1870 painting of the Battle of Stamford Bridge

The Battle of Stamford Bridge

The Battle of Stamford Bridge in September 1066 was one of the defining battles in English history. It has, however, been largely been eclipsed by the Battle of Hastings which took place just 3 weeks later.

But what a story! The Battle of Stamford Bridge involved a rampaging Norwegian invading army, a bitter sibling rivalry, an amazing 3-day yomp across the country, a stunning surprise attack and an equally impressive dash back across the country to meet another foe. It was a bloody adventure that, once understood, no-one should forget.

In Yorkshire but not in the Yorkshire Dales

Ok, I accept that Stamford Bridge is not in the Yorkshire Dales. Or anywhere near to be honest. It sits on the River Derwent which flows from Fylingdales Moor within the North Yorkshire Moors National Park. But I was reminded of the story when writing a blog post about the Inaugural Tour de Yorkshire (the pelaton rides though modern day Stamford Bridge in early May 2015). And I was captivated.

Background to the Battle

King Harold Enthroned - Detail from Bayeux Tapestry

King Harold Enthroned – from Bayeux Tapestry

King Edward the Confessor died in January 1066. He was childless leaving no obvious heir. Harold Godwinson, Earl of Wessex and of Hereford, was the most powerful nobleman in the Kingdom. He was intelligent, cunning and brave. And, beating all other claimants to the throne, he was crowned King on 6 January 1066.

There were, however, other powerful European figures who felt they had legitimate, and better, claims to the throne and who were pretty unhappy with Harold. The most formidable of these were King Harald Hardrada of Norway and William, Duke of Normandy. Harold Godwinson had also made an implacable enemy of his brother, Tostig, after he had forced Tostig into exile while Edward the Confessor was on the throne.

The Challengers

King Harald Sigurdsson, called Hardrada (‘Hard Ruler’) of Norway, had a claim to the English throne dating back to Viking times. He backed up his threat with some 300 ships, 7,000-9,000 men and had partnered with the embittered Tostig Godwinson.

William, Duke of Normandy, had long coveted England and, as cousin to Edward the Confessor, felt he was the rightful heir. He also believed he had an agreement with Harold Godwinson to support William’s claim to the throne when Edward died. He was, therefore, furious when Harold claimed the throne for himself.

Tostig Godwinson was desperate for revenge on his brother since Harold had stripped him of his titles and lands in the north, and exiled him. In May 1066, Tostig attempted an invasion, landing on the Isle of Wight and raiding the mainland but he was beaten back. He tried again in Norfolk and Lincolnshire with the same lack of success. But he remained determined to have his revenge and saw a link up with Harald Hardrada as a way of achieving this.

The Battle of Stamford Bridge

Harald and Tostig kicked things off in September by sailing up the River Ouse and advancing on York. Outside the city they defeated a northern English army led by the Earl of Mercia and his brother, the Earl of Northumbria, at the Battle of Fulford on 20 September. The city of York then promptly surrendered.

Harald and Tostig settled into camp outside York and made peace with the Northumbrians who agreed to support his claim to the throne (possibly under duress as Harald took plenty of hostages to concentrate minds).

King Harold was still in the south, fearful of an invasion by William but he had to confront the combined Norwegian/Tostig challenge, and quickly. Gathering his houscarls (well trained bodyguards to the King and noblemen) and as many Thegns (Earls) as he could, he rushed north. It must have been exhausting but he covered the 185 miles in just four days, and caught the Norwegians completely by surprise. By my reckoning that’s 45 miles, some 11-12 hours marching, each day. And, immediately on arrival, fighting a massive pitched hand-to-hand battle. How tough must those men have been?

So complete was the surprise that the Norwegians had to abandon their armour and hurriedly form a defensive circle with shields locked in a shieldwall. On 25 September 1066, the English charged over the bridge and flung themselves into the fray. The fighting was long, hard and bloody. Eventually, the Norwegian defence cracked and the English were amongst them. Lacking armour, the slaughter of enemy began. Both Harald Hardrada and Tostig were killed. By the time it was over, practically none of the Norwegians remained alive. So many died in such a small area that the field was said to have been still whitened with bleached bones 50 years after the battle. And with that, the Viking period of English history ended, along with all Scandinavian claims to the English throne (although there were further incursions in later years).

The surviving Norwegians sued for peace and left. Only 24 out of the original 300 were needed to take back the walking and the wounded.

No resting on laurels

For King Harold Godwinson there was no chance to rest on his laurels, to celebrate victory. He had the Duke of Normandy to see off as well. Just three days after the battle of Stamford Bridge, on 28 September, William landed his invasion force at Hastings. So Harold and his exhausted army had to get on the road again. Less than 3 weeks after Stamford Bridge, on 14 October, Harold’s battle-weary forces were in action again at Hastings. The fight was closer than many stories would have us believe, but eventually William got the upper hand and Harold took an arrow in the eye. By then, the English armies had lost so many Thegns and Housecarls as a result of these two battles that they could not resist William’s Norman army any more as it marched through the country.

A new era

And so began a new era in English history. Harold was on the throne for just 10 months. He faced two major invasion forces within 3 weeks and very nearly won both. If he hadn’t had to face the Norwegians in Yorkshire, the outcome of Hastings may well have been different. And the course of English history would have been changed utterly.

As Alexandre Dumas said, “On what slender threads do life and fortune hang.”

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