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1066: Battle of Hastings & Stamford Bridge


Strategic map of the Battle of Stamford bridge

On January the 5th 1066, Edward the Confessor Anglo-Saxon king of England for the previous 24 years lay on his deathbed. Without a direct heir, Edward intrusted the realm to England’s most powerful nobleman, Earl Harold Godwinson. The new King was immediately challenged by two powerful neighbouring rulers, William Duke of Normandy and the King of Norway Harald Hardrada. Duke William claimed that he had been promised the throne by King Edward and that Harold had sworn agreement to this when last in Normandy. Harald Hardrada’s claim to the throne was based on an agreement between his predecessor Magnus the Good and the earlier English king, Harthacnut. Whereby if either died without an heir the other would inherit both England and Norway.

Both William and Harald began mustering armies in preparation for an invasion of England. Harold of England acutely aware of the danger to his new position, spent the summer of 1066 on the south coast with a large army awaiting the Norman armies invasion. However with the onset of Autumn the English king infamously allowed his fyrd to return home for the upcoming harvests; a move that may have ultimately led to his later defeat.

Harald Hardrada, the last Viking

Harald Hardrada was the last of the Viking Kings to invade England. Allegedly standing seven feet tall Hardrada was a terrifying figure who rose to prominence through his strength, bravery and willpower. His name Hardrada translates to hard-ruler, a title earned due to his ruthless actions. 


At the age of fifteen, the young Harald fought in the battle of Stiklestad against Cnut the Great. Though defeated here Harald is said to have fought well. This loss led Harald to a fifteen yearlong exile where he would go on to join the Varangian guard in Constantinople, rising to become a commander within its ranks. He is said to have seen action across much of the East at this time, amassing huge wealth and becoming embroiled in Imperial dynastic disputes. He left Constantinople in 1042 for Kievan Rus in preparation to claim the Norwegian throne. 


Hardrada took power from Magnus the Good in 1046 turning Norway into a powerful Kingdom. He spent much of his rule attempting to restore Cnut's North Sea Empire. 


Though he would never succeed, Hardrada was a formidable character and his destiny at Stamford bridge would mark the end of the great Viking age of invasions and conquests.

Brother against brother, Tostig Godwinson

Throughout this initial scramble for the throne Harold’s brother Earl Tostig, likely a dreadful man, exiled due to his own unpopularity, left for Flanders to acquire a fleet to challenge his brothers rule. Initially he made a landing on the Isle of Wight but was forced to retreat when Harold called out land and naval forces to oppose the landings. Earl Tostig sailed northwards to East-Anglia and Lincolnshire conducting raids across the area. However he was beaten back by the brothers Edwin Earl of Mercia, and Morcar Earl of Northumbria. 

A map showing the four Anglo-Saxon kingdoms of England
A map showing the original Anglo-Saxon kingdoms of England

Without ships or men Tostig fled first to Scotland then to Norway, where according to one Saga he convinced a very uninterested Harald Hardrada to invade England. Though we may never know the truth, this is certainly an interesting theory!  

Despite not being a likely contender for the throne, Tostig's actions may have deeply influenced the outcome of 1066. Had he not sailed to Norway perhaps the Saxon army would have been free to face William unhindered? 

Harold Godwinson, last Saxon king of England

Earl Harold Godwinson was the most powerful nobleman in England at the time of Edward's death. His father had been Earl of Wessex and Harold was brother-in-law to King Edward the Confessor. This proximity to the royal line led him to be crowned after the heirless Edward died in January 1066. There can be no doubt that Harold was an effective and well organised man; he successfully united the Anglo-Saxon nobility in support of him, drove back a Viking invasion and very nearly withstood a Norman one all in the space of a year. Had he not been killed at Hastings he may have gone on to become one of the great Saxon Kings. 


Regardless, Harold's legacy is enshrined in English myth. He will forever be the last Anglo-Saxon King of England and is etched in the collective memory of our nation. 

