“By the grace of God I shall yet prove the victor!”
The year 1066 saw Haley’s Comet blaze across the night sky. To the people of England it was a harbinger of invasion and war. Three ambitious men vied for the vacant thrown: Harold Godwinson, the land’s most powerful warlord; William the Bastard, iron-willed Duke of Normandy; and Harald Hardrada, the most feared warrior in northern Europe and king of Norway. Only one could be king, only one would survive. Their struggle for the thrown of England would lead to one of the greatest and most decisive battles in the sanguine history of the British Isles: The Battle of Hastings.
The struggle for the English throne in 1066 was the culmination of years of dynastic intrigue concerning the would-be successor to King Edward the Confessor, a monarch known for his piety but who had failed in his duty to produce an heir. The issue was complicated by the events a generation earlier in England’s history, when the Danes under their kings Svein Forkbeard and his son, Canute, wrested England from the hands of the Anglo-Saxon king Aethelred the “Unready”, descendant of Alfred the Great and scion of the ruling House of Wessex.
The Danish conqueror Canute married Aethelred’s widow Emma, a daughter of the Norman duke Richard I (“the Fearless”). Her two sons by Aethelred, Alfred and Edward, fled the Danes and took refuge in the court of their Norman kinsmen at Rouen. Emma also had a son by Canute, Harthacanute, who briefly ruled England and Denmark following the deaths of both his father and brother. Upon his deathbed, Harthacanute named his half-brother Edward, still in Normandy, as his heir.
Raised in the court of Normandy, once on the throne Edward favored his Norman kinsmen and friends. He was also naturally suspicious of those English lords who had won favor under Danish rule, particularly the powerful Earl of Wessex, Godwin; who had linked himself to the house of Canute by marriage. Edward the Confessor’s 24 year reign was marked by tension between his English lords and Norman favorites at court. Eventually Godwin forced the Normans out of England, becoming the “strong-man” behind the throne in Edward’s later years as king.
When Godwin died, his place behind Edward’s throne was taken by his strong son, Harold Godwinson, elevated to his father’s title of Earl of Wessex. Harold used his wealth and position at court to amass a private army of professional Anglo-Danish warriors, called Huscarls (or Housecarls, “Household Warriors”). Canute had first created such a force, and Harold’s guards were modeled on that elite body of fighting men. With these he defeated a coalition of rival English lords and the Welsh Prince, Gruffydd ap Llywelyn, from 1055-1057. He then warred successfully in Wales in 1063, killing Gruffydd and bringing peace to the Welsh Marches.
The following year a momentous event occurred. Harold and his youngest brother, Gyrth, were shipwrecked off the Norman Coast.
Normandy was ruled by the stern and capable Duke William the Bastard. A cousin of Edward the Confessor, William had been encouraged by the childless Edward in his ambition to be named heir to the English throne. However, William had learned the lessons from earlier in Edward’s reign regarding English hostility to Norman influence, and knew he had to win over the powerful House of Wessex to his cause if he were to peacefully gain the English throne upon Edward’s death.
Fortune intervened in William’s favor when Harold and Gyrth washed ashore in Normandy in 1064. The two Godwinson brothers were seized initially by Count Guy of Ponthieu, a vassal of Duke William, but were ransomed by the Duke and became William’s guest.
William entertained Harold that summer at his court at Rouen. He even took Harold on campaign with him against the rebel Count of Brittany. During the course of this campaign Harold performed acts of heroism, perhaps even saving William’s life, and from William’s own hand received the spurs and accolade of knighthood.
From the Bayeux Tapestry: Duke William knighting Harold Godwinson?
Little details remain and scholars argue over the depth of the two men’s friendship. It seems likely, though, that the two most powerful men on either side of the English Channel developed a respect for each other and friendship that goes far to explaining the enmity and sense of betrayal that underlines William’s later actions.
At some point, while at the court of Rouen, Harold was tricked into swearing, upon a box containing the bones of a long-dead saint, to uphold William’s claim to the English throne. Such an oath carried great weight in 11th century Christian Europe. Harold, once he realized what he had done, is said to have noticeably paled. He was now bound by his honor and oath before God to support the claim of his new-found “friend”, whatever his own ambitions.
Harold is tricked into swearing on holy relics.
His Norman sojourn resulting in a political disaster for his kingly aspirations, Harold returned to England, where events proceeded rapidly. That year, as though to herald the coming bloodshed, Halley’s Comet blazed brightly in the night sky. It was taken by all as a portent of great (and terrible) events to come.
Harold’s brother Tostig, the earl of Northumbria, had been ejected by his liegemen in favor of two sons of an earlier earl. Recognizing his brother’s poor performance as lord of the turbulent Northumbrians, and wishing to avoid civil war, Harold accepted the new Northumbrian earls, the brothers Edwin and Morcar.
By so doing he earned his brother Tostig’s enmity.
Tostig fled England, and eventually arrived at the Norwegian royal court at Nidaros. This was the seat of power of the redoubtable Norse king, Harald Sigurdsson (called Hardrada, or Hardrede: “Hard-council”, or “Harsh-judgment”).
