Historical Writers Blog Hop: Swegn Godwinson, an 11th Century Scandal

The story of the Godwinson brothers is a well-known one but there is one brother that is often overlooked as he doesn’t figure in the story of 1066 as Harold and Tostig do. Swegn. I have to confess that despite his shortcomings, I have a soft spot for this, the most colourful son of the House of Godwin, as I’m sure that had he been paid more attention to, or perhaps given the thing that was missing in his upbringing, whatever that was that made him the way he was, his life might have been as successful, if not more so than that of his brothers.

It was not surprising that in a family so prolific for producing male species, that there would be at least one who, if he was alive today, would have been up for an ASBOs, would have had several illegitimate children by the time he was nineteen, been involved with drugs and alcohol problems, and likely to have served time in prison. And the very fact that Swegn, the eldest, of the brood, was convinced he was not a Godwinson from an early age, would suggest that this lad would definitely have been diagnosed with an anti-social personality disorder at some point in his life.

Godwin, the father of this large gaggle of children, was in the service of the athelings, Aethelstan and Edmund Ironside, and went on to serve Cnut after Edmund’s untimely death. Godwin’s career went from landholding thegn to much greater things once he’d got his foot in Cnut’s royal door and his relatively low, but noble status, grew into an Earldom, with Cnut awarding him the lands of Wessex and Cnut’s brother-in-law’s sister, Gytha thrown into the package.

With his newfound status, a no-doubt puffed up Godwin must have strutted around with a spring in his step after his wife, Gytha, whose noble pedigree could not be denied, (she was the daughter of the chieftain Thorkil Sprakalegg and granddaughter of Harold Bluetooth) gave birth to their first son, Swegn. Little did the young couple realise that this charming little bundle of joy would turn out to be the bane of their lives.

I don’t know under which ill omen this black sheep, latter-day wild boy was born, but scandal would thence follow him throughout his life. How his parents, who obviously loved him, coped with the embarrassment of a son who continuously behaved badly one cannot imagine. But just as today, childhood experiences formulate a person’s character and I wonder what encounters in his early life Swegn might have had that shaped his personality the way it did.

Following him, were several other offspring, Edith, Harold, Tostig, Gyrth, Leofwin, Gunnhild, and Wulfnoth. There have been claims of another female and male, but I think that they have been made in error. Another male who joined the family for awhile was Beorn Estridson, who was the nephew of Cnut and son of Gytha’s brother, Ulf, who was married to Cnut’s sister Estrid. He may have been fostered into the family judging by the closeness between Harold and Beorn.

As one might expect there must have been a lot of chaos in the House of Godwin and there is a little story where Tostig and Harold were once chastised as boys, for fighting at the dinner table in front of the king. Tostig was said to have grabbed Harold by the hair. I wonder if Swegn is represented in this picture as the boy trying to break them up – perhaps after stirring up trouble!

Tostig and Harold brawling before the king.

Why it was Swegn that was to become the bad boy of the family is not recorded, and was possibly unusual for the first-born child. We know from events in the autumn of 1065 that Tostig, the fourth born child if we are to accept that their sister Edith was one of the top three, grew up resentful of his older brother Harold. But what were the aspects of Swegn’s upbringing that could have affected the eldest and heir of the Godwin household so badly that it created such a monster?

Maybe, to get a better picture of the man’s chatacter, we don’t need to look much further than where Swegn saw himself within the Godwin household. Possibly one of the most hurtful shameful things that Swegn could have done to Mama and Papa Godwin was to publicly accuse his mother of lying about his paternity. Sometime probably before 1047, he took it into his head to declare himself the son of Cnut which would have meant a few scandalous things. 1) That Gytha had been having an affair with Cnut whilst he had his other two wives, Emma and Ælfgifu on the go. 2) That she was married to Godwin at the time when Cnut fathered Swegn, and Godwin was not aware of this. 3) That she was given to Godwin by Cnut after the Danish king thought two women already were enough to handle. And 4) That Swegn hated his parents so much that he would do anything to embarrass them in public because he felt different from the others in his family.

Did his parents expect too much of him as the older son and then chastise him for his failings? Often we see this has been the case with many children growing up who had a sense of being outside the nucleus of their biological family. Could this have been the issue with Swegn? Or was it simply that he was the result of a well-kept secret that somehow wreaked havoc once it came to light by whatever means.

