Wednesday, June 10, 2020

Stamford Bridge

Challenge to the English Crown

25 September 1066

Anglo-Saxons under King Harold Godwinson, approx. 12,500
Norwegians under Harald Hardrada, King of Norway and Fleming mercenaries under Tostig Godwinson, approx.6,000 (joined by 3,000 later)

53° 59’ 20" N 0° 55’ 5" W   Seven miles (11 km) east of York on the A-166. Be sure to visit the #10 Bar & Bistro there. I've never been, but the pictures on their website look delicious, and they serve Corona! In an English pub!

Weather: Hot. Damn hot.

Nearly everyone with a passing awareness of the History of the English Speaking Peoples knows of the fateful year 1066, when William, Duke of Normandy (also known as "The Conqueror", "The Bastard", and "The Son-of-a-Bitch"--I just made up this last one), invaded England and seized the country from the lawfully elected King Harold II and the Anglo-Saxons at the Battle of Hastings. But what not everybody may know (put your hand down, Nigel, we know you do) is about an equally fateful battle fought less than three weeks before, some 250 miles north of Hastings, in which the same King Harold saved his crown and country from a Viking after the same thing.

As with my previous post on the Battle of the Granicus, much of the history of this nearly thousand-year-old, lesser battle is in dispute. A lot of it is legend or distilled from contemporary propaganda, generated by people who weren't there but only heard. Or who had their own political axes to grind (I'm looking at you, Normans). But as with that article, I intend to apply my own obscure suppositions to how this 11th century battle might have played out. And, as usual, you'll decipher my own ax grinding.

What a fun year this must have been! Comet included!

But First...

Before we get to the eviscerations, dismemberings, and spurting aortas, it might be useful to know the context of Stamford Bridge. What preceded it and why it happened. And why it was strategically important to events that ultimately shaped English history, and even the evolution of the English language itself, i.e. why it's mostly French.

The 11th century was one of turmoil in Britain. For a thousand years it had already endured invasions and raids from continental Europe in the form of Romans, Gauls, Frisians, Angles, Saxons, and various Germanic tribes, as well as Danes and other Nordic people (collectively called Vikings). While most of England (as opposed to Scotland and Wales) had been ruled by Anglo-Saxon kings and earls since Alfred the Great in the 9th century, the threat of Viking raids had plagued all Britons, Celts as well as Anglo-Saxons, for almost three hundred years by 1066.

Though the Vikings had successfully conquered and settled lands across the world, including most of the Baltic, Normandy, Russia, Iceland, Sicily, Tunisia, Greenland, and, some say, Minnesota, their interest in the British Isles had, but for a brief period under King Cnut (reigned 1016-1035), been largely as a hunting ground for gold and slaves. Towns, villages, farms, and monasteries had endured sudden Viking raids for generations; where sack, rape, mass-murder, sadistic torture, arson, and human-trafficking had been the object. Must have been mad fun.

Alfred the Great had established a defense system throughout England to counter these raids and unify the country. This system involved local militias (called the fyrd) and the professional knights of his nobility, (called housecarls). Organized similarly to the much later militias of American colonists in the 18th century (see my article on Lexington & Concord 1775 for comparison), men were required to muster quickly when called, providing their own weapons and (if they could afford them) armor, including helmets, hauberks (either chain mail or leather), and shields. Homeland defense had been a patriotic tradition among the Anglo-Saxons for centuries. They had a long, proud heritage as ferocious fighters against invaders; galvanized by their deep, intimidating war-cry "Ut! Ut! Ut!" ("Out! Out! Out!).
19th century romanticization of a
Viking human harvesting expedition.
Oh, those Romantics!

After the death of their Danish king, Cnut, in 1035, and then his short-reigned son, Harthacanut, the Anglo-Saxons, through their version of a kind of proto-parliament, the witenagemot, elected their own king, Edward (later known as "the Confessor" for his self-styled piety). The son of Cnut's predecessor, Aethelred "the Unready" and Emma of Normandy (who also married Cnut on Aehtelred's death--yes, she got around), Edward had spent 25 years of his youth in exile as a guest of his mom's family, Duke Robert I of Normandy and then his son William. So when he returned to assume the throne after a quarter century abroad, he was regarded by most Anglo-Saxons as a bloody, Norman-loving foreigner.

But, to curtail Edward's foreign affections, the king had a very powerful Anglo-Saxon as defacto "hand" (to borrow from a recently popular fantasy series), one who was thought to put his own people's interests first--to say nothing of his own family's.

Godwin, Earl of Essex

One of the most powerful families in Anglo-Saxon England during Edward's reign was that of Godwin, Earl of Wessex. Popular as indigenous champions of Alfred's greatness and the Anglo-Saxon way of life and government, Godwin and his sons had many allies. Godwin, the first Earl of Wessex, was both Cnut's and then his son Harthacanut's right hand man in England, helping them manage these odd people. And then, on Edward's accession, he became the new king's chief link to the English nation. It was, in fact, Godwins' influence on Harthacanut that brought Edward back to inherit the crown in 1042. So Edward owed the powerful man bigly.

Edward, in his earlier years as king, was probably intimidated by Godwin's influence and power, but accepted it as gratitude for his support in getting him the crown, and also as a survival condition. Edward also had no particular acumen for ruling, focused as he was on more spiritual matters. And, spending his formative years in France, he didn't even speak English (or Old English) well.

Because of his exiled background, the new king also intemperately brought with him many Norman friends with whom he had grown up, giving them property, titles, and important positions in his government. His ties to his former "hosts"was servile, which tended to rub the native English the wrong way. But accepting the strong, politically astute and popular Godwin as his principle chamberlain somewhat reassured the native English that one of them, a true Anglo-Saxon, was running things. Except for a brief period when Edward's Norman drinking buddies had forced the Godwin family into temporary exile, Edward let Godwin run the affairs of state from 1052 on (In fairness, it hadn't just been the Normans friends who influenced Edward to kick Godwin out, it had also been a grudge from when the earl had had Edward's half-brother Alfred's eyes burned out with red-hot pokers. That might have had something to do with it too.)

