Before Stamford Bridge


Unnamed and unarmoured Norwegian warrior, wielding an axe, who according to the Anglo-Saxons sources killed 40 warriors on the Stamford bridge inn 1066.


Modern British Viking reenactment group demonstrates a skjaldborg (shield-wall)

Harald of Norway certainly had more than enough experience and the necessary temperament to undertake an invasion of England. He had a battle-hardened army and fleet at his command, which despite their recent failures in Denmark had just spent two years restoring its fighting strength and its morale in a series of local campaigns in Norway. Tosti would have had little difficulty in contacting Harald from his base in Scotland and there can be little doubt that he did so. It is unlikely that Tosti actually visited Norway, but not impossible. A late source speaks of Tosti’s Northumbrian ally Copsi visiting the Orkney’s to recruit troops for Tosti, and perhaps he also acted as his ambassador to King Harald in Norway. Certainly in some form or other, contact was made, as Chronicle C and John of Worcester make it clear that Tosti had a prior agreement with King Harald of Norway to join him in an invasion of England.

It has been suggested that Harald of Norway’s invasion was a long-term plan of his which Harold of England should have foreseen, and that Tosti only attached himself to it. Indeed, the attack on England in 1058 by Magnus, son of King Harald, has been seen as a forerunner of his father’s 1066 invasion, but there is no direct evidence for this. The Irish Annals of Tigernach do say that Magnus intended to take the kingdom, but this probably reflects the fact that although primarily an Irish Sea expedition, it had actually been directed against England rather than the Celtic lands. It is unlikely that Harald would have sent a boy to do a man’s job. In addition, no other recent Viking expedition of conquest against England came from this isolated quarter, which provided no direct access to the centres of English power. Moreover, the contemporary English sources make it clear that Harald’s invasion was very much a surprise. Therefore, it seems unlikely that it could have been a long-term plan, as such would inevitably have been the subject of rumour on the trade routes, as was Magnus’s planned invasion of 1045. It is more likely that Tosti’s plea for aid acted as a spur to Harald, and indeed William of Poitiers seems to confirm this when he states that Tosti brought alien arms against Harold. Harald probably saw the invasion of England as a fitting substitute for his failure to take Denmark. England was a very wealthy kingdom, which could provide him with gold in plenty to replenish his treasury. For a man like Harald, this was reason enough to invade. He required no elaborate legal justification such as William of Normandy had adopted. The later saga story that, as successor to King Magnus, Harald had inherited a claim to England that was supposedly derived from a treaty King Magnus had made with Hardecnut, was, to Harald, simply irrelevant.

The reasons for Harald joining up with Tosti are perhaps less obvious; with their trading links to Northumbria, the Norwegians must have been well aware of the former earl’s unpopularity there. Certainly, Tosti had local knowledge, which would be useful, and in spite of his fall he may have retained some local supporters. He had ruled the area for ten years, after all, and, for example, the young Gospatric, to whom he had shown favour, may still have been sympathetic to him. In addition, Harald of Norway may have intended to use Tosti as a figurehead in opposition to his brother, King H arold. He perhaps hoped that Tosti could help rally support in southern England against his brother and so assist the Norwegian campaign. Indeed, Tosti may have played up his influence over his younger brothers and other English nobles in order to persuade Harald to support him. In Harald’s mind, once the expedition had succeeded Tosti could be suitably rewarded or disposed of, as the situation required.10

An alliance was made, with Tosti very much the subordinate according to the English sources, and in the late autumn of 1066 King Harald summoned a large army and crossed the North Sea in 300 ships. The Norwegian fleet sailed down the east coast of Scotland, using the same northerly winds which confined William of Normandy to port. The fleet joined up with Tosti’s small force, either off the Scottish coast or at the mouth of the Tyne. The two allies then sailed down the coast and up the Rivers Humber and Ouse, before landing at Riccall. John of Worcester alone names this as the landing place, but it fits with the location of the subsequent battle at Fulford. After disembarking, Harald led his forces north directly towards York but just outside the city he encountered opposition from Earls Edwin and Morcar on the left bank of the Ouse at Fulford. Via reports of the Norwegian progress down the east coast, the northern earls had been given just enough time to gather as large a force as they could from their earldoms and bring it to York. The speed of these events is emphasized by Chronicle C, which contains the fullest account.

The statement in Chronicles D and E that Harald’s army ‘went up the Humber until they reached York. And there Earl Edwin and Morcar his brother fought against him’, has been seen as implying that the Norwegians took York without opposition and then fought against the earls. However, this seems to be simply the result of the brevity and compression of these accounts and the fact that the battle took place just outside York, at a location not named until later. This is confirmed by the fuller account in Chronicle C, which makes it clear that the Norwegians were forced to fight for the city. More importantly, if the Norwegians were already in occupation of York when the army of the earls came against them, the location of the battle at Fulford is confusing. If they had needed to do so, the army of the earls could only have advanced against an occupied York from the right bank of the Ouse, and hence the battle could not have taken place near Fulford. Instead, the battle took place because the northern earls sought with their forces to prevent the Norwegian army from taking the city.

