Chapter Eight: Valour and Blood and the Fight for England


The Norwegians have landed and have defeated the northern earls, brothers Morcar and Edwin, at Gate Fulford. Harold has marched north, gathering an army as he goes, to face his brother Tostig and King Harald of Norway as they unwittingly wait at Stamford Bridge for hostages and supplies to arrive from York.

Stamford Bridge crosses the River Derwent a few miles north of York and was far enough away from York to be of little further threat to the city. Harald, the King of Norway, with the somewhat inimitable reputation of being ‘hard to counsel’ and King Harold of England’s implacable brother, Tostig, had brokered a deal with the defeated leaders of York, that they would meet them with the agreed 150 hostages and provisions that were promised. On Monday, September the 25th, their men were camped on both sides of the river Derwent. It was a sunny day and they were enjoying the warm weather. But the promised supplies and hostages had not arrived, so Harald decided that he and his men would march to York to find out what had happened. They had just crossed the bridge when came the storm in a form of a dust cloud. The marching feet of thousands of infantry and horsemen could be seen, their glittering weapons and steel tipped spears, sparkling like shards of broken ice. Harold Godwinson and his army were approaching them along the road from York, about to fall upon them in a surprise assault.

English huscarles and thegns on horses

There are a variety of versions of the prelude to the battle, what seems to be pretty conclusive is that unfortunately for the Norsemen, they had gone to Stamford Bridge to meet the English hostages without their mail, the very thing necessary for survival in a battle. The chronicles all agree that this was due to the warm and sunny weather and having defeated the Northern armies at Gate Fulford, they were certainly not expecting to have need of their armour so soon after their victory. Half of Hardrada’s forces were back at Riccall with the fleet, led by his son Olaf and Paul, the Earl of Orkney. Some of his men had been out rounding up cattle (Rex 2011) and were on the open ground on the west bank of the river when the scouts spotted Harold’s army approaching them. Marren (2004), in his book about the battles of 1066, describes the bridge by 11thc reckoning as being wide enough for the roads which reached the bridge, to go through it. This seems a reasonable reckoning seeing as the roads continue out to the Battle Flats and beyond. However, the initial phase of the battle was fought on the Western side of the river and not on the Battle Flats as previous historians have agreed. Blundell (2012), in his The Battle of Stamford 1066 AD: An Alternative Interpretation paper, postulates, convincingly, that the Norwegians were not lazing on the grass, enjoying the sunshine of that day, but actually on the march to York to see why the hostages had not turned up at the agreed place and time. Harald, fed up with waiting, had decided to take most of his army to York with him to find out what was going on, leaving a smaller unit rounding up cattle further out on the west side of the river.

Looking at the maps on Blundell’s website, you can see both armies as they come across one another. The larger English contingent (in red) are on their way to confront the invading army (in blue). The map that is called Map 6 but is actually map 4, gives a good indication of how the two armies would have come across one another. Imagine Harald’s surprise and confusion. Tostig had assured him it would take longer than days for Harold Godwinson to arrive with his army.


The Norwegian king must have been furious with Tostig and greatly shocked, for the Englishman had assured him that Harold’s army would take weeks to get there and not days. But Harold’s army is kicking up the dust on the road, less than a mile away as they crest the higher ground from Gate Helmsley. However, Harald has time to work out a battle plan. Tostig, however, pragmatically urges that they should run back to the ships, but Harald knows that they would be slain by the obviously overwhelming English numbers and his best tactic would be to stay and fight until the rest of his army arrive. He quickly despatches the best of his riders to hurry back to Riccall, which was roughly 16 miles away, and lines up his men in a circular shieldwall, having seen the mounted unit of huscarles in the vanguard.

According to Snorri Sturluson, Harold wanted to parley, offering his brother peace and his former earldom back, but Tostig refuses when he only offers Hardrada this witty comment, ‘7ft of ground for he is taller than most other men’. Other sources state that Harold came upon them on horseback and swooped down on the Vikings on the open ground of the west bank, catching them unawares. They cut them down, slashing and spearing them in their circular shieldwall.

Many of the sagas report the English use of cavalry, although there is some discrepancy by historians as to the validity of it. The English were generally thought to favour fighting on foot as infantry, riding to battle and then dismounting. However, this battle would not have been the first time the English had fought on horseback as they did, somewhat disastrously at the battle of Hereford. It seems reasonable to believe that if Harold and his huscarles were journeying on horse, and saw the Norwegians before them, he would order a cavalry-type charge at them successfully. After all, he had learned about cavalry warfare during his time in Normandy as a guest of Duke William.

In Map 7 which is actually map 5, we see how the English forces are able to wrap the Vikings up and the men out rustling the cattle are cut down, as a unit is deployed to go after them. The shieldwall is broken but Harald and his Norwegians are are stalwart and storm to reform it to fight on.

Snorri Sturlusson’s Heimskringla is a very detailed account of the battle, however, being written down some 160 years after events happened, some historians are sceptical, but Blundell’s exploration of the topography of the battlefield and in depth study of the sources gives credence to the Sagas. However, it seems unlikely that Harold would have made his offer of Northumbria to Tostig, knowing that if Tostig accepted, Harold would incur the wrath of his new brothers-in-law and the men of the north, who had fought hard to get rid of Tostig. They may have been disillusioned by the brothers Morcar and Edwin who failed to avert the disaster at Gate Fulford, but doubtless they would not have been happy to have Tostig back in the seat of his earldom, either. Harold may have offered him part of Wessex, which I would think was more likely. Whatever was offered, if indeed there was an offer, it wasn’t what Tostig wanted.


The death of Hardrada comes after he had bravely fought to reform his men into the shieldwall. They are still on the West side of the river and both sides are taking great casualties. They were pushed right back by the English along the river just by the bridge and the river is right behind them. Hardrada ordered for his banner, the black raven, ‘Landwaster’ to be brought forward and he ran out ahead of his men in a mad charge like the one he had led at Fulford, hoping to repeat his victory as he had done then. But his huge torso was unprotected, wearing only his blue tunic, and he was hit by an arrow in the throat, though not before he had hewn and sliced many men with his Dane Axe. Those that had followed his charge died with him and there came a pause in the fighting. The great Norwegian King had choked on his blood and died. As everyone took time to take it all in and perhaps remove Harald’s body to a place of safety, the English Harold offered quarter to his brother and the beleaguered Norwegian troops, but they refused. It must have been devastating to Harold to know that he was about to lose his brother definitively.

