Samurai Dave: The Roving Ronin Report

Rambling Narrative of Travels, Thoughts, and Embellishments

A Viking Interlude – 1066 And All That Redux Part Two

A Viking Interlude
1066 And All That Redux Part Two

“[English] warriors
All lay fallen
In the swampy water
Gashed by weapons
And the hardy
Men of Norway
Could cross the marsh
On a causeway of corpses.”
King Harald Hardrada of Norway on the Battle of Fulford, 1066

The English were viciously mauled at the Battle of Fulford by the third contender for the throne

1066 was a record-breaking year of amazing feats. In England, Harold mobilized the local militia, known as the fyrd, throughout the southeastern coast in anticipation of William’s visit. He kept the fyrds mobilized for over four months something which had never been done before and speaks to Harold’s administrative qualities.

Across the channel, William was also showing his abilities in assembling and maintaining an army of vassals, allies, and mercenaries. The winds were against him throughout the summer when campaigning would have been ideal. Keeping that motley horde under control through those longs weeks of peace was a feat in itself. During these idle months of waiting, he was able to secure papal support through adroit politic maneuvers. With papal support, William’s cause suddenly took on a holy crusade-like air that brought in more allies but more importantly made the whole endeavor more legitimate.

A mustering of the English militia may have looked like this in 1066

The stage was set for these two titans to fight it out but the winds that kept William in Normandy sent a dark horse contender to England’s northern shores. Literally out of the blue and sailing on the thinnest of claims to the English throne came King Harald Hardrada of Norway along with thousands of lusty plunder-seeking Norse adventurers. They came in longboats much like their heathen Viking ancestors of previous centuries did when they came to raid England.

At this point, history students might shake their heads in disbelief. 1066 was all about Harold and William: Anglo-Saxons and Normans, right? What the hell were Vikings doing in 1066? No doubt Harold was wondering the same thing as he scrambled to deal with this unforeseen threat. Thus began a dramatic episode that is often left out in the brief accounts of 1066.

English soldiers on the move

Harald Hardrada: A Viking’s Viking
—Last of the Vikings

Viking warrior wearing a stereotypical horned helmet

“Where battle-storm was ringing,
Where arrow-cloud was singing,
[Hardrada] stood there,
Of armour bare,
His deadly sword still swinging.
The foeman feel its bite…”
– Snorri Sturlasson, Heimkringla (“The Saga of Hardrada”), 13th Century.

Harald Hardrada was a legend in his own time. He could rightly be considered the last of the Vikings although he was Christian at least in name but not practice. He fought battles from the Eastern Mediterranean world to Scandinavia and ended his career fighting in England. Hardrada fought in his first battle when he was only 15. He found himself on the losing side and wounded. He left Norway and took service with the Byzantine Empire. The Byzantines had been impressed with the courage and hardiness of Hardrada’s people for years having been attacked by them in the past. They formed an elite troop known as the Varangian Guard composed solely of Norsemen. Hardrada quickly gained their respect and went on to fight numerous battles for the Byzantines.

Hardrada employed various strategies cunning and cruel to win his battles. He used birds set on fire to burn out one town and faked his own death to gain access to another one. He eventually fell out with the Byzantines and was imprisoned but in another of his daring exploits he escaped. Hardrada returned to Norway laden with booty and fame. He shared the throne with his half-nephew and when that nephew conveniently died, Hardrada assumed the whole country. He waged a futile destructive war with Denmark for 15 years before finally concluding a truce. Hardrada and his men had been at peace for two years itching for action when blessed opportunity for war came sailing their way in the form of the English king’s embittered brother, Tostig. For Hardrada and many that followed him to England, it would be their last journey.

Hardrada was clever, lucky, and resourceful but he was also cruel, dishonest, and greedy even by Viking standards. He fought mainly for the love of battle. He was a tall man for the times. At the brief negotiation session before the Battle of Stamford Bridge, King Harold Godwinson offered Hardrada “seven feet of English ground, or as much more as he may be taller than other men.” King Harold, however, permitted the surviving Norsemen to take Hardrada’s body back to Norway for proper burial.

What brought Hardrada to England’s shore in the first place is another bit of the year’s complexity — Harold’s embittered estranged brother, Tostig. A favorite of the old king and former Earl of Northumbria in Northern England, Tostig was a minor player in the scheme of things yet his actions had serious impact on the upcoming Battle of Hastings.

Tostig hated his brother because he believed Harold had betrayed him. A year earlier, Tostig’s subjects rebelled against him. Although the old king was willing to ravage the area for Tostig’s sake, Harold made peace with the rebels for the good of the realm. Tostig never forgave him. In May of 1066, Tostig set off the chain of events leading to the Battle of Hastings by attacking southern England with 60 ships. They were minor affairs but it made Harold call out the fyrd earlier than he would have. He thought William would soon follow in force but in actuality William was still making preparations. Keeping the fyrd mobilized for four months eventually taxed Harold’s resources and he disbanded it in early September, less than two weeks before Hardrada’s army landed.

