The Battle of Stamford Bridge 1066 A.D. : An Alternative Interpretation
By Michael C. Blundell
The Battle of Stamford Bridge was fought in September 1066 between the English, led by King Harold Godwinson, and the Norwegians and their allies, led by King Harald Sigurdsson and Tostig Godwinson, respectively (Map 1, Map 2). The commonly accepted location of the battle is the area known as Battle Flats, located southeast of the present-day town of Stamford Bridge1 (Map 3). This paper proposes a new location for the Battle of Stamford Bridge and a reinterpretation of the events that occurred during and after the battle. The new location and interpretation rely less on whether primary sources such as the Anglo Saxon Chronicle and Norwegian Kings’ Sagas provide word-for-word historically accurate descriptions but rather on the general descriptions and sequence of events presented in these sources and how their context helps determine the location of the battlefield and the events that transpired.
Numerous historians have presented accounts of the Battle of Stamford Bridge, the most comprehensive being those written by DeVries (1999) and McLynn (1999). It is generally accepted that the Norwegians, at the urging of the Englishman Tostig Godwinson, launched an invasion of England in September 1066, decisively defeated a large English army led by English earls Morcar and Edwin at Gate Fulford, and planned to accept hostages in return for not sacking York2. Most historians agree that approximately two thirds of the Norwegian army left their ships at Riccall the morning of the battle and marched to Stamford Bridge.3 It is at this point that this paper’s interpretation of the subsequent battle differs from that of others.
The exact location of the Stamford Bridge battlefield is not known. Local tradition places the battlefield location east of the River Derwent and just southeast of the town in an area known as Battle Flats. Tradition also states that during the eighteenth century, skeletons and weapons were discovered in this area, however, nothing of these finds survives today4,5. Historians have relied on this local tradition to the point where it has become almost accepted fact. However, despite local tradition, no documented evidence has been found showing the battle was actually fought at Battle Flats.
Original sources place the battle at Stamford Bridge but provide scant details about battlefield topography or placement of the armies. Manuscripts C, D, and E in the Anglo Saxon Chronicle (1998) all mention Stamford Bridge by name.
|1||See DeVries (1999), MacLynn (1988), Burne (1952), and Brooks (1956)|
|2||A detailed description of the battle can be found in Jones, Charles. 2007. The Forgotten Battle of 1066, Fulford. The History Press; or on the website URL: http://www.battleoffulford.org.uk|
|3||Cooke (1998, 31) disagrees and states the Norwegians almost certainly did not march to Stamford Bridge the morning of the battle. He argues that the description given by the Sagas indicates a lack of haste by the Norwegians and infers from this that they would not have arrived prior to the English. Therefore, they had to have been camped at Stamford Bridge. Besides the longer distance from Tadcaster to Stamford Bridge, Cooke also fails to consider that the English army was signficantly larger than the Norwegian force. It would have taken them longer to marshal in the morning and longer to march to York and then on to Stamford Bridge. In addition, the time spent by the English at York must also be considered. Most likely it took half an hour to an hour for Harald to meet with city officials and integrate any local troops into his army prior to marching to Stamford Bridge. McLynn (1999, 200) misstates that only one third of the army marched to Stamford Bridge.|
|4||Caution must be observed here as some sources (DeVries, 70; Brooks, 20) use the word “skeleton” which has led many to infer these skeletons were human. DeVries refers to Brooks as his source and Brooks refers to Drake as his source. However, the original source (Drake, Francis. 1736. Eboracum: or the History and Antiquities of the City of York From its Original to the Present Times. London: William Boyer) makes no mention of skeletons but states (84), “In the plowing this ground have been, of late years, found pieces of old swords, and a very small sort of horse-shoes, which could only fit an ass, or the least breed of northern horses.”|
|5||Human skeletons were reported found in some gravel pits on the grounds of Burtonfields Hall northeast of Stamford Bridge but no record of them exists today (Lewis 1848, 175-180).|
Manuscript C provides an explanation as to why the Norwegians would be at Stamford Bridge stating they “… had gone from ship beyond York to Stamford Bridge, because it had been promised them for certain that hostages would be brought to meet them there from the whole shire.” (Anglo Saxon Chronicle 1998, 198). A vague reference in Manuscript C which describes how the English “… came upon them beyond the bridge ….” (198) may provide a clue to the battlefield location. The phrase “beyond the bridge” has been interpreted by most to mean the English crossed over the bridge to the east side of the Derwent (or, as some writers refer to it, the left bank of the river) when they attacked the Norwegians. An alternate interpretation is that the Norwegians had crossed over, or beyond, the bridge and were on the west side of the Derwent River (or right bank) when attacked by the English. A later addition to Manuscript C describes a portion of the battle taking place at the bridge itself 6. Henry of Huntington (1848, 209) mentions Stamford Bridge and describes part of the battle being fought across the bridge.