Buoyed by the death of the Viking king, the English are fierce and brutal in their subsequent attack. In Map 8, (map 6)  we see how the English army have now pushed the Norwegians back over the bridge. They bring Hardrada’s body with them and Tostig is said to take up the command, and Harald’s flag. They have taken a lot of casualties.


The most singular feature of this battle is the story that the bridge was held for some time against the English by a somewhat fearsome Viking with an axe who prevented them from crossing, killing any man who attempted to attack him. According to one source he kills 40 Englishmen singlehandedly. He was wearing a mail shirt, obviously one of the few who had decided to bring his. However though, after holding them back heroically, preventing thousands of the English from getting across the bridge, a quick-thinking Englishman waded under the bridge and spears him up through his under carriage and the English are free to cross the bridge. This story is the stuff of legend and is added to Chronicle C in the 12thc, interesting ly enough, and it is also repeated by several other writers. However, looking at it logically, one man on a bridge as wide as the road? Seriously, I would have shot him with an arrow within seconds, never mind trying to get a spear upwards and into his gizzards from underneath a bridge! And was this spearman really quick-thinking? Took him long enough, they lost 40 men before they decided to decimate him. Anyway, following the death of the lone axeman on the bridge, the English then went quickly over the bridge, to fight the Norwegian army. I really don’t give this story credence and feel that it is the object of a romantic, vivid imagination and none of the Sagas mention this. If it really did happen, I believe there would be some mention of it. It makes for a great story, though, the crazed, battle maddened Norwegian berserker! But no, he would have easily been taken down on that bridge.

The berserker guarding the bridge, having removed his mail due to the heat, just before he kills his 39th victim

Tostig is now in charge, however the death of Harald Hardrada must have had a devastating effect on morale. It was he they had come to fight for, not Tostig, but the exiled Godwinson was all that they had left. But Tostig dies and his body fell near the Landwaster. At this point, they were soon to have another commander, Eystein Orri, as the reinforcements came pouring in from Riccall, exhausted from running several miles and dusty and sweating from the heat and their heavy mail. This last phase of the battle was to become known as ‘Orri’s storm’ They may have seen them coming and perhaps this was why they refused quarter, and they made one final devastating charge at the English, many of whom were killed in the fresh onslaught. Such was the rage that the Norwegians felt at having ran for miles to find that their leader was dead. Such was their desire for revenge that they fought valiantly, some having to throw off their mail because they were so exhausted. But the Vikings were unable to maintain the momentum. Orri fought to the death as had Tostig. Some collapsed, fatigued by the stress of the battle and the harrowing journey on foot from Riccall.

Hardrada’s banner with image of the Raven that feeds on the dead after a battle

The Norse poet Arnor later tells us:

It was an evil moment
When Norway’s king lay fallen;

Gold inlaid weapons
Brought death to Norway’s leader.

All King Harald’s warriors
Preferred to die beside him,
Sharing their brave king’s fate,
Rather than beg for mercy.


Some of the enemy survivors made their escape and were pursued by the English and given no quarter when it had been already twice refused. No prisoners were taken. The fleeing Norwegians, and we must not forget the Flemings that had come with Tostig, were chased back to the fleet where, as darkness fell the English ‘fiercely attack them from behind until some of them came to ship, some drowned, and also some burnt, and thus variously perished, so that there were few survivors, and the English had possession of the place of slaughter’ (Anglo Saxon Chronicle D). The author of the chronicle then went on to say that Harold rounded up the survivors and offered them safe conduct if they would swear oaths before him to leave this land and keep the peace of these islands. Amongst these was King Harald’s son, Olaf, who did as he was bid, promising never to return with hostility to these lands. He and their Bishop and Earl Paul of Orkney were sent home with only 24 of the 300 ships they had sailed with. Such was their loss of men that only 24 were needed to carry them home. It must have been a traumatic turnaround of events for the survivors that they should come so far for a great victory at Fulford, only to have their hopes of success dashed within a few days. The great God of War, Hardrada, had proved himself to be destructible after all. The big man’s luck had run out at last. Thus the Lightning Bolt was never to light up the sky again.

The Vikings running to join their comrad Bridgees at Stamford

This was the last time that Scandinavian forces would attempt an invasion on such a massive scale. This was the end of the Viking threat to England, but their bones would lay scattered over fields in Yorkshire, visible to the travellers eye, for some years to come after this year of 1066.

Blundell, Michael C. 2012. The Battle of Stamford Bridge 1066 A.D.: An Alternative Interpretation. URL
Marren P (2004) 1066 The Battles of York, Stamford Bridge & Hastings Pen and Sword books Ltd, Yorkshire.
Morris M (2012) The Norman Conquest Hutchinson, London.
Rex P (2011) 1066 A New History of the Norman Conquest Amberley Publishing, Gloucestershire.
Swanton M (200) The Anglo-Saxon Chronichles (rev. ed) Phoenix Press, London.

Chapter Seven: Stamford Bridge -The Prelude

What Happened After Fulford

Following on from the  Battle of Gate Fulford on the 20th September, Harald Sigurdsson’s victory just outside of York saw him and ‘as great a force as seemed necessary’ (AS chronicle C) march into the city. Realising their numbers were up, the people of York surrendered. Whether or not the defeated brothers Edwin and Morcar were part of this process, is not known, but they certainly survived the battle and may have holed themselves up inside the walls, perhaps wounded, with their remaining men, ready to negotiate with the Norwegian king, or they may have retreated somewhere to the lands of their followers to recover and recoup. Harald’s saga tells us that Morcar had been killed at Fulford, but we know for certain that Morcar lived through the battle. He may have been severely wounded, perhaps close to death, leading people to believe that he had died. It has been thought that both the brothers may have been badly injured, giving rise to the fact that they do not appear to have attended the battle of Hastings. They were, however,  able to submit to William sometime after the Norman duke’s decisive victory.