Harold Godwinson from the Bayeux tapestry

The Norwegian invasion

Hardrada's invasion fleet was ready to sail in September. According to the source, King Harald's saga, the Norwegian sailed with around 200 ships. He first stopped in the Viking occupied Orkney and Shetland islands to resupply before picking up 2000 troops from the Scottish King Malcolm III. This combined force may have numbered between 9000 and 11,000. Upon arriving in England they sailed up the river Ouse towards York, meeting the brothers, Edwain and Morcar at the battle of Fulford just outside the city. The Norse army would have fought in a similar fashion to the Saxon army, largely on foot with mostly close combat infantry, Shield-wall clashing with shield-wall. The wealthier soldiers could afford mail coats however it is likely that many fought without armour and simply a shield. The most terrifying weapon at their disposal was the famous Dane axe, a two handed weapon that could take off a horses head or split a shield in one blow.

Viking Army Breakdown
Bondi: The Bondi were the core of Norse society, these freemen, usually farmers, traders, fishermen etc, formed the main warrior element of the Viking army. The wealthiest may have worn chainmail whilst the majority would remain unarmoured or wear various forms of fabric-based protection. Armed with spear, shield, sword, hand axe or double handed Dane axe, these men were an effective fighting force, often forming the bulk of a shieldwall.  (Painted by Duncan Rhodes)
Jarl: Jarls were the Viking equivalent to Saxon earls, with both words sharing a common origin. These were the noblemen, and often leaders, of armies or warbands. They would have access to the best weapons and armour available to the army and would be highly trained for combat. These men would fight with a wide range of weapons, perhaps most famously the infamous Dane axe, a two-handed weapon widely used by Viking warriors.   
Huscarls: These were the warrior elite of the Viking army. They were often part of the personal retinue of Viking nobles/jarls. These were the professional soldiers of the Viking army and would often be spread across a shield wall to ensure discipline and stability was maintained throughout the ranks. These men were equipped in mail coats, helmets and round shields. They used a mix of weapons including spears, javelins, swords, hand axes and the dreaded double handed Dane axe.  
Bondi archers: Much like their close-combat counterparts, these men would form the bulk of Viking skirmishers. Like the Normans, they would use a self-bow. These troops were useful for weakening enemy formations from range or combating enemy skirmishers. They would generally be unarmoured, but some would carry a shield and wear a helmet, fulfilling a hand-to-hand combat role as well as skirmishing.  (Painted by Jake Stevens)
Viking standards were hugely important to the army, they would fly at the heart of a shieldwall or be used to lead an attack. - Painted by Noodle Wargames
A Viking shieldwall prepares for combat

The Battle of Fulford

Edwin and Morcar's Saxon army numbering around 5000 was severely outnumbered. They had to spread their lines thin to secure the armies flanks. This meant the army was wedged between the river Ouse and a Swampy area called the Fordland, meaning if one flank crumbled the other would be unable to retreat due to the difficult terrain. The army itself was predominantly composed of infantry, a mix of fyrd militia and professional Housecarls; the typical arrangement of a Saxon army.

Strategic map of the Battle of Fulford
Strategic map of the Battle of Fulford

Harald's much larger army approached from three routes to the south. Its size meant progress was slow and segments of the army would take hours to trickle in. Knowing this the English Earls decided it would be best to attack early before the Viking army could completely muster. The Saxons advanced securing good early progress against the weaker flank of the Norwegian army, however this momentum could not be sustained. With the arrival of fresh Viking troops the situation became dire for the English. 


Harald struck at the centre of the English line with fresh troops, eventually succeeding in splitting the army; at this moment it became a slaughter. The Saxon army was utterly crushed with a few survivors making it back to York. The Earls Edwin and Morcar both managed to escape and the city of York would surrender shortly after to the victorious Viking army.

