The Bad Fall of 1066 ...
Part III. The Battle of Stamford Bridge (Yorkshire)

 

The Bad Fall of 1066 ... and Anglo – Saxon England

Part 3. The Battle of Stamford Bridge

Written and Copyrighted © 2013 Stephen Jeffrey Duff.

I. How King Harold and Anglo - Saxon England 'fell' into the Bad Fall of 1066
II. The First Crisis: The Battle of Fulford
(September 20, 1066)
III. The Second Crisis: The Battle of Stamford Bridge (September 25, 1066)
IV. The Third and Very Final Crisis: The Battle of Hastings (October 15, 1066)

 

 

Chapter 1. The Fall of 1066 abruptly turns bad for the Vikings, top ...

As you will recall from the previous section of, "The Bad Fall of 1066 ... and Anglo-Saxon England" ... Part 2. The Battle of Fulford ... a northeastern army of Anglo-Saxon England had been culled from the property-owning men of Mercia and Northumbria, only to be bloodily routed by a Viking army from Norway. This occurred on September 20, 1066, at the Battle of Fulford, just south of the City of York in northeast England.

The northeastern Anglo-Saxon army of 6,000 men-at-arms and militiamen (the 'fyrd') had been chased from the battlefield with much slaughter, but somewhere between 4,500 and 5,000 Englishmen had escaped with their lives, leaving 900 to 1,500 bodies of their dead compatriots lying in and around the Fulford tidal creek. The army's survivors - plus their two leaders, the Earls of Mercia and Northumbria - were sent scattering to every corner of the Shires of Mercia, Northumbria and York. Very few of these defeated Saxon warriors would be found and organized in time for the two battles that arose within the next twenty-five days, the Battles at Stamford Bridge and Hastings. In effect, Saxon King Harold Godwinson had (at least, temporarily) lost the use of a significant percentage of his available Anglo-Saxon military manpower in eastern England - perhaps as much as 20%.

The Battle of Fulford had been a major victory for the Norwegian Vikings and their leader, King Harald Hardrada (or Hardraada). They had been assisted by 350 - 500 Flemish and Scottish mercenaries led by Harold Godwinson's disaffected and vengeful brother, Tostig Godwinson. This force of about 10,500 total warriors - but only about 7,500 fought at Fulford - had smashed the English army at Fulford, through their greater combined military experience and the experienced leadership provided by King Harald. Although the combined armies of Harald and Tostig had lost somewhere between about 500 and 750 men ( casualty numbers were not typically recorded from medieval era battles ) at the just-concluded Battle of Fulford, they had effectively crushed and scattered the 6,000 men of northeastern England's army.

The Vikings and their mercenary allies were understandably cheerful after their absolute and crushing defeat of this Anglo-Saxon English army, which left the Viking-mercenary army the undisputed masters of the northeastern counties of England. In addition, the next nearest English army of any significance was with King Harold Godwinson ... at least 190 miles away, somewhere to the south and southeast, near the city of London!

Unfortunately for King Harald Hardrada and Tostig Godwinson, they and their warriors had made two inaccurate assumptions about the English.

First, the English army of the northeast was defeated at Fulford, but not wiped out, so the surviving 4,500 to 5,000 soldiers - and their leaders, Saxon Earls Edwin and Morcar - could eventually be re-organized and renew their defensive war against the Viking-mercenary army. Second and more crucial, the entire Viking-mercenary army was not "way far away' (believed to be at least 190 miles north) from the main English army. In point of fact, the Vikings and mercenaries were just a few short miles from the powerful, fast-moving Anglo-Saxon army and it's experienced war leader, King Harold Godwinson!

In the five days prior to the Fulford battle, the Viking-mercenary army had enjoyed five days of looting, raping and indiscriminate killing, in the northeast corner of England and, specifically, in the vicinity of the large village of Scarborough. The Vikings of King Harald - plus the freelance warriors loosely controlled by Tostig Godwinson - had swept through the Scarborough area like the barbarians they were. Naturally, this raised frightened alarms throughout the northern counties. The pleasurable aspects of the Viking - mercenary army's raping and pillaging campaign around Scarborough was also to lead to their undoing. For the word of the barbarian's attacks had horrified the northern English people, so much so that in trying to flee the barbarians, hundreds of Anglo-Saxon families had fled in all directions. Many boatloads of English families had quickly sailed south on favorable winds, allowing King Harold Godwinson to be quickly notified of the Viking-mercenary attack against Northumbria and York.

