Battle of Stamford Bridge: Saxon King Harold Godwinson Defeats Invading Norwegians

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Battle of Stamford Bridge: Saxon King Harold Godwinson Defeats Invading Norwegians

"Battle of Stamford Bridge" by Peter Nicolai Arbo (1870), oil on canvas
Currently in the Nordnorsk Kunstmuseum, Tromso, Norway
[Note King Harald of Norway (center) taking an arrow to the throat]
(Unless otherwise indicated, all illustrations are courtesy of Wikipedia)

Today in Military History: September 25, 1066

[Today's post is an expansion on my very first Burn Pit contribution four years ago.]

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 fight marks the end of the Age of the Vikings.


On January 4 or 5, 1066 English monarch Edward the Confessor died. He left no blood heir, and on his deathbed appeared to recognize Harold Godwinson, one of the most powerful nobles of the land, as his successor. Harold's father had had designs on the throne for many years, and probably influenced Edward's final decision. On January 6, the Witenagemot (an advisory council to the Saxon kings) recognized Harold as king, and he was crowned later that day.

Within days, William Duke of Normandy (at that time known scathingly as "The Bastard") received word of the events in England; William, who had a claim to the Saxon throne, was *not* pleased. The Norman duke claimed that the late King Edward had offered him the throne, as he was a descendant of the Confessor's uncle, Richard II the former Duke of Normandy. According to certain chroniclers, Harold Godwinson had promised the English throne to William in 1064 or 1065. This claim, however, is quite dubious. [There is also a story that Harold swore to support William while unknowingly having his hand on a table with a cloth covering a number of religious relics.]

Saxon King Harold Godwinson (reigned Jan. 6-October 14, 1066); As depicted on the Bayeux Tapestry
Saxon King Harold Godwinson (reigned Jan. 6-October 14, 1066)
As depicted on the Bayeux Tapestry

Nonetheless, Duke William began his preparations. With an invasion looming, King Harold called out the fyrd, the Saxon militia, to guard the southern coast of England. However, the fyrd could only be kept on station for a few months, before their food supplies ran out. Also, the less-than-professional fighting men were needed back home to bring in the harvest. Finally, bad weather had delayed Duke William's invasion fleet. In early September, the fyrdmen were released from their military commitment to return to their homes. As a result, the only Saxon force left to oppose a likely Norman invasion was King Harold's housecarls, elite infantrymen capable of taking on any military unit in Europe.

However, in early September another invasion fleet landed in Northumbria in northern England. This force was led by King Harald Sigurdsson of Norway, known by the nom de guerre of Hardrada (literally, the "Hard-Rider," or more simply "Ruthless"). Hardrada also had a claim to the English throne, and brought 300 longships full of soldiers to back it up.

Harald Sigurdsson aka Hardrada, "Last of the Vikings"

Harald Hardrada (pronounced whore-DROR-da) was born around 1015. He was a half-brother of Norwegian monarch Saint Olaf. It is likely Harald's first military experience took place in 1030, when he fought beside his brother Olaf, who was trying to reclaim the Norse throne. Olaf lost the battle of Stiklestad, also losing his life, and his half-brother Harald – aged 15 – was recognized by the sagas as a fine military commander. [For more information on Stiklestad, please consult my Burn Pit post from July of 2010, battle_of_stiklestad.] Young Harald escaped eastward to the lands of the Kievan Rus.

Eventually, Hardrada made his way to Constantinople, where he enlisted in the Varangian Guard, the elite bodyguard of the Byzantine emperors. Harald fought in Asia Minor, Sicily, Bulgaria, and the Middle East. During his time in the Guard, the Norwegian eventually became its commander, and accumulated a considerable fortune. In about 1045, Harald left Constantinople, traveled back to Kiev, got married to the daughter of the ruler of Kiev, and returned to Norway to take the royal throne for himself. From 1047 through 1066, he ruled Norway, fought with Sweden and Denmark, and tried to spread Christianity in the kingdom.

Harald Hardrada, as depicted in the 13th century chronicle, The Life of King Edward the Confessor by Matthew Paris, artist unknown [Note the contemporary 13th century armor he is wearing]
Harald Hardrada, as depicted in the 13th century chronicle,
The Life of King Edward the Confessor by Matthew Paris, artist unknown
[Note the contemporary 13th century armor he is wearing]

When Harald received word of the death of Edward the Confessor, he based his claim to the throne of England on an agreement made between Magnus – king of Norway – and Hardacanute – ruler of England and Denmark – in 1038. The pact stated that if either died, the other would inherit the throne and lands of the deceased. When Hardacanute died, Magnus assumed the crown of Denmark and considered himself the lawful heir to Hardacanute after the Confessor was crown king of England.

