Updated: Sep 7, 2019
25 September 1066
The Battle of Stamford Bridge
The year 1066 is well known for another more 'famous' battle, the Battle of Hastings, yet just three weeks before that fateful day, another battle, a highly significant battle took place in East Yorkshire.
An English army under King Harold Godwinson met an invading Norwegian force led by the feared warrior king, Harald Hardrada at the village of Stamford Bridge, East Riding of Yorkshire. The consequences of this event would be far reaching, but how did we get to this point?
The year 1066 began with the death of the King of England, Edward the Confessor on 5 January, this triggered a succession struggle in which three rival claimants from across Europe would fight for the throne. Harold Godwinson; Harald Hardrada, King of Norway & William, Duke of Normandy.
According to the Vita Ædwardi Regis, but not before briefly regaining consciousness & commending his widow & the kingdom to Harold's "protection". The intent of this charge remains ambiguous, as is the Bayeux Tapestry, which simply depicts Edward pointing at a man thought to represent Harold. When the Witan ( a political institution in Anglo-Saxon England) convened the next day they selected Harold to succeed, & his coronation followed on 6 January, most likely held in Westminster Abbey; though no evidence from the time survives to confirm this. Although later Norman sources point to the suddenness of this coronation, the reason may have been that all the nobles of the land were present at Westminster for the feast of Epiphany, & not because of any usurpation of the throne on Harold's part. Harold Godwinson was now in possession of the crown of England & would be the last crowned Anglo-Saxon king of England
Vita Ædwardi Regis is a historical manuscript completed by an anonymous author c. 1067 & commissioned by Queen Edith, wife of King Edward the Confessor. It survives in one manuscript, dated c. 1100, now in the British Library.
The King of Norway, Harald Hardrada, according to the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle Manuscript D (p. 197), the Norwegians assembled a fleet of 300 ships to invade England. The authors, however, did not seem to differentiate between warships & supply ships. In King Harald's Saga, Snorri Sturluson states, "... it is said that King Harald had over two hundred ships, apart from supply ships & smaller craft." Combined with reinforcements picked up in Orkney, the Norwegian army most likely numbered between 7,000 & 9,000 men. Hardrada's force landed on the English coast in September. Hardrada was joined by further forces recruited in Flanders & Scotland by Tostig Godwinson. Tostig was at odds with his elder brother Harold (who had been elected king by the Witenagemot on the death of Edward). Having been ousted from his position as Earl of Northumbria & exiled in 1065, Tostig had mounted a series of abortive attacks on England in the spring of 1066.
In the late summer of 1066, the invaders sailed up the river Ouse before moving on to York. they defeated a northern English army led by Edwin, Earl of Mercia, & his brother Morcar, Earl of Northumbria, at the Battle of Fulford, outside York on 20 September.
Following this victory, the city of York surrendered. Having briefly occupied the city & taken hostages & supplies from the city they returned towards their ships at Riccall. They offered peace to the Northumbrians in exchange for their support for Hardrada's bid for the throne, & demanded further hostages from the whole of Yorkshire.
In Southern England Harold had gathered his forces in anticipation of a Norman invasion from France by William, Duke of Normandy, the other contender for his throne.
He made the journey from London to Yorkshire, a distance of about 185 miles (298 km), in just four days. This enabled Harold to take the Norwegians completely by surprise. Having learned that the Northumbrians had been ordered to send the additional hostages & supplies to the Norwegians at Stamford Bridge, Harold hurried on through York to attack them at this rendezvous on 25 September. Until the English army came into view the invaders remained totally unaware of the presence of a hostile army anywhere in the vicinity.
Before the battle a single man rode up alone to Harald Hardrada & Tostig. He gave no name, but spoke to Tostig, offering the return of his earldom if he would turn against Hardrada. Tostig asked what his brother Harold would be willing to give Hardrada for his trouble. The rider replied "Seven feet of English ground, as he is taller than other men." Then he rode back to the English army. Hardrada was impressed by the rider's boldness, & asked Tostig who he was. Tostig replied that the rider was Harold Godwinson himself. According to Henry of Huntingdon, Harold said "Six feet of ground or as much more as he needs, as he is taller than most men."
