On a warm sunny early Autumn Monday, perhaps around noon, Norwegian scouts attached to the army of their King Harald Hardrada spotted a cloud of dust coming in from the west and became rather perplexed. Hardrada had moved a number of his troops, along with Earl Tostig, away from their ships docked at Riccal to a place on the River Derwent known as Stamford Bridge, some 9 miles east of York.
The geographical location made sense, placing him at equal distance between York and his fleet, with his army still able to be supplied by boat. Stripped to their waists, relaxing and perhaps awaiting more hostages from York the distant cloudy picture began to emerge and it eventually became apparent that these were not peace-bringing emissaries but a much larger host 'and the closer the army came the greater it grew and their glittering weapons sparkled like a field of broken ice.’
Panic immediately struck the Norwegian army, they had been taken completely by surprise. King Harold Godwinsson of England had arrived out of nowhere with a vast army of cavalry and infantry. Dispatching three riders to head to Riccal to call for reinforcements and armour, Hardrada ordered his banner ‘Landwaster’ to be raised.
Writing some 200 years later Snorri Sturluson describes events as they unfolded and, if they can be believed, some interesting insights into the tactics, weaponry and style of warfare – not least because it refers to English Cavalry, a much debated subject:
‘King Harald now drew up his army, and formed a long and rather thin line; the wings were bent back until they met, thus forming a wide circle of even depth, all the way round, with shields overlapping in front and above. The king himself was inside the circle with his standard and his own retinue of hand-picked men. Earl Tostig was also stationed inside the circle with his own company, and he had his own banner. The army was formed up in this way because |King Harald knew that cavalry always attacked in small detachments and then wheeled away at once. The king said that his own retinue and Earl Tostig’s company would make sorties to wherever the need was greatest: ‘Our archers are also to stay here with us. Those in the front rank are to set their spear-shafts into the ground and turn the points towards the riders’ breasts when they charge us; and those immediately behind are to set their spears against the horses’ chests.’
King Harold of England rode forward with a small retinue of personal housecarls to speak to his estranged brother Tostig, Harold offered him a third of all England to rule over and Tostig is said to have replied;
‘This is very different from the hostility and humiliation offered me last winter. If this offer had been made then, many a man who is now dead would still be alive, and England would be in a better state. But if I accept this offer now, what will you offer King Harald Sigurdsson for all his effort?’
King Harold answered; ‘Seven feet of ground, or as much as he is taller than other men.’
Tostig rejoined Hardrada and made ready for battle against his brother…
A popular tale of the battle is of the lone Viking warrior who held up the English army for quite some time on Stamford Bridge, not allowing them to cross and defeating many, eventually succumbing to a spear that was thrust through him from the underside of the bridge. The battle took place on farmland now called Battle Flats on rising ground just to the east of Stamford Bridge and it is hotly disputed by many that the English utilised cavalry (though this writer is not one of them). Whether they fought on foot or in cavalry (or both) is not known, however Snorri says Hardrada fell early in the conflict, which given the heroic element attached to the tale, certainly suggests he did otherwise Snorri would likely have him fighting to the last;
‘King Harald Sigurdsson now fell into such a fury of battle that he rushed forward ahead of his troops now fighting two-handed. Neither helmets nor coats of mail could withstand him, and everyone in his path gave way before him. It looked themn as if the English were on the point of being routed… But now King Harald Sigurdsson was struck in the throat by an arrow, and this was his death wound. He fell, and with him fell all those who had advanced with him, except for those who retreated with the royal standard.’
Reinforcements arrived late in the afternoon but it was too late for the Norwegians. The English pushed through and Tostig was cut down, with one source, The Carmen, saying that it was his brother King Harold who cut off his head. Poorly armed and taken by complete surprise many of the Vikings preferred to fight to the death and fall alongside their leader, those that fled were cut down before they reached their ships. Only 24 ships out of 300 returned to Norway. King Harold allowed Hardrada's son Olaf and Earl Paul of the Orkney Islands to return to Norway on the oath that they would never return to England. It is said the battle marked the end of the Viking age. Then, as the victory celebrations rang out across the land King Harold got news that Duke William of Normandy had landed at Pevensey…
King Harald's Saga (from Hemskringla) by Snorri Sturluson
1066 The Battles of York, Stamford Bridge & Hastings by Peter Marren
1066 The Year of Conquest by David Howarth
Images: Commemoration plaque at Stamford Bridge and the modern Stamford Bridge, situated some 200 yards from the former wooden Saxon bridge of 1066. Artists impression of Earl Tostig.