Harold’s Other Battle

Here’s another historical piece from my old blog. Nobody asked for this one, but you’re getting it anyway.

Harold’s Other Battle

Everybody knows the Battle of Hastings was in 1066, and that Harold lost and William won; and whether that “matters” or not, it remains the single most famous event in English history. It is less well-known, perhaps, that Harold fought another battle against an invader in 1066, and won it. This is the story of that battle, and its dramatic aftermath; it deserves rescuing from the shadow of Hastings, and the scene is perhaps the most intensely theatrical in English history.

In September 1066 Harold Godwinsson, newly-crowned King of England, expected William of Normandy to invade his realm. So did everybody else; William had openly proclaimed his claim to the throne, and had been recruiting and preparing for his expedition for months. Harold had called out his part-time army, the fyrd, levied from all his vassals, and set them to watch the south coast; his fleet (such as it was) lay off the Isle of Wight, ready to sail after William’s invasion flotilla with reinforcements for whatever troops the Normans first ran up against. (Sea-battles were rare in those days; the chances of actually intercepting the invasion were almost nil).

All summer they had waited; Harold had remained at his home at Bosham on the Sussex coast, where according to legend King Knut had bid the tide recede. Harold hoped to have more success in repelling advances. But the year grew late; soon the autumn storms would begin, when no-one in their right mind would try to ship hundreds of men and horses oversea. (Even 874 years later, Hitler could not contemplate sailing in late autumn). So as the summer waned, the men of the fyrd grew restless; not only were they bored and homesick, but back in their home villages the harvest needed getting in. Their feudal duty was done and overdone; the normal term of service had ended three weeks before. And then the weather took a hand; all through that early autumn the wind blew steadily from the North, with unheard of persistence, pinning the Norman invasion force to their home shore.

So Harold at length bowed to the requests of his leading vassals and allowed the bulk of the fyrd to stand down. (Apart from anything else, the cost of feeding them was becoming prohibitive). He himself returned to London with his sons and the professional core of his army, the house-carles, to resume the reins of government, an art he hardly had time to practise as king; however, he had effectively ruled the land during the latter years of King Edward, as his father Earl Godwin had before him. As far as we can tell at this distance – and bearing in mind that all contemporary accounts of 1066 are more or less partisan to one side or the other – Harold was a capable and popular ruler, and few in England that summer harboured any seriously disloyal thoughts.

*

Few in England; but oversea in Europe there were others beside William who had designs on Harold’s throne; one of them his own brother Tostig (or Tosti, if you prefer). He was a strange case, Tostig; he had been something of a favourite with King Edward, and had been given the earldom of Northumbria. But he did not repay this trust; from being the king’s favourite, a personable young man much loved by his friends, he changed. He became subject to violent fits of rage, and black depressions, and committed many acts of outrage against any that opposed him; and yet he seems to genuinely have no idea of how he had changed or was now regarded, believing himself still loved by all. This was, as it proved, a fatal illusion.

Eventually his unpredictable and violent behaviour provoked his vassals in Northumbria into petitioning the King for his removal, threatening riot and rebellion if Tostig remained. This time he had gone too far even for Edward, and Harold could not or would not protect him, and Tostig was sent into exile. He went to stay at the court of Count Baldwin, his father-in-law, in Flanders, harbouring a considerable grudge.

Shortly after this, in December 1065, Edward died, and Harold succeeded to the throne; Edward appeared to nominate him the heir from his deathbed, and the council of elders, the witanagemot, accepted this recommendation. He was in truth the only credible candidate, for the only surviving male member of the royal house, Edgar the Atheling, was far too young, and the other leading candidate seems not to have mentioned his claim to the witan until after they nominated Harold. Not that William of Normandy was going to let a little thing like that stand in his way. (In truth it was a rotten claim, anyway, based on unverifiable promises said to have been made in the past; no-one in England took it seriously).