The exact location of the Stamford Bridge battlefield is not known. Local tradition places the battlefield east of the River Derwent & just southeast of the town in an area known as Battle Flats. The location of Hardrada's army at the start of the battle is not known for certain. Accounts of their location differ, depending on sources and interpretations. A popular view is that his army was divided in two; with some of their troops on the west side of the River Derwent & the rest of their army on the east side. Another interpretation is that they were just leaving Stamford Bridge & moving along the old Roman road toward York.
The appearance of the English army caught the Norwegians totally by surprise. Their response was to deploy rapidly in a defensive circle. By the time the bulk of the English army had arrived, the Vikings on the west side were either slain or fleeing across the bridge. The English march was then delayed by the need to pass through the choke-point presented by the bridge itself.
The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle says that a giant Norse axeman (possibly armed with a Dane Axe) blocked the narrow crossing & single-handedly held up the entire English army. The story goes that this axeman cut down up to 40 Englishmen & was only defeated when an English soldier floated under the bridge in a half-barrel & thrust his spear through the planks in the bridge, mortally wounding the axeman.
This bulk of the Norse army had arrived & formed a shieldwall to face the English attack. Harold's army poured across the bridge, forming a line just short of the Norse army, locked shields & charged. The battle went far beyond the bridge itself, & although it raged for hours, the Norse army's rash decision to leave their armour behind left them at a distinct disadvantage. Eventually, the Norse army began to fragment & fracture, allowing the English troops to force their way in & break up the shield wall. Now completely outflanked, & with Hardrada killed with an arrow to his windpipe & Tostig slain, the Norwegian army disintegrated & was virtually annihilated.
In the later stages of the battle, the Norwegians were reinforced by troops who had been guarding the ships at Riccall, led by Eystein Orre, Hardrada's prospective son-in-law. Some of his men were said to have collapsed & died of exhaustion upon reaching the battlefield. The remainder were fully armed for battle. Their counter-attack, described in the Norwegian tradition as "Orre's Storm", stopped the English advance temporarily, but was soon overwhelmed & Orre was slain. The Norwegian army were routed. As given in the Chronicles, pursued by the English army, some of the fleeing Norsemen drowned whilst crossing rivers.
So many died in an area so small that the field was said to have been still whitened with bleached bones 50 years after the battle.
A truce was accepted by King Harold with the surviving Norwegians, including Harald's son Olaf & Paul Thorfinnsson, Earl of Orkney. They were allowed to leave after giving pledges not to attack England again. The losses Hardrada's forces had suffered were so severe that only 24 ships from the fleet of over 300 were needed to carry the survivors away. They withdrew to Orkney, where they spent the winter, & in the spring Olaf returned to Norway. The Norwegian kingdom was then divided & shared between him & his brother Magnus, whom Harald had left behind to govern in his absence.
Harold's momentous victory was short-lived though, as just days after the battle, on 28 September, a second invasion army led by William, Duke of Normandy, landed in Pevensey Bay, Sussex, on the south coast of England.
Harold had to immediately turn his battle-weary & exhausted troops around & force-march them southwards to intercept the Norman army. Less than three weeks after Stamford Bridge, on 14 October 1066, the English army was decisively defeated & King Harold II fell in action at the Battle of Hastings, beginning the Norman conquest of England, a process facilitated by the heavy losses amongst the English military commanders.
The battle of Stamford Bridge has traditionally been presented as symbolising the end of the Viking Age, although major Scandinavian campaigns in Britain & Ireland occurred in the following decades, such as those of King Sweyn Estrithson of Denmark in 1069–1070 & King Magnus Barefoot of Norway in 1098 & 1102–1103.
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