In 1065 Edward the Confessor became very ill. Harold claimed that Edward promised him the throne just before he died on 5th January, 1066. The next day there was a meeting of the Witan to decide who would become the next king of England. The Witan was made up of a group of about sixty lords and bishops and they considered the merits of four main candidates. On 6th January 1066, the Witan decided that Harold was to be the next king of England.
King Harold II was fully aware that both King Harald Hardrada of Norway and William of Normandy might try to take the throne from him. Harold recognised that his country was likely to be invaded both in the south and in the north. He visited York where he had meetings with Earl Edwin of Mercia and Earl Morcar of Northumbria. He returned to London in time for Easter.
Harold fully expected a Norman invasion. It was claimed by the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle that by June 1066 he had "gathered such a great naval force, and a land force also, as no other king in the land had gathered before." 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.
His soldiers were made up of housecarls and the fyrd. Housecarls were well-trained, full-time soldiers who were paid for their services. The fyrd were working men who were called up to fight for the king in times of danger. All earls had their own housecarls and Harold had a substantial force at his disposal. They were paid mercenaries and were equally adept in land and maritime warfare.
In the first week of September, 1066, Hardrada's men raided Scarborough and slaughtered most of its inhabitants. Sailing on, the fleet entered the Humber estuary. Morcar, the Earl of Northumbria, and Edwin, Earl of Mercia, were not willing to engage the enemy and retreated before him up the Ouse, before turning into the inland waters of the Wharfe to Tadcaster. Hardrada anchored at Riccall. After leaving a substantial force to guard the fleet, Hardrada, Tostig and about 6,000 men marched on York.
On 20th September, Morcar and Edwin went into battle with Hardrada and Tostig at Fulford Gate. It has been estimated that the Norwegians had about 6,000 troops and the defenders 5,000. According to the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle "many of the English were slain, drowned or put to flight and the Northmen had possession of the place of slaughter". The Norwegians now withdrew to Stamford Bridge, a place where several Roman roads met. The bridge would have been quite large by eleventh-century standards.
It has been claimed that a messenger told Harold about the Norwegian victory at Fulford Gate he said that Hardrada had come to conquer all of England. Apparently Harold replied: "I will give him just six feet of English soil; or, since they say he is a tall man, I will give him seven feet." Harold then sent a summons for the men of the fyrd to reassemble, just days after they had been released from their long summer vigil. Having gathered as many of his men as he could he started for the north on about the 19th September.
Harold and his English army had to travel from London to York. The 200 mile (320 km) journey usually took two weeks, or more depending if the roads were passable. On 25th September Harold's army arrived at Stamford Bridge. Harold and twenty of his housecarls rode up to the foot of the bridge on the left bank of the Derwent and had a meeting with Tostig. Harold promised his brother that if he changed sides he would be rewarded with the return of his earldom and one-third of all England. Tostig answered that it would never be said of him that he brought the king of Norway to England only to betray him. He turned on his horse and rode away.
With a fleet drawn from harbours along the south coast Harold took up a position on the Isle of Wight with the bulk of his army. The remainder of his forces were spread along the coast. The object of this arrangement was that in the event of a landing the lookouts on the coast would signal the arrival of the enemy (probably by lighting a beacon) and Harold would then sail from the Isle of Wight with his army to fall upon the invaders. The reason for this is that the prevailing wind, particularly during the summer months, is from the south-west. Indeed, it was more than likely 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.
Harold of England was faced with a double invasion from the North-East and from the South. In September 1066 he heard that a Norwegian fleet, with Hardrada and Tostig on board, had sailed up the Humber, beaten the local levies under Earls Edwin and Morcar, and encamped near York at Stamford Bridge. He now showed the fighting qualities he possessed. Within five days of the defeat of Edwin and Morcar, Harold reached York, and the same day marched to confront the Norwegian army ten miles from the city.
The lighting campaign Harold conducted in the north of England against the Norsemen of Harald Hardrada and Tostig was masterful in that it involved speed, surprise and overcoming very difficult terrain. Northern Britain in the mid-eleventh century was divided culturally and politically from the rest of the nation, and was generally left to its own devices. Hard to reach – only a few roads traversed the Humber Estuary and the bogs and swamps of Yorkshire and Cheshire connecting the north and south – the north was an isolated and barren region. The 200 mile (320 km) journey from London to York usually took two weeks, or more depending if the roads were passable.
Taking his brother Gyrth with him, and with his housecarls and such other troops as he could spare from the distance of the south. Harold marched north in seven divisions, pressing volunteers as he went. The speed of his advance has always drawn superlatives from historians used to the ponderous pace of medieval warfare, but it may be that a good deal of his force was on horseback and that, as was the custom with Anglo-Saxon armies, they dismounted before fighting.
Such mounted infantry could manage twenty-five miles a day. They were also expected to have at least two horses, riding one and allowing the other to proceed unburdened. Harold no doubt could also expect, as king, to commandeer fresh horses along the way. If he did literally ride day and night he could have made Tadcaster in four days, although that would mean without sleep.
There was one of the Norwegians there who withstood the English host so they could not cross the bridge nor win victory. Then an Englishman shot an arrow, but it was no use, and then another came under the bridge and stabbed him under the corselet. Then Harold, king of the English, came over the bridge and his host with him, and there killed large numbers of both Norwegians and Flemings, and Harold let the king's son Hetmundus go home to Norway with all ships.
Facing overwhelming numbers the Vikings held the bridge. 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.
The Norwegians who survived took flight; and the English attacked them fiercely as they pursued them until some got to the ships. Some were drowned, and some burned, and some destroyed in various ways so that few survived and the English remained in command of the field. The king gave quarter to Olaf, son of the Norse king and all those who survived on the ships, and they went up to our king and swore oaths that they would always keep peace and friendship with this country; and the king let them go home with twenty-four ships.
The campaign of Stamford Bridge marks Harold Godwineson as a notable commander. Doubtless, the Norwegian host had suffered heavy losses at Fulford, but it was none the less a formidable army under the leadership of one of the most renowned warriors of the age. Moreover, the force at the disposal of Harold Godwineson had itself been hastily collected, and it had fought under the handicap of several days of forced marches. What, however, stamps the campaign as exceptional is the fact that a commander operating from London was able to achieve surprise against a host whose movements since 20 September had been confined within twenty-five miles of York. The Norwegian king, it is true, had after Fulford been engaged in arranging for the submission of York, in withdrawing his victorious troops to Riccall and then bringing them up again to the road junction at Stamford Bridge, which he probably did not reach until the 24th. Even so, the achievement of Harold Godwineson in coming upon him unawares with an army hastily brought up from the south is very notable. His success was as deserved as it was complete, but it was yet to be seen whether it would be possible for him, after his victory, to return to the south in time to oppose the impending landing of the duke of Normandy.
Harold, king of the English, permitted Olaf, the son of the Norwegian king, to return home unmolested with twenty ships and the survivors, but only after they had sworn oaths of submission and had given hostages.
Questions for Students
Question 1: 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?
Question 2: 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?
Question 3: Study sources 8 and 9 and explain why Harold's soldiers had difficulty crossing Stamford Bridge. How did they solve this problem?
Question 4: 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.
A commentary on these questions can be found here.