The Battle Of Stamford Bridge

In 1066 the battle of Hastings wasn’t the only battle that King Harold Godwinsson fought. Less than twenty days prior to that famous battle, he had no choice but to fight another battle in the north of England against an enemy that was as strong and equally as determined to wrest the throne of England from his grasp. That enemy was Haraldur (Hard Ruler) Sigurosson the king of Norway who claimed he had a right to the throne via a treaty between his nephew Magnus and King Knutur, the son of King Canute who had a claim on the throne of England.

Haraldur gathered a fleet of two hundred ships and sailed for the north of England, where he met up with the Earls of Orkney and Scotland. In addition Harold Godwinssons own brother, Tostig the deposed Earl Of Northumbria, who was after having his Earldom reinstated, joined him. This brought the fleet up to three hundred ships, carrying nine thousand men. The fleet swept down the northeast coast harrying

the Yorkshire towns of Cleaveland, Scarborough and Holderness, before turning into the Humber and sailing up the Ouse, to land at Riccall.

Warned of Haraldur’s coming the Earl of Northumbria, Morcar and the Earl of Mercia, Edwin, had joined forces and waited for him at Gate Fulford. It was the 20th of September when the two sides met and with a mighty crash the shield walls came together. Both sides fought long and hard and lost many men, but as evening neared the Norwegians broke through the English wall and the survivors fled the field.

York capitulated in an effort to prevent the city being sacked and Haraldur believing that King Harold would be unable to move north while being under threat of invasion in the south, took hostages and negotiated for supplies to be delivered. The City readily agreed his terms. (There were many in York who supported his cause, after all, up until only twenty-four years prior a Danish King had ruled the city.) Leaving one third of his force under the command of Eystein Orre at Riccall, to guard the ships, Haraldur and Tostig marched with the rest to the cross roads at Stamford  Bridge . The  bridge  was the designated meeting place, where hostages and supplies would be exchanged.

When King Harold heard of the defeat at Gate Fulford, he gathered his army and together with his brother Gyrth, set off on a forced march towards the north. As the army raced northwards, men from Mercia and Yorkshire joined them and in four days they were in Tadcaster, an amazing feat.

The 25th of September was a sunny day and by late morning believing there was no danger Haraldur’s men removed their helmets and chain mail and lay relaxing on the banks of the Derwent. They were expecting a delegation with supplies from the direction of York, instead Harold and his army appeared. Surprised and outnumbered Haraldur sent for reinforcement and after setting up a rearguard to hold the  bridge , moved hurriedly to the higher ground.

Harold offered to reinstate his brother as Earl of Northumbria, but when Tostig asked what lands he would grant Haraldur, King Harold replied that since the Norwegian was an exceptionally tall man he would grant him seven feet of ground. Tostig turned down the offer and remained with Haraldur.

Before the main battle could begin the rearguard had to be dealt with. The rearguard fought bravely, but was soon overwhelmed, all bar one man, a great axe wielding Norseman who held the centre of the narrow  bridge . Dozens of men went against him and all were cut down, until eventually a warrior crept beneath the  bridge  and stabbing upwards through the gaps in the decking speared him in the groin. An ignoble end to a brave warrior, but his sacrifice gave Norwegians time to prepare their shield wall.

With the axe man taken care of the English streamed across the  bridge , formed into line, moved uphill and shield wall to shield wall the battle proper began. All afternoon the battle raged with neither side gaining the upper hand, until Haraldur, filled with blood lust surged forward in front of his men and hacking left, right and centre, forged his way into the English line almost causing a rout. Unfortunately at this point his luck ran out and he was struck in the throat by an arrow.

King Harold seized on this and offered his brother the chance to surrender, Tostig refused and using Haraldur’s battle flag, ‘Land Waster’ as a rallying point, urged the Norsemen to fight on; which they did for a while. But by the time the exhausted reinforcements arrived from Riccall, Tostig was dead, the army beaten and all they could do was make a hard pressed fighting retreat. In the end Harold granted those that were left, including Olaf, Haraldur’s son, quarter and they were allowed to leave. Of the three hundred ships that arrived to do battle, only twenty-four ships filled with men returned to Norway. A resounding victory for King Harold and his army, but within a few days they would be on their way south to fight another battle and this time they wouldn’t be so lucky.

Copyright Fred Watson 2008