Saxon Army Breakdown
Fyrd: The fyrd where the Saxon militia, freemen who would be called to fight if necessary. They were expected to provide their own equipment, this would usually include a helmet, shield, spear or any other type of weapon they could find. Select Fyrd were better armoured, usually wearing mail, a helmet and potentially carrying secondary weapons alongside their spears. These were the steady more reliable element of the army, often forming the backbone of a shield wall.  (Painted by Jon Barrett)
Housecarls/Thengs. These were the Saxon warrior elite, usually they would form part of a nobleman’s personal retinue, these men were the best professional soldiers within Saxon society. They were dressed in chainmail, round or kite shaped shield and a helmet. They used either spears, swords or the twohanded Dane axe, a weapon capable of splitting a man in two! They formed the front rank of the Saxon army at Hastings and would have surrounded King Harold and his nobles.   
Archers: The Saxons often used archers; they were generally unarmoured and would be used to counter enemy skirmishers or to weaken the opposing shield-wall. They would use the self-bow and likely carry knives or hand axes for scenarios where close-combat became inevitable.  
Slingers: The Saxons also used slingers. Generally made up of youths from the poorer classes. A sling could be an effective weapon against a man in armour, relying on blunt trauma to damage the enemy, these made them very useful on the battlefield. A good slinger could effectively out range an archer meaning these troops were highly effective against other skirmishers. Secondary weapons would include knives or hand axes.  
Anglo-Saxon soldiers prepare to defend a village - Painted by Noodle Wargames

The Battle of Stamford Bridge

Hearing of the Viking landing near York, Harold forced marched his army northwards at breakneck speed, covering a distance of over 185 miles in four days. (There is debate as to whether he mounted his best infantry so they could cover the great distance in as short a time as possible) Completely unaware of this danger the Viking army split leaving a third with their boats and the rest travelled to Stamford bridge, leaving behind their armour due to the late summer heat. The sudden appearance of the new Saxon army spread fear throughout the unprepared Viking ranks, however Hardrada being a grizzled veteran of many wars encouraged his men and prepared them for battle.  

Strategic map of the Battle of Stamford bridge
Strategic map of the Battle of Stamford bridge

According to Viking chronicler Snorri Sturluson, prior to the battle a lone Saxon rode up to Harald Hardrada and Tostig offering the return of Tostig’s earldom if he would turn against Hardrada. When asked what Harald would receive in this deal?the rider replied "Seven feet of English ground as he is taller than other men”. Impressed by the individual’s boldness Hardrada asked who this man was? to which Tostig revealed it was Harold King of England.

A single bridge delayed the Saxon advance allowing Hardrada to form his men in a defensive position. A single Viking blocked the bridge wielding his Dane axe challenging any Saxon to cross. The story goes that he slew 40 English before finally being stabbed from under the bridge by a Saxon warrior who decided subterfuge was the best option.


Harold’s army then poured across the bridge and harassed the Viking shield wall using skirmishing archers, slingers and javelin men whilst the English prepared their battlelines. Eventually both sides clashed and battle raged for hours but the Vikings started to crumble due to having left their armour at the ships. According to chroniclers the Norwegian King was in the thickest fighting and slew many Saxons, however as his shield wall began to disintegrate Harald Hardrada was struck through the windpipe by an arrow. With the death of their King and Tostig the Viking army was routed and with not many returning to Scandinavia to tell the tale. Harold had successfully secured the North; however a greater threat would emerge in the South. 

William, the Bastard of Normandy

Described as “the most terrifyingly able man in France”, William I was a force of nature. As brutal as he was cunning, William went from Duke of a small unstable territory, to King of England. 

The son of unmarried Duke Robert I and his mistress Herleva, William's early years as Duke were spent in constant danger of being usurped. At the age of 19 he was victorious at the Battle of Val-ès-Dunes, alongside the French King Henry I, marking a turning point in his rule as he managed to consolidate power across the duchy.

He then succeeded in turning Normandy into the most powerful Duchy within France, falling out with the French King who attempted two invasions, failing both times. William's true martial prowess and ambition can be seen in his successful invasion of England. He succeeded in eradicating the nobility of an entire Kingdom, replacing them with Norman nobles, paving the way for the formation of medieval England. 

