The Battle of Stamford Bridge

The Battle of Stamford Bridge

In 1065 the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle reported that Tostig, the Earl of Northumbria, was guilty of robbing churches, depriving men of their lands and lives, and acting against the law. (1) In October, a group of rebels, supported by Earl Eadwine of Mercia and his brother Morcar, broke into Tostig's residence in York and killed those of his soldiers who did not escape. The rebels then nominated Morcar as their earl. Anyone associated with Tostig's regime was killed. (2)

When Edward the Confessor heard the news he called a meeting of his nobles at Britford. Several made complaints about Tostig's rule claiming that his desire for wealth had made him unduly severe. The king sent Tostig's brother, Harold, to put down the rebellion. Harold disagreed with this policy as he was convinced it would result in a disastrous civil war. At a meeting at Oxford on 28th October, Harold yielded to Edwin's demands. Tostig was banished from the country and Morcar, Harold's brother-in-law, became the new Earl of Northumbria. (3)

In 1065 Edward the Confessor became very ill. Harold claimed that Edward promised him the throne just before he died on 5th January, 1066. (4) The next day there was a meeting of the Witan to decide who would become the next king of England. The Witan was made up of a group of about sixty lords and bishops and they considered the merits of four main candidates: Harold, William of Normandy, Edgar Etheling and Harald Hardrada. On 6th January 1066, the Witan decided that Harold was to be the next king of England. (5)

King Harold was fully aware that both King Hardrada of Norway and William of Normandy might try to take the throne from him. Harold recognised that his country was likely to be invaded both in the south and in the north. He visited York where he had meetings with Earl Eadwine of Mercia and Earl Morcar of Northumbria. He returned to London in time for Easter. (6)

Harold's brother Tostig, with a fleet of sixty ships, had attacked the Isle of Wight, occupied Sandwich, and then sailed up the east coast to the mouth of the Humber before being driven away by the Earl of Northumbria. Tostig now took refuge with Malcolm III, the King of the Scots in May, 1066. (7)

During this period he also made contact with William of Normandy. According to Frank McLynn, the author of 1066: The Year of The Three Battles (1999), the "steady military build-up did not suit the impatient Tostig, for soon he was off on a mission to find a ruler who would give him more immediate aid". He then went to see Svein Estrithson the king of Denmark. However, he told Tostig that he lacked the resources for an invasion. (8)

Harold believed that the Normans posed the main danger and he positioned his troops on the south coast of England. It was claimed by the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle that by June 1066 he had "gathered such a great naval force, and a land force also, as no other king in the land had gathered before." (9)

Harold placed his navy and some of the soldiers on the Isle of Wight. The rest of his soldiers were spread along the Sussex and Kent coast. "The object of this arrangement was that in the event of a landing the lookouts on the coast would signal the arrival of the enemy (probably by lighting a beacon) and Harold would then sail from the Isle of Wight with his army to fall upon the invaders". The reason for this is that the prevailing wind, particularly during the summer months, is from the south-west. "It was more than likely that the wind that would carry the invading fleet would be the same upon which Harold would sail, to land behind the invaders or on an adjacent beach." (10)

His soldiers were made up of housecarls and the fyrd. Housecarls were well-trained, full-time soldiers who were paid for their services. The fyrd were working men who were called up to fight for the king in times of danger. All earls had their own housecarls and Harold had a substantial force at his disposal. They were paid mercenaries and were equally adept in land and maritime warfare. (11)

Meanwhile, Tostig was negotiating with King Harald Hardrada about a possible invasion. Eventually the reached an agreement to attack Harold. After appointing his son, Magnus as regent he formed alliances with warriors from Iceland and Ireland. Tostig also convinced Hardrada that Harold was extremely unpopular in the north of England and that people living in this region would join them in their attempt to overthrow the king of England. (12)

Harold waited all summer but the Normans did not arrive. Never before had any of Harold's fyrd been away from their homes for so long. But the men's supplies had run out and they could not be kept away from their homes any longer. Members of the fyrd were also keen to harvest their own fields and so in the first week of September 1066, Harold sent them home. The sailing season was also drawing to a close for the year. Harold therefore decided to arrange for his navy to travel along the Thames to London to enable essential repairs to be carried out. Harold, after a short stay at his home in Bosham, rode to the capital with his housecarls. (13)

William's attack on England had been delayed. To make sure he had enough soldiers to defeat Harold, he asked the men of Poitou, Burgundy, Brittany and Flanders to help. William also arranged for soldiers from Germany, Denmark and Italy to join his army. In exchange for their services, William promised them a share of the land and wealth of England. William also had talks with Pope Alexander II in his campaign to gain the throne of England. These negotiations took all summer. William also had to arrange the building of the ships to take his large army to England. About 700 ships were ready to sail in August but William had to wait a further month for a change in the direction of the wind. (14)

In the first week of September, 1066, Hardrada's men raided Scarborough and slaughtered most of its inhabitants. Sailing on, the fleet entered the Humber estuary. Morcar, the Earl of Northumbria, and Eadwine, Earl of Mercia, were not willing to engage the enemy and retreated before him up the Ouse, before turning into the inland waters of the Wharfe to Tadcaster. Hardrada anchored at Riccall. After leaving a substantial force to guard the fleet, Hardrada, Tostig and about 6,000 men marched on York. (15)

