The Battle of Stamford Bridge, 25 September 1066
954 years ago King Harold Godwinson defended his crown against an invading Norwegian force led by King Harald Hardrada.
On 05 January 1066 King (and later saint) Edward the Confessor of England died without an heir, starting a year long struggle for power in England. According to the Vita Ædwardi Regis, just before King Edward died he placed the Kingdom in the ‘protection’ of his brother-in-law, Harold Godwinson.
Godwinson was crowned King of England on 06 January 1066 at Westminster Abbey. When William the Bastard, Duke of Normandy heard the news he began planning an invasion of England. William believed he was the rightful heir and Godwinson stole the throne from him. There is evidence to suggest William visited King Edward in the 1050’s and during the visit Edward may have promised William the throne. William was intent on making sure the promise was upheld. He assembled an army and over 700 ships, ready to sail to England.
William wasn’t the only claimant to the throne. In Norway, King Harald Hardrada also had his eye on the Kingdom of England. Harald was a fierce Viking warrior, spending time in the Varangian Guard and fighting battle after battle to claim the Danish throne. Unable to conquer Denmark, Harald relinquished his claim on the Danish throne in 1064.
In 1066, Tostig Godwinson, the brother of the new King Harold Godwinson, pledged his allegiance to Hardrada and advised him to invade England and claim the throne. Tostig was the Earl of Northumberia from 1055-1065 but was never a popular ruler. He was implicated in the murder of several members of prominent Northumberian families. His brother Harold, an advisor to King Edward the Confessor, convinced the King to strip Tostig’s title and outlaw him. In 1065 King Edward followed the advice and exiled Tostig.
Tostig tried to make an alliance with William the Bastard but was unsuccessful and spent the summer of 1066 in Scotland. He then contacted King Harald Hardrada and convinced him to overthrow his brother, King Harold Godwinson.
Harald agreed and laid out plans to invade England. In September 1066, Hardrada sailed to England with 10,000 men and 300 longships. The first major battle took place on 20 September 1066. The Battle of Fulford was a clear victory for Hardrada and his men. They easily defeated the men of Northumbria and Mercia. Because of the major defeat King Harold was forced to march his men North to stop the invading forces of Hardrda.
Godwinson marched his men from London to York a distance of 190 miles (310km) in under a week. The English army led by King Harold Godwinson meet the invading Norwegian force, led by King Harald Hardrada on 25 September 1066 at Stamford Bridge. King Harold’s army caught the Norwegians by surprise. Hardrada and his men were expecting light resistance from the local population. They weren’t wearing armor and half their force was guarding the ships.
According to Icelandic historian, Snorri Sturluson, before the battle started a man rode up Harald Hardrada and Tostig. He spoke to Tostig, offering the return of his earldom if he would turn against Hardrada. Tostig asked what King Godwinson would offer Hardrada for his trouble. The rider replied “Seven feet of English ground, as he is taller than other men.” Tostig refused the offer. When the man rode off Hardrada asked Tostig who the man was, Tostig replied, King Harold Godwinson.
The battle started and the Norwegians seemed to have the upper hand, blocking the bridge from the English. According to the Anglo-Saxon Chronicles one man alone held the bridge:
Then was there one of the Norwegians who withstood the English people, so that they might not pass over the bridge, nor obtain the victory. Then an Englishman aimed at him with a javelin, but availed nothing; and then came another under the bridge, and pierced him terribly inwards under the coat of mail.
Once the man was killed the English charged across the bridge and slaughtered the Norwegians. Hardrada was killed early in the battle when an arrow peirced his throat. It’s recorded in the sagas, when Hardrada was killed he was in a berseker state, fighting fiercely, desperately trying to defeat the English.
The force of Norwegians guarding the ships ran to reinforce Hardrda. The troops were led by Eystein Orre and the men were fully armed and armored for battle. The counter-attack, dubbed “Orre’s Storm” for it’s ferocity, briefly stopped the English. But they were soon overwhelmed and defeated. Orre was killed during the counter-attack. In the end King Harald Hardrda was killed and his army defeated. Tostig was also killed in the battle.
The death of Harald Hardrada is regarded as the end of the Viking Age in England
It’s said so many men died in such a small area the field was filled with the bones of the dead for over 50 years.
The Battle of Stamford Bridge was King Harold’s first major defense of his crown, but it wouldn’t be his last. Three days after Stamford Bridge, the invasion force of William the Bastard landed 260 miles to the south in Pevensey Bay, Sussex. Harold Godwinson rallied his troops and headed south to stop another invasion.
Killed at the Battle of Stamford Bridge:
- Harald Hardrada, Norwegian king
- Tostig Godwinson, exiled brother of English King Harold Godwinson
- Eystein Orre, Norwegian Noble