Tuesday, 30 October 2012

Stamford Bridge: The battle that ended an era: The Conclusion


The Norwegians have landed and have defeated the northern earls, brothers Morcar and Edwin, at Gate Fulford. Harold has marched north, gathering an army as he goes, to face his brother Tostig and King Harald of Norway as they unwittingly waited at Stamford Bridge for hostages and  supplies to arrive from York.

Stamford Bridge crossed the River Derwent a few miles south of York and was far enough away from York to be of little further threat to the city and half way between York and where the Norwegians had left their ships at Riccall. Harald, the  King of Norway, commonly known later as Hardraada, with the somewhat inimitable reputation and King Harold of England's implacable brother, Tostig, had brokered a deal with the defeated leaders of York that they would meet them here at this little settlement with the agreed 150 hostages and provisions that were promised. On Monday, September the 25th, their men were camped on both sides of the river Derwent. It was a warm sunny day and they were enjoying the warm weather. Then came the storm in a form of a dust cloud. The marching feet of thousands of infantry and horsemen could be seen, their glittering weapons and steel tipped spears sparkling like shards of broken ice. Harold Godwinson and his army were about to fall upon them in a surprise assault.  

The battle as drawn by
Tony Wait
 There are a variety of versions of the prelude to the battle, having done my best to piece the known evidence together, I have consolidated them into what seems the most feasible interpretation. What seems to be pretty conclusive is that unfortunately for  the Norsemen, they had gone to Stamford Bridge to meet the English hostages without their maille, the very thing necessary for survival in a battle. They did however, carrry their helmets, shields and weapons. The chronicles all agree that this was due to the warm and sunny weather and having defeated the Northern armies quite decisively at Gate Fulford, they were  certainly not expecting to have to use them so soon after their victory in York. Half of Hardrada's forces were back at Riccall with the fleet, led by his son Olaf and the Earl of Orkney. Some of his men had been out rounding up cattle (Rex 2011) and were on the open ground on the west bank of the river when the scouts spotted Harold's army approaching them. Marren (2004), in his book about the battles of 1066, describes the bridge by 11thc reckoning as being wide enough for the roads which reached the bridge, to go through it. This seems a reasonable reckoning seeing as the roads continue out to the battle flats and beyond.

According to Snorri Sturluson, Harold wanted to parley first, offering his brother peace and his former earldom back, plus more. Other sources state that Harold came upon them on horseback and swooped down on the Vikings on the open ground of the west bank, catching them unawares. They cut them down, slashing and spearing them.  The Norwegians fought to create a circular shieldwall as the horses ride round them. In the meantime, Hardrada rallies his men over from the east bank to cross the bridge in a boar-snout, Svinfylking,  to come to their aid as he sees the English ride them down. Despite losing many men, Harald of Norway manages to form a circular shieldwall and with his famous Landwaster banner flapping in the wind, get his men back to the bridge and across the otherside as the English are recoiling from this ferocious attack. 

Many of the sagas report the English use of cavalry, although there is some discrepency from historians as to the validity of it. The English were generally thought to favour fighting on foot as infantry, however this battle would not have been the first  that had seen the English fight on horseback as they did at The Battle of Hereford. It seems reasonable enough to believe that if Harold and his huscarles had journeyed on horse along that road from York,  seeing the Norwegians camped by the river, Harold may have felt that to stage a mounted surprise attack  would have given them the edge, rather than wasting time dismounting.

Once over the bridge, Hardrada was able to take in the gravity of the situation. There he was with just half his of his  lightly armed warriors, facing the hordes of English soldiers with only the bridge and the river between them. Both sides would have paused to regroup and marshall their troops ready for the next clash. At some point King Harald was said to have sent 3 riders to summon the rest of his forces back at Riccall to re-inforce his outnumbered army.

This would have been a good time to parley and if Snorri's version is to be believed, it was Harold who wanted to parley. Both kings are said to have ridden up to their respective riverbanks on their horses. Tostig was with Hardrada, perhaps to translate. Harold adressed his brother and offered him terms, saying that he would give him a third of his kingdom in return for abandoning the invasion.

Tostig is said to have answered with this: "This is very different to the hostility and humiliation offered to me last winter.If this offer had been made then, many a man who is dead now 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 Siggurdsson for all his effort?"
Harold was alleged to have replied, "7ft of ground as he is much taller than other men."
Tostig rejects his offer and  tells Harold to make ready for battle.

As said before, Snorri is not a reliable source so we dont know if this particular conversation happened. However, although these were violent times, men would have wanted to avoid dying in battle of they could without compromising their honour. It is doubtful however that Harold would have agreed to give Tostig his earldom back and more, without incurring the wrath of the northerners who had fought hard to get rid of Harold's brother. They may have been disillusioned by the brothers Morcar and Edwin who failed to avert the disaster at Gate Fulford but I doubt they would have been happy to have Tostig back in the seat of his earldom. Additionally, Harold would have wanted to keep the young earls on side as they were his brother-in-laws. English sources state nothing of the initial parley and terms offered by Harold and rejected by Tostig and Hardrada. The version they offer state that Harold surprised them unawares beyond the bridge and they 'fought sternly' into the afternoon, whatever their idea of 'sternly' was. 

