Introduction by Peter O’Sullivan (‘The Story of the Saxons in the Meon Valley’)
A couple of years ago I had the pleasure and good fortune to meet Chris Rock. I found Chris’ name and phone number on a flyer in the Swordsman Inn at Stamford Bridge near York. Chris responded to a phone call when I made an unplanned visit to the site of the ‘other’ 1066 Battle at Stamford Bridge. A couple of hours later we were drinking coffee in Starbucks near the renowned Jorvik Viking museum in York, the ancient capital of the north in Viking and Saxon times..
Chris’ knowledge and enthusiasm was infectious and inspired my own interest in developing the ‘Story of the Saxons in the Meon Valley’ community heritage programmer.
Chris is the chairman of the Battle of Stamford Bridge Society and author of , “The Battle of Stamford Bridge 1066 – Harold Godwinson’s final victory’’. I invited Chris to contribute this page for our website; Chris has also accepted an invitation to visit us and give us a talk about the Battle and the Society.
We will enjoy seeing Chris and our chairman Guy Liardet (who is a great raconteur and re-enactor of the Battle of Stamford Bridge) clashing swords and shields in the Meon Valley.
Over to Chris Rock…..
Stamford Bridge near York is the site of a battle that took place in 1066, three weeks before the battle at Hastings that every student of English history, young and old associates with 1066.
The Battle of Stamford Bridge Society has been formed by enthusiasts based in the vicinity of Stamford Bridge to help bring this important piece of British history back into the historical and heritage spotlight. The society’s aims are to ‘celebrate’, ‘commemorate’, ‘educate’ and ‘inform’ people about the ‘forgotten’ battle of 1066. The society feels that it is shameful that an important heritage site like this has been left and abandoned, but intends to change that for the benefit of both villagers and visitors alike.
In addition to guided battlefield walks, the society organises the annual battle re-enactment in September, it has regular guest speakers, visits to other sites, educational school visits and plenty of fundraising events. They are currently arranging a timetable of archaeological projects in partnership with York Archaeological Trust and East Riding Council aimed at answering some of those questions which everyone always asks!
One central objective is to eventually have a visitor centre and museum based in Stamford Bridge. It deserves it, and it will not only help to focus the momentous events of 1066, but attract more people and in turn raise extra revenue for the area. After all, the battle changed the course of history, for without the Battle of Stamford Bridge, the Battle of Hastings may have turned out very different indeed.
All are welcome to the regular Society monthly meeting
Chris Rock is the current Chairman of the Battle of Stamford Bridge Society. His new book, “The Battle of Stamford Bridge 1066 – Harold Godwinson’s final victory’’, of which excerpts have been used in the following feature, is available from Chris or from ‘Forths bookshop’, Pocklington and ‘Simply books’ Burnby Gardens… priced £5.99.
email: email@example.com with any enquiries.
Chris Rock the story of the ‘other’ Battle of 1066 – see illustrations below.
1066; never before, or since, has this kingdom faced invasion by two different foes, on two separate fronts, at the same time, in fact 1066 was the last time that these islands were successfully invaded. 1066 was indeed a pivotal time and it is certainly a year of ‘what if’ and ‘if only’.
Why a Battle at Stamford Bridge?
Stamford Bridge was originally in the Manor of Catton, it was small mill community, there had possibly been some sort of mill there since Roman times, but foremost it was a good place to cross the River Derwent, having a natural outcrop of sandstone which allowed fording across a shallow section of the river. The Romans certainly attached importance to the site as a stopping point midway between their camps at Malton and Brough. By 1066 there was a bridge of sorts here, probably a simple wooden beamed structure, laid atop stone pillars; wide enough for a cart to cross and probably around 70 to 80 feet long. The area was already rich in Scandinavian heritage, originally coming under the ‘Danelaw’; places like Skirpenbeck, Bugthorpe and Fangfoss suggest the population was of Danish ancestry. So why did a major battle, with repercussions that changed the course of British history take place here?
Well, for that we need to quickly examine the events of 1066 that led to a Saxon army and a Viking army fighting for a kingdom. The four main players were; King Harold Godwinson (the last Saxon King of England); Tostig Godwinson (Harold’s brother); Harald Sigurdsson, (later nicknamed Hardrada, the King of Norway); and finally William, Duke of Normandy. In January 1066 the old king, Edward the Confessor passed away and on his death bed he uttered to Harold Godwinson, his right hand man for many years: “Take over the responsibility for the protection of the queen, and my whole kingdom, take care of my men, let them serve you as they have served me, will you do that for me?” Harold of course answered: “Yes”. This appointment was bound to upset at least two men, William of Normandy and Tostig Godwinson, William thought he was the rightful heir to the throne and Tostig, (who had been banished the year before by King Edward) wanted his Earldom of Northumbria back, and maybe more. Harald Hardrada also presumed he had a rightful (but dubious) claim, and after meeting Tostig decided to join forces and take it by force.