Of course Swegn may have convinced himself that his own suspicions that he was not a Godwinson were true, but his mother was not having it. She adamantly denied this on oath at an assembly of Wessex noble women she convened as Hemming’s Cartulary testifies.

One wonders about the breach that this must have caused within the family. Its interesting though that Godwin himself did not come out publicly to challenge this himself, though in no way should this be seen as the great earl acknowledging any truth in the claim. The old man might have felt he had enough to deal with without getting embroiled in an errant son’s lies against his own family. Behind the scenes though, it might have been quite different. Mercedes Rochelle in her novel The Sons of Godwin gives an excellent portrayal of the family dynamics in the household and treats Swegn’s character most sympathetically that one can really empathise with him and understand what shaped his sense of self and his outsider syndrome.

Whatever Swegn had hoped to gain, it obviously did not help his familial relations. I rather like to think that his mother gave him a right old slap around the face the next time she saw him. Nor did he evoke any loyalty with sister Edith, the queen, who failed to name him in her biography (the Vita Edwardi ) of the family, though she does allude to the rot within the family and this could plainly be him. Having said that, nor does she name her mother. I wonder why.

 In 1047 Swegn had hardly settled down in his office as Earl of lands in Mercia and Wessex, when he decided to forge an alliance with another like-minded soul, Gruffudd of Llewellyn of Gwynedd and Powis. Perhaps jealousy of his brother Harold and their cousin Beorn’s closeness or better treatment, was the reason, who knows. But he had made up his mind that he was going his own way. This Welsh man was a rival of Earl Leofric of Mercia whose family’s enmity with Gruffudd may have stemmed further back than the slaughter of Leofric’s brother Eadwin. This could point to some conflict between Swegn and Leofric’s family which prompted Swegn to join with Gruffudd to help him win a campaign in the south of Wales. Nonetheless it was indeed a goading that would not have been taken well by the House of Mercia.

But that was nothing. The most scandalous of Swegns doings were about to come and this next anecdote would be the one that would kickstart the beginning of Swegn’s demise.

On the way back from his trip, Swegn decided to stop by the Abbey of Leominster. He seems to have already known the Abbess and had taken a fancy to her. He ordered Lady Eadgifu be brought to him and he rode off with her, knowing full well that this was not going to go down well with not only the church but society in general. To kidnap a noble woman, and an abbess at that was not something that could just be brushed under the rush-mats. Although it is not clear in what capacity Swegn knew her, it is unlikely it was a random stop where he thought he’d take a look at the nuns and see which one took his fancy. Most agree he already knew her, that there may have been something between them once. Perhaps that was why Eadgifu was put in a nunnery well away from the rogue son of Godwin! One can imagine the look of horror on the faces of the girl’s kin when they knew their little darling and Swegn were hooking up.

Whatever the case, he went on to keep her for a year until the threat of excommunication issued by the archbishop of Canterbury forced him to give her up, although some sources indicate that he’d already had enough of her by that time anyway after she had given birth to his son, Hakon. Of course he was outlawed for such a deed and he went off to Bruges then Denmark to catch up with his Danish relatives whom he might have felt more at home with, seeing as he believed himself to be the son of Cnut.

But it seems that Swegn couldn’t behave himself in Denmark either and despite helping out his cousin, namesake King Swein, in his campaigns to keep Denmark from invasion by Norway, he seems to have caused some ‘crimes against the Danes’. One can imagine what he might have done there, but it’s a shame the records aren’t more specific.

So, by 1048 Swegn had forged quite a reputation for himself. The wanna be Dane is kicked out of Denmark, but with a crew of seven to eight ships, he sails into his home port of Bosham. You can imagine the hue and cry!
“Quick! Swegn is here! Lock up the women!”
“And the nuns!”
Godwin must have held his head in his hands and Gytha, resigned to the fact that there was going to be trouble, must have done what most mothers did in these times and put the equivalent of the eleventh century kettle on.

