Wednesday, May 24, 2023

Old English, A Historical Background: The Battles of Stamford Bridge and Hastings

(England September - December 1066 A.D. - Source)

When King Harald and Earl Tosti came ashore in September of 1066 A.D., it appears their plan was to first take York as a base (which had Viking roots as you may recall).  Harald's ships would provide the potential to move up and and down the coast at will, far more quickly than King Harold's troops could move on horseback and foot.

The earls of the North, Edwin and Morcar, moved to block Harald and Tosti at the banks of the Ouse River and on 20 September 1006 A.D. fought The Battle of Fulford. The battle, from the records and sagas, was longer than expected but resulted in the victory of the Norwegians and the defeat of the Anglo-Saxons.  King Harald and Earl Tosti moved to take York, gather supplies.

During this time, King Harold gathered an army and quickly began marching north.  We do not have specifics on the number of troops he had or their progress, but Ian Walker hypothesizes that King Harold left London on 16 September, gathering troops as he went and arrived at Tadcaster, 13 miles away from Stamford bridge, where King Harald and Earl Tosti were encamped following resupply in York, on 24 September.  More importantly, they were inland and 13 miles away from their ships.  On 25 September Harold and his troops arrived at Stamford Bridge.

From the records, there is no conclusive estimate of the number of troops the Norwegians had; if there were 300 ships, less attrition from the Battle of Fulford and garrison troops in York and at their ships, there may have been 4,000 Norwegians and possibly the same of Anglo-Saxons.  The Norwegians were caught completely off guard:  in Harald Hardrada's Saga (not an Anglo-Saxon favoring source) they are noted to have left their mail coats at the ships.  They perhaps expected small parties giving hostages; they did not expect an army.

The Saga relates that prior to the battle, a single man rode up to parley with King Harald and Earl Tosti.  He offered Tosti the return of his earldom if he would turn against Harald.  When asked what he would offer Harald, the response was "Seven feet of English ground, as he is taller than other men".  The rider then rode away.  When Harald asked Tosti who the rider was, the response was "King Harold".

The battle then commenced.  There is a legend that a single Norwegian Beserker held the bridge against 40 men until finally someone floated down the river and stabbed him with a spear from underneath (it may be a later addition).  The Anglo-Saxon charged across the bridge to where the Norwegians had formed a shield wall.  The battle was hard; by the end of it King Harald and Earl Tosti were dead and their troops pursued back to their ships.  King Harold offered generous terms of peace; of 300 ships that came, only 20-25 returned.

Although no-one knew it at the time, this effectively drew an end to the Viking age.  There would still be Norwegian attacks of England and Scotland, but these would be kingdom against kingdom, not freebooters and mercenaries.

Two days later, late 27 September, the winds turned and Duke William of Normandy crossed the channel and arrived on 28 September.  

He immediately began building a fort at Pevensey and spent the next 17 days fortifying and strengthening his position.  He was helped in the fact that King Harold was in the north fighting the Norwegians; had he remained in London (and on watch as Harold knew of the invasion fleet), he would have likely not had the luxury of over two weeks to consolidate his position.

It seems King Harold was notified on 29 or 30 September in York of Duke William's landing.  He then started south, bringing with him the remnants of his Stamford host as well as calling up more troops as he headed South.  By 8 or 9 October he was back in London, where he spent three days.

His time in London is one of the great "What Ifs" of history:  Some historians argue that Harold had no reason to wait that short a time and that had he waited longer, he would have had a larger army.  Others argue that he waited longer, the chances were that Duke William would further entrench himself and had the possibility to gather even more troops and expand his territory.  

On 13 October 1066 A.D. King Harold and his army emerged in Sussex at Hastings.  Messages were undoubtedly exchanged:  Duke William calling on King Harold to honor his oath, King Harold calling on Duke William to return back to Normandy.  Neither side budged and on 14 October 1066 A.D., battle was joined at or around 9 A.M.

(The Battle of Hastings, 14 October 1066 A.D. - Source)

Looking back of course, it is easy enough to say that the end was foreordained.  That was not clear on the day of battle;  the Normans were thrown back on their initial charge. Their left wing broke and a rout almost occurred when a rumor went out that Duke William had been slain.  He re-appeared and rallied his troops.  English losses were also heavy.  By afternoon, the English still held their lines and the ridge and it appeared that if nothing changed, Duke William would likely be defeated.

And then - from the Bayeux Tapestry, it is recorded nowhere else - an arrow pierced the eye of King Harold.  

