Herland Report: VIKING TV series: The Great Game for England in 1066 is a remarkable tale of Viking courage, self-discipline, ambition, great leadership and unmatched skills as warriors.
The Viking Age is the focus of our VIKING TV series on YouTube with Halvor Tjønn, Anders Kvåle Rue and other Scandinavia scholars and activists. We also feature a series of Herland Report articles about the Viking Age to support the topics.
This article covers 1066, the last Viking king, Harald Hardrada and the story of the Viking Norman ruler, William the Conqueror. Snorri Sturluson and other historic sources tell the tales.
Norway had become the mightiest military Kingdom in the North and Harald Hardrada was the most dreaded man of his time. If he were to restore the North Sea Empire, he needed to reclaim England.
The great Viking king of Norway, Harald Hardrada (1015 – 1066) was a true international warrior.
His life was an adventurous Viking journey from Norway to Kiev, to Constantinople, to Palestine, Bulgaria, Turkey, England and more.
His Viking kinsman and Norman ruler, William the Conqueror later conquered England in 1066 AD.
A few days earlier the king of Norway, Harald Hardrada died at the battle of Stamford Bridge, outside York.
Historians ponder the close collaboration between Norway Vikings and Norman rulers, questioning whether the Norman conquest was a joint attack with the Viking Harald Hardrada attacking from the North, near York while William the Conqueror attacked from the South, near Hastings.
The idea of a recreation of Cnut the Great’s North Sea Empire was still very much alive. Both the Danish king Sweyn and the Norwegian Viking king, Harald Hardrada thirsted for it, but out of the two, Harald was definitely the one who was most likely to get it.
He had already constructed a convincing claim to the English throne: Through his treaty with Magnus the Good, he regarded himself as the inheritor of Magnus’ claims, and Magnus had a perfectly valid claim on England’s throne from his own treaty with Harthacnut in 1038.
Besides this, Harald held that Anglo-Saxon King Edward the Confessor, who was childless, had promised Harald that if he prevented Viking raids into England, he would become the heir to the throne.
But he was far from the only one. The Duke of Normandy, William the Bastard (who’s great-great grandfather was Rollo), also had legitimate claim.
William’s great-aunt was Emma of Normandy, who had first been married to King Ethelred of England and, when Ethelred died, re-married to Cnut the Great. Emma was Edward’s mother via Ethelred, and Harthacnut’s mother via Cnut.
She was therefore the central link in this hereditary network. Since Edward the Confessor could not produce a son or daughter, he allegedly promised to make William his heir.
However, when Edward the Confessor passed away in January 1066, neither William nor Harald were declared successors. Instead, it went to his advisor Harold Godwinson, son of the influential Earl Godwin.
This is an article in a series as we address the Viking Age:
- Harald Hardrada: Viking Warrior king of Norway, friend of Russia, commander in Constantinople.
- Snorri Sturluson and the warriors of Scandinavia.
- The Viking cradle of Odin, Norse history and migrations in Scandinavia.
- The VIKING raids, expansion and the creation of Russia.
- Viking King of Norway, Harald Hardrada and Orthodox Christianity in Scandinavia.
This was an outrage – Harold Godwinson was not of royal blood and had no hereditary legitimacy. Both King Harald and Duke William now mobilised their forces for war.
It was time for Harald’s war machine to face its ultimate test. In Norway, he assembled around 240 warships, which would count for some 10 000 soldiers. Before leaving, he declared his capable son Magnus Haraldsson as King of Norway while he was away.
He then embarked the ship Long Serpent together with his Queen Elizaveta, his daughters and his second son, Olaf the Elegant.
1066 and the Viking Conquest of England
Harald was also aided by the Anglo-Saxon Earl Tostig Godwinson. Tostig was Harold Godwinson’s brother, but his disorderly leadership of Northumbria had alienated him from the family and turned him into an outlaw.
Following this, Tostig allegedly visited both King Harald and Duke William to seek support. Some sources claim that he was the one who persuaded Harald to make the invasion. The exact sequence of events remain unclear, yet England now faced a two-front invasion.
King Harald Hardrada was invading from the North-East, and Duke William the Conquerror from the South with just days between the attacks.
In September 1066, Harald landed on the shores of Northumbria. He attacked a nearby fief, and when the fief showed resistance, he burned it all to the ground, sending a clear message to all who planned to oppose him.
Harald initially wanted to continue sailing by river towards York, but the river became narrower closer to York, causing impracticalities for Harald’s huge fleet.
He decided to set up a defensible camp near the Riccall, close to the Fulford-road that would take him to York by foot.
Two Anglo-Saxon Earls, Morcar and Edwin, now mobilized their respective armies for battle.
As King Harold Godwinson was busy mustering his own soldiers in the South, they hoped to win glory and respect by stopping the invaders themselves.
They marched at Fulford Gate where they invited the Norwegians for battle. Their invite was accepted.
