The Battle of Stamford Bridge occurred on the 25th September 1066 and is one of the most significant military encounters in the early medieval period but it has become largely overshadowed by the third engagement of that year near Hastings. History is written, as they say, by the victors and the Normans saw little reason to praise the achievements of their former enemy. Nevertheless, it is perhaps just because the Battle of Stamford Bridge was so significant that it has come down to us despite the best efforts of the Normans.
Throughout most of 1066 Harold Godwinson, King of England since January, prepared to receive Duke Guillaume of Normandy to contest his right to the crown. King Edward, later called the ‘Confessor’ had died without an heir. His public choice, Edward Aetheling, had died in 1057 and Edward had not chosen a replacement. Duke Guillaume claimed that King Edward had promised him the throne but he could only present hearsay evidence of this. The weakness of Guillaume’s claim is perhaps underlined by the fact that he tricked Harold Godwinson into swearing and oath over hidden holy relics in 1064 to support him.
Despite lacking any public credence beyond a claimed blood relationship as cousins Guillaume went to great lengths to prepare for taking the crown by force and it was probably for this reason that Harold maintained the fyrd, the Anglo-Saxon army throughout the most of summer, only disbanding them so that a bumper harvest could be brought in from the fields and not left to spoil.
It is not surprising then that King Harold was totally outmanoeuvred by an enemy that few had given any serious consideration to; the King of Norway. Harald Hardrada had fought a long and fruitless was against Denmark and seen his political stock fall as a result. When he made a public claim to King Edward’s throne it was seen as bluster by a man who was desperate to remove a stain from his otherwise excellent military record. It may even have been nothing more than that until Tostig, the younger brother of Harold Godwinson, arrived at the King of Norway’s court.
Tostig had been the Eorl of Northumbria but he was deposed by a popular revolt in response to his harshness. King Edward ordered Harold of Wessex to restore his brother but Harold chose to side with the people of Northumbria and counselled the king to exile Tostig instead. Without the support of the strongest eorlderman in the kingdom King Edward could do little to help one of his favourites. Tostig was exiled and Morcar, the younger brother of Eorl Edwin of Mercia, became Eorl of Northumbria in his place. The House of Mercia were great rivals with that of Wessex and this was seen as tremendous coup on their part.
King Hardrada assembled the largest Viking army ever to threaten England but it was a diverse force of mercenaries and volunteer supporters. At its heart he had a core of Norwegian veterans but they were supplemented with men from Orkney, Scotland, Greenland and even Danes against whom he had been fighting for so long. Perhaps most tellingly the fact that the King of Norway had Tostig Godwinson, a Saxon, for an ally, illustrated the desperation that clung to his actions.
On the 20th September 1066 King Hardrada fought the battle of Fulford Gate before the walls of York and destroyed the Saxon Army of the North under the command of the eorls Edwin and Morcar. His invasion of the north and the capture of York was a masterstroke. King Harold now found himself between two powerful enemies and risked losing the northern half of his kingdom. He had to act and only a radical response would guarantee him success.
Although King Hardrada’s claim to the English throne might be considered weak his resolve to succeed can perhaps be judged by his decision after the capture of York to remove his army to Riccall where his fleet was based, probably leaving only a small force to garrison the city. In other days the Vikings would have pillaged the city but Hardrada saw it now as his capital in the north of England and he was not about to allow anyone to spoil what belonged to him.
The Saxons of York were tasked with bringing hostages and food to Stamford Bridge as a sign of their acquiescence on the 25th of September. King Hardrada marched out of Riccall with some 7,000 men to meet the delegation. Due to the very warm weather and probably because they believed that all Saxon resistance in the area had been destroyed many of the Vikings went without their heavy armour. When they reached Stamford Bridge they camped on a hill renowned for its flat top and oval shape with the river Derwent to the north crossed by single wooden bridge. At the due time Saxons arrived but they were not a delegation of beaten men from York, it was King Harold of England at the head of a massive Saxon army.
In only 5 days King Harold had formed his Royal Companions into the core of a new army and marched north from London calling Saxons to his banner as he marched. It was not normal for Saxon fyrdmen to fight in regions where they had not been raised as a levy but on this occasion they did. Leaving the south in the command of his younger brother Harold literally raced north to save his crown.
