Post-classical history

9

Stamford Bridge

Image Missing

DUKE WILLIAM IS said to have heard the news of Harold’s coronation as he set out to hunt in his park of Quenilly near Rouen, whereupon, so the legend says, he abandoned the hunt and sat sunk in silence for hours, to be roused only by his strong right arm, William Fitzosbern. We may take leave to doubt this version of events. Both Harold and William were ruthless men who had been planning to seize the throne of England for many years. In Harold’s eyes, kingship was his reward for long years of service propping up an inert dog-in-the-manger in the form of Edward; for William the conquest of England was always implicit in the logic of his elaborate kinship network, which meant there had to be new territories to conquer so as to satisfy the aspirations of those who had joined his web of royal clientelism. To start with, he needed to look no further than his own household: he had three sons greedy for land, William Fitzosbern had two, Roger of Montgomery four, and this was the tip of the iceberg.1

William began by summoning a council of his great nobles. Present in conclave were all the great names of Normandy: William’s brother Robert, Count of Mortain, William Fitzosbern, Odo of Bayeux, Richard of Evreux, Roger of Beaumont, Hugh of Grandmesnil, Roger of Montgomery, Walter Giffard, Hugh of Montfort, William of Warren. The assembled magnates listened to William’s plans for the conquest of England, realized the scope of his ambitions and the magnitude of obstacles to be overcome, and recommended summoning a great meeting of the entire Norman nobility, at which they pledged to back him to the hilt.2

While he waited for the summonses to be delivered to his vassals throughout Normandy, William took the first step in the all-important propaganda war with Harold. He began by sending an embassy to England, knowing it was pointless, but hoping to present himself as a peace-loving sovereign forced unwillingly into war. The embassy apparently adverted to the 1064 promise to exchange sisters in dynastic marriages; Harold, who had married the widow of Gruffydd ap Llywelyn, replied tersely that his sister was dead: did William therefore want a corpse shipped over to Normandy? As for William’s claim to the throne, the answer was the same as always: Edward had named Harold his successor on his deathbed, this had been ratified by a representative assembly of the entire nobility of England and only this witan had the legitimate power to make kings.3

With consummate cunning, William decided to take the matter over Harold’s head by appealing to the pope in Rome. He realized that the nuances of English law and custom were unknown at the Vatican and, by presenting a case couched in the kind of continental European terms the pontiff would understand, he could easily make a weak case appear a strong, and even unassailable, one. William’s envoy to Alexander II, Gilbert, Bishop of Lisieux, made a general case based on notions of hereditary right and the French system of bequest and then introduced the irrelevant matter of Harold’s alleged perjury in 1064 – irrelevant because, even if Harold did actually swear the most mighty oath on the most sacred relics, this neither bound Edward in his bequest nor thewitan in its ratification; whatever Harold said or did not say, it had no binding power in the matter of the succession. Gilbert, however, produced a turgid olio of arguments, in which the oath of 1064, the behaviour of the Godwin family in 1051, the murder of Alfred the Atheling in 1036 and the role of Stigand as ‘unlawful’ Archbishop of Canterbury all featured.4

It was the last proposition that most interested Alexander. William pitched his appeal to the papacy largely on his putative role as the leader of the religious and ecclesiastical reform movement in Normandy and as a man who would clean the Augean stables of church corruption in England; this weighed heavily with Alexander, who, as his joust with Harald Hardrada in 1061 demonstrated, thought the churches of northern Europe far too remote from papal control. It was the abiding dream of the new ‘reformist’ papacy to be universally accepted as the arbiter of thrones and their succession; William’s homage therefore constituted a valuable precedent. Not surprisingly, Alexander gave the proposed invasion of England his blessing. It has sometimes been queried why Harold did not send his own embassy to counter William’s arguments. Almost certainly, the answer is that he thought it a waste of time on two grounds: the method of electing a king in England had nothing to do with the pope and was not a proper area for his intervention; and, in any case, the pope was now the creature of the Normans in southern Italy and would ultimately do what they ordered him to do. Harold was right: Alexander II blessed all the Norman marauding expeditions of the 1060s.5

But although papal sanction for William’s ‘enterprise of England’ was morally worthless, it was both a great propaganda and diplomatic triumph for the Normans. It was a propaganda victory because it allowed William to pose as the leader of crusaders in a holy war, obfuscating and mystifying the base, materialistic motives of his followers and mercenaries. It also gave the Normans a great psychological boost, for they could perceive themselves as God’s elect, and it is significant that none of William’s inner circle entertained doubts about the ultimate success of the English venture. Normandy now seemed the spearhead of a confident Christianity, on the offensive for the first time in centuries, whereas earlier Christendom had been beleagured by Vikings to the north, Hungarians to the east and Islam to the south. It was no accident that, with Hungary and Scandinavia recently Christianized, the Normans were the vanguard in the first Crusade, properly so called, against the Islamic heathens in the Holy Land.6

Alexander’s fiat was a diplomatic triumph, too, as papal endorsement for the Normans made it difficult for other powers to intervene on Harold’s side. William also pre-empted one of the potential sources of support for the Anglo-Saxons by sending an embassy to the emperor Henry IV; this, too, was notably successful, removing a possible barrier to a Europe-wide call for volunteers in the ‘crusade’. It seemed unlikely that William would encounter any obstacles in the French-speaking world, for France was still a paper tiger, run by Baldwin of Flanders during Philip’s minority. Anjou, too, was out of the reckoning, for Geoffrey Martel’s two nephews (Geoffrey le Barbe and Fulk le Rechin) were still locked in bitter combat in 1066. There is something almost supernaturally fortunate in the way William became fortuitously free of continental enemies at the very moment England was riven with fratricidal strife between Harold and Tostig. It is hard to resist the conclusion that if Edward the Confessor had died even a few years earlier, or alternatively if Cnut had lived to the age of sixty, as William did, there could have been no Norman invasion of England.7

When the second council of the whole Norman nobility met, at Lillebone, there was far less enthusiasm for the invasion of England than at the original conclave of William’s inner circle. The meeting is said to have dissolved in uproar when William simply assumed he had the support of his barons and began at once to get down to the question of individual contributions. In some quarters vociferous opposition was expressed, on three main grounds: the enterprise was said to be impossible because of England’s military strength, because the necessary army and fleet could not be raised in Normandy alone, and because the nobility lacked the resources to finance such a massive endeavour. The nobility asked for more time to reflect on the proposal.8

The meeting was adjourned, but the nobles made the mistake of asking William Fitzosbern to be an intermediary between themselves and the duke; they expressed their terror of the Channel crossing and pointed out that by the terms of their feudal obligation they were not bound to serve beyond the sea. The wily Fitzosbern, whose outstanding quality was his loyalty, agreed to act as go-between provided he were given a de facto power of attorney. But first he tried to browbeat his ‘clients’ by hinting darkly at the duke’s capacity for savage reprisals if his will were thwarted. Then he withdrew and planned with William a strategy that would circumvent these objections. When the meeting was reconvened, he stood up and barefacedly double-crossed the nobles by a speech in which he promised that each of them would serve beyond the sea and bring double the contingent due under the feudal bond: the lord of twenty knight’s fees would bring forty knights, and so on.