The Sagas provide very little detail of the actual battlefield site. Morkinskinna (2000, 267), Fagrskinna (2004, 223), and King Harald’s Saga (Sturluson 1966, 145) all mention that the Norwegians were at or near Stamford Bridge after the battle at Gate Fulford7. However, on the day of the battle at Stamford Bridge, all three Sagas refer to the Norwegian army as approaching York or arriving in its vicinity when the English army was sighted (Morkinskinna, 268; Fagrskinna, 224; King Harald’s Saga, 147). According to the Orkneyinga Saga (1981, 47), the Norwegians were “confronted on the march by the large army of King Harold Godwinsson”. These accounts differ from the generally accepted location at Battle Flats and, for the most part, have been discounted or ignored8. What is critical about the Saga accounts, however, is not their references to the Norwegian army being in proximity to York but that they indicate the army was not waiting idly at Battle Flats. It was on the move toward York.
The Norwegian Kings’ Sagas are the best sources for any detailed description of the battle itself. However, they are not considered true historical accounts by today’s standards. Scholars, historians, linguists and others have spent years debating and either defending or discounting the merits of Snorri Sturlusson’s King Harald’s Saga and the Morkinskinna and Fagrskinna manuscripts as historical references for the battle. The reasons most often given for discounting the Saga accounts are that they were written over 160 years after the battle and they are, in fact, literature and not historical documentation. They were not written as records of the bare historical facts. DeVries (271) mentions that no “serious scholar” has accepted the Norwegian Kings’ Sagas accounts of the battle, although he does later conclude by stating, “… nor is it responsible as a scholar to cursorily dismiss them.”(276).
The viewpoint expressed by DeVries may be changing in the academic world. According to Finlay (2009 pers. comm.), most Old Norse specialists would argue that although the Sagas were written over 160 years after the battle, they were written using several earlier sources, both written and oral, that were based on reports of participants and eyewitnesses.
|6||This passage was added on a supplementary page by a twelfth century scribe who may not have been English (Anglo Saxon Chronicle 1998, 198).|
|7||In Fagrskinna, King Harald ”… established his army a short distance from Stamford Bridge ….”; Morkinskinna states, ”The army encamped at Stamford Bridge ….”; King Harald’s Saga states King Harald ”… assembled his army at Stamford Bridge ….”|
|8||F.W. Brooks (14) states that Snorri Sturlusson, “… was obviously quite ignorant of local topography. He imagined that Riccall, Fulford and Stamford Bridge were all close together and virtually under the walls of York”. DeVries (277) relegates discussion to a footnote. McLynn (201) and Marsden (2007, 220) simply ignore the discrepancy. Griffith (1995, 191), in his review of the Saga accounts, states, “We should not, perhaps, lend any credence to this battle narrative”. Burne (87) states that the Norwegians were encamped on both sides of the Derwent and never mentions the Saga accounts.|
Finlay (Fagrskinna 2004, 3-17) and Andersson and Gade (Morkinskinna 2000, 11-24) discuss these sources in great detail. In the Introduction to their translation of King Harald’s Saga (Sturluson 1966, 21-28), Magnusson and Pálsson also discuss the various earlier sources used by Snorri Sturluson in writing the Saga.
The argument that the Sagas are literature and not historical records (as defined by today’s standards) is not necessarily shared by Finlay (2009, pers. comm.) who counters that by the standards of their time, the authors of Fagrskinna and King Harald’s Saga were considered historical writers. She refers to Fagrskinna (13) as “historical narrative” and discusses source material that conflicted with “the author’s sober historical intent”. Magnusson and Pálsson (Sturlusson, 23) state that in Snorri Sturlusson’s writing “there is a distinction drawn between the entertainment value of some stories as opposed to their historical accuracy.” They further note (27) that “Throughout Heimskringla, Snorri is careful to make a distinction between poems composed some time after the event, and poems composed at the time by eyewitnesses ….”. Finlay writes that the technique of giving priority to eyewitness accounts is also apparent in Fagrskinna (29). By ignoring or discounting the Saga accounts because of supposed historiographical issues, historians most likely are missing key elements regarding the battle. As a result, they have come to rely primarily on the Anglo Saxon Chronicle, some secondary sources and on local tradition for the location of the battle and its description while “picking and choosing” passages of the Saga accounts which best fit their interpretation.
The location of the Norwegian army at the start of the battle is crucial to understanding the subsequent actions both of Harald Sigurdsson and Harold Godwinson. With the notable exception of Barrett (1896, 8), historians almost exclusively have located the main portion of the Norwegian army on the eastern side of the river at Battle Flats at the beginning of the battle. However, placing the Norwegians at Battle Flats results in having to explain the following issues:
- The “surprise” of the Norwegians by the English.
- The lack of discussion by the Norwegians concerning different tactical options.
- The rapid initial deployment of the Norwegians in a circle.
- The failure of the Norwegians to deploy at the bridge and use it as a “choke point” while waiting for reinforcements
- The statements in the Sagas about the location of the Norwegian army when it sighted the English.