Following Godwin's reinstatement after his exile, one of the first things he had the pliant king do was dismiss all of his Norman entourage. He was, in practice, the king's regent, his eminence grise, the King's Hand (well, that's a fantasy title). At least until 1053 when the earl died, choking, according to Norman propaganda, on a baguette. But it was probably just a stroke. Not nearly as demeaning. Or as lurid as burned-out eyeballs.

Then the role of "regent" fell to Godwin's oldest living son, Harold Godwinson. Hence the last name.

Panel 1 of the Bayeux Tapestry, showing Harold Godwinson counseling King Edward on the left.
The right hand section shows Harold hunting with his thegns, his falcon, and his dogs. Ah, those were good times, good times.

Harold Godwinson takes charge.

For a time Harold was a national hero. He and his brother Tostig subdued an invasion by the Welsh and neutralized the always-irritating Scots. He also continued the campaign to reduce Norman influence in England.

He had arranged for King Edward to give his younger brother, Tostig (referred to in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle with the adorable name, "Tosti") the Earldom of Northumbria, as well as smaller earldoms to his other brothers, Gyrth, Waltheof, and Leofwine. These moves were intended to return England to the Anglo-Saxons. All this nepotism, though, proved to be problematic for a simple reason: Tostig was a monster.

Northumbria, during this time, was what we would now call a "failed state". Besides the constant Viking raids on the coast, there was widespread lawlessness on the roads and no one could travel without a strong, armed escort for fear of being robbed and murdered. So Tostig, declaring himself the "law and order" earl, immediately started exacting hideous punishments on anyone caught breaking the law, usually without trial, and including creatively gruesome torture. Tostig was a true connoisseur of sadism. On the plus side, this did have the effect of making the roads safe again. But the new boss didn't stop there. Law and Order costs money. So he also started antagonizing the local lords in Northumbria by raising their taxes. He held their relatives for ransom. He'd treacherously murder them at banquets he had invited them to. And imposed other arbitrary and oppressive laws to corruptly enrich himself. This created a self-generated crisis. 

Fed up, and getting no help from their complaints to King Edward, Northumbrian lords came to York one day in 1065 and slaughtered most of Tostig's retainers.  Tosti, however, managed to escape and jump on a ship to Flanders, where his in-laws lived. The rebel lords petitioned the king to disown Tostig or they'd revolt, allying themselves with England's mortal enemy, Scotland.

Edward would not risk losing the whole of northern England. Harold, probably sighing heavily, for he loved his brother, however monstrous he was, reluctantly counseled the king to reverse his award of Northumbria to Tostig, declare him outlaw, banish him from England. He also persuaded Edward to award Northumbria to the native lord Morcar and East Anglia to his brother Edwin (see map above). Harold went further in patching over this misunderstanding by agreeing to marry the brothers' sister, Edith. Both Morcar and Edwin, then, pledged their fealty to Edward and to Harold. Best friends forever. Or for a few months anyway.

The price for peace was that Harold turned his brother Tostig into a mortal enemy. Don't you love all this? Doesn't it remind you of the plot of that popular HBO show? What was that show? Damn! It's on the tip of my tongue.

William rubs his hands together, "Excellent!"

Besides being the King's "Hand" (not a real title, by the way) to Edward's domestic policies, Harold was also in charge of the the country's foreign policy. In 1064, on a diplomatic mission to Brittany, his ship allegedly (according to later Norman accounts) wrecked off of Ponthieu and the lord there captured him and handed him over to the current Duke of Normandy, William the Bastard. William treated his new guest cordially and, since winter was approaching, invited him to spend it with him. They could go hunting, falconing, and warring on neighbors together.

During this convivial sojourn, William later claimed that he had gotten Harold to pledge his support in his claim to the English throne upon Edward's death. King Edward was not in the best of health by then. And, in his piety, had not managed to find time to sire an heir with this wife. This claim of succession by William, which was not based on any solid lineage (the closest link, William's great aunt Emma had been Edward's mother), was supposed to have been made years ago.

Years back, when Edward was hosted by William in his exile, the duke swore on a stack of Bibles that Edward himself had pledged to name him his successor if he'd let him go accept the crown from Harthacanute in the meantime. This was a suspicious story that has not been corroborated by any on the English side. It also sounds like blatant extortion.

As with the spurious story of Edward's earlier oath, this new story of Harold's oath to support William's claim didn't seem to have any corroboration on the English side either. In the Bayeux tapestry (an early piece of self-justifying propaganda if there ever was any), there is even a panel displaying Harold's supposed oath, made on sacred relics at an altar. But there isn't even evidence that Harold was ever shipwrecked in Normandy, much less made such an oath. In fact, as the most powerful man in England and the presumed successor himself, there would have been absolutely no motivation for him to do such a thing voluntarily. By way of reconciliation of the Norman account and the lack of English reference to it, some historians have invented the theory that William broached the subject with Harold and the earl might have said, "Yeah, right," to keep his head, and that William had hidden the sacred relics under some towels to trick the Englishman into making it a holy vow, not knowing about the hidden talismans. Tricky.

The incriminating Bayeux Tapestry scene where Harold supposedly swears to support William's claim to the English crown, on not one, but two altars with sacred relics!
There it is, everybody, not exactly in black & white, but in linen and thread. Can't fake that evidence!
It's the 11th century equivalent of a smartphone video.