As Fitzosbern and William had foreseen, his two-faced treachery led to cries of protest in the hall and once again the conclave was racked by confusion, with nobles openly baying at the subterfuge and fearful that Fitzosbern had tricked them by sleight of hand into doubling their military obligation. William used the uproar as an excuse to adjourn the meeting once more, and then summoned the barons privately for a personal interview; face to face with the duke, and knowing his uncertain temper, one by one they meekly accepted the obligation Fitzosbern had laid on them, provided that the extraordinary levy should not be taken as a precedent. Fitzosbern and William proved themselves masters of human psychology. No such lavish offer could have been carried by a majority vote or as the result of open debate. Foreseeing this, they had first engineered an adjournment and then browbeaten the recalcitrant nobles by the hint of dreadful retribution in the case of a refusal: at the private interviews, a scribe noted down what was said and recorded each contribution, just to add the right chilling touch to the proceedings.9

William now had promises of ships and men, and, of the two, ships were the more vital, for Normandy had no significant standing navy and a fleet would have to be built from scratch. The Norman chroniclers have provided extensive lists of the numbers of craft supplied by each of the great nobles, and in some cases the numbers of knights too. We learn that Robert of Mortain provided 120 vessels, Odo of Bayeux 100, William of Evreux 80, William Fitzosbern, Roger of Montgomery, Roger of Beaumont, Hugh of Avranches and Robert of Eu 60 each; Walter Giffard supplied 30 boats and one hundred knights, Hugh of Montfort 50 boats and sixty knights, Nicholas, Abbot of St-Ouen 20 and a hundred knights, and so on.10

How many vessels eventually sailed in William’s invasion fleet is a matter of conjecture, for estimates vary from the exact figure of 696 confidently announced by Wace in the Roman de Rou to a high of 3,000. Much confusion has arisen because of the tendency to liken the Norman invasion craft to the very different Viking longships; in fact the Norman vessels were simply large open boats with a single mast and sail, about forty feet long, broad in the beam and about four feet deep in the water. The Bayeux Tapestry shows eleven different vessels on the Channel crossing, with eleven also as the highest number of occupants of any boat. Given that the average complement of the boats was seven, and that William probably took 14,000 men with him to England, the correct number is probably around 2,000.11

While the forests of Normandy rang with the sound of axes in spring 1066, as tens of thousands of trees were chopped down to build the invasion fleet, the call for volunteers went out across Europe. High wages were promised during the waiting period, and the mouthwatering prospect of plunder, rapine and Saxon women drew in mercenaries by the thousands to a freebooting enterprise made even more attractive by the papal approval, which converted a simple act of aggression into a crusade. Individuals can be identified as having come from Germany, Hungary, Aragon, Apulia and Norman Sicily, though most of the volunteers were French-speaking. While William got no direct help from Baldwin of Flanders, it is certain that individual Flemish mercenaries enlisted, though the number is disputed. Flemings were well known as naval mercenaries – most of Tostig’s men came from there – but it is likely that William had to give Baldwin a money-fief in exchange for permission to recruit his subjects.12

Whatever room there may be for scepticism about the contribution of non-Francophone troops to William’s invasion force, it is clear that within the French-speaking world thousands of non-Normans participated in the ‘crusade’, including men from France, Brittany, Maine and Aquitaine, which in those days stretched from the Loire to the Pyrenees and from the Atlantic to the Auvergne. The role of Aquitaine seems strange at first sight, since one hundred miles of hostile territory – the provinces of Maine and Anjou – separated it from Normandy, but there were many bonds linking the two territories. In the past, vulnerability to Viking raids had made the Viscounts of Thouars in Aquitaine interested in having a common policy against the raiders with Normandy, so that links were close, and intermarriage made them closer: in 1066 Count Guy-Geoffrey of Aquitaine and William of Normandy were third cousins, and Normans had fought with him against the Saracens in Spain.13

One of the great lords of the Aquitaine area in 1066 was Duke William’s cousin Aimeri of Thouars, a fortified town which commanded the Thouet river and the main routes between Poitou and Aquitaine. Aimeri was a very powerful viscount, only nominally the vassal of the Comte de Poitou and the lord of seventeen castles, hundeds of square miles of territory and scores of noble vassals. Aimeri was one of the most eager participants in William’s enterprise in 1066 and won his place among the fabled ‘Companions of the Conqueror’. His commitment was ideological and dynastic, but that of another great Francophone lord was less certain. For Eustace of Boulogne the return of the Godwin family to England in 1052 had been a severe setback, and thereafter he was on the wane while the fortunes of William and Baldwin of Flanders rose and rose. In hopes of making a sudden leap into the premier league Eustace decided in 1066 to throw in his lot with the Normans, even though he disliked William personally and had not been on good terms with him. William never really trusted him and Eustace had to leave his son in Normandy as a hostage before he would give him a command.14

At the very last moment there was a hitch in the smooth progress of William’s co-option of the major figures in the French-speaking world. Some time in the summer of 1066 William’s old foe Conan of Brittany put in his own claim to the throne of England, on the grounds that Duke Robert had entrusted Normandy to his father, Alan III, in 1035, that this trust had never been revoked, and therefore that he had an overriding claim to Normandy and any other domains it might acquire or lay title to. It can well be imagined that this especially infuriated William, as it was a case of someone else playing the kind of diplomatic and propaganda games he liked to specialize in himself. William made no direct answer to this, but by Christmas 1066 Conan was dead. It was widely whispered that William had poisoned him, and the accusation seems plausible. Some have naïvely countered that William would have poisoned him, if that was his intention, before setting out for England, without appreciating the much greater efficacy of a slow-acting poison that would give William the perfect alibi.15

In the first six months of 1066 the clear tactical advantage lay with William. He could make his preparations slowly and methodically while Harold was reduced to preparing a still divided kingdom for a blow that might fall on the south coast of England at any time. During this stalemate period of ‘phoney war’ the third of the four great personalities made his appearance in the drama, for in January 1066 Tostig travelled from Flanders to Normandy to confer with William. Superficially, since Tostig’s wife Judith was close kin to his wife Matilda, William could welcome him as a cousin, but, more importantly, William saw that the ex-Earl of Northumbria had powerful propaganda and nuisance value. As a gadfly, raiding the English coast, Tostig could keep Harold in a permanent state of suspense and uncertainty about how many invasion points he would need to cover; while as a propaganda counter Tostig was a gift, for what more convincing confirmation could there be that Harold was a liar and perjurer than the fact that he had treacherously subverted his own brother?16

The two men conferred, and William gave his blessing to Tostig’s plan for a spring raid on the south coast, to test Harold’s defences. However, it seems that the duke’s slow and steady military build-up did not suit the impatient Tostig, for soon he was off on a mission to find a ruler who would give him more immediate aid. Tostig set out on an odyssey that took him to the courts of Svein of Denmark and Harald Hardrada of Norway. Some historians object that the chronology of Tostig’s rovings is impossibly tight, since he was raiding off the south coast early in May, but there is nothing so difficult about fitting a trip to Scandinavia into the intervening three months. Some have speculated that, after leaving William, Tostig merely sent an ambassador to the Scandinavian courts, but the Norse sources are adamant that Tostig went there in person, and the wealth of circumstantial detail concerning his embassy is unlikely to derive from a totally false tradition.