Castle-building, the Domesday books and a military revolution within England can all be attributed to William, who earned the epitaph, the Conqueror. 

William's cruelty can be seen through his actions during the Harrying of the North; it is thought that perhaps up to 75% of Northumbria's population disappeared due to starvation and death. 

There can be no doubt William was an impressive yet terrifying man.

William as depicted in the Bayeux Tapestry during the Battle of Hastings, lifting his helmet to show that he is still alive
William as depicted in the Bayeux Tapestry during the Battle of Hastings, lifting his helmet to show that he is still alive

The Norman Invasion


William had assembled a vast army with troops from across the entirety of France and he had particularly large contingents of Breton and Flemish soldiers. The Duke's army mustered at Saint-Valery-sur-Somme and with his banner blessed by the Pope giving him divine right by the 12th of August was ready to cross the Channel. Contemporary sources have vastly inflated the size of Williams army, some suggesting he had as many as 150,000 men. In reality the exact numbers and composition of William's army are unknown, a logical estimate seems to be between 10,000 and 12,000 men. This force would have been composed of cavalry, infantry and archers/crossbowmen and camp followers.

Norman Army Breakdown
Norman Infantry: The armoured infantry of the Norman army would comprise of the wealthiest individuals of the army, these could be dismounted knights or fortunate sergeants. They would be equipped in a similar fashion to their mounted counterparts, wearing chainmail, helmet and shield.  spears would have been the most popular weapon within their ranks. Secondary weapons would include swords, axes, maces or clubs. These soldiers would form the powerful core of William’s foot troops, usually being sent where the fighting was thickest. (Painted by Jon Barrett)
Norman Crossbowmen: The Normans frequently used crossbowmen however had very few at Hastings. Crossbow technology was yet to be completely refined, at the time of Hastings the weapon had to be spanned by hand, meaning they packed less of a punch than the later variants of the weapon. Nonetheless, these were still deadly weapons that were easy to fire and highly accurate. The men using them would wear either mail or fabric depending on what they could afford. They would also be armed with knives, axes, clubs or swords, meaning they could be effective in close combat if necessary. 
Norman cavalry: Armoured Norman cavalry was equipped with a coat of mail, helmet and kite shield, this level of protection would make them a difficult foe to take down, especially for those on foot. They would use a spear, fighting with it either couched underarm, or in an overarm thrust; the underarm lance was still not universal by 1066. A Norman knight would carry a secondary weapon, this would usually be a sword, mace or axe, used for when their spear became obsolete after their first charge. The Norman army drew extensively from other regions in France, the Bretons were one such group, their cavalry often fight armed with javelins, hurling them at the enemy before charging into enemy lines.   
Norman Unarmoured Cavalry: The Norman army frequently used unarmoured cavalry. These were typically less wealthy than their armoured counterparts. Though they wouldn’t wear a coat of mail these men would still be protected by a shield and helmet. They would be armed in a similar fashion to the armoured cavalry, using spears, swords, clubs or axes. They would also fulfil a roll as skirmisher cavalry, javelins would be a favoured weapon amongst this lighter cavalry, the Bretons were particularly proficient at this style of combat and held a significant role within William’s army, these more nimble horsemen were handy raiders, being able to conduct lightning strikes on unsuspecting villages.    
Unarmoured Norman infantry: These were made up of the less wealthy members of society. They could not afford mail but would often wear hardened leather or fabric, still an effective form of protection. Again, most would fight with a spear, shield and helmet. Those not armed with spears would carry swords, axes or clubs. These troops formed the bulk of a Norman army, though less heavily equipped they were still an effective fighting force. 
Norman Archers: The Normans had a good size contingent of archers at Hastings (as Harold may have found out!) Mostly unarmoured these skirmishers carried a self-bow, a weapon made from a single piece of wood. These bows had a longer effective range than crossbows, however required far more skill to use effectively.  

