Since he had stood down the fyrd in the first fortnight of September, King Harold must have been waiting with considerable apprehension to see which of the two invasions would come first. The speed with which he reacted to both suggests that he had already arranged some early-warning system, but he could hardly have heard of Hardrada’s landing earlier than the attack on Scarborough, and even then he may not have been certain to begin with whether it was a full-scale invasion or merely a raiding party. As soon as the gravity of the situation – too grave for the young and untried northern earls to deal with by themselves – became clear, he was faced with the alternatives of leaving the south coast undefended while he attended to the northern invasion or staying where he was, on guard for the Normans. This would have given Hardrada and Tostig, already on the spot, the opportunity to strengthen their position in a notoriously turbulent part of the country. King Harold must have been aware that the wind had been settled northerly for the past few weeks, perfect for bringing the Norwegians, impossible for the Normans. It may have seemed a worthwhile venture to march north, face Hardrada and hope to get back to the south coast before the wind changed, and he opted for it. He may have left part of his forces in the south with a watching brief; he probably resummoned the fyrd before he left. On the assumption that he might have had the news from the north at any time between 18 and 20 September, he probably left London with his housecarls and whatever other forces he could take not later than the 20th on a day and night march that brought him to Tadcaster on 24 September, an incredible feat of speed. Twenty miles was normally considered a good day’s march; the distance from London to York is about two hundred miles. To have reached Stamford Bridge in fighting order by early morning on the 25th, the English must have done between forty and fifty miles a day. At Tadcaster, according to the Chronicle, he paused to array his fleet, presumably the ships that Hardrada had bottled up there. The word lið that the Chronicle uses normally means a fleet, but it is also used occasionally for land forces and for the men who would have fought on the ships, and in this case it would make much better sense to understand it as arraying his army, which he would have supplemented with levies on his way north and with the men from the fleet. He would also have heard, on arrival or en route, of the result of the battle of Fulford and that the Norwegians were even then awaiting the delivery of hostages and provisions at Stamford Bridge. On the 25th, he marched for York, where he would have picked up Edwin and Morcar with the remnants of their men (if they were still fit for service), and passed straight through the city for Stamford Bridge. R. Allen Brown sees in the surrender of the citizens of York to Hardrada a confirmation of Northumbrian separatism at this time and a lack of enthusiasm for the rule of Harold Godwinson, the brother of Earl Tostig whom they had so recently thrown out;lxxxiv in that case, it is remarkable that no citizen of York slipped out of the city ahead of the English army to give warning of its advance. According to Snorre, Harold closed all the city gates to make sure that no warning was given. It is not known where Snorre got this information; it is not corroborated in any English accounts, but these are so sparse on the subject of Stamford Bridge that this cannot of itself be held to disprove Snorre’s assertion. At all events, no warning was given. On this occasion, the St Martin’s summer operated in Harold’s favour. Hardrada, Tostig and about two-thirds of their men were lounging by the river, waiting for the hostages and supplies. It was a hot day and the men had left their mail coats and much of their armour at the ships. In Snorre’s words,
The weather was exceptionally fine, with warm sunshine; so the troops left their armour behind and went ashore with only their shields, helmets, and spears, and girt with swords. A number of them also had bows and arrows. They were all feeling very carefree.
When they saw the cloud of dust raised by the approaching army coming over the brow of the hill, they were at first uncertain what it portended; then, ‘the closer the army came, the greater it grew, and their glittering weapons sparkled like a field of broken ice’.lxxxvi Tostig advised retreating to their ships and making a stand there, although the approach of the English host blocked the quickest way back to them; Hardrada compromised by sending his best riders to summon the rest of his army, and formed up his men into a shield wall with the wings curved so far back that it was almost circular, with his Land Waster standard in the centre.
The battle of Stamford Bridge, no less than the battle of Hastings, is encrusted with legends, and it is difficult to tell which legend originated at which battle. Hardrada, like William, fell before the battle when his horse stumbled, and claimed that a fall was good luck. King Harald Hardrada, like King Harold Godwinson, is said to have died from an arrow shot. The exchanges before the battle may have a foundation in reality, or may not. Snorre is a late witness:
Twenty horsemen from the English king’s company of Housecarls came riding up to the Norwegian lines; they were all wearing coats of mail, and so were their horses.
One of the riders said, ‘Is Earl Tostig here in this army?’
Tostig replied, ‘There is no denying it – you can find him here.’
Another of the riders said, ‘Your brother King Harold sends you his greetings, and this message to say you can have peace and the whole of Northumbria as well. Rather than have you refuse to join him, he is prepared to give you one third of all his kingdom.’
The earl answered, ‘This is very different from all the hostility and humiliation he offered me last winter. If this offer had been made then, many a man who is now dead would still be alive, and England would now be in better state. But if I accept this offer now, what will he offer King Harald Sigurdsson for all his effort?’
