On September 25th, along the road to York at a river crossing called Stamford Bridge, the English met Hardrada and the Norse army marching from their camp on the coast to take the surrender of York. Not expecting a battle, Hardrada and his men had left their armor back at their ships, coming only with shield and arms.
To buy time for the Norse to form their array for battle, a lone champion endeavored to hold the narrow bridge against the English. His name now lost, this fearsome warrior held the bridge against all attackers, hewing men down with his deadly long-axe. No more than three-at-a-time could approach him, and each time he sent Harold’s redoubtable Huscarls reeling back, bloodied or dead.
Harald, however, was not done with the Arnarson family. He also found himself an accidental ally of Finn’s brother Kalf, one of the men who had so brutally cut down St Olaf. On a raiding party in Denmark, Harald saw to it that Kalf was put ashore ahead of the rest of the company, facing insurmountable odds and with reinforcements suspiciously late in arriving. Kalf was killed in the ensuing battle, and Finn immediately suspected that Harald had planned it. For his part, Harald was remarkably reluctant to deny the charges, instead boasting in a poem of his consolidation of power and removal of potential threats:
Now I have caused the deaths
Of thirteen of my enemies;
I kill without compunction
And remember all my killings.
Treason must be scotched
By fair means or foul
Before it overwhelms me;
Oak-trees grow from acorns.
With the removal of another threat from within his own country, Harald was finally able to turn back to the last great impediment to his overlordship of Scandinavia – the continued presence of Svein Estridsen in Denmark. Harald moved a large part of his military operation to the south of Norway, and at the northern end of the same Vik bay that may have given its name to the Vikings themselves, he founded a new town near modern-day Oslo. The site was carefully chosen for its military advantages; it had good access to surrounding farmland, and was an excellent harbour for assembling warships. It was, moreover, close enough to Denmark to forestall swift raids.
After many years of intermittent warfare, Harald and Svein finally clashed in a major sea battle at Nissa in 1062, in which dozens of longships were lashed together in a marine brawl, and which ended with 70 Danish ships emptied of their crews. Skirmishes went on for a couple more years, but Nissa had taken a lot out of the combatants – not just in terms of their willingness to keep fighting, but also because of the expense. It is possible that Harald’s reserves of cash from his Byzantine days were running low, and he was experiencing some difficulty in collecting taxes, particularly from the Trondheim region that had constantly resisted his rule. Ten years was long enough to fight over Denmark, and Harald was prepared to sue for peace. At a meeting with Svein, the two men conceded that each was the true ruler of his kingdom, and departed in a state of truce.
There was, however, already trouble brewing elsewhere, dating back to the agreements with his nephew that had brought Harald back to Scandinavia in the first place. The co-ruler arrangement with Harald was not the only double-or-nothing bet that the late King Magnus had made during his life. He had made a similar promise to Harthacanute, king of England, that whoever of them outlived the other would inherit the domains of both. But Harthacanute had died in 1042, five years before Magnus. In the strictest terms of their agreement, Magnus had been the rightful king of England for five years before his own death, and in the strictest terms of the other agreement, Magnus’s lands were Harald’s by right. With Harald established as Magnus’s rightful heir, he had thus inherited a tenuous claim to the throne of England itself. This fact was not lost on the English earl Godwine, who attempted to persuade King Edward the Confessor to send a fleet of ships to the aid of Svein Estridsen, who, like Harthacanute, was a grandson of Svein Forkbeard.
In the first week of January 1066, the English king Edward the Confessor died in his early fifties. His last surviving nephew had predeceased him a couple of years earlier, and he had no children of his own. With the passing of Edward, there was no obvious candidate for the throne of England – the original Saxon line was all but at an end. The only available adult candidates were the descendants of Vikings.
Edward’s half-Danish brother-in-law Harold, son of the scheming earl Godwine, was proclaimed as the new king of England. Meanwhile, Edward’s Norman cousin, William the Bastard, not only claimed that he had been promised the throne by the ailing Edward, but that Harold Godwinson (called Godwinson hereafter to avoid confusion with Harald the Ruthless) had sworn, on holy relics no less, to do all in his power to ensure that promise would be made good. Not only was Godwinson a usurper in William’s eyes, he had broken an oath made before God. For some reason, Godwinson’s younger brother Tostig, Earl of Northumbria, thought that he should have the throne of England. It was Godwinson’s claim that the dying Edward had promised the kingdom to him. It was Tostig’s complaint, very much in the Viking spirit, that regardless of Godwinson’s family seniority, the elders of England should choose the ‘king whom they deem most fitting’.