Leaving his deputy, Copsig, to assemble an army in Flanders, Tostig sailed north to Denmark, where he had an unsatisfactory interview with Svein Estrithson. The king still claimed the English throne but, exhausted by the long war with Harald Hardrada, lacked the resources for an invasion and told Tostig so bluntly. Nevertheless, he seems to have taken to the ex-earl personally for he offered him a position in Denmark similar to that previously occupied by Hakon Ivarsson. Tostig rejected this contemptuously as he did Svein’s reasons for inaction; in some sources it is even said that he taunted the king with cowardice. However, Svein did see the danger to his own position if either William of Normandy or Harald Hardrada became king of England and sent volunteers to fight on the side of Harold Godwinson.17

Tostig then proceeded to Norway, where he had a notable interview with Harald Hardrada at Viken, in the south-east of the country. He asked him first to restore him to his old earldom in Northumbria, but could raise no interest in the king. Harald said that he still yearned for martial glory, but what Tostig proposed was dangerous and, from his viewpoint, fruitless. Tostig then suggested that Harald should revive the claim to the throne he inherited from Magnus, who got his right from Harthacnut at the Gotha river conference; Harald could be king and Tostig would be content with the role of subregulus and Earl of Northumbria. Harald then made three points. First, the English had a reputation for unreliability, so that he did not want an alliance with such people. Secondly, the housecarls had a ferocious reputation and each of them was said to be as good as any two Norwegian warriors. Thirdly, he had no great stomach for an English expedition, with its formidable supply and logistical problems.18

Tostig plugged away at Magnus’s bequest from Harthacnut. Was a king as great as Hardrada really going to stand idly by while William of Normandy and Harold Godwinson decided who was to rule England? Doubtless nettled by this, Harald asked scathingly how it was that the great Magnus, of whom Tostig seemed so fond, had failed to acquire England when he had so manifest a right to it. Tostig quipped back that Harald had a perfect right to Denmark but had not managed to secure it. Harald then began to boast of how he had killed Danes by the thousand. Smiling at the evasion, Tostig told the king the reason he had failed in Denmark was that the people were wholeheartedly on Svein’s side and not on his and for the same reason Magnus had not tried to conquer England, realizing the people preferred Edward. The situation now was very different: Harold was widely disliked and he, Tostig, could guarantee to bring half the population over to the Norwegian side once Hardrada landed; how could he fail to push at such an open door after fifteen years’ pointless campaigning in Denmark?19

At first Tostig seemed faced with a Sisyphean task of persuasion, for every point he answered was capped with a fresh objection; Ulf Ospaksson, the marshal, was particularly opposed to an English enterprise. But it seems that Tostig gradually convinced powerful allies among the younger warriors in the king’s council. Harald’s son Olaf had a very close friend named Skule Konfrostre, who was so eloquent on Tostig’s behalf that an absurd legend later arose that he was Tostig’s son, though Tostig had never seen him before 1066. We do not know all the stages whereby Hardrada eventually allowed himself to be persuaded. Perhaps he needed new lands with which to reward a too numerous following, or perhaps the lure of one final Viking achievement was too much for him to resist. But it is certain that Tostig gravely misled him about the reception he would get in England and blatantly lied about his brother Harold’s unpopularity. At all events, Harald announced a levy of half the able-bodied men in his kingdom and ordered ships built for an invasion of England. He arranged to rendezvous with Tostig in the Humber estuary in July or August that summer.20

Early in May Tostig attacked the Isle of Wight with the ships and men Copsig had purchased for him in Flanders. He disembarked his men and, after a show of force, compelled the islanders to provide money and provisions. Then he sailed away eastwards, landing and ravaging all along the south coast as he went, until he made a more permanent landfall at Sandwich. Learning of this, Harold effected a forced march to Sandwich, but Tostig’s fleet again stood away, this time north-east into the North Sea, having first recruited more professional sailors with lavish promises of pay and plunder. At the Humber we first get a clue as to the size of his forces, for we learn that Tostig entered the estuary with a fleet of sixty ships. He was apparently ravaging Lindsey in his old earldom when the armies of Morcar and Edwin came upon him and badly mauled his marauders; the defeat was followed by large-scale desertions as the newly recruited adventurers realized that Tostig’s vision of booty and treasure was a pipe-dream. Reduced to just twelve ships, Tostig sought refuge with his ‘brother’ Malcolm in Scotland, determined to wait there until Hardrada sailed from Norway.21

Tostig’s raid on the Isle of Wight, apparently sponsored by William, may actually have harmed his strategy, since Harold Godwinson read the probe as the prelude to a general Norman assault on the south coast and concentrated his forces there; the Humber landing he dismissed as Tostig’s being forced into a pis aller. Faced with threats from both William and Tostig, Harold Godwinson called out both the select and general fyrd; he may also have implemented an emergency draft of other men not normally called up, which would have given him a huge force on paper, for the manpower pool of males aged between fifteen and fifty-four may have been as high as 240,000. Even if he raised only 5 per cent of the male population, this would have given him a force 50,000 strong. Certainly it was the most enormous mobilization England had ever known and many at William’s court thought the duke had taken leave of his senses in trying to overcome such a powerful enemy – a sentiment that was apparently echoed by thegrognards in the ranks.22

Just before Tostig’s raid on the Isle of Wight, another event occurred to test the nerve of the commanders on both sides, for it seemed to presage disaster: the only question was, for whom? Halley’s Comet, seen from Earth once every seventy-six years, appeared in the sky in England in full clarity after 24 April; for those who regard the Bayeux Tapestry as a naturalistic source, this provides another problem, for the Tapestry shows the comet appearing in January. The comet was first seen in Normandy on 26 April, two days later than in England, and is recorded in the annals of every European country for 1066. We cannot know how either Harold or William were affected by this portent, but those who interpreted it favourably for their side thought it indicated Heaven’s support for bold action: Gyrth Godwinson proposed that an invasion force be sent to Normandy, to harry William and slow him down until Harold could assemble the full military strength of the kingdom.23

Harold overruled the suggestion, so that William was free to make his preparations unhindered and then order a general muster of his army at the Channel port of Dives. As the transport vessels neared completion, and the volunteers thronged in during the early summer, William behaved with notable outward calm, devoting much attention to religious matters as if he were a saintly king going on a crusade. A day-by-day reconstruction of his movements at this stage is not possible, but we know that he held another council at Bonneville on 15 June and consecrated the Abbey of the Holy Trinity in Caen three days later. William may also have been keen to show himself to his troops as much as possible, to reassure them that he was in rude health, for at some time during the years 1063–65 he had been seriously ill and had a long convalescence at Cherbourg castle.24

There is much we do not know about William’s preparations and particularly his method of building the necessary ships to transport an army. It has been objected that the construction of the numbers of ships required by summer 1066 in the time allowed was simply an impossibility, given eleventh-century technology. To be sure, the vast forests of the Seine contained the necessary raw materials, but only if the Norman barons were prepared to see their favourite hunting grounds laid waste. And, even if we discount the costs of tree-felling and the transport of timber to the coast, there is the cost of the shipbuilding itself to consider. One estimate is that it would take 8,400 men three months to build 700 ships, with 6,900 peasants working non-stop to feed them betimes, but this seems an excessive estimate in the light of the small size of the craft. Nevertheless, the overwhelming likelihood is that William simply requisitioned all existing craft in Norman ports and purchased most of the rest of his vessels from Flanders. The clear implication is that William had a healthy cash surplus at the beginning of 1066.25

