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BRIT Review

The Battle of Stamford Bridge - 25 September 1066

Saturday, September 24, 2016


It has been 950 years since the Battle of Stamford Bridge. As part of our Norman series read all about the battle that took place just before William the Conqueror landed in England.

King Edward the Confessor of England died on 5 January 1066. Edward had died childless and the last surviving male heir to the throne Edgar the Atheling, grandson of Edward’s half-brother Edmund Ironside, was only a child. According to the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, on his deathbed King Edward had nominated Earl Harold Godwinson of Wessex to be his successor. England needed a strong leader with the military experience to defend the country from invasion. The ruling council of nobles, known as the Witan, elected Harold as the new king of England.

There were two rival claimants to the English throne. Duke William of Normandy claimed that King Edward had promised the throne to him, although at this time the kings of England were traditionally selected by the Witan so any promise would be non-binding. King Edward’s mother Emma of Normandy was Duke William’s great aunt and Edward had spent several years living in exile in Normandy after the Danish King Cnut conquered England. In 1064 Harold of Wessex was in Normandy where, according to Norman sources, he swore an oath on holy relics to support William’s claim as King Edward’s successor.  

The other claimant was the King of Norway Harald Sigurdsson also known as Harald Hardrada, meaning Hard or Ruthless Ruler. King Harthacnut of England had made a treaty with King Magnus of Norway stating that if he died childless the throne of England would go to King Magnus. Harthacnut died without an heir in 1042 but his half-brother Edward the Confessor was crowned king of England instead. As the successor to King Magnus of Norway, Hardrada believed he was also the rightful ruler of England. In any case, England was a wealthy kingdom and a great prize for any invader.


Harold was a member of one of the most powerful families in England. He had been made Earl of Wessex on the death of his father Earl Godwin in 1053. His sister Edith had married King Edward the Confessor and most of his brothers were given earldoms. Harold’s younger brother Tostig had been made Earl of Northumbria in 1055. However, Tostig’s rule of Northumbria proved very unpopular. He imposed heavy taxes, introduced new laws with harsh penalties and had his opponents assassinated. In October 1065 a group of Northumbrian nobles killed 200 members of Tostig’s household at his residence in York. The rebels then marched south and met in Northampton with Earl Harold of Wessex who had been sent by King Edward. The rebels demanded that Tostig be removed from his position and that Morcar, younger brother to Earl Edwin of Mercia, be made Earl of Northumbria instead.

Tostig is said to have publically accused his brother Harold of inciting the rebellion for his own gain, an accusation Harold denied. Harold refused to raise an army to put down the rebellion and at a meeting in Oxford on the 28 October 1065 King Edward the Confessor gave in to the rebels demands. Morcar was made Earl of Northumbria and at the beginning of November Tostig was sent into exile. Tostig sought refuge in Flanders with Count Baldwin V, the brother of his wife Judith.

While in exile Tostig tried to gather support for an invasion of England. He may have sent messengers to Duke William of Normandy. Count Baldwin was Duke William’s father in law. According to Snorri Sturluson’s King Harald’s Saga, Tostig travelled to Denmark to ask his cousin King Sweyn Estrithson for help. The Danish king refused to support him and instead offered Tostig an earldom in Denmark rather than fight against Harold. Tostig then went on to meet with King Harald Hardrada in Norway who eventually agreed to raise an army and invade England.

In May 1066, shortly after the arrival of Halley’s Comet, Tostig landed on the Isle of Wight with the small fleet he had raised in Flanders. He picked up provisions before raiding along the south coast towards Sandwich in Kent. Here Tostig got word that his brother King Harold, maybe believing this to be the prelude to a full Norman invasion, had mobilised a large army and fleet of ships and was heading to Sandwich to confront him. Seizing ships and men from Sandwich, Tostig headed north up the east coast with a fleet of 60 ships. When he landed at Lindsey in Lincolnshire he was met by the armies of the northern earls Edwin and Morcar. Tostig was forced to retreat and many of his men deserted him. With just 12 small ships remaining, Tostig escaped to Scotland where he spent the summer raising forces for his planned invasion with King Harald of Norway.

BATTLE OF FULFORD – Wednesday 20 September 1066

King Harald Hardrada was about 50 years old. He was a feared Viking warrior who had served as a Varangian mercenary for the Byzantine emperors in Constantinople, fighting in Asia Minor and the Mediterranean before returning to claim the throne of Norway. During his reign Hardrada launched numerous raids against Denmark and fought, unsuccessfully, for the Danish throne.

In late August King Hardrada’s invasion fleet sailed from the Solund Isles in Norway. They landed in Shetland and Orkney, which was then an earldom of Scandinavia, and gathered more men and ships. From Orkney, King Hardrada’s fleet of about 300 ships sailed down the coast to join up with Tostig’s forces at the mouth of the River Tyne. Hardrada and Tostig then sailed south raiding as they went, burning the town of Scarborough, before sailing up the Humber towards York the capital of Northumbria. The Norwegian fleet landed at Riccall on the River Ouse 10 miles south of York.

Shortly after landing at Riccall, Hardrada and Tostig advanced towards York with an army of about 6000 to 7000 men. Meanwhile approximately 5000 men commanded by Earls Edwin and Morcar were assembling at Fulford to block the Norwegians path.

