Stamford Bridge: the last Anglo-Saxon victory

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Neil Faulkner challenges existing conceptions of Anglo-Saxon warfare.

A romanticised depiction of the Battle of Stamford Bridge, 1066, painted by Norwegian artist Peter Nicolai Arbo (1831-1892).

The Battle of Hastings in 1066 was not only a seminal event in British history, it is also widely regarded as a turning point in military history: the moment when a ‘Dark Age’ way of war based on heavy infantry gave way to a ‘medieval’ way of war based on armoured cavalry.

In traditional British historiography, ‘the age of chivalry’ began when retinues of Norman knights shattered the Anglo-Saxon shieldwall on Senlac Hill. In our special this issue, we challenge this conception head-on. Earlier Anglo-Saxon conflicts reveal a different story, such as the campaign that culminated in the Battle of Stamford Bridge near York on 25 September 1066, when King Harold II, at the head of the main Anglo-Saxon field army, defeated what turned out to be the last Viking invasion of England.

As soon as the focus is shifted from Hastings, events take on a new aspect. Harold’s army managed two phenomenal forced marches – on each occasion averaging 17 miles a day for about two weeks – and fought two full-scale pitched battles against huge foreign armies of invasion, one Viking, one Norman.

At the end of this campaign, Hastings, fought on 14 October 1066 close to the south coast, was exceptionally close-run. The death of the Anglo-Saxon king seems to have been decisive. There is every reason to believe that, but for this accident, the Anglo-Saxon shieldwall might have held firm.

The argument here is that there was nothing ‘backward’ about the Anglo-Saxon way of war, with its emphasis on fighting on foot, in line, in defensive formation – what contemporary sources called a ‘shield-fort’. Indeed,
despite all the hype around feudal chivalry, there is no good reason for thinking heavy horse any more predominant in the medieval period than at any other.

Lack of good infantry was sometimes a problem. But medieval rulers wise enough to raise and deploy them – or simply to employ their noble men-at-arms on foot – invariably found them as capable of withstanding charges of heavy horse as their peers in other periods.

The Scots pikemen of Falkirk and Bannockburn, the Flemish club-men of Courtrai, the English archers and men-at arms of Crécy and Agincourt did not so much represent a return of infantry to battlefield predominance as a continuation of an unbroken infantry tradition obscured by feudal and romantic myth.

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