Authors: Ian W. Walker
Tags: #Harold: The Last Anglo-Saxon King
On Monday 25 September, with his army rested and regrouped, Harold advanced through York to meet the Norwegians at Stamford Bridge. The latter had moved to this small village on the river Derwent to await the arrival of further hostages from the rest of Yorkshire. This need to collect hostages from the shire would appear to indicate that the Norwegians did not trust their Northumbrian hosts. The location also offered the Norwegians the opportunity to live off King Harold’s own nearby estate at Catton, which would avoid the possibility of their troops, or more probably Tosti’s, plundering York itself. There is no direct evidence for this last threat, but it would not be surprising if Tosti had scores to settle with the local
as a result of his expulsion in 1065. Following their recent victory, it appears that the Norwegians considered themselves safe from any immediate reprisal; at Stamford Bridge they could easily find themselves cut off from their ships at Riccall. If they had been aware of Harold’s approach they would surely have sought to oppose him at York, where they could bar the river Ouse against him. Perhaps they considered that King Harold would remain in the south to face the threatened Norman invasion, or perhaps they felt he would not risk attacking them after the defeat suffered by his earls at Fulford. Most probably they were surprised by the speed of his reactions and did not expect his arrival yet. Whatever the reason, they were completely unprepared for Harold’s sudden arrival at Stamford Bridge on 25 September.
The battle which took place at Stamford Bridge was King Harold’s greatest victory. It was one of the decisive battles of the Middle Ages, and the one which finally ended the Viking Age. It was important in terms of Harold’s own immediate future for another reason. The losses suffered in this battle had an impact on the outcome of the subsequent battle at Hastings. Therefore, it must be considered in some detail, in order to allow an assessment both of Harold’s military abilities and of its impact on subsequent events.
The numbers involved in the battle are not recorded but an estimate can be made for the Norwegians based on the Chronicle record of their 300 ships. Assuming a figure of 25 fighting men per ship, this would give them a total of 7,500 men when they first landed in Northumbria. It has been estimated that the later Viking longships could carry between 50 or 60 men; allowing for some exaggeration in the number of ships and the fact they may not all have been large ships, this appears a not unreasonable figure. They suffered heavy losses at Fulford, perhaps around a third seems feasible, leaving them perhaps about 5,000 men. They are known to have left men to guard their ships, and so maybe about 4,000 were actually at Stamford Bridge. Though there is no direct evidence for the numbers on the English side, King Harold perhaps had an equivalent number of men. His forces must have been of a sufficiently manageable size to allow for their rapid collection on the advance to York. They would also have needed supplies on this journey, and more than this number would probably have been too large. The closeness of the fighting itself, Chronicle C speaks of the opposing sides ‘fighting strenuously till late in the day’, suggests that the opposing forces were fairly evenly matched.
The Norwegians at Stamford Bridge appear to have been completely unprepared for battle. They had even left their mailcoats at their ships, according to the poems incorporated in the later Harald’s Saga. That this story is not simply a later excuse for their defeat is perhaps confirmed by its appearance in the contemporary Chronicle of Marianus Scotus. The Norwegians ‘had been promised for certain that hostages would be brought to them’ and therefore expected the arrival of small groups of local
, but certainly not an English army under King Harold. A poem preserved in the later saga declares bitterly that ‘the army has been duped’. The terrain itself may have worked in favour of the English; Harold may have known this as it lay so close to his own estate at Catton. The Norwegians, encamped in the river valley, truly may not have been aware of Harold’s army until it was nearly upon them. In contrast, King Harold knew exactly where the Norwegians were, and advanced with his forces to engage them in battle with a clear advantage.
As King Harold’s army approached, the Norwegians appear to have fallen back across the river Derwent. The surprise and shock of the sudden English attack probably meant that the Norwegians were unable to hold them at the river, where defence would have been much easier had they been ready. The account at the end of Chronicle C of a lone Norwegian holding the bridge against the English is a much later addition to the text. It was perhaps drawn from a later English saga about the battle and probably has no basis in fact. Harald of Norway as likely as not rallied his troops in the area later known as Battle Flats, to the east of the river. The battle which then began probably took the customary form for an all infantry battle – two opposing masses slugging it out at close quarters. The account in the prose sections of the much later Harald’s Saga speaks of the English use of cavalry in the battle. This does not fit with what we know of English warfare from more contemporary sources, where horses were not used in battle itself, and must be disregarded. Although the English had the initial advantage of surprise, they probably suffered from fatigue later in the day as a result of their 15 mile advance from Tadcaster that morning. Consequently, the battle was long and bloody, but the Norwegian lack of body armour must eventually have reduced their power of resistance.
The crisis of the battle apparently came late in the day, after many had fallen on both sides, when both Tosti and King Harald of Norway were slain. As the Norse poet Arnor recounts it;
It was an evil moment
When Norway’s king lay fallen
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.
Despite the sentiments expressed in the poem, the fall of their great leader probably broke the morale of the remaining Norwegian troops and the survivors attempted to flee. This is certainly the sequence of events found in the Chronicle accounts and it reflects the usual fate of armies whose leaders were slain. The English army pursued the survivors vigorously, all the way to their ships. The retreat became a rout, and Norwegian losses were so heavy that only twenty-four ships were required to carry the survivors home. This suggests that perhaps only about 500 to 1,000 men survived the battle and rout that followed. The shattered remnant of the Norwegian army was brought to bay by the English at Riccall, but instead of destroying them King Harold gave them quarter. The Norwegians had invaded his kingdom and slaughtered many of his countrymen, but in spite of this Harold was generous in victory. He did not seize or imprison the survivors, although they included Olaf, the son of the dead king, and Earl Paul of Orkney. Instead, King Harold allowed them to return home after obtaining their oaths to maintain peace and friendship with him thereafter. Certainly no further invasions were attempted by young Olaf, who would later be known as ‘the Peaceful’.
King Harold was now at the summit of his career. He had earlier driven off Tosti’s raids, and outfaced the threat of a Norman invasion across the Channel. Now he had defeated and slain one of the most renowned warriors of the day, in open and decisive battle. We can perhaps see traces of what was originally intended as a celebratory poem dedicated to Harold in the
And who will write that Humber, vast and swollen
With raging seas, where namesake kings had fought,
Has dyed the ocean waves for miles around
With Viking gore. . . .
This campaign also demonstrated further the continued effectiveness of the English military system. Thus Earls Edwin and Morcar were able to recruit a force substantial enough to oppose the large Norwegian army in what must have been a period of only a few days from the time that the alien fleet was first sighted. Although this force was defeated and York taken, it may have inflicted sufficient casualties on the Norwegians to delay their plans to move south. Thereafter, King Harold himself recruited a substantial army from places as widely scattered as Essex and Worcestershire, brought it to York in only ten days, and totally defeated the still considerable Norwegian army in a difficult battle. This cannot suggest that the English army of Harold’s reign represented an obsolescent force.
This achievement was undoubtedly Harold’s greatest, and his crown now must have seemed secure. The battle had not only removed the Norwegian threat and finally disposed of the problem presented by Tosti, but such a thorough victory would cause other challengers to pause for thought. Surely William of Normandy would think twice before making another invasion attempt when he heard the news. Everything seemed set fair for King Harold, but then the north wind, which had blown Harald of Norway to his doom, veered to the south.
Here King Harold was killed.
hile King Harold celebrated his great victory in Yorkshire, and perhaps mourned and buried Tosti, Duke William’s fleet lay trapped at St Valery by the same northerly winds which had brought Harald of Norway to England. William’s position was rapidly becoming untenable as supplies ran short, and he resorted to desperate prayers to stem the contrary winds. Then finally, as if in answer, the wind veered round to the south on 27 September and William seized the opportunity for which he had waited so long. The Norman army embarked in its ships, crossed the Channel overnight and made landfall at Pevensey, on 28 September.
One of the most dangerous parts of William’s risky enterprise, the Channel crossing and landing in England, had now been completed successfully. His plan had succeeded thus far partly because of the unusually favourable weather conditions this late in the season, but more importantly because of King Harold’s absence in the north. This latter fact meant that William’s landing was unopposed, which would not have been the case before 8 September, when Harold was still maintaining his coast watch. It has been suggested that William knew of the disbandment of Harold’s coastal defence forces and that he chose to set sail at this time in order to exploit this circumstance. However, it is likely that King Harold would have remained in London even after the disbandment of the coastal garrisons, and that he could have moved rapidly against William’s forces before they became established. It was Harold’s absence in the north that enabled William to secure seventeen clear days in which to disembark his army and consolidate his position in England, the distraction of the Norwegian invasion proving the vital factor in his unopposed landing. It has also been suggested that William knew about the Norwegian invasion and arranged his crossing to exploit Harold’s absence. This is very unlikely; William of Poitiers makes it quite clear that the change in wind direction was the crucial factor in William’s actions at this point rather than any knowledge of Harold’s circumstances. In addition, he shows that William only learned of Harald of Norway’s invasion after his own landing in England. There is no reason to doubt William of Poitiers’ account on these points, and it fits with English reports of surprise at the Norwegian invasion.
Soon after his landing, Duke William began to construct a castle at Pevensey in order to consolidate his foothold. However, the unsuitability of his landing place as a base of operations quickly persuaded him to move along the coast to the nearby port of Hastings. The security afforded by Harold’s absence in the north, and his knowledge of it, allowed him to carry out this move successfully on 29 September. There, based on the narrow peninsula on which the town of Hastings stood, William was in a position to protect the escape route to his ships anchored in the harbour. If the need arose, he could defend the base of the peninsula with a rearguard while the bulk of his army re-embarked safely. Here William ordered another castle to be built, while his forces combined scouting with raiding the surrounding countryside. This raiding was necessary because the Norman army was now short of supplies, but it may also have been intended to provoke an English response.
The measures William took in the first few days after his landing were sensible precautions to adopt in a strange land when he was still unsure of the situation. However, he remained in this same position at Hastings for a total of seventeen days, which seems rather a long time. This has been seen as a prudent policy of remaining near to the coast and his line of retreat. Although a certain amount of caution had undoubtedly been an important element of William’s previous campaigns, his present invasion of England had, so far, been anything but prudent. He may simply have returned to his more familiar policy of wariness, but if so it seems an odd time to have done so. William was in a restricted position at Hastings, where he would have found availability of supplies gradually reduced as his troops denuded the surrounding area. It is difficult to see how he hoped to win the kingdom by remaining near his line of retreat until he ran out of supplies. It would surely have been preferable for his cavalry to move out into more open country, where he could make full use of the advantage conferred by their mobility both to secure provisions and to conquer the kingdom. Indeed, he could probably have taken advantage of Harold’s absence in the north to advance on Dover, Canterbury or Winchester. So why did William fail to adopt a more active course of action? The answer probably lies in the news he received soon after his landing.
The news that Duke William received, probably on the day after his landing, was that King Harold had secured a crushing victory at Stamford Bridge. The news was provided by Robert, son of Guimara, who was most likely a local man known as Robert of Hastings, recorded in Domesday Book as holding land in Sussex from the Abbey of Fecamp. It must have given William considerable food for thought, and indeed he did not follow the bold words attributed to him by William of Poitiers: ‘I will not hide behind ditches or palisades . . . but will engage Harold’s army as soon as possible’. In fact, William did not seek to engage Harold at all, but on the contrary remained in his defensive position. He clearly realized that if the Normans advanced inland then they might well be caught by King Harold’s victorious forces returning from the north. At this point, William may even have momentarily considered abandoning the invasion, and some of his followers probably did so. Although there exists no direct evidence for this, the tone of William of Poitiers’ account makes clear the significance of Harold’s victory. This news and the previous reluctance of the Norman nobles to invade in the first place, make second thoughts about the feasibility of the invasion a distinct possibility. However, this would involve William abandoning the dream for which he had now risked everything. He could only continue, but probably decided to adopt his static defensive posture in response to the new situation. As a result, the Norman army remained close to its ships and escape routes, and made no effort to advance inland and use its mobility, which were the usual tactics. This would certainly explain William’s relative inactivity during the period leading up to the battle of Hastings.