The Battle of Stamford Bridge

By Martin Williams.  Reposted from the Regia egroups with permission.

To begin: in 1065, after a decade of misrule, the North rose up against its royally-appointed earl, Tostig Godwinsson: and, having routed his huscarls at York, outlawed him and stolen his armoury and treasury, the Army of the North headed south and spent a merry time devastating his lucrative estates in Northamptonshire and environs.  King Edward had little alternative but to exile Tostig: and in this he was advised by the earl of Wessex, Tostig’s brother Harold. Teenagers were appointed to the major parts of Tostig’s earldom: York went to Morcar, the brother of earl Edwin of Mercia, and Northampton to Waltheof, son of the previous Earl of Northumbria, Siward the Dane.  

Northumberland was acquired by its hereditary rulers, the house of Bamburgh, in the person of Earl Oswulf II (who was not, so far as we know, a teenager) Tostig fled to Bruges: the traditional place for important English exiles, and plotted a return.  That winter King Edward died : and Harold was chosen king in his place.  Tostig arrived in the Channel that summer, and got supplies on the Isle of Wight – his arrival off Sandwich coincided with King Harold’s massive mobilization against a Norman invasion: and so he prudently disappeared from Kent and headed north.  Eadwin and Morcar held the east coast from him: and there being no decent anchorage in Northumberland, he ended up in Scotland, where his enemy and (at the same time) sworn ally and brother King Malcolm III granted him protection.  Now at the end of the summer the army in the south disbanded according to law: and Tostig headed south also: only to encounter the fleet and invasion force of King Harald of Norway off the Tyne.  Tostig quickly made arrangements with the Norse king (a wise move, as those who did not make arrangements with King Harald tended to find that their independent-mindedness, however principled, was rather brief) and the fleet struck south.  Arriving at Scarborough, so the sagas tell us, they occupied the headland: and making great fires of brushwood, flung them down on the town, with great destruction. They entered the Humber, and so arrived at the gates of York.  Edwin and Morcar had gathered forces by this time: and word had gone to the king – who with such troops as were available was still heading north when the Norse and the earls’ army met at Fulford on Wednesday 20 September. 

There the Norsemen had the victory and Harald received the submission of the City. He demanded tribute and hostages, and withdrew to his base at Riccall, some miles away.  News of the defeat (and most probably the earls) reached Harold at Tadcaster: he urged his men on, and by forced marches reached York: passing the city, he was able to meet Harald and Tostig on the day appointed for the payment of tribute: the place being the crossing of the Derwent at Stamford Bridge.  Harald was not expecting a fight: few of his men had their full equipment with them, and so when the king’s forces approached he had to hold the bridge with what troops he had and buy time for reinforcements.  The tales tell that a single Norse huskarl, by means of his skilful broadaxe work, held the bridge for some time: but he was felled by a spearthrust from below the bridge, and thus the English army could cross. The tales tell that in parley, Harold offered his brother all the land and honour that he had held in former years in return for peace: but he would not offer the Norsemen anything but a grave – a six-foot plot, or more as each man was taller… this generosity was rejected.  Some Norse reinforcements arrived: some, running for miles in their armour collapsed on the way – thus outnumbered and outgeneralled (for possibly the first time in his military career) Harald Sigurdsson met his end.