At any rate, on 5 January 1066, the long-sick Edward made his last Confession and finally died. Harold claims (with witnesses) that as he leaned close to the dying king, Edward, in his last whisper, verbally named him his successor. And the assembly of lords, the witenagemot, (not to be confused with the wizengamot of the Ministry of Magic) who happened to be in Westminster for the Epiphany holiday anyway, all voted him in as their new king and swore fealty. The Archbishop of York crowned him at Westminster Abbey, beginning a tradition for British monarchs that has continued to this day. All of this--the election, the oaths of fealty, the coronation by the archbishop--was all by-the-book according to English tradition and law. Since Edward had no living direct male heirs, this made Harold the legal and rightful new monarch. And they all lived happily ever after.
Bayeux Tapestry panel showing the coronation of Harold, with all of the English lords hailing him.

    Unfortunately, this legal procedure did not conform to William's concept of inheritance. He did not recognize English tradition or law, or the authority of this witenagemot,...whatever that was. And it was an insult to his great aunt Emma's memory! Promises had been made! Oaths taken! He had a temper-tantrum and proceeded to assemble an army and fleet to jump the Channel and take what he claimed had been promised to him. England was supposed to be his personal property.

This mobilization took some time (it was the 11th century, after all). All that spring and early summer William built something like 700 ships (virtually identical to the iconic Viking long ships) and assembled anywhere from 7,000 to 12,000 knights and mercenaries to the port of St Valery-sur-Somme on the Channel coast. According to subsequent Norman propaganda (documented later in the Bayeux Tapestry) he had also secured the blessings of the new pope, Alexander II, for this holy enterprise. So it was to be a crusade, backed by all of Christendom. Yeah, right.

But the weather (supposedly controlled by God, who evidently didn't get the word from the pope) wouldn't cooperate. Waiting for a favorable wind, the Normans sat and sat...and sat... in that port for months. I was reminded of the weather delay in launching the D-Day invasion nine centuries later (though that was more dependent on cloud cover for air support than wind for the sails). I was also reminded of Edward III's invasion of Normandy at the beginning of the Crécy campaign in 1346, which was also delayed by weather for weeks. And then there was the destruction of the Spanish Armada by a storm in the Channel in 1588, Napoleon's terminal delay in his invasion in 1805, and the German's cancellation of their Operation Seelöwe in 1940. It may be only 26 miles across the sea, but the Channel was always a bitch to cross.

What fresh hell is this? (with apologies to Dorothy Parker)

Harold was aware of this mobilization from his many intelligence sources in Normandy. He didn't act to mobilize himself, though, until he was sure William was on the water. While he had the power, as king, to issue a national call-up of the fyrd, doing so prematurely would have been a disruptive and costly burden on the nation's economy. He had to feed the army all during their active duty, and, as the country's farmers, they themselves were the source of that food. Mobilization was subject to the seasonal clock of agriculture. So, not knowing how long it would take William to amass his invasion, he didn't want to do it too soon. It was a game of timing.

But then, on 24 April, the same day Halley's Comet made its appearance in the sky, Harold's charming brother, Tostig, suddenly reared his blond head and forced him to act. With the financial help of his father-in-law Count Baldwin V of Flanders, Tostig raised an army of Flemish mercenaries and some 60 ships and sailed to the Isle of Wight on the southern English coast in a bid to overthrow his brother. The outlaw former earl had, reportedly, gone first to William of Normandy to offer his services for William's own bid back in January. But William was not nearly ready yet. So Tostig, impatient, decided to raise his own armada in Flanders, and go it alone.

Halley's Comet depicted in the commentary frieze above
the Bayeux Tapestry scene as Harold hears the news of his
brother Tostig's raids on the English coast.
Of course, in the Norman telling, the appearance of this
once-every-75-year phenomenon was an omen of the fall
of kings. Lord knows how Harold and his astrologers
interpreted it. But then they had no say in the embroidery of

Now Harold was forced to call out the fyrd (both troops and ships) to defend the coast from his brother. All through May he chased Tostig up the south and east coasts while the outlaw sacked, burned, and massacred on his way. apparently in his attempt to win the hearts and minds of the English people. I must admit, I was puzzled by this slash-and-burn strategy as I read about it. Has this ever worked?

Eventually, Harold had chased Tostig north, beyond East Anglia into Lincolnshire where, in early June, he ran into another Anglo-Saxon army under Morcar and Edwin, the very earls who had deposed him, who stopped him at or about a place or region called Lindsey.  Defeated in battle, he was deserted by his mercenaries, who took off in their ships back to Flanders. He himself managed to escape in one ship with some loyal housecarls to seek refuge in Scotland, where he spent the summer with King Malcom III. It was during this summer that he supposedly took a short trip over to Norway for a visit to persuade King Harald Hardrada to join him in another attempt on the English crown. Oh, and undoubtedly to take in the beautiful fjords, just gorgeous this time of year.

With these invasions and threats popping up, and with William continuing to build his massive fleet across the Channel, Harold decided to keep his mobilization order in place for the time being. He stationed his army and fleet at the Isle of Wight. Sometime in August he apparently even made a sortie out on the Channel to try and provoke William to come out. But nothing happened. So, with his fyrdmen running out of food and the harvest waiting, he was forced to stand down on 8 September, and let his people go bring in the wheat.

But then, out of nowhere, a fresh hell appeared in the north. As if Harold didn't have enough to worry about. Harald Hardrada, the Norwegian king, and Harold's exiled little brother, Tostig, landed an invasion force of Vikings in Northumbria to throw in their own claim to Harold's throne. Evidently, Hardrada (his own self-given nickname which means, appropriately, "hard ruler"), a former pirate and mercenary turned king of Norway, had also heard of Edward's death and Harold's supposed usurpation of the crown. Of all the claimants, including some powerless actual blood relatives, the Norwegian king had the weakest claim in terms of lineage--in fact, he had none at all by blood. King Cnut the Great, besides being king of England had also been King of Denmark and King of Norway by taking it from Harald's half-brother, Olaf. So Harald felt he had a right to take Cnut's North Sea Empire (which included England) as payback. Legal claims had nothing to do with it. This was the law of the strongest.

