Edward the Confessor, King of England, went into a coma in December 1065, having expressed no clear preference for a successor. Edward died on January 5 after briefly regaining consciousness, and commending his wife and kingdom to the protection of Harold, second son of Godwin, the powerful Earl of Wessex and Gytha Thorkelsdóttir.
The Anglo-Saxon Kings didn’t normally pick their own successors, but their wishes carried import. Nobles of the Witenagemot, the early Anglo-Saxon predecessor to the modern parliament, were in Westminster to observe the Feast of the Epiphany. Convening the following day, the council elected Harold Godwinson, crowning him King Harold II on January 6.
For some, Harold’s quick ascension was a matter of administrative convenience and good fortune, that everyone just happened to be at the right place, at the right time. Others saw shades of conspiracy. A brazen usurpation of the throne. Edward’s death touched off a succession crisis which would change the course of western history.
Harold’s younger brother Tostig, third son of Godwin, was himself a powerful Earl of Northumbria, and thoroughly detested by his fellow northern Earls. Tostig was deposed and outlawed by King Edward in October 1065, with support from much of the local ruling class as well as that of his own brother, Harold.
King Edward’s death a short two months later, left the exile believing he had his own claim to the throne. Tostig’s ambition and animosity for his brother, would prove fatal to them both.
After a series of inconclusive springtime raids, Tostig went to a Norman Duke called William “The Bastard”, looking for military support. William had his own claim to the English throne, and had already declared his intention to take it. The Norman Duke had little use for King Harold’s younger brother, so Tostig sought the assistance of King Harald of Norway, also known as Harald Hardrada (“harðráði” in the Old Norse), the name translating as”hard ruler”.
Tostig sailed for England with King Harald and a mighty force of some 10,000 Viking warriors, arriving in September, 1066. Six thousand were deployed on September 20, to meet 5,000 defenders on the outskirts of the village of Fulford, near the city of York. Leading the defenders were those same two brothers, Edwin of Mercia, and Morcar of Northumbria.
The Anglo-Saxons were first to strike, advancing on a weaker section of the Norwegian line and driving Harald’s vikings into a marsh. With fresh invaders hurrying to the scene, the tide turned as the English charge found itself cut off and under attack, wedged between the soft ground of the marsh and the banks of an adjoining river. The encounter at Fulford Gate was a disaster. A comprehensive defeat for the English side and it was over, in an hour. On this day in 1066, two of the seven Great Kingdoms of Anglo-Saxon England, were decimated.
Perhaps not wanting to have his capital city looted, Tostig agreed to take a number of hostages, and retired seven miles south to Stamford Bridge to await formal capitulation. Harald went along with the plan, believing he had nothing further to fear from the English.
Meanwhile, King Harold awaited with an army in the south, anticipating William’s invasion from Normandy. Hearing of the events at Fulford, Harold marched his army north, traveling day and night and covering 190 miles in four days, on foot, completely surprising the Viking force waiting at Stamford Bridge.
Believing they had come to accept submission, the Norwegians must have looked at the horizon and wondered, how a peace party could raise that much dust. This was no peace party. With their forces spread out and separated on opposite sides of the River Derwent, Harald Hardrada and his ally Tostig now faced a new army.
At the height of the battle, one Berserker stood alone at the top of Stamford Bridge, wielding the great two-handed Dane Axe. Alone and surrounded, this giant of a man slew something like 40 English soldiers when one of Harold’s soldiers floated himself under the bridge, spearing the Viking warrior from below.
The savagery of the battle at Stamford Bridge, can only be imagined. Before the age of industrialized warfare, every wound was personally administered with sword, axe or mace. Before it was over some 5,000 of King Harold’s soldiers lay dead, about a third of his entire force. Two-thirds of King Harald’s Vikings died at Stamford Bridge, about 6,000 including Harald himself and the would-be King, Tostig Godwinson.
So many died in that small area that, 50 years later, the site was said to have been white with the sun bleached bones of the slain. Of 300 ships arriving that September, the battered remnants of Harald’s Viking army sailed away in only 24.
Stamford Bridge is often described as the end of the Viking invasions of England, but that isn’t quite so. There would be others, but none so powerful as this. The Last of the Great Viking chieftains, was dead.
The Norman landing King Harold awaited took place three days later at Pevensey Harbor, just as his battered army was disbanding and heading home for the Fall harvest. The Anglo Saxon army would march yet again, meeting the Norman invader on October 14 near the East Sussex town of Hastings. King Harold II was killed that day, felled with an arrow in his eye. He was the Last of the Anglo Saxon Kings.
Twenty years later, William “The Conqueror” would commission the comprehensive inventory of his new Kingdom, the “Domesday Book“.
Alternate histories are fraught with peril. It’s hard to tell the story of events, which never occurred. Even so, I have to wonder. Some of the best men in England were killed under King Harold‘s banner in 1066, in the clash at Stamford Bridge. Surely every last man among them faced some degree of exhaustion to say nothing of wounds, the day they faced Duke William’s Norman force on that Hastings hillside.
Those who survived Stamford Bridge performed a round-trip march of some 380-miles, in the three weeks since Fulford.
Those three weeks in 1066 altered the next 1,000 years of British history and with it, her former colonies in America. How different were those last thousand years, but for this one day’s conflict at a place called Fulford Gate.