IT’S early morning and the sun is rising behind the North York Moors. I’m standing on a frosty platform at Northallerton station, waiting for a train to York. Fields are deep in water from the recent floods, but the sky is clear and cold, the sun is a ball of fire, and all the indications point towards a memorable January day – perfect for stepping back in time and following in the footsteps of the Vikings . . .
Half an hour later I’m in the Bike Shed cafe, in Micklegate, just inside York’s mediaeval walls. Time for a coffee before striding out. The plan is to walk down the River Ouse to Fulford, cut across the countryside on a footpath called the Minster Way, join the River Derwent at Kexby, and wander upstream to Stamford Bridge.
York and Stamford Bridge played pivotal roles in the events of 1066. The Battle of Stamford Bridge – fought between the invading forces of Harald Hardrada, king of Norway, and the Anglo-Saxons under Harold Godwinson, king of England – was so bloody and decisive it is credited with bringing the Viking era to an end. Viking raids from Denmark and Norway did continue for several years, but on a far smaller scale. The wind had been knocked from their sails.
So, coffee finished, I’m off to wander through history and visit the places where these events were enacted – put my feet in the boots of the Vikings, if you like. It beats sitting at home talking to the chickens. And despite the pavements being icy, York looks like a fine city to walk through. (Click pictures for high-res images)
First, a bit of background. York was established in the 1st Century by the Romans, who called it Eboracum. But its real rise to prominence came centuries later in 866 when Ivar the Boneless and his rampaging Danish army (the “Great Heathen Army”, according to the Anglo-Saxon Chronicles) took over the city and it became known as Jorvik. And as Jorvik it was the focal point of the Danelaw, that vast swathe of northern England that remained under Viking influence until well into the 10th Century.
By 1066, ex-Viking York was a peaceful Anglo-Saxon city, though with a rich Scandinavian heritage. The fine city walls and castle we see today had yet to be built, but it was a powerful centre of commerce and trade. Anyway, it’s time to make a move.
I slide down Micklegate to the River Ouse and cross a bridge to the eastern quays. Two blokes in fluorescent jackets are cleaning the riverside road with a high-powered hose, blasting away slippery silt deposited by the floods. The Ouse bursts its banks here on a regular basis. A drop of rain in the Pennines and pictures of a flooded York city centre appear in almost every newspaper. Well, they appear in The Northern Echo anyway.
I try to imagine times when longships glided up the river with their stripy sails billowing and oars slicing the water. But it’s not easy with cyclists swerving around you and dog-walkers striding past without so much as a friendly nod. Funny thing that. No one seems prepared to say hello or good-morning in York. Perhaps I shouldn’t have worn the hat with the horns. And I knew the bearskin shirt was a mistake before I set out.
Here’s a bit more background to set the scene. Everyone’s heard of 1066 and all that. Everyone knows a hugely important battle took place that changed European history for ever and landed us with a foreign aristocracy. But not everyone appreciates that if this first northern battle on the outskirts of York hadn’t occurred less than three weeks earlier, then Hastings might well have ended in an Anglo-Saxon victory.
So 1066. This is history unfolding. English king Edward the Confessor dies on January 5. Being celibate, he has no natural heir so there is an unseemly scramble to seize the throne. The nearest to it, geographically though not necessarily legitimately, is Harold Godwinson, earl of Wessex. A little more distant, though with perhaps more credentials, is William of Normandy – or William the Bastard, as the Anglo-Saxon Chronicles refer to him.
Harold seizes the throne, because he can. William gets angry, because that’s in his nature – and he reckons Edward the Confessor chose him as his legitimate heir. Harold is crowned and consolidates his kingdom. William builds a fleet to invade England. But there are two wild crows tossed into this gathering storm.
The first is Harold’s brother, Tostig, who was until recently the earl of Northumbria. But he threw a wobbler and rampaged around the countryside with a private army, only to be driven into Scotland. Tostig rather fancies the throne for himself. After Harold is crowned, Tostig harries the coast of Kent with a fleet of warships. But he’s no match for Harold and he flees back to Scotland.
The second crow – perhaps more of a raven – is darker and more malevolent. Standing 7ft tall, Harald Hardrada, king of Norway and seasoned warrior whose campaigns have ranged from Denmark to Constantinople, believes he has an indisputable right to the throne through his blood links to the households of Denmark and Anglo-Saxon England.
He too assembles a fleet – numbering at least 300 longships carrying about 15,000 Vikings. And he sets sail before William of Normandy can run a flag up his mast because he has the advantage of the weather. Off they go. Norwegian arms are driving this iron-studded dragon down the storm-tossed river like an eagle with wings flapping.
