Topics This Page
Harald, Giant Viking King
Isle of Man Giants
John of Gaunt
Joyce, the Mighty Giant
Harald, Giant Viking King
In the year 1066, following the death of Edward the Confessor, Harold Godwinson came to the throne of England, but his brother Tostig contested him. For this struggle Tostig enlisted the help of the giant Viking ruler Harald Sigurdsson, nicknamed Hardraada.56 Seeing an opportunity to make himself sovereign over a portion, if not all, of England, the seven-foot-plus Norwegian warrior-king sailed for the island nation with a battle fleet of two hundred ships.57 About this time, another Viking, William of Normandy, decided the kingdom should be his alone and launched a fleet of four hundred battle ships and one thousand support vessels.
But Harald and his Vikings reached England first. Sailing down the coast to Northumbria, they swarmed ashore at Riccall, joined forces with Tostig, and then set out to capture York. Harald easily defeated York's outmanned defenders just outside the city. Hoping to avoid useless bloodshed, Tostig persuaded those who remained in the garrison to surrender. During these negotiations, both parties agreed the victorious Vikings would take possession of the castle the next day. Returning to their ships, the Vikings celebrated. On the morrow Harald and his men started out for York to finalize the terms of its surrender. That September day began hot and sunny. So, according to one chronicle, "they left their mailshirts behind and went ashore with shields and helmets and spears and wore their swords and many had bows and arrows. They were very happy, with no thought of any attack, and when they were getting near the town they saw a great cloud of dust and under it bright shields and shining mail."58
Tostig advised Harald to retreat to the ships. Harald, who had never been defeated in battle, refused. He deployed his forces at Stamford Bridge and waited for the forces of Harold Godwinson, King of England, to draw up. As the English arranged their battle lines, twenty of their armored knights rode forward. A like number from the Viking side advanced to meet them.
One of the English knights asked: "Where is Tostig in the host?"
"It is not to be concealed that you may find him here," Tostig replied.
The horseman then said: "Harald your brother sends you greeting, and the message that you shall have peace, and get Northumbria, and he will give you one-third of all his realm."
Tostig answered: "Then something else is offered than the enmity and disgrace of last winter; if this had been offered then, many who now are dead would be alive, and the realm of the King of England would stand more firm. Now if I accept these terms, what will my brother Harold offer to the King of Norway for his trouble?"
The smaller horseman carefully appraised the oversized, majestic-looking, auburn-haired, full-bearded, well-muscled Norwegian king, who looked down on him with one eyebrow raised slightly higher than the other. Then he replied: "He has said what he will grant King Harald Sigurdsson: it is a space of seven feet, or as much more as he may be taller than other men."
Tostig responded: "Go and tell my brother, King Harold, to prepare for battle. It shall not be said among Northmen that Tostig jarl left Harald, King of Norway, and went into the host of his foes when he made warfare in England; rather will we all resolve to die with honor, or win England with a victory."
As the English knights returned to their lines, Harald asked Tostig: "Who was that eloquent man?"
"It was my brother, Harold."
The Viking giant then advised Tostig that if he had known this Harold of England would now be a dead man.
"It is true, lord, that he acted incautiously, and I saw that it might have been as you said; but when he came to offer me peace and great power, I should have been his slayer if I had betrayed who he was. I acted thus because I will rather suffer death from my brother, than be his slayer, if I may choose."
After this the two sides joined in battle. With characteristic recklessness, the English charged the wall of Viking shields. Spears and swords on both sides soon reddened with gore. Finally the English were repulsed. The exultant Vikings broke their wall to pursue. Having on no coats of mail, however, the Northmen now became easy targets for the deadly accurate English archers. Seeing so many of his Vikings falling around him, King Harald went berserk. As the English commenced another head-on attack, he charged like an enraged Ajax in advance of his men. Fighting two-handed, he cut with wide sweeps of his sword a path through the English ranks. Inspired by such boldness, his men rallied. Now the English began to fall back. But just then an English arrow whizzed through the air and sank its shaft deep in the giant's unprotected throat.
"The remaining Norwegians," declares the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, ' "were put to flight, while the English fiercely assailed their rear until some of them reached their ships; some were drowned, others burnt to death... ."59
Harold of England had no time to celebrate his great triumph. On September 28,1066, William of Normandy landed near Pevensey in Sussex with his sixty-five thousand Viking warriors. With his depleted, battle-weary army, Harold rushed to meet him. A few days later, at the famous Battle of Hastings, an arrow struck Harold through his eye. As the blinded king wandered about the battlefield, the Normans hacked him to death.