We do not know who the men were that were involved in brokering the deal that was said to have been made with the Norwegian victors, however, the citizens of York were offered a peaceful solution as long as they provided provisions and hostages, and agreed to provide men for the Norwegian king, to help him win the crown of England, (Abingdon Chronicle). Tostig Godwinson, who was amongst those who had fought with Harald at Fulford, would have known many of the men of Yorkshire personally. He would have been able to vouch that the hostages offered were sons of leading men. Tostig, it seemed, was at last useful for something after all.

Artist’s idea of Jorvik

The hostages were to be brought by the leading men of the city and handed over at Stamford Bridge, 8 miles north of York. According to the chronicler, Florence of Worcester, 150 hostages were to be given on both sides and part of the treaty with the men of York included the supply of provisions. It is doubtful that hostages would have been handed over by the victors, so it seems that this must be an error on Florence’s part.

The other King Harold, the Godwinson version, heard the news of Sigurdsson’s landing, probably soon after or just before the Norwgian king and the northern earls gave battle at Gate Fulford. The invader’s maneuvers around the coast probably gave Edwin and Morcar time to gather their armies and send messengers south to Harold. The English king had been in the south with his southern fyrd watching for William to come and had disbanded his men on the 8th of September when there seemed no sign of the duke appearing from Normandy at any time soon. Some of the men would have been concerned about the harvest, and Harold had kept them longer than the 2 months they were expected to do their service. It seemed that for now, William was not coming and there was a more imminent threat to national security coming from the north that needed dealing with. It seems logical that Harold would have left the local militias in charge of coastal defences, but how this might have looked is not entirely certain, for when William did land sometime during September, there seemed to be very little opposition.

Roman road

As soon as he heard of The Norwegian king’s landing, King Harold began the journey north, calling out local levies on the way as he passed through the shires that surrounded the old Roman road of Ermine Street. This was not the first time he had performed a lightning raid on an enemy. The first was in Wales sometime in the winter of ’62 / ’63 when he stormed over the border with a mounted force and destroyed Rhuddlan, Gruffudd’s fortress in Wales. Fortunately for Gruffudd he was warned at the last minute with time to escape by ship, leaving the rest of his fleet to be burned by Harold’s men. If Harold had been able to catch Gruffudd, its probable that it would have been the last time he looked upon the Welsh king’s face, for he had been a thorn in the side of the English for long enough. Harold’s diplomacy had wrought him nought, for Gruffudd had turned out to be a veritable boil on the arse! But Harold was to get his satisfaction in the next year when, wanting to avoid more devastating punishments from Edward’s hammer of the Welsh, some of Gruffudd’s men had him killed and his head was brought to Harold, who then presented it to Edward, hopefully not at supper time, on a platter. Harold had dealt gently with Gruffudd for some years despite the Welsh king’s incursions into England along the marcher borders, but Harold had lost patience and thrown off the kid gloves. This sudden reprisal, and the way he dealt later with Stamford Bridge, shows that once his mind was made up, he was resolute and determined. This was a man, (Harold), determined to deal with a problem once and for all.

The 3 Main Protagonists

Harold Godwinson, King of England

An English huscarle

How Harold managed to gather a large enough force in such a short time has been speculated by many historians, but it seems that he most likely starts out with the core of his army, his body guard and perhaps his brother, Leofwin, along with his own huscarles, sending messengers to call out the local fyrds to meet him along the road. Although no known source mentions that Harold was accompanied by either of his brothers, it’s quite reasonable to expect that Gyrth may have joined him on the way, as his earldom is close by the route they are passing. Undoubtedly those who were able to ride, did so, and those who couldn’t, marched on foot. Its most likely they travelled out of London along the old Roman road, Ermine Street, as far as York, the most direct route. Along the way they raised the fyrd of each shire they travel through, picking them up at arranged meeting points. These are the men of Hertfordshire, Cambridgeshire, Buckinghamshire, Nottinghamshire and Lincolnshire. It’s hard to say how many of them would have been mounted but in looking at the heriot of a thegn, it involved between 2-4 horses depending on their status. Thegns may have brought a servant or two to provide non-combatant duties and that is why, perhaps, they had to provide 3 or 4 horses as part of their dues.

At some point along the way, Harold learns of the Gate Fulford disaster by an exhausted messenger who has ridden, without stopping, to meet the king on his journey north, so he might urge him to march more earnestly. Harold wonders momentarily why the young brothers, Edwin and Morcar, came out of York to fight Hardrada without waiting for him to arrive, but whatever concerns he may have had, their defeat may have spurred his determination to deal with Hardrada and Tostig decisively. So he ploughs on with his men, determined to reach Yorkshire in time to surprise the Norwegian king and his own brother, to deal with them before they can strengthen their hold in the north.

At Tadcaster, he marshals his forces, we are told, also being joined there by some of the survivors of Fulford who would have informed him of the whereabouts of the Norsemen.  At dawn, on Monday 25th September, Harold and his army cross the River Wharfe and reached York via the Ebor Way within a few hours. York welcomes him, perhaps surprised that he has come so quickly. He stops for a short while to refresh his army and hears about the deals that have been done with the Norse. We can imagine how it all went:

He sympathises with the people of York and their young leaders Morcar and Edwin. He does not take them to task about their defeat and nor does he criticise them for not waiting for him. He listens as they explain how they had to come to terms with Hardrada, or their city would have been overrun. Knowing that if they can convince Hardrada of complete compliance, he would withdraw from the city and hopefully this would stall them long enough for Harold to get there with his army. Of course they might have been hedging their bets, but Harold doesn’t want to get into that right now. The young earls are his new brother-in-laws and he likes to think they are loyal.

So Harold studies at a map of the area, the lie of the land and its geographical significance and plans his next move with his generals, Gyrth and Marleswein the shire-reeve. They set out again on the last leg of their journey. Stamford Bridge.  As the men march toward their next destination, none of them, least of all Harold would have known that they were about to participate in one of the most decisive battles of the era. The Viking Age was about to go down pretty definitively.

Harald Sigurdsson, King of Norway


Mr Sigurdsson is a man whose whole attitude to life seems to be little about planning and thought, and more about getting whatever he wants at any cost. He learned as a younger man, that to get what one desires, one needs to have power and to have power, one needs to have gold. And to get gold one needs followers to help him get it. And to get followers, he needs to have the gift of the gab and personal strength. Eventually, he manages to acquire all those things, mostly because he has the last two qualities in the first place.

