Hastings, Stamford Bridge and Gate Fulford: three battles that lost England

Having taken – by fair means or foul – the crown, Harold Godwinson’s first and only year as England’s king was derailed in three momentous battles. Frank McLynn leads us through the events that brought the Anglo-Saxon era to a traumatic end.

This article was first published in BBC History Magazine's The Story of the Normans bookazine

Tostig and Harald received the surrender of York on 24 September

Tostig and Harald receive the surrender of York on 24 September; they forego looting the city as Tostig anticipates the return of his earldom. (Getty Images)

 

Gate Fulford, 20 September 1066

Disgruntled Tostig, ousted from his earldom, enlists Viking help  to take back the north

The amazing drama of 1066 began 12 months earlier, when Edward the Confessor was in his final year as England’s king. The power behind the throne was the Godwin family, with Harold Godwinson as would-be heir. Harold’s ambitious brother Tostig was suddenly unseated as earl of Northumbria by a coup led by Edwin and Morcar of the house of Ælfgar, deadly rivals to the Godwins. Tostig appealed to Harold to use force to restore him, but Harold, fearing civil war, refused. The incandescent Tostig then sought allies elsewhere. His first stop was Normandy, where duke William promised help, but his plans were too slow for the ambitious Tostig, who next made his way to Norway.

There the king was 50-year-old Harald Hardrada, sometimes known as the last of the Vikings, who had ruled Norway for 20 years after a colourful career with the Varangian guard in Byzantium. Tostig pointed out that Harald had a claim to the English throne, through inheriting the right of succession the previous king, Magnus, had been given by Harthacnut, king of England 1040–42 (aka Knut III). Meanwhile, on the death of Edward the Confessor in January 1066, Harold Godwinson had himself crowned king – a clear case of usurpation, Tostig argued.

At first Harald was reluctant to contemplate an English campaign, but was gradually persuaded by his young warriors’ lust for adventure. He arranged to rendezvous with Tostig and his army of mercenaries in the Humber estuary in August 1066

Harald sailed (slightly late) from Norway in 300 longships containing between 12,000 and 18,000 men. He picked up extra levies (troops) in the Shetlands and Orkneys and made the rendezvous with Tostig in the Humber estuary on 18 September. Edwin and Morcar prepared an army to confront the Norwegians, but made the mistake of wrongly guessing Hardrada’s next move. Instead of penetrating deeply up the river Ouse, he and Tostig anchored at Riccall, nine miles south of York. They then marched on York with about 6,000 warriors. At Fulford, two miles from York on the east bank of the Ouse, they saw clear signs that Edwin and Morcar intended to offer battle. The battlefield chosen was Gate Fulford, about half a mile from York.

The English army, of roughly equal numbers, was drawn up with their right flank resting on the river bank and their left bordering on marshlands. Hardrada saw that the battle would be decided at the riverine point, so deployed his crack troops there (that is, on his left), leaving Tostig and his Flemish mercenaries to form his right wing. Morcar attacked first on the marshland side and began pushing the Flemings back. Meanwhile the flower of Hardrada’s army, uttering berserker cries and wielding giant axes, smashed through the English right as if it were matchsticks, then wheeled to deal with Morcar’s momentarily victorious left and took it in the rear. The two wings of the English army rapidly lost contact. Soon the riverine wing of the Anglo-Saxons found itself under attack from three sides.

With their men being slaughtered in droves, Edwin and Morcar fled the battlefield. The English survivors broke and fled to York. Some attempted to swim across the Ouse but were drowned because of the swift currents. Those fleeing on the English left often found themselves trapped in bogs or sucked down into quicksands. It was said that the loss of life on the battlefield was so great that the Norwegians were able to march over impacted corpses as if on a solid causeway. York surrendered on 24 September.

Tostig managed to persuade Hardrada not to sack it, as he looked forward to his restoration there. The surrender was negotiated on the basis of no looting by the Vikings; hostages were exchanged to seal the bargain. The wider surrender of Yorkshire was also offered, with the rendezvous point for hostages to seal that compact being agreed as Stamford Bridge, seven miles east of York.