There is a woeful lack of detail in the sources, too, concerning Harold’s preparations. The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle relates that he assembled the mightiest force ever seen in England immediately after the appearance of Halley’s Comet (24 April) and kept it in being for four months, but we learn nothing of the huge commissariat problems this must have entailed. Harold stationed his fleet of 700 ships, propelled by rowers, at the Isle of Wight, whence it was often absent – otherwise Tostig could not have staged his raid – and kept it cruising up and down the coast, expecting that William’s flotilla would emerge on to the Channel unescorted by warships, when it would be an easy prey. Since Morcar and Edwin were disposed to act independently, and the threat from Harald Hardrada had not at this stage materialized, Harold felt that the northern earls could look after themselves, leaving him free to concentrate all his forces in southern England.26

At the beginning of August William left his capital for the rendezvous at Dives, having made the final arrangements for the Council of Regency. His queen Matilda would reign in his absence, assisted by the elderly Roger of Beaumont and Hugh, Vicomte of Avranches. Among those who accompanied William to Dives and ultimately to England were Robert of Mortain, Hugh de Montfort, William Fitzosbern, Ralf de Tosny, Hugh de Grandmesnil, Odo of Bayeux, Geoffrey, Bishop of Coutances, Walter Giffard, the two foreign allies Eustace of Boulogne and Aimeri of Thouars and a number of young sons of the Norman aristocracy, such as Robert, son of Roger de Beaumont, and Geoffrey, son of Rotrou, Count of Mortagne.27

The Norman army arrived at the mustering point at Dives on 4–5 August. This particular port had been chosen because of the ease of water transport, because there was a plentiful grain supply in the plain of Caen in the hinterland and because the inner harbour (which no longer exists) kept the invasion flotilla safe from storms and any warships Harold might send against it. The choice of Dives was an inspired one and was of a piece with the brilliance in planning, provisioning and general strategy evinced by William during the month of August. Although the desertion level seems to have been relatively high, William did his best for troop morale by provisioning them at his personal expense. That he could make such an offer already suggests a highly centralized system of purchase, requisition, control, storage and distribution, possibly modelled on the commissariat procedures used by the Roman legions. So confident was he that he even released one of Harold’s captured spies so that he might report back to his master the scale of the preparations.28

William’s host remained at Dives for a month, prohibited from plundering or living off the land on pain of death. The size of the army is disputed, but the most likely figure is 14,000, of which 8,000 would be used in battle, 2,000 on garrison duties, another 4,000 sailors and non-combatants (oarsmen, helmsmen, pilots, cooks, armour-bearers, smiths, carpenters, artisans, clerics, monks) and – most tellingly – 3,000 horses. It is worth dwelling for a while on the extraordinary problems faced by such a large mustered army compelled to remain in one spot for so long a time. A ration of four pounds of grain and a gallon of water meant the provision of 28 tons of unmilled wheat and 14,000 gallons of fresh water every day – even if we make the minimum assumption that the army existed on bread and water, whereas we know that it was liberally supplied with meat and wine. To sustain 14,000 men and 3,000 horses for a month the Normans would have needed 2,340 tons of grain (two-thirds of this for the horses) plus 1,500 tons of straw and 155 tons of hay. At a total tonnage of 4,000, this means 8,000 cart-loads at 1,000 pounds per two-horse cart. If, as was likely, the men’s grain was baked into bread or cooked to make porridge, this in turn would entail 420 tons of firewood at a rate of two pounds per day per man. Transport of firewood added 840 cart-loads. Moreover, every 125 gallons of wine required one two-horse cart, so that even if each man had just eight ounces of wine a day – a ludicrously small and implausible amount – this would mean another 210 cart-loads during the month at Dives.29

Even greater problems were engendered by the warhorses, with which special care had to be taken, since they were perceived as the key to military success. To begin with, they needed shelter if they were to remain in good condition, which meant the construction of lean-tos for the stabling of the beasts. And since the destriers weighed on average 1,500 pounds, the minimum daily ration would be twelve pounds of grain (oats or barley) and thirteen pounds of hay per horse. The horses would also require five tons of clean straw each day for bedding and 20,000–30,000 tons of fresh water; if this was not available for even short periods, the steeds would collapse and die. This assumes that there were just 3,000 horses at Dives, but some historians have objected that he must have had almost that number in reserve, as he would not have taken all his cavalry across the Channel. Whatever their numbers, clearly the warhorses had to be in superlative condition if they were to carry 250 lbs of rider and equipment into a battle that might last all day and involve uphill charges.30

But the problems of administering men and horses did not end with the food supply. If we assume that a tent housed ten men, 1,000–1,5000 tents required the hides of 36,000 calves and the labour of scores of tanners and leather workers. Care of the 3,000 horses was even more of a headache. To maintain their health, they had to be shod properly, which in turn meant horseshoes and nails. Using fifteen-ounce horseshoes with six nails, ten blacksmiths working a ten-hour day would be occupied for the whole of August in fitting between 8,000–12,000 shoes and hammering 75,000 nails – a total of eight tons of iron previously forged by other blacksmiths. Also, to avoid health problems, 5,000 cartloads of equine waste had to be disposed of – five million pounds of faeces and 700,000 gallons of urine. It says a lot for Norman sanitation engineers that there were no outbreaks of disease at Dives, whereas they encountered dysentery at Dover.31

Whoever presided over this nightmare of logistics was clearly an administrative talent of a very high order and, happily, it is possible to identify him by a process of elimination. Since Roger of Beaumont was left behind in Normandy as head of the Regency Council advising Queen Matilda, Count Robert of Eu was in charge of the advance ‘springboard’ camp at Saint-Valéry and the peerless William Fitzosbern was responsible for logistics once the army reached England, we can infer that the ‘genius of Dives’ was Roger II of Montgomery. One of the most impressive aspects of the Norman invasion of England in 1066 was the way old quarrels and enmities had been laid to rest, and families who had previously feuded with each other or with Duke William himself collaborated for the common purpose. For the smooth administration of Dives William had the leading scion of the house of Montgomery to thank, but it seems he did not see the fruit of his labours, being left behind in Normandy to assist the Council of Regency.32

The month’s wait at Dives in August has puzzled some observers, since the official explanation – waiting for favourable winds – does not seem convincing. An August in the Channel without a south wind seems unusual, to say the least, and then there is the telling point that Harald Hardrada, who needed precisely opposite winds for his expedition south, was also delayed in Norway during this month. It is therefore most likely that William had favourable winds in August but deliberately kept his army at Dives, intending all along to launch his invasion from Saint-Valéry, at the mouth of the Somme, further up the coast and nearer to England. The inference is strengthened by William’s decision not to keep all his ships at Dives but to disperse some of them to neighbouring ports.33