On 20th September, Morcar and Edwin went into battle with Hardrada and Tostig at Fulford Gate. It has been estimated that the Norwegians had about 6,000 troops and the defenders 5,000. According to the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle "many of the English were slain, drowned or put to flight and the Northmen had possession of the place of slaughter". (16)

Other sources say casualties were high on both sides but it is clear that the invaders had a clear victory. (17) According to one source: "Trying to escape the pincer movement, the English veered away into the marsh, where they foundered in the bog until cut down or sucked into quicksands; those who tried flight on the other side mostly drowned in the Ouse. Soon the marsh and the ditches were clogged with human bodies, to the point where the Norwegians waded in blood and marched over the impacted corpses as if on a solid causeway." (18)

Hardrada then moved onto York, which formally surrendered on 24th September. Hardrada took 150 children hostage from prominent families in Yorkshire as surety for their loyalty. Morcar and Edwin and the remnants of their army escaped into the countryside. The Norwegians now withdrew to Stamford Bridge, a place where several Roman roads met. The bridge would have been quite large by eleventh-century standards. (19)

It has been claimed that a messenger told Harold about the Norwegian victory at Fulford Gate he said that Hardrada had come to conquer all of England. Apparently Harold replied: "I will give him just six feet of English soil; or, since they say he is a tall man, I will give him seven feet." Harold then sent a summons for the men of the fyrd to reassemble, just days after they had been released from their long summer vigil. Having gathered as many of his men as he could he started for the north on about the 19th September. (20)

Harold and his English army had to travel from London to York. The 200 mile (320 km) journey usually took two weeks, or more depending if the roads were passable. (21) The historian, Frank McLynn, the author of 1066: The Year of The Three Battles (1999), has commented "the speed of his advance has always drawn superlatives from historians used to the ponderous pace of medieval warfare, but it may be that a good deal of his force was on horseback and that, as was the custom with Anglo-Saxon armies, they dismounted before fighting." (22)

Peter Rex argues in Harold II: The Doomed Saxon King (2005) that his housecarls were on horseback: "Such mounted infantry could manage twenty-five miles a day. They were also expected to have at least two horses, riding one and allowing the other to proceed unburdened. Harold no doubt could also expect, as king, to commandeer fresh horses along the way. If he did literally ride day and night he could have made Tadcaster in four days, although that would mean without sleep." (23)

On 25th September Harold's army arrived at Stamford Bridge. Harold and twenty of his housecarls rode up to the foot of the bridge on the left bank of the Derwent and had a meeting with Tostig. Harold promised his brother that if he changed sides he would be rewarded with the return of his earldom and one-third of all England. Tostig answered that it would never be said of him that he brought the king of Norway to England only to betray him. He turned on his horse and rode away. (24)

Tostig said they should retreat back to his boats. Hardrada rejected this as being unworthy of a Viking warrior. Aware he was outnumbered he sent a message to his men with his fleet at Ricall to come as soon as possible. He gave orders that his men should stop Harold's army from taking the bridge. "It is said that one particular giant of a man held the bridge single-handed, felling all his attackers with swings from his battleaxe. He was only defeated when he was stabbed from below by a man who was floated down the river under the bridge with a spear." (25)

Once Harold's men had crossed the bridge they engaged the enemy in hand-to-hand combat with swords and axes. The Norsemen were soon being "cut down in their hundreds". The shield-wall was breached and Hardrada was killed by an arrow in the windpipe. His men hesitated about what to do next. Tostig stepped forward and urged them to continue fighting. Tostig was also killed and the rest were forced into the River Derwent, where large numbers drowned. (26)

Harold and his men were left in possession of the battlefield for only a matter of minutes before the rest of the Viking army, fully armed and armoured, appeared on the scene. The Norwegians immediately delivered a ferocious charge which nearly succeeded in breaking the English, but Harold's army stood firm and by the end of the day, those Vikings still alive, under cover of darkness, retreated. Harold chased them back to Riccall. The twenty-year-old Olaf Haraldsson, now in command of the Norwegians, asked for a peace settlement. Harold agreed and allowed the Vikings to return home. The Norwegian losses were considerable. Of the 300 ships that arrived, less than 25 returned to Norway. (27)

Despite the victory, Harold had suffered heavy casualties and his army was severely depleted. However, the battle had shown Harold was a general of great talent. While celebrating his victory at a banquet in York, Harold heard that William of Normandy had landed at Pevensey Bay on 28th September. Harold's brother, Gyrth, offered to lead the army against William, pointing out that as king he should not risk the chance of being killed. "I have taken no oath and owe nothing to Count William". (28)

David Armine Howarth, the author of 1066: the Year of the Conquest (1981) argues that the suggestion was that while Gyrth did battle with William, "Harold should empty the whole of the countryside behind him, block the roads, burn the villages and destroy the food. So, even if Gyrth was beaten, William's army would starve in the wasted countryside as winter closed in and would be forced either to move upon London, where the rest of the English forces would be waiting, or return to their ships." (29)

