By Danielle Turner
Most historians feel confident in claiming the Viking Age started in 793 and ended in 1066. The 793 designation is attributed to the first Viking raid in England, but why did the age supposedly end in 1066? Surely there were Scandinavian raids on the continent after this date, so why do scholars consider it the end? Furthermore, how could such a noteworthy Viking warrior as Haraldr harðráði Sigurðarson, King of Norway, fail in his quest to conquer of England? Even though Haraldr prepared a major army to assist his fight for the English throne, his arrogance ultimately caused him to lose the fight along with his life. Thus, with his death as the last true Viking, the Viking Age came to a dramatic end.
Haraldr was known as a harsh ruler and his strength is attested by his moniker “thunderbolt of the north,” bestowed by contemporary Adam of Bremen. He was later called harðráði, meaning “hard ruler” in Old Norse. A vivid description can be found in Heimskringla:
It was the opinion of everybody that King Haraldr has excelled other men in shrewdness and resourcefulness, where he has to act on the spur of the moment or to make plans at long range for himself or others. He was exceedingly skilled in arms, and victorious in his undertakings … King Haraldr was a handsome man of stately appearance. He was light blond, with a blond beard and long mustaches, with one eyebrow higher than the other. His hands and feet were large and both well proportioned … He was ruthless with his enemies, and given to harsh punishment of all who opposed him. King Haraldr was inordinately covetous of power and of valuable possessions of all kinds. He bestowed great gifts on his friends and those of whom he thought much.
Historians possess limited sources pertaining to medieval Scandinavia, especially those dealing with the Vikings. When considering the life and death of Haraldr, the Norwegian Kings Sagas represent the main texts. More specifically, Morkinskinna, Fagrskinna, and Heimskringla. The primary difficulty in dealing with these writings is their age; they were composed over 150 years after the events they depict. This raises questions about authenticity, and many scholars find the use of these texts problematic. The texts contain discrepancies in terms of numbers of troops, as well as undetermined topography and locations for the conflicts both at Fulford and Stamford Bridge. For instance, it remains unclear whether Stamford actually featured a bridge at this time. In the same vein, details about the battle at Fulford remain in the realm of speculation. Nevertheless, the King’s Sagas continue to be noteworthy documents on the events of 1066. Although not contemporaneous sources, they still include vital information on not only the events but also the legends that emerged surrounding the end of the Viking Age.
“Death will be in store for you”
Tostig Godwinson felt his brother Harold’s accession to the Anglo-Saxon throne was unjust and traveled to Scandinavia in an effort to gain support for an invasion of England. After being denied support from the Danish King Sveinn, Tostig turned his sights to Haraldr harðráði Sigurðarson, King of Norway. Thinking he also had a claim to the English throne, Haraldr agreed to lead the attack.
As he prepared to depart for England, Haraldr made a wide call to lesser rulers in his kingdom for men to support his expedition for the throne of England. Morkinskinna notes, “Everyone who knows something of these events says that there was never such an elite force gathered in Norway for any expedition.” Even with this great force gathered, warnings appeared in the form of dreams and prophecies. The first such instance in the King’s Sagas was from a man who was supposed to accompany Haraldr on the journey but then refused because of a foreboding dream. Other troubling omens came from a second man and at least two women who foretold negative outcomes. Even Haraldr had a cautionary dream about the journey; he believed St. Ólafr himself came to advise him.
Gramr vá frægr til feigðar
flestan sigr enn digri
hlýtr (ef heima sætir)
heilagt fall til vallar:
uggik øfst ráð tyggja
yðr mun feigð of byrjuð
trolls gefið fákum fyllar
fiks (ræðra guð slíku)
The famous stout king [St. Ólafr] was mostly victorious, yet doomed to die; if you stay home, you will die a holy death on the battlefield. I fear the final state of the king; death will be in store for you; you will provide food for the steeds of the greedy troll [wolves]; God will not cause that.
With the benefit of hindsight and knowledge of the outcome of these battles, the writers may have used the preternatural warnings as literary flourishes, but they continue to offer significant insight into the overall narrative, as well as contemporary beliefs about the importance of dreams and visions. Even after the ships embarked with men and gear, there remained an ominous aura around Haraldr’s future.
