THE THREE BATTLES THAT CHANGED HISTORY
My Dad grew up in the days when school children memorized historic dates. “October 14th, 1066,” he’d shout, “The Norman Conquest!” I never thought I’d live to see the day that I’d study the time frame as extensively as I have. My dad would be proud. The Conquest utterly changed the face of Europe. Scandinavia had held sway over England until William, Duke of Normandy sailed to its southern shores and choked it into submission. The English language changed, incorporating French, the feudal system was put into place, Scandinavia lost its grip on the British Isles and a strong monarchy, existing today and still related to William’s tree, was instituted. The battle’s 954th anniversary is upon us, so raise a glass of ale, I guess.
There were actually three pivotal battles in 1066. On September 20th, the King of Norway, Harald Sigurdsson, won the Battle at Fulford Gate, near York. His next goal was the throne of England, but on September 25th, Harold Godwinson, King of England, shocked the Norwegians, decimating them at nearby Stamford Gate. By October 14th, the King of England lay dead at Hastings. And you thought 2020 was bad.
I submit, for your reading pleasure, a little excitement and a little gore – the Battle at Stamford Bridge, a chapter taken from Book Two of “Margaret, Queen of Scotland.” Don’t miss the berserker. They were mostly gone by 1066, but legend has it that this one was really there.
“How many are they?” asked the King of England.
Both sides had substantial numbers. The Norwegians, more, though, perhaps ten thousand.
Still, King Harold’s English army comprised his fyrdmen; elite huscarls; thegns who’d been levied; as well as some sturdy survivors from the recent Battle at Fulford, all standing at the ready for him, numbering some five thousand troops, most with weapons and some with horses. Those bereft of either, but eager to participate waited behind the lines to care for wounded soldiers and animals, and to replenish battle supplies.
Harold sat on his war horse, gazing at the field before him and the enemy awaiting him. It was time to attack, but he was busy savoring what he called the “sublime moment,” the pause before battle that shimmered with meaning to Harold, and of which he would not be denied.
Beginning his ritual, Harold inhaled the scent of his army’s damp horses and their hay-infused breath as they snorted in nervous anticipation. He inhaled again, appreciating the sweat and stink of his men, because they’d earned it marching with him one hundred and eighty-five miles from London. He could hear their mumblings and the rustling of their spears. From the back of the army he discerned arrows being drawn from their quivers. To his left and right, the cavalry was reassuring their war horses with muffled pats on strong necks. It’s a sacred time, thought Harold, for he always felt closest to God while staring at death: his heart pounding, his nerves tingling, his muscles taut, his vision sharpened to a hawk’s, and all the while praying that God might grant him tomorrow’s sunrise. Danger slowed the world around a warrior, so that when he charged, he flew with ungodly speed toward the enemy and fought with a brutality he possessed only on the battlefield.
Harold smiled. Truth be told, this moment was as terrifyingly mortal as it was holy, because he’d never found God in the thick smell of blood or the screams of the dying. Human fragility brought about a soldier’s end – a slip in the mud and the head left the shoulders – a decision to lunge … and an unnoticed spear exited one’s back.
King Harold took a final breath and opened his eyes, assessing the fluid situation across the River Derwent. A number of King Harald Sigurdsson’s Vikings, who’d been caught unawares by the English army’s arrival now scurried across the bridge to reconnoiter with their brothers on the safer side. Scouts had informed Harold that more of the Viking king’s troops were rushing back from their ships, slowed down by the mail, shields and weapons they were carrying back to these ill-equipped soldiers. Harold felt ever-so-slightly sorry for them.The English needed to attack immediately because right now, only Stamford Bridge, with its medieval wooden planks laid across the original Roman stone pillars, stood between them and an exposed Norse enemy. The bridge was narrow, though. His foot soldiers would have to cross it two abreast.
King Harold glanced down either side of his cavalry line. Each of his husctarls held one of his White Dragon banners. They’d be lowered to signal the charge, in unison to protect the king’s identity, since an hour ago, Harold had braved the Norwegian camp to offer his brother peace. Certainly, Tostig had revealed Harold’s presence to the Viking King by now.
“I’m ready,” said Harold to the air around him. He nodded imperceptibly and the banners dropped, pointing toward the battlefield and releasing his foot soldiers to explode toward the bridge, crossing it with bloodcurdling screams and swinging swords.
Just to panic the Norsemen, Harold led his cavalry down the long slope toward the River Derwent. Although the river ran deep and fast, if they could pass through its waters, they’d ravage King Harald’s men before the remainder of their army returned from Riccall.
The strategy worked. While the cavalry threw spears at Harald’s shield wall, archers like Unwin released arrows that ripped through the un-mailed bodies of the Viking King’s army.
The ferocious hand-to-hand battle felled many Norse soldiers, like trees logged into the river. Bubbles of blood rose to the surface, swirling in circles until the bodies drifted downwards. It seemed secure that the battle would be brief – until the stuff of legends appeared.
From behind the Norse phalanx on the other side of the river emerged a gigantic Viking berserker – dressed in bear pelts and swinging his huge double-handed axe from side to side, his sword sheathed at his massive waist. He foamed at the mouth like an animal before pausing to take a bite from his leather shield, hardly chewing it before swallowing. English soldiers later claimed they’d seen him transform from man to beast before their eyes as he growled and made guttural, non-sensical noises. The English army stared in horror to see him stride onto the Stamford Bridge. He blocked out the very light of the sun, they said.