The Anglo-Saxons broke quickly after this and were routed and ridden down by the advancing Normans.  The body of King Harold lay surrounded by his huscarls  and his brothers Gyrth and Leofwine.

Ian Walker describes the outcome:

"Thus the battle reached its fatal climax for King Harold, but as we have seen, it had been a very close run thing.  The fact that King Harold did not seize the opportunity offered by the collapse of the Norman left wing and the rumor of William's death has puzzled many.  However, we should remember the conditions of his army.  A basically cautious man like Harold would be unlikely to take unnecessary risks by advancing from a position where all he really needed to do was stand his ground and force William into submission.  If he had held the field at the end of the day, William would have been finished, and he almost succeeded in this, falling just before nightfall.  That he ultimately failed was largely because of the fortune of war, and the evidence suggests that it was King Harold's fall to a chance arrow which finally broke English resistance and left the field to the Normans.  We must remember that what in hindsight was to prove such a decisive defeat for the English, was in fact balanced on a knife's edge throughout the day."

(Old English Posting Page)

Works cited:

Brooke, Christopher:  From Alfred to Henry III 871-1272.  Norton Library:  USA,  1961.

Hollister, C. Warren:  The Making of England 55 B.C. to 1399.  D.C. Heath and Company:  United States,  1976.

Trevelyan, G.M.:  History of England Volume 1:  From the Earliest Times to the Reformation.  Anchor Books:  USA, 1953

Walker, Ian:  Harold:  The Last Anglo-Saxon King.  The History Press;  Gloucester, United Kingdom, 1997

Wikipedia:  Harald HardradaBattle of Stamford Bridge, Battle of Hastings


  1. Wow, that didn't take a long time. Did it make the Guinness Book of World Records as the quickest conquering of a country in history? How different our English language would have been if William had lost.

    1. Leigh, it was spectacularly quick, which (in the minds of the Normans) likely cemented the fact that it was God's will and the outcome of Harold's failure to keep his oath.

      I suspect there have been other cases - the collapse of the Kingdom of Jerusalem comes to mind - but few with such finality and, as you note, brevity.

    2. To be fair, William conquered SE England quickly, because there was no opposition to him after Hastings. Thus the coronation (first at Westminster Cathedral) on Christmas Day, 1066. It took a couple more years to completely subjugate the rest of England, and periodic revolts occurred up to and after William's Death.

      William's Death (big 'D' there) was caused by him rupturing his gut while charging on his horse during an uprising in the north of England. His horse stepped in a pothole, he came down on the front cantle of the saddle, racked himself royally, and died days later from septicemia. An ignoble death for a very noble man.

    3. And actually (in next week's post) he was fairly restrained in his initial conquest. It was the follow-on rebellions that seemed to have garnered the greater destruction.

    4. Yep. And his treatment of Malcolm's Scotland was a definitely huge FAFO.

  2. Hastings was, as Wellington would say about Waterloo some 750 years later, a very close run thing. The Anglo-Saxons had the high ground and had good coverage of their flanks and rear, so the Normans had to go up a very long hill to get to the English. Which, carrying armor and weapons, sucks. Trust me. Really sucks. Doing it once sucks. The Normans did it over and over again.

    What spelled Doom to the English was a combination of things. Composition of forces and Control of forces.

    The English were composed of professional troops, the Huscarls and other full time warriors, and the part-time troops, the city volunteer bands and the Fyrd (national guard or their minutemen, so to speak.) The professionals were as tough or tougher as the very blooded Normans (who had since 1047 been fighting on and off against the French king and other local duchies) but the Fyrd were weekend warriors.

    It was lack of firm control over the Fyrd that spelled doom to Harold. The Norman cavalry had a tactic where they would charge the line, fight, and then withdraw and regroup. And the withdraw often looked panicky, which the Normans played up (seriously, mounted troops can't withdraw against fixed positions without looking a tad panicky.)

    It was one of these 'panicky retreats' that caused a section of the Fyrd to chase, on foot, after the cavalry. Bad idea. William's cavalry and his foot soldiers surrounded and smashed that section of the Fyrd.

    Until then, the English Wall was solid. That started the fracturing of the English defense. After that, William attacked more and more the Fyrd, forcing the English to shrink and consolidate, thus beginning to open them up.

