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The Battle of Stamford Bridge
The Battle of Stamford Bridge

The Battle of Stamford Bridge

Key points about the Battle of Stamford Bridge

  • The Battle of Stamford Bridge was fought eight miles outside of York on 25 September 1066
  • King Harold II of England led an army against invading Vikings
  • The Viking army was led by Harald of Norway and by Harold's exiled brother, Tostig
  • It was a hard-fought battle, and many died
  • Harold eventually won, and Harald and Tostig were killed
  • It happened less than three weeks before the Battle of Hastings and contributed to England's defeat at that battle

People you need to know

  • Edward the Confessor – King of England from 1042 until 1066. You can find out more about him here.
  • Edwin, Earl of Mercia – brother to Morcar, Earl of Northumbria
  • Harald Sigurdsson – King of Norway, given the name Hardrada, meaning 'hard-ruler' And this is how he ruled. The nickname wasn't recorded until the 13th century, but Norse society was by-and-large illiterate at this point.
  • Harold Godwinsson – King of England in 1066
  • Harthacnut - King of England from 1040 until 1042
  • Magnus 'the Good' Olafsson – King of Denmark and Norway until 1047 and nephew of Harald Sigurdsson
  • Morcar, Earl of Northumbria – the man who replaced Tostig as earl of Northumbria in 1065, and brother of Edwin
  • Sweyn Estridsson – King of Denmark
  • Tostig Godwinsson – brother of Harold Godwinsson, and former earl of Northumbria

The year 1066 is remembered in Britain for just one battle: the Battle of Hastings. And why not? After all, it had a profound effect on England, and has been called the most important battle in English history. But its outcome might have been very different if not for a battle that happened under a month before: the Battle of Stamford Bridge.

Harold at his coronation, according to the Bayeux Tapestry
Harold at his coronationThe ceremony of crowning a king or queen (and their consort)., according to the Bayeux Tapestry

1066 was a year of upheavals for England. On 5 January, Edward the Confessor died childless, opening the way for a potential crisis of succession. The crown passed to Harold Godwinsson, son of the powerful Earl Godwin and brother to Edward's widow, apparently on the wishes of the dying Edward, and with the approval of the WitenagemotAn Anglo-Saxon council of elders which helped to rule the country. An Anglo-Saxon council of elders which helped to rule the country. . Although powerful, he perhaps wasn't the most obvious choice for king: he had not a drop of royal blood in him, and his name and mother were both Scandinavian.

Despite this, all might have been well for Harold, if not for people scheming abroad. Primary among them was Harold's brother, Tostig. The two effectively had ruled England – Tostig over Northumbria and Harold over the rest – with varying degrees of tranquillity during the previous decade. The Life of King Edward hailed them as 'the kingdom's scared oaks…with joined strength and like agreement they guard the bounds of England.' Life of King Edward, quoted in Tom Holland, Millennium: The End of the World and the Forging of Christendom London: Abacus, (2007), p.307 Tostig however, with his southern ways and fiery temper, was not suited to rule the wild Northumbrians. Tostig's willingness to let Scotland overrun its borders and the Godwin family's habit of murdering the old Northumbrian royal line can't have helped either. They grew tired of Tostig, raised an army That included the Welsh, the Mercians, the Northumbrians and people from Lincoln, Derby and Nottingham. Tostig was a deeply unpopular man. and marched on WessexAn Anglo-Saxon kingdom in the south of England, and a noble house. After Anglo-Saxon times, the term has been used to refer to the south west of England (excluding Cornwall). An Anglo-Saxon kingdom in the south of England, and a noble house. After Anglo-Saxon times, the term has been used to refer to the south west of England (excluding Cornwall). , demanding that Tostig be deposed. Harold, possibly unable to do anything else and unwilling to spill blood for the sake of his brother, gave in. In November 1065 Tostig was banished from England and fled to FlandersThe modern area of northern Belgium and historically a territory in the Low Countries. The modern area of northern Belgium and historically a territory in the Low CountriesA region in western Europe which includes Belgium and the Netherlands.. with a strong sense of grievance and a need for revenge.

Tostig and Harold brawl at the court of Edward the Confessor
Tostig and Harold brawl at the court of Edward the Confessor

In the spring of 1066 Tostig raided the English coast but was repelled and retreated to Scotland as the guest of King Malcolm. From Scotland he nursed his anger and sought out others who might be tempted to take his side. At first he asked for help from the Danish king, Sweyn Estridsson, but was turned away, probably due to Sweyn's own close ties with England. So he turned to Sweyn's old enemy, the legendary warrior Harald 'Hardrada' Sigurdsson, king of Norway.