Prelude to the Battle

Harald began preparations for an invasion of England, perhaps as early as March. During his arrangements, he was approached by an emissary of Tostig Godwinson, the disaffected brother of England's king. A year previously, Tostig had been the earl of Northumbria, but began heavily taxing his subjects. His action caused the Northumbrians to revolt, sending a message to King Edward asking for a replacement ruler. The Confessor agreed, and Tostig's brother Morcar was put in his place. In November of 1065, when Tostig refused to accept his deposition, he was declared an outlaw and sent into exile in Flanders.

Burning for revenge, Tostig received some troops and ships from his brother-in-law, the Count of Flanders. He raided much of the southern English coast in the spring and early summer of 1066. However, King Harold called out naval and land forces to oppose him, and his brothers and their retinues defeated him. Deserted by his friends and most of his family, Tostig fled to Scotland, where he lived for a time in the court of King Malcolm III.

Sometime in August of 1066, Harald and his fleet landed first in the Orkney Islands, then the Shetland Islands (both groups were under Norwegian protection), gathering more troops. Next, he landed in Scotland and received some Scottish troops for his expedition. During this time, Hardrada finally met Tostig face-to-face. The two men apparently hit it off, and Tostig became the second-in-command to the Norwegian king.

Shortly afterwards, the Norwegian army sailed southward, landing in Northumbria sometime in mid-September. After raiding and burning several English towns, the invaders advanced on York, the primary city of Northumbria (it was known to the Vikings by the name "Jorvik"). On September 20, the Viking army fought a sharp, but bloody battle with the militiamen of the Earls Edwin of Mercia and Morcar of Northumbria – both men were Tostig's brothers. Though the fyrd fought surprisingly well, they were eventually overwhelmed by the numbers of the invading army. [For more information on this battle, please see my Burn Pit Post from September of 2010 at battle_gate_fulford.]

Four days later Hardrada, Tostig, and their men entered the city of York in triumph. After gathering supplies and hostages, Hardrada told the city's leaders that, in exchange for not burning and looting the town, additional hostages and supplies were required. After consulting with Tostig, Harald told the Yorkshiremen that "the goods" should be brought the next day to a local landmark, a small wooden bridge along the Derwent River on an old Roman-built road known as Stamford Bridge. Consequently, the Vikings marched to their fortified camp at Riccall, and prepared for the morrow.

Meanwhile, Saxon King Harold Godwinson received word of the Norse invasion sometime before the battle of Gate Fulford. The monarch gathered his housecarls, the thegns (noble retainers) of his brother Gyrth, some of the local fyrd, and left London on or about September 20. Along the way, Harold raised more militia in West Mercia and East Anglia and continued his march. By the time the Saxons arrived at the town of Tadcaster – 9 miles short of York – on the afternoon of September 24, the Saxon army had marched an incredible 48 miles a day (a normal day's march at this time was perhaps 20-25 miles).

Harold sent scouts ahead to York, and discovered that the Vikings had left no garrison behind to occupy the town. The townspeople reported on the Norse king's request for further supplies and hostages, and indicated the proposed site of the hand-over. Godwinson began making his plans to attack the enemy the next day.

Norwegian Army

The invaders originally numbered some 15,000 soldiers, consisting of Norwegians, Scots, and Flemings. After fighting at Gate Fulford, the Norwegian force was probably down to about 12,000 men. The army was composed almost entirely of infantry, armed with swords, battle axes, spears, and some archers or slingers. They wore helmets, leather or chain mail armor, and carried metal-rimmed wooden shields.

Modern British Viking reenactment group demonstrates a skjaldborg (shield-wall); (Image courtesy of
Modern British Viking reenactment group demonstrates a skjaldborg (shield-wall)
(Image courtesy of

One of favored tactics of the English, Scots, and Scandinavians was the skjaldborg, or shield-wall. The soldiers would lock shields, and form a long rectangular formation which could defend a ridge, hill, or other point of contention. The shield-wall tactics of the day did not require extraordinary skill, being essentially a shoving and fencing match with weapons. A few select warriors, such as huscarls, carried heavier weapons and consistently wore armor. There would also have been nobles such as jarls who would have had their own armored retainers. These men made up the first three ranks of the main wall, and as bodyguards for highly placed nobles and royalty.

