Today on the blog, we're sharing an excerpt from Chapter One of The Last Viking, written by Don Hollway.
In September 1066, the question was whether England was to be Anglo-Saxon or Viking, and some 12,000 men had wagered their lives on the outcome. Two great armies stood fighting it out on the banks of the Ouse River just south of York, in the age-old fashion: smiting and striving, shield wall to shield wall, steel on steel. The high tide of the North crashed on the bulwark of the West, and doom awaited any man caught between. War drums throbbed, brass horns blared and warriors died cursing both old gods and new.
Near 7,000 strong came the Norse. Giant Norwegians in fierce-faced helmets and glittering mail. Ruddy-faced sea rovers from the Orkney and Shetland Islands eager to regain lost realms. And grizzled gray veterans with dented, plumed helms, scaled corselets and curved scimitars from the far corners of Russia, Byzantium and the Holy Lands. Their right flank, farthest from the river, even included several hundred renegade English, for York had been Jorvik, capital of Viking Northumbria, since the sons of Ragnar Lodbrok had torn the lungs from its king Aella 200 years past. Not a few Northumbrians would happily see it become so again.
Some 4,500 Anglo-Saxons, however, disputed their path. The larger fraction of them were of the fyrd, local militia levied in times of trouble – villagers, farmers and shiremen, peasants lacking armor and bearing little more than spears, wood axes and slings, yet dangerous by their sheer number. The shield wall fronting them, on the other hand, was manned by better stock: true fighting men, mail-clad, bearing teardrop-shaped kite shields, notched swords, and murderous two-handed axes from the old Danish days, totally unsuited for woodwork but capable, in the hands of a skilled user, of beheading a horse or splitting a man in two. These were the huscarls – housecarls, literally house servants, household troops – the military core of Anglo-Saxon England: professional soldiers who ate at their lord’s table, slept by his hearth, took his gold in payment, and died at his command. And they held the high ground.
Here at Fulford – “foul water ford” in the Old English tongue – the English line ran along a soggy, peat-bottomed ditch from an impassable riverside swamp to the banks of the Ouse. With water on both sides, they could not be bypassed. The Vikings had no choice but to go straight at them, but before they could even reach the foot of the enemy shield wall they had to plunge, in heavy gear and armor, exposed to arrows and javelins, through the waterlogged trench. From there they scrambled, off-balance and disordered, up the far bank, to die on spears stabbing from behind the impregnable wall of English shields, unbroken except where housecarls stepped clear for room to swing those terrible axes.
“The wound-rain [blood] fell across the field,” reported the anonymous author of the Morkinskinna. “The Vikings waded in the blood of warriors.” All afternoon the gully had filled with the dead and dying, gurgling as the black peat-water covered their faces, tingeing it red as their fellows trod them into the mud. The slaughter was fearsome, the attack hopeless, retreat inevitable.
It came first on the Viking right, the flank nearest the swamp, where the Norsemen’s English allies suddenly lost their enthusiasm for conquest. Breaking off their attack, they fell back in disarray, fearing to show their backs too long to the rain of Anglo-Saxon arrows. The Northumbrians, peering over their shields from the gully bank, saw their chance. “The wing of the Northmen’s line nearest the ditch gave way,” wrote Snorri, “and the English followed, thinking the Norse would fly.” The Anglo-Saxon host poured down into the ditch and up the other side to give chase. In driving off the traitors and turning the Norwegians’ flank, they would end the Viking invasion in a stroke.
“The king’s banner was next to the river,” records the Heimskringla, “where the line was thickest.” Across the field from his weak-kneed allies, the King of Norway stood unperturbed by impending disaster. Harald III, son of Sigurd – called Harfager (Harfagri, Fairhair), the Burner of Bulgars, the Hammer of Denmark, the Thunderbolt of the North – was no quaking novice to battle. He was the most famed Viking of his age. By his own count he had conquered more than eighty cities, as far away as Sicily and the Middle East. “He was a mighty man,” admitted the German monk Adam of Bremen, writing scarcely a decade later of a king he had never met, yet detested and vilified, “and famous for the victories he had won in countless wars with the barbarians in Greece and Asia.”