The English king was in London, puzzling over the long-delayed absence of the anticipated invasion army from Normandy, in northwestern France. Suddenly, boatloads of terrified Saxon families arrived up the Thames with nightmarish stories of the Viking army's mayhem in Northumbria and York. Harold was sufficiently impressed by these reports that he quickly set aside his worries about the Duke of Normandy's expected invasion army in the south of England. The King immediately pulled together his professional soldiery, the "housecarls', for a rapid march north to Yorkshire. As they traveled the 185 miles to York, the King's 3,000 mounted housecarls were ranging ahead and around the king's small-but-growing army, scouting and recruiting nearby members of the fyrd during the entire length of the king's forced march to Yorkshire.

Meanwile, after the Battle of Fulford, King Harald Hadrasan negotiated the surrender of the now-defenseless city of York. The confident Norsemen and the frightened city fathers had agreed upon nearby Stamford Bridge as a rural meeting place for the delivery of hostages and money from the city of York. The victorious Norsemen were relaxing in the meadows surrounding this small bridge about 12 miles from the city of York, anticipating the reward of more treasures upon this warm and sunny September 25th day.

Harold Godwinson had just pushed his men - who were mostly on foot - an amazing 185 miles in somewhere between four and six days ( sources vary )! Although the Saxon warriors of southeast and eastern England were doubtless exhausted from their fast forced march, they were also motivated by the desire for revenge for the Viking-mercenary army's sack of Scarborough, plus the defeat their Saxon army comrades had suffered at the Battle of Fulford. In the upcoming Battle of Stamford Bridge, the Saxon army would consist of about 3,000 professional mounted infantry, called the Housecarls. The remaining "thegns' (mostly Saxon land-owners in the King's part-time militia) made up the fyrd, which ranged in numbers at somewhere between 7,000 and 12,000 soldiers, at this time and place ( depending on the historical source ). Therefore, King Harold Godwinson's southeastern and eastern Saxon army consisted of a total of 10,000 to 15,000 soldiers, the majority of whom had at least some military training and/or experience in combat.

The empty grass fields around the Stamford Bridge were filled with Viking and mercenary warriors, lolling around in the hot sun as they awaited the delivery of the gold, silver and hostages they had demanded from the city of York, in exchange for not sacking the place. King Harald Hadrada and Tostig Godwinson's army was lazy and relaxed, while they played dice and board games (such as "hnefatafl', also known today as "Viking Chess"), wrestled or practiced mock combat with each other, took naps, or went fishing in the River Derwent (which the Stamford Bridge crosses over). Most of the warriors had discarded their mail shirts and helmets on this hot September day, leaving their helmets and body armor in the long Norse ships, 12 or 13 miles away at Ricall.

For all of the tactical wisdom he had shown at the Battle of Fulford, and this knowledge had been very useful, King Harald Hardrada would fail his Viking-mercenary army this September 25 th ... and in a pretty amateurish way. Hardrada was complacent enough to believe that neither King Harold Godwinson's southeastern Saxon army - nor the shattered but still mostly alive northeastern Saxon army - could be anywhere near his Viking-mercenary army. His and Tostig's Viking - mercenary army was relaxing on either side of the deep River Derwent, with only the narrow Stamford Bridge to join them. In hindsight, we can see that King Harald was correct when he dismissed the northeastern Saxon army as an immediate threat, but Hardrada greatly misjudged the King of the Anglo-Saxons and his southeastern army. The Viking warlord was about to have a very bad day and it was mostly of his own making. Neither Harald Hardrada nor Tostig Godwinson had wanted to inconvenience their warriors on this nice autumn day, by making them establish sentry posts at a distance around their Viking-mercenary army. That morning, in the vicinity of Stamford Bridge, there were no Viking or mercenary sentries or guard posts established by these two experienced battlefield commanders. Furthermore, no scouts had been sent out in any direction, to ensure that nothing bad would surprise the invading army. Both King Harald and Tostig Godwinson had made the same basic error in military judgment!

During that lazy mid-morning of 25 September 1066, the complacent Viking-mercenary army abruptly saw and heard a large Saxon army charging downhill towards their sleepy soldiers, dozing in the fields to the west of Stamford Bridge. The Saxons were streaming up the road in their thousands, having marched from southeast England. The Saxons were road weary, but they still unsheathed their weapons and broke into a run, their soldiers howling for vengeance. They advanced at a run and spread out to engulf the smaller portion of the Viking-mercenary army that lie on the western side of the River Derwent.