Born in Ringerike in the Upplands of Norway, he was the son of a petty chieftain, Sigurd. He becomes King of Norway from 1046 until his death in 1066 and after unsuccessfully claiming Denmark, he turns his attentions to England after a proposition from the exiled Tostig Godwinson.  Harald’s birth year is probably somewhere between 1014-16 so he is aged around 50 at this time. Harald’s claim to the throne is pretty weak, but he doesn’t really care. Always on the lookout for more power, he doesn’t need an excuse to claim anything for himself. He is used to violence and has led a colourful and brutal life. He spent some of his youth in the Varangian Guard. His reputation goes before him and he relies on it to intimidate his opponents. He certainly isn’t coming to England on a jolly day trip. After his glorious victory over Edwin and Morcar’s forces at Fulford, he and his comrade, Tostig Godwinson, withdraw to the assigned meeting place by the Bridge at Stamford, where they are due to collect the hostages promised them in the treaty. A renown warrior, Harald is confident that he can take the English crown for himself, especially having won a glorious victory at Fulford.

Tostig Godwinson, exiled Earl of Northumbria


He’d been Earl of Northumbria for around 10 years before he was ousted and forced into exileIt is quite surprising that he lasted that long, for he had been unpopular throughout. He is the third born son of Earl Godwin and his Danish wife Gytha. Interestingly he is related to William of Normandy through marriage. His wife Judith is half-sister to the Duke’s wife’s father, Count Baldwin. Tostig’s rule of Northumbria was carried out with a heavy hand and this, coupled by the fact that he is a southerner and a Godwinson, made him unpopular with the Northumbrian ruling families. The Godwins have always been seen as a threat to the balance of power in the 11thc, for there were so many of them. When Alfgar of Mercia is side-lined by the king who gives the Northumbrian earldom to Tostig, the rest of the noblemen see a Godwin takeover on the horizon, especially with two more brothers waiting for offices. Unfortunately, not everyone loves the Godwinsons as much as the southerners appear to do. Godwin himself was seen as illegally acquiring lands and wealth and with his sons attaining lands and earldoms of their own, the family’s power was increasing, thus the other nobles saw little opportunities for enterprises of their own. Not a great way to gain popularity amongst peers.

Finally, things come to a head after some internal political disasters, and the northerners want Tostig  out. They rebel, killing a large number of his officials. Then they march down south to protest their case with the king. Harold persuades Edward, who is against Tostig’s dethronement, to avoid a civil war and give into the northerner’s demands to have Morcar, brother of Edwin of Mercia as their earl. The king, with great reluctance, agrees.

Betrayed by his own brother, Tostig flees abroad in exile. He finally winds up with Harald Sigurdsson on this date, 25th September 1066, on a warm sunny afternoon, waiting in a field of sunshine with his loyal retainers and some of the Norwegian warriors. They were minus their armour and lightly armed, many of their men had been sent to guard their ships. They were not expecting any conflict, not now. They were, however, expecting hostages and provisions to be arriving any minute. But they had been waiting well over the agreed time and Tostig’s partner in crime was growing impatient. He rallies the men to prepare to march to York. This lateness will just not do! If they have to go and get the hostages for themselves, then that is what they will do, and probably a few other things too. Sigurdsson corals them over the bridge that crosses the River Derwent, to march the road to York, but just as they are filing onto the other side of the river, Harald calls a halt to the march. What do they see?

(For a map of what this phase would have looked like see )

There is a cloud of dust approaching over the crest of the high ground in front of them. As they wait, the cloud gets closer and they begin to glimpse the ‘glittering of weapons that sparkle like a field of broken ice’. At first Harald suspects that some of the northern fyrd have come to join them but when they see the golden man standard flowing in the breeze whipped up by the storm of marching feet, they know what it is that is upon them. Tostig cannot believe his brother has got here so quick. He groans in dismay. Hardrada throws him an accusing look that says you told me it would take him weeks to get here, not days! He brushes aside the earl’s attempts to explain, for there is no time to argue with the English idiot. He has only some of his force here, the rest are back with the fleet at Riccall… along with their mail. He calls for his strongest riders to hasten back to Riccall for his boatmen to come to reinforce their numbers. He stares at the army marching before him. He is the famous Hardrada, wearing only a blue tunic, a helmet and only his axe to protect him. Without mail, the men would be vulnerable. But he was Hardrada, the Hard to Counsel: The Lightning Bolt of the North. I am Hardrada the Invincible and victory will be mine!


Next see what happens in the battle of Stamford Bridge.


Marren P (2004) 1066 The Battles of York, Stamford Bridge & Hastings Pen and Sword books Ltd, Yorkshire.

Swanton M (1996) The Anglo-Saxon Chronicles The Orion Publishing Group Ltd, London.

Davies M & S Davies The Last King of Wales The History Press, Stroud.

I.W. Walker (2004) Harold the Last Anglo Saxon King Sutton Publishing Ltd, Gloucs.

