By 1065 Edward the Confessor was ageing: ‘with locks of snowy white he blooms’, but he was still seemingly in good health.1 The question of the succession was as open as ever. Probably more as a political counter than from any great favour for one or the other, Edward had at various times given hope of the succession to William, duke of Normandy, and Harold Godwinson, earl of Wessex. One can make this interpretation since both were able apparently with confidence to believe they were Edward’s choice, and yet the old king had never made any formal or public declaration of his intentions.

If he favoured anyone it was probably for a time his relative Edward the Exile, son of Edmund Ironside and grandson of Aethelred II, whom he had sought out in Hungary and invited to England. That Edward the Exile was brought to England after the Confessor’s promise to William seems fairly convincing proof that if the king ever had favoured the succession going to William, he had changed his mind by the late 1050s. It is true that William was his first cousin once removed, which marauded as a claim after the Conquest, but in truth gave faint right. Even fainter was Harold’s claim, as the king’s brother-in-law, no right by heredity at all. Neither William nor Harold, nor for that matter Harold Hardrada in Norway, had any close claim to the English throne by descent, so that Edward the Exile seemed the most likely choice to continue the line of old Wessex kings. His only real rival, in terms of relationship, was Ralph, earl of Hereford, who was Edward the Confessor’s nephew. Ralph’s parents were Edward’s sister Godifu and the count of Mantes. He too had been shown favour by the Confessor, who had brought him to England after his accession, and made him an earl. But Earl Ralph died in 1057.


The relatives of Edward the Confessor.

Edward the Exile had three children including a son, Edgar the Aetheling, who had come to England with him. But, as we have seen, Edward the Exile died on arriving in England, also in 1057, and with him probably died any clear intentions of the Confessor for the future of his throne. With the deaths of his two closest relatives, Edward probably accepted Harold Godwinson as the powerful claimant nearest to the throne, but it is unlikely that he felt any great enthusiasm that his crown should go to a commoner who was the son of his old rival, Earl Godwin. There were some who, now that the father was dead, did favour Edgar the Aetheling for the throne, perhaps initially this even included members of the Godwin family and Harold himself.2

But Edward the Confessor, no doubt contemplating difficult times ahead and the tender years of his relative, does not seem to have given Edgar the Aetheling his support. Many others were concerned that Edgar was simply too young to cope with the problems which loomed for the successor; he was only about five when his father died. Even by 1066 he was only fifteen, had not received an earldom or been given estates of great value, and so had no significant following. Edgar’s claims remained important, and would be raised again, but he played only a small part in the events of 1066. Only the strongest man was likely to succeed in the circumstances.

On Christmas Eve 1065 Edward the Confessor was seriously ill, perhaps having suffered a stroke. His piety overcame his weakness, ‘the holy man disguised his sickness’, and he was still able to come to table in his robes on Christmas Day, though he had no appetite, and go on to attend a Christian service.3 The effort proved too much for him, and on the following day he had to stay in bed. He was not well enough on 28 December to get to another event which he must have greatly desired to attend, the consecration of the great new church at Westminster. Queen Edith had to stand in for him.

After Christmas, the Confessor gradually sank into a coma. However, after two days he recovered consciousness sufficiently to retail a rather garbled vision which he had experienced. He told of a dream about two monks he had once known in Normandy, both long dead. They gave him a message from God, criticising the heads of the Church in England, and promising that the kingdom within a year would go to the hands of an enemy: ‘devils shall come through all this land with fire and sword and the havoc of war’. This certainly smacks of a tale told with hindsight. There followed a strange forecast relating to a green tree cut in half.4 This was probably no more intelligible to his hearers than it is to us. His wife went on compassionately warming the old man’s feet in her lap.

This may have given rise to the suggestion that Edward’s mind was disordered. Those at the bedside whispered together about the king’s words. They included Harold Godwinson, Robert fitz Wimarc and Archbishop Stigand. The latter, no doubt irritated by the visionary reference to failings among those at the head of the English Church, suggested that ‘the king was broken with disease and knew not what he said’.

But the deathbed wishes seem utterly sane and sensible. As those close to him wept at his condition, he made his last requests. He praised Queen Edith, who was there beside him, for the zealous solicitude of her service: ‘she has served me devotedly, and has always stood close by my side like a beloved daughter’. He asked Harold to give protection to Edith: ‘do not take away any honour that I have granted her’, suggesting that he was aware of the bad feeling which had grown up between brother and sister over their brother’s fall.5

The king also asked Harold to protect foreigners in England. This implies that he feared the hostility of Harold and others to his continental friends and courtiers. It is also clear that on his deathbed he saw Harold as his likely successor, who might be able to carry out his last wishes. It is impossible to know Harold’s mind, but one interpretation that would fit most of the details we are given by the sources is that Harold in 1064 still had not seen himself as becoming king. He and his family had apparently been happy to favour Edward the Exile until his death. It seems likely that Harold went to Normandy freely, and there is no evidence that he was forced into making oaths to William. He was not the duke’s prisoner, as is often said. He went with the duke on campaign and was knighted by him. In other words, it seems possible that it was only after 1064 that Harold began to consider taking the throne.

The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle states that Edward had ‘entrusted the realm’, had ‘granted’ the kingdom to Harold, while the Vita records that he commended ‘all the kingdom to his protection’. Even the French chronicler William of Poitiers spoke of Harold ‘raised to the throne by Edward’s grant on his deathbed’. Wace, with his usual vivid embroidering, has Harold demanding ‘Consent now that I shall be king’, to which Edward replies, ‘Thou shalt have it, but I know full well that it will cost thee thy life’. The deathbed scene is vividly portrayed on the Bayeux Tapestry, with the unshaven archbishop in attendance on the dying king. Wace has the Confessor going on to mutter: let the English decide to make Harold or William king as they please. But there seems little doubt that at the end Edward was prepared to name Harold as his successor.6

In the early days of the new year, 1066, probably on 5 January, Edward the Confessor died. According to the Vita, his beard gleamed like a lily, and there was a rosy blush on the face of the corpse, and pale hands held as if in sleep. On the following day, the king was buried at Westminster Abbey, built for him in what was then a beautiful spot near the river and open fields, its ‘most lofty vaulting surrounded by dressed stone, evenly jointed’, the roof of wood covered with lead.