This decision by the inexperienced earls to accept battle at Fulford, before King Harold could join them, has been seen by some as an act of folly. However, we must remember the initial confusion resulting from Harald of Norway’s surprise assault. The northern earls reacted to this in a natural way by calling up their own forces and perhaps those of Earl Waltheof also. A Norwegian poem suggests that Earl Waltheof was present at the battle and, although he is not referred to by the English sources, this is not impossible. The earls had sent word to King Harold of this new menace, but until he could arrive with support, obviously they had to act on their own. If the Norwegians had entered York unopposed they would have been able to consolidate their position, while at the same time undermining the morale of the Northumbrians. Consequently, the earls chose to make a stand outside York. They selected Fulford, an estate owned by Earl Morcar, where they could bar both the road and the river, and marshes provided protection for their flanks. They appear to have taken all possible precautions to give themselves the best chance of success.13

The battle of Fulford took place on Wednesday 20 September, and appears to have been long and bloody. It may not have been as one-sided as the final result implies, as Chronicle C speaks of the battle causing ‘heavy casualties’ among the invaders as well as the English. John of Worcester expands on this, claiming that the English had some initial success before finally succumbing to the Norwegians. The heavy losses among the English are reflected in the poems contained in the later Harald’s Saga, which record that ‘warriors lay thickly fallen around the young Earl Morcar’. In the end, the Norwegians’ greater experience appears to have given them the edge and the earls were defeated and their army put to flight. Earls Edwin and Morcar had had no previous experience of war and while some of their Northumbrian and Mercian troops had probably fought in earlier campaigns in Scotland and Wales, this could not compare with the Norwegian army’s sixteen years of experience in the wars against Denmark. The earls themselves managed to escape the carnage, but many of the English troops were slain or drowned in the nearby marshes.

The victorious Norwegians now entered York ‘with as large a force as suited them, and they were given hostages from the city and also helped with provisions’. This statement has been interpreted as evidence of a willingness by the men of York, and Northumbria in general, to submit to the Norwegians. However, few, if any, citizens faced with a foreign army at their gates, having just lost their defenders and with no help immediately to hand, would dare to oppose that army openly. In this situation, the Northumbrians bowed to the inevitable and accepted Harald of Norway’s terms for peace. Besides calling for provisions and hostages, the latter perhaps selected by Tosti, these terms also provided for the citizens to assist the Norwegians to conquer the kingdom. It seems doubtful that the Northumbrians would actually have provided such help without compulsion. The hated Tosti was Harald’s ally, and few could contemplate his restoration without fear. In addition, there is evidence to show that the Northumbrians at this time considered themselves very much a part of the English kingdom, and the contemporary scribe of a text called the Law of the Northumbrian Priests ends it with a prayer that the land might have ‘one royal authority forever’. In the event, the Northumbrians were never put to the test, as King Harold of England came north to their aid.

The northern earls had probably sent word of the Norwegian invasion to King Harold sometime before 20 September, as soon as the Norwegian fleet was first sighted off the north-east coast of England. Chronicle C suggests that Harold received the news not long after he returned from his watch on the Channel coast about mid-September. At once, the king began to gather troops in what was probably the third summons of that hectic year. That he found them at all reflects both his firm grip on the reins of power and a willingness among the English to support their king. Men came to join his ‘very great’ army from many areas of England. Evidence of only a few of these men survives, but it is sufficient to provide an indication of the wide reach of Harold’s power. According to Domesday Book, an uncle of Abbot Aethelwig of Evesham came from an estate at Witton in Worcestershire ‘to die in Harold’s war against the Norse’, and his presence may signify that Harold was attended by the men of Evesham Abbey on this campaign. This man presumably fell at the battle of Stamford Bridge on 25 September because the same entry goes on to say that his death occurred ‘before William came to England’ on 27 September. An unnamed thegn, with land at Paglesham in Essex, gifted it to St Peter’s at Westminster before ‘he went to battle in Yorkshire with Harold’. In addition, a later source speaks of Harold being cheered on his march north by Abbot Aelfwine of Ramsey, who informed him of a vision he had had of the late King Edward, who prophesied Harold’s victory. Beneath the hagiographical elements in this story may lie the possibility that men of Ramsey Abbey were also present in Harold’s army. Indeed, it is not impossible that Abbot Aelfwine himself accompanied the army as Abbots Leofric and Aelfwig did later at Hastings.