Swegn, knowing he’d burned his bridges in Denmark decided to see if he could enlist the support of his brothers. Beorn and Harold had been given a share of the renegade’s lands. He appeals to them to support him in his plea to the king to be reinstated. Beorn might have agreed at first but then Harold comes along and outright refuses, causing Beorn to abandon the idea. Harold must have been disgusted at his brother’s behaviour. If he’d been able to forgive his brother his transgressions, he might have agreed to give them back but there was clearly a dislike of his brother, and who could blame him?

Edward wasn’t very keen either. He orders him out of the country with four days to leave but Swegn is not for giving up and he sought out his cousin once again, perhaps relieved to find him without Harold breathing down his neck at Pevensey. This time Beorn agrees.

Here I want to rewind and shout at Beorn. “No! Stop! Don’t!” But who am I to get in the way of a good soap opera storyline? And let’s face it, it is a fabulous tale!

So silly Beorn, who never had a gut feeling in his life, takes just three men with him and agrees to go with Swegn to Bosham where he had left his ships. There must have been an argument between he and Swegn and perhaps Beorn then felt he could no longer agree to support him. The temperamental outlaw then had Beorn bound and dragged on to his ship. They sailed west to Dartmouth where Beorn was murdered and dumped/buried on shore.

Harold and Beorn must have been close as he made sure that Beorn’s body was rescued and taken to rest in the Old Minster in Winchester next to his uncle Cnut. When the king found out he was not happy as one can imagine. He and the whole army declared Swegn a nithing –basically a nefarious fellow and an outlaw which meant he could be killed on the spot. Even Swegn’s own men deserted him leaving him with no more than two ships. Fearing that he had completely stitched himself up, he decided to sail to Bruges where he was welcomed by Count Baldwin who, by his actions must have liked him for some reason.

So how does one come back from this? Surely now he will never be forgiven.

Dad Godwin, seems to have kept well out of Swegn’s affairs. I doubt he didn’t have an opinion on his eldest son’s deeds but whatever they were, no one has made any mention of them. At this stage, when Swegn made the accusation against his mother is not clear. It is not certain if it was before he went off the rails or during? I would imagine that this idea he was not Godwin’s son, but the son of that famous Danish king, Cnut, was a seed planted in the young Swegn’s mind, perhaps by someone who knew/suspected an affair between Cnut and the sister (Gytha) of his one time friend, Ulf. Whether or not Godwin was party to the rumour, or knew nothing about it until Swegn brought it to light many years later, it is not known. But I would imagine with or without the knowledge, this would have been a terrible hurtful blow for Godwin. But he seems to have forgiven his son all the same.

Ian Walker states that Godwin put pressure on Edward to return him to power although doesn’t name his source, but in 1050, the Bishop of Worcester met with him in Flanders, heard his confession and gave him absolution. He brings him back to England and supports Swegn to plead of the king his mercy and forgiveness. It does not seem unreasonable that this time Godwin, who was getting on a bit now, might well have also gone to Edward and begged for his son to be brought back. With this pressure put upon him from all sides, Edward caved in and I’m certain it was against his chagrin that Swegn is given his office and his lands back.

The bad boy of Wessex doesn’t appear to have learned his lesson. It was not long before he was building up resentment against the king’s nephew Ralph de Mantes and his Norman colony in Herefordshire where they were building castles in the manner of the French on the continent. He might also have been resentful toward Harold who was on good terms with Ralph. Harold was said to have been a Godfather to Ralph’s son, also named Harold.

Then the final nail in Swegn’s coffin was banged in.

In the Summer of 1051, the whole Godwin family were to come under scrutiny after they rebelled against King Edward. The incident in Dover that set king and earl against each other seems to have been engineered by the king’s French household members at least one of whom was Godwin’s nemesis and arch rival for the king’s counsel.

The king called upon Godwin to punish the town of Dover severely after his brother-in-law, Eustace of Boulogne was supposedly attacked by the townsmen on his way back home to France. Godwin refused and he, Harold and Swegn were called to account when they refused to harm the town. Swegn and Godwin had to give up hostages on the 8th of September and on the 21st of that same month, they were to meet with the king in London. Word came through that if Swegn turned up on the 21st, he would be in serious trouble because he had been outlawed again without even having seen the king. The whole family were worried as men began to desert them, not keen to be part of a civil war. None of them went to London on the 21st and the whole family were given just days to get out of England or be killed on site.

