Battle of Stamford Bridge

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The Battle of Stamford Bridge was the first of two pivotal battles fought by the Anglo-Saxon king Harold Godwinsson in the year 1066. Stamford Bridge pitted Harold's Anglo-Saxon army against a Norse invasion force under Harald Hardrada.

The Buildup

When Harold Godwinsson inherited the throne from Edward the Confessor in early 1066, he triggered a furor throughout western Europe. Several other claimants to the English throne emerged, including William of Normandy and Harold's own elder brother, Tostig Godwinsson. Tostig, exiled to Scotland, was quick to make an alliance with the Norse King Harald Hardrada, and offer him rich rewards in England for his assistance.

In the autumn of 1066, a huge fleet of Viking longships under Hardrada sailed to England. One Norse saga, the Heimskringla, gives the size of the fleet at more than three hundred longships and seven thousand warriors -- perhaps half the fighting strength of Norway. They met with Tostig's smaller force of a perhaps two thousand Scots and renegade Anglo-Saxons, and sailed up the Humber river towards York. The fleet was beached at the town of Riccall, and the army moved inland.

On September 20 this huge army of some nine to ten thousand defeated a hastily assembed English army at Fulford Gate and captured York. Thinking King Harold Godwinsson unaware of their presence on English soil, or perhaps certain that no army could march from London so quickly, the Norse were unprepared for the arrival of King Harold's army only four days later. Harold Godwinsson had only learned that Tostig and Hardrada had sailed to England on 18 September, and had started moving north immediately. In a remarkable march, Harold led his fyrd of several thousand men two hundred miles in only four days. On 24 September, Tostig and Hardrada, encamped on both banks of the Derwent river near a wooden bridge, woke to the sound on an English army in full battle array sweeping down on the troops trapped on the west bank.

The Battle

King Harold of England had achieved an almost complete surprise; according to legend, some of the Norsemen didn't even have time to don their maille hauberks. Harold and his housecarls led the charge, thundering into the Norse by the riverside. The Norse tried to retreat across the bridge to reach their comrades on the eastern bank, but the bridge formed a serious bottleneck, and soon the English had cut off many of the Norsemen.

According to local legend, one axe-wielding Norseman held the bridge alone against the whole advancing English army for a time, but was killed by and English warrior who floated under the bridge in a salting tub and speared him through the rickety wooden deck.

For perhaps an hour the fighting on the western bank was savage, but when those Norse who had been caught on the west bank were dead, the English army crossed the bridge and formed up in front of the ragged Norse shieldwall.

According to legend, Harold then parleyed with Tostig, offering him the duchy of Northumberland if he would make peace. Tostig is said to have replied "And what will you give my Norwegian friend here?" Incensed by the arrogant answer Harold replied "Seven feet of English earth, or as much as he is taller than other men!"

With a peaceful outcome now impossible, the English army then charged into the Norse line. The ensuing battle lasted long into the afternoon, with Anglo-Saxon and Norseman alike unwilling to give quarter. Hardrada was killed sometime after noon, and late in the day Tostig was slain by Harold's housecarls.

Around dusk, those warriors left to guard the ships at Riccall arrived and joined the battle, but to no avail. By dark, although the English had suffered heavy casualties, controlled the field and had captured the standard and relics of Hardrada's house. The battle was over.

The Aftermath

Those Norsemen who survived fled to Riccall and hastily put to sea. Of the three hundred longships which carried the army to England, only twenty-four sailed home. King Harold of England seized the remaining ships with the idea of creating an English Navy, but he would never have the chance to implement the idea: three days later, on 27 September, William the Conqueror landed his Norman army at Pevesney bay. Harold was forced to march back to London, and arrived only eight days after the landings, his exhausted troops straggling southward behind him.

Harold's march north and his victory at Stamford Bridge was the masterpiece of a brilliant tactical mind. Unfortunately, it would set the stage for the English defeat at the Battle of Hastings. There was no time after Stamford bridge to rest and rebuild the army. Many of Harold's housecarls and fyrdmen were dead or wounded, or still making their way back from York. When Harold moved south to counter the Norman threat, he did so with a greatly weakened army.

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