But now another claimant appeared; in May (or possibly April) 1066 Tostig arrived off the Isle of Wight with a small fleet. He had spent the months of exile trying to attract support for his claim to the throne (or at least to get his old earldom back); he had canvassed several people beside his father-in-law, and had found them mostly sympathetic but unhelpful. Duke William had fish of his own to fry, and Svein Estrithson of Denmark was recovering from a long and bitter war with Norway. So it was with only a small force of Flemings, supplied by Baldwin, that Tostig made his incursion.

He seems to have got it into his head that all he had to do was land in England, and everyone would flock to him. This was overlooking the facts that a) there was already a King, one moreover much experienced in the rule of the land, b) Harold was in any case Tostig’s elder brother, and therefore with the superior claim and c) everybody loathed Tostig.

He was soon disabused of the idea that he would be welcomed with open arms. The people drove him off with sticks and oaths, and Tostig sailed off again. He next landed in Kent, where troops sent by Harold helped the locals beat his men very smartly. Deserted by most of his followers, he sailed away; North, rather than back to Flanders, probably because the wind was southerly, and the ships of those days were very poor at sailing into the wind. He made several further incursions, as he sailed up the East coast, but people either threw things at him or paid him to go away, which he did, his fleet getting smaller all the time. England turned its attention to Normandy, and forgot all about him.

But even now Tostig was not discouraged; his delusions of grandeur were as strong as ever, so he sailed on to Scotland, blown perforce by a south wind that meant he could not return to Flanders. Here he tried to enlist the support of the King, Calum A Chinn Mhoir, to give him his Gaelic name. It means Calum the Big Head, a tribute to his cunning and sagacity, and he is known in English as Malcolm Canmore. He was the last Gaelic King of the Scots, and the first to speak English (well, Scots, anyway), and as his by-name suggests, he was nobody’s fool. Certainly he was far too clever to give any credence to Tostig’s mad pleadings; Malcolm knew very well what Tostig’s record was (Northumbria bordered Scotland; indeed in 1066 Northumbria reached almost to Edinburgh). In any case, he had been installed on his throne by the previous Earl of Northumbria, Siward, and Aelfgar, the father of the current Earl of Mercia. They represented a faction that had little love for the sons of Godwin; indeed, the sons of Aelfgar, Edwin and Morcar, were now Earls of Mercia and Northumbria respectively. It is probable that Malcolm identified with the Aelfgarssons rather than the Godwinssons, and was not about to support any of the latter against the former; which is what it would come to, if Tostig attempted to recover his old earldom. Malcolm listened courteously to Tostig, fed and watered him, but declined to help his cause. Getting involved with English disputes was no part of Malcolm’s plans; he had enemies enough at home. (His predecessor had been one Macbeth, who was later to become more famous).

But Tostig still had one string left to his bow; his canvassing campaign eventually led him to the court of the only king in Europe mad enough (and out of touch enough) to take him seriously; Harald Sigurdsson Hardrada, King of Norway.

*

Harald is an even more extraordinary character to modern eyes than Tostig or Duke William; he has been called “The Last of the Vikings”, which isn’t quite true, but nearly enough for legend. For Harald was a legend, even then; his exploits were the stuff of saga throughout the Norse world, and his tallness, courage, ferocity and chronic meanness were proverbial.

Harald had ranged over Europe in true Viking style, plundering and pillaging wherever he went. As a young man exiled from Norway he journeyed to Novgorod and Kiev, to take service with the Swedish Vikings then founding the state of Rus’, and then on to Constantinople, where he joined the Empress Zoe’s famous Varangian Guard, composed largely of Norsemen. Even shorn of the fanciful exaggerations of the saga-men, his career there was still remarkable. He rose to become the Byzantine Empire’s pillager-in-chief, leading his berserkers on a rampage across the Mediterranean in the cause of Graeco-Roman civilisation, one blistering campaign in Sicily being particularly notable for atrocity and plunder. The plunder part caused trouble; Harald kept considerably more of it than he was entitled to, and when Byzantine court politics turned against him he and his followers found themselves in prison.