The English militia faced months of idleness waiting for the Norman Conquest

Tostig had been chased off but the hatred of his brother drove him on so off he went to the court of the great Harald Hardrada. He promised the king support of the English nobles. He was bluffing but Hardrada was seriously out-of-touch with current events and it might have been that he wouldn’t have cared anyway. Hardrada was fifty at the time so his gambit might have been one last great jaunt before retirement. Hardrada’s thin claim rested with a promise from one of the earlier Danish Kings of England some decades ago that had been made to Hardrada’s predecessor. Again, the whole affair smacks more of daring-do and just for the hell of it rather than a righteous struggle for the throne.

In yet another of the amazing feats of the year, Hardrada raised an impressive force of over 10,000 warriors in short time and sailed a large fleet to the British Isles. He burned the town of Scarborough in northern England to the ground mainly just for the fun of it. Then on September 20, Hardrada completely smashed an English army at the Battle of Fulford near the city of York. His victory, however, would later prove his undoing.

The Battle of Fulford cost Harold men that he could have used at the Battle of Hastings

The city of York submitted and its leaders promised to meet him with 500 hostages at nearby Stamford Bridge five days later. Hardrada was pleased as he could be. He had had a great time of it burning, looting, and fighting. The northern area was defenseless and Harold was far south. It seemed now a simple matter to hole up in York and fight Harold for the crown — but at a later time. Now was a time for feasting and celebrating.

Medieval battles were up close and personal

The morning of the 25th probably found a number of Norse soldiers at Stamford Bridge more than a little hung-over. Many of them were unarmored since they were only going as a show of force. Soon their bloodshot eyes spied in the distance the dust kicked up by the approaching hostages.

It was an awful lot of dust.

Weren’t hostages supposed to be unarmed?

Suddenly it dawned on them that what was approaching was a heavily-armed hostile army!

Harold’s forced march from London to York was an incredible stunt for those times

In complete disbelief, the Norsemen watched in mounting horror and growing sobriety as an army led by King Harold Godwinson, who should have still been far south mustering troops, came bearing right down on top of them. It was going to be a long day.

‘the army grew greater the nearer it came, and it looked like a sheet of ice when the weapons glittered.’
– Snorri Sturlasson, Heimkringla (“Saga of Hardrada”), 13th Century.

The (modern) bridge at Stamford where many Norsemen met their end long ago

Another record had been broken that year in 1066. If Hardrada had surprised Harold, Harold more than returned the favor by defying military logistics of the day in marching an army from London to York, a distance of 190 miles, in just four days – a thing unheard of at that time. On the evening of the 24th, the surprised citizens of York greeted him as a liberating hero. This was Harold’s finest hour. On the next morning he rode out to fight a living legend.

The English victory at the Battle of Stamford Bridge owed a lot to Harold’s abilities to inspire men to follow him and fight

The Battle of Stamford Bridge has been called by some medieval scholars the last great battle of the Dark Ages. It was long, brutal, and bloody. Both sides fought mostly on foot and hacked at each other with axes and swords just as their ancestors had done for centuries since the time of Beowulf.

A placard at Stamford Bridge displaying the battle

Defense of Stamford Bridge
Lone Beserker holds English army at bay briefly

The defense of Stamford Bridge as depicted on a inn sign near where it happened

One incident at the Battle of Stamford Bridge that was remembered by English writers of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicles was the defense of the bridge at Stamford by a lone berserker warrior. This lone warrior who more than likely did not wear a horned helmet stood off the approaching English army allowing his brethren time to set up their ranks.

“…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.”
The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle

It’s debatable whether the incident really happened or not but it’s true to the nature of the Norsemen.

The Norsemen actually received reinforcements from their ships but many were too exhausted to be of any use

Although the Norsemen were taken by surprise and many of them were without armor, they fought hard and killed many of Harold’s men before they themselves fell. Hardrada, the veteran of countless battles since he was 15, died a Viking death in battle; his throat pierced by an arrow.

The Battle of Stamford Bridge was a fierce fight in which many on both sides perished

Reinforcements from the Norse fleet eventually arrived but many were so exhausted from the effort of getting there that they collapsed. The English pushed the remaining Norsemen back to their fleet.

An exhausted Norseman is finished off

Against Harold’s wishes, Tostig was killed during the latter part of the battle. The Battle of Stamford Bridge raged from morning till night. By the end the Norsemen were utterly defeated and the few survivors sued for peace. Harold granted them safe passage and they sailed away on only 24 ships having originally come in 300.

The English close in to finish off the Norsemen

Harold had lost a brother but he had gained a great victory which if hadn’t been for that “other” battle would probably still be praised to this today. He spent a week in York probably convinced William would not set out until next spring if his army had not fallen apart before then. Amidst a victory feast in the days that followed the battle, a breathless messenger arrived at the king’s table. The news that Harold had dreaded to hear ever since he took the crown had at last arrived — William had finally come to England.

Next: The Battle of Hastings

Very few Norsemen sailed back to Norway after the battle

November 3, 2007 - Posted by | 1066, Anglo-Saxons, Battle of Hastings, Blogroll, England, Harold Godwinson, medieval, Middle Ages, Normans, travel, UK, William the Conqueror, York


  1. Wonderful post. I’m wondering how many more parts are to this story?

    Comment by JRSofty | November 5, 2007 | Reply

  2. it was good imformation that you told me

    really helpful

    Comment by paul | March 25, 2008 | Reply

  3. These photos are fantastic! Thanks very much for an invaluable resource!

    Comment by Christhefuzzy | December 1, 2008 | Reply

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: