Battle of Stamford Bridge

Born in 1015 as Harald III Sigurdsson and later adopting the name Hardrĺde, which in Old Norse means roughly “stern council / hard ruler”; obtain kingship in Norway in 1047 until his death in 1066. For a short period of time he was also King of Denmark in 1062 until his death.

Harald was the son of Ĺstra Gudbrandsdatter, who was the youngest of three half brothers to King Olaf II. When Harald was at the age of 15 years King Olaf died in the Battle of Stiklestad defending his throne from the onslaught of Canute the Great in the year 1030. As result of Olaf’s death Harald went into exile from Norway so that he would not be hunted down and killed by Canute.

After spending years of raiding throughout the Byzantine Empire in the Varangian Guard, Harald proved his ability in battle and quickly rose to power and earned the respect of the men. Leading the Varangian Guard Harald achieved victory in North Africa, Syria and Sicily; where his fighting style he was able to besiege and defeat a number of castles. It is recorded that Harald would attach burning resin to birds which in turn when the birds flew over the castle would fall setting the castle on fire. Harald was also known for waiting for the most advantageous time for him to launch his attack rather then showing up and immediately beginning a fight. Over the course of his victories Harald accumulated great wealth. In 1040-41 Harald and his men participated in the quelling the uprising led by Peter Delyan who launched a failed attempt to restore the Bulgarian Empire. From the Sagas Harald is called the Devestator of Bulgaria and the Scourge of the Bulgarians. It is common belief that Harald personally cut down Peter Delyan in battle and that Oslo is named after a Bulgarian woman that Harald fell in love with, however there is no factual basis for these common beliefs.

In 1045 Harald returned to Norway with his massive amount of wealth and a large number of his men from the Varangian Guard. The current King Magnus I, the nephew of Harald felt threatened that now Harald had returned from his exile. Without much choice Magnus decided to share power with Harold and the two became co-rulers of Norway, until Magnus mysterious died a year later.

Now in full control of Norway and the resources Harald continued relentless raiding of Europe bring it to its height and to its end. On September 15, 1066 Harald Hardrada launched his assault on England by attacking and burning Scarborough,, with the intention of seizing the English throne as his own. The legitimacy of his claim being that Magnus and Harthacanute made an agreement that if either died without a heir, the other would inherit both England and Norway. Harthacanute died on June 8, 1042 at Lambeth, unmarried and without children.

Following Harthacanute on the English throne was Edward son of Ethelred and brother of Harthacanute. King Edward’s mother was Queen Emma the daughter of Richard Earl of Rouen. Emma’s brother was Earl Robert, father of William Earl of Rouen. Gyda the daughter of Earl Godwin was Edward’s Queen. Gyda’s brothers were Earl Toste who is the oldest, Earl Morukare the second oldest, Earl Walter the third oldest, Earl Svein the fourth oldest and Harald who was the youngest and raised in King Edward’s court and became his foster-son. Edward treated Harald as his own son for Edward had no children.

One summer Harald Godwinson, the son of Earl Godwin led an expedition to Bretland, however when crossing the channel they met with a strong storm wind that blew them hard off course causing the fleet to find mooring in Rouen, Normandy.

It is at this time that Harald Godwinson meet William Earl of Rouen, who received Harald gladly. Through the late harvest season Harald remained with William for the stormy weather continued to persist, making it impossible to put to sea. Soon winter had set in and Harald found himself still in Normandy unable to put to sea. So he decided to stay as a guest of William throughout the winter.

During the course of winter Harald and William’s wife would often be involved in long discourse to late in the night. So frequently this happened that it began to make William suspicious of Harald’s intentions. This forced Harald and William’s wife to hold a conference with William where it was then told that Harald was discussing with William’s wife the marriage to him of their daughter. William was pleased with this however his daughter was still too young so the marriage was deferred for a later date.

The two sons of Earl Godwin quickly became the most powerful men in England. Toste was the chief of the English army and was made the land-defense man for the King when the King began to grow old; he was also placed above all other Earls. Harald was always at the court and nearest to the King in all service and responsible for the King’s treasure chamber. When the King was entering his final hour, Harald and a few others were with him, Harald leaned down first over the king and then said:

“I take you all to witness that the king has now given me the kingdom, and all the realm of England;”

And then the King died in his bed; the same day a meeting of the chiefs was held where there was talk of choosing a king, until Harald brought forth his witness that King Edward had given him the kingdom on his death bed. Thus the meeting was brought to a close and Harald was selected as King, his consecration and crowning occurred on 13th day of Yule. When Toste heard of his brothers so called claim to the throne he was non too happy about it, for he felt he was just as entitled to be king. Feeling cheated sharp words were exchanged between the two brothers.