According to Scott and Christie (2003, abstract), the average rate of march for a 29 year old male carrying 31 kg (11.1 kg clothing; 20 kg pack) of weight is 5.5 km/hr (3.44 miles/hr). Whipp, Ward and Hasal (1998, 261) calculated a march rate of 2.85 miles/hr for Roman legionaries carrying 43 lb 4 oz of weight. Modern US Army doctrine shows a march rate of 2.5 miles/hr (~ 4km/hr) over roads (USAMHI Marching RefBranch dv 1979. URL http://www.ibiblio.org/pub/academic/history/marshall/military/mil_hist_inst/m/march2.asc ).
This figure does not include the time it would have taken the army to confront any Norwegians on the west side of the river or to cross the narrow bridge and reform on the opposite side.10
Even if, as the Sagas state, Harald Sigurdsson was initially confused and unsure what army was approaching (Sturluson, 147), he still would have had sufficient time to assess the situation and organize his troops. In their discussions of the initial deployment of both armies, DeVries (280-284), McLynn (202-203), and Brooks (20-21) all fail to take into account the amount of time needed for an army of 5,000 to 6,000 men to cross a narrow bridge and form up for battle.11 Barrett (7), however, mentions “… the passage was not wide enough to admit speedy crossing, even if the use of boats and possibly of bits of timber be admitted.” Assuming the English formed a column three abreast and approximately 1.25 miles in length and crossed the narrow bridge at a marching rate of 2.5 mph, it would have taken the army half an hour to cross the river, under optimal conditions. Most likely, the time needed would have been at least double that amount and possibly more. It is hard to imagine that with this timeframe the Norwegians were “surprised” and did not have ample opportunity to prepare a suitable defense.
The location of the Norwegian army on Battle Flats also raises tactical questions. DeVries (269-270) gives a good analysis of why the Battle Flats area was tactically defensible. Yet, he and others have failed to reconcile this location with accounts of the initial phase of the battle given in the Sagas and the Anglo Saxon Chronicle. And, with the exception of Burne (94), Brooks (20) and Cooke (1998, 34), they do not discuss other tactical options that would have been available to the Norwegians. In particular, they fail to answer the question of why the Norwegian army did not deploy along the riverbank and defend the river crossing while waiting for reinforcements.
Though most often perceived as hit-and-run raiders, Norwegian and Danish Vikings in the 10th and 11th centuries were, in fact, well-armed and skilled professional heavy infantry (Jones 1987, 106). According to Jones, much of their success had to do with their significant tactical experience when on the defensive. Given the opportunity, they always chose a strong defensive position either on a hill or behind a stream. It is difficult to understand why an experienced commander like Harald Sigurdsson would have allowed a larger, better-equipped army to cross the bridge over the river uncontested and then align itself for battle prior to attacking him on Battle Flats. The Norwegians could easily have held the English at bay along the riverbank until reinforcements arrived. Alternatively, they could have charged downhill as the English were deploying and pushed them back into the river.
Burne (94) proposed the view that the Norwegians formed on the ridge because when it came to a “stand-up static fight” the Norwegians “considered themselves pre-eminent, and their one thought was to form this shield-wall on a fair battleground”.
Brooks (20) speculates that the “Norsemen were in all probability scattered on both sides of the river.” Gaimer (1888 vol. 2, 166) refers to “Norsemen plundering cattle” but makes no mention of where they were located. Burne (95) also speculates the Norwegians had “a large covering force on the river line”. DeVries (278) states that “… some of the Norwegian soldiers were caught on the far side of the river ….” Interestingly, DeVries (280) postulates that there may have been a large number of Norwegians on the York side of the river: “… this surprise may have led to a large number of casualties among Haraldr and Tostig’s troops ….”. However, DeVries makes no attempt to explain how long it took the English army to dispatch these troops.
Brooks (21) states that after the English took the bridge, there would have been a “pause” to allow the bulk of the army to get across and deploy. But he makes no mention of the amount of time reflected by this “pause”. Burne (87) states, “In a short space of time the whole of the western bank of the river was in English hands ….” He explains the seeming anomaly of there being a large body of Norwegians on the river line that was overcome in “a short space of time” by speculating the resistance was “ill-organized”.
This viewpoint ignores the Saga accounts, which indicate that Harald recognized the English army as both larger and better equipped than his own.12 Most likely, Harald would have taken any tactical advantage available to block the English army until reinforcements arrived. Holding the riverbank and the bridge would have been a better tactical choice. Brooks (20) holds an alternative view stating, “He could have used the river as defensive line, but this was not in the tradition of contemporary warfare ….”. He dismisses defense of the west bank of the river stating, “… not only had Harold the advantage of the slope, but it would have been very unwise to fight with a deep and virtually unfordable river immediately in rear.” Surprisingly, Brooks makes no comment about the fact that this was exactly the position of the English army once they crossed the river and he does not postulate why the Norwegians didn’t attack while the English were in such a vulnerable position. Cooke (31) maintains there were several tactical reasons for the Norwegians for deploying at Battle Flats and not defending the riverbank and bridge. These include the belief that a shield wall is best formed on firm, level ground and that the banks of the River Derwent would have been boggy and not ideal for forming the shield wall. Additionally, the English would have had to form their battle array in this same boggy ground with their backs to the river. And finally, that the Norwegians’ morale was high and they were confident due to their previous victory.
There is no evidence to support the assertion that the banks of the Derwent were boggy around the time of the battle. The river area around Stamford Bridge has been modified and altered by numerous water mills, weirs, locks, various stone bridges, and a fishery over the past 900 years (Allison, et. al. 1976). Extrapolation of riverbank conditions from the past 100+ years to the time of the battle is tenuous, at best. Additionally, the battle took place in late September, not the usual time of year for flooding. No mention is made in any of the sources about adverse weather before or during the battle. In fact, King Harald’s Saga (Sturluson, 147) states that the weather was, “… exceptionally fine, with warm sunshine ….” and the author of Fagrskinna (224) writes, “…that day the weather was hot and sunny ….” There is one final comment on the boggy ground hypothesis. The Norwegians had already used boggy ground to their advantage at the Battle of Fulford (Morkinskinna, 265). If indeed the banks of the Derwent had been boggy, the Norwegians could simply have formed up on dry ground just above the wet soil and cut down the English if they attempted to cross the river.
The comment concerning high morale of the Norwegian army is pure conjecture. The Sagas are clear in stating the Norwegians knew a better-equipped army outnumbered them. Although counseled by Tostig to retreat to the ships, Harald realized he would have lost a running retreat, chose to send riders for help and then set up a defensive position (Sturluson, 147-148; Morkinskinna, 268).13
No satisfactory explanation has been given as to why the Norwegians would rapidly form into a circular defensive position if they were located on top of the rise at Battle Flats. That the Norwegians formed in a circle is stated only in King Harald’s Saga (Sturluson, 148), however both Morkinskinna (271) and Fagrskinna (228) mention that the Norwegians were “encircled” and attacked from all sides. The Sagas are in agreement that the purpose of the circular deployment was to defend against “cavalry” attacks (Morkinskinna, 268; Fagrskinna, 225; King Harald’s Saga, 148). Yet, DeVries (283), McLynn (202), Howarth (1977, 138), Griffith (191-192) and others simply state what is written in the Sagas and mention “pulling back of the wings” as a defense against flanking maneuvers or cavalry attacks.
See Morkinskinna (268) and Fagrskinna (224) in which the approaching English army “seemed to them bigger and bigger the nearer it came, and it was like looking at broken ice, as the weapons were shining.”
In fact, Harald seems to take a pessimistic, and rather realistic, view of the situation when he states, “…we will put up a fierce fight for a time before we succumb.” (Sturluson, 148).
Cooke (34-35) states that the circular deployment is “open to debate” and speculates that the Norwegians more likely formed in a flattened semi-circle. All of these writers choose to ignore what is actually stated in the Sagas and have come up with deployments that best fit their preferred scenario of positioning the Norwegians at Battle Flats.
Placing the Norwegian army at Battle Flats when they sighted the English army raises many issues regarding their subsequent behavior and the outcome of the battle. The Sagas and, obliquely, the Anglo Saxon Chronicle provide clues that the Norwegians may not have been at Battle Flats. Morkinskinna (268), Fagrskinna (224), and King Harald’s Saga (Sturluson, 147) all refer to the Norwegian army as approaching York or arriving in its vicinity when the English army was sighted. The Orkneyinga Saga (47) specifically states the Norwegians were confronted by the English army “while on the march”. The Norwegian King’s Sagas all mention that upon seeing the English army, King Harald brought his army to a halt. In other words, the Norwegian army was on the move and not idly waiting at or near Battle Flats (Map 4). If Harald had grown impatient while waiting for the promised hostages, he would have ordered his army to march on York. If the army had just left Stamford Bridge and was approaching Gate Helmsley when they sighted the English army, their subsequent actions, as described in the Sagas and the Anglo Saxon Chronicle, are far better explained.
Manuscript C of the Anglo Saxon Chronicle (198) states that the English army “… came upon them beyond the bridge ….” The phrase “beyond the bridge” has been interpreted by most to mean the English crossed over the bridge when they attacked the Norwegians.14 However, it may also be interpreted to mean that it was the Norwegians who had crossed over, or beyond, the bridge on their way to York.
The second phase of the battle began when the English army was sighted. The behavior of the Norwegian army and its allies after sighting the English makes tactical sense if they were moving along the road toward York. According to the Sagas and the Anglo Saxon Chronicle, the Norwegians were caught by surprise at the appearance of the English army.15 Seeing an unknown body of troops appear over a rise less than half a mile away would have demanded quick decisions by the Norwegians. Despite a recommendation by Tostig to flee, Harald decided to send riders for help and form the troops in a circle (Sturluson, 148). Forming a circular shield wall upon seeing oncoming mounted troops would have been a natural response for experienced troops such as the Norwegians.16, 17
|14||See The English Heritage Battlefield Report: Stamford Bridge 1066 (1995, 7).|
In King Harald’s Saga (Sturluson 1966), Fagrskinna (2004) and Morkinskinna (2000) there are discussions between King Harald and Tostig regarding the approach of an unexpected and unidentified army and how they should respond. The Anglo Saxon Chronicle Manuscript C (198) states that the English army “… came upon them beyond the bridge by surprise ….” .