Tostig had Harald's ear that summer. He persuaded Hardrada that if he helped him reclaim his earldom, he would, in turn, help him seize the English crown, just as Cnut had done. Since neither lived past the summer (oops, spoiler alert), it is not clear if Tostig was only using the Norwegian to help him seize the throne himself, then treacherously assassinating him after the conquest was done (as was his style), or if all he really wanted was Northumbria back. And it also isn't clear what Harald expected to get from Tostig's help since the ex-earl had just failed miserably to either retain or regain his own title. Tostig also had, at most, only 1,000 Flemish mercenaries and a few Scot adventurers to add to the invasion host. Not exactly a strategic ally.

Nevertheless, Tostig and Harald met at Scarborough on the eastern coast of Northumbria at the beginning of September. Harald and his fleet of 300 ships had made landfall there a few days earlier and, in true Viking style, proceeded to sack, burn, rape, and massacre everyone who couldn't run fast enough from the place. Any left alive were forced to bend the knee. With the long-established alarm system the Anglo-Saxons had in place, word spread rapidly. Both Morcar and Edwin called up their own fyrd and housecarls (between five and six thousand) all ready for battle at York by the 19th. As the Vikings started pillaging down the coast and entered the Humber estuary around the 18th, Harold down in London had by then heard of the invasion himself and had recalled up his own previously disbanded army. This was no periodic Viking raid. With Tostig in it, and the size of the force--possibly as high as 12,000, in some 300 or more ships, though it is hard to have an accurate number--this was a full-scale invasion.

Harold's army seems to have been assembled to sufficient strength around London by 18 September, about the time the Vikings were rowing up the Humber and into the Ouse River, south of York. Fortunately, sacking and burning takes a little time--you can't hurry craftsmanship---this was no blitzkrieg. So Harold used that time to mobilize and hurry north.

One of the Greatest Forced Marches in History

Even by modern standards, Harold's achievement of mobilizing a force of over 12,500 men and marching them 197 miles (317 km) to York to fight a battle at the end, in just six days, has to stand as one of the greatest feats in military history. On its face it seems superhuman, even miraculous. But let's look at the details.

Harold would have taken the old Roman road, known as Ermine Street (mostly the route of the modern A1), straight up to York. Modern narratives have described Harold as marching his men night and day without sleep (the superhuman part). But, if you do the math (and have Google Maps to help you plot the route if you walked it yourself), the whole trek would take just 65 hours, with an average 3 mph (4.8 k/h) marching speed. If Harold and his army left at dawn on the 19th and arrived at Tadcaster (just west of York) on the evening of the 24th, that's six days (not four as is described in some narratives), which would mean an average marching day of about 11 hours. A pretty long day, but one that could be done with time to eat and sleep each night (remember, too, this was September, so you would have had 12 hours of daylight). It could be done.

But there's more. While the housecarls would have been mounted, they too probably walked their horses to save their strength (and each knight would have had with him at least two horses to help distribute the load of equipment). Most of the troops would have been foot soldiers of the fyrd. It was hot. And they were wearing their chain mail or leather armor, and carrying their weapons (shields, swords, axes, spears, bows), plus their food. So that would have made the march even more grueling. But still very doable.

I could not find much information about logistics during the early Middle Ages (or is this the late Dark Ages?), but it is not improbable that an army, even then, moved with a lot of horses and wagons, carrying weapons, armor, and sustenance with it. It is hard to imagine all these people carrying their heavy arms and armor on their backs. So I propose imagining this large host marching along the edge of a well-worn Roman road, the center of the road lined with a convoy of wagons and horses. Each day of the march, they'd get up before dawn, walk all day until sunset, fall out to unhitch the horses from the wagons, make their dinner, and get a good night's sleep before the next day's march.

Also, considering the army was a defensive force marching through friendly territory, it is likely that it was provisioned by villages, and possibly even reinforced along the way. The narratives don't say that Harold left London with 12,500 men, only that he got to Stamford Bridge with that many. So perhaps many of his fyrd, as well as his thegns' housecarls, joined him on the way from his brothers' shires.

At any rate, Harold got to the village of Tadcaster, about 4 miles (6.4 km) southwest of York on the evening of the 24th. Neither Harald Hardrada nor Tostig (who boasted that he knew this country) had any idea so large a force was so close. As far as they believed, he was still down in the south, guarding the coast against William.

Morcar and Edwin in Front of York: The Battle at Fulford

Let's go back six days. Harald and Tostig entered the Humber estuary with the vast Norwegian armada on the 18th. Though there was undoubtedly continuous rampaging on either bank of that wide river, which would have slowed up the force, they managed to row their shallow-draft ships up the River Ouse, a tributary of the Humber, to the inland port of Ricall. There, on the 19th. they started to beach their boats.The fleet trickled in from their raiding down on the Humber. The next morning, leaving about 3,000 men with the ships that had kept up, as well as their heavy (and hot) mail hauberks (this according to Snorri Sturluson's saga), Harald's army started to march overland up toward York. About 8 miles from Ricall and a mile south of York, they ran into the army of Anglo-Saxons that the Earls Morcar and Edwin had called up to meet the invasion.

This Anglo-Saxon army, both of housecarls and fyrd, numbering about 5,000, stretched its shield wall across the narrow patch of land from the east bank of the Ouse on their right to a ditch and marsh on their left. It was a sound defensive position, with both flanks secured, forcing Hardrada to make a head-on assault. The Vikings took some time to come up from Ricall and, at first, were outnumbered by the Saxons.  In the first part of the battle they took considerable casualties. But as the day wore on and more and more Vikings showed up, the fight started to tip in in their favor. Finally, after several hours of savage hacking, poking, and cleaving, the Saxon army started to come apart, first slowly, and then in an avalanche. In their flight, hundreds drowned in either the Ouse or the marsh. A few thousand managed to make it back through the southern postern gate at York and beyond, Morcar and Edwin among them.

This was a costly victory for Hardrada, though. Both sides, it estimated, lost about 1,600 men, though the Vikings held the field. This deficit was to be felt in the next week.

