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A bridge too far… Stamford, 1066

Edward the Confessor left quite a frenzy of conflict behind when he died in January 1066. There were many claimants to the throne, and none were averse to throwing down their gauntlet for it. Last month’s article on the Battle of Fulford illustrates this point well, with Hardrarda, King of Norway, and Tostig Godwinson – Harold’s brother – teaming up against Morcar of Northumberland and Edwin of Mercia, just to get the ball rolling.

Harold Godwinson, the considered heir and king in situ, had had his work cut out for him from the start. And this Viking invasion from the North had forced a tough decision upon him: Stay put and wait for winds to carry another contender, William of Normandy, across the Channel, or head north to stamp out the Norwegians once and for all. Winds had favoured Hardrada’s crossing, and Harold’s decision to head up to York had been made.
By the time Harold had hard-marched his army up Watling Street to do 180 miles in four days, the Vikings had already clashed with Morcar and Edwin at Fulford. They’d won, seized York, and felt themselves due a rest.

Harold caught them by surprise…

Hardrada had arranged with the City of York to exchange hostages held after Fulford, but the meet was to take place twelve miles outside of York, at Stamford Bridge. On the morning of 25th September, 1066, as the Vikings lazed in the meadows – many with their armour left on their ship – Harold’s army unexpectedly appeared on the horizon. Despite their forced march, the Saxons were psyched for battle and Hardrada’s army was caught off guard.
Legend has it that a lone Saxon rider approached Hardrada and Tostig before the battle began. He spoke to Tostig, offering him the return of his earldom if he turned against Hardrada. Tostig had queried what might possibly be given to Hardrada in return for his trouble. The rider had replied, “Six feet of ground or as much more as he needs, as he is taller than most men…” The anonymous rider had then left, and Hardrada had asked Tostig who the bold Saxon was. Harold Godwinson himself, Tostig had informed him.

A rotund twist…

In a delaying tactic, the Norwegians held the Saxons off from crossing the Derwent whilst they pulled what gear they had together and took position. Naturally, the bridge itself was a choke point. But it’s said a single anonymous Norse axeman held the bridge alone. And this behemoth of a man took forty Saxon lives before he was finally felled by a soldier hiding under a half barrel, who’d speared him from underneath the bridge. Even at the time of the battle, this lone Viking was spoken of with reverence. The chroniclers give respect where it’s due. For he’d gallantly achieved what he’d needed to achieve, and had given his comrades time to form their shield wall. Structured in the shape of a triangle in order to present a narrow front, the Vikings were then able to hold firm for some considerable time.
Fighting continued for most of the day. Warriors on both sides were exhausted, but they fought fiercely, hand to hand, and axe to axe. It was only when Hardrada was hit by a Saxon missile that the Vikings faltered. Tostig tried to rally them, but exhaustion fed their demoralisation fast. And within a short time of their king’s death, the Norwegian resistance crumbled apart. They had been annihilated.

Battle of Stamford Bridge

Decimation…

Of the original 300 Viking ships that had sailed across, only 24 were needed to carry the remaining Norwegian army back. Story has it that Harold had sworn Hardrada would only get a few feet of English soil; and that is all Hardrada got until his remains were eventually returned to Norway.

The winds of change…

The battle at Stamford Bridge is significant in many ways. The outcome was one that finally put an end to the daunting Viking threat that had irked England for so long. So in that respect, it was a triumph. But Harold’s army had been hit hard. That, coupled with the loss of Edwin’s and Morcar’s support after Fulford, meant his force was badly depleted. And celebration swiftly turned to concern as news then reached them that William of Normandy had landed in Sussex…