Stamford Bridge, was this William’s break?

The battle of Stamford Bridge took place at the village of Stamford Bridge, Yorkshire on 25th September 1066.  It took place just nineteen days before the battle of Hastings in which William of Conqueror defeated Harold Godwinson and took the crown of England.  You have to wonder what the outcome of that battle had of been if Harold was not fighting his name sake Harald Hardrada, the King of Norway at Stamford Bridge.  The battle is taken in history as the end of the Viking era in Britain, even though small campaigns took place in the decades to come.

Edward the Confessor had died earlier in the year which triggered a contest for the vacant crown in England.  These claimants included the King of Norway Harald Hardrada who assembled a fleet of 300 ships containing roughly 15,000 troops.  He arrived off the English coast in September 1066 and was joined by further forces recruited in Flanders and Scotland by Tostig Godwinson (broter of Harold).  Tostig had been ousted by Harold as Earl of Northumbria and had been raiding in England throughout the early part of 1066.

Harald’s army sailed up the river Ouse towards York where they defeated a northern English army led by Edwin, Earl of Mercia and his brother Morcar, Earl of Northumbria at the battle of Fulford on the 20th September.  Following the victory York surrendered to the Norwegian army.

During this time King Harold, who had already been crowned on the day of Edward’s funeral was in southern England waiting for the invasion of William, Duke of Normandy.  As soon as he heard of the invasion he headed north with his houscarls and as many of his thegns as he could gather.  He made the journey from London to York (185 miles) in just four days taking the Norwegians by surprise.

Anglo-Norman 13th manuscript showing a scene of the Battle of Stamford Bridge

Anglo-Norman 13th manuscript showing a scene of the Battle of Stamford Bridge

There was no village at Stamford Bridge in 1066 and not even in 1086 according to the Doomsday Book.  The Viking army was split into two with some on the west side of the River Derwent and the bulk of the army on the east side.  It was also a warm day for September and with the surprise a lot of the Viking army had left their armour on the ships.  Harold’s army first attacked the Vikings on the west side of the river and quickly overturned either slaying them or sending them backwards.  The English advance was then halted at the bottle neck of the bridge at the crossing.  Later folk tales said of a giant of a Viking armed with axe, who stood on the bridge and would not let any of the English army passed.  It is said that he defeated slayed 40 enemies before he was finally defeated by someone attacking him from underneath the bridge through the gaps.

This delay though is said to have allowed the bulk of the Norwegian army to create the shieldwall with their shields overlapping in defence.  Harold’s army then rushed across the bridge creating their own sheildwall before charging at the Norwegians.  The battle raged for hours and moved further away from the bridge.  The Vikings defence was faltering and then Harald was shot with an arrow in the wind pipe and Tostig was also slain.  The English army then pushed and the shieldwall broke.  The lack of armour for the Vikings was a great disadvantage and before long they totally disintegrated and were almost annihilated.

In the later battle they Norwegians were reinforced with troops that initially were left to defend the ships.  They apparently briefly checked the English advance but were soon also overwhelmed.  The Norwegians then retreated and fled chased by the English, with some of the Vikings drowning as they tried to cross the rivers.  So many died in such a small area that it was said the field was still whitened with bleached bones fifty years later.

King Harold then accepted a truce from the remaining Norwegians including Harald’s son Olaf and Paul Thorfinsson, Earl of Orkney.  The Norwegians then retreated to the Orkneys but only twenty four of the three hundred ships were needed so was the slaughter of the battle.

Three days after the battle William, Duke of Normandy landed on the south coast of England.  King Harold had to once again rush his now battle weary army on a forced march this time south.  On October 14th William defeated Harold at the battle of Hastings and so many Anglo-Saxon thegns and nobles died during the two battles that it was difficult for the Anglo-Saxons to counter a major resistance of the Normans.

But what if?

If Harald Hardrada had not attacked when he did how would the Norman invasion faired against a fresh Anglo-Saxon army?  Would Harald if he had invaded after William have then defeated Harold if he had won at Hastings?  So many questions over such a short period of time and such an important period in the growth and future of England and all of Western Europe.

Stamford Bridge battlefield memorial near Whiterose Drive

Stamford Bridge battlefield memorial near Whiterose Drive


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