There were probably less than 2,000 Viking and mercenary warriors to the west of the Stamford Bridge, who were shocked to see themselves being rapidly attacked and surrounded by at least 10,000 screaming Saxon soldiers! Some of the Vikings on the west side tried to stand up to this massive tide, but being much fewer in number and most of them being without any body armor or helmets, they were quickly overwhelmed and killed by the Saxons. Within just 10 or fifteen minutes, every single Viking and mercenary warrior who had been on the western side of the River Derwent was either dead or dying, or they had fled across Stamford Bridge to rejoin the remaining, larger portion of the Viking-mercenary army. The Saxon army was just seconds away from following the Vikings and mercenaries retreating across the Stamford Bridge, then to attack the confused remainder of the invading army. The surviving Norsemen and their allies were desperately trying to form a "shield wall' approximately 100 - 150 yards (or meters) up a shallow hill, directly to the east of the River Derwent and Stamford Bridge.

The Vikings and mercenaries still had their two leaders, King Harald and Tostig, who were apparently on the east side of the River Derwent when the battle started on the west side. The invading army had just lost between 500 to 1,000 men in just the initial 10 or 15 minutes, but there were still about 6,500 to 7,000 warriors left to try and fend off the larger English army. King Harald quickly noted that he could form up his smaller army at the top of a shallow slope about 100 to 150 yards (or meters) east of Stamford Bridge, which the English army would have to climb. This rise would give his own army a slight but useful advantage. Probably more critically, his army also had significantly more battle experience than most of the Saxon soldiers. But, offsetting these two advantages, were the fact that King Harald's men were still in shock from the sudden onslaught on the western side of the River Derwent and that most of his men had only a shield and a spear, sword or battle axe. Few of his warriors had on a helmet or body armor (which was usually heavy chain mail). The king also knew he had a significant "ace in the hole': approximately 3,000 additional warriors who were back at the Viking's long ships hauled ashore at Ricall. These men were mostly his youngest and oldest warriors, who were guarding the booty and captives that they had obtained in just 10 days, since his army had invaded northeast England. If King Harald could get at least 2,000 to 2,500 of these warriors-in-reserve to join him at Stamford Bridge, and quickly enough, he might still save his army and cripple this new English army.

King Harald was as decisive as his opponent, King Harold Godwinson, and the Viking King immediately sent a messenger racing the 12 to 13 miles back to his ships at Ricall. Every warrior, excepting the wounded and sick men, were to rush (with full weaponry and armor) to the Viking-mercenary army's aid at Stamford Bridge!

Hardrada knew it would take about an hour for his horse-mounted messenger to reach Ricall and, at the least, two or more hours for his fastest warriors to reach Stamford Bridge by foot. His shield wall had to hold back the larger Saxon army for at least three hours! King Harald Hardrada frantically tried to organize his shield wall and fortify his men's flagging spirits. He needed to buy some time ...

 

Chapter 2. Brief Interlude: A Viking warrior shows most of the Saxon and Viking men-at-arms an amazing display of Courage, Skill and Strength.

Just when the Viking King was grasping at every hope to delay the final onslaught of the Saxon army by three hours, or by as many minutes as he could obtain by praying to the Viking god Odin, Harald was given the gift of a five to ten minute delay in Saxon's final attack, by a huge, powerful and courageous Viking warrior. The name of this Viking warrior has not reached modern times, so we frankly don't know what to call him. But, of course, his name was known by many of the living Viking warriors at Stanford Bridge, that morning.

As the Vikings and mercenaries jostled together to form a long shield wall atop the nearby rise, and as the last survivors from the west side ran up the hill to join this ragged shield wall, a huge Viking warrior stepped on to Stamford Bridge and walked to the middle of the span.

He apparently issued challenges and oaths to the surprised Saxon soldiers. Who was man enough to accept his challenge? At first, many of the Saxon warriors were willing to accept his challenge. The Viking had no helmet or body armor and he may not have had a shield, either. But, he did brandish a large Viking battle axe.

One after another, first singly and then in groups, the Saxon warriors attacked the enormous Viking. One after another, first singly and then in groups, the Saxon warriors were struck down by this powerful and skillful Viking - and his big axe. His victims piled up on the center of the bridge and in the river below. The blood dripped and poured from the bridge works and from his blood-red axe. The Saxons began to look at this Viking as a supernatural being - impossible to defeat and impossible to kill. According to both Norse and English sources, forty (40!) Saxon warriors were now dead or dying, on the bridge or floating downstream in the River Derwent. This amazing display was watched by most of the Saxon army on the east side of the river and most of the Viking army of the west side of the river.

