This Day in Military History: Battle of Stamford Bridge

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Battle of Samford Bridge Stamford by painter Peter Nicolai Arbo This from a friend of mine, a research assistant and amateur historian, "Siggurdsson." Any well-read student of history knows the year 1066; battle of Hastings, right?  Well, three weeks before the events of October 14, another battle occurred that set the stage for the downfall of Anglo-Saxon rule of England.  That battle also rang down the curtain on the Age of the Vikings. William, Duke of Normandy had made it known that he was intent on reinforcing his claim to the throne of England at the point of a sword.  Harold Godwinson, the selected monarch, had been watching the southern coast of England throughout the summer of 1066, awaiting William’s invasion force.  However, bad weather had kept Duke William’s fleet from sailing.  Early in September, King Harold sent his forces home (the fyrd, or militia, could only be held for so long, before their forced service would disrupt their duties at home; harvest time, do you know). However, in mid-September a second invasion fleet landed in northern England in Northumbria.  This force was led my King Harald Siggurdson of Norway, known by the nom de guerre of Hardrada (literally, the “Hard-Rider,” more simply “Ruthless”).  Hardrada also had a claim to the English throne, and brought 300 longships full of Vikings to back it up.  Also among his forces was Tostig Godwinson, the disaffected brother of England’s king, looking for revenge, loot and a ruling spot under Hardrada. After fighting a sharp battle at Gate Fulford on September 20, Hardrada and Tostig rode into the city of York on about September 24.  Meeting the leading men of the city, Harald agreed not to burn or loot the town, so long as supplies and hostages were given to him.  The city leaders readily acceded to his demands, stating they would deliver the “goods” at a nearby bridge on an old Roman road.  The bridge was called Stamford Bridge. At about mid-morning of September 25, King Harald and his henchman Tostig were waiting on the banks of the River Derwent with about 2500-3000 men.  Not expecting a battle, many of the Vikings were sun-bathing or swimming in the river, and none were wearing their armor, save their helmets and shields.  Unknown to Hardrada, King Harald Godwinson had received word of the Viking invasion on the day of the battle of Gate Fulford.  The king gathered his huscarls (his personal bodyguards) and collected other seasoned troops and militia as he marched north, making a march of 320 kilometers (199 miles) in four days.  Arriving in York on the morning of September 25, Godwinson – with a force of about 7000 men – reasserted his control of the town, then followed the old Roman road to Stamford Bridge, a distance of 9 kilometers (5.5 miles). When the English army appeared in sight of the Vikings, Hardrada and Tostig were stunned; they had not expected a force of this size.  After pulling together his scattered forces to the south side of the bridge, Hardrada left a token force to hold the bridge.  The English swept this tiny force aside; however, according to 13th century Icelandic writer Snorri Sturleson, a single Viking berserker held the narrow bridge against the English for some time, until he was dispatched.  When the English force reached the other side of the river and deployed in line, they faced the Vikings who had aligned their force on a slight ridge several ranks deep.  A brief parley then occurred, with Harold Godwinson offering his brother amnesty if he would rejoin the English.  Tostig rejected the offer, then inquired of his brother the king what would he offer Hardrada.  The reply: “Six feet of good English earth, or however much taller he is than other men.” The battle itself is not well recorded in any history; Snorri’s description includes much saga-lore and flowery language.  Suffice it to say, it was a bloody mess.  The Vikings fought like mad-men, anticipating a place in either Heaven or Valhalla (many Norwegians were Christianized by this time).  When Hardrada and Tostig were both killed, much of the starch left the Vikings.  However, a messenger had been sent to the Viking’s anchorage, and the rest of the Viking invasion force double-timed their way to Stamford Bridge.  However, the hot early-autumn weather played havoc with the Viking reinforcements.  Snorri said that many of the Vikings, running in full battle armor, fell out and died during the run to the battle; those that made it to the raven-feasting were almost complete exhausted.  They were quickly beaten by the English, and the remnants fled to their anchorage. King Harold set up a truce with Olaf, Hardrada’s son, and allowed the remaining Vikings to sail back to Norway, with the pledge they would never attack England again.  Snorri’s story stated that only 24 ships were needed to take the survivors back to Norway.  For six days, King Harold and his men celebrated their great victory in York.  That is, until a messenger arrived from southern England on October 1: Duke William had landed on the Sussex coast on September 28.  After resting a few more days and collecting his northern levies, Godwinson marched back south to Senlac Hill… …but *THAT* is another story…
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News from the World of Military and Veterans Issues. Iraq and A-Stan in parenthesis reflects that the author is currently deployed to that theater.