Peter Nicolai Arbo - The Battle of Stamford Bridge (1870)

The Battle of Stamford Bridge and the End of the Viking Age

The Battle of Stamford Bridge on 25 September 1066 is generally considered to be the final ending point of the Viking Age. Of course, like the “beginning” of the Viking Age, the pillage of the monastery at Lindisfarne in 793 CE which was just a more famous version of things that had already been happening, this battle was merely a symbolic ending when mostly, the main characteristics of the Viking Age had already changed. The Scandinavian countries had already converted to Christianity generations before, and much of the immigration to England, France, and other Western European destinations had already slowed. The raids from which the “Viking” Age took its name had mostly, if not quite completely, come to an end. Northern Europe had already changed substantially.

But Stamford Bridge is at least important because it signifies the defeat of a Scandinavian battle-group, led by the Norwegian king Harald Hardrada, at the hands of an English army, led by a Saxon king, Harold Godwinson. It was the last real opportunity for Scandinavians to hold permanent political power in the West. They failed.

Panel from the Bayeux Tapestry - this one depicts Duke William lifting his helmet at the Battle of Hastings to show that he still lives. Scanned from Lucien Musset's The Bayeux Tapestry ISBN 9781843831631 pp 250-251.
Panel from the Bayeux Tapestry – this one depicts Duke William lifting his helmet at the Battle of Hastings to show that he still lives. Scanned from Lucien Musset’s The Bayeux Tapestry ISBN 9781843831631 pp 250-251.

That statement, of course, depends on your point of view. Harold Godwinson went on just three weeks later to lose the Battle of Hastings to William the Conqueror, and this battle marked the beginning of the Norman Conquest. Of course, the “Normans” are so-called because they were descendants of Norse vikings, and William, Duke of Normandy, was a direct descendant of Rollo – Hrolf the Walker – who took substantial parts of France by force. Harold was a Saxon: Saxons were a Germanic tribe in the north of what is now Germany, who emigrated across the North Sea to England, in a style very similar to the way the people who were called Vikings eventually emigrated to the British Isles, among other locales.

So, in other words, Stamford Bridge and Hastings were two battles among some Germanic peoples, who might have once been called Vikings, to decide who would be the most powerful among the rulers in Britain. Even though the Scandinavian Viking lost… the broader Germanic emigration to the West still won out. Every monarch since William has been one of his descendants, including Queen Elizabeth II, and so the Viking Age lives on even if the actual viking (a verb which means “to raid”) stopped 1,000 years ago.

This poem, by the famous English poet Laurence Binyon, recalls something of the history of the battle, accounts of which survive in sources both British and Scandinavian. You may wish to consult the Saga of King Harald Hardrada as one point of comparison, a part of the larger Heimskringla, The Chronicle of the Kings of Norway, which come from our old friend Snorri Sturluson.

Binyon is best known for his poem “For the Fallen,” which is often recited on Remembrance Sunday in the UK, on Anzac Day in Australia and New Zealand, and 11 November Remembrance Day services in Canada.

The Battle of Stamford Bridge

by Robert Laurence Binyon

“Haste thee, Harold, haste thee North!
Norway ships in Humber crowd.
Tall Hardrada, Sigurd’ son,
For thy ruin this hath done–
England for his own hath vowed.

“The earls have fought, the earls are fled.
From Tyne to Ouse the homesteads flame.
York behind her battered wall
Waits the instant of her fall
And the shame of England’s name.

“Traitor Tosti’s banner streams
With the invading Raven’s wing;
Black the land and red the skies
Where Northumbria bleeds and cries
For thy vengeance, England’s king!”

Since that frighted summons flew
Not twelve suns have sprung and set.
Northward marching night and day
Has King Harold kept his way.
The hour is come; the hosts are met.

Morn thro’ thin September mist
Flames on moving helm and man.
On either side of Derwent’s banks
Are the Northmen’s shielded ranks.
But silent stays the English van.

A rider to Earl Tosti comes:
“Turn thee, Tosti, to thy kin!
Harold thy brother brings thee sign
All Northumbria shall be thine.
Make thy peace, ere the fray begin.”

“And if I turn me to my kin,
And if I stay the Northmen’s hand,
What will Harold give to his friend this day?
To Norway’s king what price will he pay
Out of this English land?”

That rider laughed a mighty laugh.
“Six full feet of English soil!
Or, since he is taller than the most,
Seven feet shall he have to boast.
This Harold gives for Norway’s spoil.”

“What rider was he that spoke thee fair?”
Harold Hardrada to Tosti cried.
“It was Harold of England spoke me fair
But now of his bane let him beware.
Set on, set on! We will wreck his pride.”

Sudden arrows flashed and flew;
Dark lines of English leapt and rushed
With sound of storm that stung like hail,
And steel rang sharp on supple mail
With thrust that pierced, with blow that crushed.

And sullenly back in a fierce amaze
The Northmen gave to the river–side.
The main of their host on the further shore
Could help them nothing, pressed so sore.
In the ooze they fought; in the wave they died.

On a narrow bridge alone one man
The English mass and fury stays.
The spears press close, the timber cracks,
But high he swings his dreadful axe;
With every stroke a life he slays;

Till pierced at last from the stream below
He falls; the Northmen break and shout.
Forward they hurl in wild onset.
But as struggling fish in a mighty net
The English hem them round about.

Now Norway’s King grew battle–mad,
Mad with joy of his strength he smote.
But as he hewed his battle–path
And heaped the dead men for a swath,
An arrow clove him through the throat,

And where he slaughtered, red he fell.
O then was Norway’s hope undone,
Doomed men were they that fought in vain,
Hardrada slain, and Tosti slain!
The field was lost, the field was won.

York this night rings all her bells.
Harold feasts within her halls.
The captains lift their wine–cups.–Hark!
What hoofs come thudding through the dark
And sudden stop? What silence falls?

Spent with riding staggers in
One who cries: “Fell news I bring,
Duke William has o’erpast the sea.
His host is camped at Pevensey.
Save us, save England now, O King!”

Woe to Harold! Twice ’tis not
His to conquer and to save.
Well he knows the lot is cast.
England claims him to the last.
South he marches to his grave.

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