Thursday 25 September 2014

The Battle of Stamford Bridge

On 25 September 1066 a battle was fought which is sometimes said to mark the end of the Viking Age. It's not always wise to fix firm end dates for historical periods, but the death of Harald Hardrada, king of Norway, on a Yorkshire battlefield in 1066 did mark the end of one phase in England's relationship with the Scandinavian world, and set the stage for Harold Godwineson's defeat at Hastings three weeks later. I'm interested at the moment in the medieval legends and stories which accrued round England's two eleventh-century conquests, the Danish and the Norman, but today reminds us of a third which never happened: the Norwegian Conquest, stopped before it began by Harald's defeat at Stamford Bridge. So this is not a post about the history of the battle (for which you would be better off reading other sources), but about one later retelling of it. The story is in many ways unhistorical, but it brings this fascinating event to life.

Like the Battle of Hastings, Stamford Bridge attracted many legends, in English as well as Scandinavian tradition. Perhaps the most famous is one told by several twelfth-century English historians, here by Henry of Huntingdon:

A battle began that was more arduous than any that had gone before. They engaged at dawn and after fearful assaults on both sides they continued steadfastly until midday, the English superiority in numbers forcing the Norwegians to give way but not to flee. Driven back beyond the river, the living crossing over the dead, they resisted stoutheartedly. A single Norwegian, worthy of eternal fame, resisted on the bridge, and felling more than forty Englishmen with his trusty axe, he alone held up the entire English army until three o'clock in the afternoon. At length someone came up in a boat and through the openings of the bridge struck him in the private parts with a spear. So the English crossed, and killed King Harald and Tostig, and laid low the whole Norwegian line.

Henry, Archdeacon of Huntingdon, Historia Anglorum, ed. Diana Greenway (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1996), 387-9.

One reason to regret that Stamford Bridge doesn't feature on the Bayeux Tapestry is that we don't get to see what it would have made of this scene!

Apart from the heroic Norwegian warrior, the events of Stamford Bridge were largely overshadowed in English history by Hastings, but Scandinavian traditions about the battle, in poetry and prose, are much fuller and more varied. There are too many to cover in a blog post, so today I want to post about just one story which appears in an Old Norse text called Hemings þáttr. Hemings þáttr was probably written in thirteenth-century Iceland, but draws in part on earlier histories of the Norwegian kings, on folktale, and ultimately on oral tradition, possibly English as well as Scandinavian. I posted an extract from this text about Hastings (and the legend of Harold Godwineson's survival) three years ago, but the section which describes Stamford Bridge is, if anything, even better. What we're dealing with here is really historical fiction of a particularly interesting kind: the anonymous author, though separated from the events he describes by several centuries and many miles, had an excellent grasp of what made the situation in 1066 so tense and dramatic. All the elements are there: the loose cannon Tostig Godwineson, driven by jealousy of his brother into an uneasy alliance with a Norwegian king, who follows his advice but actually despises him; the king of Denmark, weighing possibilities and chances; the king of England, briefly a heroic victor but soon to become a victim. The story is much less about politics and battles than it is about relationships between men: between brothers (Harold and Tostig, Harald and his dead brother St Olaf), between cousins (Svein, king of Denmark, and his cousins Harold and Tostig), between kings and their advisers, between friends and fellow-warriors.

Most of all it's just a great read, so let me introduce you to some of my favourite parts. I'll have to summarise in places because it's fairly long, but if you want to read a translation of the whole thing one can be found in the splendidly-named Icelandic Sagas and other Historical Documents relating to the Settlement and Descents of the Northmen on the British Isles, ed. G. W. Dasent (London: Eyre and Spottiswoode, 1894), vol. III, pp. 374-415. (ETA, 2016: and a new translation is now available from the VSNR here)

The Battle of Stamford Bridge, in a 13th-century manuscript (CUL MS Ee.3.59, f.32v)

The saga begins in Norway with the adventures of the titular character, Heming, who (like many a hero of Icelandic saga) does not get on with the Norwegian king, and finds it wise to leave the country. He goes to England, where he becomes acquainted with the leading figures of the English court: King Edward the Confessor and his powerful brothers-in-law, the sons of Earl Godwine. Heming becomes close to Harold, the eldest son, and trains him in various military exploits so well that everyone wonders where he can possibly have learned such amazing skills. (A touch of Scandinavian pride - a Norwegian education is clearly better than an English one!) We are told that Harold is very popular, a paragon of courtesy and of martial virtues, and Heming's loyalty to Harold positions us firmly on his side.

