Swords clashed against one another, clanging metal pounding the air. The chainmail-encased warriors hollered and their riotous shouts collided with the iron weapons. One by one, men dropped to the floor as swords and axes were thrust into their sides. Their whimpers seeped into the mud until silence descended onto the battlefield.
And then a voice broke the stillness: “I’m not dead yet!”
The Battle of Stamford Bridge
The crowd erupted into laughter and the narrator had to control his chuckling. I was at the reenactment of the battle of Stamford Bridge. I had been catapulted back to 25 September 1066, when tensions between the English and Vikings were high. It was near here, just outside York, where two major battles took place within a matter of days that would determine the outcome of that other battle of 1066; Hastings.
At the reenactment of Stamford Bridge, I mingled with everyone, from Anglo-Saxons to Viking society members. Why was the Battle of Stamford Bridge so important, especially when 1066 is associated with William the Conqueror?
“It’s where the Vikings were defeated,” I was told simply by a chainmail Viking. “Things could have been different in Hastings if this battle had been earlier.”
Hoofing it Down South
Inside the hall, away from the festive noise outside, I met up with Chas Jones. “I walked down to Hastings in full regalia one year,” he told me, “but I didn’t wear 11th century shoes, I’d never have made it!”
I was talking to archaeologist and author of The Forgotten Battle of 1066: Fulford. Chas had quite literally retraced the steps of the English army from the Battle of Stamford Bridge down to the Battle of Hastings. “I didn’t take a tent or anything like that,” he said, as he was trying to get as close to authenticity as possible. “People did take me in, though, often landlords of pubs.” It clearly wasn’t too bad a journey. When Chas arrived on the south coast, 260 miles later, however, he was exhausted, just as King Harold’s men would have been. “I did it in the same length of time, under two weeks.”
Failure at Fulford
He pointed to a map of Fulford, “This is were we have found evidence of metal recycling at the battle site.”
Back in 1066, tensions were high in England. Edward the Confessor had died and three men claimed the English throne: Harold, Earl of Wessex, who succeeded Edward to the throne, the Norse King Harald Hardrada, and William Duke of Normandy. But only one could take the crown.
King Harold was positioned down south for the impending attack from Normandy. The Norse King Harald Hardrada struck however, in the north, bringing with him more than 300 ships of Vikings. It was left to the troops of Mercia and Northumbria to defend the area. The two sides fought across the river Ouse in Fulford, part of modern-day York. It wasn’t a pretty sight. The marsh-engulfed area was so littered in English bodies, according to the possibly exaggerated Norse account, that the Viking soldiers didn’t get their feet wet.
“You see this part here,” Chas said as he pointed to a map of Fulford, “this is where we have found evidence of metal recycling at the battle site. The Vikings reused everything they could after a battle.”
This is the spot Chas believes the Vikings reworked the metal from their defeated opponents, as well as their own battered armoury. He has spent years researching the Battle of Fulford and excavating the battle site. Axe heads, sword parts and melted iron have been found behind the battlefield, as well as a smelting pit. “The Vikings were very resourceful,” he added.
But he lamented, “They’re building on the site now. It’s been to court four times but it’s still going ahead.”
I walked to Fulford and was greeted with ‘No Entry’ signs on a building site for new houses. The access road, to be built on marshland, is expected to cut through the battlefield area. When I spoke to a local resident, she said that the area was reknowned for flooding. “Money always wins,” she sighed.
Haste to reach Hastings
Five days after the Battle of Fulford, King Harold surprised the Norse king, Harald Hardrada, with his appearance at Stamford Bridge. It was an onslaught. The Viking king was killed alongside the majority of his men. According to the Anglo-Saxon Chronicler, only 24 ships were needed to take the surviving Norsemen home.
King Harold’s army was now smaller than it had been and his men had to walk back down to Hastings. The northern troops were lying in a ditch in Fulford. Backup numbers were far lower than they could have been. The force that had been waiting the Norman invasion a month earlier was now not so large, nor as strong.
As I wandered through the reenactment field of the Battle of Stamford Bridge, I wanted to know where exactly it happened. “We don’t know for certain,” Brian, a member of the Battle of Stamford Bridge Society told me. “There haven’t been any archaeological findings from the battle. Yet.” The area now known as Battle Flats in the town is generally regarded as the spot, but even there, on this registered battle site, houses have sprung up.
Back in the hall, I was amazed at the dexterity of a group of women embroiders. The Battle of Stamford Bridge Tapestry Project is overseen by Shirley Smith, an ambitious project to recreate the scenes of the battle, just as the Bayeux tapestry did of Hastings. On site was secretary Heather Cawte, who told me, “It’s taken two years so far and we expect it to take another two.”
Around the room, boards were displayed and women were busy with needles and thread. “We all take it in turns to do a scene on one panel, we don’t want each panel to look completely the same,” one of the ladies told me. “We’re putting our personality into it, too.” There’s a severed arm spurting out blood and “even a hidden mobile phone”, which had me in stitches. I absolutely loved the idea of this, it carries on from the finished Fulford Tapestry, completed in 2012. “We’re hoping it will be housed in the new visitor centre at Stamford Bridge if the building goes ahead,” Heather added.
With only a plaque and a Viking ship flower display to commemorate the battle of Stamford Bridge in the village, it’s something that visitors have been up in arms about. “Absolute shame, we have all heard of the Battle of Stamford Bridge but the place itself does nothing much to boast it’s fame… I was expecting some sort of wow factor here but there was nothing, an incongruous monument and that’s it… can’t understand why this is like it is?? [sic]” complained one person on TripAdvisor. Hopefully funds will allow the centre to be built.
Vikings Pegged Out
As the day wound to a close, I was about to start walking to a wild camping spot a few miles away.
“You can camp out with the Vikings,” Chas said.
“No way! Seriously?” I asked.
“Yeah, they were all here last night and a few are staying tonight, too. They’re uncharacteristically friendly for Vikings!”
It’s not every day you get to hang out with bearded warriors brandishing swords and battle axes, let alone camp with them. Thankfully, these ones were far better behaved than those back in 1066. Even in the local pub.
The reenactment of Stamford Bridge is held every year on the Saturday closest to 25 September and is well worth a visit to learn about this historic day. The organisers and participants are exceptionally welcoming (and the ferocious Vikings are anything but when not wielding a Dane axe).
Jane Batchelor hiked 3,500 miles through Britain, looking at the history of the country in chronological order. For more photos, follow her Facebook and Instagram pages. To find out more about her journey, click here.
For more history posts from Jane’s journey, click below:
The Mysteries of Shetland’s Past
Tunnels, Tombs and Treasure in Orkney
Perilous St Kilda – Scotland’s Last Outpost
Forget Silver and Gold, Bronze Rocks in Kilmartin
Roman Britain – Ruins & Barbarian Resistance
Sexist Saints and Glass Bedes in Anglo-Saxon England