With 15,000 men and 300 longships with 50 men per ship, on September 20, 1066 Harald gained a huge victory over the English at the Battle of Fulford two miles / three kilometers south of York. At the Battle of Fulford Harold with his ally Tostig Godwinson, an Earl of Northumbria and brother of King Harold II of England, whom was the last crowned Anglo-Saxon King of England; defeated the Earls Edwin of Mercia and his younger brother Morcar of Northumbria. Morcar was elected as Earl of Northumbria in 1065 when Tostig Godwinson was ejected by the Northumbrians on October 3, 1065. With a failed raid by Tostig on Northumbria he fled to Scotland, where he and Harald Hardrade went back to Northumbria with a huge Norwegian army and defeated Edwin and Morcar on September 20, 1065.

Deciding that the Viking threat was greater then the Norman threat, King Harald Godwinson rallied his army of Huscarls and Royal Thegns, they set out for Yorkshire; upon the trip the English army met up with the West Mercian and East Anglian Fyrd. The distance between London and Yorkshire is about 320 kilometers; in four days the English army arrived at Tadcaster averaging about 80 kilometers a day on forced march.

For King Godwinson, Tadcaster provided a good tactical advantage over King Hardrade; the road that was built in Roman times was near the southern bank of the Wharfe River; an approximate distance of 3.5 kilometers from where King Hardrade’s fleet was moored. It is here that King Godwinson learned of the crushing defeat of Earl Edwin and Earl Morcar at the Battle of Fulford. King Godwinson took the necessary precautions of protecting the army and York by placing guards at strategic points on the route to York. King Hardrade did not know that King Godwinson and the English army was so close to his position. The next day King Godwinson allowed his army to rest in the meadow by Tadcaster and continued to gather intelligence.

Some of the intelligence gathered from Morcar’s sailors included the position of King Hardrade, Tosti and the Norwegian army; had departed York and were now at Riccall where the fleet was moored. Residents of York had sent information to King Goodwinson that the they were forced to give the Norwegians supplies and hostages. Further reports from Northumbria also said the Norwegians were to be given supplies and as many as 100 hostages and that this tribute was to be given at Stamford Bridge.

King Godwinson went to York early on the morning of September 25, 1066 and re-established his authority over the city. Once York was recaptured King Godwinson marched the army hard and fast for the nine kilometers to Stamford Bridge with the few reinforcements that York could muster; here King Hardrada and Tosti were caught off guard. Keeping to the Roman road and halting at Helmsley Gate the English army remained just out of sight of the Norwegian army at Stamford Bridge. Laying in ambush the English awaited the Norwegians to casually arrive to collect the tribute; so completely unaware of the ambush King Godwinson observed some of the Norwegians swimming in the River Derwent; when King Godwinson felt that the Norwegians were well at ease he ordered the Huscarls and Fyrdmen forward.

When the English broke the ridgetop the sun from the helmets, axes, armour and shields must have been blinding to the Norwegians and appearing as if a great fire serpent had come out of the forest towards them. King Hardrade and Tosti were only expecting a hand over of the tribute and did not count on engaging the whole English army; the Norwegians had sent / left their armour on the ships; and were greatly outnumbered.

Snorri Sturluson in the Saga of Harold III composed in 1225 that Harald’s Norwegian army had left their byrnies at the ships, when confronted by the English army they had only spear, shield and helmet to fight with.

A small number of the Norwegian army rushed the bridge to the northern end to stem the wave of English that slammed down upon them, while the main body of the Norwegian army remained on the southern end of the bridge. King Hardrade was not familiar with the layout of the land or the tactics of King Godwinson, however Tosti the brother of King Godwinson knew the land and all too well the tactics of his brother Harold. Tosti had urged King Hardrade to withdrawal back to Riccall. King Haradrade was no stranger to battle and knew that he would be quickly surrounded and crushed by the Huscarls should he try to withdrawal. It is also likely that King Hardrade believed that the road to Riccall had been lost as surely King Godwinson would have put a formable force blocking any route of retreat to the ships, the armour, and the rest of the Norwegian army.

