Sunday, 25 September 2016

The Battle of Stamford Bridge

Today is the 950th Anniversary of the Battle of Stamford Bridge fought on 25th September 1066, a striking victory for the English over the Norwegians but it is all too often overshadowed by the Battle of Hastings.

The Claim of Thrones
As we approach the 950th anniversary of the Battle of Hastings on 14th October it is easy to overlook the events of 1066 in the build up to the defeat of the English resulting in the Normans taking the throne. The Battle of Hastings was the final conflict in a short month which saw battles fought between the English and Norwegians in Yorkshire just three weeks earlier. Harold's battle weary army had then to march south and face William's forces who had landed on the Sussex coast.

The plaque at Stamford Bridge commemorating the battle
The year started with the death of King Edward on 5th January 1066. Without a clear heir to the English throne several claimants came forward leading to the disputed succession of Harold Godwinson, Earl of Wessex who was elected king by the Witenagemot, an assembly of the ruling class of Anglo Saxon England. According to the Anglo Saxon Chronicle after Harold was crowned by the Archbishop of York he reigned for forty weeks and a day.

Two claimants to the throne immediately came forward: William, Duke of Normandy, and Harald Hardrada of Norway. William claimed that King Edward had promised him the throne by and Harold of Wessex had agreed. Harald Hardrada claimed their was an agreement between his predecessor Magnus I of Norway and the earlier King of England Harthacanute that if either died without heir, the other would inherit both England and Norway. Both William and Harald now prepared for invasion.

The Battle of Fulford Gate
Harald Hardrada's forces were swelled by the addition of Tostig Godwinson, Harold's exiled brother and Earl of Northumbria. Earlier in the year Tostig had raided south east England, but retreated when faced with Harold's navy. Tostig turned his attention to Norfolk and Lincolnshire but was  decisively defeated by Edwin, Earl of Merica, and Morcar, Earl of Northumbria. Tostig's men deserted him in his hour of defeat so he fled to Scotland where he spent the summer with King Malcolm III.

Later that summer a Norwegian invasion force totalling around 10,000 men led by Hardrada and Tostig sailed up the River Ouse and advanced on York. The Anglo Saxon Chronicle records that on eve of St. Matthew the apostle, i.e. the 20th September, they engaged with a northern English army of around 5,000 men led by the Earls Edwin and Morcar at the village of Fulford. York fell to the Norwegians but under terms that the Norsemen would not force their way in to the city. The Norwegians then offered peace to the Northumbrians in exchange for their support in Hardrada's bid for the throne before retiring to Stamford Bridge, 7 miles east of York.

At this time King Harold was in Southern England, anticipating an invasion from France by William, Duke of Normandy. On hearing of the fall of York, Harold took his houscarls and all the thegns he could muster to Yorkshire, covering a distance of 185 miles in just four days, taking the Norwegians completely by surprise.

It is estimated that around 1,500 fell on the battlefield but no mass grave has yet been discovered. However, between 1985 and 1986 York Archaeological Trust carried out excavations at St Andrew's Church, Fishergate, York. From 402 skeletons uncovered 29, all male and in double graves and bearing evidence of weapon trauma, are thought to be the result of a single violent event. It has been suggested that these may have been victims of the Battle of Fulford Gate.

The Battle of Stamford Bridge
The exact location of the Battle of Stamford Bridge is not known but the favoured site is an area just south-east of the Yorkshire town known as “Battle Flats” on east bank of the River Derwent. A common theory is that the Norwegian army was split in two with forces to the east and west of the Derwent.

Location of Stamford Bridge
However, the sudden and unexpected arrival of Harold's Saxon army on the 25th September seems to have caught the Norwegians by complete surprise with the English army attacking the west side of the Derwent. The Norsemen were slain or fled across the bridge before Harold's main force arrived at the battlefield. The Anglo Saxon records that a single Norse warrior held the bridge:

“But there was one of the Norwegians who withstood the English folk, so that they could not pass over the bridge, nor complete the victory.  An Englishman aimed at him with a javelin, but it availed nothing.  Then came another under the bridge, who pierced him terribly inwards under the coat of mail.  And Harold, king of the English, then came over the bridge, followed by his army; and there they made a great slaughter, both of the Norwegians and of the Flemings.”

By now the Norsemen on the east side of the Derwent formed a shieldwall but as the Saxon army poured across the bridge the formation started to break being completely outflanked. A counter attack led by Eystein Orre, whose troops had been guarding the Norse ships at Riccall (9 miles south of York), described as “Orre's Storm” briefly checked the English advance. The battle raged on for hours beyond the bridge. With Tostig slain and Hardrada killed by an arrow through his throat the Norwegian army disintegrated and was all but wiped out by the Saxon army.

Local tradition claims the bones of the fallen lay about for some time uncared for in the fields after the battle of Stamford Bridge. Eventually they were gathered up and buried, so the story goes, in a plot  belonging to the priest of Bossall. Later, a chapel dedicated to St. Edmund was built on the site. In the spring of 1067 King Harald's body was taken from England by his son Olaf to be buried in St Mary's church at Nidaros (Trondheim) in Norway.

The battle of Stamford Bridge was a decisive victory for the English who had fought two major battles within five nights of each other. In the meantime just three days later on the eve of St. Michael's day, 29th September, Duke William landed his Norman army on the south coast of England at Pevensey.

The Death of Anglo Saxon England
With barely time to patch up their battle wounds and make good their weaponry Harold now marched his army south to meet William's forces on the 14th October, covering 270 miles in just three weeks immediately after the Battle of Stamford Bridge.

The scene from the Bayeux Tapestry
depicting the death of King Harold of England at the Battle of Hastings
The battle is said to have been fought at a place now called Battle just outside the East Sussex town of Hastings. Harold was clearly hopeful of repeating his success at Stamford Bridge but the English army was defeated and the English crown passed to the Normans. As every schoolboy knows, Harold famously fell with an arrow in his eye. Battle Abbey was said to have been built “on the very spot” where William the Conqueror defeated King Harold.

There can be little doubt that the engagements at Fulford Gate and Stamford Bridge, fought within just five nights of each other, had a significant impact of the strength of Harold's forces at Hastings some three weeks later.

If Harold's forces had not been taken north by the conflicts with the Norwegians in Yorkshire, and he had been better prepared to face the Norman invasion army on the south coast the result would almost certainly have been quite different.



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