The familiarity of the Vikings with fighting cavalry can be seen in Jones (106), Heath and McBride (1985), Howard (2003, 24-29) and Nelson (1997). There can be no doubt that Harald Sigurdsson was familiar with cavalry and cavalry tactics after having served in campaigns with the Varangian Guard.
Modern historians have debated and many have dismissed the Saga accounts of the battle because of the English cavalry charges described in these accounts. Although DeVries (272) misstates the issue, referring to the “cavalry charges” as occurring during the final stage of the battle (in fact, the “cavalry charges” were during the initial stage of the battle), he provides a good synopsis of the debate. That Viking troops were often mounted themselves and also familiar with “cavalry” is explained by Howard (24-29), Griffith (180), Jones (105), and Haywood (1995, 85). Griffith (103) also makes the point that since the Franks were well known for their deployment of mounted men in battle, it would be odd if the English had not tried to emulate this practice.
By the time the English vanguard arrived, the Norwegians had completed their shield wall (Fagrskinna, 225; Morkinskinna, 269). After waiting for the remainder of the army to arrive, the English sent a group of armoured horsemen to parlay. King Harold offered his brother Tostig
“a truce and all of Northumbria” if he would return to the English.18 When asked what was offered to Harald Sigurdsson, the reply was “seven feet of ground or as much more as he is taller than other men” (Sturlusson, 150). The offer was refused and both sides prepared for battle (Map 5).
Following the parley, the English charged the Norwegian shield wall but they were met with stiff resistance (Fagrskinna, 228; Morkinskinna, 271). All three Saga versions mention horsemen in this initial attack but only the King Harald’s Saga translation (Sturluson, 151) actually states there was a “cavalry charge”.19 Cooke (35) suggests the mounted housecarles acted in small groups, rode close to the Norwegian line, and tossed their spears and javelins at the enemy in an effort to hold them in place while the rest of the army deployed (Fig. 1). The fact that English horsemen are mentioned only during the initial phase of the battle lends credence to this theory.
Interestingly, Matthew Paris, an English historian from the early 1200’s, drew an illustration of the Battle of Stamford Bridge showing a cavalry charge (Fig. 2).
|18||See Morkinskinna (270); Fagrskinna (226); King Harald’s Saga (Sturluson, 149-150).|
King Harald’s Saga (Sturluson, 271) states, “The English made a cavalry charge on the Norwegians, who met it without flinching.”; Morkinskinna (271) states, “Now the English rode at the Norwegians, and they encountered stiff resistance.”; Fagrskinna (228) states, “Now the English charged against the Norwegians, and a strong resistance was made against them ….”
Admittedly, the participants are shown in armour representative of the 12th and early 13th centuries, but it is still interesting to note that Paris depicted a cavalry charge at Stamford Bridge and not an infantry battle. However, the “cavalry” mentioned by the Sagas most likely was mounted infantry since there is little historical evidence that the English used cavalry in battle at this time.20
The battle continued with casualties starting to mount on both sides. The larger English army encircled the Norwegians and attacked the shield wall simultaneously at various places (Morkinskinna, 271; Fagrskinna, 228).21 Soon, the superior numbers began to tell.
The third phase of the battle began when the Norwegian shield wall collapsed and the Norwegians suffered a large number of casualties. King Harald saw this and immediately led a counterattack that restored the shield wall, however, he continued past the original breach killing any Englishman in his path (Morkinskinna, 271; Fagrskinna, 228; Sturluson, 152). As he continued forward, he was shot in the throat and killed, as were his retainers when the English renewed their attack.22
At this point, Tostig raised the King’s standard, took control of the army and began a fighting retreat toward Stamford Bridge. The fighting was intense and the large number of casualties continued to mount for both armies.23 However, the Norwegians were able to make an orderly retreat to the bridge. According to Henry of Huntington (1853, 209), “The battle was desperately fought, the armies being engaged from daybreak to noonday, when, after fierce attacks on both sides, the Norwegians were forced to give way before the superior numbers of the English, but retreated in good order. Being driven across the river, the living trampling on the corpses of the slain, they resolutely made a fresh stand.” It seems very clear from this statement that this was not a “rear guard” action prior to the main battle at Battle Flats as has been proposed by many writers and historians.24 It was, in fact, completion of the third phase of the fighting between both armies.
As the Norwegian army retreated across the bridge (Map 6), a lone Norwegian took up a defensive position on the bridge and brought the English army to a halt. According to Henry of Huntington (209), this one Norwegian used his ax to kill more than forty Englishman who tried to cross over the bridge.25
This is shown by John of Worcester’s comment regarding a 1055 A.D. battle against the Welsh in which Earl Ralph “… ordered the English, contrary to their custom, to fight on horseback ….” (John of Worcester’s Chronicon ex chronicis URL http://www.bsswebsite.me.uk/History/JohnofWorcester/Chronicle_John2.htm); a less direct remark about the same battle is made in the Anglo Saxon Chronicle (186) “… but before there was any spear thrown, the English people already fled, because they were on horse ….”. That the English army probably used horses to transport their infantry to Stamford Bridge is discussed by Harrison and Embleton (Anglo-Saxon Thegn 449 – 1066 AD 1993, 26).