Tostig certainly involved himself in enough drama elsewhere. Siward, his predecessor as the ruler of Northumbria, had kept the Scots busy by supporting the exiled Malcolm against the usurper Macbeth – a tale told better elsewhere. Malcolm repaid his English supporters by raiding along their borders, but Tostig made a careful treaty between Scotland and England. However, when Godwinson became king in Edward’s place, he showed little friendliness towards his brother. In fact, when Northumbria rose in revolt in 1065, Godwinson was prepared to listen to the rebels’ demands, and to exile his troublesome sibling from England altogether. With nothing left to lose, Tostig went looking abroad for help against Godwinson, turning first to the Scots, then to his cousin Svein Estridsen in Denmark.
According to Harald’s saga, Svein, in a remarkably civil and un-Viking reply, turned Tostig down. Although Tostig appealed to Svein’s ancestry, the conquests of Forkbeard, and the empire of Canute the Great, Svein meekly announced that he knew his limitations. He refused to accept flattering parallels drawn between himself and his uncle Canute, and announced that he lacked the finances, endurance and right to embark upon the invasion of England on Tostig’s behalf. Tostig taunted him with hints of who his second choice of ally would be. ‘I shall,’ he said, ‘find a chieftain who is less faint-hearted than you to engage in a great enterprise.’ Tostig next called on Harald the Ruthless. He, his sagas claim, could not see much potential in persuading Norwegians to sail across the North Sea on behalf of an allegedly disinherited Englishman, particularly one who was half-Dane. ‘The English,’ said Harald, ‘are not altogether reliable.’
But Tostig would not let up. Heimskringla reports a heated debate between him and Harald, with Harald reluctant to discuss the invasion of Britain, and Tostig cunningly drawing parallels between England and Denmark. Denmark, argued Tostig, had eluded Harald for a decade because the local people’s hearts and minds belonged to Svein Estridsen. Yet if he wanted England, the presence of Tostig would ensure that the local people supported Harald. His army would be welcomed as liberators, and England would be his for the taking. None of this was actually true, and it is likely that both Harald and Tostig were planning to double-cross each other. However, Tostig won Harald round to the idea of an English invasion. The word went out from Oslo and Trondheim, that Harald was preparing the raid to end all raids.
The invasion fleet assembled in the waters off Trondheim, plagued by bad omens – warriors in Harald’s company reported dreams of carrion birds perched on all the prows of the ships, and of an unearthly woman riding a man-eating wolf into battle at the head of the English army. Harald himself dreamed of his brother St Olaf, who warned him that there was a difference between an honourable death while fighting for one’s birthright, and falling in battle while attempting to steal someone else’s. Such portents are mere touches of extra drama in the sagas, added by later chroniclers – had Harald become the next king of England, it is likely that old soldiers’ memories would have dredged up far more positive predictions. But the reports of the bad omens do suggest a sense of guilt, as if many of the Norsemen knew that they had only excuses for war, not legitimate reasons. The invasion of England was merely one more Viking raid, on the scale of the earlier Great Heathen Host.
Perhaps Harald had some presentiment of disaster. He left his son Magnus behind, not as regent or viceroy, but as a king with equal powers. He took his first wife Ellisif and their two daughters with him, dropping them off at the Orkneys en route. When he reached the coast of Scotland he took his fleet south, landing in the Cleveland area and finding no resistance – the usurper Godwinson was busy in the south, making preparations to repel another invasion, this time threatened from Normandy. He was also occupied with a succession of pirate raids on England’s south coasts, which turned out to be led by Tostig – had Harald and his unlikely ally agreed that Tostig would cause a diversion while Harald softened up Tostig’s old earldom in Northumbria?
Tostig arrived in the north of England, meeting Harald at the mouth of the River Tyne on 8 September. If Harald had been expecting Tostig to bring a significant number of fighting men with him, he would have been annoyed to discover his ‘ally’ arriving with only a dozen ships, and most of those were likely to have been Orkney vessels that would have joined Harald anyway. Nevertheless, the combined party laid siege to Scarborough, burning part of the town before its capitulation. Their fleet sailed south along the coast of Northumbria, looting where there was resistance, and taking hostages where there was not. Tostig knew Northumbria well, and knew the likely dispositions of troops in the region.
Harald’s ultimate target was York, the seat of power of Erik Bloodaxe a century earlier. If the fleet met with no worthy resistance on the coasts, they would find their enemies in York. The fleet sailed up the River Humber, and the soldiers disembarked ready to face a foe on land. Had the local earls, Edwin and Morkere, had more faith in Godwinson, they might have retreated behind the walls of York and waited for reinforcements. They had sent word to the south of the Viking invasion, but did not expect any help, and resolved to meet the Vikings head-on.
The two sides finally met on 20 September, two miles south of York, at a place identified by modern historians as Gate Fulford. The armies faced each other on the road itself, their flanks cut off by the River Ouse on one side, and impassable swamp on the other. Harald kept his men on the left of the Viking line, prominently displaying his banner, Landwaster. Tostig was kept highly visible on the right side, presumably to lure the English into a charge against the traitor, instead of more sensibly holding their ground. If it was a deliberate ploy, it worked, with the English concentrating their attack on Tostig, allowing Harald to direct Landwaster straight at a weakened front line. The Northumbrians were routed, and York lay undefended.