His motive for remaining at Dives was to stretch Harold on the rack, keeping him at full readiness throughout August, knowing that the legal terms of the fyrd’s two-month service must soon expire and that, in any case, Harold’s men would have to disperse in the harvest season; like all agricultural societies, England would reach a low point in food reserves just before the harvest. Certainly, when Harold was reported as having disbanded the fyrd on 8 September, leaving the south coast of England undefended, William seemed to have won the first round in the campaign. Even worse, when Harold ordered his warships to sail for London, they were caught in a storm and many of them were wrecked.34

As soon as he heard the news from England, William ordered his fleet out to sea for the perilous passage up the coast to Saint-Valéry, 160 miles by sea, though only one hundred overland as the crow flies. The Normans employed mariners who knew all about the English coast and its vagaries – there was a vast amount of cross-Channel traffic in Edward the Confessor’s reign – and these sailors, mindful of uncertain weather conditions around the equinox, advised him to move further up the coast where the chance of a south wind would be better. They were merely advising William what he had anyway long since decided; for logistical reasons – the denuding of the hinterland of Dives of food and supplies, and particularly the fact that the horses had grazed out the area – he always knew he would have to move on after a month.35

The warhorses were taken to the rendezvous overland, to avoid a lengthy period at sea. The Norman fleet set out on 12 September, timing the exit from Dives in low water with a high west wind, and heading for the narrows. Once in the open sea it took a battering from equinoctial gales (south-west winds blow up to Force Eight in the Channel in September), and other ships were wrecked as a result of the well-known navigational difficulties of the Normandy coast; William was said to have buried hundreds of bodies of the drowned secretly, so as not to affect morale. It is probable that the fleet made one or two stopovers during its passage east, maybe near Cap d’Antifer or Fécamp. Once at Saint-Valéry, William incessantly watched the weathercock on the minster tower, which for fifteen days pointed resolutely south, while the Norman troops shivered beneath under a cloudy sky, beset by rain and cold weather.36

However, it is possible that William had not after all won the first round so easily and that he was merely being gulled by Harold while he contemplated how to fight a war on two fronts simultaneously. We do not know enough about Harold’s dispositions in 1066 to say for certain that he was forced to withdraw the fyrd because of the expiry of its legal term or because the harvest had to be brought in; it is possible that in his emergency decrees Harold had called out the fyrd on an indefinite basis, and we should beware of imagining that William alone could trick his followers into serving beyond the limit of their natural obligations. One theory is that Harold deliberately withdrew his army inland because he got word that Harald Hardrada’s fleet had sailed from Norway, hoping at once to tempt William over and keep him hemmed in by the troops he had stationed in strength in the inland areas of Sussex. Harold’s best bet, given that he lacked the manpower to fight on both fronts, was to play for time, concentrating on the northern invasion and gambling that a cautious William would not move from the southern coast until he (Harold) was ready to deal with him.37

This seems plausible, for at the end of August Harald Hardrada left Norway on a favourable northerly wind, taking with him a huge armada of longships. Once again there is dispute about the size of the fleet, with scholars opting for anything between a low of 200 to a high of 1,000, with around 300 being the most likely number. Viking longships were of four main kinds: the 13-bench with 26 oars; the 15-bench with 30 oars; the 20-bench with 40 oars, and the 30-bench with 60 oars. The most common variety was the 20-bench vessel with 40 oars (two men to each oar) and a total crew of ninety. The Gokstadt ship excavated in Norway is 76½ feet long and had a crew of 70 (including 64 rowers); not especially large, she provides a fair average. The Danish ships which ravaged England in the early eleventh century were believed to have carried 40–50 men, but shipbuilding technology in Scandinavia had improved since then. Harthacnut’s ships averaged 50–80 men each, Olaf Tryggvason’s famous ship The Long Serpent had a crew of 300, and some of the 30-bench leviathans were known to have housed 260 men. Even if each of Hardrada’s ships had a crew of 40 men (the lowest possible estimate), 300 longships meant a total force of 12,000. If we more reasonably posit that many of the ships were larger, Hardrada may have taken as many as 18,000 warriors on his invasion of England.38

Hardrada had made more serious preparations for the conquest of England than historians have usually given him credit for; like Harold Godwinson in 1066, they assume that the expedition was either a large-scale raid or an ill-thought out exercise in quixotry. According to some sources, he intended to emulate Cnut and transfer his seat of government to England once he had conquered it; this makes sense of his curious action in going to St Olaf’s tomb in Nidaros, unlocking it, clipping his hair and nails (an old Viking custom), locking up the tomb again and then throwing the keys into the river Nid. Also curious is his behaviour in regard to his wives: he took Elizabeth and his daughters Maria and Ingigerd with him as far as the Orkneys and left Thora in Norway with her son Magnus, whom he appointed as regent. Does this mean there was acute jealousy between the wives, that he dared not leave the foreign-born Elizabeth behind lest some harm come to her?39

Harald also took with him a number of warhorses, though nothing like on the scale of Duke William’s expedition; he knew all about the problems of transporting the beasts by sea, as he had observed them minutely during the invasion of Sicily in 1038. But the Norsemen did not set off on the great adventure in an especially good state of morale. Many remembered the forebodings of the marshal Ulf Ospaksson, who had spoken out against Tostig in the spring council and since died. When Hardrada called a general muster of his forces at the Solund Islands at the mouth of the Sogne fiord (near present-day Bergen), many gloomy portents were reported and several people recounted dire premonitory dreams. One of Harald’s colonels, named Gyrd, had a terrifying nightmare of a demon woman and the king himself dreamed that St Olaf appeared and told him he was doomed. Yet Harald was in good spirits: he was confident that Magnus would prove a good regent in his absence and at his side in England he would have his son Olaf and the new favourite, a young warrior named Eystein Orri, son of Throlberg Arnesson, to whom he had promised in marriage his beloved daughter Maria.40

The armada sailed south, to the Shetland Islands, then mustered again in the Orkneys. Here Harald was joined by his principal allies, Paul and Erlend, Thorfinn’s sons, and Godfrey Crovan, son of Harald the Black of Iceland, later to be king of the Isle of Man; there were also other contingents from Iceland and Ireland. A council was held at which Tostig’s ideas were discussed and in particular his argument that the Norsemen would find allies in northern England. This seemed plausible, for the region had close links with the Viking world and York, an independent Norse kingdom until 954, had once been as much a Viking town as Trondheim, Copenhagen or Dublin. The Scandinavian empire of Cnut had been popular in northern England and in 1042, when Edward became king, there had even been support for a Scandinavian candidate. Harald’s spies were competent and he knew there was no great love for Harold Godwinson in the north of the kingdom he hoped to conquer. But he made the mistake of believing Tostig, of imagining that it was Morcar and Edwin who were the unpopular ones north of the Wash not Tostig himself; had his political intelligence been truly first-rate, he might have considered that his best interests were served by an alliance with the sons of Aelfgar.41

From the Orkneys Hardrada’s great fleet sailed south, putting in at various points for food and water, ravaging the coastline of Scotland without opposition, and thence to the north-east of England. The first major landfall was at Cleveland, where the Norsemen raided Scarborough, gutted the town and slaughtered or enslaved the inhabitants; all local levies sent against them were routed in short order, including a sizeable detachment of Morcar and Edwin’s men sent against them at Holderness. According to the sagas, however, the superstitious Norwegians took less notice of these easy victories and more of the supposed bad omen when Harald, on setting foot on English soil for the first time, allegedly stumbled and fell – allegedly, as such stories are a staple experience of would-be conquerors.42