“King Harald was handsome and noble,” Snorri wrote. “His hair and beard were yellow. He had a short beard, and long mustaches. One eyebrow was a bit higher than the other. He had large hands and feet, but these were well formed.” There would have been no mistaking Harald on the battlefield. His banner, called Land-Waster, of white silk bearing a black raven – for centuries the standard of Viking rulers, symbolic of the old father-god Odin – marked him out for all to see. And Harald, in 1066 fifty-one years of age, was a veritable colossus. His mail hauberk, hanging to mid-calf, would have draped to the ankles on any lesser man.
“Five ells was he in stature,” declared Snorri. The Viking ell, used in Iceland up to the 13th century, ran about 18 inches, which would make Harald some 7½ feet tall. As few Vikings carried measuring sticks, the ell was as a practical matter based on the length of an average man’s forearm from the elbow to the tip of the middle finger – and since Scandinavians (like all Europeans) in those days were shorter than today, averaging a little over 5½ feet tall – the ell would have been correspondingly shorter, making the Norwegian king’s height slightly less monumental, but still impressive.
Twenty years earlier Harald had taken the throne of Norway by right of blood: that of his legendary great-great-grandfather, King Harald Fairhair. Their common given name, derived from the Old Germanic here and weald – army and leader – seems most apt. Not for several centuries, and certainly never to his face, would Harald III be called Hardrada – Ruthless, Tyrant, Hard Ruler – though few Norse kings would so well live up to the name.
His claim to the old North Sea Empire of Viking overlord Knut the Great, of which Northumbria had been merely part, could not be justified by blood, except for that being shed on this battlefield. There were Northumbrians on both sides of this fight, many lords laying claim. Earl Morcar of York held the title mainly through the support of his brother, Earl Edwin of neighboring Mercia. Hardly out of their teens, they had been barefoot boys running through their father’s hall when Harald was setting the crown of Norway on his own head. Their brother-in-law Aki the Tall and Earl Waltheof of Northamptonshire and Huntingdonshire, fighting at their sides, could not have been much older. If Harald was surprised the young lords fought so hard for lands held so briefly, it was because he had been ill advised by their predecessor.
Just a year earlier, in September 1065, the Earl of Northumbria had been Tostig son of Godwin – now overthrown, banished, a pirate and a rebel, but still the brother of England’s King Harold II. It was Tostig who had talked Harald of Norway into this reconquest of Northumbria, and Mercia, and England, but it was also Tostig whose worthless force of bandits and marauders had lost their nerve and would soon lose the battle as well.
We can only imagine Harald’s thoughts on seeing the young earls’ housecarls splash across the watery trench, driving Tostig and his brigands before them. If the Northumbrians succeeded in running off the rebels, they would be able to envelop that end of the Norwegian shield wall and destroy it. It would have come as no great surprise to the king that trained housecarls would triumph over such rabble. He might well have expected it.
Even more likely, he’d planned on it.
There were only three ways to break a shield wall, all well known to King Harald: by direct frontal attack, which had this day been tried and failed; by flanking maneuver, impossible with water to either side of the English; and by luring the defenders to abandon it themselves. Feigned retreat was a battle-tested Viking tactic, with which Anglo-Saxons appeared unfamiliar. (They would fall for a similar feint by the Normans a few weeks later, at Hastings.) With Morcar’s Northumbrians now across the ditch, half the English line was overextended, leaving a gap between them and Edwin’s Mercians. According to Snorri, Harald saw the opening: “He commanded the charge to be sounded, and urged on his men. He ordered the banner which was called the Land-Waster to be carried before him, and made so severe an assault that all had to give way before it.”
Harald’s lieutenants led the charge. Eystein, son of Thorberg, called Orri, “the gorcock,” for the red grouse of the Scottish Isles – from which we might deduce that he was small, red-haired and feisty – was, according to Snorri, “the most able and best beloved by the king of all the landowners.” And skalds would sing of the prowess of Harald’s own son, Olaf, then sixteen years of age and in perhaps his first battle. All threw themselves into the fighting. Northumbria was to be decided this day. To the strident call of the war horns the roaring Norwegians surged in behind the English.
