english history · history

Stamford Bridge: The Last Victory of Harold II

A year in history that I find the most interesting is 1066. It is a year that changed English history and influenced the rest of European history. Also, I am a big Harold Godwinson (Harold II) fan and I think he deserves a lot more credit that what he is remembered for in history (i.e. getting killed by an arrow to the eye and losing to William). He was a good king and military leader who got put into impossible situations. Granted, he may have had some over confidence in his decision making and just plain bad luck. The whole world knew it was going to be a bad year after seeing the great comet fly through the sky (tho today we know this as Halley’s comet) providing a bad omen.

In my opinion, with just a few situations changed, the history of 1066 (and the course of English history) could have been very different.

But on the topic at hand…On this day in history, September 25, 1066, the battle of Stamford Bridge took place (sorry this is late!!). I am sure everyone has heard of the Battle of Hastings, but did you know that Harold Godwinson was involved in an intense battle against another invading force in the north just three days before William the Conqueror landed on English shores? Seriously.. What bad luck!

By the 1060s Harold was one of the most important noblemen in England. He was described as an accomplished leader, strong, fashionable, honorable and amiable. He had had many military success during his lifetime so far; in 1066 he was about 44 years old. He brought his family out of exile in the early 1050s and spread the earldoms out between his brothers. One of the brothers, Tostig (who will play a part later), took control of Northumberland. Besides Mercia, all of England was under the control of the Godwine family. Harold’s claim to the English throne was actually weak, but since he was so popular and powerful in England he was named (or so it is said) the successor at Edward the Confessors deathbed and was elected by the witan. To clarify, the witan is the election of a King by the nobility and was commonplace during the Anglo-Saxon period. Harold II is crowned very quickly because others felt they had a stronger claim to the English throne…

The obvious candidate was Duke WiIliam of Normandy who felt an oath made to him was broken. He had already begun to gather this invasion force as soon as Harold II was elected. It was to be one of the largest invasion forces so far in history. But, a candidate you may not have known was Harald Hardrada of Norway, the last of the legendary Vikings. Hardrada was the King of Norway and a famed figure among his people. He was extremely tall and strong, he was a wild warrior who had spent his whole life (at this time he was 51 years old) at war throughout Europe, traveling all the way to Byzantium. Historians view him as the last of the traditional “Vikings” that had pillaged and raided up until this point. But why was he involved with England in any way?

Remember I mentioned Tostig? Tostig, the brother of Harold II, had caused himself to be exiled in 1065 due to his cruel rule of Northumbria. His people formed a rebellion and pushed him out of power. His brother, the king, did nothing to prevent this. In anger Tostig went to find himself an ally to conquer England. He persuaded Hardrada to fight for the land that “belonged” to Hardrada by right. This claim came from through a pact that his nephew Magnus had made with Harthacnut during the last Viking rule of England; whoever died first would claim the other’s land. So, naturally, Hardrada found the reason to pillage England, he was owed this kingdom by the deal with Harthacnut. For now, his new ally Tostig, just wanted revenge.

Meanwhile, to the south, Harold II had been waiting impatiently with his troops for the awaited Norman attack. They were all ready to fight off these invaders, but throughout the whole summer no one came. In reality, the weather was too stormy for William to attempt to make a crossing of the channel (to his great disappointment). When the food and the money was running short for Harold to keep a standing army, he had to dismiss them on Sept 8th.

To the north, the Viking raiders of Hardrada and Tostig had arrived with 300 ships. On September 20th they had won their first victory against the Earls Edwin and Morcar at the Battle of Fulford, which won them York. Instead of settling at York, the army of Hardrada find a new location at Stamford Bridge (about 8 miles from York) and had no idea what was coming for them.

