Ask people what they know about 1066, and most will mention the Battle of Hastings. It’s probably the best-known date in English history, thanks to William the Conqueror’s triumph over King Harold of England on 14 October 1066. But much less well known is that on 25 September – 19 days before the Hastings encounter – a bloody battle took place at Stamford Bridge in Yorkshire.
Katy Carter, History and Research online editor, suggests why this day was perhaps as much a turning point in English history as 14 October.
One Throne, Many Rivals
In fact, 1066 was a tumultuous year from the start, its course set when King Edward the Confessor died on 4 January 1066.
Because he had no direct heirs, it was open season for claimants to the English throne. On his deathbed he entrusted the throne to Earl Harold of Wessex, who – although not of the English royal line – was his brother-in-law and able military commander.
Chief among the other claimants to the throne were William, Duke of Normandy, and Harald Hardrada, King of Norway – William on the basis of alleged promises by Edward the Confessor and an oath of support from Harold, and Hardrada as putative successor to the Danish kings of England of the early 11th century.
The Saxon ‘shield wall’ at the annual Battle of Hastings re-enactment at Battle Abbey
Over the summer, both Hardrada and William were known to be assembling ships and men, preparing to invade. King Harold, meanwhile, having bet on the Normans arriving first, had his troops on watch on the Channel coast. Early in September, with provisions running low, he stood them down.
But within a few days, Harald Hardrada’s forces swooped on the north-east coast. Joining forces with Tostig, Harold of England’s exiled brother, on 20 September Hardrada sailed up the river Ouse, landing near York with a huge army of about 8,000 men. They quickly saw off two English earls, Edwin of Mercia and Morcar of Northumbria, at the Battle of Fulford, and captured York.
The Battle of Stamford Bridge
Harold raced north at extraordinary speed, mustering forces along the way and covering over 185 miles in four days – a journey that would usually have taken two weeks.
On the morning of 25 September, the two armies met east of York at Stamford Bridge. The sudden appearance of the English army seems to have taken their opponents completely by surprise – by all accounts, they had left their armour on their ships.
For a while, however, the Norwegians held out, defending the bridge across the river Derwent. Legend has it that a sole axeman prevented the English from taking the bridge, until an Englishman paddled under it in a barrel and killed him with a spear thrust up through the wooden boards.
With the bridge in their hands, the English swiftly broke through the Norwegian lines, killing Harald Hardrada with an arrow through his throat. Tostig refused to surrender, and was killed shortly afterwards.
It had been a bloody battle. Of the 250–300 longships that had brought the Norwegians across the North Sea, only 24 were needed to ferry the survivors home. Harold had scored a glorious and decisive victory.
The Hastings battlefield through the mist
But there wasn’t much time to celebrate. Only three days later, aided by favourable winds, Duke William landed on the Sussex coast with a large invasion force.
When the news reached Harold, he rushed the nucleus of his battle-weary army back south, stopping only briefly in London to gather any extra forces he could.
What followed is well known. Harold arrived opposite William’s forces at the site now known as Battle, near Hastings, on the evening of 13 October. By nightfall the following day Harold lay dead on the battlefield, and on Christmas day William was crowned Westminster Abbey.
Plaque commemorating Harold’s death at Battle Abbey
Did Stamford Bridge Matter?
Would William have won the Battle of Hastings if Harold hadn’t fought another battle less than three weeks earlier, many miles away?
Certainly with Harold drawn away to the north, William could both land unopposed and consolidate his position – two vital advantages. The Battle of Stamford Bridge also meant that Harold’s army was at least in part hastily assembled and untried in battle, and part worn out from fighting and two long marches.
Harold’s decision to take on William so soon – no doubt with his morale high, boosted by his victory over one deadly foe – may well have determined his fate, and that of Saxon England.
But Stamford Bridge was a turning point in another way too. When Harold vanquished Harald Hardrada, he severed the politics of England from those of Scandinavia. In this respect the battle had a lasting international influence, in that it decisively diverted Norwegian ambitions elsewhere.
So perhaps the Battle of Stamford Bridge, fought on 25 September, deserves to be remembered just as much as that other battle of 1066.
The annual Battle of Hastings reenactment at Battle Abbey in East Sussex
Battle of Hastings Re-enactment
You can find out more about the momentous events of 1066, and re-live the atmosphere of the famous battle on Saturday 15 and Sunday 16 October 2016, as 1000 soldiers clash in the annual re-enactment at Battle Abbey in East Sussex.
And discover what happened next in the Story of England, a new way of stepping into England’s story.