Harold and the Battle of Stamford Bridge

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King Harold’s Dilemma

By mid-September of 1066 the newly crowned English king, Harold Godwinson, was faced with a terrible dilemma.

All summer long he had been watching England’s southern coast in readiness for an invasion by William, Duke of Normandy. As summer progressed into the month of September the likelihood of a cross channel invasion become more and more remote. On the September 8, 1066 Harold took the fateful decision to stand down many of his coastal defenses.

Suddenly, news came to Harold that there had indeed been an invasion. But not the one he had been expecting. Reports came of a huge invasion force of Norwegians led by the legendary Viking Harold Hardrada, assisted by Harold’s embittered brother Tostig, laying waste to towns and villages in the north.

What should Harold do?

Should he stay in the south and wait until all possible threat of a Norman invasion had evaporated for another year? Or should he march north, eliminate the threat from Hardrada, then return to confront the by now remote threat of Norman invasion?

On September 20, 1066 Harold mobilized his troops and headed north with 6,000 fighting men.

The Norwegian’s Progress

Progress was swift and deadly for Hardrada and before long the invaders found themselves bearing down on the city of York. On the very day that Harold’s force marched north the Anglo-Saxons gave battle at Gate Fulford just south of the York.

Hardrada’s victory was total and complete.The English fled the battle field and Hardrada and Tostig revelled in their triumph.

Terms of surrender were agreed upon with the city elders and arrangements were made for both parties to meet on September 25th at a place north-east of the York called Stamford Bridge.

King Harold Approaches

Meanwhile, Harold and his men had achieved a miraculous military feat – they had marched relentlessly the 200 miles north in just four days. He arrived at the Yorkshire town of Tadcaster, 10 miles south of York, on the 24th. Here he would have learned, possibly for the first time, of the comprehensive defeat that English forces had suffered at Fulford.

Again Harold was faced with a dilemma. Under no circumstances could Hardrada learn of his presence in the north. Immediately he sealed off the town of Tadcaster. Placing guards on all the approach roads he ensured that no one entered or left Tadcaster.

The Anglo Saxon Chronicle informs us that the following day Harold marched into York and met with the city elders. They immediately threw in their lot with Harold, renouncing their previous surrender to Hardrada.

On to Stamford Bridge

Harold now commenced his brief march to Stamford Bridge where he caught the Norwegian invaders completely by surprise. Expecting merely a delegate of civilians the Vikings had let down their guard, some even disrobing their battle gear. The great Viking chronicler Snorritells us that “they were very merry” and had obviously overdone the celebrating.

According to the same chronicler “the shining arms of the English were like glinting ice to the eyes.” Tostig, knowing only too well the fighting qualities of his brother, advised a tactical retreat. But Hardrada would have none of it. He stood his ground, prepared to fight.

The Battle of Stamford Bridge

For four long hours the battle raged. The Norwegians fought furiously and well. But eventually the superior English numbers began to tell. Hardrada fell back behind a shield wall of his finest warriors. But to no avail. Eventually the great Viking was felled by an arrow – supposedly piercing him through the throat. Tostig assumed command but soon he too was slain. Defeat now turned into a rout.

Such was the totality of Harold’s victory that the survivors limped home to Norway in 24 longships – the only survivors of a force that had set out in 200 ships with such high hopes.

But casualties were high on both sides. Harold’s troops had fought hard and many of his leading men were either slain or wounded.

The Dreaded News

It was at a victory feast a few days later that Harold received the news that must have chilled him to the bone. The unimaginable had happened – Duke William had crossed the English Channel and landed on the south coast with a huge invasion force.

King Harold immediately roused his battle weary troops. Once again they set out on an incredible march. This one was to end on the southern English shore at Hastings and nothing less than the entire fate of English history hung in the balance.