Fortunately for him a counter-coup restored him to favour, and once released he had a happy time executing his enemies on the Empress’ orders. However, he was keenly aware that his position was precarious, so one night he and his band sneaked off, evaded the city’s maritime defences, and sailed over the Black Sea. Taking his illicit treasure with him.

In Kiev he was greeted by his friend Yaroslav the Wise, ruler of the city, and, after some negotiation, Harald married Yaroslav’s daughter Elizabeth. (Whether he told anybody that he already had a wife in Norway is debatable). Then, taking his new wife in tow, Harald and his troop set off once more up the rivers of Rusland back to the Baltic and his native Norway; he had heard there was a power vacuum there, and he intended to fill it.

He wasted no time putting his feet up when he at last got home; he promptly used his Byzantine gold to finance an attempt at seizing the throne. After some while, he managed it, largely by fighting and killing anyone who didn’t like the idea. Harald had no time for subtlety.

That proved to be the high point of his career; since then he had spent fifteen years trying to conquer Denmark, but every time he invaded, the Danes very cunningly ran away, and didn’t fight fair, and he got fed up of it. Even when he at last fought and won a major battle, it cost him so dear he couldn’t afford (either in men or money) to fight another. In the end (in 1063) he had to give up, and leave the Danes alone. So here he was in 1066, an ageing conqueror short of cash, seeking one last rampage, and with a court of young bravos fed up chasing Danes and beginning to think the old man wasn’t such hot stuff anymore. Just the chap Tostig needed.

Tostig’s initial attempt to win Harald to his cause did not go well; “Hardrada” means “tough counsel”, and was given in honour of Harald’s skill in driving a hard bargain. Things went badly at their first meeting; Harald had never heard of Tostig, and didn’t see why he should put himself out to help someone else to be King, or even Earl of Northumbria. For once Tostig did the sensible thing and changed tack; what he meant was that Tostig (beloved of all England) would lend his aid to win the throne for Harald; all Tostig asked was his old earldom back. Harald had some sort of claim to the English throne, every bit as bad as William’s, so the idea wasn’t completely ludicrous. Anyway, it was the proper Viking thing to do, sailing west-over-sea to fall upon the soft and wealthy English. Harald, for all his exploits, had never done it – though neither had anyone else lately, not since Knut the Dane nearly fifty years before. Vikings were going out of fashion, and the Norsemen were settling down and becoming farmers and fishermen.

Still Harald was unconvinced, and in the end Tostig grew exasperated, and said that such craven behaviour was about what he expected from a has-been who couldn’t even conquer Denmark. The saga-men made the remark sound like a cunning stroke of policy on Tostig’s part, designed to touch Harald on his sore point, but it sounds more like Tostig’s normal bad temper. Either way, it worked. Harald leapt into a passionate defence of his courage and military skill, in the course of which he talked himself into sailing to England, to prove the point. Other men might afterwards have regretted such thoughtless speech, but to Harald, regrets were for victims; once committed, he threw himself into the enterprise body and soul. (Supposing he had one; Harald was nominally a Christian, but what he mostly believed in was himself).

At this point, the accounts of what happened are a little obscure (although since the principal account is The Saga of Harald Sigurdsson, perhaps we shouldn’t expect too much of poetry). If, as is usually assumed, Tostig’s interview with Harald took place before Tostig’s own expedition from Flanders, then it must have happened well before May, when the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle reports Tostig’s incursions into England. It took Duke William many months, starting almost as soon he heard of Harold Godwinsson’s coronation in January, to raise and fit out his expedition to England, and he had to resort to all sorts of promises, lies, cajolery and Papal blessings to get it done at all. Harald Hardrada had it a little easier; sailing overseas for war and plunder were not exactly unknown in Norway, and while gathering such a large fleet cannot have been the work of a few weeks only, Harald had a fleet full of hardy warriors, all shipshape and Viking fashion, by the month of August.