King Harald’s Saga (Sturluson, 151) states the initial English attacks were “half-hearted” which resulted in the Norwegians breaking their shield wall and launching their own attack. The failure of this attack is listed as the reason Harald rushed into battle outside the shield wall and was subsequently killed. Neither Fagrskinna nor Morkinskinna mention the “half-hearted” attacks and the subsequent Norwegian attack outside the shield wall.
In Andersson and Gade’s translation of Morkinskinna (272), Harald is killed by a “spear thrust in the throat”. Both Fagrskinna (229) and King Harald’s Saga (Sturluson, 152) state he was shot in the throat by an arrow. The Sagas all mention that when Harald fell, the English attack was so fierce that all the troops standing nearest to Harald were killed (Fagrskinna, 229; Morkinskinna, 272) except for those who retreated with the royal standard (Sturluson, 152).
See Fagrskinna (229), King Harald’s Saga (152) and Henry of Huntington (209).
See DeVries (280), Brooks (20), Burne (87), McLynn (202), and Gravett (1992, 44)
Similar versions of this story are found described by William of Malmesbury (1847, 256) and Manuscript C of the Anglo Saxon Chronicle (198). It is interesting to note that this version was added, on a supplementary page, by a twelfth-century scribe whose native tongue was not English (Onions, C.T. 1908-1909. Some Early Middle-English Spellings . The Modern Language Review. IV:505). The story of the lone Norwegian is not mentioned in any of the Sagas.
There is no indication in any of the sources that the English attempted to ford the river, which lends credence to assertions by Burne (94) and Brooks (17) that the river was unfordable (Fig. 3), especially by anyone wearing armour.26 As the lone defender continued blocking the English, the Norwegian army regrouped upslope at Battle Flats. Why they chose not to defend the bridge and banks of the river is a mystery. Perhaps they chose the ridge in order to survey the surrounding countryside to see if reinforcements were nearby. Or perhaps they simply thought defending higher ground was the better option.
The lone Norwegian defender was given the chance to surrender but declined the offer and, according to William of Malmesbury (256), derided the English as cowards. Eventually, he was killed when a lone Englishman in a boat floated under the bridge and stabbed him from below.
The English army crossed over the bridge and reformed at the base of the rise to Battle Flats. According to William of Malmesbury (256), the army passed over the bridge “without opposition, destroyed the dispersed and flying Norwegians.” This may be interpreted to mean there was no battle at Battle Flats and that the English simply chased down and killed the fleeing Norwegians. The Sagas suggest, however, that this was not the case. The remaining Norwegians had formed under King’s banner and awaited the English. According to all three Sagas (Sturluson, 153; Fagrskinna, 230; Morkinskinna, 272), King Harold had it proclaimed that Tostig and the remaining Norwegians would be given quarter if they surrendered. The Norwegians replied they would not accept quarter and would either be victorious or lie dead around their king. The English charged up the rise to Battle Flats to resume the fight.27
The final phase of the battle began. The fighting was hard but of short duration (Morkinskinna, 273). As the casualties mounted, Tostig fell near the standard. Just as the Norwegians were about to be overrun, Eystein Orri arrived with reinforcements from the ships (Map 7).
According to King Harald’s Saga (Sturluson, 153), the reinforcements arrived exhausted, having “run all the way from the ships” wearing full armour, yet upon seeing the situation at the battlefield, they “fell into a battle fury” and attacked the English. Most historians have simply accepted the idea that the Norwegian relief force either ran or “forced marched” from the ships at Riccall.28 In this scenario, the armoured troops had to quickly travel fourteen miles to Stamford Bridge on a hot day.
Burne (94) took soundings up and down the river and found the bottom was “heavy with mud, the banks steep, and the depth 6 to 8 feet.”
Barrett (7) states that the English fought their way up the slope “inch by inch, foot by foot” until they finally topped the crest “driving their opponents down the opposite side”. Yet, he does not explain why the Norwegians were unable to contain the English at the bridge, where they could only cross two or three at a time.
See DeVries (294), Brooks (16), Burne (89), McLynn (205), Marsden (228) to list some.
With the time needed for the horsemen sent by Harald to arrive and the time needed to muster the troops, it most likely would have taken them at least 5 ½ to 6 ½ hours to reach the battle, assuming they used roads and there was no blocking force at Kexby.29 Despite assertions by various sources that the battle lasted most of the day (Anglo Saxon Chronicle, 198; Henry of Huntingdon, 209), the relief force would have arrived at Stamford Bridge after the battle was over.30
If, however, Eystein Orri and his troops had used their ships for transport instead of marching, they would have arrived at the battlefield in little over half the time. A full-scale replica of the Viking warship Skuldelev 5 was built under the direction of the Viking Ship Museum at Roskilde, Denmark.31 This ship deployed 26 oars and could carry 30 warriors. Sea trials of this ship, the Helge Ask, indicated speeds up to 15 knots (17.26 mph) under sail and 5.5 knots (6.3 mph) when rowing, even when rowing into the wind (Vinner 2002, 28; Durham 2002, 37). The larger Skuldelev 2 warship had a crew of 70 to 80 and could reach speeds of 15 to 20 knots under sail. The distance from the camp at Riccall to Kexby via the Ouse and Derwent Rivers is approximately 25 miles (Map 3). If the relief force sailed for one third of the distance and rowed the remaining two thirds, they could have arrived about 3 1/2 hours after leaving Riccall, and much less if they had sailed half the distance or more.