Hardrada marched his men up to the southern gate and threatened to sack and burn the whole city if it didn't surrender. The city fathers offered him the keys if he would spare it. In return, he requested 150 children of nobles as hostage, to guarantee compliance. The Yorkish lords agreed but begged for time to collect the hostages. Would you accept a check? Hardrada agreed to wait five days for the Northumbrians to bring him their hostages. As it was very hot, he had his men march back down to Ricall and deposit their heavy mail shirts on the ships for safe keeping. Having defeated the main enemy army in the north, and with Harold occupied down south, they had no need of armor. He then marched three-quarters of his army up the Derwent to crossing point called Stamford Bridge, which was to be the meeting point where the hostages were to be delivered. Apparently, Hardrada thought he had decisively destroyed the main Anglo-Saxon resistance at Fulford and felt secure enough to relax. This was to prove a fatal error.

Are those the hostages we've been waiting for?

   What is not clear to me is why Hardrada didn't take charge of York when he had chased the survivors back through the Fulford Gate. Both the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle and Snorri Sturluson have him entering the city with his immediate entourage to negotiate its surrender.Why didn't he just move his whole army in and stay there?

My own supposition is that Tostig talked Harald out of bringing his bloodied and bloodthirsty army into his former city as he did not want it looted and destroyed, something he knew Harald had no control over. It wasalso probable that once the English survivors of the Fulford battle had escaped through the gate, it was closed and fortified against the oncoming Vikings. Harald had not come prepared for a formal siege. He neither had the forces or the equipment to completely invest York from all sides. As the communications with the rest of Northumbria were still open on the north and west, the city could have withstood a siege for months. Vikings were hit-and-run raiders; they weren't Roman engineers.
Hardrada's Raven Banner, or hrafnsmerki ("Land Waster") which he reportedly carried on expeditions. The raven was sacred to Odin and supposed to bring him tidings from all over the world every morning. Guess it was sleeping in on the morning of the 25th.

So Hardrada undoubtedly accepted the word of the city fathers (their own witenagemot) that York was essentially his, and that they'd bring their hostages over to Stamford Bridge to guarantee it within a week. They promised. So many characters in this story seem to put way too much faith in promises.

On the fifth morning after this solemn vow, the Vikings were still lounging at Stamford Bridge, cooking their breakfast on both sides of the Derwent. Someone glanced up on the ridgeline above them and saw banners, spears, shields and the glint off thousands of helmets. Were these the surrender negotiators coming from York with their hostages? Right on time.

But wait...You can imagine the sick feeling in the Norwegians' stomachs when they realized these weren't the hostages they were looking for.  It was a whole new Saxon army, far larger than the one they had defeated the week before. Where did they come from?

Let the whackings begin!

On the night of Sunday the 24th, Harold and his army (swollen to over 12,500) had arrived in the town of Tadcaster, four miles southwest of York. The Norwegians had no idea they were there. As I mentioned before, they assumed that Harold was still down in the south, guarding the coast from a Norman invasion. And since neither Hardrada nor the detested Tostig, had virtually any intelligence network in this unfriendly country, they got no word in six days that Harold was marching north.

Spending the night to rest up, Harold got his army moving before dawn and moved it through York and out the east gate to march on the unsuspecting Vikings, camped around Stamford Bridge, seven miles to the east.

Harold, seeing that the Norwegians were spread out on both sides of the river, did not waste time to get into a formal battle line, but immediately charged with his mounted housecarls, right into the disorganized enemy on the near bank. He needed to capitalize on his surprise and kill as many as possible before they got over the bridge to form up.

Many military historians have assumed, because the Saxons dismounted to fight in the later battle of Hastings, that they never fought on horseback. One assumption was because they, unlike their Norman enemies, did not have the technological advantage of stirrups. I myself, in an earlier advocacy ad I did for Lockheed about the importance of technology in the rise and fall of nations, made this assumption. I since stand corrected. The Saxons (and even the Vikings and all Western Europeans) had stirrups on their horses by the 11th century. And there is no reason to suppose that they wouldn't have used them to stay mounted for combat and use the weight of their horses to drive home their lances. Like all cavalry charges do, it depended on the ground and the circumstances.

In the circumstances at Stamford Bridge, the ground and the timing lent themselves to bearing down on the exposed Vikings before they could form their shield wall, before the hundreds on this side could scramble over the narrow bridge.

You'll recall, too, that it was hot. And you'll further recall that most of the Vikings had left their armor (chain mail hauberks) back down on their ships at Ricall. So, while they had their shields and weapons, they were otherwise vulnerable to Saxon lances, axes, and swords, but even more critically, arrows. Those Norsemen on the west bank of the Derwent were slaughtered like rabbits. Since the bridge was a narrow wooden structure, there must have been quite a traffic jam on it as men tried to scramble across, perhaps pushing each off into the stream. For a seafaring people, it is remarkable that more didn't think to swim across the narrow, slow stream. Could they not swim? Or maybe they did.

View southwest from the modern bridge at Stamford Bridge (a few hundred yards downstream from the original). You can see that this was a fairly minor stream, and in a hot September might have been fordable in several places. In fact, in the middle distance, you can make out what looks like slabs of rock that could be a ford. (photo courtesy of Google Street View). And, in further fact, the name Stamford, means, in Anglo-Saxon, "stone ford".

Soon the whole Anglo-Saxon army was crushing on the western end of the bridge, having cut down any who were caught on that side. According to Part 5 of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, a lone Viking berserker, a towering giant, wild-eyed and frothing at the mouth, stood on the planks and cut down any Saxon who tried to cross. The ASC doesn't say how many this berserker slew, or that he slew any; it just says he just he held up their crossing for an unspecified time. It does say that one Saxon threw a spear at him and it missed. It goes on that an enterprising Saxon got in a barrel (or a coracle?), floated beneath the bridge, and stabbed the brave warrior up through the planks with a spear, right into his private parts, and he went down:

"Then was there one of the Norwegians who withstood the English people, so that they might not pass over the bridge, nor obtain the victory. Then an Englishman aimed at him with a javelin, but availed nothing; and then came another under the bridge, and pierced him terribly inwards under the coat of mail."

