The Varangian Guard originated in the Vikings (known as Rus or Varangians) who traded and then settled in Russia. They eventually had a successful principality with Kiev as its capital. From the beginning, they developed close trading ties with the Byzantine Empire; and occasionally went to war against it. Throughout the 10th century, small bodies of Rus warriors took military service under the Byzantines; mostly serving as marines in Byzantine naval expeditions.
In 988, the Byzantine Empire was convulsed in one of its all-too-frequent civil wars. The Emperor Basil II appealed to Vladimir the Great, Prince of Kiev for assistance. In return for the hand of Basil’s sister in marriage the Rus sent 6,000 warriors to assist Basil against his enemies. At the battles of Chrysopolis and Abydos, Basil’s Varangians played a key role in defeating the rebel armies and guaranteeing Basil’s reign.
Not trusting the traditional Byzantine guard units to keep his person safe, Basil retained these fierce warriors as his new bodyguard; quartering them at the Imperial Palace at Constantinople. Thereafter, the Emperors of Byzantium maintained this Viking guard. They were particularly prized for three reasons: first, they were superb fighting men, tall and strong and intimidating in the extreme . Secondly, they had a reputation for loyalty to their employers. Finally, and most importantly, they were mostly indifferent to the political intrigues that swirled around the palace, as the great Byzantine families maneuvered to place their own candidates on the throne.
They are described by contemporary Greek sources as “the axe-bearing barbarians”. Alternately and less flatteringly, they are called “the Emperor’s wine-sacks”, in reference to the prodigious quantities of alcohol they consumed in the wine-shops and taverns of Constantinople when off duty. Their graffiti, written in runes, can be found in places like Hagia Sophia.
Wherever the Emperor went, the Varangians were in attendance. They accompanied him in formal ceremony; they guarded his palace, offices, and in his great reception hall they stood guard about the throne. There commander was called the Akolouthos (“The Acolyte”) due to his constant proximity to the Emperor; and his place was to stand immediately behind the Emperor in processions or behind the throne at formal audience.
In Scandinavia, Russia, and later in England service in the Varangians was considered as both honorable and lucrative; and the Guard drew a steady stream of new men from the north. Their pay rate was extraordinarily high, and pillage and loot were among the remunerative “fringe benefits”. After one battle in 1016, the Emperor gave them a full third of the captured booty; retaining one third for himself and the final third distributed to the rest of the army! Also, at the accession of a new Emperor, the Varangians were granted the privilege of ritually “looting” the treasury: they were allowed to file in and carry off as much coin as they could carry in their two hands. The giant Harald Hardrada, the Norse prince and future king, served as a high-ranking officer in the Guard for many years in the 1030s; during which time he amassed such a fortune that he returned to Norway with the greatest personal wealth ever seen in Northern Europe before.
The Norman conquest of England had a profound and lasting effect on the Varangian Guard. In the years following 1066, the traditional military elite of the Anglo-Saxons found their place taken by the émigré Norman knightly aristocracy. Rendered redundant and unappreciated by William and his heirs, and in any case smarting under Norman rule, many Englishmen migrated away and took service in the Varangian Guard. By 1100, the English outnumbered both Scandinavians and Rus in the Guard.
As late as 1402, the Byzantine Emperor John VII wrote to King Henry IV (first of the Lancastrian kings of England) about the “axe-bearing men of the British race” that guarded both Constantinople and his person. It is likely that the last members of the Varangian Guard died fighting in the breaches of the walls of Constantinople in 1453; attempting to ward the last Emperor of the Romans in his heroic final stand.