Every schoolboy knows of Harold’s defeat at Hastings. How different that outcome might have been had Harold not been distracted and weakened by Hardrada’s invasion and Tostig’s treachery.
While much has been written about the King Harold’s struggle to repel the Norman invaders at Hastings on the 14th of October 1066, less attention has been given to an equally important battle fought by him and his forces just nineteen days earlier at Stamford Bridge in the East Riding of Yorkshire.
This battle, although a victory for Harold, had cost him casualties as well as taking him to the other end of the country at a time when an invasion from Normandy was expected. How different the outcome at Hastings might have been if Harold had been able to maintain his main force on the South Coast in readiness for William. Harold is on record as stating,” Had I been there they never would have made good their landing”.
With the death of Edward the Confessor, the kingdom was in turmoil. The only blood relative was Edgar the Atheling, (meaning “related to royals) the fifteen year old grandson of Edmund Ironside, but the Witenagemot realised that, with foreign contenders for the throne gathering their forces, a strong leader was required. They chose Harold who already occupied the position of Sub Regis or under king and also had the support of Wessex, Mercia and Northumbria. Across the Channel, William of Normandy was making plans to claim the English throne, based on promises allegedly received from King Edward, plus an oath of support from Harold made earlier while in captivity in Normandy. It is said that when William heard the news of the coronation, he stood, unable to speak in his fury “constantly tying and untying his cloak”. In the North, King Harold Hardrada (hard reign) of Norway also believed that the throne should be his based on an old agreement made by Harthacanute of England and Magnus of Norway that, should either die, the other would inherit both kingdoms. His claim was rather tenuous and he probably would not have contemplated invasion were it not for Harold’s exiled brother Tostig who had raided the Humber estuary earlier in the year and had been heavily defeated by Edwin of Mercia.
Tostig escaped with a small fleet and sailed to Norway to offer his services to Hardrada, declaring that, “If you wish to gain possession of England then I may bring it about that most of the chieftains in England will be on your side and support you”.
Hardrada, Tostig, plus a force of 15000 men, set sail for England in 300 ships around the 15th of September 1066. They landed on the North Yorkshire coast and moved inland toward the old Viking centre of York, sacking and burning Scarborough on the way. They were met by Edwin of Mercia and Morcar of Northumbria with a large army on the 20th of September at Fulford. Hardrada’s forces were too strong for the English who retreated into the town to make a final stand, but eventually surrendered on a promise that the invaders would not sack the town and that Hardrada would be given provisions by the townspeople.
The treaty was kept and Hardrada moved his forces to Ricall on the River Ouse where he left his fleet and a small force under the command of his daughter’s fiancé Eystein Orri. The bulk of his troops marched on to Stamford Bridge where they expected to receive provisions under the terms of the treaty following the Fulford battle.
When Harold heard of Hardrada’s invasion, he hastily assembled his army and, together with his brother Gyrth, travelled northwards picking up reinforcements on the way. He completed the 185 mile journey in four days, arriving in York on the 25th of September. The historian Snorri Sturluson, writing about the battle in his saga Heimskringla, describes the invader’s first sight of the English army as “glittering like ice” as the sun glinted on spears and armour.
Harfrada’s men, expecting only to receive supplies from the defeated English, had left their byrnies (mailed coats) back on the ships at Ricall and had only their swords, spears, helmets and shields with them. The Heimskringla relates “without hauberks do we go in array to receive blows from the brown blade. Helmets shine, I have not my hauberk, our gear is down by the ships”. The troo[s were spread loosely around both banks of the river and legend has it that Harold arranged a meeting with his brother Tostig, offering half the kingdom if he would join him. Tostig is said to have asked, “and what will you offer Hardrada?”; Harold replied “Six feet of English earth or seven as he is so tall”. Tostig turned him down, a decision that was to cost him his life. Harold attacked immediately killing all who remained on the west bank and prepared to rush the bridge. A huge Norwegian positioned himself in the middle of the narrow bridge and held up the English advance. Norse sagas claim that he killed forty men with his axe before an English soldier rowed out in a barrel under the bridge and killed the defender with a spear thrust upwards through the boards.
Harold’s men rushed across the bridge and with heavier armour and weapons destroyed the invaders. Hardrada was killed in the thick of the fighting beneath his World Ravager banner with an arrow through his throat and Tostig was slain shortly after. The English, showing no mercy, destroyed the invaders, including the troops guarding the ships, who, learning of the battle, had rushed from Ricall to help. Harold made terms with Olaf, the son of Hardrada who swore that he “would ever hold peace and friendship with land”.
It is reckoned that all but 1200 of Hardrada’s men were killed at Fulford and Stamford Bridge and out of the 300 ships that brought the force to England, only 24 were needed to take the survivors home. Harold is thought to have lost some 2000 of his men in the battles. It is interesting to note that Snorri, writing in his saga, relates that Harold’s forces were mounted and used bows during the battle, tactics that gave him the advantage when fighting an enemy on foot. How different Hastings might have turned out if Harold had employed cavalry there. Herein lies some difference in Saxon and Norman battle tactics. Normans would normally walk their horses to a battle and mount up to fight. Saxons rode to battle and would then dismount to join the shieldwall.
Harold had little time to celebrate. On the 2nd of October he learned that William, aboard his flagship “Mora” and with his fleet, had landed at Bulverhyde near Pevensey on the 28th of September.
Harold swiftly gathered what mounted men he could and headed south to confront the new danger, leaving behind his exhausted foot soldiers. His counsellors urged him to wait for reinforcements but Harold knew that any delay would only help William consolidate his bridgehead. He arrived in London on the 6th of October, gathering Shire levies on the way and, on the 11th, rushed on to his destiny at Hastings.