The Battle of Stamford Bridge
An article by Richard H. Fay
After suffering through three decades of Viking raids that culminated in a short-lived line of Danish kings, Anglo-Saxon England experienced a period of relative peace and stability in the years prior to 1066. Upon the death of the last Danish king in 1042, Ethelred the Unready's pious son Edward succeeded to the English throne. Although he turned Westminster into a great religious and political center, Edward the Confessor neglected to provide England with an heir.
Harold Godwinson had succeeded to his father's earldom in 1053. Like his father before him, he was the most powerful nobleman in England. Earl Harold had campaigned in Wales in 1055 and again in 1062. During the mid-winter expedition of 1062, Harold displayed a swiftness of military action that foreshadowed his lightning march north to Stamford Bridge. Due to his success against the Welsh, Harold became a respected and popular noble.
After the death of Edward the Confessor in January, 1066, the Witan, a council made up of many of the most powerful secular and ecclesiastical lords of England, met and elected Earl Harold Godwinson as king. The appearance of a "star with hair", Halley's Comet, for seven days beginning on April 24th heralded trouble for the Anglo-Saxon monarchy. Two rivals laid claim to King Harold II's contested crown: Duke William the Bastard of Normandy and King Harald Sigurdsson "Hardråde" of Norway.
Harald Sigurdsson, posthumously given the epithet "Hardråde" (Hard Council, or The Ruthless), was one of the last great Viking adventurers. A supporter of his half-brother, King Olaf Haraldsson, Hardråde fled to Russia after the death of that royal saint at the Battle of Sticklestad in 1030. Hardråde then made his way to the Byzantine court and enrolled in the vaunted Varangian Guard. He fought in Anatolia, Sicily, Southern Italy, and Bulgaria, until his imprisonment for misappropriation of imperial booty. Escaping in 1042, he journeyed back to Scandinavia and eventually succeeded to the Norwegian throne. Already having designs on the English throne as well, Hardråde needed little coaxing to gather an invasion fleet when Harold Godwinson's exiled brother Tostig appeared at his court in search of support to regain the earldom of Northumbria.
Duke William of Normandy played no direct role in the Battle of Stamford Bridge, but a realization of the imminent threat he posed to Anglo-Saxon England is essential to understanding the course of events that led up to the battle and beyond. The bastard child of Duke Robert the Magnificent by a tanner's daughter, William survived the turmoil of Norman politics and several assassination attempts to become the dominant magnate of northern France. Brave, just, and sometimes ruthless, William was a competent commander and as good a fighter as any of his Norman knights. Having little understanding of the English system of succession, William believed that Edward the Confessor's vague promise was binding. Feeling confident in the legitimacy of his claim, William was struck momentarily mute by the news of Edward's death and Harold's election as king. A year or two before 1066, Harold had even sworn an oath to help William secure the English throne. Gaining papal approval for his forthcoming invasion, William recruited his feudal levies and hired mercenaries from all parts of France, Flanders, and the Norman territories of southern Italy. He assembled a fleet at the mouth of the River Dives and then sailed to St. Valéry sur Somme to await a favorable easterly wind that would carry his ships across the English Channel.
After sacking Scarborough and sailing up the Humber and Ouse, Hardråde left about a third of his force with his ships at Riccall and marched across the swampy flats toward York. Believing help may not be forthcoming from Harold to the south, Earls Edwin of Mercia and Morcar of Northumbria left the city on the twentieth of September and faced the invaders on a wet field at Fulford . A hard battle ensued, and at first the English battered Hardråde's right flank. The veteran Viking king turned the tables on the young earls when he swung his left away from the river and then pushed the enemy into a large, water-filled ditch. Edwin and Morcar retreated as their men were slaughtered or drowned.
The Norse accepted York's surrender and returned to their ships at Riccall. Hardråde demanded hostages from the surrounding countryside, choosing Stamford Bridge over the river Derwent as the site for the surrender. Thinking that the north of England was won, the Norse left their mail corselets in their ships and carried only their helmets, shields, spears, swords, axes, and perhaps bows, on the journey to the crossing. They were caught unprepared as an ominous cloud of dust and the gleam of hauberks and shields marked the swift approach of Harold's army on the York road.