Just when it looked as though no Saxon man was ever going to get across Stamford Bridge alive, one soldier apparently had an idea. This unnamed warrior reportedly pushed a half-barrel into the river, from a little ways upstream of the bridge, while carrying only a spear. As this Saxon man went under Stamford Bridge, unseen by the giant Viking, he jumped out of his makeshift boat and started to climb the bridge structure. When he was just below the wooden slats of the bridge floor, and when the Norseman moved into position just above him, the Saxon pushed his spear between the floor slats and straight up into - and well past - the Viking's unprotected groin. The huge Viking howled in pain and anger, then slowly collapsed onto the bridge floor and died of blood loss.

A minute later, the shaken Saxon army took hold of it's courage and charged across Stamford Bridge and towards the Viking-mercenary army waiting on the eastern bank. Now, thousands of English soldiers trampled upon the dead body of the huge and courageous Viking, who had killed at least forty of their Saxon comrades, as the men crossed the bridge and prepared to attack the remainder of the enemy army.

 

Chapter 3. Shield Walls and Death on a warm and beautiful September day.

The Saxon king, Harold Godwinson, had by now arrived on the eastern end of Stamford Bridge and quickly helped re-organize his army. Even after the little disaster that had just occurred on Stamford Bridge - one large Viking without armor had killed at least 40 fully-equipped Saxon warriors! - the king knew that he had the Viking army at a disadvantage and wanted to press forward.

The Saxons formed a shield wall within minutes, then began a fairly easy march up the shallow hill to the east, although keeping the men in tight formation was not so easy. By this time, King Harald, Tostig and their captains had organized the Vikings and mercenaries into a long shield wall, running roughly north to south across the crest of the shallow hill.

The invading army's shield wall had to be stretched as long as possible, to prevent the larger Saxon army from overlapping and flanking the ends of the Viking shield wall. With somewhere between 10,000 and 15,000 warriors (for sake of this article, let's say that the English had 12,500 soldiers), the Saxons had nearly double the number of warriors, compared to the 6,500 to 7,000 surviving men in the Viking king's shield wall (again, let's say that the Viking - mercenary army had about 6,750 warriors left alive). But, the shortage of warriors was just part of the story for King Harald and Tostig, for their men were mostly without armor and helmets. Just as worrisome, the 2,500 Viking warriors in reserve, who might have significantly strengthened the invader's shield wall, were almost three hours away.

At this crucial point in the battle, the primary English historian to have reported on this battle, adds an interesting anecdote. According to his book, "The Anglo-Saxon Chronicles", Saxon King Harold Godwinson did order a halt to the Saxon army's uphill march, about 50 yards from the invaders" army. Then, as the marching noises and the warriors' yelling nearly ceased, King Harold advanced forward between the two shield walls to begin a negotiation. King Harald Hardrada and Tostig Godwinson stepped forward to meet with the Saxon king. King Harold asked them if they would be willing to surrender their arms and sail back to Norway, empty-handed but alive. The Viking king and Tostig may have discussed this quietly between themselves, but gave King Harold no reply to his surrender demand. Then, Harold turned to his younger brother and asked Tostig Godwinson if he and his mercenaries would be willing to switch sides? What do I get?, replied Tostig. King Harold told him that Tostig would be re-appointed as the Earl of Northumbria, as long as Tostig would swear fealty to Harold Godwinson as the legitimate King of England. Tostig looked at King Harald and then replied with a smirk, "And what will your gifts to King Harald Hardrada include, if he also agrees to quit his claim to the throne of England and sails back to Norway?" King Harold asked what the King of Norway would want by way of gifts? To paraphrase, Tostig replied, "King Harald would require the "gift' of the northeastern counties of England." In reply to this final demand, the English king smiled and supposedly replied, "If he wants much England land to agree to peace, tell him that I have a length of six feet for him to lie within. In fact, given his great height, I will give him seven feet of England to lie within."

This caused King Harald and Tostig to confer briefly, then they both smiled at Harold Godwinson and shook their heads. The three warlords turned and went back to their respective armies. No quarter was to be given and none would be requested.

After a minute, the Saxon army resumed the banging of their swords or axes against their shields and the yelling of curses and threats against the Viking-mercenary army. The Saxons noise-making was returned, in kind.

A minute later, the Saxon army resumed it's steady march up the hill and, with a great crash, smashed into thinner shield wall of the Vikings and their mercenaries. Despite their lack of body armor and helmets, the Viking shield wall held surprisingly steady against the much larger Saxon army. Their overall greater experience in combat, and the battle experience of King Harald of Norway, were probably important factors in favor of the Viking - mercenary army.