The battle at Fulford had sundered into two battles, one along the ditch, one in front of it. Toward the river, the shield walls still opposed each other along the gully, but toward the swamp, the housecarls’ pursuit of Tostig’s men across it had exposed the peasants behind them. Vikings streamed across the ditch and up the bank into the breach in the English lines, simultaneously turning the Mercians’ flank and taking the Northumbrians in the rear. If the English had prided themselves as great warriors for having defeated Tostig’s pirates, they now learned the limits of their power. Not only Anglo-Saxons knew how to wield a two-handed axe. Harald’s Norwegians had been hardened by fifteen years of fighting the Danes, and if they hadn’t won that war, they had won most of the battles.
Slaying Aki the Tall, Eystein Orri bid his warriors wheel and take Morcar’s men from behind. The housecarls chasing Tostig’s rebels were brought up short by the screams of the fyrdmen in their rear, beset by mail-armored, sword-hacking Norwegians. Poorly clad farmers and peasants wielding pitchforks and hatchets could not long have stood such punishment.
For a time Edwin’s Mercians stood against Harald’s Vikings. Between them, along the line of the ditch, the blades of English axes and Norwegian swords hewed and threshed like sickles laying low sheaves of wheat. “Mercilessly the king bloodied weapons on the English near the Ouse River,” declares the Morkinskinna. “A greater slaughter will never be inflicted on a brave army.”
With the Vikings pouring past them through the gap in the English lines, however, to avoid being flanked the Mercian left was forced to bend back around, toward the Ouse. The peasants behind the line, inside its curve, had a choice of being driven into the current with their housecarls on top of them, or, while there was still time, fleeing for York. It was not much of a choice, and nor did it take long for them to make it. Decades later the English monk Symeon of Durham admitted, “the English, unable to resist the Norwegians, turned tail, losing some of their men in the doing. Many more drowned in the river than fell in battle. The Norwegians had won the field of slaughter.”
King Harald Sigurdsson had taught the young English earls how to defeat a medieval shield wall, even one with the advantage of position. With the Mercians in retreat, all that was left was mopping up the Northumbrians. His son Olaf played a role in that. “Many sank in the river, and the sunken men drowned. The dead lay all around young Morcar,” lauds King Harald’s Saga. “The king put them to flight, and they fled most swiftly from Olaf the Mighty.”
Evening, in the long northern summer day, was still far off when the last of the Mercians had run for York and the last of the Northumbrians had either escaped by some little-known route through the swamp or lay fallen on the field. Vultures circled down over the battlefield and ravens plucked at dead faces. The Norse and their tame English searched the sward, dispatching the wounded, looting the dead, and seeking captives rich enough for ransom. Edwin had escaped with his men, and by some miracle Earl Morcar had also gotten away, though at the time even the Norse believed him dead. Earl Waltheof was taken alive, though Tostig, proving himself not very magnanimous in victory, advised Harald to kill him.
“Slay your prisoners as you like,” replied Harald, “but I will do as I wish with him.” He told Waltheof, “I will grant you peace if you swear never to war against me, and to send me word as soon as you learn plots are laid against me.”
Waltheof agreed, but would not swear to it, “for it looks to me as though Tostig does not intend me to inherit much at all.” He saw, as did everyone, that the wayward earl meant to have Waltheof’s shires along with the rest of the kingdom.
Harald ordered him released, much to the disgust of Tostig: “It is foolhardy to free a man whom you consider too honorable to require his word.”
“I think,” Harald told him, “that his word is more honorable than yours.”
Tostig was neither stupid enough nor brave enough to rise to the insult. He changed the subject: “Let us march on London, and put the land to fire and sword, giving peace to neither man, woman nor child.”
Now there was a plan dear to any Norseman’s heart. Before London, however, there was York. The survivors of Fulford (including, according to some accounts, Earl Edwin) had taken refuge inside its walls. The town fathers, who unlike its peasants had much to lose, may not have been happy to have Vikings lording over them again, but with the conquerors drawing up outside the city walls, the decision to avoid a sack was a pragmatic one. “As King Harald had won such a decisive victory against such great chieftains and so large a host,” recorded Snorri, “the people were fearful, and doubted they could stand against him. The city elders therefore decided, in a council, to tell King Harald they would hand over the castle to him.”