The Anglo-Saxon king had heard about the Norse landings shortly after he disbanded his southern army. He summoned his troops together and hurriedly departed for York less than two weeks later. Showing the same dash that made him a hero during his fight against the Welsh prince Griffith ap Llwelyn, Harold marched his host an impressive 190 miles in five days. He reached Tadcaster on the 24th, and then pushed his men on through York and toward Stamford Bridge on the 25th. Taking it easy in the warm sun of a fine early autumn day, Hardråde's Vikings were shocked to see an English army appear over the ridge at Gate Helmsley, a mile to the west of their position astride the Derwent.
Stung into desperate action by Harold's sudden arrival and blatant defiance, Hardråde dispatched riders to Riccall to fetch the men under Eyestein Orre's command. Meanwhile, his outposts on the western side of the Derwent tried to hold off the English advance as the bulk of his army prepared for battle on the opposite end of the bridge. The sheer weight of Harold's attack swept aside the lightly-equipped defenders on the western bank. Many Viking warriors suffered the same fate they had meted out five days before to the English troops under Edwin and Morcar.
After a brief exchange of arrows and javelins, bloody hand-to-hand battle commenced for control of the wooden span. Both sides fought on foot with sword, axe, and spear. English sources suggest that a lone Norseman grimly defended the narrow wooden span, felling many a housecarl and thegn with great blows from his axe. An Anglo-Saxon archer failed to bring down the daring Viking hero. Finally, an enterprising Englishman paddled a swill tub under cover of overhanging willows and speared the Norseman from beneath the bridge. The delay to the English advance caused by the doomed warrior enabled his comrades to form up in a shield wall on the Derwent's east bank.
With the death of the Norse berserker holding the bridge, the English charged across the river and clashed with the Norse shield wall. With their backs to the Derwent, the English fought hard against the invaders, knowing retreat would be impossible. The fighting lasted throughout the afternoon. Driven into a berserk rage, the giant Norwegian king rushed ahead of his men and dealt devastating two-handed blows all about him. As dusk drew near, an arrow to the windpipe finally ended the marauding career of that great Viking adventurer and former officer in the Byzantine Varangian Guard.
After Hardråde fell, Tostig took up the Viking Raven Banner, "Land-Ravager", but the shield wall began to crumble. The English refused to give quarter. They suffered a temporary setback when Eyestein Orre arrived with the reinforcements from the Norse ships. Tired from their forced-march in armour, many of Eyestein's men eventually threw aside their mail and shields to continue the fight, but they then fell easy prey to English weapons.
Tostig and Eyestein died as darkness fell. Without a leader around which to rally, the battered remnants of the Norse invasion force broke and fled to their longships. Magnanimous in victory, Harold allowed those that had remained at Riccall, including Harrada's son Olaf and the young earls of Orkney, to leave without ransom. Only twenty-four vessels were needed to carry the survivors of Stamford Bridge back to Norway.
The people of York, who had so recently recognized Hardråde as king, welcomed Harold as a conquering hero. The troubled king's joy was tempered by the fact that he had committed fratricide, a sin that the Normans later used to fuel their cause. Godwinson also knew he had yet to face William's anticipated attack.
Even though triumphant, the English army had suffered heavy casualties. While attending a victory feast on or about the first of October, Harold heard of Duke William's fateful landing at Pevensey on the Sussex coast. He mustered his men yet again and rushed this tired and depleted host south to Caldbec Hill near Hastings. Anglo-Saxon England was about to fall.
Fate was ultimately unkind to Harold Godwinson, last Anglo-Saxon king of England. If Duke William's fleet had landed first, or if Hardråde had been defeated at Fulford, Harold and Anglo-Saxon England might have survived beyond the calamitous year of 1066. English history may have followed a much different course if Harold had fought the Normans first, or had met William's invasion force with a well-rested army. As it was, the Anglo-Saxon king staved off one attack, only to face another that was to lead to his death and the Norman Conquest of England.
About the Author
Richard Fay is an author, artist, and home school dad residing in Upstate New York. His scholarly study of arms and armour and medieval history developed out of an interest in fantasy literature and playing Dungeons & Dragons during the mid 1980s. He is passionately devoted to gaining a deeper understanding of the weapons and warfare of medieval Europe and the military and cultural heritage of the medieval knight.
1066: The Year of the Conquest, by David Howarth
Age of Chivalry (Story of Man Library)
Battles in Britain and Their Political Background: 1066-1746, by William Seymour
Encyclopedia of the Middle Ages, The
Encyclopaedia of the Viking Age, by John Haywood
Hastings 1066: The Fall of Saxon England (Campaign), by Christopher Gravett
Vikings (Elite Series), The, by Ian Heath