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A Single Viking's Berserker Rage Changed World History Forever

His combative stance was the final stand of the Viking Age—and allowed the Norman invasion its foothold.

1066 was a tough year for Harold Godwinson, also known as Harold II, the last Anglo-Saxon king of England. Less than two years into his reign, two separate forces were approaching the shores of England to end Harold's reign much sooner than expected. One of those attempts would be famously successful while the other would prove an unparalleled failure. But all Harold knew in September 1066 was that 300 Viking ships were on their way to England, and his good-for-nothing brother, Tostig, was floating along with them.

Harold was ready for an invasion, just not a Viking invasion from the North. He was actually was waiting for William the Bastard, who was supposedly going to cross the English Channel. When the English King learned about his brother landing in England, Harold took his waiting Army north to meet him. The incoming Viking Army was already wreaking havoc on York and Northumbria and was waiting for the area to send more hostages to their camp at Stamford Bridge. That's where Harold rode, arriving in fewer than four days.

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This move totally caught the Norwegians by surprise. The Vikings had no idea there was even an army in the area. When Harold II arrived, they were systematically cut down by the advancing Englishmen; any remaining Vikings attempted to flee across the bridge. When the time came for the Anglo-Saxons to pursue, the bridge became a choke point the English just couldn't cross—all because of one angry ax-wielding Viking who was cutting down Englishmen like it was his job.

battle of fulford
  • Viking forces at the Battle of Fulford, five days before the Battle of Stamford Bridge.

  • Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons

The Viking axeman held the English off for so long, the Vikings were able to form a shield wall on the other side of the river and prepare for whatever formation Harold was going to hurl at them. Contemporaneous sagas say the man killed 40 people before being taken down. It was only when an English pikeman floated underneath the bridge and skewered the Viking that the standoff ended. The English eventually did cross the bridge and demolish much of the remaining troops. Harold allowed the rest of them to live as long as they pledged to never come back, making Stamford Bridge the historical end of the Viking Age. Only 24 of the 300 ships that carried the Viking forces to England were needed to carry the survivors back.

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Despite the emphatic win, this was the beginning of the end for Harold II. Three days later, the much-anticipated Norman invasion of England finally arrived, and the delay of Harold's army at Stamford Bridge allowed the Normans to land. Three weeks after that, Harold was killed fighting at the Battle of Hastings. William the Bastard took over England and became William the Conqueror.

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The Norman conquest changed everything in England, from the cultural landscape to the way they talked—it even led to the formation of the British Empire, and later, the United States. Without that single Viking, Harold may have been properly prepared for William's forces, and the world today would be irrevocably different.

Published on 08 Jan 2020

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