The rider said, ‘King Harold has already declared how much of England he is prepared to grant him: seven feet of ground, or as much more as he is taller than other men.’
Earl Tostig said, ‘Go now and tell King Harold to make ready for battle. The Norwegians will never be able to say that Earl Tostig abandoned King Harald Sigurdsson to join his enemies when he came west to fight in England. We are united in our aim: either to die with honour, or else conquer England.’
The horsemen now rode back.
Then King Harald Sigurdsson asked, ‘Who was that man who spoke so well?’
‘That was King Harold Godwinsson,’ replied Tostig.
King Harald Sigurdsson said, ‘I should have been told much sooner. These men came so close to our lines that this Harold should not have lived to tell of the deaths of our men.’
‘It is quite true, sire,’ said Earl Tostig, ‘that the king acted unwarily, and what you say could well have happened. But I realized that he wanted to offer me my life and great dominions, and I would have been his murderer if I had revealed his identity. I would rather that he were my killer than I his.’
King Harald Sigurdsson said to his men, ‘What a little man that was; but he stood proudly in his stirrups.’
We may be on safer ground with the legend of the Norwegian warrior who single-handed held the bridge across the Derwent while the Norwegian army drew itself up on the far side, and could only be killed by one of the English who took a boat under the bridge and stabbed him through the gaps between the planks. It is reported at the end of the C version of the Chronicle, though the entry is clearly a late addition in language a good hundred years later than the rest of the entry; but it is strange that Snorre should not have included a deed of Norse heroism if the story of it had been taken back to Norway.
Once the bridge was clear, the English were able to attack. According to Snorre, they opened with a cavalry charge, and this has been seized on as proof that the pre-conquest English did occasionally fight on horseback. But the lateness of this account and the many inaccuracies it contains make this a very doubtful proposition. The English, or some of them at least, may have ridden to the battlefield but would probably then have fought, as at Hastings, on foot. Hardrada’s main preoccupation would have been to withstand the attack until reinforcements from his ships could arrive; Harold’s would have been to make sure that he did not. Hardrada’s curved shield wall was essentially a defensive position, but without their body armour his men were unusually vulnerable, and, in the hand-to-hand fighting that followed, they were cut down in hordes. The first phase of the battle ended when Hardrada turned berserker himself and rushed forward into the front of the battle. ‘Neither helmets nor coats of mail could withstand him, and everyone in his path gave way before him.’lxxxviii At this point, according to Snorre, he was struck by an arrow in the throat and died.
The king’s death, as so often in mediaeval warfare, caused a hiatus in the proceedings, and at this juncture, again according to Snorre, King Harold renewed his offer to his brother and quarter to all surviving Norwegians. The offer was rejected, and the fighting around Land Waster resumed. The third phase of the battle started when the Norwegians from the ships, led by Eystein Orri, arrived to reinforce Tostig. The odds were not as uneven as might be supposed: the Norwegians were, most of them, fighting without armour, but the English were fighting without sleep, after a heroic forced march of several days; both sides were by this time exhausted by the battle and the heat – indeed, Snorre reports that even those from the ships who did have armour threw it off, and that many died from heat exhaustion without striking a blow, after covering the miles from Riccall at top speed. The fighting continued until late in the afternoon, by which time Tostig had also fallen, and those who had survived the carnage fled back to the ships, pursued by the English. There is no evidence to show who was responsible for Tostig’s death; Guy of Amiens attributes it to Harold, but this was obviously so that he could add the label of fratricide to those of perjurer and usurper. It was reported that his body was so mutilated that it could only be identified by a wart between the shoulders, and it was given honourable burial in York after the battle. Hardrada’s young son Olaf and the two Orcadian earls, who had all been with those who had remained with the ships, were given quarter and leave to return home by Harold, after swearing oaths never to attack England again, an oath that Olaf honoured when he succeeded his brother as king. Harold allowed them to take as many ships as were necessary for their remaining men. They took twentyfour, out of the three hundred that had brought them.
If it had not been for what happened so soon afterwards, Stamford Bridge would be remembered as a battle of the highest significance in its own right. The death of Harald Hardrada, the legendary and most feared warrior of his time, and the destruction of his army, marked the end of the Viking age that had influenced so much of Europe, from Byzantium to the Atlantic. It also marked the end of centuries of assault on England; although there were to be sporadic and local attacks thereafter, mainly from Sweyn Estrithson, there would be nothing on the scale of what had gone before. Under any circumstances, it was a remarkable achievement for the last Anglo-Saxon king of England, one that the bones of Alfred, Edward the Elder and Æthelred would have saluted; in the peculiar circumstances of 1066, it was astonishing. But it was not achieved without damage. The Norwegian army may have been virtually destroyed, but they took many Englishmen with them. Between the men lost by Edwin and Morcar at Gate Fulford and those killed and wounded at Stamford Bridge, the fighting strength of the kingdom was much diminished.