However long it took Harald to organise a fleet and an army, and however big it was – accounts vary wildly, from 200 ships to over a thousand – they set sail at the end of August on that uncannily persistent North wind, which though wholly foul for William, was of course entirely fair for Harald. This was better than chasing those miserable Danes about every summer; this was more like it, a true full-scale Viking fleet, off over the waves for death or glory, who cared which?

And so they set out, the last great Viking fleet to sail west-over-sea, the last hurrah of the fury of the Norsemen, the very end of a romantic and terrible era. They sailed by Shetland and Orkney, picking up enthusiastic volunteers as they went, including the local jarls (earls), Paul and Erlend, and contributions from the Viking city of Dublin, and of Godred Crovan, later lord of the Isle of Man. They would also at some point have joined up with Tostig and whoever was left of Tostig’s followers.

Harald had brought one of his wives (Elizabeth, the Russian one) and other family with him, but left them in Orkney to await the summons to the coronation. (Thora his Norwegian wife stayed at home – possibly Harald felt Elizabeth might have been a little vulnerable if they had been left together unsupervised). For they were confident, these Norsemen; this was the largest Viking fleet ever to leave Norway; they knew that the English were anxiously watching the South coast for another invader, and believed that all the enemy forces were safely at the wrong end of England. Harald also believed Tostig’s tales of how popular he had been as Earl of Northumbria, and was expecting to be welcomed to the North of England by the locals. How different history could have been had all of that been true.

Supplying themselves by pillaging as they went, the fleet sailed down the East coasts of Scotland and England and landed in Yorkshire. The first thing they did was to burn down Scarborough. This was just badness; there was no military necessity for it. However, it attracted people’s attention, which perhaps was the point. After this act of vandalism, they sailed on, past Spurn Point, round into the Humber and up the Ouse toward York. York was the capital of Northern England, the seat of Morcar the Earl of Northumbria, and of course a former Viking city; all in all an obvious target for Harald and Tostig. They left their ships at Riccall on the Ouse, and marched off toward the city.

The army waiting for them had been hastily gathered; it seems no-one had been expecting Harald or his Viking army, and Morcar and his brother Edwin, Earl of Mercia, had had a little trouble organising a defence; the cream of the nation’s troops were of course all in the South with the King. The armies met on the 20th of September at Gate Fulford, a few miles outside York, and the result was never in doubt; the battle-hardened Norsemen made short work of the scratch English force, and when enough of them had been killed, the rest ran away, many becoming mired in a bog and others drowning in the River Ouse.

Perhaps surprisingly, given their behaviour at Scarborough, Harald did not then lead his troops on a pillaging tour of York, which offered its surrender. Maybe this restraint is explained by the fact that both Harald and Tostig intended to rule over York, the one as King, the other as Earl, and they wanted it in one piece. Whatever the reason, they instead made arrangements to receive the formal surrender, including the obligatory hostages, and much needed supplies, at a convenient location a couple of days hence. Somebody – possibly Tostig – chose a spot a few miles East of York, at a point where several roads crossed the River Derwent; Stamford Bridge.

When the victorious army foregathered at the designated spot, on the morning of the 25th of September 1066, they were in celebratory mood; it was a very hot day, and they were expecting no trouble, so they left most of their armour with about two-thirds the army at the ships. Cattle had been sent from York as part of the promised supplies, and the men were having some fun rounding them up. As they stood on the bank of the river in the sunshine, laughing and singing, Harald and Tostig looked toward York, awaiting the surrender party. At length, a cloud of dust could be seen.

“Seems like a lot of people,” Harald remarked. Then as the cloud grew nearer, cries could be heard. At last, those approaching breasted the rise on the York road, and they could be seen. Sunlight glinted off helmets and spears. A lot of helmets and spears.

Tostig turned to Harald.

“This isn’t Edwin and Morcar,” he said; “this must be my brother; King Harold.”

It was; and he hadn’t come to surrender. He had come to fight.

*

It is debatable how much Harold Godwinsson knew in advance about Hardrada’s plans for invasion. On the face of it, it seems to have come as a bolt from the blue; no special preparations had been made to counter such an attack, unlike the careful dispositions made against the Normans. And Harold was not the kind of man to overlook such things.

