Harald Hardrada, the King of Norway, and the two were itching for a fight, with an eye toward gaining the throne of England. The fight came in the fall of 1066, when Tostig, Harald, and thousands of warriors landed in northeast England, at Ricall, near York. Their invasion force numbered about 10,000. To this threat, Harold responded as best he could, with 3,000 mounted infantry known then as house-carls. Absent from this force were the large numbers of free men from the shires who were serving their mandatory two months of military service. Had the invasion come a month or two before, the fate and future of England might have been quite different. But these men had all returned home when the Vikings landed anew, and so Harold sent a smaller force to deal with the invaders.
Following the Roman road renamed Watling Street, Harold and his men picked up a few reinforcements along the way, The earls of Mercia and Northumbria had sent their men from York to Fulford, to try to stop the Norwegian advance. They were unsuccessful, disastrously so. After such an easy victory, Harald and Tostig understandably relaxed.
At Stamford Bridge, the Norwegian army set up camp, expecting Harold to come and parley, exchanging hostages and pleasantries before getting down to the business of perhaps a new sort of Danelaw or, if things went extremely the way of the jealous Tostig and the scheming Harald, the surrender of the English crown. What the invaders hadn’t considered is that Harold would fight and fight hard.
Amazingly, the king and his men covered 180 miles in just four days and plunged right into battle. It was a hot day on that 25th day of September, and the lax Norwegian army had discarded their armor and helmets, so confident were they of the likelihood of capitulation. Harold seized the initiative and never let it go.
The element of surprise and familiarity with the terrain were the two determining factors, outweighing the numbers advantage on the Norwegian side. The Saxons, fighting for their home and country, succeeded on valor and moxie, putting to full flight an army nearly three times their size.
The costs were steep for both sides:
The Norwegian army lost both its leaders, as Harald and Tostig both fell on the battlefield. So complete was the rout, in fact, that the Saxons pursued the Vikings all the way back to their fleet at Riccall. Of the 200 ships that sailed from Norway, only 24 returned with their crews intact. The Viking threat to English sovereignty was finally at an end.
The Saxons had completed a legendary triumph but had little time to savor the victory, as news of an invasion led by William of Normandy found its ways to Harold’s army not long after the victory at Stamford Bridge. Turning right around, the Saxons marched back south, there to throw their mettle into the melee against a far fresher and more experienced foe.