 

Stamford Bridge, 25 September 1066

Victory is shortlived as a surprise attack by Harold II decimates his brother’s uprising

In London, Harold Godwinson received news of the Norwegian invasion and victory at Gate Fulford with consternation. His position as king had been challenged by William of Normandy, who claimed that he had been offered the succession by Edward the Confessor and threatened to take what was rightfully his by force. All summer, Harold had been concentrating on the invasion force being assembled in northern France by Duke William of Normandy, which he (rightly) saw as the main threat. William had been playing cat-and-mouse by assembling his army at Dives, then shifting it farther up the coast, keeping Harold guessing about his intended crossing point.

Now Harold made the first of his many grievous errors this year. He calculated that he might still have time to reach York by forced marches, take the Norwegians by surprise, defeat them and return south to deal with William. It was a wrongheaded decision. The forced march itself was a marvel, for Harold travelled 185 miles with his army in just four days. He had heard of the arrangements to exchange hostages at Stamford Bridge and planned to surprise the Norwegians there.

Meanwhile Harald Hardrada, basking in his great victory at Gate Fulford, had grown overconfident. The weather was swelteringly hot and the trek from Riccall to Stamford Bridge was a long one, so he decreed that his warriors should not wear armour on the march and need only take swords, axes and spears with them; nearly all their shields were left behind. Even worse, thinking he had no enemy to contend with, he decided to take only about a third of his army with him – some 5,000 men. The rest of his force he left behind under his able commander Eystein Orri. At Stamford Bridge itself, some of the Vikings crossed the bridge to collect cattle on the west bank of the Derwent. Suddenly a great cloud of dust was seen. It was Harold Godwinson and his army, approaching the bridge from Gate Helmsley on the west bank.

Hardrada was stupefied, but he had only himself to blame; his military intelligence was non-existent and he had not even sent out scouts along the road to Gate Helmsley. Sensing the deadly danger, Tostig advised a rearguard holding action on the run while they retreated posthaste to Riccall. Hardrada refused, but compromised to the extent of sending couriers back to Riccall, telling Eystein Orri to come with all speed.

The ensuing battle had four main phases. In the first, the English massacred all the Norwegians on the west bank of the Derwent who did not manage to flee back across the bridge. They themselves were then held up for a long time by heroic Viking defence of the bridge itself. A giant axe-wielding berserker is said to have killed 40 Englishmen and was finally dispatched only when an intrepid Anglo-Saxon commando floated under the bridge on a barrel and thrust a pike upwards through the slats of the bridge.

 

The last stand

Once on the other side of the bridge, the Anglo-Saxons concentrated on the defensive circle formed by Hardrada on the small hill of High Catton. Furious hand-to-hand combat ensued, sword against sword, axe against axe. But without shields and armour, the Norsemen stood little chance and were cut down in their hundreds. In this second phase of the battle, Hardrada was killed with an arrow through his windpipe. Tostig announced that he would continue to carry Hardrada’s standard and the Norwegians roared their approval for a last stand. More bloody combat was the result. Soon Tostig and all luminaries in Hardrada’s army were dead.

The English scythed down the enemy in hundreds, driving many to drown in the Derwent, but the victory was costly. Finally, no one was left of the valiant 5,000. But the English were left in command of the battlefield for only a few minutes before the final phase of the battle. Suddenly Eystein Orri and his men were upon them, having marched 18 miles on the double in full armour in blistering heat. Exhausted though they were, the Vikings gave a good account of themselves. Their initial charge came close to breaking the English, but gradually numbers told.

Eystein Orri and all his captains died; some of the rank and file managed to slink away. Harold had won a great victory but had taken grievous losses himself. The Norwegians, crippled for a generation by this disaster, agreed a truce on condition that they left England at once. The truce was signed by Hardrada’s 16-year-old son Olaf, who had remained at Riccall, obedient to his father’s orders. So great was the disaster for the Vikings that of 300 ships that had set out on Hardrada’s great adventure, only 24 returned to Norway.