The vast majority of opponents in such battles were armed with spears, which they used against the unprotected legs or faces of their opponents. Often, soldiers would use their weapons to support each other by stabbing and slashing to the left or the right, rather than just ahead. Short weapons could also be used in the tight quarters of the wall. Limited use of archery and thrown missile weapons occurred in the opening stages of shield-wall battles, but were rarely decisive to the outcome. The drawback of the shield-wall tactic was that once breached, the whole formation tended to fall apart rather quickly. Relatively lightly trained militiamen gained morale from being shoulder-to-shoulder with their comrades, but often fled once the security of the shield-wall was compromised. Once the wall was breached, it could prove difficult or impossible to re-establish a defensive line, and panic would set in among the defenders.

Although the various Norse sagas speak of the warriors known as berserkers, it is highly unlikely that any of these wild men were present at Stamford Bridge.

Anglo-Saxon Army

Typical Saxon huscarl c. 1066 (Image courtesy of
Typical Saxon huscarl c. 1066
(Image courtesy of

In addition to King Harold's housecarles, his brother's retainers, the majority of the Saxon army (thought to be between 8000 and 15,000 strong) consisted of the local fyrd of the various towns and shires (counties) through which the Saxon force marched. These militiamen were mostly locals who were only slightly trained in military ways. They wore little armor – perhaps leather armor, a shield, and perhaps an iron helmet – and some were lucky enough to have spears, slings, or bows. In some cases, the poorest fyrdmen carried only their farm implements as weapons. These men usually were lined up in the deeper lines of the Saxon shield-wall, with the housecarles and thegns in the front.

 [The Icelandic sagas of Snorri Sturluson (one of the major sources for this battle) said part of the Saxon army fought on horseback. Many modern historians have disputed this, saying that the Saxon housecarles and thegns probably rode to battle, but dismounted to fight. In fact, a number of historians claim that Sturluson's description of this battle was essentially a re-telling of the later battle of Hastings. This argument is still unsettled. However, many illustrations of the battle show the Saxons as fighting mounted.]

Battle of Stamford Bridge

The next morning, Monday September 25, King Harold Godwinson led his army into the city of York, re-established his authority and gathered further information about the enemy. By late morning, Godwinson led his army eastward toward the Derwent River. The English monarch was confident that the Norsemen were unaware of his army's presence, and was prepared to give them a lesson. They followed the old Roman road running eastward, marching about 5.5 miles until they came to the town of Helmsley Gate, just out of sight of Stamford Bridge. The English monarch sent scouts ahead to report on the expected appearance of the Viking army.

Battle of Stamford Bridge, Initial Phase (Image courtesy of
Battle of Stamford Bridge, Initial Phase
(Image courtesy of

At about noon, King Harald and his henchman Tostig were waiting on the banks of the River Derwent with about 7500-8000 men. Not expecting a battle, many of the Vikings were sun-bathing or swimming in the river – it was an unusually hot day for September – and none were wearing their armor, save their helmets and shields. The army was divided, some on the western bank of the Derwent and the majority on eastern bank. The remainder of the invading army – as well as their armor – was 10 miles away with the fleet at Riccall.

When the Saxon army appeared in sight of the Vikings, Hardrada and Tostig were stunned; they had expected townsmen bringing supplies and hostages, not an army. After pulling together his scattered forces to the eastern 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 saga, a single Viking berserker held the narrow bridge against the English for some time, killing 40 Saxons 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 in a shield-wall several ranks deep in front of a slight ridge. The Norsemen had pulled their flanks back so far that they nearly touched. As the Saxons deployed into a shield-wall, a brief parley was arranged. King Harold Godwinson rode out to meet with his brother Tostig and Harald Hardrada. The English monarch wore no crown or other royal regalia, so the Norwegian king thought him to be a royal messenger.

The meeting was brief, as Godwinson offered his brother amnesty – and the return of his earldom of Northumbria – if he would rejoin the English. Tostig inquired of his brother what he would offer Hardrada. The reply: "Six feet of good English earth, or however much taller he is than other men." Tostig rejected the offer, and then as the Saxon king rode off, Hardrada asked his lieutenant the identity of the messenger. When told it was the English king, Hardrada upbraided Tostig for not telling him sooner, for he might have taken Harold hostage. However, Hardrada did express his admiration for Godwinson, and how well he sat in his horse's saddle. Shortly thereafter, the Saxon line charged the Vikings.

Battle of Stamford Bridge, Next Phase; modern map overlaid with likely battle positions (Image courtesy of
Battle of Stamford Bridge, Next Phase; modern map overlaid with likely battle positions
(Image courtesy of

According to King Harald's Saga:

The English made a cavalry charge on the Norwegians, who met it without flinching. It was no easy matter for the English to ride against the Norwegians because of their arrows, so they rode around them in a circle. There was only skirmishing to begin with, so long as the Norwegians kept their formation. The English cavalry kept charging them and falling back at once when they could make no headway.