Harald was clearly settling in for the long haul. York was left relatively unharmed. Harald took hostages from the people of York, but also left some of his own – the arrangement has all the signs of an alliance or treaty, and not a victory. This, perhaps, is where Tostig’s true value began to show; had Harald been the leader of an army of Viking conquest, he might have expected no help, but as the supporter of an English claimant to the throne, he had better treatment. York became the centre of the resistance to Godwinson. People of Northumbria were even invited to swell the ranks of Harald’s army, turning it from an army of conquest into an army of restoration.
If anything defeated Harald’s designs on England, it was an ancient relic of forgotten conquerors. Almost a thousand years earlier, legions such as XX Valeria Victrix and II Augusta had kept their troops busy with immense public works. Since Roman times, England had been crossed by a network of good roads, as straight as possible, slicing through hills and across dales, and built to last. Wide enough to permit 16 horsemen riding abreast, they had lasted for many centuries as the arteries of England, carrying merchants and farmers safely without the hindrances of marshy ground or impenetrable woodland. The network embraced the core of old Britannia – only petering out to the west, where it ran into the territories of Wales and Cornwall. Thanks to the old Roman roads, it was still possible to quickly march a force of military men from London, the Romans’ Londinium, all the way to the old Roman city of Eboracum – York. Even as Harald and Tostig celebrated their conquest of Northumbria, Godwinson was on his way north. The Viking invaders had grossly overestimated the time it would take for the English army to extricate itself from the south. On 24 September, as they finalized the surrender of York, Godwinson’s relief force was less than a day’s march away, in Tadcaster.
It is impossible to know the exact date when Godwinson heard of Harald’s arrival. He had between one and two weeks to put a plan into action, and, perhaps conveniently, already had an army preparing to resist invasion, albeit from another direction. Nevertheless, for him to move several thousand men 200 miles north in such a short time was an incredible feat. Many of them may have been mounted on horseback, which would have made the journey somewhat easier for them, if not on the horses. Others may have been picked up en route, as Godwinson’s force passed through towns on its northward journey, but it is likely that a significant proportion of Godwinson’s army had all but jogged 20 miles a day, some for as long as a week.
On 25 September, much to everyone’s surprise, Godwinson’s army arrived in York, where the townsfolk were swift to deny that they had made any deals with the invader – the sources imply that although they had agreed to swap hostages, the exchange had not yet taken place. Godwinson did not stop at York, but kept his troops moving, until they ran into the astonished Vikings on the banks of the River Derwent, at Stamford Bridge.
The impression left by both the more reliable the Anglo-Saxon Chronicles, and the dubious King Harald’s Saga is that Harald was put very much on the defensive. He also received yet another portent of his demise, when he was thrown from his horse while reviewing his troops. Godwinson himself approached the enemy lines, calling out to Tostig that there was still time for him to switch sides, and promising him ‘a third of his kingdom’ (presumably his reinstatement as lord of Northumbria) if he abandoned the Viking cause. Tostig, however, refused – Harald for his part was annoyed because he only learned of Godwinson’s identity after the man had retreated back out of arrow range.
When the battle itself began, Harald fought out in the front of his men, overexposed, and was hit in the throat by an arrow. In a moment of unfortunate inaccuracy, Manuscript ‘D’ of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicles says at this point ‘. . . so was killed Harald Fairhair,’ confusing this Harald with one who had died some 130 years earlier. The battle went on for a considerable time without him, with the Vikings rallying first to Tostig until he was also killed, and then to Eystein Orri. Eystein was the son of Thorberg Arnarson and the betrothed of Harald’s daughter Maria. King Harald’s Saga makes much of the brave reinforcement provided by Eystein and his men, alluding to their terrible exhaustion after having dashed over from the beached Viking fleet – forgetting, perhaps that the men they were fighting had been on a week-long forced march. In the end, the Vikings were routed.
With Harald and Tostig dead, both the Vikings and the English rebels had lost the leaders that galvanized their campaign. Within the Viking army, the death toll was particularly severe among the ‘nobility’ – many leaders of war-bands lay dead on the field at Stamford Bridge. The new leader of the Vikings was Harald’s son Olaf (later King Olaf III the Peaceful), who was granted permission to leave in his ships. Such was the speed of his departure, that he left the body of Harald the Ruthless behind. It would be another year before it was returned to Norway, where it was interred in Trondheim.
The Viking Age in England had fittingly come to an end, in Northumbria, the place that had seen its beginnings. God-winson turned his exhausted men around and began a second forced march, back to the south. On 14 October, he would die in the Battle of Hastings, where William the Bastard, the great-great-grandson of the Viking leader Hrolf, would be rebranded as ‘the Conqueror’ and become the new ruler of England.