Although the army and fleet was ready by early August, unfavourable winds kept the Norman army at bay until late September. Some historians have also suggested that intelligence reports revealing Harold's army deployed on the southern coast may have influenced the decision to delay the landing as William preferred an unopposed landing.

A Norman warband such as those that terrorised southern England
A Norman warband moving across southern England

The Battle of Hastings

The prelude

William landed on the 28th of September at Pevensey and built wooden fortifications at Hastings. From this base the Norman army raided the local area, hoping to entice the Saxons into attacking. The plan worked. Harold rushed south leaving parts of his army in the north. Had he delayed, the Saxon army would have been in better shape and greater numbers for the battle to come. 


The speed at which Harold decided to mobilise was an attempt to catch the Normans by surprise. A plan that failed due to William's scouts successfully spotting the army. Sources generally agree that William decided to gather his forces and march out to meet the Saxon army, hoping a decisive victory could be achieved. Harold had taken up a defensive position upon Senlac hill and waited for William's army.


There is no reliable data for the size or composition of the Saxon army. It is generally accepted that the likely number would be between 6000 and 8000 men. The army would have been a mix of fyrd, a militia mainly containing foot soldiers, and the housecarls, the professional soldiers and hearth-guard of noblemen. The fyrd would usually wear little armour, a shield and perhaps a helmet if lucky, whilst housecarls would have a mail coat, helmet, shield and either spear or the dreaded Dane Axe. The English army had some archers and slingers but mainly spear armed infantry and Housecarls and formed a dense defensive shield-wall on the high-ground.

Strategic map of the Battle of Hastings
The Normans were famed for their use of mounted knights in battle. (Painted by Jon Barrett)
Battle commences

The battle began at 9 am on the 14th of October and lasted the entire day, an extraordinary length of time for a battle to last. The Normans began by sending archers to unleash volleys of arrows on the Saxon shield wall, these had little effect against the tightly overlapping Saxon shields. William then sent forward his infantry. The Norman army had been divided into three contingents, Bretons on the left flank, Normans in the centre and a mix of French and Flemish troops on the right. After a bloody first attack, the Norman army had failed to make breaches in the shield wall, support from the cavalry was also fruitless; this led the Breton left flank to begin a route that spread across the army, chaos ensued. A rumour spread that William had been killed in combat spreading further panic and a pursuit by the Saxon troops placed the entire army in jeopardy. It was at this moment that William rode forward with his face exposed, rallying his men and leading a counter-attack against pursuing English. This proved decisive, the pursuers were surrounded and butchered and the Norman army regained its composure. 


There is debate as to whether the Breton flight was actually a deliberate withdrawal or feigned flight as this was a traditional hit and run tactic used by the javelin armed Breton cavalry. Deliberate tactic or not! William continued to use feigned flight tactics throughout the day, weakening the Saxon line little by little, drawing out rash Saxons in pursuit. It is assumed that Harold specifically ordered his men to hold their positions as breaches in the shield wall would be catastrophic, these orders were foolishly ignored.


Norman Knights charge - Painted by Samir Majstoric
Norman Knights charge - Painted by Samir Majstoric 
The death of a King

Throughout the day the battle remained a stalemate with high casualties on both sides. The decisive moment of the battle came late in the day with the death of the English King. The cause of Harold's death is a source of much speculation. The Bayeux tapestry has two potential depictions of the death of Harold; one showing a Saxon with an arrow in his eye and a second showing a Saxon being cut down by horsemen. It is also possible that both depictions are accurate and that he was cut apart after being hit by an arrow. William is said to have sent a death squad to take out Harold on the battlefield. When he was killed they cut off his genitals and head, before  hacking him to pieces. Allegedly Harold's lover, Edith Swanneck, is said to have only been able to recognise his corpse by secret marks on his body only known to her.