Harold rejected the advice and immediately assembled the housecarls who had survived the fighting against Hardrada and marched south. Harold travelled at such a pace that many of his troops failed to keep up with him. When Harold arrived in London he waited for the local fyrd to assemble and for the troops of the earls of Mercia and Northumbria to arrive from the north. After five days they had not arrived and so Harold decided to head for the south coast without his northern troops. (30)

Many historians postulate that the Saxon army which encountered the Normans at Hastings was already greatly depleted by a forced march from the earlier Battle of Stamford Bridge in Yorkshire on 25 September 1066. Certainly King Harold’s Saxon army was having a busy autumn. Near the end of September they had marched the 200 miles (320 km) from London to Yorkshire to repel the invading forces of the Viking ruler Harald Hardrada and his ally, the English king’s brother - turned traitor - Tostig. Then, at the end of the month, the Saxon King received the unpleasant tidings that Duke William had landed on the south coast of Britain. Turning his army about, Harold had no alternative but to march all the way back south in order to meet the new, but not unexpected, Norman threat. By contemporary Western standards this sounds like a tall order, and it is frequently argued that only the elite mounted Saxon housecarls would have been able to make the journey in time....

The lighting campaign Harold conducted in the north of England against the Norsemen of Harald Hardrada and Tostig was masterful in that it involved speed, surprise and overcoming very difficult terrain. Northern Britain in the mid-eleventh century was divided culturally and politically from the rest of the nation, and was generally left to its own devices. Hard to reach – only a few roads traversed the Humber Estuary and the bogs and swamps of Yorkshire and Cheshire connecting the north and south – the north was an isolated and barren region. The 200 mile (320 km) journey from London to York usually took two weeks, or more depending if the roads were passable.

The fastest way to travel from the south to the north of England was by ship along the country’s east coast. Unfortunately for Harold, according to the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, a few days before he heard of the Viking incursion in the north, he had disbanded his army which he had assembled some months before in anticipation of an appearance by the hostile William Duke of Normandy. The army had to be broken up, since the customary 60 day enlistment period for most of his soldiers had come to an end. It was also becoming more and more difficult to keep the army and navy intact due to the problem of supplying them. On 8 September, Harold got wind of Hardrada’s northern incursion. Prior to that alarming news the Saxon fleet had been sent to London, but, as reported by theAnglo-Saxon Chronicle, it had lost many vessels as it made its way to the city around the south coast. The damage to his fleet may have been the prime reason the king did not sail for the north instead of making the arduous overland journey on foot. Given favorable wind and tides a sea voyage would have taken about three days. Thus, Harold could have avoided much of the stress and strain on the troops making the move north, as well as the burdensome supply requirements (i.e. passable roads, wheeled transport and draught animals) needed to support such a march to the north.

Regardless, the Saxons, after leaving London in the middle of September, arrived in Yorkshire, near Tadcaster, on 24 September. They had covered 200 grueling miles in a little over a week, making an impressive 22 to 25 miles (35-40 km) a day. The army’s rapid progress surprised the unsuspecting Norsemen, resulting in their complete defeat at the savage Battle of Stamford Bridge on 25 September.

Having successfully disposed of one menace to his throne, sometime between 29 September and 1 October Harold was notified that the long awaited invasion of Saxon England by William of Normandy had taken place. He now had no choice but to return to the south to deal with this new threat.

King Harold II and Stamford Bridge (Answer Commentary)

The Battle of Hastings (Answer Commentary)

William the Conqueror (Answer Commentary)

The Feudal System (Answer Commentary)

The Domesday Survey (Answer Commentary)

Thomas Becket and Henry II (Answer Commentary)

Why was Thomas Becket Murdered? (Answer Commentary)

Yalding: Medieval Village Project (Differentiation)

(1) Anglo-Saxon Chronicle (1065)

(2) William M. Aird, Tostig of Wessex : Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (2004-2014)

(3) Peter Rex, Harold II: The Doomed Saxon King (2005) pages 189-192

(4) Robin Fleming, Harold of Wessex : Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (2004-2014)

(5) John Gillingham, The Lives of the Kings and Queens of England (1975) page 21

(6) David C. Douglas, William the Conqueror: The Norman Impact Upon England (1992) page 190

(7) William M. Aird, Tostig of Wessex : Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (2004-2014)

(8) Frank McLynn, 1066: The Year of The Three Battles (1999) page 188

(9) Anglo-Saxon Chronicle (1066)

(10) John Grehan and Martin Mace, The Battle of Hastings: The Uncomfortable Truth (2012) page 24

(11) Charles Warren Hollister, Anglo-Saxon Military Institutions on the Eve of the Norman Conquest (1962) pages 16-18

(12) Frank McLynn, 1066: The Year of The Three Battles (1999) page 196

(13) John Grehan and Martin Mace, The Battle of Hastings: The Uncomfortable Truth (2012) page 25

(14) Maurice Ashley, The Life and Times of William I (1973) page 32

(15) Frank McLynn, 1066: The Year of The Three Battles (1999) pages 197-198

(16) Anglo-Saxon Chronicle (1066)

(17) Kelly DeVries, The Norwegian Invasion of England in 1066 (2003) pages 255-259