Fulford was about 2 miles from York. The area here was wet, boggy marshland crossed with numerous ditches. The English army formed their shield wall along a bank above a ditch with a marsh protecting one flank and Earl Edwin’s forces holding the other flank near the River Ouse. Hardrada lined his men up, concentrating most of his forces and his best fighters on the firmer ground near the riverbank. The English struck first with Earl Morcar’s men pushing the Norwegians back into the marshes. Spurred on by this initial success Morcar’s men moved forward, leaving the high ground of the bank. With the blast of a war horn Hardrada ordered his army to advance. Hardrada himself then led the charge along the river bank against Earl Edwin’s men, who were forced back. The Norwegians managed to outflank them and move up behind the English army, encircling them and trapping up to 500 men in the mud. The rest of the English soldiers, along with Earls Edwin and Morcar, fled the battlefield.

York surrendered. Its inhabitants swore an oath of allegiance to Hardrada and promised to march south and join him in battle against King Harold. They supplied the Norwegians with provisions and the sons of leading townspeople were given as hostages to act as a guarantee. More hostages were to be brought in from the shires and it was agreed that this exchange would take place at Stamford Bridge on the River Derwent.  Hardrada, Tostig and the rest of the Norwegian army returned to their ships at Riccall.

BATTLE OF STAMFORD BRIDGE – Monday 25 September 1066

King Harold Godwinson was well aware of the threat of invasion and in response to Tostig’s arrival at the beginning of May had called out what the Anglo Saxon Chronicle described as the largest army ever assembled in England. Harold had his own personal household guards of about 3000 men. These were the housecarls, who were well trained, professional soldiers. Added to this were the fyrd. These were freemen, raised by levy, who were obliged to serve the king when called up for temporary military service. The fyrd would have been equipped with body armour and weapons and most would have had some military experience. King Harold stationed his army on the south coast and sent the bulk of the English fleet to the Isle of Wight in readiness for an expected invasion by Duke William of Normandy.

However this invasion had not materialised. Running low on supplies King Harold had been forced to disband the fyrd on the 8 September and let them return to their homes. The English fleet sailed back to London. Soon after, King Harold received word of the Norwegian invasion force near York. Harold left London and headed north with his housecarls, who most likely travelled on horseback, gathering reinforcements as he went by calling out the fyrd. These were not necessarily the same men who had been stationed on the south coast waiting for Duke William.  King Harold travelled the 190 miles north as quickly as he could and would have received word en route about the defeat at Fulford. Harold’s army reached Tadcaster, 9 miles south of York, on Sunday September 24.

On the morning of Monday the 25 September, King Harold marched through York and on to Stamford Bridge where he took the Norwegian army by surprise.

King Harald Hardrada had left a third of his men with the ships at Riccall. The rest of his army were relaxing in the meadows at Stamford Bridge waiting for the hostages from the shires to arrive. According to Scandinavian sources it was a hot day and the Norwegians had removed their byrnies (leather and mail armour) and left many of their weapons with the ships. When the English army appeared Hardrada sent three messengers on horseback to Eystein Orri, who was with the men at Riccall, ordering him to send reinforcements.

Hardrada’s men on the western bank of the River Derwent fought to defend the bridge and prevent King Harold’s men from crossing the river. According to legend a single Norse warrior armed with a battle axe held the bridge, holding up the English army and killing over forty men, until a man floating in a barrel struck him from below by thrusting a spear between the wooden planks of the bridge.

Before the battle began King Harold and a group of his housecarls rode to the Norwegian lines. Harold offered to reinstate Tostig as Earl of Northumbria if he changed sides. Tostig asked what he would offer King Harald of Norway. According to King Harald’s Saga, the English king is said to have replied that he would give him “seven feet of ground, or as much more as he is taller than other men.”  Tostig refused to join his brother as he would not betray the oath of loyalty he had sworn to the King of Norway.

On the eastern side of the river Hardrada had ordered his men to form a curved shield wall. Hardrada and Tostig were inside the circle with their own personal retinue of men and a small number of archers.  Having taken the bridge the English army crossed the river and attempted to break the Norwegian’s shield wall. After sustaining wave after wave of attack the Norwegians broke out of their defensive position and charged at the English army. The fighting was fierce and brutal with heavy casualties on both sides. King Harald Hardrada of Norway, wearing no armour and fighting two-handed in the thick of the battle, was hit in the throat by an arrow and killed.

There was a lull in the fighting. Tostig reformed the shield wall around Hardrada’s battle standard ‘Land-Ravager’.  King Harold repeated his offer to his brother but again Tostig refused to break his oath to Hardrada. King Harald’s Saga has the Norwegians shouting that they would rather die than surrender.

Eystein Orri arrived from Riccall with the reinforcements, the Norwegian warriors having run the 12 miles in full armour. Orri raised Land-Ravager and they threw themselves into the fight, a phase of the battle known as ‘Orri’s Storm’ for the fierceness of their attack.  According to King Harald’s Saga, Orri’s men were almost too tired to fight and some died on the battlefield from heat exhaustion.

Tostig and most of the leading Norwegians were dead. As the day ended the remnants of Hardrada’s army turned and fled the battlefield. The English army pursued them back to their ships at Riccall.

King Harold granted safe passage out of the country to the survivors, including Hardrada’s son Olaf, if they would swear an oath of allegiance to him. The Norwegian casualties were so great that only 24 of the original 300 ships were needed to carry them back. King Harold had not only achieved a resounding victory against one of the greatest Viking warriors of the day but the battle at Stamford Bridge also brought an end to the Viking era. It was the last large scale Scandinavian attack on England.

A few days later, while at York, King Harold received word that a Norman invasion fleet had landed at Pevensey on the south coast of England.


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