Sailing on, the Norse fleet doubled Ravenspur and entered the Humber estuary, where, in accordance with the plan previously agreed, Tostig met them with his reduced fleet and the hard core of Flemish pirates and mercenaries. The ships of the Northumbrian Earl Morcar did not dare engage Harald’s host and retreated before him up the Ouse, then turned into the inland waters of the Wharfe to Tadcaster. Morcar’s tactics evidently were to wait until the invaders had passed the turn-off of the Wharfe at Canood, then drop down the tributary on the last of the ebb to take them in the rear. But Hardrada disappointed him. Convinced that he did not need his full strength, he anchored at Riccall, a mile above the junction of the Ouse and Wharfe, on the left bank of the river and some nine miles from York as the crow flies (much longer via the winding river). The spot was well chosen, as the Viking fleet could now stop up the Ouse and bar the descent of its tributary, thus neatly bottling up Morcar’s fleet in Tadcaster.43

Leaving Olaf and Eystein Orri with a substantial force to guard the fleet – safeguarding the longships was always of primary concern in Viking warfare – Harald and Tostig set out for the march on York by foot, probably taking no more than 6,000 men. There were two roads from Riccall to York, and the invaders used both. One hugged the Ouse via Stillingfleet and Naburn and the other diverged from the river through Escrick and rejoined the first road at Water Fulford, about two miles south of York, from which point the single road ran parallel with the Ouse into York. As Harald’s army joined up again at Water Fulford, they saw signs of activity ahead. It was Morcar and Edwin with their troops; the brothers had finally decided that there was nothing for it but a pitched battle. From Harald’s point of view there was at least some clarification of the current situation in England for his political intelligence was out of date and, as Freeman put it: ‘Harald Hardrada must have set sail, hardly knowing whether he would find the shores of Northumberland guarded by the axes of England or the lances of Normandy.’44

Half a mile from York, at Fulford Gate on 20 September, Edwin and Morcar’s men formed rank for the first of the year’s three great battles. Roughly equal in numbers with the Norsemen, and consisting partly of the earl’s housecarls and partly the local levy, Morcar’s army was drawn up across the road with its right flank resting on the river and the left on a boundary ditch, beyond which there was broad and deep boggy ground. We may well imagine that Morcar and Edwin felt trepidation, for they liked to avoid battle if possible, and this time they were faced with the flower of Scandinavia, and not merely two hundred of Tostig’s housecarls outnumbered and taken by surprise. We may surmise that the brothers did not like the odds but, in light of the Saxons’ notorious hopelessness in defending their towns, they had no choice.

From Harald’s position, his left sloped gently away to the river, while his right stretched across rising ground as far as the ditch, with the marsh beyond. The weak spot in Harald’s position was the right wing, and it was there, whether by accident or design, that the English launched their first attack. A vigorous Saxon charge at first carried all before it, but then the seemingly victorious English were taken in the flank by Harald and the Norwegian left, who seem to have rolled up the enemy right in a trice. With the royal standard, the Land-Ravager, Harald and his picked praetorians smashed into the thick of battle. For perhaps ten minutes there was ferocious hand-to-hand combat, then the enveloped Saxons broke and fled. Trying to escape the pincer movement, the English veered away into the marsh, where they floundered in the bog until cut down or sucked into quicksands; those who tried flight on the other side mostly drowned in the Ouse. Soon the marsh and the ditches were clogged with human bodies, to the point where the Norwegians waded in blood and marched over the impacted corpses as if on a solid causeway.45

The pitiful remnants of the English army followed Morcar and Edwin back to York, which formally surrendered on 24 September. The city agreed to feed the Norwegian host, to join Harald on his march south and to give hostages at an agreed location next day. Harald’s mild treatment of the town belied his ferocious reputation but he was, after all, trying to win hearts and minds and he noted with satisfaction that there was a great deal of latent pro-Norwegian feeling in the city. So far the strategy recommended by Tostig was working out well, for after Fulford Bridge the whole of northern England seemed with him in his attempt to conquer England, showing how much hatred of the West Saxons still remained. Morcar and Edwin appear to have made their peace with the king, protesting that they had done all, and more, that was owed to loyalty to Harold by their efforts on the battlefield.46

Suspicion about the attitudes of Morcar and Edwin may well have been the reason why Harold Godwinson took his samurai-like decision to proceed north by forced marches and take the Norwegians by surprise. No other explanation really fits the chronology of the campaign, for, if Harald had waited until he had word of the Viking landfall at Riccall, he could not have been at York by 25 September. Harold must have guessed, from the sack of Scarborough and the dispersal of Morcar’s levies at Holderness, that this was no raid and required the kind of energetic action he could not trust the new Earl of Northumbria to take. He still regarded the threat from Normandy as the greater one, but reckoned it might be possible to steal north, defeat Hardrada, and still be in time to deal with William. He made his dispositions on two possible scenarios: on the best case, he would defeat the Norwegians and return south before the Normans could cross the Channel; on the worst case, he would keep enough troops in Sussex to bottle William up near his beachhead until he could return to deal with him.47

Taking his brother Gyrth with him, and with his housecarls and such other troops as he could spare from the defence of the south, Harold marched north in seven divisions, pressing volunteers as he went. The speed of his advance has always drawn superlatives from historians used to the ponderous pace of medieval warfare, but it may be that a good deal of his force was on horseback and that, as was the custom with Anglo-Saxon armies, they dismounted before fighting. There have always been those who maintain that the precipitate march north was a bad mistake, that a more machiavellian man might have allowed Hardrada to crush Morcar and Edwin definitively and so scotch for ever the myth of the viability of an independent Northumbria. Others claim that he should have withdrawn and allowed Hardrada and William to fight over the kingdom, himself ready to intervene at the right time as tertius gaudens. Certainly the stress of having to make snap decisions on such crucial matters took its toll on Harold. There are extant sources which suggest he was ill for much of 1066. During the march north, particularly, he was said to have been up all one night with a violent pain in his leg; when praying at dawn for release from the malady, he fell into a trance and had a vision of victory over the Norwegians.48

Hardrada meanwhile agreed to a handover of 150 children from the prominent families of Yorkshire as surety for their loyalty and offered to exchange hostages of his own to seal the bargain. On the evening of the 24th the Norwegians returned to their ships at Riccall, laden with vast amounts of booty uplifted from York as a ‘peace offering’. But Harald’s most pressing problem was his food supply, for his mighty host was running into the same shortages that Roger of Montgomery surmounted so brilliantly for the Normans at Dives. The burghers of York pledged themselves to bring in food from a wide catchment area, but pointed to the exiguous supplies in York itself. It was therefore agreed that the formal handover of the hostages would take place at Stamford Bridge on the Derwent, a tributary of the Ouse, seven or eight miles to the north-east, which was a suitable point for assembling the cattle and grain of the county and for bringing in mounts for the move south. The venue was doubtless chosen as a nodal point for magnates from the important population centres – the Wolds, the Vale of Pickering, the east side of the Vale of York – to make their submission.49

