Last Updated on
One of the most significant battles in British history took place on 25th September 1066. It was fought at Stamford Bridge, a village in the north of England on the River Derwent, about 7 miles east of York. Ah, you say – but wasn’t The Battle at Hastings, in the deep south, on 14th October when the Normans beat up the Saxons, King Harold got an arrow in his eye and Duke William of Normandy became William ‘the Conqueror’? You’re absolutely right – that did happen – but 1066 was a busy year.
Harold Godwinson became King of England on 6th January 1066. Though this apparently had the approval of the Witan (Great Council), it was just the day after the death of Harold’s predecessor, Edward the Confessor. Some say that Harold’s ascendance to the throne occurred with indecent haste and was more like a take-over. His claim relied heavily on his power as Earl of Wessex, and the suggestion that on his deathbed Edward had placed the kingdom in Harold’s care. Godwinson did not enjoy the unconditional affection of the northern earls and both Harald Hardrada, fearsome King of Norway, and Duke William felt the English throne was theirs. Indeed, it is believed that Edward and Harold had each separately promised the crown to William.
In the summer of 1066, aware that William intended to invade, but also wary of a troublesome brother, Tostig (who had made a botched attempt to invade England himself in May) Harold called out the southern fyrd and stationed his navy off the Isle of Wight. The fyrd was a force of free men raised from every hundred (each county was divided into administrative areas called hundreds) and liable to serve for two months each year. This force supplemented the elite house-carls, a royal bodyguard of Danish origin numbering perhaps 3,000 men. But summer passed by with no sign of a Norman invasion. William was delayed with unfavourable wind, bless him, and in early September Harold released the fyrd to the harvest and headed for London. He’d hardly had time to unpack when he learned that Hardrada, with Tostig, had sailed from the Orkneys (which were owned by the King of Norway at that time), up the river Humber, sacking Scarborough on the way, and thence via the river Ouse to Riccall, just south of York. They had 2-300 longships which, with around 30-60 men in each gave them an army that has been estimated at more than 10,000 strong.
The Earls of Northumbria and Mercia, Morcar and Edwin, decided to give battle. On 20th September they marched out of the gates of York and met Hardrada’s army – which included Flemings, Scots and some English – in what is now the residential suburb of Fulford. It was marshy ground and the Earls’ army was cut to pieces. For some reason, York was spared and the victorious commanders chose Stamford Bridge, a tiny place, as a location for negotiations over plunder and hostages. The Battle of Fulford must have robbed the English of valuable men that might have otherwise been usefully engaged elsewhere.
So it was a pity that Morcar and Edwin couldn’t have waited, because Harold was responding rapidly to the threat in the north. He forced his army to slog some 180 miles in four days – one of the most impressive (and astonishing) marches in history, particularly bearing in mind that most troops would have been on foot – gathering more men along the way. Resting overnight in Tadcaster on 24th September, the following morning he headed for York, where he learned that Hardrada and Tostig were nearby. Without hesitation, Harold – who must have been a very able commander – turned his weary men toward the enemy. The Norsemen were unaware that an opposing force was anywhere in the vicinity and must have thought that the English King was still in the south, waiting for William’s invasion. Part of their force was at Riccall and those at Stamford Bridge were enjoying the warm weather, completely unprepared for battle.
It was probably in late morning that Hardrada’s guards spotted the sun glinting off helmets on the ridge by the village of Gate Helmsley, about a mile away to the west. Through the dust, they would have spotted the banners of Wessex and Harold’s personal standard of the Fighting Man. Most of the Norsemen were in the meadows on the opposite, east, bank of the Derwent. As the English streamed down the slope toward them, advance guards tried to stand firm on the west bank by the bridge, whilst their comrades struggled to get into their chain mail and collect their weapons. The weight of the English attack overwhelmed the defenders on the west bank. Tradition is that, for a while, a massive Viking blocked the bridge, taunting the English and using a huge axe to hack down any brave enough to venture too close. One of the house carls, though, managed to find a raft and, manoeuvring under the bridge, stabbed his spear upward into the Viking’s groin. Once across the bridge, the English relentlessly pushed back the Norse shield wall. The two sides battled all afternoon, joined by Norse reinforcements from Riccall. Then Hardrada, whose fighting reputation extended as far as Constantinople, was brought down, according to tradition with an arrow in his throat. Resistance began to collapse, Tostig fell and the Norwegian raven banner, Landwaster, was trampled under foot. The Norwegian King may still lie somewhere under the meadows where he died – Harold had promised him 7 foot of English soil. He let the surviving Norsemen go, but the English victory was so crushing that only 24 ships were needed to take them home to Orkney.
On 28th September, the Normans landed at Pevensey, 270 miles to the south, and another chapter in our history began. Had it not been for the Battle of Stamford Bridge, Harold would have been waiting; and perhaps the Normans would have been thrown back into the sea.
I suspect most people in Britain think of Stamford Bridge as the home of Chelsea Football Club. In Yorkshire’s Stamford Bridge today there’s very little to mark the great events of 950 years ago. Trucks clatter along the A166 that runs through the village. There is a memorial close to the Square, on the north side of the main road. You can walk along the east bank of the Derwent, at the bottom of people’s gardens, to where the famous bridge would possibly have been in the 11th century. This is about a quarter of a mile upstream from the present (18th century) bridge that carries the main road. We wouldn’t have known this had it not been for the help of a friendly potter at Stamford Bridge Pottery*, who made the mug you see pictured. The bulk of the fighting area is believed to be to the south east, across the A166, which has been built on, and the area known as Battle Flats beyond that. There is a second monument at the end of Whiterose Drive, which overlooks the supposed site of the battle.
Though the exact location and course of the battle are a matter for debate, it may surprise you that more hasn’t been done to commemorate it (though a local celebration marked its 950th anniversary). Why haven’t the good folk of Stamford Bridge done more to cash in on their heritage? So I read with interest that one of the aims of the Battle of Stamford Bridge Society (of course there is one) is to open a visitor centre; I very much hope they do and look forward to being invited to the opening.
*Alas, his website appears to be no longer working, otherwise I would have provided a link to it.