They split. Swegn offered Harold his ships that were waiting in Bristol and Harold took Leofwin with him and went off to Ireland to recruit mercenaries in Dublin. The rest of the family fled to Bruges in Flanders, Swegn going with them.

Swegn knew he had no more cards to play. No more lives to throw away and no more bridges to burn. The only way out of the mess he had made was to go on a pilgrimage – yes in medieval times, this is what the bad boys did – and he was said to have walked all the way to Jerusalem barefoot, only to die of the cold somewhere in Constantinople or thereabouts as he was returning home only ten days or so after the rest of his family had returned to power from their exile in a blaze of glory. Malmesbury though, has him attacked by Saracens.

Whatever the circumstances, he must have cut a sad figure, alone, barefoot, wearing the clothing of a pauper, shivering on a hill top with only a thin blanket for comfort as the freezing rain soaks him, completely stripped of his hubris and his arrogance. Of course this is my imagining, however it cannot be hard to visualise this sad reckoning and its hard not to feel a pang of regret for the once colourful, but self destructive son who came into this world with such promise, and left it completely bereft of his integrity.

He left behind one son, Hakon, who was still, at his death, a hostage in Normandy and who was said to have died at Hastings as a teenager not long after setting foot in his home with his uncle Harold in 1064.

The Battle of Dunsinane: MacBeth Vs Malcolm Canmore


July 27th – Malcolm, the exiled son of King Duncan I, marshalled thousands of English and Danish warriors in Birnam Wood, in Perthshire, where he had come, supported by his kinsman Siward, Earl of Northumbria to defeat the king of Alba. Nearby, a few miles from them, MacBeth was holed up in his fortress of Dunsinane Hill, expecting to meet Malcolm in battle. This was to be the decisive fight that would see Malcolm take back the crown from the man who was said to have killed Duncan, his father. But although Malcolm’s troops slaughtered 3000 of MacBeth’s men, MacBeth was not done, and it was not for another 4 years before Malcolm would wear the crown of the whole of Alba, becoming Malcolm III.

Duncan 1
Duncan I

Following the death of his father, King Duncan l , in 1040  Malcolm fled to his kinsman, Siward, Earl of Northumbria. Malcolm’s mother, had been a relative of Siward’s and had died in childbirth.  Malcolm, who was to become known as Malcolm Canmore (meaning head of men, possibly interpreted wrongly later as big head) grew up at the English court of Edward the Confessor. It was there that he may have made friends with Tostig Godwinson, who was to become Siward’s successor in Northumbria in 1055, which may account for their closeness when Tostig later ruled  in the north. In 1054, Edward the Confessor agreed to assist Malcolm in his bid to regain the crown of Alba from MacBeth. Edward allowed Siward to march north into Scotland with thousands of English soldiers, reputed to be 10,000 strong, which, if true, was generous, considering the king was able to call on 14,000 men for the select fyrd. Edward was also said to have supplied a large number of his own huscarles.


MacBeth, had been Mormaer of Moray when he killed Malcolm’s father. Duncan and MacBeth had both been grandsons of King Malcolm ll. MAcBeth had killed Malcolm’s father in 1040, most likely during a battle, or after capturing him in pursuit. The reason for the hostility between the two men was said to have been something to do with Donald’s rather violent, unkingly, behaviour. Malcolm, Duncan’s grandfather, had been a somewhat cruel and ruthless man, and Duncan had gone the same way, subjecting his people to the rampaging of their lands, stealing  their property, and offering them death and destruction if they opposed him or his men. MacBeth’s tennants demanded that MacBeth do his duty and protect them. MAcBeth, having had enough, decided to put an end to this undesirable king’s doings. With the support of Thorfinn of Orkney, known as the Mighty, Duncan’s end came somewhere near Elgin or Forres. This led to the Bigheaded one fleeing to England, although his head might not have been that big then,  and MacBeth ruled sensibly and peaceably for 17 years over Scotland, or Alba, as it was then known.