But other legends have this lone berserker slaying some 40 men before being treacherously (or cleverly, depending on your bias) disposed of from below. And that he held off the whole Saxon army for hours. However, this number 40 sounds suspiciously like poetic license, like "40 days and 40 nights" of Noah's flood, or Jesus's sojourn of 40 days in the wilderness, or the 40 days from the Resurrection to the Ascension, or Moses staying on Mt Sinai for 40 days, or the original term "quarantine" which meant 40 days. But was anybody keeping score? Probably wasn't forty. Could have been none.

At any rate, before long the lone berserker was killed, toppled into the river, and Harold's army thundered over the bridge.

Most of Hardrada's army was already on the far side of the river. Which seems odd since it was away from York and on the other side of the Derwent from their own base at Ricall. Nevertheless, the delay in the Saxons getting across on the single, narrow span allowed the Vikings to form up their defensive shield wall on high ground. They would have seen that they were desperately outnumbered by Harold. After their losses at Fulford five days before, their 3,000 man detachment to guard the ships down at Ricall, and their losses on the far side of the river that morning, the Vikings probably had only 5-6,000 men to defend against over 12,000 (armored) Saxons, many of them on horses.

As soon as Hardrada realized he was fighting the main English army under Harold, he sent three mounted couriers down to Ricall to order his trusted commander, Eyestein Orre, to bring up his 3,000 men quick. At 15 miles and over a river, this message would have taken at least an hour to deliver, and maybe another hour for Orre to get everybody armored up and on the road.

View of the battlefield from the east side of the present villlage of Stamford Bridge, where the Norwegian army formed their shield wall. (photo courtesy of Google Street View).

While the Vikings were forming their shield wall, a delegation of twenty housecarls road up to the Norwegian line and one of them asked to speak to Tostig. The renegade earl came forward to hear the delegation's proposal, which was that Harold would pardon Tostig and give him back his earldom (including York) if he would abandon Hardrada. According to Snurri Stuluson, the not all-to-be-trusted Icelandic saga writer, Tostig asked what he could expect for his new friend, the King of Norway, and the ambassador said, " feet of English ground, or as much more as he may be taller than other men." So Tostig said he would sooner die than betray his ally. When the earl returned to Hardrada's side and told him what the English knight had offered and his reply, the Norse king asked who that ambassador was and Tostig said it was his own brother, Harold. So Hardrada said if he had known that he would have killed him right then and there. Ah, chivalry! If you read the Icelandic sagas about these Viking heroes, it seems like treachery was something to be admired.

There is another anecdote before the battle proper started, described by Sturluson.. As both armies were lining up, getting their shield walls in place, Hardarda, riding down the ranks, supervising the men, fell off his black horse. He got up, laughing at himself, and saying "this was a lucky sign for a traveler." Seeing the pratfall from his side, Harold remarked to his thegns that Hardrada's luck seemed to have run out. Like the appearance of Halley's Comet earlier in the year, signs can mean what you want them to; confirmation bias. Whether this actually happened on not, the incident was used by later chroniclers to illustrate both the irony and prophecy of the accident. But it was a source of comic relief to both sides at the time.

The Final Battle

In the conventional narrative of Stamford Bridge, the deployment of the two armies by early afternoon had the Vikings deployed in a backward bending arc, with the Saxons line wrapping around it (see 1st map below). Once this arrangement was in place for both sides, somebody evidently blew a whistle and the whacking began. Or some signal. One imagines, too, that the Saxons began their intimidating war chant, "Ut! Ut! Ut!" with the Vikings answering in their traditional "Tyr! Tyr! Tyr!" (their god of war).

For what was described as hours, both sides gave as good as they got. But the imbalance in sheer numbers, and their lack of armor protection, started to make itself felt on the Viking side. Sturluson says that the Viking line was thinner than the Saxon line because they didn't have as many men, so they wouldn't have had as many fresh warriors from the rear ranks to spell the men in front.

At one point, part of the Saxon side started to fall back and, thinking (from their narrow perspective) that the enemy was in flight, the Vikings in that sector broke lines and went after them. In turn, these were set upon by the reserves of the thicker Saxon line who started to butcher them.

Another painting in the Romantic style by Norwegian salon painter, Peter Arbo in 1870, of the death of Harald Hardrada, with an arrow in his jugular. Not a great way to die. This painting does attempt to show the arms and armor of the time; the Saxon housecarls on horses with stirrups, the Vikings fighting without their mail hauberks. The Saxon horses are in full, mail caparisons, though, which is an anachronistic detail as this kind of horse armor didn't start being used until the Crusades, late in the 12th century.

Seeing his line come apart, Hardrada went after them to rally them back into the shield wall. In the process, he exposed himself to the Saxon archers, one of whom managed to shoot an arrow into his windpipe. A mortal wound. When he fell, the men he was trying to rally panicked and broke, opening up a huge gap in the shield wall, through which poured the Saxons. Soon after, Tostig himself fell (though to another arrow or an axe or sword the narratives don't say). The Vikings and the Fleming and Scot mercenaries, seeing their line broken and their leaders slain, turned to run.

At this point, late in the afternoon, Orre and his 3,000 fully armored men finally came up from their grueling, hot, 15-mile run from Ricall. Realistically, they probably didn't run all the way; they probably marched quickly, with frequent rests. Sturluson implies that this new arrival nearly turned the tide and, for awhile, pushed the Saxons back. But Orre's men were exhausted. You try running 15 miles on a hot day in 26 pounds (12 kg) of metal mail, carrying another 20-30 pounds of weapons. Even those with only leather hauberks weren't in the best of shape. Overheated and dehydrated, many dropped dead along the way or shortly after arriving. At any rate, these poor men were turned into meat in pretty short order, too. The sagas described this stage of the battle as Orre's Storm. But it was a pretty sad storm, more of an afternoon drizzle. And you have to feel for these brave, heat-exhausted men; to run all that way only to fall dead from hyperthermia or to be butchered.