His brother Tostig, by contrast, is "a big strong man, and a man of many words; he had few friends". We've got a classic pair of saga brothers here: the elder handsome, popular, physically strong, a much-loved son and heir; the younger clever, jealous, sarcastic, untrustworthy - but not unsympathetic. (It's not wrong to be picturing The Avengers' Thor and Loki, is it? The story parallels are pretty close, which I guess makes Harald Hardrada some kind of invading alien monster...) The saga includes a little story about Harold and Tostig's childhood to show us the characters of the two brothers: King Edward comes to visit their family home, bringing with him a precious spear. Harold badly wants the spear, but does not ask the king for it. But Tostig, wanting what his brother wants, and prepared to ask for it, makes a wooden spear for himself and shows it to King Edward, which induces the king to give him the real spear. Edward reads his character in this, and tells him forebodingly "You will never lack greed when you see others more powerful than yourself." The king's prophecy, the story shows us, comes true.

Harold on the Bayeux Tapestry

When Edward dies, and Harold Godwineson becomes king of England, his brother is bitterly jealous. As earl of Northumbria, he already rules a third of England (a þriðjungr, the saga calls it, the word from which we get Yorkshire's 'Ridings') - but Tostig isn't satisfied, and wants the whole thing. He goes to Denmark, where his cousin Svein Estrithson is king, and cunningly asks him whether he doesn't think he (Svein) has a claim to rule England, since it had once been ruled by his uncle and predecessor, Cnut. Svein replies, "I won't hide that I did once think so; but it seems to me that things have turned out well, since my kinsman Harold is ruling there, my cousin on the mother's side." (Harold's mother was the sister of Svein's father). But wily Tostig reminds him that a third of the land already belongs to him, and he is well-placed to win the whole country for Svein. Svein is tempted, but eventually decides that if he tries to overreach himself by invading England, he might lose Denmark too. So he refuses, but tells Tostig to go to Harald Hardrada, king of Norway, and Svein's own bitter enemy.

(Some context for this, because it's crucial to understand the difference between Denmark's relationship with England and Norway's. Svein Estrithson had very close ties to England: he was probably born there, and may have spent some of his youth there. For the first twenty years of his life England and Denmark were ruled, together, by his family, and even after the return of Edward the Confessor meant that Denmark lost control of England, Svein's family were at the heart of the Anglo-Danish aristocracy; his two brothers lived and held earldoms in England, associated closely with their cousins, the Godwinesons. It may perhaps be true that Svein was asked and refused to take part in Tostig's rebellion (that is, he decided not to side with one of his cousins against another). We can't know exactly why - although it was, as things turned out, very prudent - but in Svein's eyes Harold Godwineson ruling England was perhaps a pretty good state of affairs. Svein didn't intervene in English matters until after the Norman Conquest, when the Godwinesons had not only lost control of England but had been effectively wiped out; and then his intervention was on the anti-Norman side, in support of English rebels. With Norway the situation was entirely different: Harald Hardrada had no ties to England, personal or political, and was free to try his luck against a country which seemed ripe for conquest. This is why it's irritating when (as quite often happens) popular accounts of these events claim the Anglo-Saxons fought the Danes at Stamford Bridge. This might not seem like a big mistake, but it is! Not all Vikings are the same. OK, back to the story.)