Monday 25 September was one of the most dramatic days in English history. The morning was bright, clear and sunny and in the broiling heat Harald made two bad decisions. First, he allowed his men to proceed to the Stamford Bridge rendezvous dangerously underequipped; they left behind on the ships their shields, helmets, coats of mail and spears, taking only their swords and a few bows and arrows. Then, supremely overconfident, Harald decided that only one in three of the army should accompany him, so that only about 5,000 troops were on the march with him and Tostig; Olaf, Eystein Orri, Paul Thorfinsson and his brother Erlend were left behind on shipboard. Harald’s men set off in high spirits, their previous misgivings apparently laid to rest, tracing a route running through Escrick, Wheldrake, Elvington and Kexby, keeping on the right bank of the river and following a low ridge about fifty feet above sea-level. Near the bridge they found a convergence of several Roman roads: from York to Bridlington via Gate Helmsley; to Thornton-le-Street and Newcastle; and two separate roads to Malton, one of which crossed the York-Bridlington road about a mile from Stamford Bridge.50

That very morning Harold Godwinson, who had arrived at Tadcaster late on the 24th, was approaching York on a converging route, having been brought up-to-date about Fulford Gate and the surrender of York. The speed of his advance was rivalled only by its unexpectedness: the Norse intelligence system was evidently lamentable – perhaps they had grown complacent after their defeat of Morcar and Edwin – and, even more remarkably, none of the citizens through whose towns Harold’s army had passed thought of making himself a small fortune by riding to the Norsemen with a warning. Harold probably left Tadcaster around 6 a.m. and arrived in York three hours later. The arrival of this large force from the south must have caused a sensation in York, doubtless eliciting an ambivalent response; we do not know how Harold was greeted in the city, only that there was no resistance.

Pausing briefly for rest in York, Harold considered his options. He could build a rampart at York and await attack, but Saxons were useless at resisting sieges, there was not enough food and water in the city for his army, and he was anyway greatly outnumbered by the combined forces of the Norwegians. He could attack the Viking fleet at Riccall, but he lacked the ships for a successful amphibious assault. That left him with the option that most appealed to him personally: to attack the smaller Norse force at Stamford Bridge. Getting his men into line once more, Harold pressed on, following the Roman road via Gate Helmsley to Stamford Bridge. The first indication the Norwegians had of the enemy was when the English came over the brow of the gradual slope running down from Gate Helmsley to Stamford Bridge.51

The Norsemen were collecting cattle on the right side of Stamford Bridge, having thrown no scouts out on the Gate Helmsley road; there may have been a few units lounging desultorily on the left-hand bank and the bridge itself was certainly guarded. Suddenly they were aware of a great cloud of dust, then they began to make out the distinct shapes of soldiers, whom Hardrada at first foolishly thought had been sent on as an afterthought by his son Olaf. Once they learned the truth, Tostig was all for a fighting retreat back to Riccall and reinforcements, even though the English occupied the only viable route back, but Hardrada was determined to stand his ground; he did, however, send his best riders back to the fleet to ask Eystein Orri to come with all speed. Then he formed a circular shield-wall with Land-Ravager in the centre.52

Before battle was joined, there were a number of verbal skirmishes – some of them doubtless apocryphal – eagerly recorded by the saga writers. Hardrada was said to have been thrown when his horse became skittish (yet another alleged stumble!) and to have passed off the incident with the remark that a fall is lucky for a traveller. Harold Godwinson, seeing a man fall from a black horse, is said to have asked who was the rider and, when told it was Harald, to have remarked that Hardrada’s luck had deserted him.53We are on firmer ground when it comes to the details of the preliminary horse-trading, for the sources have the circumstantial ring of truth. Interestingly, it is Tostig who emerges as the knight sans peur et sans reproche.

Harold and twenty of his housecarls rode up to the foot of the bridge on the left bank of the Derwent to parley; Harald, Tostig and a small bodyguard rode over to meet them. Harold, posing as his own herald, promised Tostig that if he returned to the Godwinson fold he would be rewarded not just with the return of his earldom but with one-third of all England. Tostig asked what would happen to Harald Hardrada. ‘We will give him seven feet of ground or as much more as he is taller than other men,’ was the uncompromising reply. Tostig answered that it would never be said of him that he brought the king of Norway to England only to betray him. He turned on his horse and rode away; Hardrada, who understood very little English but followed the ‘herald’s’ body language very well, followed him and asked who it was who had spoken so boldly. Tostig answered that it was his brother Harold. Hardrada said that if he had known he would have killed him on the spot. Tostig answered, that he could also never be the murderer of a brother who had offered him friendship and dominion; if one of them had to die, he preferred Harold to kill him. Harald grunted, then remarked rather patronizingly that Harold stood very well in his stirrups for such a small man. Since Harold Godwinson was at least 5 feet 11 inches tall, we may take this as an instance of Hardrada’s vanity about his great height.54

The battle began on the York side of the river, with the English trying to get possession of the bridge and the valiant Norse vanguard fighting a delaying action to allow Hardrada to deploy his men most effectively on the right bank. It is clear that the Horatius-like stand at the bridge held the English up far longer than expected, and we hear of a single giant Norwegian warrior who is supposed to have slain forty Saxons with a battle-axe. If Harold had archers, it is surprising that he did not take this defender out with long-range arrow fire, but perhaps this option clashed with his notion of chivalry; this would be consistent with the story that the defender was offered clemency by the English as a mark of their admiration for his valour, but he refused it and taunted his foes with being a pack of cowards. In the end the attackers lost patience and all thoughts of chivalry were thrown to the winds. The English launched a boat and one of them stood in the vessel and thrust a long pike up through the wooden planking of the bridge, dealing a mortal wound to the Viking hero.55

It was 3 p.m. by the time the English poured across the bridge to get to grips with Hardrada’s main force, three hundred yards from the right bank of the river. Harald had tried to take advantage of a slight slope by drawing his men up in a more linear formation than usual, long but not deep, only too aware that he was badly outnumbered. His best hope was to knock the English off balance by a sudden counterattack, as at Fulford Gate, where he had secured his flanks in difficult terrain. As a further refinement, he kept his personal retinue of axemen at a distance from the main body but bent the line round on itself to form a circle that could not be outflanked. This was cumbersome, restricted mobility, revealed a kind of siege mentality and invited a Cannae-style encirclement, but Viking warfare was marked by an obsession with vulnerable flanks.56

Furious hand-to-hand combat now ensued, housecarl against berserker, sword against sword, axe against axe. Outnumbered, without their armour and most of their weapons, the Norsemen stood little chance and were soon being cut down in their hundreds. The shield-wall was then breached, which provoked Hardrada to rush out into the open in berserker fury, only to be slain almost immediately, possibly, as the sagas relate, by an arrow in the windpipe. In his last moments on earth, Harald had not lost his taste for heroic poetry. As the English poured across the bridge, he dictated a poem to his scribe: ‘We march forward in battle-array without our corselets to meet the dark blades; helmets shine but I have not mine, for now our armour lies down on the ships.’ Then Harald decided this was a bad poem and would not inspire his men. In a singsong voice he yelled out a composition richer in kennings and metrically superior, which was recorded thus: ‘We do not creep in battle under the shelter of shields before the crash of weapons; this is what the loyal goddess of the hawk’s hand [sc. Woman] commanded us. The bearer of the necklace told me long ago to hold the prop of the helmet [sc. the head] high in the din of weapons, when the valkyrie’s ice [sc. sword] met the skulls of men.’57