Even at this distance, and relying on so few sources, none of them wholly reliable, it is not hard to get an impression of King Harold’s personality. He wasn’t very tall, brown haired, and usually depicted sporting a moustache. Even his Norman enemies had difficulty painting him in a black light; he is recalled as being a personable man, generous, courageous, and open-handed, much given to laughing and jests. He was experienced in government and war, having fought against the Welsh, and also alongside Duke William in his campaign in Brittany. But now came his finest hour.

Just when he heard about the Norwegian descent on England is unknown, but what is certain is that he assembled an army and marched them up to York in record time. If we are to venture beyond indisputable facts we could speculate that he began preparing a counter-strike as soon as he heard of the attack on Scarborough. And we might speculate further that he hastened to respond because he wasn’t entirely confident in the response of Earls Edwin and Morcar. The brothers (who always appear together in the chronicles, as if they were inseparable) came from a rival dynasty to the Godwins, after all, and might have been susceptible to being bought off rather than fight for the Godwin-occupied throne. (One account has the brothers offering to join Hardrada after the surrender of York).

Harold was in the awkward position, dynastically speaking, of not being very royal. His father Godwin had sprung from obscurity as a thain of Sussex to be made great by King Knut, and Harold himself was half-Danish, his mother Gytha having been the daughter of a prominent Danish nobleman with the resonant name of Thorgils Sprakaleg. (This Sprakaleg was the grandfather of three kings: Harold of England, Svein Estrithson of Denmark, and Harald Hardrada of Norway). Godwin’s eldest child Edith had been married to Edward the Confessor, but there had been no children by this marriage. People then and since have speculated as to why not, and it is possible that Edward was homosexual, although if he was there have been other Kings of England so inclined who managed to produce heirs. Given Edward’s repellent personality maybe Edith just couldn’t stand the sight of him: he certainly couldn’t stand her, and when the Godwins’ star was momentarily eclipsed, and Godwin and his sons were briefly exiled to Ireland, Edward made haste to put Edith away from him. The Godwins were not so easily to be rid of, however, and soon returned with force, and Edith once more resumed her reign as Queen. But the childlessness remained a problem, and some effort was made to return a scion of the English royal house, Edward the Exile, back from Hungary (whence he had gone after the Danish Knut had invaded and taken over the English throne). Edward returned to England in 1057, but promptly died, most unhelpfully, and when Edward the Confessor also died in 1065 the exile’s son, Edgar ‘the Atheling’ (meaning ‘crown prince’, more or less) was still a child.

Nobody was very keen on putting a child on the throne at that particular juncture. The kings of Denmark and Norway had claims of their own, and so, of course, did Duke William of Normandy, and it was clear that the new King would have to fight for his title. Furthermore, despite Norman attempts to claim otherwise, Edward the Confessor had clearly and unequivocally named Harold as his heir. It being Christmas, when the great and good were assembled at the court in Westminster anyway, the business of Edward’s funeral and Harold’s coronation were dispatched at once, and no record remains of anyone expressing dissent. The Normans liked to claim that there was something unseemly about Harold’s rapid elevation, but it was the practical thing to do, and Harold was a very practical man.

And now he showed again his practicality. He rounded up an army in record time, and set off North along the old Roman road, Ermine Street. Even if we assume he began assembling his force as early as the 18th of September, the earliest he could have heard of the raid on Scarborough, and further assuming that most of the troops were mounted, it was still a major feat of arms, quite unlike the ponderous pace of most medieval warfare, to arrive at Stamford Bridge by the 25th.  With him were his housecarles, and his brother and right-hand man Gyrth. He organised his force into seven divisions, pressing further recruits on the way North, and made all speed. By the evening of the 24th he was at Tadcaster, where he would have been apprised of the disaster of Gate Fulford and the surrender of York. His thoughts on the performance of Edwin and Morcar are not recorded, but his action speaks volumes: after a brief nights’ rest, the army pressed on.

