1066: a year indelibly stamped in English consciousness. We all know that England was invaded in 1066, that William of Normandy conquered England.
But there was an other invasion in 1066, in Yorkshire. 25 September, 2016, marks 950 years since the Battle of Stamford Bridge. Here, in what today is a small settlement near York, thousands of men fought and died. A few days earlier, thousands more had died at Fulford, just south of York.
But before these battles could be recorded into songs and poetry – as most news was in those days – much less written about – they were eclipsed by the disaster at Hastings.
But now, the men who fought and died in Yorkshire are honoured by the Battle of Stamford Bridge Society.
Every September, they stage a re-enactment to remember these men. Historians and re-enactors from all over the country come, not only to remember the battle, but also to celebrate the Anglo-Scandinavian culture that died that day.
Gunnar Olafsson, of Iceland, comes each year. He says, “I come here to pay my respects to the men who died. Two generations of men never came home. Fifty years later, a monk walked here and saw thousands of bones – they were never buried.”
And, he adds, “Things like this can never be forgotten, on both sides. History changed. If they’d made a deal here, Hastings would never have happened.”
So what did happen?
In 1066, while King Harold waited anxiously on the south coast for William the Conqueror, the King of Norway landed in Yorkshire, intent on taking the crown of England.
The King of Norway was Harald Sigurdsson ‘Hardrada’ (Hard Rule). He was a legendary warrior.
Forced to flee his country at the age of fifteen, Harald took refuge with King Yaroslav of Kiev. From Kiev, Harald journeyed to Constantinople, where he joined the legendary Varangian Guard. Here he gained a fearsome reputation, and rich spoils of war. He used his wealth to return to Kiev and marry King Yaroslav’s daughter, then returned to Norway to become King in 1046.
In 1066, Harald arrived in Yorkshire in alliance with Earl Tostig. Tostig had once been Earl of Northumbria -in those days, all the lands north of the Humber, including Yorkshire. But Tostig was deeply unpopular, and in 1065, in York, there was an armed rebellion. An ageing King Edward sent his right-hand-man, Harold Godwinson, to negotiate.
Harold was forced to advise the King that the men of York would not relent, and that Tostig had to go. King Edward acquiesced, and gave the men of York the Earl of their choice, Morcar, younger brother of the Earl of Mercia.
Unfortunately, the exiled Tostig was also the brother of Harold Godwinson. And when, in January 1066, Harold became King, the jealous Tostig sought revenge. He searched Europe for an ally to attack Harold. And the ally he found was Harald ‘Hardrada’.
Harald had a claim to England from a connection between his family and Harthacanute, who was king of England in 1040. Tostig persuaded Harald to excercise this claim.
England, it seems, was not expecting this attack. It was expecting an attack from William of Normandy. King Harold had spent all summer on watch on the south coast. When Yorkshire saw the invasion, messages were sent, and Harold rushed his army north.
Meanwhile, Harald, Tostig, and the fighting men of 300 ships – estimated to be in the region of 10,000 or more men, sailed up the Humber, landed at Riccall, and marched on York.
The locals waited for Harold and his army. But the invaders were almost at the city gates, and there was no sign of King Harold.
Hardrada’s techniques were legendary. When besieging one city, he had tied burning brands to sparrows’ tails. When the sparrows flew to their nests in the thatched roofs of the city, the city burned. Now, he was outside the gates of York. And, he had the hated Tostig with him.
So when the Norse reached Fulford, just south of York, The men of York, led by their young Earl, Morcar, went to fight. At first they looked to be winning. But as the day wore on, the Norse came round behind them. A few English fled back to the city; thousands others were killed.
York City leaders surrendered to Hardrada, promising to join him to march south and take control of the whole country. Hostages to bind the agreement were agreed. The hostages were to be delivered to the Norsemen’s encampment at Stamford Bridge on 25 September.
Who knows what could have happened? At the time, many of the people of York had Scandinavian roots. The city had been capital of the Viking kingdom of Yorvik until not so long ago. The northern part of England, including Yorkshire, was still administered under the ‘Law of the Danes’. The Men of York, suspected some commentators, would not have been at all unhappy to see a Scandinavian king on the throne of England.
But there was the matter of the hated Tostig, and when King Harold of England secretly arrived in York, he was reputedly greeted with joy. When the hostages were due to be delivered to the Norse, King Harold took his army.
The result was a wipe-out. At Stamford Bridge, England’s Scandinavian connection died with King Harald of Norway – and Tostig. Norway lost two generations of men.
It was a triumph for King Harold of England. But before the Skalds, the poets who recorded the oral histories of the times had time to compose their songs, a messenger arrived to report that William of Normandy had landed in Sussex.
Today, the events of 1066 provide endless fascination for historians. Was Tostig in league with William the Conqueror, deliberately creating a northern diversion? Would Hardrada have staged the invasion without Tostig’s persuasion? Would the men of York have supported Hardrada in a north/south battle against Harold of England?
While historians debate these issues, archaeologists sift the battlefields for evidence.
At Stamford Bridge, the Battle of Stamford Bridge Society examines the history, archaeology, significance and social events of the period. The group holds monthly meetings, researching the battle, visiting schools, and staging events to promote public understanding of the battle.
At Fulford, researchers are in a battle of their own, to raise money for archaeology before a housing estate is built on the land. So far, they’ve found footprints and evidence of metal work. Were weapons being recycled? They need more funds to investigate.
Back in Stamford Bridge, the battle re-enactment this year is a special two day event, attended by Saxon and Viking re-enactors from across the country. Harald is regarded as the last Viking king; his death at Stamford Bridge is a dramatic end to the Viking era.
And, says Gunnar, who plays the part of his famous forefather, “Harald of Norway is number thirty-one in my lineage. It’s not so far. The battle at Stamford bridge seems so far away, but it’s not. Thirty-one generations isn’t so far.”
Read more in Dalesman Magazine, September 2016 issue
Fulford, Sept 18th 2016: Fulford anniversary show. special event to commemorate Battle of Fulford, re-enactment/living history and stalls
Stamford Bridge, Sept 24 and 25th 2016: Stamford Bridge 950th anniversary weekend re-enactment. Special guest Archbishop of York.
Two days of battles, living history, falconry, trade stalls and archaeology stands.
Special School organised show also planned by the children of Stamford Bridge.
Processional ride from York to Stamford Bridge by mounted warriors on Sunday afternoon
Firework display in Stamford Bridge on Sunday evening to end the celebration.
Pocklington, October 16th: special 950th musical recital with new music specially written and performed by Stamford Bridge Singers.
Also, ongoing, 1066 Stamford Bridge tapestry project and 950th stained glass window design for the church in the village
To support further research at Fulford, www.crowdfunder.co.uk/1066-battle-of-fulford/
Charles Jones has written a book detailing the archaeology of the Fulford battle site: “Finding Fulford”, ISBN 978-1-78018-050-2