After a few days to work out the details of the surrender, that Sunday Harald and Tostig convened a thing, a political assembly, outside the city walls. “They offered to grant a lasting peace to the citizens,” reports the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, “as long as they all marched south together to conquer this kingdom.”
The leading residents, well known to Tostig and singled out by him, came forth to deliver some 150 of their children as hostages to guarantee their fealty. The invaders, in turn, sent 150 men inside the city, nominally as counter-hostages, but in reality as a token garrison. Harald announced his return in the morning to appoint officials and declare new laws. York was to be Jorvik again, capital of a new, Norwegian Danelaw, and – if all went according to plan – of a new, Scandinavian England.
It was agreed they would all reconvene the next day, Monday, a few miles east of the city, where hostages would be brought to the Vikings from across the whole of Northumbria. The exchange was to be made where the old Roman roads from the eastern dominions came together to cross over the Derwent River, at Stamford Bridge.
Sunday evening the Norwegians, with Tostig in tow, withdrew about two hours’ march down the Ouse to Riccall, where they had beached their longships. Snorri said Harald was “very merry,” as he had every right to be. The first step of the conquest was complete. The Northumbrian army had been destroyed, the Mercian army had fled, and half of England lay open for the taking. The Vikings had a base of operations with a cooperative, if not wholly sympathetic, populace to keep them well supplied and supported. Down in the south there was still the English king and his army to deal with, but for now it was time to celebrate. After victory and a two-hour march, it can safely be assumed that large quantities of alcohol were consumed, probably late into the night, and that there were some pounding headaches and bleary eyes Monday morning when the horns roused the army early for the fifteen-mile march to Stamford.
Harald divided his force. One-third, including his son Olaf and brother-in-law Eystein, he ordered to stay behind to protect the ships. The other two-thirds, including Tostig, he deemed a sufficient show of force for a simple hostage exchange. The weather was clear and hot. “So the men laid aside their armor,” wrote Snorri, “and went ashore with just their shields, helmets and spears, wearing their swords, and many had also arrows and bows. All were very merry.”
“This is great foolishness, to go unprotected into our enemy’s grasp,” Tostig told Harald. “You can’t trust the English if they gain advantage over you.”
Harald had donned a blue tunic and his finest helmet, and mounted a black horse. He said (a little wearily, one can almost hear), “What do you fear now, Tostig?”
Tostig said, “I fear that you have lost your wits.”
Harald did not kill him for that, but simply replied, “Be that as it may, I will do as I like.”
Tostig, say the sagas, “was so disliked by the Norwegians that no one would listen to him.” All could see that with Northumbria defeated, the English earl’s usefulness was near an end.
The modern village of Stamford Bridge grew up around an ancient, natural rock ford across the Derwent River, almost 300 yards upstream from the current crossing. Its name may derive from the Old English Samfordesbrigge, “the bridge at the sandy ford,” or stan ford, “stone ford.” Archaeologists have found evidence of several bridges over generations past. The earliest, about a mile south of the current one, dated from Roman times, when the town was called Derventio. In the 1200s a bridge of timber built on three stone piers lasted until the current stone arch was built, about 75 yards downstream, in 1727. Nothing has ever been found of the bridge that stood in Anglo-Saxon times, probably because, according to the old chronicles, it was all of wood. The concept of the wooden truss bridge with stress-bearing bracing, struts and stringers was well known to the Romans but lost to Dark Age Europe, not reappearing until about the year 1230. Until then medieval bridges, particularly short spans, were simple beam structures built on piles of elm or oak. Under good conditions these can last a very long time – oak piles used by Henry II to build old London Bridge in 1176 lasted until 1921 – but like the Ouse, the Derwent has a propensity to overflow even with recent, modern flood-prevention measures, and the 1200s bridge was probably necessary because what remained of the 1066 bridge had washed away. The current 1700s bridge still bears more than the average amount of traffic, but is only one lane wide, with traffic lights at either end stacking up long lines of vehicles. A parallel steel footway is closer to the size of the Saxon bridge: about the width one man can defend, swinging a two-handed axe.