John of Worcester wrote that the king was ‘most bitterly mourned, not without tears, by all who were present’.7 When the Confessor’s tomb was opened in 1102, Osbert of Clare described what they found when the stone slab was lifted: the body wrapped in a pall, sceptre by its side, crown on head, ring on finger, sandals on feet. They cut through the pall to reveal a bearded face. Osbert also mentioned a perfumed fragrance. By this time, men were beginning to think of Edward as a saint and the preservation of his body as miraculous. When the tomb was opened a second time, later in the twelfth century, the crown and sceptre were missing, presumably kept by those who had uncovered the tomb in 1102.8

The Tapestry portrays the funeral: the body wrapped and tied in its pall, in a decorated bier marked with a cross at either end. The bier was borne by eight men, four at the front and four at the rear. Beside it are portrayed two small figures, probably their size indicating their humble social rank, who are ringing bells. The bier was followed by a procession of clergy, one carrying a crook, and two carrying what are probably psalters. They move towards the new church of Westminster with its rounded arches and domed tower, the most apposite site for the body of the pious king.9

In England there seemed a general acceptance that Harold Godwinson should be king. Many must have had reservations, but few were prepared to oppose him, and the majority probably thought him the least of the various evils, which included rule by another Scandinavian (Hardrada), by the foreign and unknown William, or by a boy, Edgar, who would find it difficult if not impossible to fight off the rivals. For men in Wessex, Harold was their obvious lord; for earls in the north, he was at least the devil they knew and perhaps respected. Events in any case moved so fast that it is difficult to see any other immediate choice.

On the day of Edward’s burial, Harold Godwinson was proclaimed king, and crowned in the new church at Westminster. The Normans would later claim he had acted with indecent haste, but they could hardly deny that England had accepted him. Those magnates who were in London, no doubt anticipating the old king’s death, favoured Harold. He had achieved some recognition of a special position in the kingdom, being referred to as ‘dux Anglorum’ (duke/general of the English) and ‘subregulus’ (sub-king). The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle says that Harold took the crown ‘as the king had granted it to him, and as he had been chosen’. Even the Bayeux Tapestry, made after the Conquest for a Norman owner, shows the English offering the crown to Harold.10

However, the Tapestry also shows Stigand beside the throne in the next scene, with Harold on the throne.11 Stigand was already under fire from the papacy, and after the Conquest would be displaced as archbishop. To show him, apparently involved in the coronation, hints at its illegitimacy. William of Poitiers directly states that Stigand carried out the ceremony. But it is not certain that this is so. English sources say that Harold was crowned by Eadred, archbishop of York, who had always been on good terms with the Godwin family. Stigand had received the pallium from the antipope ‘Benedict X’ (1058–9), who had been deposed in 1059. The previous archbishop, as we saw, was ejected, and Stigand’s position always remained precarious. But he was still in place as archbishop, and remained there until 1070, and the ceremony was seemingly accepted by the Church, whoever presided. There seems little reason to believe that Harold’s coronation was not legitimate. Comments to the contrary stem from Norman propaganda. Harold Godwinson was king but, as the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle tersely comments, he was to have ‘little quiet’.12

One week into the new year of 1066 and England had a new king in Harold II (January–October 1066). According to the Vita Aedwardi, he was a man who looked the part he now took on, and had a suitable temperament: strong, handsome, graceful, tall, used to living hard as a warrior, with a mild temper and a willingness to understand others, able to act with restraint.13 His most obvious rival was William of Normandy. Others still lurking in the wings were the young Edgar the Aetheling, Sweyn II Estrithsson, king of Denmark (1047–74), and Harold III, king of Norway (1047–66; this was Harold Sigurdsson, better known to us as Harold Hardrada). The success of Cnut in England had linked England to the Scandinavian polity. Cnut had ruled both Denmark and Norway, and his successors as kings in those countries could make some sort of claim to succeed him in England. In turn, each of those kings would attempt to do so.

But the joker in the pack, who initiated the first drama of the new reign, was Harold Godwinson’s own brother Tostig, former earl of Northumbria. Upset by Harold’s failure to assist him in the north, he turned elsewhere for support, anywhere else. He voyaged around northern Europe from Flanders to Norway, contacting the count of Flanders, as well as William the Conqueror and Harold Hardrada. It was Tostig himself of the invaders in 1066 who made the first appearance.

King Harold II had little chance to make anything of his reign. Indeed, we know almost nothing of his acts as king. John of Worcester records promises made at the coronation and says, in a general way, that he did destroy iniquitous laws and establish just ones, and show some favours to the Church. He ordered ealdormen and sheriffs to arrest thieves and wrongdoers, and he made efforts to improve land and sea defences. We know that he placed infantry forces, presumably as garrisons, at key points along the coast.14

The chronicles move immediately to the dramatic events of the year, and there are sadly few administrative documents to inform us. There was little enough time for anything to be done, and what was done was probably thought best forgotten or destroyed once the Conquest had occurred. Harold at least had time to establish himself as king. The successes of his reign were themselves considerable in such a short space. Had the Conqueror lost at Hastings, Harold would have appeared to be a great military figure. There are plenty of signs that he was a man of determination, vigour and ability. But what might have happened remains conjecture. What did happen in his nine months as king is virtually unknown, apart from the conflicts of the year.