Harold’s arrival at Stamford Bridge was a complete surprise to the Norwegians: most of them had left their armour behind with the ships at Riccall, and only about a third of Harald’s army were present when the English forces appeared. Hardrada sent at once to Riccall to summon the rest of the army, which was under the command of Harald Hardrada’s right-hand man Eystein Orri. Meanwhile, as a delaying tactic, Harald and Tostig advanced to parley with the English.

The English stood on the West or York side of the bridge, while the Norwegians occupied the bridge itself and the East bank, which meant, among other things, that the English stood between the Norwegians and their ships, sixteen miles away at Riccall on the Ouse.

The English sent forward a herald to the foot of the bridge: a man of no great height, brown of hair, who wore a moustache. He addressed himself to Tostig: come back, he told him, and the King will make peace with you and return you to your old earldom, and many other rewards besides; the King desired Tostig to know that he had no wish to fight further with his brother.

“That’s all very well,” Tostig replied, “but what about King Harald here? He has supported me very generously, and I would not see him go unrewarded.”

“Ah,” the herald replied. “The King mentioned a reward for him, too. About six feet of English earth, or maybe a bit more, he being a very tall man.”

Tostig shook his head.

“No,” he said, “I will not desert King Harald now. It shall not be said of me that I brought the King of Norway to England only to betray him. I will share his fate, whatever it may be.”

And with that Tostig turned, and went back over the bridge.

King Harald followed him, and asked Tostig who the herald was, who had spoken so boldly. We might imagine that Tostig gave Harald an odd look at this point, for his reply was that the ‘herald’ was none other than his brother, King Harold of England.

“Really? If I had known that, I should have killed him on the spot.”

Tostig shook his head sadly. “No, if I could not betray you, then still less would I be the murderer of my own brother, when he offered me friendship and reward. I would rather he killed me, than that.”

Harald’s thoughts at this display of chivalry are not recorded. He merely grunted and then added:

“He stood well. For such a small man.”

(Harold Godwinsson wasn’t especially short, but to the six foot nine Harald Hardrada, everybody was short).

Battle now commenced, and it was a battle fought on foot; the English, notoriously, might ride to battle, but always dismounted to fight, and the Norwegians had brought few or no horses with them, and had not yet acquired many. But before the armies could close with one another, first the English had to force the passage of the bridge. In this they were hindered by an immensely huge Norwegian, who wielded his battle axe so effectively that the English could not get by. After some time trying, they offered him clemency, out of admiration for his valour, but he told them where they could put it, and added that the English were all cowards anyway. After that the English decided chivalry was all very well, but they had a bridge to cross, so some enterprising fellows commandeered a boat, floated it down under the bridge, and then introduced a pike up through the bridge slats, unseaming the giant from nave to chaps.

Now the English streamed across the bridge, and assaulted the main Norwegian force. Hardrada had drawn his army up onto a slight ridge about three hundred yards from the bank, where they formed a shield-wall about his standard, the Land-Ravager.

Furious hand-to-hand combat ensued as the English fell upon the Norwegian ranks. Badly outnumbered, missing most of their armour, the Norwegians were soon being cut down in dozens. The shield-wall was breached, and as it broke Harald Hardrada, in a fine berserk rage, charged out into the open on his own. Almost at once he was killed, according to tradition by an arrow in the windpipe. The saga then records that before he died he declaimed some stanzas of heroic poetry, which seems highly unlikely in view of the windpipe tradition. He was 51 years old, and had fought and ravaged on three continents, but his end had come in a boggy field in Yorkshire.

There was a lull after Hardrada’s death, and Harold, ever practical, offered terms and quarter to the remaining Norwegians. He knew he might yet have to deal with William, and needed no further casualties.

But now Tostig took up an ostentatious stance by the late King’s standard, Land-Ravager, and the Norwegians gave a roar of defiance, and resolved to die beside their slain King. Bloody strife followed as the English took them at their word, and cut them down, taking terrible casualties in return. Tostig was cut to pieces, and the leader of the Irish Vikings, and Brand of Iceland, and only Godred Crovan was left of the lords. Many Norsemen were driven into the Derwent to drown, and Harold and his men possessed the field.