“A greater slaughter will never befall a brave army”
King Harold Godwinson knew there would be other contenders for the English throne and prepared southern coastal defenses. He moved to protect this area from invasions by William of Normandy because he was not aware of the eastern advancement from Norway. He kept up these southern defenses all through summer, but by September, there was still no sign of invasion, and he removed the fortifications. While he continued to be focused on the south, Tostig and Haraldr harðráði Sigurðarson advanced from the northeast. It seems truly remarkable that Harold did not keep track of Tostig’s movements after his exile. But such is the history, and the attack did indeed catch Harold off guard.
After Haraldr and Tostig’s forces arrived, they plundered from their landing point near Cleveland down the coast to Scarborough and attempted to gain as much land and property as possible. They received loyalty oaths most everywhere they went through both fear and force. The first resistance from the English toward the invaders came at the town of Scarborough. The Viking forces laid siege to the city with the use of fire despite inclement weather. Haraldr’s offensive force consisted of 200-300 ships and 7,000-9,000 men together with Tostig’s army. After Scarborough, they continued to sail south until they reached Riccall in York.
When they landed in York, the Norwegians immediately faced harsh opposition in the form of Yorkist nobles. The Battle of Fulford Gate took place between a bank, a ditch, and a river on the 20th or 21st of September. The Norwegians amassed their army and fought under Haraldr’s banner Landeyðan, or “Land waster.” Earls Morcar of Northumbria and Edwin of Mercia led the Englishmen since King Harold’s troops were still situated in the southern part of the country. Haraldr sailed his ships up to the southern riverbank and set up a line of men facing the north, where the English were gathered. Their flanks faced each other on opposing sides of the river. The water naturally flowed much deeper on one side and shallowed to a ditch headed inland. The ranks of men were more concentrated on the larger section of the river and thinnest at the water-filled ditch. As they stood across from each other, the English made the first move and attacked. Morcar’s army thrust into Haraldr’s and attempted to break the line but were in turn repelled.
Battle specifics remain unknown, but the fighting continued for a few hours and the slaughter on both sides was significant. The Norwegians emerged victorious and the immediate landscape was filled with blood and bodies. Sources claim at least 15% of the combatants perished, perhaps as many as 1,650 men. The ditches and water filled up with dead individuals, so much that the invaders could walk straight across them on top of the dead Englishmen.
Poems from Morkinskinna reveal the carnage:
Fellu vítt of vollu
(vargr náði þar bjargask)
benja regn (en bragna
bløð víkingar óðu).
The rain of wounds [blood] fell far and wide on the fields and the vikings waded in warriors’ blood; there the wolf got its fill.
Þung rauð jorn á Englum
eirlaust (né kømr meira
vísi vel nær Úsu
(valfall of her snjallan).
Mercilessly the king reddened heavy weapons on the English near the River Ouse; a greater slaughter will never befall a brave army.
Fell at fundi stillis
(framm óðu vé) móða
(ámt fló grjót) á gauta
glóðheitr ofan sveiti:
þjóð hykk þaðra náðu
(spjót flugu) líf at láta
(laus í gumna hausum).
Red-hot blood poured down on weary warriors at the encounter with the king; standards advanced; dark stones flew. I believed battle-eager men lost their lives by the thousands there; spears swarmed [and stuck] in warriors’ skulls.
It was a decisive battle and win for the Norwegians after the Yorks surrendered on the 24th of September in 1066. Following the bloodshed, people from the surrounding districts submitted to Haraldr and Tostig and offered knowledge to the Norwegian ruler on other local nobles. With this information, Haraldr took the sons of the Earls to ensure their fealty. This battle remains extremely noteworthy because it was the last time an English army was conquered by a Scandinavian force. Haraldr emerged from this battle overly confident but soon met with the main contingent of Harold’s army.
“The English came on so strong”
King Harold learned of this conflict—dubbed the Battle of Fulford—and rapidly gathered a great army, nearing Haraldr’s troops around midday on the 25th of September at Stamford Bridge. Facts about the actual Battle of Stamford Bridge unfortunately remain elusive. What is known is Haraldr and his men were caught by surprise. Harold came into the town of York with the support of locals. The Anglo-Saxon army spent the night within York’s gates and supposedly blocked routes between the town and Vikings’ ships. Since this happened at night and the Norsemen were sleeping, they remained unaware of the army’s arrival. As the Vikings gathered the next day, the weather was quite hot and they made the grave mistake of leaving their chainmail on the nearby ships. Still assured by their win at Fulford, Haraldr left a third of his men back on the ships along with the bulk of their weaponry. He even left his own son Óláfr and the Norwegian nobleman Eysteinn Orri to watch over the ships and equipment. As a result, they were equipped only with a modest number of swords, bows and arrows, and men.