Regardless, Harold’s foot soldiers neither faltered, nor hesitated, for the berserker had to be killed. Two at a time, they threw themselves at him, their weapons swinging, only to be whacked in half by his sword, dropping like broken dolls off the sides of the bridge into the river and onto the growing pile of bodies.
Unwin watched the berserker’s domination from the rear. He threw down his bow, grabbed his spear and ran toward a small tub moored on the riverbanks. In the mess of battle, no one noticed him navigating his way through the water, pushing off dead bodies until he was stationed beneath the loosened wooden planks of the bridge. The giant had slaughtered at least forty English troops, and Unwin was determined to end it there. Wedging his tub between one of the old Roman stone pillars and several bodies, he peered up through the bridge’s cracks, tracking the berserker’s movements. The moment the giant stood directly above him, Unwin heaved his spear upwards through a crack, screaming with all his strength to skewer the Viking’s stomach from the bottom, not stopping until he’d popped his heart with the tip of his spear. The animal/man shrieked and looked around for his phantom attacker as blood began to pour from his body. He bent over, his large eyeball looking directly at Unwin, who watched his huge forearms unsheathe his sword. He was aiming it through a crack, at Unwin’s head. Rolling out of the tub and into the river in the nick of time to avoid a split skull, Unwin looked back as soon as he thought it was safe.
The berserker hadn’t brought down his sword, after all. He must have hesitated and now was gazing blindly up at the sky. Then he lost consciousness and collapsed into a heap, blood spurting from his slowing heart. The bridge swayed wildly under his weight, tossing his body into the river where it landed on top of Unwin, pinning him underwater. He held his breath for an interminable time, groping for a path toward air, until he wiggled out from underneath the Norseman’s gargantuan carcass. By the time Unwin had dragged himself, gasping, from the River Derwent, the English were surging across the bridge again, cheering loudly. Thousands of soldiers were engaging in hand-to-hand combat, swords swinging and battle-axes smashing. The sound was deafening, but the Norse shield line was being broken.
The King of Norway, seeing his secret weapon dead in the river, and his men fighting at a deadly disadvantage, frantically attempted to rally them. He picked up one of his “Land-Waster” standards, its black raven menacing against a white background and waved it wildly, urging his men to counterattack. In so doing, Unwin realized he had a clean line of sight to the king from where he lay on the riverbank. Dragging himself to an abandoned bow and quiver with two arrows, he rapidly nocked one onto the string.
“I will not miss,” he vowed.
He released the arrow and watched it fly across the battlefield. He’d missed. Gritting his teeth, he nocked the other arrow, taking a split second longer to aim. This time his arrow snapped into its target, burying itself into the Viking King’s neck and buckling his knees before he lay on the ground trying to suck his last few breaths through a crushed trachea.
With their leader dead, the Norsemen fought uncomfortably. Tostig scooped up the Raven Standard to take command, but few had the confidence to follow Tostig. The Vikings were lost until Harald’s second-in-command, Eystein Orri, arrived with the men who’d run the twelve miles from their ships at Riccall while wearing mail and carrying shields and weapons. They joined the battle, but their exhaustion made them easy marks for the English, and they fell quickly, including Orri, the first of them to be hacked into pieces. As the sunset neared, some of the Norsemen tried to retreat. Most were cut down before they could escape. Tostig fought on, valiantly for him, until he and his huscarls were swarmed and killed where they stood.
The English army cheered their decisive victory.
“Huzzah to the mighty King Harold!”
But Harold regretted not witnessing his brother’s death, so as darkness fell, he lit a torch and searched among the nearly 7000 corpses until finding Tostig’s mutilated body. Kneeling to say a prayer, he removed a ring from Tostig’s finger.
“He fell here,” Harold informed his men, “and you can retrieve the body tomorrow. We’ll carry it back and bury him at Westmynster. He should have accepted my offer for peace. Now help me find King Harald Sigurdsson.”
The robust older Norwegian wasn’t difficult to find. Harold stood over him, staring. He’d admired the brave, smart and just king, for years. Harold had a feeling he was looking at the last Viking King the world would admire. He closed the man’s eyes and placed stones on them.
“Leave him here for his men to take home. His son needs to bury his father.”
Then King Harold left the battlefield for York. The war was over, he’d squashed the insurrection and tonight he’d enjoy the exhilaration of achieving the impossible – his army had obliterated King Harald’s Vikings, and that, after the brutal march from London to York. The age of the Vikings was finally over.
King Harold made a point of granting mercy to Harald’s fallen army. Not many remained – only enough to sail home twenty-four of the original three hundred ships.
“You may go in peace,” declared Harold, “but you are leaving England forever, never to return.” They nodded, grateful to return home.
Harold was ambitious. He knew it. England knew it. But in his heart lay the desire to be respected in peace as well as in war. He believed he’d clearly achieved that at Stamford Bridge. Surely, he could now rightfully demand unquestioned fealty from his subjects, even those who’d originally doubted his claim to the throne, and he believed that he’d earned a place as one of the greatest kings in English history.
He rested among his men for a few days, and then honored them with a victory banquet for their efforts. England was secure.
But in the midst of their rowdy festivities, a courier arrived seeking the king, and bearing a history-altering message.
King Harold shook his head.
“You’re certain?” he asked the messenger.
“I’m certain,” the messenger answered.
“You may go.”
The King of England buried his head in his arms.
Against all odds, Duke William and his Norman army had landed on English shores.