Harald Hardrada was described by his contemporarySomeone or something living or occurring at the same time. Someone or something living or occurring at the same time. , Adam of Bremen, as 'the thunderbolt of the North', and William of Poitiers, reporting someone else, described him as 'the strongest living man under the sun'. Quoted in Marc Morris, The Norman Conquest, London: Windmill (2012) p.155 Initially an exiled half-brother of King Olaf II of Norway, he made his name and fortune in the Byzantine Empire before returning and making himself king of Norway through double-dealing, treachery and diplomacy. His nephew was King Magnus of Norway, who was warring with Sweyn Estridsson of Denmark. Harald initially sided with Sweyn but switched allegiance at the appropriate time, thereby securing a half-share in Magnus' kingdom, as well as its inheritance when Magnus died.

Stained glass window in Kirkwall Cathedral depicting Harald. Image by Colin Smith.
Stained glass window in Kirkwall Cathedral depicting Harald. Image by Colin Smith.

Magnus – it is reported from the mid-12th century on – believed he had a claim to the English throne through a deal struck between himself and Harthacnut that each would be the other's heir. A treaty was perhaps signed in the 1030s, but it is unlikely it would have referred to England as Hartacnut didn't become king of England until 1040. Whether or not this belief was real is unknown as it wasn't recorded by contemporaries, but Edward the Confessor certainly seemed to take the claim seriously. He had his ships prowl the coastline to protect England during the first part of his reign. It has been suggested that this idea passed to Harald with the rest of his inheritance, although, with the exception of a brief raid in 1058, there seems to have been little Norwegian threat at this time, and at the start of his reign he even sent messengers to England to make peace. Harald was instead preoccupied with securing his own Norwegian kingdom, stamping down on internal dissentAn opinion or belief that goes against official teaching or commonly held views. An opinion or belief that goes against official teaching or commonly held views. and attacking Sweyn Estridsson. In doing so, he seems to have spent much of his bootyValuable stolen goods, especially those seized in war. Valuable stolen goods, especially those seized in war.  from his mercenaryA professional soldier hired to serve in a foreign army. A professional soldier hired to serve in a foreign army. days, which could have been one reason why an invasion of wealthy England later appealed to him. By the time of Harold Godwinsson's coronation early in 1066, an uneasy peace had been agreed between Norway and Denmark. Perhaps the warlike Harald was already casting around for a new adventure, and Harold's accessionThe attainment or acquisition of a position of rank or power, often related to the throne. to the English throne, as well as Tostig's appeal to him, gave Harald the excuse he needed to attack England. But as Ian Walker pointed out, Harald was not the sort of man to need any legal justification. Ian Walker, Harold: the Last Anglo-Saxon King, Stroud: Sutton (1997) p.176 The Norse sagas back up the idea that Tostig was the mastermind of the plot, stating that Tostig had to talk Harald around, reminding him of his own claim to the throne and assuring him that many magnatesPeople of great wealth or influence. People of great wealth or influence. would support Tostig over Harold. Some suggest that plans with Harald were well under way before Tostig's springtime attacks on the coast, and that they were used as a test or diversion. They point to the report of the 12th century English chronicler Geoffrey Gaimar, which says that some Norwegian ships (or rather, ships from Orkney, which then was under Norwegian control) were used in the raids. This would suggest a much longer alliance between the two than is otherwise thought.

Harald landing at Riccall near York. Image taken from Paris' Life of King Edward
Harald landing at Riccall near York. Image taken from Paris' Life of King Edward

Whoever proposed the invasion, it quickly became clear who would be the senior partner. In late August 1066, Harald set sail for England with a number of ships The Chronicle says 300, Snorri says over 200 with a smaller supply fleet, and John of Worcester later increased the number to 500. A fleet of 200 ships would have given him about 8000 men and many of his family – including his wife Elizabeth and his younger sons Harald left the eldest, his heir Malcolm, behind as regentSomeone who rules a state in the absence of the monarch, because the monarch is a child, absent or incapacitated. Someone who rules a state in the absence of the monarchA king, queen, or emperor, because the monarch is a child, absent or incapacitated. – aboard. He dropped his female family members off in the Orkneys and sailed down the coast to the Tyne, where he met Tostig, who perhaps had 12 ships and who swore allegiance to Harald as his sovereign. The fleet sailed south along the coast, raiding at Scarborough and Holderness before making their way up the Rivers Humber and Ouse and landing 10 miles south of York. Norse sagas have it that while sailing down the coast, Harald pointed to a hill and asked what name it had. The clever Tostig avoided answering, so Harald said it was the burial mound of Ivar the Boneless, Ragnar Lodbrok's son. Ivar had allegedly requested to be buried there as a warning to all foreigners seeking to invade England, and as a talisman against foreign conquest of England. Legend has it that after the Battle of Hastings, William the Conqueror dug up the body and had it burnt. Harold had been waiting with his army and fleet all summer on the Isle of Wight, expecting trouble from an entirely different quarter, but on 8 September he dismissed them and headed back to London, where news reached him of this northern invasion. This would suggest that the northern invasion had been extremely well concealed from both Harold and the Normans. Just days after disbanding his men and his fleet, Many of which were damaged, probably by storms, as they sailed round the south coast Harold found he had to recall them to travel northwards. According to the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, he 'marched northwards day and night, as quickly as he could assemble his army.' Michael Swanton (trans.) The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle C, London: Phoenix (2000) p.196 Having left London around the middle of September, he and his army arrived in Tadcaster, Yorkshire, on 24 September: they had marched 200 miles in just over a week.

