Tag Archives: Battle of Stamford Bridge

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

1066, the year of four Kings

When Edward the Confessor died, the nation of England was thrust into turmoil.  Double promises of succession and foreign upstarts laying claim to the throne that now had no head to sit on.  Each claim had its own merits and down falls but would lead to two battles that would shape the future of England forever.  England would have four Kings within the year 1066, and each of them with a story to tell.

The first of these Kings, Edward the Confessor did not last very long.  He died at Westminster Palace on 4th or 5th of January leaving empty the throne with no children to sit on it. The Normans claimed that in 1064 Edward is meant to have sent his actual successor Harold to see William, Duke of Normandy to confirm to William that he would follow him onto the throne.   This is evidenced in the account of William of Poitiers just after the Battle of Hastings.  William states that an envoy was sent by Harold to William stating that on his deathbed Edward had promised him the throne and that he would become the next King of England.  William never disputed this claim but always believed that the previous promise overruled the later one.  Some say that Edward actually entrusted the Kingdom to Harold before he died.

Edward the Confessor, opening scene of the Bayeux Tapestry

The Witenagemot or Witan convened the next day and declared Harold as the successor to Edward and he was crowned most probably at Westminster Abbey on the 6th January 1066. On hearing of this William began plans for the invasion of England with a mass fleet being built of 700 hundred ships.  A standoff then took place for the next seven months with unfavourable winds not allowing William to sail and Harold with the English army encamped on the Isle of Wight.  Provisions were nearing empty and Harold disbanded the army and set off back to London.  On the 8th of September the same day as Harold left the Isle of Wight, another claimant to the throne landed at the foot of the Tyne.

Harald Hardrada was the King of Norway and stuck his claim from Cnut.  He was joined by Harold’s brother and the ex Earl of Nothumbria Tostig.  It is stated that Edwards’s predecessor Harthacnut as the King of England, had stated that the crown would pass down the House of Denmark line instead of moving back to the House of Wessex.  Magnus I of Norway didn’t follow this through but with persuasion from Tostig the fallen brother Harald believed he had a claim to stake.  Harald invaded England with about 300 ships and 15,000 men.  The major and decisive battle took place at Stamford Bridge on the 25th September 1066.

After Harald had landed at the Tyne Harold raced north making the journey from London to Yorkshire in three days.  With the speed at which Harold was traveling the invading Norwegian army was taken by surprise not knowing about the oncoming army came into view.  It is said that with the surprise the Viking army were ill equipped and there armour had been left aboard their ships.  The battle raged on the Viking side of the river once the Anglo-Saxon had removed the danger on the bridge.   Sheild walls were formed and the fighting became close quarter.  With the Norwegians having no armour they were at a disadvantage and their army began to fragment.  The Anglo-Saxon then drove home this advantage and went on to win the battle.  Harald was killed during the battle and Harold accepted the truce of his sons Olaf and Paul Thorfinnsson, Earl of Orkneyto which they pledged never to attack England again.  The battle is quite often stated as being the end of the era of Viking raiding in the British Isles, although there were a further two campaigns in the next couple of decades, notably those of King Sweyn Estrithson of Denmark in 1069-70 and King Magnus Barefoot of Norway in 1098 and 1102.

Battle of Stamford Bridge.
From 13th century Anglo-Norman manuscript.

Harold was not allowed to rest on his victory for long.  Three days after the battle on the 28th September 1066 William landed on the south coast of England.  Harold and his battle weary army had to turn round and race back the road they had come to fight, to try and repulse the second invasion of the year.  The tale of the crown in 1066 had taken another twist.

The Battle of Hastings took place on the 14th October 1066.  The Anglo-Saxon spirit was broken during the battle when Harold was shot through the eye with an arrow.  This scene has been made famous by the Bayeux Tapestry.  After numerous attacks and counter attacks the causalities caused by William’s army led to the Saxon shield wall being filled with untrained and poorly weaponed troops.  Small chinks were being made into the shield wall when William and a group of knights made a breakthrough this is where the attack against Harold himself is believed to come from.  To many of the Anglo Saxon nobles had died Hastings to rally the remaining of the troops around and it looked like William would become the next King of England.

Edgar the Atheling was the great grandson of Aethelred the Unready.  Aged only 15 at the time of the Battle of Hastings this did not stop the Witan meeting the day after the battle in London and proclaiming him King.  Edgar although was never actually officially crowned.  England had now its third King of the year.  As William then closed in on London in December Edgar’s supporters began to slowly dwindle   In December of 1066 the remaining members of the Witan took Edgar out to William submitting to him at Berkhamsted quietly forgetting about the previous proclamation of Edgar as King.

Harold Rex Interfectus Est: “King Harold is killed”. Scene from the Bayeux Tapestry depicting the Battle of Hastings. Harold grasps the arrow lodged in his eye.

William the Conqueror sent troops into London to begin to construct a castle.  He was crowned England’s fourth King of the year on Christmas Day at Westminster Abbey 1066.  His Kingship would be littered with revolts as he slowly put down the different rebellions of the Anglo Saxons, but his tenure would be the beginning of the House of Normandy that would revolutionise England.  The death of the House of Wessex would end two hundred and fifty year history of the House of Wessex as it grew from the southern parts of England into uniting the whole nation as one.

1066 was defiantly not a quiet year in the making on England and would be one that every inhabitant of England would go on not to forget.

English coin of William the Conqueror