Unfortunately, there exists only a little evidence as to how Harold was able to raise large forces and move them rapidly to York. The army that Harold collected, in common with that which later faced the Normans at Hastings, would have consisted of two main elements. The first of these was the force of huscarls, which on this occasion probably included those who served Harold himself, those royal huscarls who had previously served King Edward, and perhaps those of Earl Gyrth, who is said in one late source to have accompanied Harold on this campaign. These men were household troops who served a lord in war and peace and received pay in return. They fought for their lord in war and at other times performed the duties of garrison, tax collection and law enforcement. The second element of Harold’s army was the fyrd, which consisted of a select levy of men summoned from the population of the shires. This was not a summons to all men to defend the land but a call to relatively well-equipped representative troops who had been nominated by their communities to serve. It also included men who represented religious houses, whose monks were naturally not able to serve in person. It also seems likely that a single summons did not command all fyrd men to appear but rather that they were called up in relays. This was surely not beyond the power of the English kings of this period, and it is difficult otherwise to see how Harold could have called up four such levies in 1066.

It seems likely that most of Harold’s forces were mounted for the advance north, otherwise it is difficult to account for them reaching York so quickly. There is certainly sufficient evidence that the English used horses in this way, though not that they were used in battle itself. The rates of travel offered for mounted troops of this period, of around 25 miles per day, would bring Harold’s forces to Tadcaster by 24 September and to Stamford Bridge by the afternoon of 25 September, if they left London early on 16 September. It is certainly possible that Harold received word of the Norwegian fleet by this last date, and Chronicle C confirms that he began his march north before the battle of Fulford had taken place. If this is correct, then the journey would have been completed by riding during the day and resting overnight. It is known from the Laws of Cnut that earls, thegns and their followers were each expected to attend for military service with an extra horse. This would have allowed for one horse to be rested on alternate days during the journey. The comparable rates of travel for infantry of around 15 miles per day would make the journey almost impossible in the time allowed.

If Harold had set out on 16 September, this would not have allowed sufficient time to collect any forces, apart from his attendant huscarls, before leaving London. Therefore, he must have collected the fyrd as he went north, although we cannot prove this. It is known that Domesday Book records the existence of royal messengers, who could have ridden on fast horses to summon the necessary troops from the shires and arrange for them to ride to named points on the route north. If these troops travelled at similar rates to Harold’s own force they could have joined him en route to York, from Essex, Ramsey Abbey and even Worcestershire. It was during his journey north that Harold learnt of the disaster at Fulford on 20 September. This news must have come as a severe blow as he would now have to face the victorious Norwegian’s without the help of the forces of the northern earls. Nevertheless, he continued his progress northward undaunted, trusting in his own abilities and those of his men.

Harold’s plan in undertaking this rapid journey seems clear; he intended to reach York as soon as possible in order to prevent the Norwegians from consolidating their hold on the north. The consequent plan, to catch them unawares when they thought they were safe after their recent victory, probably only arose after Harold’s arrival at Tadcaster on Sunday 24 September. There, he stopped briefly to marshal his troops and gather information. He learned that the Norwegians were 8 miles beyond York at Stamford Bridge and some 13 miles from the safe refuge of their ships at Riccall. They were ideally positioned to be caught and destroyed, and it was probably at this point that Harold decided to attempt to surprise them. This plan depended, of course, on no word of his arrival reaching the Norwegians and, according to the sources, this appears to have been the case, even though King Harold’s army passed through York itself, en route to meet the Norwegians at Stamford Bridge. This surely refutes suggestions that the Northumbrians were only too eager to throw off Harold’s yoke and accept the Norwegian king in his place. It seems rather that, in common with the rest of the English, they recognized Harold as their king, so that Chronicle D speaks fondly of Harold as ‘our king’, and Chronicle E of him ‘valiantly’ overcoming ‘all invaders’.

On Monday 25 September, with his army rested and regrouped, Harold advanced through York to meet the Norwegians at Stamford Bridge. The latter had moved to this small village on the river Derwent to await the arrival of further hostages from the rest of Yorkshire. This need to collect hostages from the shire would appear to indicate that the Norwegians did not trust their Northumbrian hosts. The location also offered the Norwegians the opportunity to live off King Harold’s own nearby estate at Catton, which would avoid the possibility of their troops, or more probably Tosti’s, plundering York itself. There is no direct evidence for this last threat, but it would not be surprising if Tosti had scores to settle with the local thegns as a result of his expulsion in 1065. Following their recent victory, it appears that the Norwegians considered themselves safe from any immediate reprisal; at Stamford Bridge they could easily find themselves cut off from their ships at Riccall. If they had been aware of Harold’s approach they would surely have sought to oppose him at York, where they could bar the river Ouse against him. Perhaps they considered that King Harold would remain in the south to face the threatened Norman invasion, or perhaps they felt he would not risk attacking them after the defeat suffered by his earls at Fulford. Most probably they were surprised by the speed of his reactions and did not expect his arrival yet. Whatever the reason, they were completely unprepared for Harold’s sudden arrival at Stamford Bridge on 25 September.

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