Guest Post: The Trouble with Tostig by Mercedes Rochelle


Tostig left England in November of 1065 after the disastrous Northumbrian rebellion. While waiting for Harold to set everything straight, it soon became clear that his brother was not going to stand up for him, fight for him, or even defend him in counsel. Harold gave in to every rebel demand including Tostig’s exile from the earldom and even the country. Tostig felt betrayed, Edward was despondent, and the queen shed a great many tears. Although the king did not agree with the outlawry—he even insisted they call out the Fyrd to put down the rebellion—his wishes were disregarded. In the end Edward acquiesced to the forces set against him, and he unwillingly sent Tostig off with gifts and words of regret.
Historian Ian Walker tells us that Tostig was outlawed “apparently because he refused to accept his deposition as commanded by Edward”. However, historian Emma Mason said “Tostig did go into exile, but this was his own decision.” So from the very beginning of his exile, Tostig’s actions were debated.
He may have paid a farewell visit to his mother in Bosham, but by Christmas he had landed in Flanders with his family and close associates. Earl Baldwin, his brother-in-law, received them graciously and settled Tostig at St-Omer with a house and an estate, revenues, and even a contingent of knights to command. This wasn’t such a bad state of affairs for an exile, but it was only temporary, used as a base to gather information and collect mercenaries.
King Edward’s rapid decline has been associated with Tostig’s exile; he may even have had a stroke when he discovered that his rule was breaking down in the north. I would imagine that Tostig was shocked by the king’s death, but was he shocked also to learn that Harold took the crown? Did this alter his plans any, or did he always intend to force his way back? After all, Godwine was successful in doing this very thing in 1052 (with Harold’s help); Earl Aelfgar regained his earldom twice by invasion. Tostig was just following a successful strategy to retrieve his fortunes; perhaps he would have expected Edward to acquiesce. On the other hand, with Harold as King his motives took on a more sinister cast.
In the opening months of 1066, King Harold had much on his mind, not the least of which was the unrest in Northumbria. He was even obliged to travel to York (in the winter), to convince the recently pardoned rebels that his motives were unchanged. It’s entirely likely that he chose this high-profile visit to marry the sister of Edwin and Morcar at York Cathedral. Apparently the new king won over the suspicious Northumbrians, and by spring he returned to Westminster for Easter Court. Harold was famed for his diplomacy, but in all this maneuvering I can find no mention of any effort to reconcile with Tostig. Nonetheless, if Harold thought to hold England together by accepting Edwin and Morcar’s control over the north, he was destined to find that losing his brother’s support made things infinitely worse.
What was Tostig doing all this time? It is possible that his first step was a visit to Duke William, who was probably already deep into his plans to invade England. I can’t imagine what he could have offered the Duke aside from a small fleet supplied by his father-in-law, but it does seem like the most onerous insult he could have offered Harold. Whether he made this visit early in the year or in late spring, it seemed that Duke William didn’t have any particular use for him (though perhaps he encouraged Tostig to cross over in May as a kind of forward movement).
Conversely, Tostig may not have visited Normandy at all. It’s not impossible that he used the winter months to cultivate likely allies in the north. As the popular story goes, Tostig first went to Sweyn Estridsson’s court in Denmark and tried to talk his cousin into invading England. After all, the Danish King was the grandson of Sweyn Forkbeard, so he was in line to the throne of England. But after 15 hard years of conflict with Harald Hardrada, Sweyn was exhausted and so was his treasury. He offered Tostig an earldom in Denmark, but Tostig spurned his suggestion and the two parted company with hard feelings on both sides.

Disappointed, Tostig went on to Norway and gave Harald Hardrada such a pep talk that the formidable king was chomping at the proverbial bit. According to Snorri Sturleson in HEIMSKRINGLA, Tostig assured Harald “If you wish to gain possession of England, then I may bring it about that most of the chieftains in England will be on your side and support you.” This sounds a little delusional considering recent events, but how was Hardrada to know the difference? But Tostig wasn’t finished; he had some diplomatic skills of his own. He added: “All men know that no greater warrior has arisen in the North than you; and it seems strange to me that you have fought fifteen years to gain possession of Denmark and don’t want to have England which is yours for the having.” What self-respecting Norseman could resist that line of reasoning?
Snorri has this conversation take place in the winter, which gave Hardrada the spring and summer to raise his army. However, not all historians agree with this scenario. The venerable Edward A. Freeman concluded that there wasn’t enough time for Tostig to make the voyage and for Hardrada to raise an army. He concluded that Hardrada had planned the campaign on his own and Tostig joined up with him after he made his move. It has also been suggested that Tostig sent Copsig, his right-hand man in his old earldom, as an ambassador to Norway to plan the invasion and didn’t meet Harald in person until later.
Regardless, Tostig was ready to make his own move in May. Was his purpose to draw Harold out before he was fully prepared? Or was he simply making his own bid for power? The timing seems odd, but he certainly caused a stir. Gathering his little fleet of Flemish and possibly Norman mercenaries, he sailed across the Channel and landed on the Isle of Wight. Here he collected supplies and is said to have forced many of the local seamen to join him with ships. Thus reinforced, he proceeded to plunder eastward along the coast as far as Sandwich, where he expanded his fleet to sixty ships, either voluntarily or by coercion. But by then, King Harold was on his way to stop him, so Tostig made haste to sail off and try his luck farther north along the coast.
Intent on plunder, Tostig entered the Humber and ravaged the coast of Lindsey in Edwin’s earldom of Mercia. But the northern earls were ready for him and drove his little fleet away. At this juncture, most of his allies (volunteers or impressed into service) melted away, and he limped off with only twelve of his original sixty boats in tow. Apparently this setback took the heart out of Tostig’s enterprise—for the moment—and he took refuge with his good friend and sworn brother Malcolm Canmore of Scotland. Always happy to cause trouble on his southern border, Malcolm offered Tostig his protection for the whole summer of 1066. Presumably Tostig sent messages back and forth from there to Hardrada, and he may have attracted some Scottish mercenaries to his cause.

Whether Tostig went to Norway in 1066 or not, historians agree that he spent the summer at King Malcolm’s court in Scotland and joined up with Hardrada after Harald dropped off his queen in the Orkneys and came south with the Orkney Earls. Some think Harald stopped at Dunfermline where Malcolm and Tostig waited. William of Malmesbury thought that Tostig joined Hardrada and pledged his support when the Norwegians reached the Humber, which is very late in the story. Regardless, by that point Harald Sigurdsson was clearly in charge of the expedition, and Tostig was his subordinate.
The first resistance was from Scarborough, North Yorkshire, a town built into the hills that faced the ocean. The locals put up a stout resistance and seemed to drive the invaders away. False hope! Hardrada landed farther down the coast and made his way to the top of the cliffs overlooking the town. The Norwegians put together a huge bonfire and began tossing flaming brands onto the roofs of the houses. Before long many of the buildings were on fire, and the populace surrendered, to no avail. It’s possible that this and other coastal incursions triggered the messages for help that made their way to King Harold; the timing would have been around the second week of September.
The Battle of Fulford was fought on the 20th of September. At this late date (right before the battle) it’s also possible the first messages were sent south. By then, presumably, Tostig’s presence in the Norwegian force was detected, and Harold would have been informed of his brother’s treachery. I wonder how he took the news? Or was Tostig’s behavior a forgone conclusion? Only the historical novelist is free to make that guess, and I am tackling this scenario in my upcoming novel, FATAL RIVALRY.