One of the few acts we know of was his marriage to Edith, the sister of the northern earls Edwin and Morcar and widow of Gruffydd, Harold’s former enemy in Wales, who had been killed in 1063. The new marriage was an interesting move, and augured well for his good sense on the throne. He had already decided against attacking Morcar, who had displaced his brother in Northumbria, thus alienating Tostig. By the marriage, Harold united the major powers within the kingdom, and its effect was to keep the support of the northern earls in the various invasions of the year.

Harold in the early part of 1066 went to York, presumably to cement his relationship with the family of Leofric. We know that Harold had a long-term mistress in Edith Swanneck, who probably bore him five children, and who was never discarded. But, as so often in this period, the new king was prepared to make a political marriage too. Despite the brevity of his marriage, he apparently had two children by his wife, twins called Ulf and Harold, born presumably after the death of their father.

There is also a strong tradition that during his brief reign, Harold was seriously ill. This stems from material related to his foundation at Waltham Abbey, where he is said to have prayed before his recovery. One source, from that abbey, suggests that he suffered a stroke while the Confessor was alive, and recovered after receiving a holy cross. These are not particularly reliable sources, but there may be some truth in the illness.15

Harold was at Westminster at Easter in April, and soon afterwards Halley’s comet appeared in the sky, inspiring the various prognostications of disaster we have already noted. The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle records that it was first seen in England on 24 April, and ‘shone all the week’. Soon afterwards came the first hostile arrival on the shores of the country. In May Harold’s brother Tostig brought a fleet of some sixty ships to the Isle of Wight, ‘as large a fleet as he could muster’, together with money and provisions which he had been given.16

Tostig received aid from the Orkneys, which is significant since the islands were under the authority of Hardrada, and that king would soon arrive there himself. It suggests strongly that Snorri was right, and Tostig had made earlier arrangements with Hardrada over the attack on England. This is partly confirmed by John of Worcester’s account, which says Tostig joined Hardrada ‘as he had previously promised’.17 Other aid was probably from the count of Flanders, who perhaps expected Tostig to aid William of Normandy’s efforts rather than those of Harold Hardrada. Tostig’s own intentions were most probably to recover his lost earldom of Northumbria. He moved on eventually to Thanet, where he was joined by his former lieutenant in Northumbria, Copsi, who brought with him seventeen ships from the Orkneys. They made several damaging raids on their way, and sailed northwards into the Humber.18

When Tostig had reached Sandwich, news of his arrival reached his brother in London. Harold then mobilised his own land and sea forces, the former ‘larger than any king had assembled before in the country’.19 This was partly because Harold was unsure of the nature of the reported force. The Chronicle says that ‘he had been told that William the Bastard meant to come here and conquer this country’, but this invasion was not led by William, and the early mobilisation had unfortunate consequences for Harold later in the year.

The king’s new brothers-in-law, the northern earls Edwin and Morcar, now repaid his attentions to them. They heard of Tostig’s raid in Lindsey, and came to deal with him. They drove him off, and some of his men deserted. Eventually, Tostig sailed to the safety of Scotland with only twelve small ships, where Malcolm Canmore gave him refuge. Malcolm’s predecessor, Macbeth, had offered threats to northern England, and these increased under Malcolm. After the death of Earl Siward, Northumbrian power had declined, so that the Scots offered a very real threat. Northumbria itself was not a clear political unity and in effect was often two separate entities, with centres at Bamburgh and York.20 Malcolm’s interest in Tostig shows that his own interests in northern England were not dead; from 1054 he attacked Northumbria on five occasions. But the reduction in size of Tostig’s force demonstrates the degree of success of the attack by the northern earls against him.

Tostig’s arrival proved a minor probe as the events of the year unwound. He was but the herald of more threatening invaders. The second force to reach the shore came from Norway and was led by Harold Hardrada. Hardrada had led a spectacular and heroic life, which made him a hero in later literature, especially in the sagas of Snorri Sturlusson. Some of this work, written in the thirteenth century in Iceland, is clearly dubious factually, but nevertheless, it gives some interesting material on Hardrada’s career, seen by the editors of Snorri as ‘one of the most remarkable and memorable of the medieval kings of Norway’.

Some of Snorri’s writing was based closely on older lost works and where these can be identified Snorri can be useful – sometimes he tells us the source. Some of Hardrada’s life was taken from the earlier Saint Olaf’s Saga (about Hardrada’s brother), but other sections are less reliable and possibly invented. The following account of Hardrada’s career, from childhood until his arrival in England, is taken largely from Snorri’s Heimskringla, and should be treated with the care that material from such a source deserves. But, even if partly legendary, it is the only full account we have of Hardrada’s life, and it presents a picture of the king which rings true in its general effect, if not always in its detail.21

As a child, according to Snorri, Hardrada showed his individual character. When the king pulled faces at his two older brothers they both were so afraid that they wept, but Harold simply stared back. When the king then pulled his hair, he retaliated by pulling the king’s moustache. Another story was that Harold with his two brothers was asked on one occasion what in the world they most wanted. The others answered corn and cattle, but Hardrada’s answer was warriors.

