Sunday, January 18, 2009

A berserk bit of history: The Battle of Stamford Bridge

With my interest piqued by the recent news that HarperCollins will be publishing The Legend of Sigurd and Gudrun by J.R.R. Tolkien in May 2009, I've been doing a bit of reading about norse myths and history. My "extensive research" has included surfing the Web and flipping thorugh a couple sourcebooks on the subject. These include a copy of Time Life Books The Northmen, from a long-extinct "The Emergence of Man" series, and The Vikings, also by Time Life, which is part of a series called "The Seafarers."

I think I paid 50 cents each for these hardcovers at a library sale. At roughly 170 pages each neither is exactly a treasure-trove of information, but they do contain some great full-color pictures of viking artifacts as well as a good overview of viking culture, and also provide inspiration for further reading. From one of these books I started doing a bit more digging on an event called the Battle of Stamford Bridge, which essentially marked the end of the viking incursions into England.

Of all the details of the Battle of Stamford Bridge, I found this bit particularly fascinating and awe-inspiring (you can read it here at Wikipedia) :

The story goes that a giant Norwegian armed with an axe held up the entire Saxon army, and single-handedly cut down over 40 Saxon soldiers. He himself was only killed when one Saxon drifted under the bridge in a barrel and thrust his spear through the latches of the bridge, killing the Norseman.

Now, this account is very likely an exaggeration or a distortion of the truth. After all, the battle occurred in 1066, in the midst of the Dark Ages. Three weeks later William the Conqueror prevailed over the Saxons at the Battle of Hastings, starting an age of Norman rule which eradicated much of England's history. It's unclear (or at least, I'm unclear) of who provided the account of The Battle of Stamford Bridge, how it was recorded, and how this particular detail of the battle survived.

Nevertheless, I think it's safe to assume that such a story has some basis in fact. While it's highly debatable whether a viking actually cut down 40 Saxon soldiers single-handedly, or was finally killed by a spear-thrust from below, its likely that some lone berserk viking held the bridge long enough to make an impression on the Saxons and survive into recorded history.

What a sight that must have been!

Historic fiction writer supreme Bernard Cornwell is currently in the midst of a great series about the Danish invasions into England called The Saxon Stories; although his stories are set much earlier in the conflict (the 9th century/early 10th century period, chronicling the stories of historic personages such as Alfred the Great, Ivar the Boneless, and Guthrum the Unlucky), I'd like to see Cornwell eventually tackle this battle and bring to life the tale of this nameless viking warrior who briefly held back the advance of an army.

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