At a brisk walk it would have taken the Norwegians about four and a half hours to cover the distance from Riccall to Stamford Bridge. Sunrise on September 25 is around seven in the morning local time, so the army would have reached the crossing about midday. Arriving from the south, they assumed high ground on that side of the river, where there was plenty of forage for the horses. (Vikings rode horses to battle, but seldom into battle.) Harald and Tostig took a party down the riverbank and across the bridge to a wide, more gently sloping meadow on the other side, where there was said to be cattle for the rustling. It was not long before they spotted a cloud of dust in the distance, above the road from York. Harald asked Tostig, “What is that yonder, a whirlwind or the dust of horsemen?”
“It is horsemen,” replied the earl, thinking it the delegation from York, “and now behold you the good will of my people.”
Harald was not so sure. “We had better halt and find out exactly who this is.”
The oncoming multitude soon topped a rise about a mile and a half away, plainly no delegation but an army, spearpoints and armor glittering in the sun. Modern estimates put their number at 10,000 men afoot and 2,500 on horse – probably three times greater than that of Northumbria and Mercia together, and at least a third again that of the Northmen at hand. Above them fluttered a flag embroidered with the sigil of a fighting man. The sigil of King Harold II of England.
The last anyone in the north of England had heard, King Harold had dismissed his army from their summer-long watch on the southern coasts against an anticipated invasion by Duke William of Normandy, which had never come. That they could arrive in the north so swiftly after the arrival of the Norwegians was something of a miracle on the part of the English, and a terrible shock for the Norse.
A man came riding out ahead of them, asking for King Harald. Tostig recognized him. “Here comes Waltheof,” he said. “Slay him.”
But Harald forbade it. Reining his horse, Waltheof greeted the king, and advised him to turn back for his ships while he still could, “for King Harold my brother in arms opposes you with an overpowering army. You couldn’t stand him off if your men were fully equipped, let alone as they are now.”
Harald ignored this. “Farewell, Waltheof, and to your brother the king as well. You have kept your word as promised.”
As the young earl rode back, Harald turned to his men. “We had best lay plans, for they intend to attack and I have no doubt the king himself is leading them.”
Tostig said, “I think it best we retreat, quick as we can, to get our men and our armor, and there make a stand. Or else take to our ships, where those horsemen can’t reach us.”
“I have never yet run from a fight, and I won’t now, handing these Anglo-Saxons victory by being both chased and slain,” said Harald. “I have another idea. Put our three best men on our three best horses and have them ride hard and fast to summon the rest of our army. They’ll come at the run, and meanwhile these English will be in for a hard fight before we give ourselves up for lost.”
“It is for you to decide,” the earl told the king. “I have no wish to withdraw.”
Having nothing further to discuss with the English, Harald wheeled his mount about to order his raven banner, Land-Waster, brought forward…and his horse stumbled and fell, throwing him to the ground in front of his men. And the enemy. Vikings took such bad luck seriously, considering it a portent of future events. Having lost some of his dignity, Harald rose and declared, “A fall bodes good fortune for a traveler.” But on getting to its feet the horse ran off, and the king was heard to mutter, “Why now, brother Olaf?”
Hearing the King of Norway call upon his sainted brother, dead some thirty years past, Tostig laughed aloud. “You think King Olaf caused the horse to fall under you?”
“If he turns from me, I’ll have you to thank for it,” said Harald, and went off to see to his army, leaving Tostig with a small party on that side of the river to say what he would to his ex-countrymen.
There followed one of the most famous conversations in all of English history, in which Harald of Norway took little part, for he had never before been to England and may not have been fluent in Old English; otherwise the matter might have been settled between King Harold and King Harald, war leader to war leader. And yet he played the decisive role. It was recorded verbatim by numerous scribes and chroniclers, though almost certainly second or third hand, as the quotes vary in detail, undoubtedly distorted by the memories of differing eyewitnesses and a multitude of retellings and translations. Yet it is possible, weaving them all together to make a whole cloth, to listen to two feuding royal brothers decide the course of all England, based on the ambitions of a Norwegian king.