Hardrada’s brother, St Olaf, was killed in the battle of Stiklestad near Trondheim in Norway in 1030, fought during an eclipse of the sun. Hardrada stood beside him bravely in the battle and was wounded. Afterwards he found refuge in a farmhouse while his wounds healed, and then was forced to flee Norway for Sweden and then Russia, eventually going to Byzantium with five hundred men. He sought employment in the imperial service, and was hired by the Eastern Emperor Michael IV, the Paphlagonian (1034–41). During this period he helped suppress pirates in the Greek islands, took part in the Byzantine conquest of Sicily between 1038 and 1041, aided the suppression of revolt in Bulgaria by Peter Delyan, and went on an expedition to the Holy Land. Under Michael V (1041–2) and then the Empress Zoë, Hardrada was commander of the Varangian Guard. By this time, Harold wished to return to Norway. When he was repeatedly refused permission, his attitude led to imprisonment, and on his release he simply left. Snorri explains this as part of a love tangle with the Empress and her niece, both of whom wanted to marry Harold, and his release as occurring with the aid of his saintly brother’s appearance from beyond the grave. It is difficult to know how much of all this can be accepted as fact, but there is little doubt that Hardrada did serve in the imperial guard.

Then Harold returned to Novgorod, where Snorri says he married Elizabeth, the daughter of King Jaroslav.22 Back in Scandinavia, Harold soon began to play a part in local politics. Magnus I the Good, the son of Hardrada’s brother St Olaf, had become king of Norway (1035–47) and of Denmark (1042–7). Magnus and Hardrada were soon at loggerheads, but eventually agreed to share the crown of Norway. In return, Harold gave his nephew a share in the wealth he had brought back with him. Hardrada assisted Magnus in the restoration of authority in Denmark, and on Magnus’ death, Norway went to Hardrada and Denmark to Sweyn II Estrithsson (1047–74). The latter was the son of Earl Ulf, formerly regent of Denmark for Cnut, and Cnut’s daughter, Estrith.23

King Harold Hardrada married a second time, to Thora, daughter of Thorberg Arnason, by whom he had two sons. Hardrada was reputed to be a domineering ruler; ‘scarcely anyone dared to argue with him’, his great height and strength no doubt enforcing his arguments. He treated opposition ruthlessly. A spokesman for opposing farmers, Einar, was simply hacked to pieces in the king’s presence, while farmers who opposed him or refused to pay taxes had their homes burned down: ‘flames cured the peasants/Of disloyalty to Harold’. He alienated some of his own supporters, including his nephews Asmund and Guthorm, as well as Earl Hakon who deserted to Sweyn.

It was not long before Hardrada also quarrelled with Sweyn Estrithsson. The Norwegian king assembled an army and a fleet and headed south, his great ship with seventy oars moving ‘like an eagle with wings flapping’. He fought against Sweyn in the sea battle of Nissa in 1062, in what is now Sweden, where ‘blood gushed into the ocean’. Harold is said to have used a bow during the battle. In the end, the Danish fleet broke, and Hardrada boarded his rival’s ship, though Sweyn himself managed to escape.


Kings of Denmark.


Kings of Norway.

Now Hardrada began to interest himself in the situation in England. The Scandinavians all had some links with that country, through Cnut and his sons. Both Sweyn and Hardrada saw some possibilities for themselves in the kingdom where Edward the Confessor was growing old and had no obvious heir, and where descendants of Scandinavian settlers were strong all along the east coast. According to Snorri, Harold Godwinson’s brother Earl Tostig visited Hardrada in Norway at Oslo Fjord, and asked for aid in England. He says Tostig was aiming at the crown, though this does seem unlikely. Indeed, Snorri goes on to make Tostig offer aid to Hardrada if he should seek the crown of England. There is no doubt that the crown seemed a possibility for Hardrada, who had already gained one kingdom by determination and force rather than by right or inheritance. Snorri’s account here is not impossible. He then says that Harold Hardrada determined to invade England, and Tostig went on to Flanders. Snorri’s figure for a fleet of over 200 ships roughly agrees with other sources.

At this point, with Hardrada arriving in England, we become less dependent on Snorri since English sources give accounts of the events which followed. Even so, Snorri’s controversial account of the battle of Stamford Bridge has far more detail than any other version. But, as suggested before, it does not seem to come from any useful older work, and may be rather an adaptation of an account of the battle of Hastings – he even has Hardrada killed by an arrow. We shall therefore not follow Snorri from this point, though we may have cause to note his view from time to time. We must also bear in mind that events were now building to a violent climax. We shall look back shortly to see what has been happening in Normandy, and it is vital to realise that Harold Godwinson knew of the threat from that direction and had to consider his defence against William, as well as having to deal with the invader who had already arrived.

Harold Hardrada assembled his force at Bergen, and sailed in September. His eldest son was left to govern Norway. On his way to England he picked up support from the Orkneys, where the sons of Thorfinn joined him, and then began to raid along the east coast of England: at Cleveland, Scarborough and Holderness. The northern earls, Edwin and Morcar, had seen off Tostig, but the latter rejoined Hardrada at some point before Stamford Bridge, probably before Gate Fulford.24

Hardrada landed at Riccall and advanced towards York. The army of the northern earls emerged from the city to face him as he approached the River Ouse. The first of the three major battles in England during the year was then fought on 20 September at Gate Fulford, just south of York – now a suburb of the city. The battle lasted ‘for a long time’, but the English were defeated, and many died escaping across the river or being pursued into the swampy ground nearby, making ‘a causeway of corpses’. The two earls survived and made their peace with the Norwegian king.25

Harold Godwinson, it will be recalled, had summoned his forces early in the year. By September, when the most common period for invasion was over, he could hold his men together no longer, and the land and sea fyrds were dismissed. The ships were to dock in London. This did not, of course, leave him without any troops at all, but it did weaken the coastal defences, and it was clearly an exhausting year for both the troops who remained in arms and those who would shortly be recalled. John of Worcester’s description of this move suggests strongly that Harold retained the mounted part of his army.26 When Harold Godwinson heard of the landing of Hardrada in Yorkshire, he desperately sought to assemble a large force once more. But he could not do miracles, and the first line of defence had to be the local force of the northern earls, which had been defeated at Gate Fulford.

