The Battle of Stamford Bridge – the end of the Viking era & its impact on the Norman Conquest
When you mention Stamford Bridge to most people, they always seem to associate the name with the home of Chelsea Football Club down in London as opposed to the
bottleneck on the road between York and Bridlington at Bridge over the River Derwent.
But what most people don’t realise is that what has traditionally been the boundary of the North & East Riding, and had been used as a crossing point on the road from Malton to Brough by the Romans, was once the location of one of the most pivotal battles in English history.
It is the location of the last great triumph of an Anglo Saxon King – only weeks before the Battle of Hastings in 1066. It was the battle where King Harold Godwinson defeated a Norse invasion led by Harold Hardrada and Godwinson’s brother Tostig. It is now widely acknowledged in both Britain and Scandinavia as the battel which essentially closed the Viking era.
Background to the battle…
Edward the Confessor (1003-1066)who built the first iteration of Westminster Abbey ruled all of England. During his time as king Harold Godwinson’s father Godwin Earl of Wessex had been the King’s Lieutenant whilst both Harold and his brother Tostig were very influential in court.
When his father died Harold gained his father’s title. In court, Harold was intelligent, trusted and liked, but his brother Tostig who now ruled Northumbria was universally disliked. After claims of bad behaviour, cruelty and a terrible temper there was a rebellion against him in the North. Edward the Confessor sided with the rebellion and banished Tostig, who swore revenge on the king and his brother who he felt hadn’t spoken up on his behalf.
At the time kings didn’t have to be the same blood line – they were appointed by a Witan ( a Saxon council of wise nobles and elders). Edward the Confessor had no sons, so upon his death Harold Godwinson was elected by the English nobility as king on 6th January 1066. It was claimed that before his death Edward had awoken from a coma and proclaimed Harold his successor, but we will never know for sure.
But things were not as simple as it looked. William of Normandy claimed that firstly Edward the Confessor had promised he would succeed him on his death and he also claimed that Harold Godwinson had supported this claim by an oath in 1064 after being shipwrecked in Normandy – a scene which is shown in the Bayeaux Tapestry with Harold touching two alters in front of the enthroned Duke William.
William of Normandy laid claim to the throne of England and set about raising an army to invade England. The Pope supported William’s claim.
Harold Godwinson formed an army in readiness of Williams Invasion and posted them on the South coast. After seven months of no invasion Harold disbanded the fleet and returned to London.
In the meantime Tostig, Harold’s banished brother had combined forces with the Danish King Harold Hardrada.
Harold Hardrada and Tostig landed North of Scarborough where the people apparently surrendered but were cut down and their homes burnt. The invading force then set out to York aiming to regain the old capital of the Danelaw, Jorvik and use it as a safe haven for winter.
After defeating Harold’s brothers Edwin, Earl of Mercia and Morcar now Earl of Northumbria at the battle of Fulford they marched to York and officials handed over the City in exchange for hostages on both sides.
Harald Hardrada demanded more Saxon hostages and it was agreed to a handover of these at Stamford Bridge in a few weeks.
Word got to Harold Godwinson, who was in London at the time, of what had happened at the Battle of Fulford and his brother Tostig’s part in the invasion. Quickly Harold put together and army and marched 200 miles north over the next 6 days, gathering forces on the way.
Unaware of Harold’s arrival in Yorkshire and expecting a straightforward exchange of men, Hardrada and Tostig only took half their men to Stamford Bridge for the exchange and also took very little heavy equipment. It is also written that as it was a hot day many of the Viking army had also removed their armour.
The Battle of Stamford Bridge - Peter Nicolai Arbo
On Harald and Tostig’s arrival at Stamford Bridge on 25th September 1066, the Saxon army surprised the Vikings by attacking swiftly from on high. Records of the battle detail the
“Glittering weapons that sparkled like a field of broken ice”.
There is a story of King Harald Hardrada, a huge Viking warrior holding the bridge and being skewed by a spear from beneath the bridge, this is unlikely to have happened although it has become folklore.
It is believed that to try and end the battle without mass casualties , that Harold offered to restore his brother Tostig’s land in Northumbria, but he only offered Harald Hardrada a 7ft plot to be buried. Tostig refused the offer and was killed along with Hardrada in a bloody slaughter.
Even though The Battle of Stamford Bridge was a great Saxon victory – many men had been lost or injured – not ideal when you are expecting an invasion By William Duke of Normandy from France any time
This battle actually maintained England as a unified nation as should Harald Hardrada have won, it would have been likely a Danelaw type split of England would have happened again with the Vikings controlling the North.
The surviving Vikings including Hardrada’s sons Olaf and Paul surrendered to Harold Godwinson and were allowed to leave having pledged to not return. They left with only 24 of their original 300 long ships.
After a couple of days rest in York, Harold started his return down south only to be informed that William Duke of Normandy had landed in Sussex.
It took Harold two weeks to raise an army and return, which had given William time to prepare and settle his troops.
The Saxon’s fought bravely but the rigours of Stamford Bridge had put them at a severe disadvantage and they were defeated and Harold Godwinson killed. It would be interesting to see how the Battle of Hastings would have turned out if the battle of Stamford Bridge had never happened? Would William have won the Battle and become king? We will never know?
The town has expanded now to cover much of the ancient battlefield but a plaque in town still marks the area of the battle, and there is a memorial stone/plaque on the site of the field in Whiterose Drive and there are lots of Viking references in the town including a Viking long ship flower bed.
The plaque in the village close to the old mill states The Battle of Stamford Bridge – King Harold of England defeated his brother Tostig and King Harald Hardrada of Norway here on 25th September 1066.
The village have also created the Stamford Bridge Tapestry – a homage to the Bayeaux Tapestry. It was started in 2016 and finished 5 years later.
For more information visit http://stamfordbridgetapestry.org.uk