Anyway, having been unsuccessful with Svein, Tostig goes on to Norway. Even Harald, the most formidable of Viking rulers, is uncertain about Tostig's invasion plan, but he promises to give it some thought and is eventually argued into consenting. Almost before he has done so, the bad omens start: Harald's men have threatening dreams, sailors report mysterious fires at sea and blood pouring out of the sky, a ghost rises up from a graveyard to prophesy that the king will fall. Worst of all, before setting sail, Harald has a vision of St Olaf, his martyred half-brother, who angrily chastises him for what he is about to do. Harald is shaken and Tostig, the "man of many words", has to talk him round, telling him it's just some "English witchcraft" trying to frighten him. But the signs could not be clearer that this invasion will not end well.

By the time they reach the English coast, the relationship between the king and his English egger-on is strained. When they land at Cleveland, they have a tense conversation which is my favourite moment in the narrative:

The king asked Tostig, "What is the name of the hill which is along the land to the north?"

Tostig said, "Not every hill is given a name."

The king said, "But this one has a name, and you're going to tell me what it is."

Tostig said, "That's the burial-mound of Ivar the Boneless."

The king replied, "Few who have landed in England near this mound have been victorious."

Tostig said, "It’s just superstition to believe such things now."

Ivar, son of Ragnar Lothbrok, was one of the most famous Vikings to invade England, and the context for this superstition about his burial-mound is explained in Ragnars saga:
When Ivar lay in his last illness, he said that he should be carried to the place where armies came to harry, and he said he thought they should not have the victory when they came to the land. And when he died, it was done as he had said, and he was laid in the burial-mound. And many people say that when King Harald Hardrada came to England, he landed at the place where Ivar was, and he died on that expedition. And when William the Bastard came to the land, he went to the place and opened Ivar’s mound and saw Ivar, undecayed. Then he had a great fire made and had Ivar burned in the flames. After that he fought battles across the country and won the victory.

The difference between the two invaders of 1066 is shown by how they react to Ivar's burial-mound: William is prepared to risk the wrath of the great Viking by burning his bones, but Harald, already convinced he is doomed to die on this expedition, accepts the bad omen as his fate. Tostig's attempt to fob him off with 'not every hill is given a name' (how do you read the tone - impatient, wheedling, matter-of-fact?) is such a great bit of characterisation.

(It only spoils the legend a tiny bit to know that Ivar the Boneless may actually have been buried at Repton in Derbyshire, which is about as far away from the coast as you can get...)

Harald and Tostig win their first battle on English soil, at Fulford, and there's a fantastic subplot involving Waltheof which is sadly too complicated to go into here. The city of York submits to them, and they raid and harry the land all around. But Harald by this time does not trust Tostig at all, and does not listen when Tostig finally gives him wise advice, not to take his men to York in less than full armour. "You can't trust the English if they get their hands on you," Tostig tells him, but Harald won't heed.

That same night, Harold Godwineson came with a huge army from the south of England to York, and there learned the latest news about the Norwegians. And as soon as the people of the city knew that the king had arrived, they broke their promises to the Norwegians and joined Harold's army.

In the morning, Harold took his army down to Stoneford Bridge, which is now called Stamford, and the two armies were ranged against each other. King Harald said, "What's that in the distance - a whirlwind, or the dust of horsemen?"

"The dust of horsemen, for sure," said Tostig, "and now you'll see how trustworthy my countrymen are!"

(I do love sarcastic Tostig.) The two armies draw up their ranks, but there's one last attempt at a peace-settlement:

Three men rode up to the Norwegian army and asked to talk to Earl Tostig. One of them, the one who spoke, was not a big man, slender, and the most courteous of men; he had a golden helmet and a red shield, with a hawk drawn on it in gold... Tostig told him to say what he wanted.

The rider said, "Harold, your brother, sends you God's greeting, and offers you a settlement."

Tostig said, "What's he offering me now more than before?"

The rider said, "He intends to offer you less, after all that's been done."

"We won't amend that with money," said Tostig, "but what is it he's offering?"