Although the Derwent River was navigable to Stamford Bridge during the Middle Ages (Allison et al. 1976), the relief force probably disembarked at Kexby. This landing site is proposed for several reasons. Unlike the riverbanks around Stamford Bridge, there are several flat banks for beaching ships near Kexby (Fig. 3). If they had rowed directly to Stamford Bridge, the relief force would have lost any element of surprise and would have had a very difficult time disembarking and fighting their way up the riverbank to the remaining Norwegian force. There also has been speculation about the presence of a bridge at Kexby (Brooks, 14, 21) which may have inhibited passage of the ships further upstream but which would have aided passage over the river once the Norwegians had disembarked. A final reason is that Harold may have sent a small blocking force to Kexby to protect the river ford.32 The Norwegians would have had to disembark and eliminate these troops prior to proceeding to Stamford Bridge.
Once the relief force had disembarked at Kexby, killing any English defenders that may have been there, they crossed over the river to the east side and ran along the bank of the river to Stamford Bridge.33
The rate used for calculation, 2.85 mph, is that mentioned for Roman legionaries with full packs. I believe this is probably the closest correlation for the armoured Norwegians. See footnote 9 for sources and various rates of march.
In his review of how long the battle may have lasted, DeVries (271) estimates the fighting lasted no more than 4 or 5 hours, including the final phase which involved the relief force.
For a review of the Skuldelev ships and their history, see Vinner, Max. 2002. Vikingeskibsmuseets Både. Roskilde: The Viking Ship Museum; Crumlin-Pedersen, Ole and Ewa Britt Nielsen, eds. 1997. ”The Roskilde Ships”. Maritime Archaeology Newsletter from Roskilde Denmark. 9:10-15; Skamby Madsen, J. And M. Vinner. 1993. The Viking Ships. Roskilde: The Viking Ship Museum; Skamby Madsen, J. And M. Vinner. 2005. ”Ships, Navigation and Harbours”. in Viking Aros, edited by Annette Damm. Moesgård: Moesgård Museum.
See The Battle of Hastings and the Beginnings of Anglo-Norman England, English Victory over the Vikings: The Battle of Stamford Bridge URL http://www.englandandenglishhistory.com
|A map from 1616 shows most of the area along the east river bank was meadowland which would have facilitated ”running” to the battle. See Allison, K J (Editor), A P Baggs, G H R Kent, and J D Purdy. 1976. Catton: High and Low Catton and Stamford Bridge East, A History of the County of York East Riding: Volume 3: Ouse and Derwent wapentake, and part of Harthill wapentake , British History Online. URL http://www.british-history.ac.uk/report.aspx?compid=23019|
After rowing their ships for nearly 3 ½ hours, this approximately 3 mile run in full armour would have exhausted the Norwegians by the time they reached the battle. This scenario is more plausible than that of armoured troops having run (or forced marched) 14 miles to the battle and arriving prior to its end in any shape to fight.
As Eystein Orri and his troops arrived at Stamford Bridge, they charged into the English flank, pushed them back and joined the remaining Norwegians under the King’s banner (Fagrskinna, 230; Sturluson, 153). The fighting reached its fiercest stage and the English “fell in great numbers”34. According to the Sagas, the English were near the point of fleeing when the relief force began to tire. Fagrskinna (231) states, “Now Eystein and his men grew very tired, because they had been marching for a long time in coats of ring mail, and the weather became very hot and sunny so that they were almost unable to go on, and then they all threw off their mailcoats.”35 Again, the greater numbers of the English army began to impact this phase of the battle. Eystein Orri fell and the remaining Norwegians were overcome. The battle ended and the few Norwegian survivors escaped in all directions, in many cases being chased by English troops.