(18) Frank McLynn, 1066: The Year of The Three Battles (1999) pages 198-199

(19) Peter Rex, Harold II: The Doomed Saxon King (2005) page 229

(20) John Grehan and Martin Mace, The Battle of Hastings: The Uncomfortable Truth (2012) page 27

(21) Arnold Blumberg, Too tired to fight? Harold Godwinson’s Saxon army on the march in 1066 (December 2013)

(22) Frank McLynn, 1066: The Year of The Three Battles (1999) page 199

(23) Peter Rex, Harold II: The Doomed Saxon King (2005) page 229

(24) Frank McLynn, 1066: The Year of The Three Battles (1999) page 202

(25) John Grehan and Martin Mace, The Battle of Hastings: The Uncomfortable Truth (2012) page 27

(26) Peter Rex, Harold II: The Doomed Saxon King (2005) page 230

(27) Frank McLynn, 1066: The Year of The Three Battles (1999) pages 204-205

(28) Ordericus Vitalis, Ecclesiastical History (c. 1142)

(29) David Armine Howarth, 1066: the Year of the Conquest (1981) page 163

(30) Frank M. Stenton, Anglo-Saxon England (1989) page 592

The Battle of Stamford Bridge

The death of the King Edward the Confessor in January 1066 caused a succession struggle across northern Europe, with several contenders willing to fight for the throne of England.

One such claimant was the King of Norway, Harold Hardrada, who arrived off the north coast of England in September with a fleet of 300 ships packed with around 11,000 Vikings, all anxious to help him in his endeavour.

Hardrada’s Viking army was further strengthened by forces recruited by Tostig Godwinson, bother of Harold Godwinson, who had been selected as the next King of England by the Witenagemot (King’s councillors) following Edwards death.

The Viking armada sailed up the River Ouse and after a bloody encounter with Morcar, Earl of Northumberland at the Battle of Fulford, seized York. King Harold Godwinson now had a dilemma whether to march north and confront Hardrada before he could consolidate his hold on Yorkshire, or to remain in the south and prepare for the invasion he was expecting from France by William Duke of Normandy, yet another contender for the throne.

A man of action, King Harold’s Anglo-Saxon army travelled from London to York, a distance of 185 miles in just 4 days.

Hardrada’s Vikings had no idea what hit them! Caught completely by surprise, on the morning of 25 September the English army swept swiftly downhill straight into the enemy forces, many of whom had left their armour behind in their ships.

In the fierce fighting that followed both Hardrada and Tostig were killed, and when the Viking shield wall finally broke the invading army were all but annihilated. Only 24 ships from the original fleet of 300 were needed to carry the survivors back to Norway.

Just 3 days later, William the Conqueror landed his Norman invasion fleet on England’s south coast.

2807 – The Battle of Stamford Bridge

By the beginning of September 1066, King Harold II was in a quandary. Expecting Duke William of Normandy to invade, he had summoned the fyrd (what passed for the army in Anglo-Saxon times made up of a proportion of the freemen of each shire who were required to perform military service in defence of the land) back in April and they had long since passed the usual two to three months’ service. And now they were starting to grumble not only was the food running out – the region around the south coast of England having been stripped bare to feed several thousand soldiers – but also the men were beginning to look to their own homes. Summer was passing and, with the onset of autumn, thoughts turned to the harvest. If they did not return home in time, crops would wither in the fields, creating a very real risk of famine in the new year.

This episode was written by Paul Bernardi.

By day, Paul works as an IT manager for a major financial institution in the UK and has done so for the best part of 30 years. But in the evenings and weekends he writes historical fiction novels. His current multi-part series is set against the backdrop of the Norman Conquest a period which he studied in depth at the University of Leeds back in the 1980s, where he gained a Master’s Degree in Anglo-Saxon history.

Keen long term listeners might recall that this isn’t the first outing for Paul with the history network, he penned episode 4 of season 18 which looked at Operation Foxley, and this was inspired from research for his book To the Devil His Due a historical fiction novel following SOE’s attempt to kill Hitler. We’ll put links to Paul’s books on the website.

Era: Dark Ages.

These small engagements in Yorkshire in 1453 and 1454 respectively set the stage for the War of the Roses – that most bitter struggle for supremacy in England.

This fascinating article is a guest post by the talented young historian from Yorkshire: Catherine Warr. Check out her YouTube channel for superb history videos and support her on Facebook.


I know what you’re thinking. You’ve probably never heard of the Battle of Heworth. In which case, that’s good – because I’m going to tell you about it. Also, the Battle of Stamford Bridge isn’t the one you’re thinking about. These two battles form just a part of one of the biggest family feuds in the Wars of the Roses: the Percy-Neville feud. This contained everything you could possibly want in a Medieval dynastic rivalry attempted murder, plotting, a ruthless hunger for power, and a long-standing hatred of each other which nobody really understood why it existed but, like football rivalries, it had been going on for so long that people just carried on anyway. The events of this rivalry would shape the Wars of the Roses, and, what’s more, a lot of it happened right here in Yorkshire.