But only for a few minutes, for now came Eystein Orri and the rest of the Norwegian army from Riccall. Orri had, as soon the message from King Harald arrived, arrayed his men in their armour and set off for Stamford Bridge at the double. He had to take a somewhat circuitous route, to avoid coming up on the wrong side of the Derwent from the English, and it must have taken them at least four hours to march, in full armour under a burning sun, to the battlefield. When they made their charge upon arrival some men fell down faint with exhaustion and heatstroke, but even so the charge went down in legend as the Storm of Orri, and in its first fury it came near to breaking the English. But Harold’s men held, and then the heat and the tiredness told, and Orri and his men were slaughtered as Harald’s had been before. The battle was over.

It was now late afternoon, and Harold sent a force to Riccall to fire the Norwegian ships and take the surrender of those who were left, under Harald’s son Olaf Haraldsson. Harold wisely offered Olaf terms, and allowed him to sail his much depleted fleet away without further fighting. Tostig’s body was taken to York, and later buried there, and Harald’s body was returned to Norway and buried at Nidaros (now Trondheim). Norwegian arms had been all but destroyed, and it took a generation for their strength to recover, and never again did a fleet from Norway go west-over-sea for conquest or booty. The Viking Age was ended.

Harold Godwinsson, King of England, had won a great battle, and had displayed great generalship, and great wisdom. His star was shining brightly.

*

The above is history, in as much as anything is, and while there are a thousand disputed details, I hope I have given a fair account of Stamford Bridge and its participants. What follows is fiction, for the event described below was never recorded, and the time and location are unknown, and I have let my imagination have free rein. But something like it must have happened. This is how it might have been.

*  *  *  *

Harold, by the Grace of God King of all England, Earl of Wessex, and various sundry other titles, did not think much of the town of Grantham. It belonged, in a feudal sense, to his sister Edith, but in practical terms it was under the rule of one Hrodberht, ealdorman of Mercia, a man whom, if the hospitality he offered to his King was any judge, was of very mean spirit. Perhaps the poor soul had some excuse for the meagre fare offered, as Harold’s arrival had been completely unexpected and unannounced. Harold was on the road back to London with all haste: only his brother Gyrth and his own household troops, his housecarles, were with him, and Grantham was just where it happened that night took them.

The army with which he had won his glorious victory had been left behind, both because of the grievous wounds it had sustained, and also to keep an eye on Edwin and Morcar. The earls were under orders to follow Harold South as soon as the troops had recovered and been refitted, but Harold was by no means convinced they would do so, and he hoped an army under the command of his man Merulswein would convince them to pay heed.

Harold chewed a little more of the somewhat stale bread that was all that Hrodberht’s hall could apparently offer, and used another piece to wipe a little gravy off his plate. Whether the food be good or no, he was hungry. The last fortnight had been nothing but ceaseless movement; how he longed for rest, preferably in the arms of his lover, Edith of the Swan’s Neck. But there was to be no rest yet. He tapped the bread on the table, and frowned.

“Worried, my lord?” asked Gyrth, who sat next to him and actually seemed to be enjoying the meal.

“Wouldn’t you be?”, his brother retorted. “There is still another army waiting to fall upon us. My crown is not what you might call secure.”

“Oh, but surely,” piped up Ealdorman Hrodberht, on his other side, “surely, my lord, Duke William will not come now? It is nigh to October, and the weather must surely grow foul. Rest upon it, he will not venture so risky a crossing.”

“Do you know ought of the sea, then, Ealdorman?”

“That I do, my Lord. I sailed in those very waters these years ago: why, I sailed to Normandy indeed, when I served under King Edward. It is late, late, to be sailing ships in such numbers, full of landsmen and horses. And the Duke’s sailing masters will tell him so.”

“They had better tell him quietly, then. And be prepared to duck, afterward.”

Gyrth laughed.