There is a popular story that the bridge that separated the two armies was only wide enough to allow a couple of men to walk side by side across it. When the Saxons marched down to the bridge from the opposite hill their way was barred by a Viking warrior in full armour who then went onto defend the bridge while his comrades assembled their defence. He was a giant and his armour was so thick that none could pierce it until a Saxon sailed under the bridge in a fishing skiff and pierced him with a spear from below. It may be nothing more than a folk tale but it makes such a striking tale that I included it in my novel.
Once the bridge was captured the Saxons crossed onto the southern bank at the foot of the hill. The Vikings could not offer much in the way of resistance due to their lack of armour but Hardrada had decided to stand and fight. This decision may have resulted from the fact that the ground he held gave him a significant advantage and that Riccall was some 10 miles distant with several bridges like the one at Stamford for his large army to cross with blood thirsty Saxons at their backs.
Before the battle commenced King Harold made one more attempt to appease his brother Tostig, offering him wealth, land and a title. Tostig is said to have remarked that the offer was fair but what grant of land could King Hardrada, his ally, expect, to which Harold wittily replied; “all that any Viking has a right to expect, six foot of ground to lie in or little larger as he is so much bigger than most!” Tostig chose to remain with his ally.
Although the Saxons had the advantage of numbers and better equipment they suffered a cost in fighting to the top of the hill. They pressed on with stoic determination and once they crashed their shield-wall into that of the Vikings they began to press them back. Lacking sufficient armour the Vikings began to suffer losses and their nerves were rattled. To bolster his men King Hardrada strode into the front rank and devastated the Saxon warriors he found there. He might have turned the tide but for a slight missile, an arrow, that flew over the heads of the Saxons and into the throat of the giant king, severing the vertebrae in his neck. King Harald Hardrada of Norway was dead.
It is said that following this event the two armies separated and that King Harold offered the Vikings a chance to gather up their king and return home; for whatever reason they spurned his good grace. The battle resumed but now it took on the character of a last stand. The Saxons fell onto their ancient enemy with no intent of showing them any quarter.
Eystein Orre, a favoured jarl of King Hardrada’s arrived with the reinforcements from Riccall but after a 10 mile forced march his men were hardly in any shape to fight. The main Viking force was splintering and beginning to give way. Some had already started running. When the end came it was vicious and bloody. Throwing down their shields and spears the once great Viking army fled for their ships. Perhaps remembering some of the outrages enacted on the Army of the North the Saxons showed no mercy and cut them down in their thousands.
Only when both sides reached Riccall did the slaughter finally cease. There King Harold offered terms to Prince Olaf, Hardrada’s son. He allowed the prince and all the surviving Vikings to return home if they promised never to sail to England again. Of the 300 ships that made up the bulk of the fleet it was said that Prince Olaf only had enough men left to crew 30 vessels.
The Battle of Stamford Bridge was a great victory for the Saxon King Harold. He had destroyed the largest Norse army ever to threaten England and killed the famous King of Norway. It was a high point in Saxon military history but it was also the breaking point as well. Eorl Edwin and Eorl Morcar had made a fateful decision when they chose to fight the Battle of Fulford Gate 5 days earlier instead of closing the gates of York and resisting a siege, which is what everyone had expected would happen. The loss of their army had compelled King Harold to move north to rescue the situation leaving the south of the kingdom vulnerable.
It was probable that King Harold had been persuaded to take this drastic action because the unseasonal storms that had roared through the English channel and kept the Normans bottled up in their port were still raging when he set out. Duke Guillaume was running out of time and Harold gambled that he could return to London before the Normans were able to set sail. Of course this was not the way it turned out and King Harold was forced to return to London with a battered army that had lost many of its most notable warriors at Stamford Bridge.
King Harold’s defeat of King Hardrada was a significant achievement, however. The King of Norway was a very successful commander who had experience of fighting for the Byzantine Empire and, it was said, had only known defeat once in his first battle fought when he was a boy. Harold did not just defeat his enemy, he destroyed him. This victory alone would have made Harold’s position in England almost unassailable but he was called all too soon to the battlefield once more at Sentlache Ridge near Hastings. Duke Guillaime forced the issue and King Harold chose not to wait for the reinforcements that his army so dearly needed. The rest is the history written by the victors.