With the death of Harold the Saxon army was leaderless and began to disintegrate, only the soldiers of the royal household gathered around Harold's body and fought to the end. The final stand of the Saxons marked the end of the battle, William had emerged victorious and would go on to complete his conquest of England.

Norman Knights charge - Painted by Samir Majstoric
Norman Infantry - Painted by Samir Majstoric 
English housecarls atop of Senlac hill

Over the following years, the Saxon nobility would go on to be almost entirely replaced. Much of the Saxon nobility would flee England  and go on to join the Varangian guard in the court of Constantinople. Those Saxons that stayed and attempted to challenge William would face dire consequences, the harrying of the North would be the most brutal example of William's ruthlessness, a systematic devastation of Northern England. Life in England would remain fundamentally changed.

The Factions

The Anglo-Saxons

The Anglo-Saxons had occupied England from the late 400s following Roman withdrawal from the island. Over this period a distinct English culture emerged that still has influence on the isles today. Originally England was divided into four main Kingdoms, Northumbria, Mercia, East Anglia and Wessex. These Kingdoms were unified by Athelstan in 927 AD, creating one of the wealthiest and most powerful Kingdoms in Northern Europe. This period of prosperity lasted until 1016 AD when Cnut took the English throne and established the North Sea Empire. From this moment instability plagued the politics of Anglo-Saxon England. Eventually the ruling class of the nation would be replaced following the Norman conquest of England.

The Normans

The Normans could trace their origins to Rollo, Count of Rouen, a Viking who, in 911 AD was granted the territory of modern day Normandy, in exchange for a pledge of allegiance to the king of France. The Norman people were therefore a product of the intermingling of Norse settlers and Frankish locals, they were essentially French Vikings. These people had a major political, cultural and military impact on medieval Europe; going on to establish colonies across the continent, from the Holy lands, to Sicily, to England. The Normans left their cultural mark across the medieval world, they were fearsome conquerors and ruthless rulers and perhaps had the most significant  influence on Northern Europe since the Romans.

The Vikings

Viking was a name given to the collective seafaring people of Scandinavia. From the 8th century these people raided and traded across Europe. This period is known as the Viking age and only ended in 1066 with the defeat of Harald Hardrada at Stamford bridge drawing a close to the great Viking invasions of England. Minor raids continued well into the late 11th and early 12th Century. These people were feared and traded with across Europe. Originally Pagan they began to Christianise around the 900’s. Often their raids turned into full scale invasions. In 1016 AD Cnut the Great succeeded in uniting the Kingdoms of Denmark, Norway and England, creating the North Sea Empire and creating as new Anglo Danish-aristocracy. This would have a direct influence on the later Norman invasion. 

8 Responses

Ash Colmer

Ash Colmer

October 21, 2023

Outstanding article firmly targeting the wargamer. Thank you!

Richard Slee

Richard Slee

October 20, 2023

As usual, top quality from Victrix Miniatures.



October 20, 2023

Great article very inspiring.I myself have many Victrix figures from this era.



October 20, 2023

Great article very inspiring.I myself have many Victrix figures from this era.

Fabrice Martié

Fabrice Martié

October 20, 2023

Very nice photos and thumbnails, really informative article. A small downside, Burgundy is really poorly placed on your map, in 1066 historical Burgundy is a stronghold of the kingdom of France, the kingdom of the two Burgundies (very to the South since its capital was Arles) was no longer independent in 1033. In short I in the eleventh century the Duchy of Burgundy was in Burgundy, not in Belgium…



October 20, 2023

I thoroughly enjoyed reading this article. It inspired me to order some victrix boxes.

Please do more of similar articles!

Callum purchase

Callum purchase

October 20, 2023

Hi, my family name comes from the Norman invasion (purchase) also known as purkis or purchierre, it has meant to of derived from a Norman noble whose name was peraghoz meaning bear goth, do you guys know of any info related to this man ? He was given lands in Kent for his acts in battle ? Thanks

Marco Severino

Marco Severino

October 20, 2023

Great article and great miniatures!

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