Hardrada rested on his laurels. He made an agreement with the citizens of York, and used his fleet at Riccall as a base. According to Gaimar, the invaders carried off cattle, but part of the agreement was for provision of food. The Norwegian king also demanded 150 hostages, leaving an equal number of his own men in the city.27 So while Harold was making a rapid and draining march north, Hardrada was replenishing his strength. Hardrada, awaiting the fulfilment of the agreement, brought his army to the fields near the River Derwent, close by the crossing at Stamford Bridge. But Hardrada had only occupied the site for a day when Harold of England made his unexpected appearance.

It would be of great interest to know what unmounted men Harold Godwinson had at his disposal. It is unlikely that men marched on foot from the south, while many of the northern men had been involved at Gate Fulford, and Harold’s haste did not allow time to wait and magnify his force. The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle says that he went north ‘as quickly as he could assemble his force’. The parallels between this situation and that of Hastings are not often noted, but they are clearly worth consideration. Probably it was survivors from Gate Fulford, and some from areas near to Yorkshire, that provided the infantry for Harold at Stamford Bridge. At any rate, Godwinson raised a good army, ‘with many thousands of well-armed fighting men’. Harold’s march north has been seen by the historian of the battle as ‘one of the greatest feats of military manoeuvre in medieval history’, which is laying it on a bit thick, though it was certainly a creditable performance.28

The rapid march paid dividends. The invaders were taken by surprise. Godwinson reached Tadcaster on 24 September, less than 10 miles from York. There he rested overnight and then set off early next morning, Monday 25 September, to deal with Hardrada. He marched straight on through York, which shows that the citizens were not prepared to make any military effort to back their agreement with Hardrada. Godwinson headed eastwards from York, towards the Derwent and the enemy.

There is a bridge over the Derwent at Stamford Bridge now, and there was one then; the river is wide and deep and difficult to cross so the bridge was vital. It has been suggested that it was placed differently, but it is probably close to its ancient position.29Hardrada’s army was in the open countryside on the far side of the river. It is flat, open ground, as it was then, damp and rather swampy. One reason to discount Snorri’s account of English cavalry is that the ground would have been most unsuitable for such warfare.30

The enemy army was in disarray. The alarm came too late. Some of the troops were still miles away with the fleet in Riccall. Hardrada’s only hope was to hold the bridge, and a few men made a valiant effort to do this. Early accounts, not only later legendary ones, mention the defence of the bridge by a big Norwegian, who held off the men trying to cross.31 He was overcome, or perhaps undercome, when the English sent a boat along the Derwent and a man from below thrust a weapon, probably a spear, through the planking of the bridge, killing the hero in a particularly painful manner. This story presents a problem: if the English had archers here, as generally accepted, why did they not shoot the man? If they did indeed have archers, the story would seem to be a fabrication. We are left with a doubt over both the presence of English archers and the tale of the defender of the bridge.

The English crossed the bridge. The Norwegians were still frantically attempting to get into some order, Hardrada prominent in his blue tunic. They tried to hold the area known as Battle Flats, slightly higher than the surrounding ground. Snorri says that the Norwegian king’s hauberk was called Emma, and that he fought two-handed with a sword.

The English charged straight in and broke the Norwegians apart, though fighting continued until ‘late in the day’.32 Snorri has men from the fleet arriving while the battle was in progress, and one of them, Eystein Orri, took up Hardrada’s fallen banner Landwaster, thus prolonging the battle. The conflict was ‘very fierce fought on both sides’, becoming ‘a most bitter battle’, but it turned into a massacre.33

There was a massive slaughter. A few escaped, among them Hardrada’s marshal, Styrkar. Snorri gives an account of how he got away in just a shirt and helmet. He came upon a cart whose driver had a leather coat and offered to buy it, but the man said he knew Styrkar was a Norwegian and refused. Styrkar cut off his head, took the coat and the horse, and rode to the coast. The English pursued the defeated troops to the coast, where some of the ships were set on fire.34

Three hundred invading ships had arrived, five hundred according to one account, and twenty-four at most sufficed to take away the survivors.35 Hardrada’s son Olaf was one of those allowed to go. Among the dead left on the field were the old warrior Harold Hardrada, and Tostig, the embittered brother of the English king. The local legend that Hardrada survived to live the life of a peasant in a hut may safely be discounted. According to Orderic Vitalis, there was still in his day ‘a great mountain of dead men’s bones’ marking the field.36

Harold Godwinson’s career and reign was short and tragic, but he had his moment of glory. The Norwegian invasion was probably greater in terms of numbers than the Norman one which followed. Harold must have gained enormous confidence from his decisive victory. Had Hastings gone the other way, he would have been seen as one of our greatest warrior kings, which indeed he was. In the long run, Stamford Bridge had important consequences: it narrowed the field of competitors for control of England to two, and it did much to shift England away from the Scandinavian threat which had dogged it for a long period.

