In 1066, England faced two invasions: one from Normandy, and the other from Norway. Harold Godwinson, who assumed the throne after the death of Edward the Confessor, faced a double threat, and it was not necessarily a given that William of Normandy would have been the more dangerous foe. Harald Hardrada planned his landing in the north, where historic ties to Scandinavia were strong; had he been able to consolidate his successes, he would have been able to march on the south with a secure chain of logistics. Instead, he was swept from the scene not far from York in the Battle of Stamford Bridge.
While William’s attack became certain as soon as Harold accepted the crown, it was the discontent of Harold’s brother Tostig that brought the Norwegians. Tostig had lost his position as Earl of Northumbria, and took to raiding in retaliation. He had turned to William for aid, and indeed he has been offered a role in the Norman invasion, but apparently he was dissatisfied with his prospects and sought a more generous role under a Scandinavian lord. First he visited the King of Denmark, Svein, but he found no better opportunity there; and so he made his appeal to Harald Hardrada in Norway, and eventually persuaded Harald that the time was right to assert his father’s claims in England.
Harald sailed for England with a large fleet; estimates suggest 300 or more ships, with twelve to eighteen thousand men. Tostig brought some reinforcements from Scotland, and together they made landfall in Northumbria, some forty miles upstream on the river Ouse. They set up a base at Riccall, roughly ten miles south of the city of York. Part of the army marched north towards York, meeting local English defenders at Gate Fulford. The battle was fierce, and losses are believed to be high, although reliable data have not survived. Harald was the victor, however, and York surrendered.
For Harald, it was a victory that could not be exploited quickly. While he might expect some reinforcements from York itself in the long term, he could ill afford the losses he had sustained at Fulford. More immediately, he needed to secure provisions for the army he already had under his command. Northumbria was certainly capable of sustaining his army, but gathering those supplies together was a minor challenge for medieval logistics. Harald’s army returned to Riccall with its tribute while Harald dealt with the leaders of York over the details of their provisions.
Pledges of good faith were to be secured by the exchange of hostages. The fact that Harald felt the need to offer hostages of his own might be seen as a tacit acknowledgment of his strategic weakness. The exchange was to be made at Stamford Bridge on the river Derwent, which offered generous space for the delivery of provisions, much of which was expected in the form of cattle.
Meanwhile, Harold Godwinson was already en route with an army of his own. While he considered William the graver danger, it would not do to have another enemy at his back when William landed with an army of his own. Moreover, he did not trust the Earl of Northumbria, Morcar, and his brother Edwin. Based on the timeline, it seems that Harold anticipated Harald’s attack on York and the brothers’ subsequent accommodation; if he had waited for the actual reports of these events, he would not have arrived in time for the battle. As it transpired, his suspicions were correct, and his arrival truly surprised the enemy.
On September 25, Harald Hardrada took a third of his force, perhaps 5000 in number, out to Stamford Bridge for the planned meeting. It was only a formal show of force, and the weather was hot, so the soldiers came without their armor. Eight miles west of them, Harold Godwinson led his forces into the city of York around 9 am. He appears to have considered reinforcing the town and making a defense there, but soon decided to march forth and fight the Norwegians in the open. Proceeding on roads left over from the Roman period, they soon reached Stamford Bridge. Their arrival on the horizon was the first and only warning that Harald Hardrada would receive.
Before battle was engaged, a parlay was held. Twenty huscarls rode forth from the English army, while Harald and Tostig crossed the bridge with a few retainers. Among the twenty Englishmen was Harold himself; acting in the role of royal herald, Harold’s true identity was unknown to Harald Hardrada until after the parlay had concluded. Tostig, of course, knew his brother well enough when he saw him. Harold offered to reinstate Tostig as Earl of Northumbria, and offered him a further third of the kingdom besides, if he abandoned this foolishness; Harald Hardrada, however, was offered only an English grave. Tostig rejected the offer, not willing to betray his comrades, but neither did he betray his brother by warning Harald of the herald’s true identity until after the parlay was dispersed.
Surprised and underequipped, the Norwegians were not lacking in martial spirit. A small group of soldiers found itself on the western side of the river when the English attacked; they fought only to slow down the English advance while their fellows assumed the battle line on the other side, and they were all wiped out. One fighter managed to hold the bridge against all assailants for a time; impressed, the English promised him mercy if he surrendered, but he fought on until someone passed beneath the bridge and dropped him with a spear stroke from below.
By 3 pm, the English were on the eastern side of the river. Harald’s forces had gathered in what was probably a semicircle formation on a modest rise in the land. Harald hoped to seize the initiative by preparing a counterattack, but he was killed even as he embarked upon it. It is reported that he was killed by an arrow through the throat.
With the death of Harald, Harold was prepared to be merciful if the Norwegians surrendered. His main concern was for the integrity of his own army, knowing that a fight with William still lay ahead. Tostig, however, refused, and the Norwegian force followed suit. Virtually the entire force that had accompanied Harald that morning was killed, including Tostig.
Harold’s ordeal was not yet over. The late Harald had sent for aid from the remainder of his men at Riccall, and his lieutenant, Eystein Orri, led most of them to Stamford Bridge, leaving only a token force to defend the ships under Harald’s son, Olaf. Again, battle was resumed at Stamford Bridge, and even more fiercely than before. This time, the Norwegians arrived with their armor, but after a march of three hours or so, they were weary, and many discarded their armor.
By nightfall, Harold was the victor; the surviving Norwegians fled. Olaf, who had opposed the invasion in the first place, was permitted to sail home after swearing to be a friend to England. It is said that only 24 ships sailed home; the number may be a poetic understatement, but it is clear that the losses to Norway were grave.
Though he was the victor at Stamford Bridge, Harold could not afford his losses any more than Norway could afford its own; for him, the consequences were even graver. Norway, at least, would have time to rest and rebuild its strength. For his part, Harold was informed that William had at last mounted his invasion in the south, and Harold had to lead his battered army on another forced march to meet William in Sussex, at the other end of his kingdom. At Hastings, his luck would abandon him; like his Norwegian namesake at Stamford Bridge, he was to be killed in battle.
Gravett, Christopher. Hastings 1066: The Fall of Saxon England. Osprey, 1992.
McLynn, Frank. 1066: The Year of the Three Battles. Pimlico, 1999.
© 2011, 2013. All rights reserved.