The Battle of Stamford Bridge is a pivotal, but little recognized event in English history, its importance hidden by The Battle of Hastings which occurred a mere three weeks later.

The English king, Edward the Confessor had died and a dispute ensued over who was the rightful heir. Harold Godwinsson and Duke William of Normandy both wanted the throne. Godwinsson seized the throne and the Duke of Normandy began raising an army building an invasion fleet to cross the English Channel. The expected invasion didn't appear although anticipated throughout the summer of 1066. King Harold moved the English fleet to the Isle of Wight where it was hit by a storm on the way and crippled. King Harold also stepped down the watch on the English Channel and disbanded the English militia.

In the meantime, the Norwegian king, Harald Sigurdsson with the support of Earl Tostig (King Harold's brother) and Scottish sympathizers, invaded England from the north. The Viking invasion sailed up the River Humber and landed just south of York, a capital city. Battle ensued between the Viking invaders and a small English defending force. York fell to Harald, who left it almost immediately, marching east to Stamford Bridge. Stamford Bridge was located on a vital communication route over the River Derwent.

When he received news of the invasion, England's King Harold marched his army north and with surprising speed reached Stamford Bridge in five days. The English army caught the Viking invaders unaware. Early in the battle, the Vikings kept their battle order and the English were repulsed. The Viking army broke ranks and the English gained offensive. King Harold Sigurdsson was slain and Tostig took up the banner. The armies re-grouped and during a lull in the battle, King Harold offered his brother, Tostig, and the Vikings peace, which they refused. After a fierce battle, the Vikings lost. King Harold gave quarter and the Vikings, who had arrived in 300 ships, left in 24 ships.

The Battle of Stamford Bridge was the last Viking invasion in England. Most importantly though, this invasion by the Vikings forced the English army to march north. When Duke William of Normandy landed his invading army, they had time to move inland to good defensive positions before the English army returned from the north and The Battle of Hastings changed the course of English history.

The English and Norse accounts of the battle differ quite a lot in detail. The English account is from the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle and is probably more reliable, since they were there. The Norse account in the Heimskringla of Snorri Sturluson is not only somewhat romanticized but may be conflating details with the Battle of Hastings: the Norwegian witnesses who survived were fewer.

But it is the romantic aspect, one detail in particular, that moves me to node, showing that the traitor Tostig still had honour.

There are other details of interest: the day was hot, so the Norwegians had left their coats of mail off, and this proved to be damaging. Indeed, when reinforcements came later, led by Eystein Orri, they had run all the way there and were so hot that they also threw off their mail, and relied on their battle fury to protect them. It did not, and many of them died of exhaustion.

When the battle began, King Harald of Norway's banner "Land-waster" was held by one called Fridrek. After the king had been slain, Eystein Orri took it up when he arrived. He almost turned the battle against the English.

In the English version it is recorded that a Norwegian giant held the bridge over the River Derwent, slaying forty with his battle-axe, so that they could not pass. (I've seen a plaque or memorial to the battle at the spot, and from memory it says that in the end an English warrior sneaked up underneath him in the water and dirked him in the vitals.)

The part I like best in the Heimskringla story is this. Harald Sigurdsson has just accepted the surrender of York, when they notice a great body of glittering warriors coming towards them, and fear it is enemy reinforcements. A party of twenty riders from the newly-arrived English army (for it is they) come up to Harald's ranks to parley. From this point on I am quoting the Penguin translation of Magnusson and Pálsson.

One of the riders said, 'Is Earl Tostig here in this army?

Tostig replied, 'There is no denying it - you can find him here.' Another of the riders said, 'Your brother King Harold sends you his greetings, and this message to say you can have peace and the whole of Northumbria as well. Rather than have you refuse to join him, he is prepared to give you one third of all his kingdom.'

The earl answered, 'This is very different from all the hostility and humiliation he offered me last winter. If this offer had been made then, many a man who is now dead would still be alive, and England would now be in better state. But if I accept this offer now, what will he offer King Harald Sigurdsson for all his effort?'

The rider said, 'King Harold has already declared how much of England he is prepared to grant him: seven feet of ground, or as much as he is taller than other men.'

Earl Tostig said, 'Go now and tell King Harold to make ready for battle. The Norwegians will never be able to say that Earl Tostig abandoned King Harald Sigurdsson to join his enemies when he came west to fight in England. We are united in our aim: either to die with honour, or else conquer England.

The horsemen now rode back.

Then King Harald Sigurdsson asked, 'Who was that man who spoke so well?'

That was King Harold Godwinsson,' replied Tostig.

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