And so we move in our narrative to the last and most fateful invasion of England in 1066. William of Normandy had made careful preparations. We have seen how he made the marriage alliance with Flanders, repaired the damage that had been done to his relations with the papacy, and pushed Norman power beyond his frontiers so that he now had little fear of attack. According to William of Poitiers, he had also obtained a promise of fidelity from Sweyn Estrithsson, king of Denmark.37 Some Normans were keen on a conquest of England, but the Conqueror had also to persuade unenthusiastic nobles, and partly for this purpose held councils to seek advice – at Lillebonne, Bonneville and Caen. Wace says the barons were summoned, and the debate lasted ‘a great while’ over what animals and what aid they could afford. Some claimed they had no obligation to serve over the sea. William resolved the problem by talking to the barons individually.38

The Conqueror had prepared the way by propaganda. It seems as if William at least was convinced that Edward had offered him the succession to the English throne. He had enforced upon Harold an oath which, whatever its exact contents, to Norman eyes meant that Harold should have supported William’s rights in England. When Harold himself accepted the crown, William began his preparations to make it his by force. All the Norman sources give Harold’s perjury as the justification for William’s invasion.39

William needed men. Some came to him from obligations enforced in Normandy. Some were loyal military men in his household. Others came as allies or hired men, sometimes the distinguishing line was thin, from Flanders, Boulogne, Brittany, Maine and other parts of France. William of Poitiers says that men were attracted by the justice of the cause, and by the generosity of the Conqueror, by which he presumably means either in pay to hired men or in promises of what might be gained on the expedition. Orderic Vitalis saw them ‘panting for the spoils of England’.40

The constant attempts to calculate a figure for William’s force seems unprofitable. Unless we believe Wace’s 696 we do not know the number of ships involved, and we do not know how many of which type; there are no reliable figures from contemporary evidence for any section of the force.41 Of course, one can get a rough idea from the length of time to disembark, from the ground covered in the battle and so on, but beyond such a rough guess – 5,000 to 10,000 as a grand total is a usual figure – there seems no point in making apparently precise but in effect meaningless estimates.42

William also needed ships. Normandy like England has a long coast, and fishing was an important industry. Some ships were certainly available. But the Norman duchy, despite its Viking past, had not given much attention to naval warfare, and in 1066 perhaps the major need was a large fleet of transport ships. There had been minor expeditions to England in support of the claims of the sons of Aethelred II, and the Normans had used a fleet for the invasion of Sicily.43 But the expedition of 1066 broke new ground, requiring the transport of a full ducal army of invasion, including warhorses. Wace says that all the ports of Normandy were in a stir.44 William needed to augment his fleet. His allies, including Flemings and Bretons, probably gave some aid, but he also needed to build ships, which we see being accomplished on the Tapestry. Men are shown felling trees with axes, trimming them, and using drills, hand axes and adzes to build the ships.45

In the case of William’s activities, we are well informed. William of Poitiers was the duke’s chaplain. It is true that he only came to England after 1066, and did not take part in the expedition of that year. His description of it, and of the battle, is therefore at second hand. But he was well placed to get the facts from the best informed men. These were, of course, for the cleric, all on the Norman side, and his account is inevitably biased. We need to beware of this, but we do not need the same provisos over knowledge which had to be made in the case of Snorri writing about Hardrada.46

William of Poitiers tells us a little of his hero’s youth: of his being knighted, holding reins, sword, shield, helmet and lance, wearing ‘princely garb’. At that time, he made vows to protect the Church and give good government. But mostly the early days are an account of the dangers and rebellions which we have already followed. The writer’s bias is shown, for example, by an account of William’s taking of Alençon, but without mention of either the insults about his bastardy or the vicious revenge that the Conqueror took. The chronicler clearly says that the Confessor promised William the crown of England ‘by a lawful gift’ and as his heir, and that the English magnates assented. He says that the hostages, Harold’s younger brother Wulfnoth and his nephew Hakon, were given to guarantee this promise. Poitiers adds that Harold’s visit was on the Confessor’s orders, and to confirm the offer of the crown. He details Harold’s promises as being to do all in his power towards gaining the throne. Wace, with hindsight, goes so far as to say that Edward forbade him to go in case he was drawn into a snare.47

When Edward the Confessor died, William of Poitiers says that Harold took the throne without waiting for a proper election, thus ‘breaking his oath’. The duke then decided to take his revenge and at once ordered the building of ships, the collection of equipment, arms and men, according to Poitiers assembling an army of fifty thousand soldiers. The Conqueror kept his eyes and ears open for developments in England; spies were used by both sides. William of Poitiers tells of an English spy captured by the Normans and sent back with a message to Harold which contained a warning. William’s advisers also informed him of Harold’s strength in England, and tried to dissuade him from his project, but he began to make arrangements for how Normandy should be governed in his absence. William proclaimed, ‘we have enough ships. Soon we shall have triumph, honour and glory.’

Then followed a period of waiting which must have tried the nerves of William and all his men. It is possible that he deliberately delayed to some extent, knowing of Hardrada’s invasion. It would suit William well to let his two rivals hammer out their differences, leaving him with one rather than two enemies to defeat. He may also have thought that the later he left it the more likely that Harold would have problems keeping his army and fleet at the ready. The eventual timing of his trip worked perfectly. But it cannot have been all calculation.

The Norman sources make it clear that he had to wait for a favourable wind for the vital crossing, and chafed at the delay. The weather was against him for several weeks. William of Poitiers says they waited a month in the mouth of the Dives, at Dives-sur-Mer, which was not far from Caen and lay between Varaville to the west and Bonneville to the east. He kept his troops under strict discipline, provisioning them well and forbidding forage. ‘Weak or unarmed, any man might move about the district at his will, singing on his horse, without trembling at the sight of soldiers.’48

According to the Carmen: ‘for a long time foul weather and ceaseless rain prevented [William] from leading the fleet across the Channel, while [he] awaited the favour of the winds; and the troubled sea forced [him] to put back, and gusts of the east wind curled the ocean waves’.49 It is almost certain that William would have come to England earlier had the weather allowed it, so he had fortune as well as planning on his side.