“Just so they do tell him,” he said, jovially. “And then he can stop at home, and chew on old bones, and like it. He won’t get another chance – good luck keeping that army fed all winter! I agree with the good ealdorman here – we have defeated the only army that will land on these shores.”

Harold played with his bread.

“I hope you are right, brother, but I hope also that you noticed that the wind has changed.”

He looked down from the high table on the hall, where his housecarles were becoming merry with wine and ale and mead, according to taste. Songs were sung, and one maker had already begun a ballad of the battle of Stamford Bridge, rough verse as yet, but nonetheless pleasing to the victor’s ear. Maybe they were right, perhaps William had missed his chance. He smiled suddenly, and rose, raising his goblet and calling for attention. The hall quietened as all eyes turned to the King, and somebody shushed the balladeer.

“My friends,” called Harold in a strong and clear voice, “well might you be merry, for we are returned from a field of great renown, that shall be sung about in England for ages yet to come. And on that field we prevailed, aye, against the mightiest warrior of our times, and cut down the foe as if he were grass.”

The men in the hall cheered and banged such items as came to hand.

“Now let us have the peace we have won, and the rewards which are our due! To victory, friends, and to peace, and long life, and England!”

The crowd roared and stamped and banged, and then followed their King in raising their drinks, and swigging off a toast.

And that moment, on that evening in late summer, even as the wine was pouring down King Harold’s throat, the door to the hall opened, and a man came in, dirty and tired with travel, and came down the hall toward the King. And as he came he cried out news, and all who heard it stopped and stared, for he cried “My lord, my lord, the Duke William and his army have landed on the coast of Sussex, and have burnt Hastings!”

And Harold choked, and the wine did not go down his throat, but came back to stain Ealdorman Hrodberht’s white table cloth, and as he choked King Harold felt the touch of Doom upon him, remembering how his own father had choked to death. He gasped, and looked down at the messenger of doom, and he saw not the man’s face but the pitiless face of Duke William, and for the first time doubt and fear gripped his heart.

He felt weary then, wearier than he ever had been. So it was not done; all was yet to play for, and he must fight once again. He sighed. Then he raised his head.

“See this man has food, and drink, and rest, and then let him tell me all he knows as quickly as may be. For the rest, as soon as it is light, we ride for Hastings.”

“To Hastings!” echoed his men. But it was a sombre echo, and the merriment left them.

Gyrth clapped his brother on the shoulder.

Now can I worry?,” Harold asked him. Gyrth nodded, and then went to find a bed.

*  *  *  *

It is a matter of historical record that Duke William landed in Pevensey Bay on the morning of the 28th September, the day Harold left York to return South, but where and when the news reached Harold, and what his reaction was, is unknown. Perhaps if he had emerged as the final victor, somebody might have bothered to record the event, but we all know the saying about who it is that writes history.

Stamford Bridge is something of an anomaly in this respect, as most of what we know about it comes from the losing side. It was a great victory, and deserves to be remembered better.

It is often asked, what difference it would have made if Harald Hardrada had won at Stamford Bridge, and the answer, rather disappointingly, is ‘not much’. Harald would have had to contest the crown with William, and there is little question that the Normans would have won hands down. Harald had already proved himself lacking in generalship by his complacent dispositions after Gate Fulford – no-one on enemy territory should let their guard down that comprehensively – and by being so completely surprised by Harold’s arrival: scouts posted toward York might have given him sufficient advance warning to retreat back to the ships at Riccall. And the Norwegians were no better prepared to deal with cavalry than the English proved to be at Hastings – not to mention that William would have been (as he was at Hastings) fresher in the field, not yet having fought a major battle.

What might have made a difference is if Harald had ignored Tostig and never turned up at all (much the wisest course). Freed of having to go and deal with the threat from the North, Harold’s army at Hastings would have been larger, fresher, and earlier, able perhaps to fall upon William before he was off the beach, with his horses all still seasick.

As it was, Tostig carries a lot of blame; his quixotic enterprise bought disaster to England and Norway alike, and for himself, an early grave.

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