Wednesday, April 11, 2012

The Last Viking

On September 25, 1066, one mail-clad Viking stood along on a narrow wooden bridge, weapons drawn, and defied an army. From the west, thousands of Anglo-Saxon warriors closed in on the solitary form. On the eastern bank of the River Derwent, the Norse King and the remaining Vikings struggled to gather their army, but they needed time - time which this one lone Viking, his name unrecorded in history, intended to grant them. He drew his axe and stood his ground.

Nine months earlier, in January, the English King Edward the Confessor had died without designating an appointed heir. The Saxon Earl of Wessex Harold Godwinson laid claim to the throne, but the Norweigan King Harald Hardrada (meaning "Fairhair") also claimed that the title was his by right; a third claimant was far away, in northern France, but his challenge was more tenuous and his army much less of an immediate threat. Seizing the initiative, Hardrada made quick allies with the former Earl of Northumbria, Tostig, who had been removed from the position for mismanagement and declared an outlaw the previous year, at the urging of Godwinson, who also happened to be Tostig's older brother. Hardrada landed 300 ships in northern England and his army met up with Tostig, whose army had been causing havoc in the northlands for months; the two armies together, along with Flemish merceneries hired by Tostig, numbered between 9,000 and 11,000 men. Godwinson dispatched the Earl of Mercia and the (new) Earl of Northumbria to muster an army and drive the Norse back to the sea.

Hardrada and Tostig, however, dealt this Saxon force a punishing blow at the Battle of Fulford on September 20. Basking in victory, and - as Godwinson's army was on the southern coast, nearly 200 miles away - convinced that no more serious military threats were nearby, Hardrada and Tostig's forces relaxed. Five days later, Hardrada, Tostig, and about a third of their force were waiting on the banks of the Derwent awaiting a shipment of supplies when, to their surprise, they saw the approach of a new army. As they watched, and saw the ranks of the approaching army grow larger and larger, it slowly occurred to them that these were not to be friendly troops, and that they had made a terribly underestimation.

Godwinson, unbeknownst to the Vikings, had force-marched his entire army - 5,000 men clad in mail and carrying heavy axes and shields - 180 miles in the span of four days, an amazing feat of command and endurance. Norse scouts, if there were any, failed to report the approaching army, and so Hardrada and Tostig did not know that it was in the area until they personally saw it approach. The Vikings were not only totally disorganized, but - it being an unseasonably hot day for late September - most of their warriors had left their uncomfortable suits of armor on the ships, miles away. Tostig suggested that they retreat to the sea, but Hardrada, realizing that his army would probably be overtaken as they fled, instead ordered his men to make a stand. He had his swiftest riders send for Hardrada's lieutenant, Eystein, who had been left, along with about 1/3 of their forces, to guard the ships, miles away.

The River Derwent was spanned by a narrow wooden bridge dating back to Roman times. Hardrada ordered a small contingent of his men to protect this crossing, a mission from which he - and they - must have known that they would not return. Predictably, they did not appreciably slow down the approaching Anglo-Saxon juggernaut - except for this one lone Viking who refused to yield the bridge. Unlike his companions, he was wearing his coat of mail that day, and probably also was carrying a typically large round Viking shield and wielding an iron axe. He stood at the entrance to the bridge, having killed several of the English, and denied anyone access. Someone called for him to surrender, and assured him that a man of his courage would be treated fairly, but he "with stern countenance, reproached the set of cowards" - sadly, his exact words were not recorded. One English soldier launched a javelin at him, the effects of which he shrugged off.

Finally, someone climbed into a floating barrel - or possibly a small boat - and let himself drift beneath Stamford Bridge. He found a crack in the aging wood of the floorboards and thrust his spear up through the hole, where the Viking bridge defender continued to stand his ground. Suits of mail in those days were skirt-like, extending down to the thigh or knee, and so this peculiar strike bypassed the Viking's armor entirely. He was impaled in the groin by the surprise attack, and the English army continued across the bridge.

Hardrada and Tostig, along with thousands of their warriors, were killed in their desperate last stand action, on a small hill just past Stamford Bridge. Eystein and his reinforcements, though armored, were too little, too late, and he was killed along his men as well. Hardrada's son, Olaf, was spared and returned to Norway to report the defeat; only 24 of the 300 ships were needed to transport survivors back to Scandinavia. The massive Norse war machine had been smashed, and the Viking age was effectively over.

As for Godwinson, his army - still exhausted from the march and the day's fighting in the hot sun - had barely any time to surrender. The third pretender to the throne was moving against southern England, and so he once again called on his Saxon army to march at a dangerously rapid pace. A little less than three weeks later, Godwinson met his own end at a place called Hastings, as he was defeated by William, the Duke of Normandy, who would on that day earn the title 'The Conqueror'.

Links and Sources:

Baker, Derek, England in the Early Middle Ages, Boydell and Brewer, 1995.
DeVries, Kelly, The Norweigan Invasion of England in 1066, Boydell and Brewer, 2003.

The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, Part 5: AD 1052-1069, available online here.
William of Malmesbury's Chronicle of the Kings of England, as translated by J.A. Giles, Oxford College, 1847.

Painting of the Battle of Stamford Bridge is by Peter Nicolai Arbo, and is available through Wikimedia Commons.
Image of the Viking warrior is from an unknown artist, but appeared in the Osprey Publishing book Warrior 3: Viking Hersir 793-1066.

1 comment:

  1. Some believe he was a berserk. Eric


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