The Anglo Saxon Chronicle (199) states that “the Northmen who remained were put to flight, and the English fiercely attacked them from behind until some of them came to ship, some drowned, and some also burnt ….”. Henry of Huntington (209) lists a similar fate stating, “their whole army were either slaughtered, or, being taken prisoners, were burnt.”36 Based on these sources, most historians have concluded that the English chased the fleeing Norwegians all the way back to their ships at Riccall.37 However, this leads to an interesting question, “How were the English, after having marched 17 miles from Tadcaster to Stamford Bridge and then fighting a long, difficult battle, able to then chase Norwegian survivors another 14 miles back to their ships, fight the troops guarding the ships, and then burn some of them?”38 Poss (2010, 63) speculates that prior to the battle, the English army was “tired, sweaty, and footsore before any of them ever swung an axe” because of their long march from Tadcaster. He goes on to describe the final stages of the battle as occurring between two “exhausted groups of sweaty, sore, blood-soaked, dehydrated men.” Yet, apparently they had enough energy left to pursue the Norwegian survivors back to Riccall.39 Poss (63) thinks this was possible because the English “probably” mounted their horses for pursuit. Apparently, neither Poss nor Burne have considered that when the English pursuers arrived at Riccall, they would have encountered the remaining Norwegian force that had been left to guard the ships, possibly numbering from five hundred to one thousand troops. These troops would have been fresh and possibly located in a stockade or behind some sort of rampart.40
|34||See King Harald’s Saga (Sturluson, 153), Fagrskinna (231) and Morkinskinna (273).|
Morkinskinna (273) also mentions removal of their armour and that they were “nearly overcome by fatigue” while King Harald’s Saga (Sturluson, 153) states that “… some of the Norwegians collapsed from exhaustion and died unwounded.”
Greenway (1996, 25) translates it as, “…laid low the whole Norwegian line, either with their arms or by consuming with fire those they intercepted.”
See DeVries (294), Brooks (16), Burne (89), McLynn (205), and Marsden (228).
Brooks (13) states the route most likely taken by the Norwegians from the river at Riccall to Stamford Bridge was via Escrick, Wheldrake, Elvington and Kexby, which is a distance of approximately 14 miles. Most likely any survivors would have taken this same route during their escape. McLynn (204) proposes a similar route.
|39||Burne (89) states that after the battle, the English suffered from “extreme weariness” yet were able to pursue the survivors all the way back to Riccall. He concludes simply by saying “Such a feat of endurance would scarcely be possible nowadays.”|
|40||Jones (105) reports that because the Vikings were “vulnerable to having their ships burned in their absence, they protected them by building and garrisoning a stockade where they beached their ships.” Griffith (101) discusses several examples of Vikings building stockades for the defense of their ships.|
It is doubtful that tired, disorganized English troops would have caused much damage, if any, to the troops or ships at Riccall.
It may be possible to interpret the passage “…the English fiercely attacked them from behind until some of them came to ship, some drowned, and some also burnt ….” as referring to Norwegians being chased to their ships where some were drowned and some of the ships were burned, but only if those ships were at Kexby (as discussed above). It does not mean the English chased them back to Riccall where, as DeVries (294) states, there was a battle around the ships between the English and the Norwegian survivors nor as McLynn (205) states that the English "fired some of the longships". Most likely, the phrase means that some of the Norwegians escaped to the ships at Riccall, some of them drowned while crossing the Derwent, and some may have been burned while seeking refuge in some abandoned farm buildings.
The following day, Harold, realizing he would have had to fight another battle to overcome the Norwegians behind their defensive works at Riccall, chose to negotiate the eventual return of the bodies of the Norwegian leaders and free passage for the survivors back to Norway in exchange for oaths of peace, some hostages, and a substantial amount of treasure. Harald’s son Olaf and Paul, Earl of Orkney, met with King Harold and negotiated a surrender.41 According to Manuscript D of the Anglo Saxon Chronicle (199), the Norwegian survivors sailed home on only 24 ships.42
Reinterpretation and comparison of various source materials suggests that the Battle of Stamford Bridge was not fought at Battle Flats. At least not in its entirety. Placing the Norwegian army on the west side of the River Derwent along the road to York when they encountered the English army best explains the subsequent actions of both armies. It also answers several critical questions such as why the Norwegians quickly formed a defensive circle when the English were sighted and why they didn’t position their army to hold the bridge and river crossing until reinforcements arrived. Finally, the reinterpretation provides continuity for the events as described in the Sagas and the other primary sources.
The Anglo Saxon Chronicle (199) states that King Harold ”gave safe conduct” to Olaf and others and that ”… they then went up to our king and swore oaths …” suggesting the Norwegians traveled to Stamford Bridge for the surrender negotiations. John of Worcester (1854, A.D. 1066) lists both Olaf and Paul as leaving with the survivors.
John of Worcester (AD 1066) and some other sources mention 20 ships, whereas both Manuscript C of the Anglo Saxon Chronicle (198) and William of Malmesbury (257) refer to the Norwegians leaving “with all the ships”. Assuming there were about 60 Norwegians on each of the 24 ships, approximately 1500 returned home; about 20% of those who started the expedition.
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Fig. 1. McBride, Angus. Unknown title. Available at URL http://www.talesofold.org/wp-content/uploads/2012/03/SaxonWars11.jpg
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Fig. 3. Pugh, D.S. 2010. Looking down the Derwent, Seen from the viaduct in Stamford Bridge. Digital Image. Available at URL http://www.geograph.org.uk/photo/1824993
Fig. 4. Laverack, Keith. 2008. River Derwent, Looking South from Kexby Bridge. Digital Image. Available at URL http://www.geograph.org.uk/photo/921146
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© 2012 Michael C. Blundell
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Citation: Blundell, Michael C. 2012. The Battle of Stamford Bridge 1066 A.D.: An Alternative Interpretation.