Because this period is quite complicated, it gets very confusing to have a lot of names thrown at you – especially when there’s about 16 people all called the same – so I’m going to try keep it very simple so it’s easy to understand. If you want a more detailed history of the feud, the authoritative account is Ralph Griffith’s Local Rivalries and National Politics: The Percies, the Nevilles, and the Duke of Exeter, 1452-55, but as that is extremely detailed and may be quite long and confusing for some people, I’m providing a brief and simplified version of the story here.

Both the Percy and the Neville families had been hugely important since the Norman Conquest and owned vast amounts of land in Northern England and the Scottish borders. Because they were both so powerful in a relatively small area, a jealous rivalry and competition was somewhat inevitable, and though we don’t know the precise reasons why they had a rivalry with each other, it seems to be a mix of the typical resentment, political wrangling, and desire for land and power which was common at that time.

Things start to heat up – Enter: Maud Stanhope.

Whilst there were some rumblings of discontent before the 1450s, things really started heating up in 1453. The problem was that, whilst both families were related to each other and had maintained some level of cooperation, there were a lot of young men with something to prove, and as a result the rivalry grew into a campaign of tit-for-tat property damage and assault Percies and Nevilles would break and enter into each other’s houses across Yorkshire, and it got so serious that the heads of each family were ordered by the king’s council to stop their sons’ behaviour. They refused, and things escalated.

The key spark for the battles was this: Thomas Neville was going to marry Maud Stanhope, who was the niece and heir of Ralph Cromwell. Cromwell owned land in Yorkshire and Lincolnshire, particularly Wressle in East Yorkshire. This normally wouldn’t be a problem, except for the fact that these lands had once belonged to the Percy family. To have a Neville now in possession through marriage of what was once Percy land was abominable, especially to one member of the Percy family in particular – Thomas Percy, 1 st Baron of Egremont. He is described by Griffiths as “quarrelsome, violent and contemptuous of all authority”, which gives you some idea of his character. But I digress. He was well and truly fuming, and he and his followers decided to ambush the Nevilles as they returned from the wedding – yes, you guessed it, it’s the Red Wedding. Though perhaps not as bloody.

Known as the Battle of Heworth, in August 1453 the Neville family were returning from the wedding at Cromwell’s castle in Lincolnshire. As they approached their family stronghold at Sheriff Hutton near York, they were ambushed by Thomas Percy, who had at least 700 followers with him. Many key members of the Neville family were there, including the newly wed couple and Richard Neville, 5th Earl of Salisbury, the head of the family and one of the most important figures in the Wars of the Roses. Basically, there could have been a total destruction of the family – if the Percies had succeeded. However, although we don’t know how many men the Nevilles had, or even what happened in the battle, we do know that they managed to reach Sheriff Hutton safely. How different history would have turned out if they hadn’t!

Harold and the Battle of Stamford Bridge

By mid-September of 1066 the newly crowned English king, Harold Godwinson, was faced with a terrible dilemma.

All summer long he had been watching England’s southern coast in readiness for an invasion by William, Duke of Normandy. As summer progressed into the month of September the likelihood of a cross channel invasion become more and more remote. On the September 8, 1066 Harold took the fateful decision to stand down many of his coastal defenses.

Suddenly, news came to Harold that there had indeed been an invasion. But not the one he had been expecting. Reports came of a huge invasion force of Norwegians led by the legendary Viking Harold Hardrada, assisted by Harold’s embittered brother Tostig, laying waste to towns and villages in the north.

What should Harold do?

Should he stay in the south and wait until all possible threat of a Norman invasion had evaporated for another year? Or should he march north, eliminate the threat from Hardrada, then return to confront the by now remote threat of Norman invasion?

On September 20, 1066 Harold mobilized his troops and headed north with 6,000 fighting men.

The Norwegian’s Progress

Progress was swift and deadly for Hardrada and before long the invaders found themselves bearing down on the city of York. On the very day that Harold’s force marched north the Anglo-Saxons gave battle at Gate Fulford just south of the York.

Hardrada’s victory was total and complete.The English fled the battle field and Hardrada and Tostig revelled in their triumph.

Terms of surrender were agreed upon with the city elders and arrangements were made for both parties to meet on September 25th at a place north-east of the York called Stamford Bridge.

King Harold Approaches

Meanwhile, Harold and his men had achieved a miraculous military feat – they had marched relentlessly the 200 miles north in just four days. He arrived at the Yorkshire town of Tadcaster, 10 miles south of York, on the 24th. Here he would have learned, possibly for the first time, of the comprehensive defeat that English forces had suffered at Fulford.

Again Harold was faced with a dilemma. Under no circumstances could Hardrada learn of his presence in the north. Immediately he sealed off the town of Tadcaster. Placing guards on all the approach roads he ensured that no one entered or left Tadcaster.

The Anglo Saxon Chronicle informs us that the following day Harold marched into York and met with the city elders. They immediately threw in their lot with Harold, renouncing their previous surrender to Hardrada.

On to Stamford Bridge

Harold now commenced his brief march to Stamford Bridge where he caught the Norwegian invaders completely by surprise. Expecting merely a delegate of civilians the Vikings had let down their guard, some even disrobing their battle gear. The great Viking chronicler Snorritells us that “they were very merry” and had obviously overdone the celebrating.