His fleet assembled at the mouth of the Dives, and in neighbouring ports. On 12 September he was able to move, but only as far as St-Valery-sur-Somme, at the mouth of that river, and that with difficulty. Probably from the weather, William suffered a set-back on the short journey from the Dives to St-Valery, and men were drowned. William of Poitiers says they were buried in secret, obviously so as not to dishearten the army. Perhaps to rebuild morale, and to ask for a favourable wind, William organised a religious ceremony, parading the relics of St-Valery before the men. It was at St-Valery that William of Poitiers says they received the standard (vexillum) from Pope Alexander II (1061–73), which put them under the protection of St Peter.50

The Carmen says that at St-Valery they faced another ‘long and difficult delay’ … looking ‘to see by what wind the weathercock of the church was turned’; it was ‘cold and wet, and the sky hidden by clouds and rain’.51 A recent article has discussed the problems for William’s fleet facing the possible dangers of a lee shore, the difficulties of the tricky Channel tides, and the weather conditions most likely caused by Atlantic lows.52 There is no doubt that William was wise to be cautious in deciding when to sail. He may also have been well informed as to developments within England, with his own frigates operating at sea during the period of waiting.53

At last on 27 September the wind relented, and the crossing began. Masts were raised, horses brought on board, sails hoisted, arms stowed. Soldiers flocked on to the ships like doves into a dovecote.54 A herald announced the positions for the ships in the fleet on the voyage. By evening, the force was embarked and they set sail, to the sound of drums, trumpets and pipes, anchoring just out to sea. William’s ship was the Mora, given him by his wife Matilda, which further enhances the likelihood of a considerable input to the fleet from Flanders. Wace says it had a figurehead of a boy with a bow and arrow, which pointed towards England as they sailed.55

When they began the invasion crossing, William’s own ship led the way with a lantern fixed to its mast for others to follow, while a trumpet was used for signals. It must have been a somewhat motley fleet, gathered from all possible sources as it was, and with leaders who had little experience of such endeavours. Much of the fleet consisted of transports, and many were loaded down with men, provisions and horses. William’s ship found itself moving too far ahead, and contact was lost with the fleet.

Whether by fortune or by planning, the English fleet as well as the men of the land fyrd had been disbanded when William sailed, and such troops as could be raised had been taken off north, so there was no opposition to the crossing or the landing. At first light, the look-out from the masthead could not see the fleet. The Conqueror’s ship weighed anchor and waited until the others appeared. William, to show he was not dismayed, ate a breakfast accompanied by spiced wine, ‘as if he were at home’. Then the look-out spotted the first four ships, and soon the fleet hove into view ‘like a forest of sails’. Before long they were reunited, and sailed into Pevensey Bay where they disembarked on 28 September, completing the process during the afternoon. It was said that very few men were lost on the crossing; one who did perish was the unfortunate soothsayer, who had failed to forecast his own demise.56


  1.  Barlow, Edward, p. 213; Barlow (ed.), Vita, p. 6.

  2.  Barlow, Edward, p. 300.

  3.  Barlow (ed.), Vita, p. 112.

  4.  Barlow (ed.), Vita, p. 116.

  5.  Barlow (ed.), Vita, p. 122.

  6.  Barlow (ed.), Vita, pp. 80–2, 112, 118–20, 122–4; Barlow, Edward, pp. 249–52; Wace, ed. Taylor, p. 93; Wace, ed. Holden, ii, pp. 101–2, ll. 5809–10. On the latter see M. Bennett, ‘Wace and warfare’, ANS, xi, 1988, pp. 37–58; Bayeux Tapestry, pl. 30.

  7.  John of Worcester, eds Darlington and McGurk, p. 598.

  8.  Barlow (ed.), Vita, pp. 151–3; Barlow, Edward, pp. 269, 282.

  9.  Bayeux Tapestry, pl. 29–30.

10.  John of Worcester, eds Darlington and McGurk, p. 601; Whitelock et al. (eds), Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, p. 140; Bayeux Tapestry, pl. 31.

11.  Bayeux Tapestry, pl. 31.

12.  Douglas, William, pp. 181–2; William of Poitiers, ed. Foreville, p. 146; John of Worcester, eds Darlington and McGurk, pp. 590–2, 600; Whitelock et al. (eds), Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, p. 140; Cubbins (ed.), Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, p. 79.

13.  Barlow (ed.), Vita, p. 48.

14.  John of Worcester, eds Darlington and McGurk, p. 602: ‘pedestrem exercitum locis opportunis circa ripas maris locabat’.

15.  M. Swanton, The Lives of the Last Englishmen, x, ser. B, New York, 1984: from BL Harleian MS 3776, dated about 1205; the story sounds suspiciously like confusion with Godwin.

16.  Whitelock et al. (eds), Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, p. 140; Cubbins (ed.), Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, p. 79.

17.  John of Worcester, eds Darlington and McGurk, p. 602.

18.  Whitelock et al. (eds), Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, p. 140, and n. 8; John of Worcester, eds Darlington and McGurk, p. 598; F.M. Stenton, Anglo-Saxon England, 2nd edn, Oxford, 1947, p. 578–9.

19.  Whitelock et al. (eds), Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, p. 141; Cubbins (ed.), Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, p. 79.

20.  W.M. Aird, ‘St Cuthbert, the Scots and the Normans’, ANS, xvi, 1993, pp. 2–3, 7.

21.  Sturlusson, King Harald’s Saga: the following account of Hardrada’s early career uses the saga, which is chronological: quoted and significant passages are on pp. 30–1, 45, 61, 64, 90, 93, 109, 113, 128, 136, 138, 144, 152.

22.  This is probably Jaroslav I of Kiev (1018–55).

23.  Ulf was brother of Gytha, wife of Earl Godwin of Wessex.

24.  Whitelock et al. (eds), Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, p. 141.

25.  John of Worcester, eds Darlington and McGurk, p. 602.

26.  John of Worcester, eds Darlington and McGurk, p. 602: he disbanded the fleet and the infantry forces.

27.  John of Worcester, eds Darlington and McGurk, p. 602; Geoffrey Gaimar, ‘The History of the English’, in Stevenson, ii, pt II, 1854, p. 793.

