The Battle of Stamford Bridge
MEANWHILE Harold was ruling England quietly and well. The people loved him, and were glad they had chosen such a brave and generous man to rule over them. Harold was kind to every one, but he was specially kind to Edgar Ætheling. He knew that it would have been a very bad thing for England had the people chosen an ignorant little boy as king. Yet he felt sorry for Edgar, and tried to make him grow into a brave and honest English boy.
Harold kept the good laws which had been made before the time of Edward, and altered the unjust ones. He was always thinking of the happiness of his people and the good of his country. Often and often he looked anxiously across the blue sea to the shores of France, watching for the white sails of Duke William's ships.
Months passed, and still they did not appear. But Harold knew that one day they would come although William sent no more messages. Harold's friends crossed the sea to find out what the great duke was doing. They brought back news of the mighty army which was gathering on the shores of the river Dive. So Harold watched and waited, and he too gathered together men and horses, swords and armour.
Often King Harold sighed to see that there were no strong castles and fortresses to guard the shores of his dear land. For Edward, instead of building ships and castles to keep the country safe from enemies, had spent his people's money in building great churches, and in buying the bones of holy men who had lived and died long, long ago. These bones, he foolishly thought, would keep wicked men away from his shores.
One day while Harold watched and waited for the coming of William, a messenger all breathless arrived from the north. He was covered with dust and worn and tired with long travelling. He burst into the room, where the King sat, and threw himself on his knees. "My lord and King," he cried, "Tostig, thy brother, and Harold Hardrada, King of Norway, have landed in the north with a mighty army of heathen folk. They have defeated Earl Morcar. They have taken York. They slay and burn without mercy. Through fear, many of thy subjects have joined the banner of Tostig. Now they are making ready to march south to take London, and Harold Hardrada of Norway will be master of all England."
Then the messenger was silent, fainting for weariness and lack of food.
This news made Harold very sorry. Tostig was his brother, and he did not wish to fight against his own brother, but for the sake of England he knew he must. For Harold loved England better than all the world. It is said that, after he was dead, people found the word "England" printed on his breast just over his heart, but whether that is true or not, this is true, that Harold held England in his heart and in his thoughts, and always tried to do what was best for his country.
So now Harold gathered all his own soldiers or huscarles as they were called, and set out for Yorkshire to meet the enemy.
At this time England had not a great army, as it has now, ready at all times for battle. The king only kept a few soldiers always near him. They were called his "huscarles" or his "body guard," as their duty was to guard his house when he was at home and his person wherever he went.
The rest of the soldiers were the servants of the great nobles and rich merchants. Whenever the king had need of them, he used to call them together, and when the fighting was over they went back again to their own homes, and to their own masters.
Harold had called these men together to be ready for William, but as months passed and the dreadful duke did not come, they grew tired of waiting and went home. For by this time it was autumn, the fields were yellow with the ripe grain, and the orchards were laden with fruit, so the men who had come to fight went home again to gather the fruit and cut the corn before the winter set in.
But hardly had they gone, when the messenger came with the terrible news from Yorkshire.
Harold did not stop to gather his army together again, but set out as quickly as he could with the few soldiers he had.
As he rode northward, he looked back with many a sigh. He looked across the blue waters which separated him from Duke William, straining his eyes anxiously, but there was no sign of a sail. "Please God," he murmured, "I may yet return in time to meet the Norman wolf."
In those days, the roads were very bad. Some of them were only tracks worn by the feet of horses. There was no means, either, of going from place to place, except by walking or riding. But there was one great road, which the Romans had made long, long before. This stretched all the way from York to London. Harold was so clever that in a few days he brought his little army along this road from the very south to the middle of England. By 24th September he had arrived at York. On the 25th a great battle was fought at a place near there, called Stamford Bridge. In memory of that great fight it was afterwards called Battle Bridge.
Before the fighting began, the two armies stood facing each other.
Up and down the lines of the Norwegian army rode a very tall man on a lovely black horse. He was dressed in splendid steel armour, and a beautiful blue cloak hung from his shoulders. As he rode, his horse stumbled and fell, and the tall man was thrown to the ground. He sprang up again with a laugh. "Oh!" he said, "a fall means good luck to a traveller."
But Harold, who had been watching, turned to some one beside him. "Who is that tall man with the blue cloak and beautiful helmet?" he asked.
"That is Harold Hardrada, King of Norway," was the reply.
"He has had a fall," said Harold of England. "That means bad luck to him."
One side, you see, thought it was good luck, and the other thought it was bad, although really, of course, it made no difference one way or another. But, in those days, people were very superstitious, that is, they found a meaning in things that had no meaning at all.
Harold of England looked sadly along the lines of the army opposite. He was looking for the banner of his brother Tostig. When he saw it he rode, almost alone, right up to the Norwegian army. His men looked on in surprise and fear as he rode so near the enemy, attended only by a few knights. When he was quite close to them, he stopped his horse, and called out, "Is Earl Tostig, son of Godwin, in this army?"
Tostig himself answered, "Yes, what want you with him?" and he rode out to meet the king.
Although Tostig's face was hidden by his helmet, King Harold knew his brother's voice. So his tone was kind and gentle, as he answered: "Your brother, King Harold, sends you greeting. He does not wish to fight against you. If you will send away these soldiers, he will forgive you all the wrong you have done, and he will give you the earldom of Northumbria once more."
"And if I accept his offer," said Tostig, "what will he give to my friend Harold Hardrada?"
King Harold's voice grew stern as he answered, "He shall have seven feet of English ground for a grave, or a little more perhaps, as he is so much taller than other men."
"Then," said the earl, "go and tell King Harold to get ready for battle, for it shall never be said that Tostig brought his friend to England to betray him."
Then the brothers parted, sad and angry, each riding back to his own side.
"Who was that fine man with whom you have been speaking?" asked Harold Hardrada, as Tostig came back.
"That was King Harold of England," replied the earl.
"Why did you not tell me?" said the king. "He was so near! So near death, for had I known who he was, he would never have gone back to his own people."
But although Tostig was a wild, wicked man, he was not altogether bad. He looked sadly at King Harold Hardrada and said, "He came to offer me peace and forgiveness. He is my brother, though my enemy. Had I betrayed him to you, I should have been not only his foe, but his murderer."
Then it seemed as if Harold Hardrada was ashamed.
Soon the battle began. Harold Hardrada rode in front singing a loud battle song.
He sang that because these Northmen, as they were called, often fought in their shirts and wore no armour or protection of any kind. So they got the name of "Berserkers," and in Scotland to this day the word "sark" is used to mean shirt.
The fight was fierce and long. Sometimes it seemed as if the English would win, sometimes the Northmen. In the very thickest of the fight rode the two kings, each cheering on his men.
But at last both Earl Tostig and King Harold Hardrada were killed, and their soldiers fled in all directions.
King Harold of England was very kind to those who were not killed. He did not take them prisoners, but allowed them to go away with their ships to their own country, having first made them promise never to fight against England again.