According to the same chronicler “the shining arms of the English were like glinting ice to the eyes.” Tostig, knowing only too well the fighting qualities of his brother, advised a tactical retreat. But Hardrada would have none of it. He stood his ground, prepared to fight.

The Battle of Stamford Bridge

For four long hours the battle raged. The Norwegians fought furiously and well. But eventually the superior English numbers began to tell. Hardrada fell back behind a shield wall of his finest warriors. But to no avail. Eventually the great Viking was felled by an arrow – supposedly piercing him through the throat. Tostig assumed command but soon he too was slain. Defeat now turned into a rout.

Such was the totality of Harold’s victory that the survivors limped home to Norway in 24 longships – the only survivors of a force that had set out in 200 ships with such high hopes.

But casualties were high on both sides. Harold’s troops had fought hard and many of his leading men were either slain or wounded.

The Dreaded News

It was at a victory feast a few days later that Harold received the news that must have chilled him to the bone. The unimaginable had happened – Duke William had crossed the English Channel and landed on the south coast with a huge invasion force.

King Harold immediately roused his battle weary troops. Once again they set out on an incredible march. This one was to end on the southern English shore at Hastings and nothing less than the entire fate of English history hung in the balance.

The Aftermath

Despite the lone Viking’s efforts, the battle was a decisive victory for Harold.

The lone Viking’s last stand was seemingly Harold’s biggest obstacle in the battle. Overall the victory proved Harold to be an able commander, while his troops – particularly the housecarls – proved themselves highly skilled.

The victory at Stamford Bridge will forever be linked to Harold’s defeat at the Battle of Hastings, which took place less than three weeks later. Had Harold not been forced to leave William’s landing in the south unopposed, later facing him with an army that had suffered losses and was stricken by fatigue, then the outcome could have been very different.

Against the Odds

Number of defenders: An army of 6,000 approx – whittled down to just one

Number of attackers: Between 10,000-12,000 men

Attacking advantage: Harold’s army took the Viking invaders by surprise with greater numbers, mostly mounted on horseback.

Defending disadvantage: The Vikings had removed protective clothing in the heat and are thought to have divided, thus weakening their ranks.

King Harold II, the Saxon king of Britain, beholds the body of his rebellious brother Tostig

How a single Viking’s berserker rage changed world history forever

1066 was a tough year for Harold Godwinson, also known as Harold II, the last Anglo-Saxon king of England. This had a lot to do with the two approaching forces who were trying to end his reign way earlier than he expected. One of them would be famously successful, and the other would get ended themselves. All Harold knew in September 1066 was that 300 Viking ships were on their way to England, and his good-for-nothing brother was floating along with them.

Tostig and Harold fighting at the court of Edward the Confessor. It seems rude to poke them with a giant stick while they’re fighting.

Harold was ready for an invasion, just not a Viking invasion from the North. He was actually was waiting for William the Bastard, who was supposedly going to cross the English Channel. When the English King learned about his brother landing in England, Harold took his waiting Army north to meet him. The incoming Viking Army was already wreaking havoc on York and Northumbria and was waiting for the area to send more hostages to their camp at Stamford Bridge. That’s where Harold rode, arriving in less than four days.

This move totally caught the Norwegians by surprise. The Vikings had no idea there was even an army in the area. When Harold II arrived, they were systematically cut down by the advancing Englishmen the rest had to flee across the bridge. When the time came for the Anglo-Saxons to pursue, the bridge became a choke point the English just couldn’t cross – because of one angry ax-wielding Viking who was cutting down Englishmen like it was his job.

The Viking axeman held the English off for so long, the Vikings were able to form a shield wall on the other side of the river and prepare for whatever formation Harold was going to hurl at them. The sagas say he killed 40 people before being taken down and t was only when an English pikeman floated underneath the bridge and skewered the Viking like a Swedish meatball at Ikea that the standoff ended. The English eventually did cross the bridge and murder the Vikings to death. Harold allowed the rest of them to live as long as they pledged never to come back, making Stamford Bridge the historical end of the Viking Age.

It was also the beginning of the end for Harold. Three days later, the much-anticipated Norman Invasion of England finally arrived and the delay of Harold’s army at Stamford Bridge allowed the Normans to land. Three weeks after that, Harold was killed fighting at the Battle of Hastings. William the Bastard took over England and became William the Conqueror.

The Norman conquest changed everything in England, from the cultural landscape to the way they talked – it even led to the formation of the British Empire, and later, the United States.

Aftermath and Impact of the Battle of Stamford Bridge

While exact casualties for the Battle of Stamford Bridge are not known, reports suggest that Harold's army suffered a large number of killed and wounded and that Hardrada's was nearly destroyed. Of the approximately 200 ships the Vikings arrived with, only around 25 were needed to return the survivors to Norway. While Harold had won a stunning victory in the north, the situation in the south was deteriorating as William began landing his forces in Sussex on September 28. Marching his men south, Harold's depleted army met William at the Battle of Hastings on October 14. In the battle, Harold was killed and his army defeated, opening the way for the Norman conquest of England.

The Battle of Stamford Bridge – history’s least celebrated victory

Everyone knows about the Battle of Hastings - it’s seared onto our national memory with such heat that we can never get it out – but what of the Battle of Stamford Bridge? You need to have really looked into the 1066 period to have heard of that one but it was a huge battle which could have had very far-reaching consequences for England. It is also an amazing story.