So the scene was set for a three-way showdown. But Stamford Bridge is a battle of misinformation. Was Hardrada’s fleet 300 or 450 ships? Did 60,000 men or 5,000 men make up Harold’s army? Was the bridge four-foot wide or twelve-foot wide? Some antiquarians have even suggested it never took place at Stamford Bridge at all. By late summer 1066, Harold Godwinson was prepared and waiting for the Normans under William to cross the channel and invade. What he did not expect and it took him by compete surprise, was a large Viking invasion force aided by his banished brother Tostig, landing on the north-east coast of England. This is the crucial point where history is made and fate decides the outcome. Harold summoned his two other brothers, Gyrth and Leofwine and told them to muster their men, hopefully they would pick up extra men and provisions as they marched north. Harold was gambling on defeating the Norsemen with a single, overwhelming strike and making it back to the south coast before William could land – even by Harold’s standards it was a very risky gamble indeed.
Unfortunately, whilst Harold was marching north with his armies, the Vikings on September 20th, won a hard battle just outside York against his northern army under the Earls Morcar and Edwin. The Battle of Gate Fulford is another forgotten battle which deserves much more recognition, undoubtedly many hundreds of English died in vain trying to hold the Vikings from taking the city of York. The victorious invaders demanded the handing over of the city intact, provisions, and an oath of recognition to Hardrada as their king, and Tostig as the rightful Earl of Northumbria. York’s officials had no option but to give in to all their demands; Tostig also ordered that the citizens of York hand over hostages to them on the 25th of September, only five days away, at a little known place where four old roads converged over a gentle wide river – Stamford Bridge. But why Stamford Bridge? Some say it was a good place for foraging with local grain stores full from the recent harvest. Others that the old Saxon Royal Palace at Buttercrambe was used by Tostig and Hardrada. New research may indicate that Stamford Bridge was a traditional meeting point of the five or so Wapentakes (administrative districts) that surrounded it. We will probably never know exactly why, but one thing is certain, the battle took place near here and it was King Harold Godwinson’s last great victory.
Daybreak on the 25th of September, 1066 broke fine and bright, it would turn out to be an unusually warm late summer’s day. Since there was little chance of trouble from the York delegation delivering the hostages, Hardrada decided he didn’t need his whole army so left about 3,000 men back at the camp in Riccall. Also, due to the exceptionally hot day many of Hardrada’s men left their heavy armour and weapons behind too, and marched off only carrying their lighter weapons and shields. The invaders reached Stamford Bridge before noon, many were tired and weary after their long march in the hot sun so they lay down, or relaxed in the cool water to await the hostages from York. Hardrada’s one failing was not to post lookouts on the approaching roads, a simple mistake he would pay dearly for.
Harold and his Saxon army reached Tadcaster on the 24th September, an incredible feat to cover the 200 mile route in just six days! Harold needed complete surprise for his plan to work, and as luck would have it he now knew exactly when, and where the enemy would be the very next day, and hopefully they were still unaware of his presence. If he could strike hard and fast he could knock out this threat in one swift go and still be able to return south in time to continue his watch for the Norman invasion fleet, if it ever came.
For the Vikings lounging around on the banks of the river, the first sign of the approaching Saxon army was a dust cloud approaching from the old York road. It was accompanied by the sounds of braying horses, shouting men, battle trumpets and drums that beat louder and louder. This then was no small delegation, but a fully disciplined battle-ready force, complete with mounted warriors and foot-soldiers. A contemporary description of them as they came into full view says it all; “glittering weapons that sparkled like a field of broken ice”. Then in no time at all, the Saxon army bore down on the surprised and unprepared defenders. After a short and brief clash around the west bank bridge area, the Vikings quickly withdrew to the high ground overlooking the river to form a defensive shieldwall, a well-used tactic of the period.
Much debate has focussed on the site of the old bridge that became so crucial on that fateful day.
Pinpointing the battlefield is one quest that would answer a lot of important questions. But locating that transient, sad place, hangs entirely on locating the exact crossing point over the River Derwent, as another old Roman crossing point existed further downstream at Low Catton, now we cannot be sure which one existed at the time of the battle. This is another intriguing aspect of that day that needs further research.