Harald defeating the army of Edwin and Morcar at the Battle of Fulford. Image taken from Paris' Life of King Edward.
Harald defeating the army of Edwin and Morcar at the Battle of Fulford. Image taken from Paris' Life of King Edward.

While Harold was coming from the south, the earls of Mercia and Northumbria, Edwin and Morcar, raised their own army in support of the king and on 20 September 1066, at the Battle of Fulford, the two sides met. The site seemed to have been chosen well, on known ground that was part of Morcar's estate with marshes protecting their flanks, and their army blocking both the road and the river. There is little we know about the battle, but we do know that Harald marched behind his famous banner, 'Land-waster', which was said to guarantee victory to its bearer. Its magic worked: although some English sources suggest they had some initial success, Edwin and Morcar were defeated (although not killed or captured), and 'many of the English were slain or drowned or driven in flight'. ASC C, p.196 Edwin and Morcar have by some been considered fools for attacking Harald by themselves without waiting for Harold to arrive. Despite the events of autumn 1066, pitched battlesBattles in which the time and place are agreed by both sides beforehand, rather than a casual or chance skirmish. Battles in which the time and place are agreed by both sides beforehand, rather than a casual or chance skirmishSmall and unplanned bouts of fighting.. were rare at this time as the results tended to be final and leave no room for manoeuvre. However, with the attack being such a surprise, no knowledge of when the King would arrive, and a pressing need to do something, it was maybe necessary. Foolhardy or not, the defeat at Fulford reduced the size of the army that Harold could use later.

Following the defeat, Harald and Tostig entered York, which it seems they did on friendly terms without the city putting up a defence: according to John of Worcester, an exchange of 150 hostages apiece took place, and York vowed to help the conquest of the rest of the country. Perhaps this shows there was still support for Tostig, or perhaps the city decided that, with their defenders slaughtered, it was better to be compliant. However, they could have held out for a month reasonably easily, until help arrived with Harold. A further meeting was set up for the exchange of more hostages from the rest of Yorkshire, to be held eight miles away at Stamford Bridge on the River Derwent. Morris points out this was a strange location for such as meeting, as it was neither at York nor where Harald was encamped, at Riccall. On 25 September, Harald and Tostig were waiting there for this exchange when instead of the expected hostages Harold arrived at the head of his army.

The Viking warrior holding the bridge single-handedly. Picture by A. Pearse.
The Viking warrior holding the bridge single-handedly. Picture by A. Pearse.

The Norwegian army were unprepared for battle, having left their camp without mail shirts Although they did carry weapons and helmets for the day was warm and sunny. In order to have time to draw up into battle formation, it is likely they withdrew across the river, fighting across the more easily-defensible bridge. Caught unawares they might have been, but according to the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, the fighting was fierce, with many losses on both sides, and lasted until late in the day. Stories added since contribute more to the drama, although perhaps take away from factual accuracy: the English army was held back by one brave Norwegian warrior, who had the foresight to be wearing mail, and who single-handedly prevented them crossing the bridge. Only a dishonourable act brought him down: an English soldier paddled a barrel under the bridge and thrust his spear upwards into the groin, where the mail shirt did not protect, thus felling him and letting the English stream across. In another story, reported in King Harald's Saga, an ambassador for the English called to Tostig with a message from Harold, offering him a third of the kingdom. Tostig replied asking what land Harald might also expect. 'The rider said, "King Harold has already declared how much of England he is prepared to grant the Norwegian: seven feet of ground, or as much more [as he needs] as he is taller than other men."' Snorri Sturlusson, King Harald's Saga, Magnus Magnusson & Hermann Palsson (trans.) London: Penguin (1966) p.150  As the ambassador left, Tostig was asked who he was, and Tostig replied that it was his brother, Harold. He hadn't wanted to risk his brother's life by exposing him when surrounded by the enemy.