 

Hastings, 14 October 1066

Timing is all as Harold, weakened by his defence of the north, squares up to the Normans

While Harold was away in the north, duke William and the Normans landed unopposed at Pevensey on 28 September. Harold reached London on 6 October, having taken eight days to retrace the 190 miles from York. He immediately opted for the soonest possible battle with William – his most calamitous decision of the entire year. Pride and arrogance made him ignore the sage advice of his brother Gyrth, the wisest of the Anglo-Saxons. Gyrth argued that Harold should avoid confrontation until all his reinforcements had come in, including the force he had left behind with Edwin and Morcar, and then confront William with an invincible host.

William was gambling on a quick victory and lacked the resources to overcome a united Anglo-Saxon England if its full power was properly deployed. Harold was adamant that he was going to seek an early battle, even though the heavy casualties in the northern campaign meant that he was short of housecarls – his crack troops and the only truly reliable fighters.

Even worse, Harold insisted that Gyrth, his other brother Leofwine and the great and good of the Anglo-Saxon aristocracy accompany him on the march to Kent. This meant that if Harold lost the battle, England would be without credible leaders. Harold’s decision to march to Hastings was folly of the worst kind, at every conceivable level.

The two armies confronted each other on the morning of 14 October. Harold set up his standard on Senlac Hill (modern Battle), seven miles north-west of Hastings. His tactics were to await the Norman onslaught and repel successive attacks on his shieldwall until he sensed the pulse of enemy attacks weaken, when he would order a general advance down the hill. The battle began at 9am and lasted until dusk at 5.30pm. Both armies were about 7,000 strong, with the Normans probably having a slight numerical edge. Harold’s weakness was his shortage of housecarls, which meant that conscripted levies (the fyrd) were overrepresented in his army. He also lacked a cavalry arm, restricting his tactical possibilities.

William used a conventional battle order, with Normans in the centre, Bretons and men from western France on the left and recruits from France, Picardy, Flanders and Boulogne on the right. His tactic was to weaken the enemy with a fusillade of arrows, then send in the infantry to break up the shieldwall and finally to order in the cavalry for the coup de grâce.

At first his tactics went awry. Archery proved unavailing, as the arrows, shot uphill, either overshot their target or bounced off the shieldwall. The attack by infantry failed dismally, as did a somewhat desperate uphill charge by the heavy cavalry. Harold ordered the advance. Normans were fleeing in all directions, and the day seemed won. Suddenly the advance stopped. It seems that pockets of Normans, encouraged by William, rallied and in one of the mini battles that followed Leofwine was killed. This had a disconcerting impact on Harold, who lost concentration. The pause gave William time to steady his troops. Harold retreated to the top of the hill and sustained another Norman assault. This was probably the bloodiest part of the entire battle, and in this phase, although the shieldwall held and the Normans were once again driven off, Gyrth was killed.

 

Options run out

It was now around 2pm and both sides paused for rest and food. Harold had lost many of his best housecarls and using the fyrd soldiers to guard the outlying approaches to the hilltop proved costly. Their indiscipline allowed the Normans to stage feigned retreats and pick off the English as they foolishly rushed from their positions in pursuit. The Normans gradually gained possession of all the vantage points and Harold’s situation began to look desperate; only dusk and the advent of reinforcements could save him now. Finally, the shieldwall was breached.

There was more bloody fighting of frenetic intensity and Harold himself fell shortly before nightfall (the story that he was killed by an arrow in the eye rests on no good foundation). On the death of their leader, the English broke and fled. There was one parting shot when they lured pursuing Norman cavalry into the Malfosse (a concealed ravine), leading to the deaths many Norman horsemen, but by full nightfall William was in possession of the field and victory was his.

The battle was one of the bloodiest in medieval history. Some 4,000 Anglo-Saxons died and 2,500 Normans (well over one-third of all combatants). It was also one of the most decisive. As Gyrth had foreseen, there was now no one to lead an immediate Anglo-Saxon resistance. William was crowned king in Westminster Abbey on Christmas Day 1066.

Frank McLynn is a historian and journalist whose many books include 1066: The Year of the Three Battles (Pimlico, 1999).

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