Battle of Stamford Bridge, 25 September 1066

Second of the three battles of 1066 that ended at Hastings, and the only English victory. Having defeated the troops of earls Morcar and Edwin at Fulford (20 September), King Harald Hardrada of Norway, and his ally Tostig accepted hostages from York, and began negotiations with the Northumbrians, hoping to gain their aid against Harold. This was a real possibility – York had had a Viking king in the previous century, while Swegen Forkbeard, king of Denmark, established a dynasty that ruled England from 1013 to 1042. Harald and Tostig withdrew from York to Stamford Bridge, seven miles east of the city, to await their hostages.

Harald and Tostig appear to have been planning an invasion of the south. It apparently didn’t occur to them that King Harold might move north to attack them, instead expecting him to stay on the south coast to guard against William. However, Harold had already dismissed his army on the south coast when their supplies began to run out, and was free to march north. On hearing of the Norwegian invasion, he marched north, gathering an army as he marched. Presumably, some of these soldiers were the same men who had recently been guarding the south coast, but many must have been gathered on the road north, from areas too distant from the south coast for significant elements of the army to have returned to them. The Anglo-Saxon kingdom had repeatedly proved itself capable of raising large numbers of troops, and 1066 was to be no exception.

Harold reached Tadcaster (eight miles south-west of York) on Sunday 24 September. The army on the south coast had been dismissed on 8 September, so Harold had had little more that two weeks to raise an army and march it to York. This was a significant achievement in its own right and he did not waste it. On the next day, Harold marched through York and on to Stamford Bridge, where he found the Norwegian army entirely unaware of his approach. A great slaughter followed in which both Tostig and Harald Hardrada were killed. Harold’s victory was total. The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle records that the survivors only needed twenty-four ships to return home, after having arrived in 300.

The most famous incident from the battle of Stamford Bridge may not have happened. According to the tale, a single Viking hero blocked a bridge over the Derwent that Harold and the English needed to cross. At first no one could defeat this hero. Arrows failed to shift him, and it was only when someone went into the river and stabbed him from beneath that he was killed and the English were able to pass over the bridge. It is certainly possible that the bridge over the Derwent at Stamford Bridge was very narrow, but the contemporary sources do not mention this incident. The C version of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle contains the tale, but only in an addition added at some point during the next century. It does not feature in the D or the E versions.

Of more significance is the debate over the impact of Stamford Bridge on the battle of Hastings. Did a significant part of the army originally intended to defeat William march north to Stamford Bridge and never return? Did Harold make mistakes in his actions against William after his rapid march to York and back? Sadly the sources are not adequate to support such detailed arguments. What we can be certain of is that Stamford Bridge saw the defeat of the last serious Viking attack on England. Other raids were made, but they were never again a serious threat. Harold had won one of the greatest of all Anglo-Saxon victories.

The Battle of Hastings , Stephen Morillo, Boydell, 1996. A very valuable work, containing both translations of a selection of the most important contemporary sources and a selection of articles covering the main areas of controversy. A good way to get an understanding of the main debates about the battle.
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The Battle of Hastings, 1066 , M.K. Lawson, Tempus, 2002. A comprehensive study of the battle and the buildup, with a good section on the surviving sources. The account of the battle itself gives a good summary of the different interpretations of the battle that have appeared over the years.
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How to cite this article: Rickard, J (8 September 2000), Battle of Stamford Bridge, 25 September 1066, http://www.historyofwar.org/articles/battles_stamford.html

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