It’s the back-end of summer, 1066, when Harald Hardrada sails into the River Tyne where he teams up with Tostig and his men and ships. Together they sail down the coast, ransack Scarborough – which is no bad thing, if you ask me – enter the Humber estuary and row up the Ouse towards York. They moor their longships at Riccall, a few miles to the south of the city, get tooled up and march towards the walls. And this is where events become frenzied.
And me, I’m slipping and sliding along the riverbank towards Fulford, which was a village in its own right in 1066 but is now a suburb of York. Where the paths aren’t covered in silt they are slippery with frost. Otherwise, it’s a perfect morning for a walk. I’m seeing parts of the North I didn’t know existed, corners and crannies of an ancient city. There are no steep climbs or windy summits here, but there is certainly a deep sense of history. And that’s pulling me forwards.
Soon I’ll be leaving the banks of the Ouse – which is the colour of milky coffee and is bearing no small amount of flood debris towards the Humber estuary – and heading through Fulford to join the Minster Way.
Now I didn’t know this before I set out, but the Minster Way is a long-distance footpath that links the minsters of Beverley and York. It merges with the Yorkshire Wolds Way in places, which I walked about 12 years ago, and joins a tin-full of other routes I’ve never heard of such as the Chalkland Way, East Riding Heritage Way, Jorvik Way, Trans Pennine Trail and Wilberforce Way. So there’s plenty of walking around here. Hope it gets a bit drier underfoot, though.
On the outskirts of Fulford I leave the River Ouse and plough through boglands towards the village. Fulford is a pleasant settlement of red-brick houses and tidy gardens these days. But on September 20, 1066, it was not the most pleasant place to be. Believe me. Back to where we left off . . .
The northern English get wind of the invasion. The earls Edwin of Mercia and Morcar of Northumbria assemble an army of 5,000 men in York and march towards Riccall to challenge the Vikings. The two armies meet at Fulford and fight a bloody battle. Heavily outnumbering the locals, the Vikings are victorious. But they suffer about 900 casualties, compared with the 750 lost by the Anglo-Saxons.
The Vikings enter York and celebrate their achievement. Now they can consolidate their power across the North by gathering hostages from prominent families before turning their attention to the Saxon king Harold away to the south. But he can wait, for now.
And that was the Battle of Fulford, a bloody conflict with a name that has survived nearly a thousand years. I walk past a rather large cemetery, the occupants of which date from a much later period, rejoin the Minster Way and cross a footbridge over the A64 ring-road. Beyond the ring-road, with its noisy and intrusive traffic, I am at last in peaceful countryside.
It’s wet underfoot, mind. There are still a few flooded fields and the ditches and becks are the same milky-coffee colour as the River Ouse, but the sun is shining and the sky is a crystal clear blue. The Minster Way is easy to follow, and I’ve two sausage rolls and a ham and cheese sandwich – purchased on York station (doing my bit for the local economy) – in the rucksack. What could go wrong?
Nothing much, except I’ve underestimated my route by about four miles and I’ve not brought a drink. Oh, and I fall flat on my back on a particularly muddy section of path and stagger back to my feet with my backside and hands caked in the stuff. Other than that, my worries are insignificant compared with what is about to befall certain historical figures. But that’s what happens when you underestimate a challenge.
Because down in London, awaiting tidings of William’s fleet approaching from Normandy, Harold hears about the fall of York and takes an instant decision. He gathers his warrior band about him, raises his army, and embarks upon one of the most epic, heroic, and super-human journeys in military history.
Travelling day and night, his army of about 12,000 men takes four days to cover the 185 miles (298km) to the outskirts of York. And that’s without freeze-dried food and lightweight gear. No evenings relaxing with a pint of Sam Smith’s bitter in a wayside pub and certainly no bar meals. Fancy a go?
Harold arrives in Tadcaster, just south of York, on the night of September 24. The Vikings have absolutely no idea he is anywhere in the vicinity. So far as they are concerned, he’s still in London waiting for the Normans to cross the Channel. Big mistake that. But not quite the biggest.
The following morning the weather is extremely hot and sunny for late September. The Vikings march to Stamford Bridge, where they have arranged to gather hostages from local gentry. They leave a third of their force to guard the longships at Riccall. And because it’s a hot day, they also leave their heavy armour behind, carrying only their weapons and shields.
Meanwhile, Harold’s army reaches York with the crowing of the cocks. He has gathered more men on the route north and his army now numbers in the region of 15,000. His warriors are heavily armed, ready to fight, and many are on horseback. The Anglo-Saxons surge down the Roman road to Stamford Bridge – now the A166. Absolute hell is about to break loose.
