1066: The Last Viking Invasion of Britain

With all the turmoil of 1066 it’s easy to forget about the invasion of the Vikings from the north. At the time, however, it might have seemed the bigger threat.

An 1870 oil painting of the Battle of Stamford Bridge.

An 1870 oil painting of the Battle of Stamford Bridge.

Vikings had been the scourge of the Saxons for centuries, raiding their territory, taking their lands and even being paid for the simple favour of not attacking. In 1066, though, they had an altogether grander vision. They wanted all of England itself, and they had a ferocious leader to help them do it. In 1016 a Viking had sat on the throne of England itself as Cnut declared himself King of England, Denmark and Norway and his descendant Harald the Hardrada wanted that same title for himself.

The Great Hardrada

Harald the Hardrada’s life had been hard but had turned him into a formidable warrior. As a teenager he had been forced to flee Norway and eventually made his way to Byzantium where he served the Emperor as a mercenary. After ten years he had amassed a small fortune, whereupon, he returned to his native land, raised an army and took the throne.

He then waged a vicious war against the Danes before turning his attention to the even bigger prize of England. He gathered together the largest Viking fleet ever seen and headed for the North of England. There he sailed up the river Ouse and closed in on the town of York.

It must have seemed an unstoppable force to the locals at the time. The English King Harold had been taken completely by surprise. He and his army were 200 miles away in the South which left the local Earls to carry the defence.

The Earls and their men fought bravely at the Battle of Fulford, but were hopelessly outmatched, but then Hardrada made his fatal mistake. In keeping with the practice of Viking raiders in the past he withdrew from York and waited for the hostages and ransom he had been promised.

Harold Makes His Move

Hardrada’s withdrawal gave Harold his chance. He raced up to the North using the route which is now followed by the A1 and surprised the Viking encampment at Stamford Bridge. The enemy were taken completely by surprise and struggled to be ready in time.

Before the Saxons could get to the Viking army there was one barrier to overcome – a tiny bridge guarded, so the story goes, by a single gigantic Viking warrior. He beat back attack after attack until – just as it seemed they would never get across – an English soldier snuck underneath the bridge and skewered him from below.

Now the real battle began. The Vikings may not have been prepared but they were still a formidable force and the English were tired after their long march. Even so gradually they wore the Vikings down until finally their leader – the great and feared Hardrada was killed.

The remnants of the Viking army got back into their ships and sailed home. It was the end of the era of great Viking raids on the British isles, but for Harold the battle had was only half over.

He’d defeated one major enemy, but William the Conqueror and the Normans still lay in wait.

Tom is a freelance journalist who studied history at Essex University. His work can be found in many different publications focusing on business and politics.

  • Almighty

    Worth mentioning that the surrender of York was arranged to be at Stanford/Stamford bridge, so Harold went there with only half his army, lightly armed (due to both peaceful expectations and warm weather). The rest of the army was at the encampement, so when alarmed – arriving too late and too exhausted.