Harald concentrated his trained warriors on the centre and left flank, deliberately exposing Tostig and his men on the right flank in a thin, long line.
The strategy was to lure the enemy to attack Harald’s right, drawing them out of formation, tiring them, and then for Harald to lead his disciplined troops from the centre and left in a relentless charge. Once the battle began, everything went according to plan.
Tostig’s line held and Harald’s troops stormed at the enemy centre, breaking their lines and sending the entire army in an all-out rout. It was a triumph.
Of course, Harald Hardrada could let his men loose to pursue the enemy into York and sack it – but this would be reckless. York was home to a vast Norse population that could possibly provide him with manpower. Turning them against him by plundering would be very unwise.
Besides, he intended to use York as his headquarters for further campaigns and had promised Tostig the Earldom of Northumbria – he therefore needed to annex the city in the most peaceful and orderly manner possible.
Thanks to the discipline of his army, he rallied them under strict command. Then, his entire army paraded in front of York and demanded its surrender. The noblemen of the city were dressed in their finest robes as they came to witness the spectacle. There was nothing they could do. They opened the gates and surrendered the city. York was his.
One final brick had to be put in place for all of Northumbria to be secured. Harald needed to ensure the allegiance of the nobles. He therefore arranged with them that he would take 150 of their sons as hostages, while they would take hostage 150 of Harald’s men in return.
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This swap was agreed to take place at Stamford Bridge. What Harald was completely unaware of, was that King Harold Godwinson had, to the amazement of modern scholars, marched 80km North a day since Harald first arrived. His entire Saxon army was encamped just 16km away from York. It was an unfathomable achievement.
The Battle of Stamford Bridge
On the morning of September 25th, 1066, Harald and Tostig left camp at Riccall and rode towards Stamford Bridge. Throughout his career, Harald had always taken serious precaution ahead of any mission – but on that day, he seemed overconfident.
He refused to use his agents to scout ahead. He brought with him only a portion of his total army (ca. 10 000 men) – the rest (ca. 6 000) probably still sleeping in their tents. Additionally, thinking they were only going to a harmless meeting, none of the men wore armour.
Harald and Tostig arrived at Stamford Bridge and awaited the nobles and their proposed hostages. Shortly after, they witnessed something totally unsuspecting: the main 15 000-strong army of King Godwinson.
Some came fleeing from the woods, shouting the news of the Saxon arrival. This handful of Norwegians then took up position at the bridge, in order to give King Harald precious time to prepare for battle. One of them was a massive berserker, who grabbed his double-axe and slaughtered scores of attacking Saxons. Some say his name was Brand.
The Saxons tried to appease him by offering bribes, but he flatly rejected and mocked them. They shot an arrow through him, but he broke it off and continued fighting. Two Saxons then snuck under the bridge and pierced a lance through him from underneath.
He finally collapsed and the Saxons stormed over the bridge. It must have made a profound impression on those who witnessed it.
In the meantime, Harald Hardrada had quickly readied his men and taken up position on a hill, ordering them to form a circle formation. Tostig proposed a hasty retreat to the main camp at Riccall, but Harald denied it. He knew that the Saxon cavalry would cut them to pieces along the way.
Besides, King Godwinson could easily close the bridge at Kexby, blocking the road to Riccall. Instead, Harald had sent three couriers on horseback to call for aid.
His only hope was that he could hold off the Saxons until the rest of the army arrived.
The Saxon heavy cavalry opened the main phase of the battle by smashing into the Norwegian shield-wall. They tried consistently to break the line, but failed. The shield-wall held and the Norwegian archers let arrows rain down on the enemy.
There were huge losses on both sides. Harald then changed his strategy. Believing that his shield-wall would be unable to hold until reinforcements arrived, he began leading fast, decisive counterattacks on the Saxon cavalry to scare their inexperienced conscripts away.
With no armour, the King personally led these attacks, throwing himself in the midst of lethal danger. He cut down his enemies like a berserker, but suddenly an arrow pierced his throat. The blood was everywhere as Harald fell to the ground.
As he lay motionless on the ground, the last Viking King, Harald Hardrada drew his last breath.
Seeing this, Tostig lost his nerve. He immediately sounded retreat – causing much disarray as the formation disintegrated.
A group of steadfast huscarls formed a last-stand around the lifeless body of their dead King. Harold Godwinson, who must have admired the valour of these men, offered them peace and quarters if they surrendered – but they shouted back that they would rather die than surrender.
Arnor, a Skald, sung: “The King, whose name would ill-doers scare, the gold-tipped arrow would not spare. Unhelmed, unarmoured, without shield, he fell among us in the field. The gallant men who saw him fall, would take no quarter, one and all. Resolved to die with their loved King, around his corpse in a corpse-ring.” The Saxons charged at them and fought them for hours.