The warrior on the bridge
drawn by Gayle Copper

The most singular feature of this battle is the story that the bridge was held for sometime against the English by a somewhat fearsome Viking with an axe who prevented them from crossing, killing any man who attempted to attack him. He was wearing a maille shirt, obviously one of the few who had decided to bring his. Aforethought is forewarned perhaps; it's a shame that none of the others did. However though, after holding them back for sometime, a quickthinking Englishman waded under the bridge and spears him up through his under carriage and the English are free to cross the bridge.This story is the stuff of legend and is added to Chronicle C in the 12thc and it is also repeated by several other writers so there maybe some credence to it.

Once the great warrior is out of the way, the English storm across the bridge and the Norwegians form their shieldwall. According to the sagas, the English repeatedly charge on horse at them. This was probably not an pre-meditated attempt at an organised cavalry charge, more likely it was intended to catch men who had been caught out in the open on foot. The fighting was hard and went on into the late afternoon. Hardrada ordered for his banner, the black raven, 'Landwaster' to be brought forward and he ran out ahead of his men in a mad charge like the one he had led at Fulford, hoping to repeat his victory as he had done then. But his huge torso was unprotected and he was hit by an arrow in the throat, though not before he had hewn and sliced many men with his terrible two handed Dane Axe. Those that had followed his charge died with him and there came a pause in the fighting. The great Norwegian King had choked on his blood and died. As everyone took time to take it all in and perhaps remove Harald's body to a place of safety, the English Harold offered quarter to his brother and the beleaguered Norwegian troops.
Vikings hurrying to the battle from Riccall

Tostig now was in charge, however the death of Harald Hardrada must have had a devastating effect on morale. It was he they had come to fight for, not Tostig, but the younger Godwinson was all that they had left. Suddenly though, at this point, they were soon to have another commander, Eystein Orri, as the re-inforcements came pouring in from Riccall, exhausted from running several miles and dusty and sweating from the heat and their heavy mail. This last phase of the battle was to become known as 'Orri's storm'. Thus the Norwegians spurned the offer of quarter and they made one final devastaing charge at the English, many of whom were  been killed in the fresh enslaught. Such was the rage that the Norwegians felt at having ran for miles to find that their leader was dead. Such was their desire for revenge that they fought valiantly, some having to throw off their maille because they were so exhausted. But the Vikings were unable to maintain the momentum. Orri fought to the death as did Tostig. Some collapsed, fatigued by the stress of the battle and the harrowing journey on foot from Riccall.

The Norse poet Arnor later tells us:

It was an evil moment
When norway's king lay fallen;

Gold inlaid weapons                                                      
Brought death to Norway's leader.

All King Harald's warriors
Preferred to die beside him,
Sharing their brave king's fate,
Rather than beg for mercy.     

Some of the enemy survivors made their escape and were pursued by the English and given no quarter when it had been already twice refused. No prisoners were taken. The fleeing Norwegians, and we must not forget the Flemmings that had come with Tostig, were chased back to the fleet where, as darkness fell the English 'fiercely attack them from behind until some of them came to ship, some drowned, and also some burnt, and thus variously perished, so that there were few survivors, and the English had possession of the place of slaughter' (Anglo Saxon Chronicle D). The author of the chronicle then went on to say that Harold rounded up the survivors and offered them safe conduct if they would swear oaths before him to leave this land and keep the peace of these islands. Amongst these was King Harald's son, Olaf, who did as he was bid, promising never to return with hostility to these lands. He and their Bishop and  Earl Paul of Orkney were sent home with only 24 of the 300 odd ships they had sailed with. Such was their loss of men that only 24 were needed to carry them home. It must have been a traumatic turn around of events for the survivors that they should come so far for a great victory at Fulford, only to have their hopes of invading dashed within a few days.The great God of War, Hardrada, had proved himself to be destructable after all. The big man's luck had run out at last.

This was the last time that Scandinavian forces would attempt an invasion on such a massive scale. This was the end of the Viking threat to England, but their bones would lay scattered over fields in Yorkshire, visible to the travellers eye, for some years to come after this year of 1066.

Marren P (2004) 1066 The Battles of York, Stamford Bridge & Hastings Pen and Sword books Ltd, Yorkshire.
Morris M (2012) The Norman Conquest Hutchinson, London.
Rex P (2011) 1066 A New History of the Norman Conquest Amberley Publishing, Gloucestershire.
Swanton M (200) The Anglo-Saxon Chronichles (rev. ed) Phoenix Press, London.

To read the first episodes in the series click here for part one and here and to read more about these times check out Sons of the Wolf

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