Photo c/o Christopher Doyle and Tim Benfield of Regia Anglorum

Thorfinn of Orkney, also ruler of Caithness, and a cousin or half-brother of Duncan, had more reason to be hostile to MacBeth, but he too had been attacked, though unsuccesfully, by Duncan and swore allegiance to MacBeth. The two men joined forces to bring peace and order to the kingdom sending out small bands of men to oversee that justice was carried out. MacBeth is also credited with having brought social reforms to Alba, seeing to it that widows received a pension and orphans, benefits. Doesn’t sound like the ambitious cousin murdering, avaricious mad man of Shakespeare, does it? Marianus Scottus, the Irish chronicler, tells us that MacBeth went to Rome and gave coins to the homeless in the streets there. A very nice man indeed with a social conscience.

But what caused Shakespeare to portray MAcBeth as a monster? Tony Harmsworth  asks this question: with all these good deeds, how did Shakespeare get it so wrong?

“William Shakespeare, was reading the History of Scotland by Holinshed and was living under the rule of King James – you can imagine the Bard interpreting events as Macbeth murdering the king and then stealing the throne from the rightful heir.”

Therefore, it seems, it was a case of making the facts fit the political situation of the time as King James was obviously descended from Malcolm who would have been seen as the rightful heir valiantly returning the throne to the rightful king. The English of James court in Shakespeare’s time would not have understood the tanistry system of the Scotland of the eleventh century, meaning that the kings (as they were in Anglo-Saxon England) were elected and not followed by primogeny.

Harmsworth claims in his book, Scotland’s Bloody History, that when MacBeth returned from Rome c 1050/51, he pushed Alba’s borders with a substantial army all the way down to Yorkshire and Lancashire; however Harmsworth does not clarify his sources for this, and it is difficult to know the veracity of this information, especially when none of the Anglo-Saxon chronicles mention it. If there is any truth in this, it might have been one of the reasons why Edward allowed Siward to lead the fyrd, including many of his own personal warriors into Scotland to support Malcolm against MacBeth.

Known today as MacBeth, his name in Medieval Gaelic was Mac Bethad mac Findlaích. His father Findlaich was Mormaer of Moray, and was said to have been murdered by a usurping cousin, Gille Coemgáin in 1032. MacBeth cornered him and avenged his father by burning them in a hall. He then married Gruoch, the wife of  Gille Coemgáin and adopted her son Lulach. Gruoch was also of royal blood and so MacBeth could have had a claim on both his own and his wife’s lineage. He has been thought by some to have also been Thorfinn the Mighty. In fact Dorothy Dunnett, the famous historical fiction writer of the 70’s and 80’s writes about Thorfinn and MacBeth in her book, The King Hereafter, as being one and the same based on the fact that they are never mentioned together in the chronicles and a reference in the Orkneyinga saga to Thorfinn killing a Karl Hundason (man son of a dog), King of Scotland, thought to be Duncan.

Malcolm was in his mid twenties when he made his expedition into his old homeland with a large army of professional fighters at his back and his uncle Siward at his side. Growing up in the English courts, he would have learned to fight with numerous weapons and battle strategics. No doubt the doughty character of his uncle would come in use in his first taste of war.

The English army were said to have crossed the river Tweed, raiding, plundering as they went, a sure way to win hearts and minds, but that’s how it was done in those days. According to Hollingshed, whilst planning his strategy in Birnam Wood, Malcolm was hit with the idea of using branches of cut trees as camouflage to approach MacBeth’s position, camped nearby with an elite bodyguard. Harmsworth mentions that this is one of the earliest recorded use of camouflage in battle. This is where Shakespeare gets his lines: Dunsinane-Hill

It is mentioned in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle D (Worcester) that:

Siward travelled forth with a great raiding ship army, and raiding land-army, and fought against the Scots and put to flight the king, MacBeth, and killed all that was best there in the land…

The fact that they took ships as well, does suggest a large scale invasion. The battle that took place was also said to have been ‘hard-fought’ and the chronicle goes on to say:

…and led away from there such a great warbooty as no man had ever got before; but his [Siward] son Osbern and his sister’s son, Siward, and some of his huscarles and also the king’s, were killed on the Day of the Seven Sleepers.