Funny stuff is history. You can read one account of a battle, and then another account, and both can differ considerably. Even the unfortunate participants, every single one would have a different experience, different recollections, different interpretations of what actually happened in the chaos and bloodshed. This is what I’m thinking as I reach Kexby and the River Derwent. I’m also thinking that I’ve miscalculated distances because the sun’s starting to go down and I’ve a few miles left to walk.
From Kexby I follow the River Derwent north towards Stamford Bridge. The walking’s good here. Actually, it’s been good all day except for the occasional mud bath. In dry weather it would be a delight. But hey, we’re in England and it’s January. What the heck. Respect mud.
SO, the Battle of Stamford Bridge. There are so many different opinions as to what actually happened, that I’m just going to relate the bare bones. The Anglo-Saxons ride out of the west and fall on the Vikings, who are taken completely by surprise.
One of the niceties that has filtered down over the centuries is that Harold attempts peace negotiations with his brother, Tostig, before the battle commences, offering him reconciliation if he switches sides. Tostig asks what his friend, Harald Hardrada, can expect for his troubles. Harold’s riposte is pure Hollywood bravado, exactly the sort of thing John Wayne would have said: “Six feet of ground or as much as he needs, as he is taller than other men.”
The battle commences and the Vikings are beaten back across the narrow wooden bridge that spans the Derwent. According to some accounts, and certainly popular legend, the bridge is held by a single Norwegian beserkr with a big axe, who gives the Vikings breathing space to regroup on the eastern bank.
This is where the word berserk originates – as in going berserk. A berserkr was a Norse warrior who, to put it mildly, went completely off his head in battle. The word means bear-shirt, because the original berserkir wore shirts made from bearskin and they chewed the rims of their shields – I expect rather aggressively – before going into battle. That would worry me if I was on the opposing side.
So this giant of a berserkr is going berserk on the bridge, chopping the arms, legs and heads off anyone who tries to get past him. He is unassailable. Until an Anglo-Saxon spearman paddles a little boat under the bridge, and thrusts his spear up between the planks to skewer the berserkr from below.
There are many painful and undignified ways for a man to die, but that must surely be one of the worst. And there’s me worrying about mud on my backside.
I’m getting within arrowshot of Stamford Bridge. I can see the graceful stone arch in the distance on a bend in the river beyond an old railway viaduct. The sun has gone down and the moon is rising. The moon is actually hovering over the bridge itself.
Now if I’d been tramping up here on the day of the battle, I would at this point have been overtaken by several thousand frenzied Vikings rushing to the aid of their comrades. Back to 1066 . . .
The Vikings left behind on the Ouse at Riccall to guard the ships – about a third of the invading force – get news of their countrymen’s plight. They clad themselves in heavy mail shirts, pick up their weapons . . . and run. Several thousand heavily-armed men run the best part of 13 miles (20km) on one of the hottest days of the year. They arrive at the battlefield exhausted (in fact, I read somewhere that several died of exhaustion) and lay into the Anglo-Saxons.
And although the reinforcements very nearly turn the tide of battle, their efforts are in vain. Harald Hardrada is dead – shot through the throat with an arrow. Dangerous things those arrows. Tostig is dead. An estimated 6,000 invaders lie slaughtered on the field. The Anglo-Saxon losses are estimated to be 5,000. So many corpses are piled on the field that Battle Flat, as it becomes known, is still white with bleached bones fifty years later.
I leave the mud of the riverside path and clamber onto the bridge. This isn’t the bridge on which the berserkr died, of course, it’s a stone replacement – but still very narrow and probably quite ancient in itself. Today the traffic is controlled by lights, and pedestrians have their own metal walkway off to the side.
I had intended to walk through the town to Battle Flat, where there stands a memorial to the fallen. But the gloom is gathering and conditions are too poor for photography. I’ve also got a train to catch back in Jorvik. So I take a couple of shots of an aesthetically pleasing longship the locals have constructed at the side of the bridge, buy a bottle of pop and wait for a bus.
Here’s something to think about. I’ve walked about 13 or 14 miles today. It’s the first walk I’ve done for a while and I’m feeling pretty stiff. Those Vikings ran the same distance in hot weather wearing heavy armour and then fought a battle. And Harold and his men – four days from London to York with hardly any sleep and then fighting a battle at the end of it. Puts things into perspective.
And think about this as well. I’m going home to a hot bath and a roast dinner. Poor old Harold, he’s just heard that William’s landed at Hastings. He’s got to do the whole thing again, only in reverse.
It’s 1066 and all that. I’ll raise a glass to Harold tonight. God speed old mate. And keep an eye open for those arrows.