With the death of King Edward the Confessor in January, 1066, England was plunged into an epic showdown for the vacated throne. Harold Godwinson, Edward’s brother-in-law, became the Anglo-Saxon champion for England and he was elected to the throne. Foreign claimants, however, would soon arrive from Norway and Normandy in mere months to challenge King Harold Godwinson for the English crown. Of the invaders, the first to arrive was King Harald Hardrada of Norway, an experienced warrior-king who had been a mercenary for the Rus, a Varangian Guardsman in Constantinople, and a Viking raider, before he returned home to become king of Norway around 1045. In September, 1066, Harald Hardrada—with a reported armada of 300 ships—began militarily campaigning in the Northumbria region of England. The Norwegians were aided by Harold Godwinson’s scorned brother, Tostig, and they defeated the Northumbrian regional forces in battle, forcing York to surrender. It was while Harald Hardrada was on this winning streak in the north that King Harold Godwinson pulled together an army and rushed his troops toward York to face the Norwegian threat.
Harold Godwinson’s army moved with such speed that he caught the experienced Norwegian king totally off guard. The Norwegians were divided at the time, with Harald Hardrada and his portion of the army camping near Stamford Bridge (on the River Derwent), while the rest of the army remained at the ships near Ricall and the River Ouse. Most importantly, the Norwegians at the bridge site had reportedly left much of their armor by the ships, as they were not expecting an attack so soon. Therefore, when Harold Godwinson and the Anglo-Saxons fell on the unsuspecting and under-equipped Norwegians camped by Stamford Bridge, the battle turned into a massacre.
While the Scandinavian and English sources disagreed slightly on details of the battle, they both made the same key points—Harald Hardrada and Tostig died in battle and a majority of the Norwegian army was destroyed. According to the Scandinavian tradition, Harald Hardrada’s reserve troops from Ricall made a long and tiring march to Stamford Bridge in hopes of saving their king, yet they were too tired to fight upon arrival. The Anglo-Saxon version (seen as the more accurate account) instead claimed that after Harald Hardrada and Tostig were slain, the Norwegian warriors at Stamford Bridge began a frantic retreat to their ships and reinforcements at Ricall. In both of the scenarios, a single Norwegian warrior was said to have played a major role by making a lone last stand on Stamford Bridge, either (in the English tradition) for covering his comrades’ retreat to the ships or (in the Scandinavian version) by trying to hold the Anglo-Saxons back until the approaching troops from Ricall could arrive.
As the story goes, the unnamed Norwegian warrior was a one-man wrecking crew with near superhuman fighting ability. Buying time for the Norwegian side, the Viking champion took up position at a choke point, reportedly Stamford Bridge itself, and determined to fight to the death. He gave the Anglo-Saxons immense trouble, reportedly besting anyone who came against him in single combat, and he could just as easily deflect or block any arrows shot in his direction. The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle described the scene, including the English army’s eventual solution for defeating the mighty warrior: “there was one of the Norwegians who withstood the English folk, so that they could not pass over the bridge or gain the victory. Then an Englishman aimed at him with an arrow, but it availed naught; and then came another under the bridge and pierced him through the corselet” (ASC, entry for 1066). With the Norwegian warrior’s death, the Anglo-Saxons were able to rush across the bridge to finish the battle, either by crashing into the regrouping Norwegians or by pursuing the fleeing invaders all the way to their ships. Whichever way the battle really played out, Harold Godwinson won a decisive victory and let the son of the slain Norwegian king lead the survivors home—they reportedly only needed 24 of their original 300 ships to ferry the remnants of Harald Hardrada’s army away.
Written by C. Keith Hansley
Picture Attribution: (Battle of Stamford Bridge painted by Peter Nicolai Arbo (1831–1892), [Public Domain] via Creative Commons).
- The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle translated by Benjamin Thorpe in 1861 and republished by Cambridge University Press, 2012.
- Heimskringla, by Snorri Sturluson and translated by Lee Hollander. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1964, 2018.
- King Harald’s Saga, by Snorri Sturluson, translated by Magnus Mangusson and Hermann Pálsson. New York: Penguin Books, 1966, 2005.