On the anniversary of the Battle of Stamford Bridge, Don Hollway, the author of The Last Viking, has given an analysis of the events that took place on the legendary battlefield. He uses his extensive knowledge of Harald Hardrada, learnt from the range of Byzantine account, Norse sagas, and Hardrada's own writings. Learn more about what happened in Harald Hardrada's final moments here. 

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Many Osprey readers are familiar with the Battle of Hastings in October 1066, when Duke William of Normandy invaded England and defeated Anglo-Saxon King Harold II Godwinson, launching the Norman Conquest. Hastings is justifiably called one of the pivotal events of English history. Its outcome, though, was affected – some might say decided – a few weeks earlier, on September 25th, by the battle of Stamford Bridge.

Before the Normans ever set foot in England, it was the Vikings who invaded. Their leader, King Harald III of Norway (called Hardrada, “Hard Ruler”) desired to resurrect the old North Sea Empire of Viking King Knut: England, Norway and Denmark. Harald Hardrada was a seasoned warrior who had fought all across the medieval world, from Russia to the Aegean, Sicily to the Holy Lands. He had commanded the Byzantine Empire’s elite, all-Viking Varangian Guard, had been the empress’s lover and might even have aspired to the throne, had he not cheated on her and embezzled a fortune while he was at it. With those riches he had literally bought half of Norway from his late nephew, King Magnus II, but a fifteen-year war to conquer Denmark had gained him nothing. When Earl Tostig came to Norway seeking an ally to retake England from his brother King Harold II, who was down in the south awaiting the Norman invasion, Harald Hardrada raised an army of some 12,000 men and a fleet of 300 ships to bear them across the North Sea.

Rather than march directly inland to strike York, the Vikings – who hated to walk when they could sail – cruised down into the Humber estuary and up the River Ouse, riding the reversed current of its tidal bore all the way upstream to within a few miles of York. On September 20th they disembarked to march the rest of the way along the riverbank. At Fulford (“foul water ford” in Old English), they met the armies of the earldoms of Mercia and Northumbria, a shield wall stretching from the riverbank to a nearby swamp, completely blocking the Vikings’ path. Though composed largely of the fyrd, poorly armed and armored farmers and villagers, the Anglo-Saxon army was fronted by huscarls: the earls’ household troops. Many of these mercenaries were outcast Norse themselves, well equipped with mail hauberks and fearsome two-handed “Danish” axes. Any one of them was said to be worth two Vikings.

For hours Harald and Tostig hurled their men at the shield wall, to no avail. Finally Tostig’s motley rabble of pirates and bandits broke and ran. The Northumbrians manning that part of the English line plunged after them. If they drove off Tostig’s men and turned the Viking flank, they would end the Norse invasion at a stroke.

Feigned retreat, however, was an old Norse tactic. The Northumbrians’ abandonment of their shield wall left a gap in the Anglo-Saxon line. Harald Hardrada sent his Vikings pouring into it, getting behind the Northumbrians and turning the Mercians’ flank. The former were cut off and annihilated, while the latter were driven almost into the river. The survivors fled to York, where the city fathers submitted rather than suffer a sack.

To guarantee English loyalty, on September 25th the Vikings marched to Stamford Bridge to accept hostages from the surrounding countryside. Deeming just part of his force sufficient for what amounted a show of strength at a peace parley, Harald left a third of his men with his ships at the landing and, in the hot weather, permitted the rest to leave their armor behind. On arrival at the Derwent, he left his main force on the high ground east of the river while he and Tostig took a handful of men across the bridge to reconnoiter the far bank. A cloud of dust in the distance signaled the arrival of the expected peace delegation from York. Instead it turned out to be the entire English army, led by no less than King Harold himself, who had force-marched his warriors over 200 miles in less than a week – one of the greatest military feats of medieval times.

Portrait of Harald in stained glass, St. Magnus Cathedral, Kirkwall, Orkney Islands. The cathedral was founded in 1137 but renovated in 1845–51, when the artist gave the Norse king very Victorian-style mutton chop sideburns. (Colin Smith / Harald Hardrada / CC BY-SA 2.0)

Their arrival was a great shock to the Norse, who were badly outnumbered. Harald Hardrada, however, had never run from a fight and didn’t plan to start now. He sent his three best riders on his three fastest horses to fetch the rest of his army. Meanwhile, stalling for time, he sent Tostig to negotiate with King Harold.

The conversation between the royal brothers is one of the most famous in English history. Harold offered Tostig half the kingdom to betray Harald Hardrada, but would grant the Viking only “seven feet of English ground, or as much more as he is taller than most men.”

Tostig refused. Both sides prepared for battle. The Vikings had one advantage: they held the bridge over the Derwent. It was a narrow walkway requiring only a handful of men to defend, hopefully long enough for the Viking reinforcements to arrive.

According to later Anglo-Saxon accounts, the Vikings at the bridge were whittled down one by one until only a single warrior blocked the span. Swinging a Dane axe, refusing all offers of quarter, he was said to have hewed down some 40 English until stabbed with a spear from underneath, through the planks of the bridge.

On the high ground across the stream the Vikings had formed a circular shield wall, with Tostig and Harald in the center. It stood off everything the English threw at it – cavalry, infantry, archers – until the English themselves feigned retreat. When Harald saw his men charge in pursuit, throwing away victory, he personally broke out into the fight, killing with berserker-like fury until hit in the throat by an arrow. Dying, he advised Tostig to make peace with his brother, and for himself accepted King Harold’s offer.

In the end Tostig preferred to die with the Vikings rather than betray them to the English, and indeed they were slain almost to a man, including the reinforcements who arrived late to the battle. Of the 300 ships required to carry the Norse to England, the survivors needed only twenty-four to return home.

The battle of Stamford Bridge was the biggest and bloodiest fought in England to that time. Hardrada’s was the last great Viking invasion of England. Though it failed, it badly bled the Anglo-Saxon army, which now faced a new threat. While they were in the north, William’s Norman army had landed in the south after all. The English, already wearied by the march north and the battle at the bridge, had to force-march all the way back down to intercept them. Many historians make the case that the battle of Hastings might have gone very differently if Harald Hardrada had not required the Anglo-Saxons to fight at Stamford Bridge on September 25th, 1066.

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