Today in Medieval History: The Battle of Stamford Bridge

Battle of Stamford Bridge - Medieval England - Medieval History - Middle Ages - Harold Godwinson - Harald HardradaThe Battle of Stamford Bridge took place on September 25th, 1066, between Harold Godwinson (Harold II, the last Anglo-Saxon King of England) and his brother Tostig, who had allied himself with Harald Sigurdsson (“Hardrada”), the King of Norway. This battle proceeded the famous Battle of Hastings between Duke William of Normandy and King Harold, and some historians believe had Harold not had to fight off his brother and then force march from York to Hastings to defend London against William, the Norman invasion of England might have turned out quite differently.

Tostig, prone to rebellion against his brother, was formerly the earl of Northumbria, but Harold had exiled him to Flanders, and still seething over his expulsion, Tostig raised an army and descended on the Isle of Wight. Harold’s fleet, already being built up in preparation for Duke William’s invasion, drove Tostig back, and so Tostig sailed around the coast of Lincolnshire and then up the Humber River and began ravaging the surrounding countryside. Two northern earls, Edwin and Morkere, gathered the fyrd and met Tostig in battle and succeeded in pushing him out of the region. Tostig then sailed north along the coast to Scotland, where the Scottish king, Malcolm Canmore, gave him protection and provisions, and Tostig remained there through the rest of the summer of 1066.

Near summer’s end, Tostig left Scotland and went to Denmark to seek an alliance with the Danish king, who refused the offer, and so Tostig then turned to Hardrada for an alliance with Norway. Hardrada accepted, and eager to take English lands, the King of Norway swooped down on the northern coast of England with a fleet of more than three hundred ships, by some accounts.

Hardrada was a battle-hardened warrior. He had fought with his half-brother Olaf at the Battle of Stiklestadt when he was only fifteen years old, and by stature, he was quite imposing, standing at nearly seven feet tall, though this is probably an exaggeration. He first made for the Orkney Islands, which at the time was under the rule of the sons of Norseman Earl Thorfinn. He then sailed down the coast of Scotland to meet Tostig, and together they continued on to Cleveland and Scarborough, sacking both cities, and then on to the mouth of the Humber and up that river and the Ouse, and they landed at York.

The two earls Edwin and Morkere, who had challenged Tostig earlier, came out to meet the invading army, and at the Battle of Fulford, Tostig and Hardrada utterly defeated the two earls, who escaped alive but could do nothing from that point forward. Tostig and Hardrada easily entered York and captured the city.

Harold Godwinson, hearing of the invasion and the sack of York, gathered together the fyrd with lightning speed and marched to Tadcaster and then on to York.

On September 25th, 1066, Harold met his brother and the King of Norway at Stamford Bridge, seven or eight miles east of York on the Derwent River. There, King Harold of England took them by surprise. Tostig and Hardrada were expecting to receive hostages offered by Yorkshire for its loyalty, but instead, they saw the mighty fyrd of Harold along with his housecarls marching to meet them, axes and spears flashing in the sunlight.

Before the battle commenced, Harold offered his brother a third of his kingdom in return for peace, but Tostig refused, and the great slaughter began. The battle lasted the entire day, and finally, the English — fighting in their column and line formation — smashed through the enemy’s shield wall and surrounded Tostig and Hardrada’s armies. The English then rained arrows down upon them, and Hardrada — mad with the bloodlust of battle — surged forward to the front of his line, axe swinging wildly, eyes flaring with anger as he cut into the English ranks. In the end, an arrow pierced Hardrada through the throat, and he fell dead upon the field of battle.

There was a brief respite in the fighting then, and Harold Godwinson offered his brother peace once more, but Tostig refused, and the remaining army of Norwegians refused, and they came at the English one last time. Tostig died in this second assault, and the English scattered his army and what was left of Hardrada’s army, and Harold took the bridge and took back Yorkshire, and the Battle of Stamford Bridge was done.

And England was safe … for only a few weeks.

Sources:

Hunt, William. The Political History of England. Longmans, Green, 1906.

Ridpath, John Clark, Ridpath’s History of the World. The Jones Brothers Publishing Company, 1940.

*Painting by Norwegian artist Peter Nicolai Arbo (1831–1892)

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