Saturday 24 June 2023

The Norwegian Invasion


It is often claimed that Britain has not been invaded successfully since 1066. That claim is, of course, disputable: those successful invaders, by virtue of the fact that they were successful, could rewrite history sufficiently that their invasion does not, on the surface, appear to be one. Yes, I am looking at you, Henry VII, and Queen Isabella, among others.

Still, it also has to be admitted that England was invaded twice in 1066. The second invasion we know about, that being due to William the Conqueror, who attempted to re-write history such that he was the legitimate heir to Edward the Confessor, rather than Harold Godwinson, Harold II of England, who, in Bill’s narrative, was an usurper.

As most wargamers will know, however, there was another invasion in 1066 which made Harold’s job quite a lot more difficult. This was due to Haraldr Hardrada, King of Norway, and Harold Godwinson’s brother, Tostig. As you might be able to imagine, the route to this was a bit torturous, and I have just finished a book on the subject:

DeVries, K., The Norwegian Invasion of England in 1066, 1999, Boydell, Woodbridge.

Being from Boydell it is, of course, a heavy-duty academic monograph and, therefore, quite expensive. On the other hand, I did get it secondhand and therefore relatively cheap. It is part of Boydell’s Warfare in History series; the volumes of this I have read, including Gervase Phillips’ The Anglo-Scots Wars 1513-1550 are also good.

The book takes the reader through the history of Eleventh Century England and its relations, mostly with Scandinavia. After all, the country became part of Knut’s Empire in 1016 or thereabouts and thereafter was into a period of peace. This, incidentally, is the same Knut who overthrew Saint Olaf in Norway, which was the subject of a book I read a few weeks ago.

Anyway, DeVries outlines the early part of the history of England in the Eleventh Century, characterising it as an Anglo-Scandinavian state. He then gives a biography of Haraldr Hardrada, which reads like a medieval adventure story, full of daring-do, sudden reversals of fortune, and general mayhem causing, quite a lot of which was while Haraldr was employed in the Byzantine Empire. After a bit, and apparently falling from favour, he returned to Scandinavia, took over the rule of Norway and spent a lot of the rest of his reign at war with Denmark. If you are looking for an obscure period to wargame, with figures widely available, you could do worse than this period.

DeVries, having got Haraldr to the point of meeting Tostig and planning his invasion, then switches to the Godwin family. Harold and Tostig’s father is first given a biography. Exactly how he rose to power under Knut, Harold I, Harthknut and Edward the Confessor is a bit obscure, but he did. By the time of Edward, he was to King’s right-hand man. This was not without its wobbles, of course, including a period of exile, possibly as a result of the rise of Norman influence in the Confessor’s court.

DeVries then discusses the sons of Earl Godwin, excluding Harold and Tostig who get a chapter to themselves. Harold was not the oldest son, but he seems to have been a bit of a hoodlum even by the standards of the day and eventually died on pilgrimage. Harold seems to have been a successful warlord, in the mold of his father, and, together with Tostig fairly thoroughly duffed up the Welsh in 1063. This too would make an interesting campaign for someone, especially as the final effort by the English involved both a fleet and the army.

Harold and Tostig then fell out, because the northerners, of whom Tostig was the earl, rebelled and demanded that the King get rid of him. Harold acted as a go-between and agreed to Tostig’s exile, which upset and annoyed the latter. This dispute gets a chapter to itself.

Next along are two fairly short chapters, one on the Norwegian military and one on the English. They are compared and contrasted a bit, and the vexed question (in some circles, at least) as to whether the English used cavalry is discussed. I do not think that there is a dispute as to whether they rode to battle, the question is whether they fought from horseback. The case is unproven one way or the other, so far as I can tell. Some accounts of Stamford Bridge suggest the English attacked the shield wall mounted, some do not. Figure manufacturers might like to take note.

Still, the various efforts of Tostig to get support for invading England are discussed, followed by his raiding of the southern and eastern coasts in early 1066. These were occasionally successful, but not terribly, but caused his brother to call out the navy and fyrd to defend the counter. Tostig then repaired north and met Haraldr, either in Scotland or on Tyneside. They then raided Cleveland and Scarborough, where English resistance was greater than expected. They then sailed up the Humber and into the Ouse, defeated Harold’s brothers-in-law, Earls Edwin and Morcar at Fulford, south of York, and then settled down to enjoy the fruits of their victory.

Unfortunately, Harold was approaching at speed and surprised the Norwegians and the few English Tostig seems to have rallied at Stamford Bridge. Hardalr went down to an arrow in the throat. Tostig fought on until the invaders were scattered, and then the English had to tackle the Norwegian reinforcements who came up from their boats. After this, Harold, understandably, let the rest of the Norwegians go.

Harold, was we know, then had to hurry back south to deal with the second invasion of the year. Most people will know the result, of course. But there are a lot of what-ifs. Harold, after all, seems to have engaged at Hastings with half or less of his army. Was he over-confident having dealt with Hardrada and Tostig, or were his forces so denuded that it was all he could muster? Haraldr, after all, was an experienced commander and had made a mistake out of complacency. Harold might have done the same. If he had waited in October, what then?

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