The rider said, "He offers you a fifth part of England, and will take no atonement for his brother [who, in this story, was killed at Fulford], but the damage you have done to the land will have to be paid for."

"I won't accept that," Tostig said.

The rider replied, "I will not conceal what he said should be offered to you at the last: that he would rather give you half of England, and the name of king, rather than that the two of you should fight a battle."

"What will he offer Harald, king of Norway?"

"Since he was not content with his own kingdom," said the rider, "I'll give him six feet of English ground - a little more, perhaps, since he's a tall man. But nothing more than that, since I don't care about him."

Tostig said, "These offers have been made too late. I've often heard the Norwegians say that if a good offer was made to me I'd abandon them at once - but that won't happen."

The rider said, "Then the king bade me tell you, the blame will be on your own head."

And they rode away.

While they were talking, King Harald was riding around on a black horse and telling the army how they should arrange themselves. Just then the horse stumbled under the king, three times. The king cried out, "Why is this happening, Olaf my brother?"

Tostig laughed and said, "You think King Olaf made your horse stumble?"

Harald said, "I won't have anyone to thank but you, if Olaf has turned against me." He got off his horse and went to stand with the army. He said to Tostig, "Who was that rider who was talking to you?"

Tostig said, "King Harold, my brother."

"Why didn't you say so before?" the king asked.

Tostig said, "I wouldn't betray him, when he rode here trusting in my good faith."

"He is a courteous man," said the king, "and manly, and he stands well in his stirrups; but he will not rule his land long."

That's the wisdom of a doomed man. Tostig's behaviour throughout this scene is brilliantly sketched: he knows that the messenger is his brother Harold, but goes along with the pretence that he's not, so as not to endanger Harold in the midst of his enemies; tempted by Harold's last desperate offer, he still won't accept it unless something is given to King Harald too; knowing full well that the Norwegians don't trust him, he is faithful to them at the last, even as he and Harald are now openly hostile to each other. And the 'six feet of English ground'! Wonderful.

Battle is joined, and now Heming (remember him?) comes to the fore again. He's a good archer - Norway's William Tell - and Harold Godwineson tells him to shoot the Norwegian king, since no one else can pick him out. Heming is afraid of incurring the wrath of St Olaf, but nonetheless he shoots an arrow which leaves a cut in Harald's face, so that the English king knows which one he is; and then Harold Godwineson shoots Harald Hardrada in the throat. As he is dying, Harald tells Tostig to take the offer that his brother made to him; "but as for me, I will take that portion of the realm which was offered to me this morning." And he dies.

Tostig picks up the Norwegian banner, and continues to fight. Heming asks Harold why he doesn't shoot him, and Harold says "I won't be the cause of my brother's death." Then Heming asks to be allowed to shoot him instead. "I will not take revenge for any harm that is done to him," says Harold. And so Heming shoots Tostig through the eye, and he is killed. The English - aided by a Norwegian sharp-shooter - have won the battle.

Afterwards, King Harold has the bodies of the dead, English and Norwegians alike, decently buried in church. Then he rides south (via Waltham Abbey, another English story says) - to his own death.

The death of Harold Godwineson (via Wikipedia)


Thor Ewing said...

Thanks for this. It's a wonderful scene. I do love the reference to the bones of Ivar the Boneless!

Clerk of Oxford said...

Yes, I love that part too - and the idea (however implausible!) of William the Conqueror making sure to burn Ivar's bones!

Anonymous said...

I do like 'six feet of English ground'! I've only read the story of Stamford Bridge in the Penguin Classic 'King Harald's Saga', so it was pleasant to get another perspective.

I think imagining characters as Thor and Loki is perfectly acceptable. When I imagine Wagner's Ring Cycle, they are all the characters from the Thor films.

Clerk of Oxford said...

I could definitely see that! It's quite funny how close the parallels are between movie Thor/Loki and this saga's version of Harald/Tostig - it just shows how effective that pattern is for characterising pairs of brothers, I suppose!