Isle of Man Giants
Among the many megaliths on the Isle of Man is one called the Cloven Stones, located in the little village of Baldrine a few miles north of Douglas. In the Swarbreck Manuscript, written in 1815 and on exhibit at the museum in Douglas, there appears this statement concerning the Cloven Stones: "Mr Millburne informed us that about seven years since, he with two or three other miners opened the mount to a depth of five feet and discovered a human skull and some thigh bones, which from their uncommon size, must have belonged to a person of Gigantic stature." Also, according to Roy Norvill, the isle was home to the giant Arthur Caley, who grew to a height of eight feet two inches. Born in 1819, Caley and his six-foot-two wife lived for years at the Sulby Glen Hotel in the northern part of the island.60
John of Gaunt
A suit of armor worn by seven-footer John of Gaunt, Duke of Lancaster, in the fourteenth century, was displayed many years in the Tower of London's armory, along with his sword and lance, which were also of enormous size.61
Joyce, the Mighty Giant
The giant William Joyce was renown for his Herculean strength. On November 15, 1699, King William invited him to Kensington Palace to demonstrate to the court his extraordinary ability at lifting weight. When the king asked him how much he could lift, Joyce replied: "Above a tun weight." So King William ordered some servants to prepare a huge chunk of solid lead about that weight. This chunk, when placed on the scales, weighed fourteen pounds above a ton. As the king and his court gasped in wonder, Joyce lifted it off the ground. The superman then boasted to the king that his strongest horse could not move him. Taking up the challenge, William commanded that a thick rope be brought and tied around the giant's waist and then fastened to the horse. Even under the strokes of a whip the horse failed to budge Joyce. The mighty man then took the thick rope in his hands and broke it in two, "seemingly as easy as another man does a piece of pack-thread."
A few days before his audience with the king, Joyce astonished a large crowd at Hamstead by pulling a tree out of the ground by its roots. The roots measured near a yard and a half in circumference, while the tree itself was "modestly computed to weigh nearly 2,000 weight."62
The twin Knipe brothers, each rising seven feet two inches in height, arrived in London in April, 1785, and issued the following handbill: "Irish Giants. The most surprising gigantic twin brothers are just arrived in this metropolis, and to be seen at the Silk-dyer's, No. 2 Spring-gardens, Charing Cross. These wonderful Irish giants are but twenty-four years of age, and measure very near eight feet high. These extraordinary young men have had the honour to be seen by the gentlemen of the faculty, Royal Society, and other admirers of natural curiosity, who allowed them to surpass any thing of the same kind ever offered to the public. Their address is singular and pleasing, their persons truly shaped and proportionate to their height, and affords an agreeable surprise: they excel the famous Maximilian Miller, born in 1674, shewn in London in 1733; and the late Swedish giant will scarce admit of a comparison. To enumerate every particular, would be too tedious; let it suffice to say, that they are beyond what is set forth in ancient or modern history. The ingenious and judicious who have honoured them with their company have bestowed on them the most lavish encomiums, and on their departure have express'd their approbation and satisfaction. In short the sight of them is more than the mind can conceive, the tongue express, or pencil delineate, and stands without a parallel in this or any other country."63 (See York Twins)
Hector Boetius, in his History of Scotland, reports that the bones of a Scottish giant nicknamed "Little John," who stood fourteen feet high, were still to be seen in his day. (See Graveyards of the Giants)
Edward Longmore, a seven-foot-six-inch giant who was known as the "Herefordshire Colossus" during his exhibition days, died in early February, 1777. To keep his body from falling into the hands of the surgeons, friends of Longmore dug his grave at Hendon fifteen feet deep and kept watch on it for several weeks. But the Morning Post in its March 30, 1777, issue reports that about six weeks after Longmore's interment and shortly after the watch was removed someone opened the grave-in the dead of the night, no doubt-and stole the giant's corpse. (For other examples of giants' bodies being stolen, see Byrne, Charles; McGrath, Cornelius)
The Annual Register for 1760 reports that James MacDonald, who attained to a height of seven feet six inches, died at his home near Cork-at the great age of one hundred and seventeen years. Because it confined him too much, MacDonald in his early years abandoned his career as a touring giant for the more active life of a soldier. From 1685 to "the rebellion," he served as a Grenadier. After his return to Ireland in 1716, he worked as a day-laborer until just three years before his death.
Like Patrick Cotter O'Brien and Charles Byrne, alias O'Brien, Cornelius MacGrath's giant skeleton ended up as a public attraction.
In July, 1752, when he came to Cork to receive saltwater treatments to alleviate his growing pains, large crowds of curious people pressed around the young man, for he already stood about seven feet tall. While at Cork, some persuaded the lad from the County of Tipperary to show himself for pay. So he came to London to launch his career.
In the January 31, 1753, issue of the Daily Advertiser, his sponsors ran the following notice: "Just arrived in this city, from Ireland, the youth, mentioned lately in the newspapers, as the most extraordinary production in nature. He is allowed by the nobility and gentry, who daily resort to see him, to have the most stupendous and gigantic form (altho' a boy), and is the only representation in the world of the ancient and magnificent giants of that kingdom. He is seven feet three inches in height, without shoes. His wrist measures a quarter of a yard and an inch. He greatly surpasses Cajanus the Swede, in the just proportions of his limbs; and is the truest and best proportioned figure ever seen. He was sixteen years of age the 10th of last March and is to be seen at the Peacock, at Charing Cross, from eight in the morning, till ten at night."
MacGrath afterward traveled to Paris and then spent several years touring Europe's great cities. But in Flanders a deadly fever attacked him and forced him to return, in failing health, to his native Ireland where he soon after died. Though he had befriended the students at nearby Trinity College, where he would playfully pick up a small-sized student named Hare and hold him at arm's length, they on the day of the giant's wake stole his body. After dissecting him, they preserved his skeleton, now seven feet eight inches long, as a college showpiece.' (For other accounts of surgeons or anatomists stealing the bodies of deceased giants, see Byrne, Charles; Longmore, Edward)