In 1065, Harald Hardrada was considered the greatest warrior in the North, if not in all Europe. Said to be seven-feet tall and broadly built, he had been a fighting man since old enough to wield a sword. As an exiled prince in his youth he had ventured to the Court of Byzantium, where he’d won great renown as a leader of the famed Varangian Guard; the Scandinavian “corps de elite” of the Eastern Roman (Byzantine) Emperors.
Hally’s Comet, which appears in the sky every 75 years, arrived in 1066 and was widely taken as an omen of great events to come. Here its arrival is depicted on the Bayeux Tapestry
Returning to Norway in 1046 with both wealth and a store of military experience, Harald seized the throne that had once been his older brother’s. His 20 year reign saw unremitting military campaigns, as he steadily brought the turbulent and independent Norse landholders under royal authority. For many of those years he had campaigned in Denmark in an attempt to unite the two countries under his sword, and create a Norwegian hegemony.
Tostig Godwinson found a patron with a ready ear for intrigue in Hardrada. Between the two of them a scheme was hatched to invade England and unite Norway and England as one land, just as Canute had done with Denmark and England two generations earlier. What Canute the Dane had wrought could not the “Champion of the North” do as well?
Meanwhile, in England, Edward the Confessor’s long reign finally came to an end in January of 1066. On his deathbed he was said to have named Harold Godwinson as his heir. However, in Normandy an outraged William openly disputed this claim as an invention of his rival. Ignoring William’s claim the Witan, the English proto-Parliament, elected Harold Godwinson as their king.
Harold Godwinson is crowned King
Whatever the Witan decided, Harold Godwinson’s claim was about to be challenged. Both William in Normandy and Harald Hardrada in Norway were laying in supplies and mustering their forces. The summer of 1066 promised to be a bloody one indeed for England.
THE RIVALS PREPARE
In Normandy, William prepared to back his claim to the throne of England with force of arms; and to avenge himself upon the erstwhile friend and oath-breaker who had betrayed him. The risk of this undertaking is easily underestimated today, with the ultimate results known in advance. But at the time he proclaimed his intent to invade England, William was venturing upon a dangerous and uncertain endeavor.
England was a far larger and, in theory, stronger country than the Duchy of Normandy. Though largely composed of a national militia of stout English freemen, called the fyrd, if given time to muster this force was potentially large and capable of holding its own in battle. Giving the fyrd more staying power was the wealthier land-owning warrior class, the thegns, and King Harold’s professional Huscarls. England’s fleet controlled the channel, and William had nothing that could be called a navy to oppose the English “Sea Fyrd”. Manned by experienced seamen and captained by men who were in many cases former Vikings, the English longships were filled with detachments of axe-wielding Housecarls, experienced at fighting on shipboard.
Harold’s Housecarls had a particularly fearsome reputation throughout Europe. These “knights who fight on foot” were all veteran professional warriors, many of which had themselves served in the Varangian Guard in their youth; or in the service of one of the various Scandinavian kings. Their five-foot Danish long-axes were said to be able to hack through shield and mail as if it were tissue.
William, however, had an advantage of his own: the superb mailed heavy cavalry, provided by the Norman knights and mounted sergeants. Norman adventurers had already ventured as far afield as Italy, where they were carving out another Duchy in Apulia. The Norman knight was feared and respected throughout Europe, considered the most dangerous heavy cavalry on the continent. William’s army was a balanced force, with archers and armored foot-sergeants complimenting the mailed cavalry, creating a true “combined arms” fighting force.
However, in 1066 it had yet to be shown that heavy cavalry could prevail over the close-order infantry tactics of the English “shieldwall”, perfected by English and Scandinavian armies over the previous three centuries; and archers, with their rather weak “self” bows had never been a significant factor in western European battles.
Norman cavalry: a Byzantine source claimed they could “charge through the walls of Babylon”!
Though they believed in the righteousness of their Lord’s claim, many a Norman noble must have looked upon the coming campaign with trepidation.
William set about in the spring of 1066 to bolster their resolve, and to gather additional recruits to his banner. To effect this he sought and received Papal support from Rome. Oath breaking, particularly when said oath was given upon the bones of a Catholic saint, was a serious ecclesiastic offense. His Papal petition was aided, no doubt, by the fact that all southern Italy was controlled by the Norman Duke of Apulia, Robert de Hauteville (called Guiscard, the “Cunning”). The Normans of Italy had become the Pope’s chief bastion against the German Emperor’s Italian ambitions. Though politically independent and powerful rulers in their own right, the de Hautevilles were ever deferential to their Duke back home.
William achieved his aim: Harold was excommunicated by the Pope, and a papal legate delivered to William a Papal banner to symbolize the support of Holy Mother Church. In the 11th century the blessing of the church gave William immeasurable political and psychological advantage. The morale of his vassals was greatly strengthened in the fearsome undertaking to come, and few men in William’s ranks doubted now that God was on their side. To augment his own Norman vassals, pious adventurers from all over Northern France now flocked to his banner to win religious indulgence by smiting the “usurper”, Harold.
