ... the tumultuous turns of George R.R. Martin’s Game of Thrones

The Caulker sought sanctuary in a mon­as­tery on the outskirts of the city and it’s widely accepted that it was Harald who dragged him from the altar and blinded him with his own hands. It seems clear that Harald was not content with being the power behind the throne, and it was prob­ably a mix of homesickness and ambition that made him resolve to return to Norway and make himself king there.

Harald was viewed with suspicion by the new order and forbidden to leave, but he escaped from Constantinople with three ships packed with men and riches, picked up a Russian princess in Kiev and returned home. All this before he was 30 years old.

In 1046, Harald became king of Norway and ruled for 20 years, protecting his people and the church, and waging war on his enemies.

I believe he had learned a great deal during his time in Asia Minor, and he seems also to have been something of a statesman, establishing both a kingdom and a dynasty that would long outlast him. Among his achievements was the develop­ment of Oslo from a trading post to a settlement; it would go on to be the capital of his country. As well as being an accomplished warrior and general, he was a prototype of what would come to be known as a renaissance king, being also an acclaimed poet.

But when he was aged 51, the throne of England became vacant and, whether through hubris or boredom, he decided to stake a claim for the richest country in Christendom.

Harald’s campaign started well. He sailed down the coast of Scotland and Northumbria. He burned the coastal town of Scarborough to the ground and won the first battle of 1066, at Fulford, just outside York, against the earls of Mercia and Northumbria. Five days later, however, the sudden appearance of the English at Stamford Bridge caught the Norwegians by surprise. Harald was killed by an arrow in the windpipe, and, with his death, the Viking Age came to an end.

A footnote, now, to 1066, Harald Hardrada was one of the most fabulous adventurers of medieval times. His career has served as a template for fantasy char­acters such as Conan the Barbarian and even for the tumultuous turns of George R.R. Martin’s Game of Thrones. Harald was a child exile, like Arya Stark; as clever as Tyrion Lannister; as accomplished a warrior as Jaime Lannister; and travelled into the exotic east, like Daenerys Targaryen. His story is the archetype of the barbarian who rose to the heights of power and made himself king.

If Harald had won in 1066 he would have been one of the most extraordinary kings England ever had. But, of course, history’s coin flip did not fall his way. He overreached and paid the ultimate price.

Having spent three years thinking about his life, and writing in Harald’s own voice, I now find myself nostalgic for a past that might have been.

About the author

Justin Hill first arrived in rural China from his native Yorkshire in 1993, working for the British aid organisation Voluntary Service Overseas. He has spent most of the past 25 years living and working in China and Hong Kong. Until last year, he was an assistant professor at the City University of Hong Kong, where he helped set up Asia’s first low-residency master of fine arts course in creative writing and ran the undergraduate creative writing programme.

His first novel, The Drink and Dream Teahouse (2001), chronicled the changes in small-town China as it moved from a communist to a capitalist society. It was banned in China and named a book of the year by the Washington Post. Passing Under Heaven (2004) used the sometimes feminist poems of Yu Xuanji to reimagine the Tang-dynasty poetess’ life story. It was on The Sunday Telegraphand The Observer’s book-of-the-year lists. Shieldwall (2011), the first of a series of books examining the narratives and context of the 1066 Battle of Hastings, was a Sunday Times book of the year. Viking Fire is the second in this series and follows the adventures of Norwegian king Harald Hardrada.

Hill has won the Betty Trask Award, the Geoffrey Faber Memorial Prize and the Somerset Maugham Award. He’s also been shortlisted for the Encore Award and the Thomas Cook Travel Book Award.