A group of elite warriors, led by Harald’s marshal Eystein Orre, now arrived at the field of battle, only to see the valiant last-stand and the body of their beloved King.
Enraged, Eystein attacked the exhausted Saxons. The battle continued, and the fatigued Saxons showed signs of faulty. However, Eystein failed to deliver sufficient force. At nightfall, Eystein was killed along with the huscarls and the rest of his men fled. The battle ended.
Harold Godwinson reached the main encampment at Riccall, but didn’t attack. Instead, he spoke to Olaf the Elegant, Harald Hardrada’s son, and discussed a peace treaty.
The Norwegian captives were released, but in exchange, Olaf had to promise to leave instantly and never return to avenge his father. It is likely he was also compelled to give up Hardrada’s famous Byzantine gold. The young, 17-year-old Olaf accepted these terms.
The Norwegians had suffered around 6000 dead, including many of their nobles and their own King. It was an embarrassing defeat. Olaf picked up the body of his deceased father on the bloody field near Stamford Bridge.
He then dispatched the Scottish and North Sea-mercenaries and took the remaining Norwegian warriors back to Norway. The battle was one of the hardest fought in Anglo-Saxon history – a pure bloodbath. The dead bodies lay unburied. Their bones still scattered the hill years after 1066.
Harold Godwinson was not able to repeat his hard-won success. When he arrived at Hastings to face Duke William, his army was exhausted, battered and rugged from the unforgiving fight against the Norwegians. Harold Godwinson lost and Duke William, now called William the Conqueror, won the throne of England. The Normans have ruled England ever since.
The close brotherhood between Norway Vikings and Normandy rulers
Hardrada’s much revered brother, the king of Norway who died at Stiklestad in Norway 1030 AD, Olaf Haraldsson had become a saint post mortem. The Olaf cult became massive in Scandinavia with pilgrimages to the place of his burial.
In York, an Olaf church was built in 1050, in Rouen in Normandy more than 20 Olaf churches were built around 1066 AD.
The Viking leader, Olaf Haraldsson the Saint was christened in Rouen in Normandy and baptized there in 1014 by Robert, the Archbishop of Rouen, according to Norman history.
Rollo or Gangerolf from Giske in Viking Norway was also baptized in the same cathedral in 915 AD.
It was the “song of Rollo” that the Norman warriors sang when commencing the Battle of Hastings against King Harold Godwinsson at the Battle of Hastings in 1066.
This also speaks for the closeness of the Norman rulers to their Viking kinsmen from Norway and Scandinavia. It adds to the likeliness of a coordinated attack between Hardrada and William the Conqueror on England in 1066 AD.
The Viking King Harald Hardrada Legacy
Harald the Wolf-feeder, the Bulgar-burner, the Land-waster, the Harsh-ruler – Harald Hardrada was one of Norway’s exceptional Viking characters.
His adventurous life covered the drama at Stiklestad, the parched sand dunes of Arabia, the revolutionary night in Constantinople, and the brutal wars in Scandinavia, to the valiant combat at Stamford Bridge.
His name is traced in Norse, Greek and English writings, as he affected the course of history in all these theatres.
The Battle of Stamford Bridge, in particular, has been immortalized as a crucial element of the 1066-spectacle that helped William the Conqueror win at Hastings. Consequently, a new chapter in world history began: the rise of Norman England.
Harald Hardrada was also the monarch who ushered Norway into its first golden age. He conducted vital reforms – like the introduction of a national currency – founded Oslo, and established lasting trade routes over the continent that boosted the country’s economy. His expansion and improvement of the military was an equally astonishing feat.
Perhaps more significantly, Harald Hardrada ended the mighty influence of the earls once and for all. The dynasty of the Earls of Lade had ended.
In this way, he completed the work of his brother Olaf Haraldsson, turning Norway finally into a feudal, European-like country. This would give future Kings of Norway increased stability, structure and security.
However, this socio-cultural revolution came at a heavy price. Both Olaf and Harald stirred enormous controversy as they force the Norwegians to accommodate the new state system and religion.
Haldor Brynjolfson, a chief who was a close friend of both brothers, described them in the following way:
“Both [Harald Hardrada and Olaf Haraldsson] were of the highest understanding, and bold in arms, and greedy in power and property; of great courage, but not acquainted with the way of winning the favour of the people; zealous in governing and severe in revenge…Both brothers, in daily life, were of a worthy and considerable manner of living; they were of great experience, and very hard-working, and were known and celebrated far and wide for these qualities.”
 Modern historians speculate that in the 11th century it would have been impossible to supply such a large army with food, and so argue that his armada was significantly smaller. This is an ongoing debate.
 Hardrada’s Byzantine gold had formed the basis of his finances for decades. Even by 1066 it was extraordinarily valuable. The gold was captured by William the Conqueror and many, like Adam of Bremen, argue it served as William’s main financial source in the opening years of his reign. William bribed many for peace, securing his foothold on England.