28.  John of Worcester, eds Darlington and McGurk, p. 602; Whitelock et al. (eds), Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, p. 143; F.W. Brooks, The Battle of Stamford Bridge, East Yorkshire Local History Society series, no. 6, 1963, p. 12. Brooks is presumably thinking as others have that, like the march south, it was an infantry march, but there is no reason to believe this was any more true of the march north than of the march south.

29.  A.H. Burne, More Battlefields of England, London, 1952, p. 92, suggested a different position for the early bridge, P. Warner, British Battle Fields, the North, London, 1975, p. 21, and W. Seymour, Battles in Britain, i, London, 1975, p. 9, both agree with Burne; but the argument is not convincing. Brooks, Stamford Bridge, p. 19, disagrees with Burne.

30.  D. Howarth, The Year of the Conquest, London, 1977, p. 106, reports on small horse-shoes being found in the locality in the nineteenth century, but gives no reference. In any case: 1) it is difficult to give credence to Sturlusson’s cavalry; 2) even if relating to transport horses, it still seems unlikely to have any connection with the battle (lots of killed and abandoned horses from the winning side?).

31.  Whitelock et al. (eds), Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, p. 144–5.

32.  Whitelock et al. (eds), Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, p. 144.

33.  Sturlusson, King Harald’s Saga, p. 151–3; Whitelock et al. (eds), Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, p. 142; John of Worcester, eds Darlington and McGurk, p. 604.

34.  Sturlusson, King Harald’s Saga, pp. 154–5; Whitelock et al. (eds), Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, p. 142.

35.  Whitelock et al. (eds), Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, p. 144. John of Worcester, eds Darlington and McGurk, pp. 602–4, has 500, with twenty ships for the return; Gaimar in Stevenson, p. 793, also has twenty.

36.  Brooks, Stamford Bridge, p. 21; Orderic Vitalis, ed. Chibnall, ii, p. 168.

37.  William of Poitiers, ed. Foreville, p. 154.

38.  Wace, ed. Taylor, pp. 97–107; Wace, ed. Holden, ii, pp. 107–15, the quote is l. 6048; has William fitz Osbern in favour of going, and William taking counsel.

39.  For example, Wace, ed. Taylor, p. 98: ‘he perjured himself for a kingdom’; Wace, ed. Holden, ii, p. 106, l. 5947.

40.  William of Poitiers, ed. Foreville, p. 151; Orderic Vitalis, ed. Chibnall, ii, p. 144.

41.  Wace, ed. Taylor, p. 120: ‘I remember it well, although I was but a lad, that there were 700 ships less four’; Wace, ed. Holden, ii, p. 123, ll. 6424–5: ‘bien m’en sovient, mais vaslet ere –/que set cenz nes, quatre meins, furent’.

42.  C.H. Lemmon, ‘The campaign of 1066’ in The Norman Conquest its Setting and Impact, London, 1966, p. 85 gives some previous estimates (varying from 10,000 to 60,000) and adds his own; P.P. Wright, Hastings, Moreton-in-Marsh, 1996, estimates 7,500 including combatants. C.M. Gillmor, ‘The naval logistics of the cross-Channel operation, 1066’, ANS, vii, 1984, pp. 105–31, has some interesting speculation, but vainly attempts to estimate the size of the fleet with precision, and even the number of workmen and trees felled; see also B. Bachrach, ‘The military administration of the Norman Conquest’, ANS, viii, 1986, pp. 1–25.

43.  M. Bennett, ‘Norman naval activity in the Mediterranean c. 1060–c. 1108’, ANS, xv, 1992, pp. 41–58.

44.  Wace, ed. Taylor, p. 117; Wace, ed. Holden, ii, p. 120.

45.  Bayeux Tapestry, pl. 35–6.

46.  Foreville (ed.), Gesta Gulielmi Ducis Normannorum et Regis Anglorum. The introduction includes an excellent account of the chronicler’s career. Key information in the following section to the landing in England comes from pp. 12, 30, 42, 100, 104, 146, 150–62.

47.  Wace, ed. Taylor, p. 76; Wace, ed. Holden, ii, p. 94. Wace is interesting at this point, telling us that he is using more than one source: one which has the forbidding, and one which says it was to promise the crown: ‘how the matter really was I never knew’, and nor do we.

48.  William of Poitiers, ed. Foreville, p. 152, translation from R.A. Brown, The Normans and the Norman Conquest, 2nd edn, Woodbridge, 1985, p. 132.

49.  Carmen, eds Morton and Muntz, p. 4, ll. 40–4.

50.  See D. Bates, William the Conqueror, London, 1983, p. 65, where he accepts the banner story; Orderic Vitalis, ed. Chibnall, ii, p. 170.

51.  Carmen, eds Morton and Muntz, p. 6, ll. 53, 59, 63–4.

52.  C. and G. Grainge, ‘The Pevensey expedition: brilliantly executed plan or near disaster?’, Mariner’s Mirror, 1993, pp. 261–73.

53.  Gillmor, ‘Naval logistics’, p. 124; J. Gillingham, ‘William the Bastard at war’, reprinted in S. Morillo, The Battle of Hastings, Woodbridge, 1996, pp. 96–112, p. 109.

54.  Carmen, eds Morton and Muntz, p. 6.

55.  Wace, ed. Holden, ii, p. 124, ll. 6453–5.

56.  Lemmon, ‘Campaign’, p. 89; Wright, Hastings, p. 52 quotes E.A. Freeman, The History of the Norman Conquest in England, 6 vols, Oxford, 1867–79, iii, p. 410. Wace, ed. Holden, ii, pp. 124–5; William of Poitiers, ed. Foreville, p. 164.

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