Sunday, 25 September 2016

1066 And All That: Stamford Bridge, 25 September 1066

Having marched north with haste upon news of Harald’s landing, Harold arrived at York on 25 September with an army of 10,000 or more warriors. He discovered that Harald and Tostig had defeated Edwin and Morcar, and then commanded them to submit hostages to them at Stamford Bridge, to the east of the city.  The Norse were recovering from the hard fight at Fulford, and Harald pondered his next move – certainly without expecting that the English king had advanced so far north so promptly.

Without further ado, Harold’s army headed for the rendezvous, but not to surrender hostages. Snorri Sturluson’s Heimskringla saga once again recorded the action at Stamford Bridge, which happened five days after Fulford:

Now the battle began. The Englishmen made a hot assault upon the Northmen, who sustained it bravely. It was no easy matter for the English to ride against the Northmen on account of their spears; therefore they rode in a circle around them. And the fight at first was but loose and light, as long as the Northmen kept their order of battle; for although the English rode hard against the Northmen, they gave way again immediately, as they could do nothing against them. Now when the Northmen thought they perceived that the enemy were making but weak assaults, they set after them, and would drive them into flight; but when they had broken their shield-rampart the Englishmen rode up from all sides, and threw arrows and spears on them. Now when King Harald Sigurdson saw this, he went into the fray where the greatest crash of weapons was, and there was a sharp conflict, in which many people fell on both sides. King Harald then was in a rage, and ran out in front of the array, and hewed down with both hands; so that neither helmet nor armour could withstand him, and all who were nearest gave way before him. It was then very near with the English that they had taken to flight.

…King Harald Sigurdson was hit by an arrow in the windpipe, and that was his death-wound. He fell, and all who had advanced with him, except those who retired with the banner. There was afterwards the warmest conflict, and Earl Toste had taken charge of the king's banner. They began on both sides to form their array again, and for a long time there was a pause in fighting.

… Then each side set up a war-shout, and the battle began again.  So says Arnor, the earls' skald:

     "The king, whose name would ill-doers scare,
     The gold-tipped arrow would not spare.
     Unhelmed, unpanzered, without shield,
     He fell among us in the field.
     The gallant men who saw him fall
     Would take no quarter; one and all
     Resolved to die with their loved king,
     Around his corpse in a corpse-ring."

Eystein Orre came up at this moment from the ships with the men who followed him, and all were clad in armour. Then Eystein got King Harald's banner Land-ravager; and now was, for the third time, one of the sharpest of conflicts, in which many Englishmen fell, and they were near to taking flight. This conflict is called Orre's storm. Eystein and his men had hastened so fast from the ships that they were quite exhausted, and scarcely fit to fight before they came into the battle; but afterwards they became so furious, that they did not guard themselves with their shields as long as they could stand upright. At last they threw off their coats of ringmail, and then the Englishmen could easily lay their blows at them; and many fell from weariness, and died without a wound. Thus almost all the chief men fell among the Norway people. This happened towards evening; and then it went, as one might expect, that all had not the same fate, for many fled, and were lucky enough to escape in various ways; and darkness fell before the slaughter was altogether ended.
(from Project Gutenberg)

Harald and Tostig's force, which rose to around 9,000 men when reinforcements arrived later in the battle, waited at Stamford Bridge – meaning that despite the fame of the Battle of Hastings, Stamford Bridge was actually the largest battle fought on British soil in 1066. They had underestimated the speed with which Harold could arrive from the south, and the Norse army was encamped on either side of the River Derwent. The river was traversed by a bridge befitting the main road from York to the coast, but was otherwise impassable. Tradition tells us that many of the Norsemen did not wear their armour at the battle, either because it was a hot day, or because - expecting only hostages - they were not expecting to fight; whether this is true to not, it offers an option for pitting armoured warriors against entirely unarmoured opponents. The Norse army became aware that Harold's force was upon them only when scouts returned to announce the rapid advance of the English.

The Norse were seemingly caught unawares; the English battle line rapidly despatched the unorganised resistance on western side of the Derwent. It’s possible that this was actually a vanguard thrown out by Harald to buy time to organise his main force to the east of the bridge - if this is the case, the fighting on the western bank would have been much harder than is often anticipated.

Factual or not, a well-known story about Stamford Bridge is that a single Norse warrior held the bridge over the river long after his comrades and retreated or been slain. Eventually, a cunning plan was hatched by the English, who sent a warrior in a boat under the bridge to impale the Norseman with a spear. The lone warrior fell dead to the floor, and the English crossed the bridge to begin phase two of the battle.

As the battle on the western side of the Derwent ended, Harald gained enough time to organise his outnumbered army into a shieldwall on rising ground beyond the river; this is sometimes described as a circular shieldwall, or one with refused flanks, which if correct, suggests that Harald was worried about his flanks being turned by a larger enemy (or possibly a mounted force, as noted below). Harald stood at the centre of the line with his banner, the Landwaster; Tostig was close by with his own banner.

Snorri Sturluson's account describes a mounted assault by the English; this is often waved away as an error on his part (confusing the battle with Hastings, or anachronistically grafting on the tactics of his own day), but as discussed later, he may have been correct. The more common modern interpretation is the grinding of two shieldwalls against one another. Alongside the brutal hand-to-hand combat, missiles were hurled and shot into the closed ranks of both armies. Harald may have led a counter-attack against the English line, perhaps breaking his circular formation to do so and advancing down the slope he'd formed up on. Snorri's account sees the Norseman's claim to the English throne ending here, with an arrow through his throat fired by a nameless English bowman. With Harald's death, both sides stepped back to regroup.

Battle resumed, for the third and final phase of Stamford Bridge, with the arrival of Norse reinforcements from Riccall. Known as 'Orri's storm' on account of the leader of this group, a vicious assault was thrown at the English line by these fresh troops; but Harold's army ground them down, and cut their way through the Norse battle line to slay both Tostig and Orri.

By sunset, the Norse invasion had been cut apart. No more than twenty-four ships took the remnants of the Norse army and their allies home; meanwhile, Harold turned his exhausted army south once more: Tostig and Harald lay dead, but news reached only days after Stamford Bridge that William's Norman army had landed on the south coast.


Coming soon… refighting the battle using my Scottorum Malleus IV rules.