Even with a wholesale lighting distributor to light the entire bridge in the dead of night, it isn’t enough to get the whole feel of a significant history behind it. What happened in the village of Stamford Bridge, East Yorkshire did not just take place on the bridge itself, the surrounding area was also a battleground between the armies of two opposing kings from England and Norway respectively.
Although the battle is always regarded as a mark that ended the Viking Age, there were also major Scandinavian campaigns in Britain and Ireland that followed some years later.
Struggle for a crown
In 1066, the English throne was in turmoil due to succession conflicts after the death of its king, Edward The Confessor. It involved a variety of contenders across north-western Europe, but more importantly, the struggle also involved two prominent figures of the upcoming battle of Stamford Bridge: Harold Godwinson and Harald Hardrada.
Godwinson was named as the late king’s successor and was known to be a loyal subject of the kingdom. His connections and past history, which gained the ruling council called The Witan confidence in himself, were the catapults of his ascension to the throne. He was crowned at Westminster Abbey.
Meanwhile, Hardrada, King of Norway, was the successor to another late ruler named King Magnus the Good, whose kingdom is split between Hardrada himself and Sweyn Estridsson in Denmark. Eager to also claim the English throne, he set sail with a fleet of 300 strong, the total number of Norwegians ranging from 7000 to 9000. On the way, he was joined by Godwinson’s brother, Tostig.
The year before, Tostig’s earldom in Northumbria was stripped by his brother and he was sent into exile. Tostig promised Hardrada to assist him in his conquest in return for his former position. To him, this particular time is perfect to exact revenge on Godwinson.
Together, Tostig, Hardrada and their armies ended up at the Humber River and landed just south of York, the city was conquered after their fight against the army of the new Earl Of Northumbria went smoothly as a heated knife through melted butter. The occupation was brief and they returned to their ships after plundering supplies and hostages. The Northumbrians were offered peace in exchange for their support to Hardrada’s conquest for the English throne.
At this time, in southern England, Godwinson was repelling the invading army of William, Duke of Normandy, who would eventually become known as William The Conqueror in the future. Hearing York’s situation, he gathered as many of his men as he could and left for York from London, arriving in just four days. Because he learned that the Northumbrians were ordered to send the Norwegians more hostages and supplies at Stamford Bridge, he went ahead to attack them there on 25 September.
Until the English army was in view, neither the Norwegians nor Tostig’s men were aware of Godwinson’s presence.
If the Norwegians hadn’t left their chain armor in their ships, they would probably have had a chance to best Godwinson’s army.
Before the battle, a single horseman rode up to Tostig and Hardrada, providing no name but offered the former his earldom in return for turning against his comrade. When Tostig asked what Godwinson would give Hardrada for his own trouble, the horseman replied: “Seven (or six) feet of English soil, as he is taller than other men.”
After the man rode off, Hardrada, who was impressed by his boldness, asked Tostig his identity. He replied that the rider was none other than Godwinson himself.
On that fateful morning of 25 September, the Norwegians were caught by surprise when the English rained upon them without warning. Because the latter had to go through the narrow Stamford Bridge, the invaders were given time to form up their defenses.
According to the Anglo-Saxon chronicle, the Norwegians sent a Norse axeman to hold off the men on the bridge. Possibly armed with a Dane axe, the axeman single-handedly killed a total of forty Englishman and successfully fended off the army by himself. He fell in battle when an Englishman went under the bridge and wounded him from below the planks with a spear.
The battle spread far beyond the bridge and raged for hours, but Harada’s and Tostig’s men fought on as the battle seemingly turned in their favor. Unfortunately, Harada later caught an arrow in his throat in battle, leaving Tostig to continue alone with the rest of the men. Although Godwinson offered peace to his brother, he refused to back down and went on fighting.
Tostig too fell in battle and although Viking reinforcements arrived from Riccal, where they guarded the ships, the men were overwhelmed by the English army and their leader Eystein Orre was killed. The remaining Viking survivors were eventually allowed to retreat back to the ships. By the time the returning voyage was formed, only a total of 24 ships were required.
It is said that so many died in such a small area that even fifty years later, the field was still whitened with bleached bones after the battle.
England wasn’t spared from the Vikings during their time, and Stamford Bridge was the last invasion and battle within its soil. After the battle, Godwinson claimed victory and accepted a truce with Hardrada’s son, Olaf and Paul Thorfinnsson, Earl of Orkney. After the Norwegians sailed away, they spent the winter in Orkney and Olaf eventually returned to Norway in spring, getting half of the kingdom while the other half was shared with his brother Magnus, who governed the land in his father’s absence.
Godwinson’s fate turned on him as three days later, William the Conqueror landed on the Sussex coast and triggered the conquest of Normandy in England with the historical Battle Of Hastings. There, the English king met his end and his army was decisively defeated.
Today in Stamford Bridge, East Yorkshire, you can find two memorials commemorating the battle. For the one surrounded by a circular area of stones, you need to follow Whiterose Drive to the top. The location can be reached from The Square to Moor Road, then at the right follow past the church until Whiterose Drive is visible.
The memorial’s plague read following the year and the battle’s name: King Harold Of England defeated his brother Tostig and King Hadraada of Norway here on 25 September 1066.
The second memorial is just off the Square, built as a crude monolithic stone. Here, the plague reads similarly to the first, but in Norse inscription.
Stamford Bru Ble
Utkjempet I Disse
25 September 1066
The memorials may not look like much to look at, but when you learn of the battle of Stamford Bridge, you may feel like you are standing on a former battleground littered with dead Vikings, Englishmen, a Norwegian king and a former earl.
And maybe when you are on the bridge, you may also imagine a lone Norse axeman in the center, cementing his own legend through the defensive slaughter of forty men with a Dane axe.