Another Version of the Battle

There is an alternative description of the battle. One made by Snorri Sturluson. While he was writing poetically about a heroic age more than a century before him, and with mostly oral "war-stories" from descendants to go on, he does make a convincing and more likely description of the initial deployment.

When the western bank of the river fell to Harold's morning attack, Sturluson maintains that Hardrada had his remaining men form a hollow circular formation, facing out on all sides. He also said it was less deep that the usual line, which given the probable number may have not been more than 4-500 yards across. He says that Hardarda chose this defensive formation as the best to counter cavalry (more evidence that the Saxons fought on horseback). As had been known for millennia, (and explained by Xenophon in his Anabasis fourteen centuries before), horses won't impale themselves on a thicket of pointy things; they'll swerve away. Sturluson also has Hardrada give his men the same advice. Moreover, if we assume that at this point, the Saxon army outnumbered the Vikings at least 2:1, a circular formation would have no ends to outflank.

Apparently, the battle unfolded as in other narratives, with both sides stabbing and hacking at each other for hours, each behind their shield walls. The Saxon cavalry swirled ineffectually around the Viking formation, unable to find an opening. But they did keep the Vikings pinned and unable to maneuver. It became a battle of attrition; who would collapse first?

As in the previous narration, at some point one section of the Saxon line did give way and the cohesion of the Viking line dissolved, chasing after the fleeing Englishmen. Waiting for just this kind of break, the Saxon horse were able to sweep in and attack this disordered clump from the flank and immediately into the hole they had exposed in their line. Once this happened, the whole Viking structure caved. Hardrada may have still fallen to a lucky arrow in the throat. But the Saxon victory owed more to the hovering presence of cavalry, ready to exploit a break.

Ironically, three weeks later, at Hastings, the tables were reversed. It was the Norman wing that broke (composed of Breton mercenaries) and the Saxon fyrd broke ranks to chase after them. And it was Norman cavalry this time which rode down the disordered fyrdmen and exploited the break in the Saxon line to tip the scales.

The End of the Viking Age in England

The Saxons, according to the Chronicles and sagas, chased the surviving Vikings all the way down the Derwent to Ricall, where Hardrada's 16-year-old son, Olaf (now Olaf III of Norway since he was the direct, surviving heir) asked for terms and promised to go home to Norway and never bother England again (a promise which he, for one, kept). Harold generously allowed the surviving Vikings to take all the ships they needed to ferry themselves back home . They only needed 24 of the original 300. It had been a good day for the crows.

This was to be the final descent on England by a Viking, ending an age of predation that had lasted 277 years, since the first raid on a defenseless town in Dorset in 789. Three centuries of resentment and racial hatred animated the Saxons at Stamford Bridge. As they had always done, Hardrada's men had entered England with him, not with the political objective of putting their king on the English throne, but to merely rape, murder, burn, torture, and kidnap. To them, it was just a giant raiding party. They may have been dimly aware of their pirate leader's new ambition to rule another foreign land, but they were not ideologues. Just thugs.

So it is little wonder that the Saxon army was energized by seething homicide as they pounded up the two-hundred miles to Stamford Bridge. They had had enough just about enough.

The defeat was so devastating to the Norse psyche, and so traumatic to the teenage Olaf (who during his subsequent reign would be described as a kind, wise king), that no Scandinavian power or pirate ever again tried to molest England.

The End of the Anglo-Saxon Age in England

However, we all know how this glorious feeling of liberation lasted a bare nineteen days with the victorious Harold and the Anglo-Saxon people. Three days after Stamford Bridge, on the 28th, William, landed his army at Pevensey in Sussex.

Harold, with his heroic army resting from their exhausting march and marathon battle, suffering from terrible casualties themselves,  probably heard within two days of William's landing and had to ask his army to perform the impossible again; retrace their steps (this time 250 miles--400 km) in record time, meet the fresh Norman army. After all that, he and his Saxons still very nearly defeated them. Had it not been for an accident in that battle, the entire history of England, the very English language, and the world would have been different.

Or not, if you believe in the inevitability of fate. Or the Everett theory of multiple universes in quantum mechanics.

Wargaming Stamford Bridge

Of those of you who already love and wargame this period, I would not presume to offer gaming techniques. I'm sure you already have your own set of rules, your own figures, your own board, and your own clubs and online communities. But I might offer suggestions for what-if scenarios. This, to me, is the most fascinating aspect of history and gaming, exploring those alternate universes in which a different course was taken. (See Everett's Many-Worlds Theory again.)

Tactical What-Ifs

It might be interesting to see what would have happened had the Vikings had prior warning of the Saxons. Of course, the main strategic coup that Harold made was the surprise attack on the morning of the 25th. But if this weren't a surprise, how would the Norwegian players have prepared? Would they establish their full force on the west bank, or set up a defense around the bridge head on the east side, forcing the Saxons to attack Arcola-style? 

Another tactical what-if would be to let the Vikings retain their armor, giving them more protection from blows and missiles.

Or, had they known of Harold's imminent arrival, would the Viking players have been able to concentrate their force, bringing Orre's reserves up sooner?

It might also be interesting to see if the same result would happen if the Saxons did not attack mounted, per the other theory that they always fought on foot.

Finally, this was September. And it was hot. So in all likelihood, there were fords along the River Derwent. It was not a raging torrent. And may have been low. So one tactical variation might allow either side to test for fords in an attempt to flank the other. Also as at Napoleon's battle at the Arcola Bridge in 1796. Or at the Granicus.