The chronicle makes no mention of Malcolm or the purpose of the expedition, which seems to have been to restore Malcolm to his rightful birthright of king of the Scots. Florence of Worcester mentions that Siward, by the King’s orders (Edward the Confessor), made Malcolm king (Florence refers to him as the son of the king of the Cumbrians). Chronicle C, (Abingdon) like the D, mentions Earl Siward only, and fails to mention any ships. It mentions that much slaughter of the Scots was made there and also that many Danish and English died, indicating that both many men died on both sides and that the Danes were probably Siward’s men, being a Dane himself. What was wrong with the English monks that they failed to mention Malcolm’s achievements in this? There was definitely an economy among the monks in their establishment of facts when writing the chronicles in the 11thc! Would mentioning Malcolm’s name overshadow the doings of the English so badly, after all, he was but one Scotsman, and there were plenty of Anglo-Danes. One has to wonder at this seemingly jealousness that riddles the chronicles!

Interestingly, MacBeth had given succour to a couple of Anglo-Normans, Hugh and Osbern, who had been forced with their men, to flee the return of the exiled Godwinsons. It was said that they  reinforced MacBeth’s army at the Battle of Dunsinane. More recently I have found this information that was documented by Byrhtferth in the Northumbrian Chronicles:  A large Northumbrian fleet was led by Malcolm. They captured the city of Dundee and was joined by Scottish rebels on horse. They raided and pillaged (probably where the large amount of booty came from) marching out to the to Gowrie passing Scone and Edinburgh. Macbeth was faced with a huge invasion and would have been forced to ride the country to muster forces.  The  Battle of  Dunsinane occurred on the Seven Sleepers. There is little mention of how things went during the battle,  but Macbeth’s forces charged down from the hills at the Northumbrians but were put to flight. The annals of Ulster record as many as 3000 Scottish dead, 1500 English dead and all of Macbeth’s Normans were wiped out.

The Battle of Seven Sleepers put Canmore in firm control of the Lowlands, for the English this was enough, who made a separate peace with Macbeth and returned overloaded with booty back to London and Northumbria leaving Canmore with only his Scottish forces.

Dunsinane Hill is located near the village of Collace in Perthshire. It has the remains of two early forts and the highest point on the hill is 1020 feet. We do not know where MacBeth was camped, or whether he was in the fort – depending on what state the fort was in – but it seems that if Malcolm’s army were able to sneak up on them, then they were vulnerable so probably not surrounded by defences. It was said that MacBeth’s guard surrounded him and defended him as best they could but they were defeated 3000 – 1,500, but MacBeth eventually got away to safety and spent the next 3 years on the run. Among the English killed were many of Edward the Confessor’s huscarles creating a lot of jobs for any unemployed warriors.

Malcolm attended a meeting of the mormaers who elected MacBeth’s stepson Lulach as king – perhaps thinking that MacBeth was dead – or that it was time to move on – who knows? Malcolm, of course, was not happy about this, seeing as he had fought really hard to win. He still had a support from the English soldiers, so he chased Lulach, if the king was not to be him, then he would kill whoever it was. And Lulach was  caught and killed  by Malcolm, another victim in the long line of murdered Scots kings. As far as killing their kings went, the Scots seemed to be pretty good at it, perhaps better than the English.

Three years after Dunsinane, MacBeth was finally cornered and killed at Lumphanen and his 17 year reign came to an end. There has to be a moral to this story, that being: ‘you will get yours eventually’. And whatever happened, Malcolm was eventually crowned, not because it was his birthright, but because of the tanistry system that operated in Scotland at this time in which a male successor was elected from among the royal family including extended branches – much like the Anglo-Saxon aethelings. 


Primary Sources

AS Chronicle C (Abingdon)

AS Chronicle D (Worcester)

Florence of Worcester

The Northumbrian Chronicles

The Annals of Ulster

Secondary Sources

Stenton F 1998, Anglo Saxon England (2nd ed), Oxford University Press, Oxford.

Harmsworth T 2015, 1057 – BIRNAM WOOD COMES TO HIGH DUNSINANE HILL, http://harmsworth.net/scottish-history-heritage/1057-birnam-wood-high-dunsinane-hill.html

Further Reading

Aitcheson N (1999)  MacBeth Man and Myth, Sutton Publishing Limited, Gloucestershire.



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 http://www.stamford-bridge.dk
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 http://www.stamford-bridge.dk/maps/ )

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.

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.