 

Fortunately for the English army, the lack of armor and helmets among most of the Norsemen was a factor that became more and more important as time went by and fatigue slowed down all of the warriors. As the Vikings and mercenaries became more fatigued and hungry, their reflexes slowed down and their movements became slower and less coordinated. Without their chain mail armor and helmets, Saxon thrusts and strikes that would normally have been stopped by Viking armor and helmets, were now getting past the Norsemen's shields and swords. Blows and injuries that would have been painful and uncomfortable with a full set of armor, now became bloody and life-threatening. As the Viking - mercenary warriors bled more and tired, disabling and killing strokes from Saxon swords and axes became more and more lethal. Exhausted and bloody, the unprotected Norsemen were falling in greater and greater numbers, as the minutes and hours of combat went by.

The Saxons were at least as exhausted as their Viking opponents, perhaps even more with the men's 40 - 50 pounds of armor and a helmets, in addition to their shield, sword or battle axe. But, unlike the Viking warriors, many blows and thrusts from the invaders' weapons were stopped by the Saxon's armor, thereby leading to somewhat fewer injuries and disabilities. The English army was losing men to death and injury at a significant rate, but not as quickly as the individual Vikings and mercenaries were being killed and wounded!

 

After three hours of vicious combat on a hot September day, almost two Vikings or mercenaries were dying, for every Saxon warrior who was killed. This was a terrible mathematical "meat grinder' for King Harald and Tostig, who could see that the collapse of the Viking shield would be coming soon, despite their endless shifting of warriors from stronger points in the wall to weaker points in the wall.

 

Chapter 4. The Vikings receive a couple of thousand reinforcements ...

Just then, the Viking - mercenary army began to see dozens - and then hundreds - of their reinforcements, who started to stream into the rear of the crumbling Viking shield wall. These reinforcements were exhausted by their eight mile run from Ricall, in full armor and weaponry, during the hottest of midday hours. In fact, some of the oldest Norse warriors were said to have collapsed and died of heat stroke, before they could even join in the battle on the hilltop. Most of these reinforcements, especially the younger men, were able to join the battle with enough energy to fight the weary Saxons. This reserve Viking force came from the long ships at Ricall and were led by King Harald's daughter's fiance, Eystein Orri.

At this crucial moment, when the Viking shield wall was beginning to possibly stabilize again, a deadly arrow was fired by a Saxon archer (of whom there were only a few on the English side and none on the Viking side). Whether by accident or design, this Saxon arrow struck the Norwegian king in the throat and Hardrada collapsed to the ground, soon dying of suffocation and blood loss. At around the same time as King Harald"s death, although no other details were recorded, Tostig Godwinson also saw his wild ambitions die in the mud and blood of this battle.

Now almost leaderless, the minor Viking chief Eystein Orri tried hard to hold together his remaining warriors. In Norwegian tradition, the Viking reserves and their struggle to push back the near-victorious Saxon army, was called "Orri's Storm". Unfortunately for the Norsemen, the Viking shield wall collapsed despite Eystein Orri's desperate leadership, and Orri was soon to be struck down by Saxon steel.

The Norwegian and mercenary army was completely routed, then pursued by the English army all the way back to their long ships at Ricall. It was said that some of the fleeing Norsemen drowned in the rivers that they had to cross, during their chaotic flight to Ricall.

So many men died in an area so relatively small, that the field and hill east of Stamford Bridge was said to have been whitened with the bleached bones of Norsemen, even 70 years after the battle.

King Harold accepted a truce with the surviving Vikings, including dead King Harald's son Olaf and Paul Thorfinnsson , Earl of Orkney . They were all allowed to leave after giving oaths to never attack England again.

The losses the Norwegians had suffered were so horrific, so complete, that only 24 Viking long ships - from the original invasion fleet of over 300 ships! - were needed to carry the survivors back to the Orkney Islands and thence to Norway.

As King Harold Godwinson and the Saxon army tried to rest and re-organize after the six hour battle, and yet unbeknownst to King Harold, the invasion fleet of the Duke of Normandy landed on the southeast coast of England.

The second invasion of Saxon England had begun, just thirteen (13!) days after the first invasion fleet had arrived in northeast England ...

 

Coming up next in our series on the "Bad Fall of 1066 ... and Anglo-Saxon England' is the series finale: Part 4. The Very Last Battle of 1066 ... the Battle of Hastings .

 

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