Harald Hardrada and The Battle of Stamford Bridge

1066 is one of the most memorable years in European history. Amongst the general public and casual history readers, this will be purely due to The Battle of Hastings on 14th October – when William, Duke of Normandy defeated the Anglo-Saxon king, Harold Godwinson.

The Norman invasion shaped the future of England and the British Isles forever, but did you know that Harold Godwinson’s army had fought a Viking army led by Harold Hardrada in Yorkshire less than three weeks earlier, and had to march all the way back down on foot to fight again in East Sussex against the Norman invaders?

With this post, I hope to give you a bit more background into the battle that ended the Viking era and helped William the Conqueror to defeat Harold Godwinson’s tired army.

The battle of Stamford Bridge wasn’t a particularly feisty football match in Chelsea, it took place at the other end of the country in East Riding, Yorkshire. Here are some facts about the battle:

It started with the invasion of Harald Hardrada

When the English King, Edward the Confessor died in January, 1066 it set off a power struggle in Northern Europe – there wasn’t a clear line of succession. Most casual history fans are aware that William of Normandy was one of the claimants. The other predominant claimant was Harald Hardrada, who was King of Norway. He claimed he was next in line as he was a descendant of King Cnut (making sure I got the letters in the right order there) and had been promised the throne. He landed in Yorkshire with 300 longships and around 11,000 Viking warriors.

Harald Hardrada

Hardrada was joined by Harold Godwinson’s brother, Tostig.

Tostig had been forced into exile a year earlier by Harold – who had of course not taken it well. The people of Northumbria has refused to accept him as Earl, mostly because of his harsh rule. After conceding the exile, he eventually travelled to Norway and joined with Hardrada, supporting his claim.

The Viking army won a decisive victory at Fulford

The first Saxon army sent to repel the Vikings was soundly beaten at Fulford on 20th September, which was a disaster for Harold II – he had expected his Northern army to win the battle.

A modern depiction of the battle of Fulford, in the style of the Bayeux Tapestry

Within 4 days, Godwinson and 15,000 men had marched the 185 miles from London to York, almost 50 miles per day!

Godwinson’s army surprised Hardrada

The first Harald Hardrada knew of the Saxon army marching to meet him was when he saw them approaching – a big advantage for Harold II. Many of the Vikings had left their armour behind on their ships, having no expectation of a battle.

Harold Godwinson had some balls

If we are to take Snorri Sturluson’s account as gospel, before the battle a single man rode up alone to Harald Hardrada and Tostig.

He gave no name, but spoke to Tostig, offering the return of his earldom if he would turn against Hardrada. Tostig asked what his brother Harold would be willing to give Hardrada for his trouble. The rider replied “Seven feet of English ground, as he is taller than other men.” Then he rode back to the Saxon host. Hardrada was impressed by the rider’s boldness, and asked Tostig who he was.

Tostig replied that the rider was Harold Godwinson himself.

Harold wasn’t the only badass to feature in this battle

In order to access the Viking army, the Saxon army had to control the bridge itself – a choke point of the battlefield.

A huge Viking warrior with a massive double handed axe stood alone on the bridge. Swinging his axe with brutal ferocity, he cut down 40 soldiers and still stood, ready for more.

As is usually the case in war, something ingenious was required. Harold sent a spearman underneath the bridge, floating in half a barrel. The spearman thrust his spear through the planks underneath the warrior, sending him to Valhalla.

The scene depicted in the Bayeux Tapestry

The Saxon army crossed the bridge, meeting a Viking shieldwall that had been assembled during the battle for the bridge.

Tostig and Hardrada both fell in the subsequent fighting

Harald Hardrada took an arrow to the windpipe and Tostig was killed in the fighting too, demoralising the Norwegian force. In addition to their lack of armour against the heavily armoured Saxon force, the Vikings slowly but surely fell apart. As soon as Harold II’s army were able to flank the norsemen, the outcome was inevitable.

Hardrada takes an arrow to the neck

The Viking army suffered huge casualties

After the Saxons began flanking the Norse army, there were tremendous casualties and they routed. Many drowned in the river trying to escape, and only 24 of their original 300 longships were needed to return home. These remaining norsemen were allowed to leave by Harold, providing they promised never to attack England again.

The End of the Viking age

This defeat is often considered the end of the Viking age as it was the last significant and credible invasion of the British isles by a Viking force. Political and technological changes coincided to make raiding England or attempting to capture land there no longer profitable.

I hope you enjoyed learning about the Battle of Stamford Bridge. If you know your stuff feel free to leave some more information for people to read in the comments!


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