However, William still had to get his growing and now-eager host across the Channel, in the face of English naval superiority. All that summer Harold’s ships patrolled the southern coast, waiting to intercept the Norman expedition. The English fleet was not his only obstacle. The weather that summer seemed determined to prevent his crossing. William waited and watch for fortune (and God) to send him the opportunity he needed.
The Norman host prepares in Normandy for the invasion
With two armies preparing to invade, all that summer of 1066 England held its breath. Harold found himself in the unenviable position of having to surrender the initiative to his enemies. He could do naught else but wait, and try to keep his levies in the field. Unfortunately for him, summer turned to fall and still the imminent invasions failed to materialize. Fall harvest made disbanding the fyrd a necessity, as feudal obligation demanded, and the men of both fleet and army went home to harvest their fields.
No sooner had the English levies disbanded than word arrived from the north that the opening salvo of the three-way campaign of 1066 had come: in mid-September Harald Hardrada and Tostig Godwinson landed near York, coming with a large invasion fleet of Viking longships and experienced Norse warriors, veterans of Hardrada’s many campaigns. By the time word of the incursion reached Harold Godwinson in London the tidings were grim: the Norse had already met and routed the Northumbrian levies at the Battle of Gate Fulford; and York, the second city of England, was on the verge of surrender.
Harold responded with lightning swiftness. Force-marching north with an army composed of his royal Housecarls and those shire-levies hastily gathered along the way, he arrived near York in time to intercept Hardrada’s army on their way to accept York’s surrender.
On September 25th, along the York road at a river crossing called Stamford Bridge, the English met the Norse marching from their camp on the coast. 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 surprised Norse to form their array for battle, a lone Norwegian champion stepped forward to hold the narrow bridge against the English crossing. His name is now sadly lost. But this fearsome warrior held the bridge against all attackers, hewing down man-after-man with his deadly long-axe. No more than three-at-a-time could approach him on the narrow foot-bridge, and time-and-again he sent Harold’s redoubtable Housecarls dead or reeling back, bloodied. Meanwhile, the Norse formed their shieldwall for battle beneath Hardrada’s famous raven banner, “Landwaster” (Landøyðan); and King Harald sent messengers back to his ships, summoning the rest of his host.
An incident at the beginning of the Battle of Stanford Bridge: a lone Norse hero held the narrow bridge, allowing the Norwegian army time to deploy for battle.
Eventually, a solution was found to the lone Viking holding the narrow bridge, slaughtering all who approached him. An Englishman, finding a skiff along the river bank, rowed under the bridge. The English warrior struck upwards between the planks with his spear, piercing the Norseman from below. Mortally wounded, the Norse champion collapsed in agony, dying where he lay. 
The English were now free to cross the bridge and give battle.
Before the two sides “laid on”, King Harold asked to speak with his brother Tostig under flag of truce. Tostig came forward, and the two brothers parlayed. Harold offered Tostig a pardon, if he would give-up this fight and return to his brother’s side.
“What of my ally, King Harald of Norway”, asked Tostig? “What will you offer him?”
“To the King of Norway”, Harold replied, “I offer naught but six feet of good English earth; or as much more as is necessary to bury him, he being larger than other men”.
This brought negotiation to an end. Both men returned to their forces, and prepared for the fight.
Stamford Bridge was a bloody and hard-fought battle. Though fearsome warriors (and physically larger than most others in Europe), the Norse suffered from their lack of armor. Men fell on both sides, but more Norse than English. King Harald Hardrada is reputed to have fought in the front rank, encouraging his men and laying many an Englishman low. However, an arrow struck him in the throat, ending the storied life of this “Last of the Vikings”.
Late in the battle the Norse reinforcements arrived from the coast, where they had been guarding the Viking longships. Led by Eystein Orre, the Norse king’s Marshal, they were exhausted by the haste with which they had run the 15 miles from their camp to the battlefield. Eystein reputedly took up “Landwaster”, and initiated a final Norse counter-attack. Nearly breaking the English line, the attack faltered when Eystein too was killed. Defeated, the Norse fled from the battlefield.
Following them, King Harold and the English forced their surrender. The English king was merciful, and allowed the surviving Norse to return home peacefully. Included in their number was Hardrada’s young son, who would return to Norway and rule as Olaf III Kyrre (“The Peaceful”).
Though the redoubtable Hardrada was defeated, Harald Godwinson found no time to savor his triumph. While still at York, word came of a second invasion, this one in the south: William the Bastard had crossed the Channel.
Two very well-made reenactments of the fight at Stamford Bridge; depicting the holding of the narrow way by a single Norse champion:
- This appellate may be a misconstruction of the Anglo-Saxon word for “Unwise” rather than “Unready”. Either would be applicable in his case.
- Edward’s elder brother Alfred had been treacherously killed by the Danes some years earlier, after being lured back to England.
- It should be noted that this entire incident is not mentioned in King Harald’s Saga, and must therefore be treated with caution.
Some of the artwork in this article has been reproduced with the permission of Osprey Publishing, and is © Osprey Publishing, part of Bloomsbury Publishing Plc.