The Norwegians observed this, and thought the enemy assaults rather half-hearted; so they launched an attack themselves on the retreating cavalry. But as soon as they had broken their shield-wall, the English rode down on them from all sides, showering spears and arrows on them.

When King Harald Sigurdsson saw this, he led a charge into the thickest of the fighting. The battle became very fierce, and great numbers were killed on both sides. King Harald Sigurdsson now fell into such a fury of battle that he rushed forward ahead of his troops, fighting two-handed. Neither helmets nor coats of mail could withstand him, and everyone in his path gave way before him. It looked then as if the English were on the point of being routed.

The battle itself is not well recorded in any history, save in the over-flowery language of Snorri's saga. Suffice it to say, it was a bloody mess. The Vikings fought like mad-men, probably knowing that without their armor, their fates were sealed and they were headed for either Heaven or Valhalla. The battle raged for most of the afternoon, no quarter was asked and none was given.

As the battle continued, Hardrada was wounded in the throat with a Saxon arrow. Command of the Norse army fell to Tostig. After several hours of fighting, Saxon King Harold again offered mercy to Tostig and to the Vikings. According to King Harald's Saga, "…the Norwegians shouted back with one voice that every one of them would rather die than accept quarter from the English; they roared their war-cry, and the battle started again." Tostig placed himself beneath Hardrada's banner, nicknamed "Land-Ravager," and the battle continued.

"Battle of Stamford Bridge" from 1899 edition of the Heimskringla; [Note Hardrada in left-of-center foreground receiving the fatal arrow wound]; Illustration by Wilhelm Wetlesen
"Battle of Stamford Bridge" from 1899 edition of the Heimskringla
[Note Hardrada in left-of-center foreground receiving the fatal arrow wound]
Illustration by Wilhelm Wetlesen

Despite his best efforts, Tostig himself eventually fell dead. However, a messenger had been sent to the Viking's anchorage at Riccall, and the rest of the Viking invasion force double-timed their way to Stamford Bridge. They were led by Eystein Orri, Hardrada's daughter's fiancé and probably the third-in-command. However, the hot early-autumn weather played havoc with the Viking reinforcements. The saga 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 joined the battle, fighting with near-berserk fanaticism. Some of the new arrivals, realizing that their time had come, took off their armor and fought on. Before long, the Viking army disintegrated and was running for their encampment.


The battle had lasted from nearly noon until sunset. Both sides lost large numbers of men, the Saxons perhaps 5000 men, and the Norsemen 6000. 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. King Harald's Saga stated that only 24 ships were needed to take the survivors back to Norway.

Footnote #1: For six days, King Harold and his men celebrated their great victory in York. Godwinson spent most of the time re-establishing his authority in Northumbria. On October 1, a messenger arrived from southern England. He reported that Norman Duke William had landed on the Sussex coast on September 28. After resting a few more days and collecting his northern levies, King Harold Godwinson began his return march back to southern England.

Footnote #2: In the modern-day town of Stamford Bridge, a memorial stone and plaque commemorate the Saxon victory over the Norsemen. The plaque simply states, "King Harold of England defeated his brother Tostig and King Hardrada of Norway here on September 25, 1066."

Plaque commemorating the battle in 1066 in Stamford Bridge, Yorkshire
Plaque commemorating the battle in 1066 in Stamford Bridge, Yorkshire

Footnote #3: Godwinson kept his promise, and buried the Norwegian monarch in the "good English earth." A year after his death at Stamford Bridge, Harald's body was moved to Norway and buried at the Mary Church in Trondheim. About a hundred years after his burial, his body was reinterred at the Helgeseter Priory, which was demolished in the 17th century. On September 25, 2006 – the 940th anniversary of Harald's death – the newspaper Aftenposten published an article on the poor state of Norway's ancient royal burial sites, including that of Harald, which is reportedly located underneath a road built across the monastery site. In a follow-up article the next day, the Municipality of Trondheim revealed they would be examining the possibility of exhuming the king and reinterring him in Nidaros Cathedral, currently the burial place of nine Norwegian kings. A month later it was reported that the proposal to exhume the king had been scrapped

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This was quite helpful


Lots of inaccuracies and errors. Google The Battle of Stamford Bridge 1066 AD An Alternative Interpretation


It doesn't tell me anything about the Viking who fought on the bridge. Rubbish.

It doesn't tell me anything about the Viking who fought on the bridge. Rubbish.

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