The Anglo-Saxon army is said to have halted about two bow-shots off, at most a thousand yards. Some twenty knights came forward, horses and riders alike armored in mail. These stopped a little closer to the Vikings, but three continued right up to Tostig’s party. The leader is described as not a big man, but slender, and most courteous, wearing a gilded helmet. (The Anglo-Saxons – at least, the wealthy ones – were famous for their ornate, full-face helms, as evidenced by those found in the Sutton Hoo and Vendel and Valsgarde burial sites.) He carried a red shield, said in the Norse sagas to bear the sigil of a golden hawk, but it was actually a wyvern, the two-legged flying dragon symbolic of Wessex. He called out, “Is Earl Tostig with this army?”
Tostig said, “There is no point in denying it.”
“Your brother, King Harold, sends God’s greetings,” said the knight, “and offers to atone for past deeds.”
Tostig asked, “What does he offer now that he did not before?”
“He regrets that offer now,” conceded the knight, “after all that’s been done.”
“We won’t set that right with money,” said Tostig. “What is his offer?”
“A fifth of England, no more. But you have laid waste the land, and for that must make amends.”
Tostig said, “I do not accept.”
The knight raised the bid. “You shall have all of Northumbria, and rather than fight you for it, he will award you a third of the kingdom to rule beside him.”
“That is preferable to the contempt and treachery he offered last winter,” said Tostig, “and if he had made such an offer then it would have saved many lives, and been better for England.” Nearly a thousand years later, the banished earl’s words still drip bitterness. “But it is too late for such bargaining. I have often heard the Norwegians say that if an acceptable offer were made I would quickly leave them to fight their own battles, but I will not.”
“Then hear the king’s final offer,” the knight said. “He would rather you have half of England, than you both fight over it, with the survivor to rule over all.”
And Tostig said, “But if I accept, what will he give King Harald Sigurdsson for his trouble?”
This was the crux of the matter, on which the future of all England would ride.
The horseman replied, “He has also spoken of this. He will give King Harald seven feet of English ground, or as much more as he is taller than other men, but no more.”
“Then tell King Harold to make ready for battle,” Tostig said, “and never let it be said that Earl Tostig betrayed King Harald Sigurdsson for his enemy, when he came west to fight for England. We would all rather die with honor, than lose the kingdom.”
“Then,” said the knight, “the king declares the blame for this business to be on your head.” He wheeled and with his silent companions rode back to the English lines.
Riding back from deploying his men, Harald asked Tostig, “Who was that man who spoke so nobly?”
“That,” the earl said, “was King Harold Godwinson.”
“You shouldn’t have waited to tell me that,” said Harald, “for they were so close that this Harold would never have returned alive.”
“It was risky enough for a man of his position, you are right,” said Tostig, “but I knew he would offer me peace, lands and title, and that I, on the other hand, would be his murderer if I gave him away. I would not break faith with him when he came trusting my honor, and if one of us must die I prefer that he killed me than I killed him.”
“He is a regal man, standing well in his stirrups,” mused Harald, “but he will not rule these lands long. Who was that, though, on either side of him?”
“One is named Helgi Heinreksson,” said Tostig, “and the other is called Biar-leif.”
And for the first time we see the mighty Harald Hardrada given pause. “I never thought I would see that man here,” he said, “for I know him, and I would not have come this far if I had known he was alive.”
To see the Thunderbolt of the North so taken aback must have come as a surprise to Tostig, who could only shrug. “It matters not to us now.”
Across the field King Harold Godwinson turned in the saddle to ask Leif, “Who was that tall man whose horse fell, with the blue kirtle and beautiful helm?”
“That was the King of Norway,” said Leif, who had not always gone by that name. In his youth, in Norway, his name had been Heming, and he had known King Harald Sigurdsson well, having been ordered by him to needless death out of nothing more than royal spite and, having survived, been forced to leave his home and family for exile in a foreign land. Now he rode at the side of a king, and gods old and new had seen fit to put his nemesis within his grasp.
“He is grim enough,” said the English king Harold of the Norwegian king Harald, “but not likely to live much longer, for I think his luck is spent.”