Strategic What-Ifs

In playing a strategic game covering the whole year, it would obviously be interesting for the various players to have to make the same kind of critical decisions that faced Harold, William, Hardrada, Tostig, and even external forces like the Welsh, the Scots, or the Danes. 

For instance, does the Saxon player stand down his fyrd for the harvest, risking an invasion by William?

If there is a landing by Hardrada and Tostig in the north, does Harold still drop everything and hurry up there to put it down?  Or could he bide his time, defeat William, and they hustle north to deal with the Norwegians? 

What if, after Stamford Bridge, Harold had taken more time to reform and grow his army, luring William further inland and away from his base?

What if Harold makes a raid on Hardrada's beached ships at Ricall, burning them?

There are hundreds of alternate universes here too.

Special Rules

I do not know if the rule books you use to play medieval combat take some of the following issues into account, but I would suggest adding them if they don't. I use my own algorithm when playing solo wargames and have incorporated these factors. As we have seen in this narrative, things beyond arms and armor can have a decisive impact.

We have seen how the heat proved to be a factor in the effectiveness of Orre's relief force as they hurried north in their chain mail. Attrition from heat, particularly when wearing armor, should drain a unit's vigor and/or combat power. You can also roll dice at the start of a game for the temperature, heat definitely serving to the advantage of the defense (i.e. stationary) side.

As mentioned above, one could provide for hidden fords, to be discovered by die roll or some other randomizing device. The Derwent was no Mississippi. And Stamford implies, in Anglo-Saxon, a stone ford.

Death of the Leader
Many rule systems provide for the random death of a leader. When Hardrada and then Tostig fell, all heart seemed to fall out of the Vikings. But the same thing might have happened had it been Harold, as did happen to him at Hastings in three weeks. Indeed, the morale of an entire army might be affected either negatively or positively, especially if the death infuriates the leaders' followers. This could also be determined through a die-roll reaction (or some other randomizing factor; like a card draw or random number generator).

Both Saxon and Viking shields were pretty much the same design, weight, and protection in the 11th century. Though not rimmed with metal (usually), they could weigh as much as twenty pounds and start to tax the stamina of the soldier if held straight in front of him in the shield wall. Shoulders, arms, and backs would start to ache, especially if trying to maintain this stance for hours.. One technique of wielding the shield so it wasn't so tiring was to carry it high on the shoulder, so its weight rested on the spine instead of arm muscles. This posture, if provided for in the rules, could cost less of a fatigue tax and protect the head and neck. But it also exposed the abdomen and legs to thrusts and horizontal bow shots.  So any rules that accommodate these two postures should take into account variation of protection and fatigue.

One of the features of the Stamford Bridge Battle was the lack of armor in the Viking ranks. But chain mail armor was usually only available to thegns, housecarls, and other nobles. Lower rank soldiers, especially bowmen, could not usually afford armor. When figuring the protection rate of different categories of soldier, rate that of housecarls, etc, higher than lesser-rank, front line warriors, who might also have worn leather jerkins (still some protection) or padded tunics. Bowmen may not have worn any armor at all. I'm sure, if you're playing medieval or ancient games regularly, you've taken this into account in the composition of your armies.

Stamina and Rest
It goes without saying that hand-to-hand combat takes a lot out of anyone, even people in great shape, as I'm sure all these participants were. But though the sagas and the ASC describe the battle as lasting all day, we can be pretty sure it wasn't continuous hacking and slashing. 

Realistic rules tax units for melee combat, so that after half-an-hour or so, they'd be pretty drained. This means that the combatants probably spelled each other--hence the importance of lines in depth. A force with a greater number of ranks would mean that it could refresh the business-end of the line more frequently than a thin one, and keep its overall vigor up.

So it might be worthwhile to examine and adjust how your particular rules account for this physical drain and how long it takes to regain strength. You can tell if your game is realistic if it compels one side or the other to fall back to regroup after a set number of turns of combat. Or if it takes casualties from sheer exhaustion. If, on the other hand, your figures seem to be able to fight forever, you're not playing a wargame, you're playing Marvel superheroes. And that's okay, too. Both can be fun.

Orders of Battle

This is an extremely approximate list of forces involved in this battle, based on narratives in my references below, among them Wikipedia. Under no circumstances should you cite this as a source for any academic papers. Some sources gave the Norwegians 12,000 men when they started their invasion. But they also lost considerably after the hard fought Battle of Fulford five days before, even though they technically won that engagement. Hans Delbrück, the famous German military historian, wrote that you can't take any figures from ancient or medieval battles seriously. So take these strength figures as pretty much bullshit.


Those of you who are true scholars of medieval warfare, or avid hobbyists of the period, have by now recognized that I am about as far from being an expert on this age as possible. Nevertheless, here is the paltry list of sources I relied on to write this article.

Gravett, Christopher, Hastings 1066: The fall of Saxon England, 2000, Osprey, Campaign #13, ISBN 978 1 84176 1336

 Holland, Tom, The Forge of Christendom, The End of Days and the Epic Rise of the West, 2008, Doubleday, ISBN 978-0-385-52058-4
Nicolle, David, European Medieval Tactics (1): The Fall and Rise of Cavalry 450-1260, 2011, Osprey, Elite 185, ISBN 978 1 84908 503 8

Norman, A.V.B. & Pottinger, Don, English Weapons & Warfare: 449-1660, 1985, Dorsett, ISBN 0 88029 044 7

Smurthwaite, David, Battlefields of Britain, 1984, St Martin's Press, ISBN 0 312 92039 3

Snow, Peter & Dan, Battlefield Britain, 2004 BBC video, ep #2 The Battle of Hastings

Online Domesday Book:

Snorri Sturluson, 1179-1241, The Saga of Harald Hardrada, (Modern English translation)  A useful resource for Viking (and, by extension, contemporary Saxon) arms, armor, and fighting techniques. Curated by Viking reenactors, so you don't want to argue with these guys.

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