Harold learned of this invasion in the North and the defeat of his earls at Fulford. He took swift action and called for the resemblance of his army with his other brothers and between the 12th-20th of September he gathered these forces. Now here comes the most incredible part for me; it is about 200 miles from London to Stamford Bridge. In the 11th century it would take a long time to travel that distance with a large and slow army, with their supplies, stops for rest/food and by traveling on foot. Yet, it took Harold’s army FOUR days (20th-24th of September) to travel that distance. That is incredible that they moved that quickly and still is seen as one of the greatest movements of troops throughout history. By the 25th Harold pushed his army to perform the surprise attack on Hardrada’s unsuspecting troops, giving the men little rest after that quick journey to the north.

It is interesting to note that much of the account of the Battle at Stamford Bridge actually comes from the saga written of Hardrada (again displaying his legendary status). It was said that the Viking army were completely surprised and only realized the English were coming when a great dust cloud appeared over the ridge and seeing the reflections of the sun off Harold’s army helmets and armor. According to the sagas, Harold rode up disguised as a herald to meet with Hardrada and his wayward brother Tostig. Harold offered his brother back his earldom, but to Hardrada he offered “ seven feet of English ground or as much more, as he is taller than most men .” (Hardrada was 6 feet, extremely tall for that period) Tostig refused and as they left the meeting Hardrada asked who that man was and, when Tostig told him it was the king, he exclaimed he would have killed him on the spot! But, he admired how well Harold sat in the stirrups for “such a small man.” It is unknown how true this story is, but it shows Hardrada’s confidence (maybe over confidence) going into to this battle.

This battle took place over the whole day of September 25, 1066. The English overran the Viking raiders, yet when they reached the bridge legend has it that they were met by a lone Viking Berserker who took on all of them, allowing none of the English warriors to pass (supposedly killing 40). Well, that is until the English went under the bridge and stabbed this legendary warrior from below. The English charged over the bridge and pitted themselves against the waiting shield wall. This battle was rough, savage, and bloody; the battle lasted until the evening. In the midst of battle Hardrada, the last of the great Viking warriors, was killed by an arrow through the throat and Tostig was killed as well. When the Viking leader fell, Harold tried to offer peace to the survivors, but they continued to fight for their fallen leader. In the end this was a great victory for the English after a hard fought and long battle. Harold granted the survivors mercy and allowed them to go back home. It is astonishing that out of the 300 ships of warriors that sailed to England, only 24 ships returned. The casualties were so great that up until the 1130s it was said that the bones of the fallen were still visible. Historians mark this battle as the end of the Viking era.

This was a huge boost for Harold II and showed what a strong military leader he was, but his stroke of luck was about to end. On September 28th (two days after Stamford Bridge) William of Normandy landed on the southern shores of England as the weather had finally cleared. Harold, busy fighting an invader in the north, was not prepared on the shores as he had been all summer long. While William awaited news of who he would be fighting (Harold or Hardrada), Harold gathered his troops to make another speedy four day journey back to London (again, this is covering 200 miles with an even more exhausted army after fighting one of the most intense battles of their lives). Many view this as a foolish decision by Harold. His army, after defeating one conquerer, were exhausted and barely had any time to rest. Yet, Harold pushed them to make a journey in record time (FOUR DAYS!!) to meet with William for another battle. Was it his over confidence after winning? Or did he believe he could catch the Normans by surprise like Hardrada? Is it possible that history could have been different regarding the Battle of Hastings if an army that was well rested (like the one that waited all summer) had met William’s troops? What if Hardrada never invaded England? Could the Anglo-Saxons have continued to rule?

Those are questions for another blog post as I wanted to bring attention to this great victory of Harold and show what elements may have influenced the bad luck that he faced at Hastings. Since Hastings was so decisive and (spoiler alert) Harold met his end on that battlefield, the Battle of Stamford Bridge and the defeat and end of the Viking ero is overshadowed and forgotten. Harold II was a tough man and pushed his armies to their limits, but in the case of Stamford Bridge iit paid off.

Further Reading/Listening:

Rex Factor Podcast, Episode Harold (1066)


1066: The Year of the Conquest, by David Howarth


3 thoughts on “Stamford Bridge: The Last Victory of Harold II

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