On the one side was Harald Hardrada, 51-year-old Viking warrior and probably the most famed fighter in all of Christendom. This is a man who had only ever lost one significant battle – his first. It was at Stiklestad in Norway in 1030 and he was 15. Cnut’s forces defeated those of Harald’s half-brother King Olaf in a battle that was, amazingly, fought half in the pitch black as it coincided with a solar eclipse. We can only imagine what evil forces the participants thought were operating upon them but Cnut’s men seem to have weathered the darkness more effectively. Olaf was killed and Harald, badly injured, had to hide beneath a bush to avoid execution. He was rescued a day later and apparently hidden over the winter in a nearby peasant’s house to recover enough to follow the others into exile in Russia.

Harald never lost the desire to win back Norway but Cnut was a force to be reckoned with and he knew he would need both money and a strong reputation as a leader to persuade enough men to stand and fight with him. He therefore spent the next 10 years as a ‘hired sword’ both for Grand Prince Yaroslav in Russia and for the Empress Zoe in Byzantium. A brave, daring and inspirational warrior, he led many hugely successful campaigns in the Greek seas, helped the Empress survive a coup, secured a high position in the famed ‘Varangian guard’ and became the man to fight for. He also became exceedingly rich. When he did, eventually return to Norway in 1045 his nephew Magnus, who had snuck in and nicked the throne from under him when Cnut died, had little choice but to cede part control. Two years later Magnus was dead and Harald was King of Norway.

Harald spent much of his time trying to seize Denmark. No doubt he aspired to being an Emperor of the North like Cnut had been before him and Denmark was the first stop. He didn’t ever manage it due to the wiles of King Swein but in 1066 a new – and altogether more enticing – country came up for grabs: England.

Harald was not an old-style Viking in that he was a Christian and therefore, theoretically at least, frowned on the whole rape-and-pillage approach of his ancestors. He was still, however, every bit as adventurous and fierce as tradition dictated and men flocked to his banner once he’d announced his intention of invading. He sailed out of the mouth of the Sognafjord - gathering point for so many Viking adventures west – with 300 ships at his back, all packed with fierce warriors champing for a chance to conquer England. Or, rather, to conquer England again, for Cnut had done it in 1017 and had ruled in peace for nearly 20 years before his untimely death in 1035. Many men in England had Norse blood, especially in the north and east and Harald’s chances of success were high. If you’d been a betting man back in the summer of 1066 you’d certainly have been putting your silver pennies on Harald Hardrada.

On the other side was another Harold – King Harold, also known as Harold Godwinson or Harold of Wessex. This was a man without an ounce of royal blood in his veins whose father, son of a small time thegn, had scrambled his way to the topmost earldom in the country as Cnut’s right-hand man, dragging his family up with him. Not that Harold was a poor choice. He’d been Earl of East Anglia since 1043 and then Earl of Wessex from his father’s death in 1053 and was a highly experienced commander. He’d led armies on many occasions, including a triumphant invasion of Wales in 1062, and his family controlled the whole of the south of England. For several years leading up to 1066 he’d been named in official documents as ‘sub-regulus’ (under-king) and there was no man better qualified to hold England firm against the inevitable invaders. It was going to be a tough fight.

The news of the Norwegian Harald’s invasion must have been sent to English Harold when ships were first sighted off the east coast but he had no time to get there before Harald Hardrada (Hard-ruler or Ruthless) attacked at Gate Fulford. Defence was left to the northern lords Edwin and Morcar – brothers to King Harold’s wife Edyth- but it did not go well for the two young men. So fierce was the fighting in this huge battle that it was said the victorious Norwegians could cross the boggy land on the many bodies of the fallen. To be fair, quite a few of these were Norwegian as well as English but by the end of the day the lords had fled and York was there for the invaders to take. At the time, it must have looked like a mirror-image of Cnut’s conquest in 1017, which started in the north and marched relentlessly on Westminster.

But it was not to work out quite like that and this is where the story becomes the stuff of legend. It seems Harald Hardrada, for some unknown reason, abandoned the cautious and disciplined leadership with which he’d won so many fights before, allowing his men to await the delivery of hostages (customary practice in a surrender) with their armour off. It was apparently a very hot day and they had marched 12 miles from their ships at Ricall with all their equipment, but it still seems a reckless and arrogant thing for the great Viking to do. Yes, he was only expecting a cowed group of local lords but the Vikings had built their reputation on being perpetually ready for war. That day, however, September 25th, at the pretty little crossing of the Derwent known as Stamford Bridge, Harald Hardrada was not ready and he paid for it.

If Stamford Bridge is a legend then King Harold is the hero. This is a man who had been camped out on the southern shore of England for months waiting for Duke William of Normandy to invade. He had only just disbanded the troops, in the face of terrible weather in the Narrow Sea and an urgent need to get the harvest in, when news came of the attack in the north. He did not hesitate but mounted his horse in London and, with his core force of housecarles, rode for York, collecting more troops at muster-points on the way. He made the 200-mile journey in just a few days (The Battle of Gate Fulford was on Sep 20th and Stamford Bridge on the 25th, though he must have already been on his way before Fulford) and did it without the Norwegians getting wind of their approach. Harold arrived at Tadcaster on the night of September 24th and apparently passed all his troops through York in silence to spring a trap on the Vikings the next day. And it worked.