Battle of Gate Fulford

Harold, The Last Anglo-Saxon King by Ian Walker, 1997
Heimskringla: The History of the Kings of Norway by Snorri Sturluson, 1964
History of the Norman Conquest of England by Edward A. Freeman, 1875
The House of Godwine: The History of a Dynasty by Emma Mason, 2004

Chapter Six: Death and Victory at Gate Fulford.

Morcar and Edwin’s forces wait for the Vikings

The year of 1066 saw three major battles focusing on the struggle between the major contenders for the throne of England. The first and often forgotten battle was Gate Fulford, where brothers Morcar and Edwin, Earls of Northumbria and Mercia respectively, failed to hold off an invasion by the Norwegian Harald Hardrada and the disaffected Tostig Godwinson. How Tostig and Harald Sigurdsson, who earned himself the wonderful sobriquet The Hard to Counsel, ‘Hardrada’, got together has been the subject of speculation by most historians. But it seems that Tostig, having tried unsuccessfully to join in with William of Normandy’s plans, gathered a fleet of men whilst in Flanders, aided by his wife’s relation, Count Baldwin. We saw previously, that he had failed to invade England, and so he went north after being chased by brother Harold’s bigger fleet from Sandwich. He summered with his sworn blood brother, Malcolm, King of the Scots and from there he most likely made contact with, The Lightning Bolt of the North (he was also referred to in the sagas) Harald Sigurdsson.

Norse Warrior

Harald’s fleet set sail during the summer and first arrived in Orkney to gather the local Viking forces of jarls, Paul, and Erland. He then travelled southwards to meet with Tostig and his smaller fleet; poor Tostig, always smaller, poorer, and unfulfilled in whatever it was he was trying to achieve. So Harald, his large fleet and great army, and Tostig’s – eh-hem – smaller gathering, ravaged the Yorkshire coast, destroying the town of Scarborough by throwing burning embers from a bonfire onto the thatched roofs of the houses. Not a nice way to win friends and influence people – especially if you’re reputation there had a zilch rating.

The next town to be met by their ‘warm’ arrival was Holderness whose citizens attempted to put up a resistance but were pretty much swatted like flies. From there, the combined forces of Harald and Tostig sailed into the Humber. They moored their ships, at least 300 for Harald, in the Ouse at Riccall and marched on to York, a major strategic stronghold and if Harald could take it, he would be in a strong position to conquer the north, piecemeal, using York as his base. It stands to reason that Tostig was looking for revenge against the citizens of York who’d given their support to the brothers Morcar and Edwin, ousting him from the earldom. Not sure there were many in York, who, when they learned what was coming, were looking forward to the party.

How Tostig persuaded Harald Sigurdsson to undertake this invasion is a matter for exploration. Harald and Swein of Denmark had ended their long war in 1064, and it’s possible that Tostig had gone to his cousin, Swein, before he had gone to Harald for help. If he did, as the later Harald Saga suggests, its most likely that Swein was loathe to leave his kingdom for fear of resumed Norwegian attacks from Harald. So that then left Tostig with only Harald Sigurdsson to turn to.

If we are to understand what may have prompted Harald to invade England, we should look back further to eight years ago. The sources’ evidence for 1058, especially the Welsh and Irish Annales, are decidedly insistent that a Norwegian fleet ravaged the English kingdoms citing that their leader was Magnus, son of Harald, King of Norway. Later Domesday evidence shows that the west coast of Tostig’s Northumbrian lands were left wasted which could support evidence of a Viking harrying in that year as the annales claim. According to M & S Davies in their book about Gruffudd, Magnus’ presence amongst the allied forces of King Gruffudd and Alfgar of Mercia in 1058, would have meant something major was going down. The Irish Annales claim that Magnus was after the kingdom for himself and this cannot be ruled out, however his ambitions did not come to fruition but there is no evidence as to what happened that year other than that there seems to have been a major incident which the English, perhaps too embarrassed to admit, wanted to keep quiet about, in which there was most likely a huge pay off.

Tostig, would have been aware of the involvement of Magnus  in the ‘incident’ of 1058,  and may have viewed this as the prince acting on behalf of his father Harald, who was, at the time, battling with Swein over Denmark in an effort to expand his empire further. It would not be unreasonable to conject that Harald had lent his support to Magnus joining Gruffudd and Alfgar in the invasion of England. The agreement may have been that should they be successful, Harald would be invited to be king. So was MAgnus acting on Harald’s behalf? As things happened, the Norwegians accepted the money in exchange for leaving, which might have been what caused the embarrassed silence of the English chroniclers. So, if we follow this line of evidence, Tostig, knowing that Harald had once been interested in the English crown, turned his attention to the Norwegian king and the Thunderbolt jumped at the opportunity. How the magic duo were going to divide the kingdom up between them is not really known. However, conceivably, Harald would be king and Tostig probably dux Anglorum in his old lands in the north.

There is only one detailed source for this battle, Snorri Sturluson’s Saga of King Harald. It may not be 100% reliable, but its the best one. What we can be sure of is that, leaving their ships in Riccall, Harald and Tostig marched on York. Meanwhile, the young earls Edwin and Morcar, assembled their troops at Gate Fulford by the bank of the River Ouse. This was 2 miles from the city walls. They would have had plenty of time to gather intelligence about the movements of the Norse and send messages south to King Harold to ask for assistance. The Norwegians were a vast army and this was going to be no minor skirmish. This was obviously a serious attempt to invade and conquer.

