How the Last Great Viking Battle in England of the Middle Ages Didn’t Even Decide the Country’s Fate

History Hit Podcast with Marc Morris

4 mins

18 Sep 2018

This article is an edited transcript of 1066: Battle of Hastings – Marc Morris on Dan Snow’s History Hit, first broadcast 14 October 2016. You can listen to the full episode below or to the full podcast for free on Acast.

King Harold Godwinson spent much of 1066 anticipating a Norman invasion in the south of England, led by the Duke of Normandy, the future William the Conqueror. Since Scandinavia had been wracked by internal conflict for the last decade, the English monarch was not expecting a Viking attack.

After waiting around four months for a Norman invasion, Harold could not sustain his army any longer, and disbanded it on the 8 September.

He sent his men back to the provinces, and then proceeded to ride inland to London.

The Vikings arrive

When Harold returned to London two or three days later, he was informed that an invasion had taken place – but that it wasn’t a Norman invasion. Instead, it was an invasion by Harold Hardrada, King of Norway, and Tostig Godwinson, Harold’s very own estranged and bitter brother, who had a large fleet of Vikings with them.

Harold was probably very frustrated at that point, because he had held an army together for around four months to resist William, and, as he was literally in the process of standing it down, the Norwegians arrived in northern England.

If they had arrived any sooner then the news would have reached Harold in time for him to keep his army together.

It was very bad timing for Harold. He then had to race northwards with his own bodyguard, the Housecarls, and his household cavalry, all while sending out fresh writs to the shires saying that there was a new muster in the north to deal with the Viking invasion. He marched north from the end of the second week in September.

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The Normans had been waiting in Saint-Valery since mid-September. But they must have known about the Viking invasion because it only took up to around 24 hours to get a ship across the Channel at that time, and usually less than that.

We know there were spies and information passing between the two countries the whole time. The Normans know the Norwegians had landed and that Harold had set off to confront them.

But the extraordinary thing is that when the Normans set sail for England on the 27 or 28 September, they could not have known the outcome of that clash in the north.

Harold Godwinson destroys them

We know that on 25 September, Harold Godwinson met Harald Hardrada at Stamford Bridge and smashed the Viking army to pieces.

It was a great victory for Harold. But the news could not have travelled the 300 odd miles from Yorkshire to Poitiers – where the Normans were waiting – in two days. When they set sail, and even when they landed in England, they didn’t know which King Harold (or Harald) they were going to have to fight.

The amazing thing about the Battle of Stamford Bridge is that, if it had been the only thing to happen that year, 1066 would still have been a famous year.

It was one of the great early medieval victories in English history, and Harold Godwinson completely annihilated a Viking army.

We’re told the Vikings turned up in 200 or 300 ships, and that they returned in 24, or somewhere close to that. Critically, King Hardrada was killed, and he was one of the foremost warriors in Europe at that point.

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Described by William of Poitiers (William the Conquerer’s biographer) as the strongest man in Europe, he was known as the “Thunderbolt of the North”. Thus, Harold’s was a huge victory. If the Norman invasion hadn’t happened then we might still be singing songs about King Harold Godwinson and his famous victory.

The Vikings did threaten to come back frequently, including in 1070, 1075 and, in a very serious way, 1085 – with the latter provoking Domesday. But Harald Hardrada’s invasion marked the last major Viking incursion into England, and Stamford Bridge the last big Viking battle. There were, however, other battles that happened in Scotland in the later Middle Ages.

Following Stamford Bridge, Harold believed that he had secured his kingdom. Autumn was coming on, and the king had nearly got through his first year on the throne.

Responding to the Norman invasion

We don’t know exactly where or when Harold got the news that William had landed on the south coast because, with this period, determining certainties is like trying to nail jelly to the wall a lot of the time.

The certainties when it comes to Harold’s movements are Stamford Bridge on 25 September, and Hastings on 14 October. But where he was in the meantime is a matter of supposition.

Because he had already stood down his army in the south, a reasonable supposition is that Harold’s assumption – or maybe his prayer – must have been that the Normans weren’t coming.

The Battle of Stamford Bridge marked the last major Viking engagement in England.

The unexpected invasion by the Norwegians had forced Harold to call out an army again and rush north. On the morrow of Stamford Bridge, Harold would probably still have assumed that the Normans weren’t coming. He had won his victory against the Vikings. They had been decimated.

Like any commander in the Middle Ages, with the battle won and the dragon slain, Harold disbanded his army for a second time. All the call-up troops were sent home. Mission accomplished.

Until about a week later, it is reasonable to assume that Harold was still in Yorkshire, because he needed to pacify the region. Lots of people in Yorkshire had been very pleased to see the arrival of a Scandinavian king because that part of the world has strong cultural ties, political and cultural ties to Scandinavia.

Harold, therefore, would have wanted to spend time in Yorkshire, pacifying the locals and having a serious conversation with the people of York about their loyalty, while also burying his dead brother, Tostig, among other things.

Then, just as he was settling down again, a messenger arrived posthaste from the south and informed him of William the Conqueror’s invasion.