Harald’s death was the perfect ending to the career of a great Norse warrior, utterly befitting the man who was the last of the Vikings. As always when a great leader was killed in medieval warfare, there was a lull as his followers hesitated about what to do next. Seeing a chance to avoid further loss of life – he could not afford casualties with William still to deal with – Harold offered terms to the Norsemen if they would surrender. But when Tostig ostentatiously took his stand by Land-Ravager, his men roared their defiance and the Norwegians announced their resolve to die around their slain lord. The second act of the battle then commenced, with combat bloodier than ever; soon Tostig himself was dead along with the unnamed king from Ireland, and only Godred Grovan remained of the luminaries. The English cut down their foemen by the hundreds, driving many into the Derwent to drown there, all the time taking heavy casualties themselves. It may be, as has been suggested, that the main victims in the second phase of the battle were Tostig’s Flemish mercenaries, since the only prominent Norseman recorded as falling then was the Icelander Brand. But whether the dead were largely Tostig’s men or Harald’s berserkers, soon there were few left of the 5,000 who had marched out from the longships so cheerfully that morning.58

Harold and his men were left in possession of the battlefield for only a matter of minutes before the final, and most ferocious, act of the battle took place. Eystein Orri proved a worthy choice as Harald’s would-be son-in-law. As soon as Harald’s messengers reached the longships at Riccall, Eystein and his warriors donned their heavy coats of mail and set off for Stamford Bridge at the double, sweltering in the afternoon sun. It must have taken them three hours to reach the battlefield, for Eystein had to work out a new line of march: had he followed Hardrada’s route of that morning, he would have found himself in the English rear, on the wrong side of the bridge. Improvising rapidly and doubtless with the help of local guides pressed into service at swordpoint, Orri found a route that took him through Wheldrake to the bridge at Kexby, where the Norwegians crossed and made their way across country via Catton or Wilberfoss to the Stamford Bridge-Gagfoss road; they then formed up in battle order and came crashing in on the enemy right from a southerly direction.59

Tired from the long march and sweltering in the heat, the Norsemen yet gave a good account of themselves. Their fearsome charge – later made legendary as ‘the storm of Orri’ – nearly succeeded in breaking the English, but Harold’s men stood firm and fought them to a standstill. The dreadful, close-combat slaughter continued until nightfall, by which time Eystein Orri and most of his lieutenants were all dead. Under cover of darkness the rank and file stole away, leaving Harold in possession of the field after almost an entire day’s continuous fighting. Harold took severe losses – far more than he could afford – but the most shocking aspect of Stamford Bridge was the near-annihilation of the huge Norwegian army. The loss of life cannot be as great as in the sagas, where it is related that only twenty-four longships returned to Norway (perhaps this means there were only twenty-four vessels that had not sustained fatalities), but Monday 25 September was an utter disaster for Norway, from which it took years to recover.60

The English pursued the defeated Norsemen to Riccall, and fired some of the longships. At Stamford Bridge the body of Tostig was found (and buried at York) but most of his comrades were never formally laid to rest; the bones of the slain lay bleaching for years, along with the skeletons of dead horses and their iron horseshoes. Among the few Viking grandees to escape was Hardrada’s new marshal, Styrkar, appointed a few months before on the death of Ulf Ospaksson. Styrkar stumbled away from the evening slaughter in his shirt and encountered an English carter who was wearing a leather coat. Styrkar offered to buy it, but the man taunted him with being a defeated Norwegian, whereupon Styrkar cut off his head, took the coat and horse and rode to the Humber estuary.61

The twenty-year-old Olaf Haraldsson, the notable man of peace, was now in command of the battered remnants of the Norsemen. He at once asked for terms from Harold and was allowed to depart in peace with his ships; Harold realized that the Norwegians would not pose a threat again for a generation, and that to wage war to the knife on a cornered foe would simply result in further heavy casualties to his army – which he could ill afford. Olaf also asked for leave to bury his father’s body, but for some reason this was not immediately surrendered and Skule Kongfroste had to return from the Orkneys for it later. Olaf stood away from Spurn Head at the mouth of the Humber, wintered in the Orkneys with Paul and Erlend, then, having received Harald’s corpse from Skule, took it with him to Norway in the spring of 1067 and buried it in St Mary’s church, Nidaros (Trondheim). Magnus, who had ruled wisely as regent, reigned peacefully with his brother until his early death in 1069. Olaf the Quiet then reigned until 1093. Hardrada’s wife,Elizabeth, and his daughter Ingigerd returned to Norway, but his favourite daughter, Maria, died suddenly in September 1066 – legend said in the very hour of her father’s death.62

Stamford Bridge confirmed that Harold Godwinson was a general of great talent. Even if we concede that he was lucky to catch Hardrada with only a third of his army, and lightly armed, and that he was able to defeat the Norwegians piecemeal, this was surely a case of fortune favouring the brave. His forced march north was an outstanding exploit in itself, whatever judgement we form on its ultimate wisdom. But while he rested for two days in York, he could allow himself only temporary euphoria. At a council held the day after Stamford Bridge, all agreed he must start for the south at once to deal with the Norman menace. The army with which he had fought Hardrada was in no shape for another battle, so Harold set off south with just his housecarls.63

Two decisions taken by Harold at York were to have serious consequences. First, he announced, even as he called for volunteers, that there would be no distribution of the plunder taken from the Norwegians and that it would be left in the care of Archbishop Ealdred. Two interpretations of this ill-judged action are possible. It may simply be that Harold’s coffers were empty, that he needed money for the war against the Normans, and could not be lavish with treasure. Or possibly the explanation is that most of the loot was in the form of captured ships and naval impedimenta with which he intended to rebuild his fleet. Whatever the explanation, his refusal to implement some form of prize money caused dismay in the ranks; many men deserted instantly, others declared they would never serve such an ungrateful lord.64

Secondly, Harold made the egregious mistake of both trusting and not trusting the sons of Aelfgar. He trusted them in the sense that he exhorted them to follow him south at all speed with their housecarls and levies and counted on their support, but did not trust them in the sense that he appointed his man Meruleswegen as his deputy in the north, with the title of acting sheriff. Morcar and Edwin took the appointment as an insult, but it is doubtful in any case if they intended following Harold to London. Still obsessed with their separatist schemes for an independent Northumbria, they considered their best interests would be served by a Norman victory, so did not take their forces to the muster in the south. Their foolish idea that William would divide England with them reveals their breathtaking naivety.65

Harold got his housecarls mounted and started south, passing through Stamford and accomplishing the journey to London in eight days. Somewhere on the way south, he heard the news he had been dreading. Three days after Stamford Bridge the Normans had landed on the south coast and were now ravaging Sussex. Harold is said to have exclaimed that it would have been better if he had given Tostig all he wanted, both in 1065 and at Stamford Bridge, rather than drink this chalice. In his heart he knew he was faced with his greatest crisis yet.

Image Missing

The site of the Battle of Hastings

If you find an error please notify us in the comments. Thank you!