But if there had been plenty of time to send word to Harold to come to their aid, why didn’t the northern earls wait before going out to engage the invaders? There may have been many reasons. Perhaps time, or maybe they were too young and impetuous, and felt a battle fought on the defensive would be doable. They may have wanted to assert their independence and strength, feeling that they were equipped to handle such an invasion. They were able to call on a large body of men who owed military service from their earldoms. There was also possibility that they may have been paranoid that Harold would strike a bargain with his brother Tostig and restore him to his former earldom which was now Morcar’s. If I had been in their shoes, I might have felt this way too, because Harold had a reputation for talking, rather than fighting. Despite the union between their sister Aldith and the king, the young earls may still have harboured suspicions toward Harold. It was because of Tostig that Alfgar, their father had been overlooked for the earldom of Northumbria and when Harold had returned from exile in 1052, Alfgar had been made to give back the Earldom of East Anglia to Harold. Then later, when Alfgar’s father, Earl Leofric, died, part of the lands of his earldom had been carved up and given to the Godwinsons. One can see why when over the years the Godwinsons had cultivated the notion that they were greedy, power hungry and self-serving. Bringing Tostig back into the fold would benefit Harold greatly to have him back ruling the north.

But whatever the reasons to not await Harold’s arrival, Morcar and Edwin failed to keep York from falling into the hands of the enemy, despite fighting bravely and putting up a great resistance. The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle tells us that the earls’ army was as large a force as they could muster. Snorri Sturluson insists it was an ‘immense’ army. Most likely it was at least 5,000 men plus. York, itself, could muster 1,000 men alone. Then there would have been the armies of the surrounding shires from Cheshire to the Scottish borders. The earls would have had their own huscarles, personal body guards numbering around 300 men or so each. This would have taken some mobilising and it shows how relaxed the attitude of the Vikings were, that allowed them the time to do it, and that was eventually to be their downfall. As they approached Gate Fulford, Harald’s scouts saw the formidable army lining up against them. ‘Gate’ is actually meant to mean a road through a ‘foul’ (muddy/swampy) ford.

King Harald’s Saga informs us that the Norse king’s standard, The Raven, was placed near the river at the back of his army which then stretched all the way up ‘where there was a deep and wide swamp, full of water’ no doubt the ‘foul’ or full ford. Moving toward the Norse army and using the stream that ran across the approaching road to strengthen their front, they manoeuvred in close formation as a shieldwall. Morcar led the vanguard and faced Tostig’s troops on the opposite side of the stream and Edwin’s men faced Hardrada nearer the Ouse.

According to the Worcester Chronicle the English fought bravely at the onset, and that Tostig’s Norwegians were pushed back. Tostig’s troops were heavily engaged by Morcar’s men and hard-pressed. It was then that Hardrada lead his famous devastating charge to cut them down. With a blast of horns and war trumpets ringing through the air, Edwin’s huscarles are slaughtered and the English began to break up. Seeing that defeat was imminent, the levies broke and fled back to York. Having overwhelmed Edwin’s men, Hardrada now closed in to support Tostig on his right flank and Morcar’s men were trapped in the swamp. Many met their deaths there in those murky muddy waters, sucking their bodies into its ravenous depths. Florence of Worcester claims that there were less men killed on the battlefield that drowned than in the river.

According to the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle the day saw great slaughter on both sides but the Norsemen took possession of the field and the glory was theirs. Many corpses were bogged down in the river and the ’causeway of corpses’ was to be remembered long after the battle as men recalled using the them to clamber over to the other side of the stream and flee. Those that managed to flee, escaped to the relative safety of York with both the earls and their surviving men.

The young brothers were inexperienced and could have only have been aged between 17-19 at the time. They were the sons of Alfgar of Mercia, the rogue Earl who had allied himself on more than one occasion with the Welsh to oppose Harold Godwinson and King Edward. Alfgar had died around 1062 and Mercia had passed into his son, Edwin. Later, younger brother Morcar had been elected earl by the Northumbrians in an unprecedented move to oust Tostig Godwinson as their earl. Tostig had been Earl of Northumbria since 1055 but his harsh rule had made him unpopular and the men of the north revolted in 1065, demanding that they would have none other than Morcar as their leader, threatening to blaze a trail through the country if their demands were not met. This shows the respect that they must have had for Earl Leofric and Alfgar, that the men of Northumbria chose a son of Mercia to rule them.

Morcar’s men try to get across the ford at Fulford

The devastating defeat must have been harrowing for the brothers in their first real engagement. They appear to have fought bravely and the battle might have gone either way. Harald Sigurdsson’s amazing, courageous charge brought the end to the battle. The Battle of Fulford Trust believe that the Vikings outnumbered the English and this may have contributed to Sigurdsson’s forces being able to roll up around them and crush them as reinforcements arrived. Peter Marren (2004) states in his book 1066 The Battles of York, Stamford Bridge and Hastings that he does not necessary agree with this theory that the English were outnumbered, and that the armies were comparable in size.

The lie of the land meant that Edwin and Morcar’s troops would have had difficulty in keeping track of each other. According to The Battle of Fulford Trust, if either of the English flanks gave way, the other side would not have known and this would have made them extremely vulnerable as they were to find out when Hardrada made his charge. Hardrada also had a much better view of the battle from some higher ground on the approach. From this higher vantage point, he would have been able to command his troops more effectively.

Considering the lack of experience and their youth, the young English brothers made a brave attempt to hold off the invaders and defend their city. They had obviously picked their spot with great care and thought, but their rawness in the field may have led to them disregarding such an important point as the lay of the land. Once their lines were broken, the Norwegians were able to break through and push them sideways without their respective flanks being able to pull back round together.
During the 1990’s excavations of bones thought to be those of Edwin’s and Morcar’s men were found with unhealed sword cuts to legs and arms, cracked or decapitated skulls and the typical injuries that are caused by arrows and other sharply tipped weapons such as spears. Many injuries were in the back and at least one had multiple deep cuts.
As violent and brutal as this battle was, it was just the first that the warriors of England were to endure that year. Edwin and Morcar and his surviving troops didn’t make it to Hastings. But there was another northern battle yet to come before Hastings took place. The Battle of Stamford Bridge. In that battle, the victorious Vikings were to meet a new foe, the army of Harold, the King of England, who was no untried boy.

Follow the battle lines below


References and further reading

Marren P (2004) 1066 The Battles of York, Stamford Bridge & Hastings Pen and Sword books Ltd, Yorkshire.

Swanton M (1996) The Anglo-Saxon Chronicles The Orion Publishing Group Ltd, London.

Davies M & S Davies The Last King of Wales The History Press, Stroud.

