King Harold II and Stamford Bridge (Commentary)

This commentary is based on the classroom activity: King Harold II and Stamford Bridge

Q1: Read the introduction and sources 2 and 7. (a) Why did King Harold II believe that William of Normandy would try to invade England in 1066? (b) Where did Harold position his navy and the army? (c) Why was he so unhappy when he heard the news that King Harald Hardrada of Norway had landed in England and marched on York?

A1: (a) William claimed that Edward the Confessor had promised him the throne. Harold therefore knew that when the Witan selected him as king it was only a matter of time before William attempted an invasion.

(b) Harold placed his navy and some of the soldiers on the Isle of Wight. The rest of his soldiers were spread along the Sussex and Kent coast. Historians believe that the "reason for this is that the prevailing wind, particularly during the summer months, is from the south-west" and "that the wind that would carry the invading fleet would be the same upon which Harold would sail, to land behind the invaders or on an adjacent beach" (source 2).

(c) When Harold heard that Harald Hardrada and his army was in York he knew that he had to abandon his defence of the south coast in order to attack the Norwegians in the north.

Q2: According to the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle Harold and his army marched from London to York in five days. Study sources 3, 4, 5 and 6 and explain why some historians have questioned the truth of this statement?

A2: Winston Churchill (source 3) states that Harold's army moved from London to York in five days. Arnold Blumberg (source 4) points out that the 200 mile (320 km) journey "usually took two weeks, or more depending if the roads were passable". Frank McLynn (source 5) claims the only way this is possible was if they went on horseback whereas the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle gives the impression that Harold's men "marched" to York. Peter Rex (source 6) is not convinced that it was possible even if they did ride for five days. One possible solution to this mystery is that the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle got some of the details. For example, he might have already been on his way to the north of England when he heard of Hardrada's victory at Fulford Gate and did not have to travel 200 miles in five days.

Q3: Study sources 8 and 9 and explain why Harold's soldiers had difficulty crossing Stamford Bridge. How did they solve this problem?

A3: The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle (source 8) points out that "one of the Norwegians there who withstood the English host so they could not cross the bridge nor win victory". The authors of source 9 use this information to describe the incident in more graphic detail: "It is said that one particular giant of a man held the bridge single-handed, felling all his attackers with swings from his battleaxe. He was only defeated when he was stabbed from below by a man who was floated down the river under the bridge with a spear".

Q4: It is believed that Harald Hardrada brought over 300 ships when he attempted to invade England. How many ships returned to Norway? What did Harold do to ensure the Norwegians did not try again to invade England.

A4: According to Florence of Worcester (source 13) only "twenty ships" returned to Norway whereas the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle (source 10) recorded that "the king let them go home with twenty-four ships".

Harold took two main measures to ensure the Norwegians did not return. Harold made them swear "oaths that they would always keep peace" and insisted that Olaf left hostages in England to make sure they kept their promises.