However, one contradiction of Stamford Bridge, is that Godwinson’s large army of about 8,000 to 10,000 warriors, would not have been able to cross over a restricted bridge in correct formation and then give immediate battle; the mathematics of the numbers just don’t add up. If we generously assume the bridge was 12ft wide and 70-80ft long, it would take around 3 hours just to get 5,400 men to cross! According to the legend, if one man could hold back an entire army, then why would Hardrada allow the whole of the Saxon army to cross at that single vulnerable point? Surely it was a place to concentrate his defences against the attackers and give them no space or time to manoeuvre. It was possibly the sight of Harold’s men already on the east bank and rapidly approaching his position that made Hardrada give up the defence of the bridge area and move his army up to the better defensive position on the dry, higher crest of land. I think the crossing point at Low Catton may be more important than we realise, did some of the Saxon army cross further downstream to enable a pincer movement on Hardrada’s precarious position?
The rest of that day was basically a long drawn-out battle of attrition, with Harold Godwinson desperately trying to break the Viking shieldwall to allow his men to get up close and personal. Saxon huscarls charged the shieldwall repeatedly, their axes smashing into wood and flesh, hacking off limbs and pounding the thin line to try and break through. By mid-afternoon the armies had been at each other throats for about three hours of non-stop butchery, then without warning it seemed a gap in the Viking shieldwall opened up. Hardrada moved forward to try and regain control of the desperate situation, but before he could restore any discipline he was felled; some say by a savage axe wound to the neck, others a lucky (or unlucky) arrow pierced his throat, either way it was a fatal wound. Harold Godwinson offered a pardon to Tostig to surrender, there was no need for more slaughter, but Tostig refused and the battle carried on into the late evening, despite the remaining Vikings arriving from Riccall after a tortuous 12 mile sprint. Only as the light was fading did the Saxons finally break the Vikings down into small pockets of resistance, Tostig died, some say at the hands of his brother. It was now a case of survival, any remaining invaders fled for their lives back to their ships at Riccall, all the while being chased down by the victorious Saxons. The statistics speak for themselves: the Vikings had arrived confident and eager on 300 ships, they left empty handed and repentant in just 24, it was a sober lesson, for they never did return and attack en-masse again. Harold’s victory not only thwarted the Viking invasion, it finally heralded the end of the Scandinavian threat to these isles, and proved that Saxon England was at last a unified nation under one king.
However, Harold Godwinson’s story does not end on a pleasant note. As we are all aware (well, I hope so!) whilst he was in Yorkshire trying to bolt the ‘back door’ he unfortunately left the ‘front door’ off the latch, and William of Normandy took the advantage of invading England to claim the crown for himself, and we all know the outcome of that last Saxon battle against the Normans….
The Battlefield today.
At Stamford Bridge, (known ‘post conquest’ as ‘Pons Belli’ – ‘Battle Bridge’, for many years after) the battle is commemorated by a memorial near to the old Cornmill, a pleasant flagged area with seating and a large boulder with an obelisk mounted atop sits in the centre. Two bronze plaques, one written in Norwegian and one in English state: “The Battle of Stamford Bridge was fought in this neighbourhood on 25th September 1066”. Another tablet is fixed into the brick wall beyond, depicting the village coat of arms and the words; “King Harold of England defeated his brother Tostig and King Hardrada of Norway here on 25th September 1066”. Another newer memorial exists on the flat land known as ‘Battleflats’ at the edge of the village, here a large boulder with a descriptive panel sits in a quiet grassed area. However, of the battlefield itself little is to be seen, although if you know where to look you can feel traces of its presence.
No mass grave of either Saxon or Viking dead has ever been located at Stamford Bridge, maybe it lurks somewhere undisturbed even now; but Orderic Vitalis, a chronicler, writing some seventy years after the battle reports that Stamford was still “piled high with the bleached, white bones of the dead”, so perhaps most were left where they fell. One report from the Parish of Bossall says that some of the uncared for remains were gathered up and laid to rest in a plot belonging to the priest of Bossall, and that in later days a small chapel was erected there. In gathering research I put a call out to the residents of Stamford Bridge to contact me if any metal or unusual objects had been found in either the surrounding fields or in their gardens. At the time of writing nothing has come to light, not surprising after 1000 years! Maybe the soil is just too destructive for the remnants of this ephemeral battle to survive, or the evidence has been found but discarded by previous generations who did not value the importance of the archaeology, or the significance of their discovery.