The Battle of Stamford Bridge was pretty huge in terms of historical significance. Although often overshadowed by the Battle of Hastings, which took place just 19 days later, the clash at Stamford Bridge on 25 September 1066 is commonly seen as both marking the end of the Viking Age and paving the way for the Norman conquest of England. Here are 10 facts about it.
1. It was sparked by the invasion of Viking king Harold Hardrada
Harald, King of Norway, was one of at least five claimants to the English throne in 1066. After Edward the Confessor died in January of that year, his right-hand man, Harold Godwinson, ascended the throne. But the Harald with an “a” believed that he had a rightful claim to the crown and in September landed in Yorkshire with an invading force.
2. Harald had teamed up with Harold’s own brother
Tostig Godwinson wanted vengeance after being exiled by King Edward and Harold in November 1065. The decision to outlaw Tostig had come about after he refused to step down from his position as Earl of Northumbria in the face of a rebellion against him. But Tostig saw the move as unjust and, after first attempting to bring Harold down himself, eventually asked Harald Hardrada to invade England.
3. Harold’s force caught Harald’s men by surprise with their armour off
The Vikings hadn’t been expecting a clash to take place at Stamford Bridge; they had been waiting there for hostages to arrive from nearby York, which they had just invaded. But when Harold got wind of the northern invasion, he raced north, gathering an army along the way and catching Harald and Tostig’s forces unawares.
5. Nearly half of the Viking army was elsewhere
The invading force was made up of around 11,000 Norwegians and Flemish mercenaries – the latter hired by Tostig. But only some 6,000 of them were at Stamford Bridge when Harold arrived with his army. The other 5,000 were about 15 miles to the south, guarding the Norse ships that had been beached at Riccall.
Some of the Vikings at Riccall did rush to Stamford Bridge to join the fight, but the battle was almost over by the time they got there and many of them were exhausted.
6. Accounts talk of a giant Viking axeman…
Harold’s approaching army was reportedly on one side of a single narrow bridge crossing the River Derwent, and the Vikings on the other. When Harold’s men tried to cross the bridge in single file, sources say they were held up by a giant axeman who cut them down, one by one.
7. … who suffered a gruesome death
Sources say this axeman soon got his comeuppance, however. A member of Harold’s army reportedly floated under the bridge in a half-barrel and rammed a large spear up into the vitals of the axeman standing above.
8. Harald was killed early in the battle in a state of berserkergang
The Norwegian was struck in the throat with an arrow while fighting in the trance-like fury for which the berserkers are famed. The Viking army went on to be heavily beaten, with Tostig also killed.
Although a number of major Scandinavian campaigns took place in the British Isles over the next few decades, Harald is commonly held to be the last of the great Viking kings and so historians often use the Battle of Stamford Bridge as a convenient end point for the Viking Age.
9. The battle was incredibly bloody
The Vikings may have ultimately been defeated but both sides suffered heavy losses. Around 6,000 of the invading army were killed while around 5,000 of Harold’s men died.
10. Harold’s victory was short-lived
As Harold was busy fighting off the Vikings in the north of England, William the Conqueror was en route to southern England with his Norman army. Harold’s victorious forces were still in the north celebrating their win at Stamford Bridge when the Normans landed at Sussex on 29 September.
Harold then had to march his men south and gather up reinforcements on the way. By the time his army met with William’s men at the Battle of Hastings on 14 October it was battle-weary and exhausted. The Normans, meanwhile, had had two weeks to prepare for the confrontation.
Hastings would ultimately prove to be Harold’s doing. By the end of the battle, the king was dead and William was on his way to taking the English crown.