Sunday 24 September 2017

The Battle of Stamford Bridge

Today, September 25th, is the anniversary of the Battle of Stamford Bridge, fought in North Yorkshire on this day in 1066. King Harold's rout of Harald Hardrada's colossal pirate army stands as one one of the most spectacular military triumphs in Medieval history. To my mind it ranks alongside Trafalgar and the Battle of Britain as an epoch-making defence of the realm. The Vikings had been ravaging English shores on and off for nearly three hundred years. The Battle of Stamford Bridge brought that chapter to a sudden and definitive end.

King Harold's triumph has been overshadowed, unfortunately, by his loss of crown and kingdom nineteen days later at the Battle of Hastings. One can only wonder what might have been had Harold not been so desperately unlucky. With both the Normans and the Vikings sent packing Harold would have stood as undisputed master of a confident, united realm. At the age of just 44, he could have looked forward to a reign of a quarter of a century or more and the establishment of his dynasty on the English throne. He had all the makings of a great King. His reign, I'm sure, would have inaugurated a third Anglo-Saxon 'golden age' of religion, law, art and learning, following those of Alfred (871-900) and Edgar (959-975). 

Much glory and goodness has emanated from this country since 1066. My intuition tells me, however, in a way I can't quantitatively account for, that if Harold had won at Hastings, England would have been more like the Albion we hope to awaken and less like the hard-nosed powerhouse she so often became - materialistic, mercantile, rapacious and exploitative. 

This is why I always shed a tear on 'Hastings Day', October 14th. I mourn what might have been and should have been but never was. The door to the 'third golden age' stayed shut. One day, I believe, it will open again. How and why I don't know, but it comforts me to know that J.R.R. Tolkien shared my sense of loss at Harold's death and the subjugation of Old England. Let us leave the last word to another fine storyteller then, the historian R.J. Unstead and his account of Harold's mighty victory in The Story of England (pp.62-63).

Happy Stamford Bridge Day!


'When William of Normandy heard the news that Harold had been crowned King, he broke into a rage and proclaimed a crusade to win his "rights". While an invasion fleet was being built, hundreds of knights rode in to join his army, attracted like flies to honeybee the thoughts of plunder and land. The Pope himself sent his blessing and a banner, for William had made his tale good, although his claim to England was no more than an excuse for a military adventure.

Harold did not fear the Normans. Indeed he longed for them to come all through the summer of 1066, for he had a splendid army assembled in the southern counties, far stronger than any seaborne force that William might bring. He was as good a soldier as the Duke, though more hot-headed, and he had an excellent fleet that would have given the Norman ships a rough passage in the channel.

The summer wore on and the Normans still did not come, for the wind blew steadily from the north and kept their ships from sailing. As the corn grew ripe, the English soldiers became restive, thinking of their farms and harvest-time. Surely the Normans would not come so late to risk the autumn storms and a winter campaign?

Harold had just disbanded his army and sent the fleet to the Thames, when a call for help came from the north. Three hundred longships had sailed into the Humber and an army of Norsemen, led by Harald Hardrada, King of Norway, was ravaging the land like a pack of wolves. Earl Tostig was there with the invaders, for he had invited Harald Hardrada, the giant Viking who had fought all over Europe, to come and take his brother's throne.

Hardrada defeated the Earls of Mercia and Northumbria, and made them promise to help him against Harold. Then they waited for the English King at Stamford Bridge, a wooden bridge that crossed the Derwent, seven miles from York.

With housecarls and as many fighting-men as he could gather, Harold came north at furious speed. In York, he learned that the enemy was only a short distance off, so, refusing to rest, he drove his tired men on without a pause. They came to Stamford Bridge, where the Norwegian host was camped on both banks, their armour laid aside and their ranks unformed.

Harold sent a message to Tostig. He would pardon him and restore his earldom if he came across to the English side.

"And what land will my brother give to Harald Hardrada?"

Angrily, Harold replied, "To the King of Norway, I will give six feet of English earth. No, seven feet, seeing that he is taller than other men and needs a longer grave!"

Then he gave the order to attack. The English broke through the forces on the west bank of the river but were checked by a gigantic Viking who held the bridge until he was speared from below by a soldier who had crept under the timbers. Once across the river, the English infantry cut the host to pieces and, as Harald Hardrada and Tostig lay dead on the field, they chased the remnant back to their ships.

Harold had kept his word. The most famous war-captain lay in his seven-foot grave, the pirate army was destroyed and only a few survivors were sailing ruefully back to Norway. The English buried their dead and tended the wounded, as the monks sang the Thanksgiving in York Minster.

But the wind that carried the Norwegians away brought the Normans to the coast of Sussex, where William landed his army without so much as a fishing-boat or a ploughboy to oppose him ... '

1 comment:

Bruce Charlton said...

A bittersweet memory of what might-have-been...