    The battle was a hard one. At one time rumors of William's death spread and he, in the middle of fighting, had to take his helmet off and expose his face and shout at his men that he was alive. (The maille hauberk had a flap that covered the face from nose down, the ventail, and to remove that during a fight (along with the helmet,) left one's face and head rather open to getting whacked.)

    A close run thing. A very close run thing.

    2 years later, William's forces in England were composed of many huscarls. That's how well things were under William.

    It wasn't until Richard the Lionhearted bankrupted England for his foreign wars and his ransom that things went sour with the new leadership, but that's another set of stories altogether.

    1. The Osprey book on The Normans has a picture of that scene in it, with William's ventail down and his brother Odo pointing to him).

      The Normans, as the rest of Europe was also experiencing at that time, were some of the military forces available: well armored, well trained (as you point out above), and professional. If the English could have held to nightfall without breaking, quite possibly the battle could have ended with William's defeat.

      In terms of employment (again, what I have read) if you were not in the upper echelons of Angl-Saxon society, you made out alright. As long as the peace was kept and taxes paid, William was relatively good about upholding the law.

      Having hiked with around 25-35 lbs of a backpack, I cannot imagine charging up a hill. Repeatedly.

    2. Anonymous5:36 PM

      "...the Normans had to go up a very long hill to get to the English. Which, carrying armor and weapons, sucks. Trust me. Really sucks. Doing it once sucks. The Normans did it over and over again."

      Not all that bad, actually - I did it 5 or 6 times in full Norman kit at the Hastings reenactment in 1990. The main issue was poor footing (damp, slippery grass, in thin-soled turnshoes) and not wanting to fall in the horse... droppings.

      Mind you, I'm not sure how the later building of Battle Abbey changed the topology of the top of the hill - there was a marked shallowing of the slope as you got to the top.

    3. Oh, man. Soooo jealous. Always wanted enough cheddar to get the full kit and do Hastings. Mannn...

      It's not bad as long as you aren't being beaten down and hammered like a nail.

      I've done SCA fighting at a 'war' where the field was sloped much like Hastings. Full contact, up and down that damned hill, hammering people and being hammered over and over again. Loved it. But it was exhausting. And the ravine battle at the same war, 1 hour of die and resurrect and go up and down that slope while being hammered into chicken-fried steak, loved it, but at the end of the hour I was glad the hour was over, though I would have loved to do a couple more hours of the same 'Fight, Die, Repeat.'

      It's potentially not bad. But to do that 6-7 days in a row, like at an SCA war, is very wearing on one's joints and muscles. Even the uber-jocks would show the strain at the end.

      And, in reality, marching and marching and doing small skirmishes and then the battle at Hastings all while in full kit, that had to be a wearing thing.

    4. Anonymous - Thank you sharing! That sounds like an amazing experience - one younger me probably would have enjoyed; older me questions the ability to do that now.

      What a great way to get a perspective on a historical event!

    5. This comment has been removed by the author.

    6. Beans - Never have done SCA/Western Style Fighing but have done some jisen kendo in kendo armor and even that is exhausting. I can only imagine doing that for the periods you describe. Joints and muscles indeed.

      If you are The Socials, you might check out Fell and Fair. They do both clothing and armor for the Medieval Period/Weekend Warriors and have some very nice things.

  3. Not sure why it decided I was Anonymous...

    Hastings was both amazing - an amazing sense of connection to those who had fought and died on that spot - and cheesy - the modern stuff, public (and reenactors!) - who hadn't a clue - and so on).

    I've also done SCA (UK and Australia), so I know all about the joints and muscles after a long day in armour, and they remind me, every so often, all about it. I was 25-ish at the time of Hastings, so didn't have too much of a problem, but now I'd be crippled :-). I'm pretty much retired from the SCA and reenactment in general nowadays.

    I never managed to get to one of the big US wars, though we did have some fairly epic, though much smaller scale battles (fighting through a real caslle gate, then through the rest of the ruin). Neither have I tried Iai, TB, though your descriptions of it do sound appealing.

    1. DB - I suppose we can just say "Because Blogger" and that will cover everything.

      I suspect, having never participated in an SCA style event, there are equal parts of history and cheese involved. It seems to be the way of things and in some ways is probably needed as a balance between keeping people that are historically accurate involved as well as the general public. Highland Games is similar in many aspects.

      I am (obiviously) a great fan of Iaijustu. Among the many reasons is one you allude to: we have practitioners in their 80s and 90s so it can be something for the long haul.

    2. Sigh. "Obviously", not "Obiviously". That moment right after you hit "Publish" and realize...


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