Friday, September 25, 2020

The Last Viking Invasion of England

The Last Viking Invasion of England

Today is the anniversary of the battle at Stamford Bridge in 1066, it ending, for all intents and purposes, the Viking invasions of England.  Beginning in the 8th century and the famous raid of Lindesfarne (June 8, 793), England had repeatedly suffered both Viking raids and invasions/migrations.  King Canute II (one of only two English kings denominated “the Great”) was an aspect of this chain of events; he was himself Danish.

King Edward the Confessor, who was himself “English” in that he was Anglo-Saxon,  died on January 5, 1066; he was childless.  The crown was assumed by Harald Godwinson.  His dispute with William the Bastard of Normandy over whether Harald had previously agreed to surrender the crown to William would ultimately lead to the Battle of Hastings.  In the meantime, Harald Godwinson had to deal with an invasion from Norway led by another claimant to the throne, Norwegian King Harald Hardrada; Hardrada was supported in this invasion by Tostig Godwinson, Harald Godwinson’s brother. 

Two factors were crucial to the resolution of the Battle of Stamford Bridge.   First, the invading force was dispersed on both sides of the river.  Thus, when the English army attacked the Norse contingent on the south side of the river, they outnumbered their opponent.  Second, the intelligence of the Norse army failed; they did not realize the English army was already present and ready to launch an attack. Another factor whose weight is unknown is that the invading army has days earlier defeated an English army (The Battle of Fulford) led by Earls Morcar (an exiled Northumbrian) and Edwin (Mercia), possibly leading to complacency.

It being a warm day, the invading army had left much of their armor on board their ships.  Initially, the English forces largely massacred the Norse forces on the south side of the river.  They then proceeded to attack over the bridge, an effort that, in what was almost certainly an apocryphal story, was delayed by a single Viking yielding an ax who single-handedly killed some forty soldiers before he was himself slain.  With the English having now crossed the bridge, the two armies again faced one another.  Ultimately, the Norse army would collapse consequent to its lack of armor and the deaths in battle of both Harald Hardrada and Tostig.  The few Normans who survived the battle entered into a truce with Harald agreeing to leave and never return.  While the invading fleet filled some 300 ships, the Norse survivors of the battle were able to return home in only 24 of them.

Harold Godwinson must have welcomed the end of this threat to his seat on the English throne.  Then he learned that the forces of William of Normandy had landed in the south.

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