In retrospect, King Hardrade probably could have retreated to Riccall, because the messenger he sent back to Eystein Orre, the commander of the remaining Norwegian army at Riccall received the message to advance on Stamford Bridge fully armed and armoured as quickly as possible. King Hardrade then ordered his men on the northern bank to fallback to the southern bank and to hold the bridge. This gave King Hardrade the opportunity to form a line of defense on a ridge top 300 yards to the south-east of the Derwent river.

The Norwegian bridge guard was soon over run and only one Norwegian berserker remained, armed only with an axe and with no armour he held off the entire English army for a considerable amount of time, as recorded in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle; the berserker was killed when an English spearman had himself rowed beneath the bridge; between the planks of the bridge the spearman thrusted his spear killing the berserker. There have been estimates as much as 15 to 20 minutes, which would be needed by King Hardrade to form up the army in a defensive line on the ridge top 300 yards from the bridge. There is no eye witness accounts per say, although written in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, written several years after the battle occurred.

The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle states that Stamford Bridge was held by an enormous Norwegian berserker armed with only an axe, with no armour held the entire English army at bay for a considerable amount of time until he was killed by an English spear. The delay gave Harald Hardrade the time he needed to get into a circle formation on high ground, thus forcing the English to march up hill to engage in battle with the Norwegians.

Once the bridge guard fell the English seized the bridge and on the southern banks formed up ranks several lines deep. At this time King Godwinson rode out to shout to his brother Tosti offering to return his earldom of Northumbria and asking him to lay down his arms and to join him against King Hardrade. Tosti asked what lands of England that King Hardrade would receive King Godwinson’s reply was simple:

“Harald was taller than most, he would grant him seven foot of good English soil!”

With the English army completely across the bridge King Godwinson ordered them to advance on the Norwegian position. The English did win victory easily they incurred a high number of losses as did the Norwegians, with King Hardrade, his brother and Tosti Godwinson all killed. Despite the fall of the Norwegian leaders the Norwegians continued to fight to the death in small groups.

“Norway’s King had nothing to shield his breast in battle;
And yet his war-seasoned
Heart never wavered.
Norway’s warriors were watching
The blood-dripping sword
Of their courageous leader
Cutting down his enemies.
But now King Harald Sigurdsson was struck in the throat by an arrow,
And this was his death wound.
He fell, and with him feel all those who had advanced with him …”
- Arnor the Earl’s Poet -

When Eystein Orre arrived with the reinforcements the losses for the Norwegians were so high that even now with fully armed and armoured warriors the Norwegians were not able to steal victory away from the English. Due to the hard and fast forced march with all their weapons and armour in an unusually hot day the Norwegian reinforcements were exhausted and Eystein Orre was killed as the last of the Norwegian army faltered.

What remained of the Norwegian army quickly retreated to Riccall with the English army in pursuit. In Riccall there was one last stand of the Norwegian army but it was quick lived and soon the Norwegians surrendered to King Godwinson; whom was pursuing a total victory rather then bloodlust. King Godwinson had all the survivors of the Norwegian army gathered up and placed on the longships and let them go. Amongst the survivors was Olaf the son of Harald Hardrade. Only 36 of 300 longships returned to Norway with the survivors.

King Harald Godwinson victory at Stamford Bridge would be short lived, for on September 28, 1066, William II Duke of Normandy made land fall at Pevensey Bay, in East Sussex in Southern England. William quickly moved on Hastings and built defenses where he awaited King Harald Godwinson. On October 13, 1066, William received news that Harald Godwinson was moving his army through London to meet William at Hastings.

Harald now significantly weakened from the Battle of Stamford Bridge had to now focus on the new invasion from the south not having time to recover from the heavy losses suffered at Stamford Bridge. The forced march from Stamford Bridge to London and then onto Hastings would prove to be one of Harald’s greatest disadvantages.

With the death of King Hardrade, came the end of the Viking Age and the unstoppable ushering in of Christianity to Norway and Scandinavia as a whole. Although written down as being somewhat Christian, Harold Hardrade was king whom had a foot in the old beliefs and the new beliefs of Christianity as he ruled in the time of transition; his death marked the last standing obstacle for the Christian missionaries.

by Noil


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