I.W. Walker (2004) Harold the Last Anglo Saxon King Sutton Publishing Ltd, Gloucs.

Chapter Five: The Race For England is On!

By May, things were moving fast in England, just as they were in Normandy. King Harold must have known that his onetime friend, William of Normandy, would not take his oath breaking very lightly and would be making preparations to invade. One of the English spies sent over to Normandy, had been caught already, which proved that Harold was aware of William’s plans. He also knew that the northerners could be fickle toward the kings of Wessex, and with Tostig prowling around looking for support anywhere he could find it, and Harald Sigurdson, (Hardrada), King of Norway, ready to renew his claim to England, Harold knew he needed the north onside. Many of them were Anglo-Danish, and may have welcomed a Scandinavian ruler, as they had done in the earlier part of the 11thc, with Sweyn and Cnut. According to the Anglo Saxon chronicle, Harold returned to Westminster from York for Easter, April 16th. This means he was in the north sometime in February or March. Most historians believe that this was the time when he married Aldith (Ealdgyth/Eadgyth) of Mercia, sister of the northern earls, Morcar and Edwin, and onetime Queen of Wales. Legend has it that Harold ‘rescued’ her from Gruffudd’s clutches. Probably romantic nonsense, just like Edith Swanneck, as reported by one website about Harold, identifying his body by the words tattooed on his chest, ‘Edith and England’. I wonder what the new Mrs G must have made of that when she saw her new husband’s tats for the first time.


The Chronicles lack information regarding Harold’s union with Aldith, which seems to be par for the course with the monkish writers of the day. They were very sparing in their writings. Information Governance must have been very tight in those days; however, it is likely that Harold brought Aldith with him back to Westminster from York, to present to his council as his new queen. Chroniclers, William of Jumièges and Walter Map, both describe her as being very beautiful. Florence of Worcester confirms that she was wife on Harold II. At the time of Harold’s death, she was not known to possess much wealth and was recorded, as it is thought, having owned some land in Binley, Warwickshire. It is not known if she had land in Wales, having been the wife of Gruffudd, for there is no evidence to be found of this. After Harold’s death, she disappears from history, into the mists of time.

Aldith and Gruffudd

There was never a coronation for Aldith, probably because Harold had his hands full, organising his defences. Soon after the hairy star had lit up the land like a massive boil on the sky’s face for a week, Tostig sailed to the Isle of Wight with his fleet from Flanders, and was given provisions and money by the leading men there. Tostig, having been exiled from England after not accepting his deposition as Earl of Northumbria in favour of Morcar, the son of Alfgar of Mercia, took some ships and fled with his family and some loyal thegns to his father-in-law in Flanders. It is said that he had tried to ally himself with William of Normandy, but evidence seems to be sketchy on this point. In any case it was his father-in-law, Count Baldwin who aided him with men and ships. He raided the ships along the English coast to Sandwich but when Harold mobilised his own great fleet, Tostig had to turn tail and row! He sailed further north and tried to entice his brother Gyrth to join him at a stop in East Anglia, but this was unsuccessful. so he raided Norfolk and Lincoln and went on to Scotland to stay with his great friend. King Malcolm.

Tostig sails to the ISle of Wight

Harold set to gathering his own fleet, ‘a greater raiding ship army and also a greater raiding land army, the like of which no other king in the land, had done before’ according to the D Chronicle of the ASC. And this was because, Harold had heard that – never mind (to coin a phrase) that ‘Winter was Coming’, or Tostig even, in 1066 it was William who was coming.


Its not hard to imagine some amongst Harold’s camp scoffing at the likelihood that William could undertake such a huge mission; to bring an army big enough to conquer and vanquish the English, creating a fleet big enough to carry an army of thousands. Its also not hard to visualise Harold turning to the doubting Thomases. and saying in a voice serious enough to make them believe,

“I have seen this duke in action. I have seen his warfare, his grit and his determination. That he has travailed throughout his life, and is still alive is a miracle in itself. He, and his army, will come, I doubt this not; aye, and he will bring his warhorses too. Such is his resolve and resilience.”

So what started all this? The prologue to my book Sons of the Wolf  gives us a bit if an insight:

In the autumn of 1052, two young boys were stolen away from all they had ever known and set on a journey to a place where they would remain hostage for many years. Wulfnoth and his nephew Hakon, the sons of Godwin and Swegn Godwinson, were not to see a familiar comforting face for many years. They were whisked away across the sea, to the court of Normandy, by Robert Champart, the former Archbishop of Cantwarabyrig. Fleeing the return of his nemesis, Godwin, as he stormed back from exile, Champart knew the part he had played in Godwin’s downfall, meant that his life was in danger. If he stayed, it would be at his peril, for Godwin’s revenge would be devastating. Some say the boys were meant as hostages for William, the bastard-born Duke of Normandy, sent with King Edward’s consent as surety that he would name William as his heir. Others say he took the boys out of hatred for Godwin, the powerful Earl of Wessex. And it was also said that by performing this cruel act, Champart was killing more than one bird with one stone. Whatever the motive, and Champart most likely had more than one, this ill-fated abduction was to be the start of a thread that would eventually spin the downfall of a powerful dynasty.
Onginnen þa spinnestran…
(Let the spinners begin…)

And what was to happen, years later, when, in the autumn of 1064, Harold  sailed to William’s court, was to be the catalyst that would propel England into war with the Normans and their French allies. And later, in 1065, the fates were forced to spin another thread when Harold, doing his best to mediate in a dispute between Tostig, the king and the northern thegns, was forced to support his brother’s exile. This latter event was to bring the mighty ‘Hardrada’ to England’s shores, thus adding another dimension to Harold’s eventual downfall, despite his victory over the Northmen at Stamford Bridge.

Primary sources

The Anglo Saxon Chronicle

The Bayeux Tapestry

William de Jumieges.

Walter Map

Florence of Worcester

Further Reading 

Bridgeford A. (2004) 1066: The Hidden history of the Bayeux Tapestry Harper Perennial, Suffolk.

Swanton M. (2000)  The Anglo Saxon Chronicles (new ed) Phoenix Press, Great Britain.

Walker I (2004) Harold, the Last Anglo Saxon King (paperback edition) Sutton Publishing LTD, Gloucs.