Battle of Stamford Bridge by Peter Nicolai Arbo (1870), depicting Harald hit in the neck by an arrow
Battle of Stamford Bridge by Peter Nicolai Arbo (1870), depicting Harald hit in the neck by an arrow

The battle turned and the Viking invaders were slaughtered, many as they retreated. Hundreds were put to the sword, others drowned or burnt to death, and very few remained. The Life of King Edward records that the 'Ouse with corpses choked', and that the Humber had 'dyed the ocean waves for miles around with Viking gore.' Quoted in Morris, The Norman Conquest, p.165 Only those who made it back to the Viking camp at Riccall, including one of Harald's younger sons, Olaf, Who would later be known as 'the Peaceful' were spared on the promise that they never return. Just 24 ships were needed to carry the defeated warriors home. Tostig and Harald were among the fallen, most of whom were left to rot where they had died. Half a century later, according to Orderic Vitalis, travellers could still identify the site by the piles of dead men's bones. Tostig was among the few to be given a proper burial: his body was recovered, identified by a wart between the shoulder blades, according to William of Malmesbury, Thus suggesting the rest of him was unidentifiable and carried to York. It is quite possible that his elder, estranged brother was at the funeral.

Ian Walker suggests that 'The battle which took place at Stamford Bridge was King Harold's greatest victory. It was one of the decisive battles of the Middle Ages, and the one which finally ended the Viking age.' Walker, Harold, p.183 It certainly had an impact on the Viking psyche, as its prominence in their sagas illustrates, but it is less well remembered in England. Of course, the Viking age was to throw a few more surprises at England before it was done, and one of these came in the form of William of Normandy, who landed in England less than a week after Harold's victory at Stamford Bridge. Harold was still at York, tending to his tired and depleted army, when news of this further invasion reached him. Perhaps this is what makes the Battle of Stamford Bridge just so decisive in England, turning it from little more than a footnote to an important part of English history: without Hardrada's invasion, the Norman conquest might not have succeeded.

Things to think about

  • How important was the Battle of Stamford Bridge?
  • What impact did it have on the Norman invasion of England?
  • Was Harald already planning an attack on England, and how important was Tostig's role?
  • Was Harold right to support the Northumbrians over his brother?
  • How well does the history of Harold and Tostig fit with the tales of brothers in the Viking sagas?
  • Should Edwin and Morcar have waited and not attempted to engage Harald in battle at Fulford?
  • Did York support the invasion?

Things to do

  • Although the village of Stamford Bridge has grown considerably over the last century, it is still possible to visit parts of the battlefield. You can find out more information here.
  • What would be the best route to march from London to Yorkshire, without modern roads? Which way would you go, and how long do you think it would take?
  • There are lots of Norse sagas available online which give accounts of the battle and provide more information about Viking life in general. Ones that specifically mention the Battle of Stamford Bridge include The Story of Hemingr  and King Harald's Saga.

Further reading

There are few good books dedicated to the Battle of Stamford Bridge. However, 1066 was an interesting time in English history, so there are several general books that cover the battle in some detail. No book about the Norman invasion of England can fail to mention it, and Marc Morris' The Norman Conquest is very readable, providing a good narrativeA story; in the writing of history it usually describes an approach that favours story over analysis. covering the run-up to the Norman invasion. The Battle of Stamford Bridge also features in biographies of Harold Godwinsson, which can often provide a different angle on the battle and its causes. An interesting, but somewhat rose-tinted, book is Ian Walker's Harold: the Last Anglo-Saxon King. The Norse sagas are always good to read, although often not factually accurate. A good introduction is provided by the Viking Reader Saga Six Pack series.  

Author Info

Debbie Kilroy

Having read history at the University of Birmingham as an undergraduate, where I won the Kenrick Prize, I worked as a trouble-shooter in the public sector until I took a career break in 2009. Thereafter, I was able to pursue my love of history and turn it into a career, founding Get History in 2014 with the aim of bringing accessible yet high quality history-telling and debate to a wide audience. Since then, I have completed a Masters in Historical Studies at the University of Oxford, from which I received a distinction and the Kellogg College Community Engagement and Impact Award. As well as continuing to write for and expand Get History, I am now a freelance writer and historian. I have worked with Histories of the Unexpected and Inside History, and my article for Parliaments, Estates and Representation won the ICHRPI Emile Lousse essay prize (2019).