The battle of Stamford Bridge, 1066. (Mary Evans Picture Library/Alamy Stock Photo)
Cnut’s father, Swein Forkbeard, defeated Athelred, the famously Unready father of Edward the Confessor, to take the English throne, though he died soon after. Cnut in his turn took the crown from Edward’s half-brother, Edmund Ironside, becoming king of England in 1017. He reigned for nearly 20 years, during which time he was also king of Denmark and later king of Norway.
Unlike William the Conqueror, however, having obtained the throne of England he adopted English laws and customs and promoted Englishmen to positions of power, one such being the Sussex thegn who became Earl Godwin of Wessex. It is a measure of how entwined English and Danish affairs became, that Godwin married Gytha, the sister-in-law of Cnut’s own sister, Estrith, and their children, including Harold Godwinson and Tostig, had a mixture of both English and Danish names.
A family affair
It was Cnut’s early death, and the similarly early deaths of his three sons, that led to the break-up of his empire. While Edward the Confessor came unchallenged to the English throne, Cnut’s nephew, Sweyn Estrithsson, who claimed Denmark, had no such easy ride. He was immediately attacked by Magnus of Norway, who declared that Cnut’s son, Harthacnut, had promised both Denmark and England to him.
Into this mixture came Harald Hardrada, one of the greatest Viking warriors of the age. Half-brother of Olaf II (aka St Olaf), the Norwegian king defeated by Cnut, he had left his homeland as a child and become immensely rich and battle-hardened fighting for the Byzantine emperor in Africa and the Middle East. Now returning home he met Sweyn, temporarily exiled in Sweden, and agreed to support him. He was soon enticed away, though, by Magnus, who was his nephew. According to King Harald’s Saga, our most detailed source of information about him, Hardrada agreed with Magnus that each would give the other half of all his possessions, and (as per the typical Norse agreement) the survivor would take all. Together they drove Sweyn from Denmark, but the death of Magnus soon after let Sweyn back in again. Hardrada, however, took up the fight once more, and they continued until 1064, when it was finally agreed that Hardrada would have Norway and Sweyn, Denmark.
This meant that, when Edward the Confessor died in January 1066 both Sweyn and Harald Hardrada could have made out a claim for the English crown – Sweyn as a successor to Cnut’s dynasty, and Hardrada as a result of the pact between Magnus and Harthacnut and his own pact with Magnus.
Instead it was Harold who was to become king. Harold went on to alienate Tostig, who had been Earl of Northumbria until the previous autumn when he was first expelled by its citizens and then exiled by Edward the Confessor. Tostig sought help for an invasion of England from, among others, William of Normandy (interested, but with his own plans), and Sweyn Estrithsson (no stomach for more fighting and contented with what he had), before enlisting Harald Hardrada to his cause. He promised Hardrada that half of England would rise to support him as king, since the new King Harold was so unpopular – a claim that proved far wide of the truth.
Tostig Godwinson tries to persuade King Sweyn II of Denmark and King Harald Hardrada of Norway to assist him in invading England, 1066. Engraving by L Gruner after D Maclise RA. (Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images)
A summer of preparation provided Hardrada and Tostig with some 300 shiploads of fighting men, around 12,000 in all, who in September 1066 followed the traditional Viking invasion route along the coast of Northumbria and up the rivers Humber and Ouse towards York. The ships were beached at Riccall, some 10 miles south of York, and the army proceeded towards that city to be met at Fulford, just outside, by an English army. Led by earls Edwin of Mercia and Morcar of Northumbria, both young men and inexperienced in warfare, this was no match for the invaders. On a battlefield between a river and a marsh (still visible but about to disappear under houses) they were totally routed.
Edwin and Morcar escaped though probably wounded. Many more did not, forced into the river to drown, or trapped on the marshy ground where corpses were “so thickly strewn… they paved a way across the fen”. York was forced to surrender, and to promise hostages, as well as men and provisions to support Hardrada – these to be brought a few days later to a little place on the crossing of the river Derwent at Stamford Bridge.
At the time, an English army consisted of two main elements. Housecarls were professional, well-trained, well-equipped elite fighters maintained by the king and also by the major earls. The bulk of the forces, however, were made up of the select fyrd, a militia provided from each town and village to serve for a two-month period and organised on a shire basis. They were equipped and paid by the area they represented and were generally well trained, providing a force of many thousands which could be called out when needed, usually on a rota basis, or in whichever area was threatened.
King Harold Godwinson had spent the summer months guarding the south coast against the expected invasion from Normandy, using mainly the southern select fyrd for this. No sooner had he stood down these men, thinking the invasion season past, than news was brought of Hardrada in the north. As he raced northwards to face this new foe, it was therefore the select fyrd from the Midlands and East Anglia that was now summoned to form the bulk of a new army.
Silver penny of Harold II (Harold Godwinson), minted in 1066, showing the obverse side. (Photo by CM Dixon/Print Collector/Getty Images)
Hardrada had returned to his ships at Riccall, and on 25 September set out from there with around two-thirds of his men to march across country the 10 miles to Stamford Bridge. It was a hot day, only five days after the victory at Fulford, and he clearly had no suspicion that the English king was anywhere near, so they left most of their armour behind. In fact King Harold had arrived at York the night before, and now, gathering his forces, set out to confront the invaders at the meeting place.
Taken completely by surprise, Hardrada immediately despatched a swift rider to Riccall for reinforcements, before forming a defensive shield wall ring on high ground above the river. In the fighting that followed the shield wall was broken. Hardrada himself, charged into the thickest of the action, swinging his great battle-axe and almost driving the English back, before a well-aimed arrow struck him in the throat and ended the life of the mighty warrior.
The battle might have ended there if Tostig had accepted an invitation to surrender. Instead he took up Hardrada’s banner and fought on through the heat of the afternoon until he too was slain. At that point Eystein Orri arrived with the reinforcements from Riccall, smashing into the weary English army in what became known as ‘Orri’s Storm’. Losses were heavy on both sides, but by evening it was clear Harold had won a great victory, almost annihilating the prime forces of Norway. Of the 300 ships that had arrived at Riccall, only 24 were needed to take the survivors home after Hardrada’s son had sued for peace.
The death of Tostig at the battle of Stamford Bridge, September 1066. By D Maclise. (Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images)
But Harold, too, had endured losses. His elite housecarls, fighting in the forefront of battle, had suffered many dead or injured. So, too, had those of Mercia and Northumbria, cut down in two battles fought within five days. The select fyrd of the Midlands and north had also taken a severe battering, while that of the south had spent most of the summer guarding the coast.
It is academic, of course, to speculate what kind of army might have been put into the field against William the Bastard had the Norman invasion been postponed to the following spring. As it was, less than a week after Stamford Bridge, news was brought to Harold at York that William had landed at Pevensey. Once again the select fyrd was summoned to duty. Once again the weary housecarls marched south with the king.
Through the long day at Hastings they stood firm against the best that William could throw at them. Only at the very end was their resolve defeated and their cause lost. In the final analysis it was surely the losses in the north that tipped the balance, shortening their battle line, and thinning their elite forces. It was indisputably Hardrada and his Viking invaders, though soundly beaten by him, that in the end cost Harold his crown and his life.
Teresa Cole is author of The Norman Conquest: William the Conqueror's Subjugation of England (Amberley Publishing, 2016).