The Vikings should have won at Stamford Bridge. They were a huge force of experienced and well-equipped men who had already secured one great victory. But Hardrada only took about 2/3 of his men, leaving the rest at the ships and, as mentioned above, he allowed them to sit around sunning themselves as they awaited the hostages. What arrived, instead, was King Harold’s army. There are many stories around what happened at the start of the battle and in particular many reports of parleys involving suitably dramatic insults, such as English Harold offering Norwegian Harald 7-ft of English soil on account of his great height. These may or may not have taken place but the spirit of them is engaging.

What probably did take place, at least to some extent, was a single Viking holding the bridge against challengers for some time – long enough for the Norwegians to muster a passable shield wall to face their surprise foe. This brave warrior was famously taken out by a spear from under the bridge and died a Viking hero. Certainly his stand remains the most favoured part of the Stamford Bridge story. His death, however, was in vain for though the Vikings fought for the long hours that allowed their reinforcements to make it from the ships, those men were worn out from running 12 miles in full armour. At some point Harald Hardrada, feared warrior and great king, took an arrow in his throat and died. The Viking defence collapsed and King Harold of England had won himself a truly amazing victory.

This is a battle that deserves to be the subject of every ballad, romance tale and heroic epic ever to have passed down to us from the Anglo-Saxon period. The only reason it is not is because just days after, barely before the celebration ale had been broached, news came of a second invasion – by Duke William. Poor, heroic Harold was forced to turn around and march back the 200 miles to London and then a further 100 to Hastings where he was wiped out as both a hero and a man.

/>What happened at the Battle of Hastings is, as discussed at the start of this, well known but Harold so nearly won that battle too and I think we can safely say that had he not had to deal with Hardrada, he would most likely have done so. It is his tragedy that his stunning and dramatic victory at Stamford Bridge was overshadowed to such an extent by Hastings and the ensuing Norman rule that very few of us know of it now. I hope that my novel, The Constant Queen, can change that.

The Battle of Stamford Bridge

Saxons under Harold, King of England vs. Norwegians under Harald Hardrada and Earl Tostig.

When Edward the Confessor died he left no direct heir, and the throne of England passed to Harold of Wessex. Harold's brother Tostig influenced the legendary Viking warrior, King Harald Hardrada of Norway to invade England.

While a second claimant to the throne of England, William of Normandy, laboured to launch his own invasion fleet, the Norwegians sailed by way of the Orkneys and landed at Riccall, near York with a force probably numbering 10,000 men.

Harold had been well aware of the dual threats to his new kingdom, and he called out his levies. These were free men from the shires who owed two months of military service each year. By September the two months were up and rations were low, so Harold reluctantly released these irregular troops.

This left him with a trained force of about 3000 mounted infantry known as house-carls. When the news came of the Norwegian landing, Harold quickly marched his men north by the old Roman road known as Watling Street.

The Earls of Northumbria and Mercia, Morcar and Edwin, advanced their men from York and met Harald Hardrada at Fulford on September 20. The experienced Norwegian commander completely routed the earls, depriving King Harold of valuable allies for the fatal battle with the Normans which lay ahead.

The Norsemen appointed Stamford Bridge as a meeting place for an exchange of hostages with the city of York. The confident victors of Fulford were relaxing in the meadows surrounding this crossroads 12 miles from York when to their shock they saw a fresh Saxon army streaming up from the South.

Well, perhaps "fresh" is too strong a word, for Harold had just pushed his men an amazing 180 miles in four days, and they were doubtless exhausted. The Norsemen were caught completely off-guard most had discarded their mail shirts and helmets in the hot sun. They were soon to pay for their carelessness.

A desperate delaying action by the Norwegian outposts kept the Saxons from crossing the Derwent while the main army frantically donned their gear and took up position. One anonymous Norwegian held the bridge alone until he was stabbed from beneath the planks of the bridge with a long spear.

The Norse formed a shield wall in the shape of a triangle, to present a narrow front. The Saxons battered at the wall in a fierce hand to hand fight that lasted all day before the legendary Harald Hardrada was felled by a Saxon missile. Earl Tostig tried vainly to rally the demoralized men, but the Norse resistance crumbled and the battle became a rout.

The Vikings fled, to be pursued all the way back to their fleet at Riccall. Only 24 ships out of an initial 200 or more made the return to Norway. Before the battle, Harold swore that the Norse leader would get "only seven feet of English soil" for his invasion, and he kept the vow, though Harald's remains were later taken back to Norway. As for Tostig, he was buried in York.

Stamford Bridge ended the long Viking threat to England. Although Stamford Bridge was a great triumph for Harold and the Saxons, their strength was sadly depleted by the fight. And now they faced an even greater foe as news arrived that Duke William of Normandy had landed in Sussex. The weary Saxons turned south once more and marched back as quickly as they had come. They met the Normans at the fateful Battle of Hastings.