On the way to York, some of Haraldr’s men passed a large army also headed toward the town and presumed it to be under the command of the English King Harold. Haraldr sent three men back with horses to his ships to tell the others to bring the weapons and gear. Haraldr then formed two long lines of men as a shield wall. Assuming his troops would be assaulted first by men on horseback, he also set up archers and spears into the ground facing the advancing troops.
At this juncture, Harold of England arrived with a large army. While riding and surveying, Haraldr’s horse fell out from under him and he was thrown off. He reportedly joked, “A fall betokens luck on the journey.” King Harold then sent men to talk with Tostig and offer him a third of the kingdom if he stopped backing the Norwegian king. As written in Heimskringla, Tostig asked what they would offer for Haraldr’s troubles and they simply replied “a grave.” Tostig understandably refused this offer and everyone prepared their troops for battle, leading King Haraldr to offer this verse:
Fram gongun vér, í fylkingu
brynjulasuir, und blár eggjar:
hjamlar skína, hefkat mina
nú liggr skrúð várt, at skipum niðri.
Without byrnies, we advance in battle array beneath the blue (sword) edges; helmets shine—I don’t have mine—now our armor lies down by the ships.
The English forces charged at the invaders, and seeing this struggle, the Norwegians broke their shield defenses and advanced on the English. The English used this to their advantage and flanked them on horseback, slaughtering the Norwegians with spears and arrows. At this point, “King (Haraldr Sigurðarson) became so (ungovernably) fighting mad that he ran out in front of the battle line, slashing with both hands. Neither helmet nor corselet held out against him, and all those close by turned tail, and a little more and the English would have taken to flight.” An English source composed at the time — an entry in the Anglo Saxon Chronicle — tells the tale of 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.” This story is not attested in any of the Scandinavian sources but certainly makes for good imagery by suggesting the sheer ferocity of the Vikings.
In total, there were three or four different rounds of charges from both sides. Eventually, King Haraldr had the misfortune of being struck in the throat by an arrow and died from the injury. Here is how the action was reported in Fagrskinna:
Then King Haraldr was struck in the front of the neck by an arrow, so that at once blood came out of his mouth; that was his deathblow, and he fell straight to the ground. Now when these tidings were heard, the English came on so strong, that all the men who had stood near the king were killed.
This stunning development was followed by a break in the fighting during which each side reformed their lines. The English continued to press the attack, and soon Tostig himself was dead, said to be killed by arrow to the face. The Norwegian reinforcements subsequently arrived on the scene but too late for their King. Eystein Orri and his fully armored reinforcements captured the Landeyðan banner and continued the fierce fight, but by the end of the day, the English held the high ground and won the battle. Many had perished, others fled, and those Norwegians who survived were allowed to escape back home across the North Sea.
End of an era
In this way, 1066 marked a prominent changing of the times. It seems fitting for the Viking Age to both begin and end in England. Haraldr was the last great Viking ruler from the Scandinavian homelands. His loss as Stamford Bridge is considered the end of the Viking Age because the military defeat and his death represent the dramatic finale of the great invasions of the Scandinavians outside their homelands for plunder and glory. His arrogance and audacity after the win at Fulford became his undoing. Concurrently, Scandinavia and Iceland were converting to Christianity and their kingdoms became seen more on par with those of continental Europe. This was another crucial factor distinguishing 1066 as an important branch point. After this, it was those of Norse heritage that led the conquering. But while the Viking Age may have ended in 1066, its movements and battles forever changed the European world.
Danielle Turner did her undergraduate and graduate studies in history at California State University, Fullerton. She studies the Viking Age, focusing specifically on philology, warfare, weather, and medicine. Danielle is internationally published and has worked as a special features presenter on the History Channel Show, VIKINGS.
This article was first published in the Medieval Warfare special issue on The Battle of Hastings – you can buy that issue here. You can also get new issues of the magazine through our Patreon – click here to learn more.