Is the ending of the Viking era more typical of a "Great Man Theory" of history with the death of the most famous Viking warrior of his age, or was it a series of underlying trends and forces that spelled the end for early medieval Europe's most feared Northmen?

History is messy. Whilst modern historians can neatly carve it up and segment it, those living it were never quite sure when one "era" ended, and another began. 

The difference from one era to another barely registered in their daily lives.

Neatly segmented

For many scholars, academics, and historians, it is important to try and divide, segment, and categorize periods of history for analysis, comprehension, and understanding. 

At the current time of writing, the Viking Age (c. 793 – 1066 CE) is one of those eras of European history that fits in between the fall of Rome in Western Europe and one of history's most influential speeches, by Pope Urban II, in Clermont in 1095 CE. 

From the late 5th century until the late 10th century is over half a millennium of history that, for better or worse, is traditionally written as being dominated by peoples from Viking societies.

The traditional historical view is that the Vikings (this term defining an occupation – a raider or pirate – and not an ethnicity or race) sprang out of their Scandinavian homeland to strike terror into the hearts of early medieval coastal communities, from Sevilla to Scotland, from the Baltic to the Black Sea. 

Yet by the mid-11th century CE, if we are to take the traditional historians' view, these Scandinavian historical stars were burnt out. 

They had first raided, then traded, then settled a huge swathe of Northern Europe, from Newfoundland in Canada to the Russian steppes. 

Why, then, do we end the Viking Age in 1066 CE? What happened in that year that made it a bookend for this "Golden Age" of Scandinavian primacy? 

The answer lies on a battlefield in England...

1066 CE and all that

One of the most important years in European medieval history – especially drummed into generations of British schoolchildren – was 1066 CE. 

Before anyone spurts out that it was because a certain Norman "bastard" led an invasion of the Anglo-Saxon lands, let us cast our minds a little further back just three weeks before Hastings.

The last Anglo-Saxon King of England, Harold Godwinson, had only been on the throne for four months. 

The death of Edward the Confessor earlier that year had triggered a succession crisis that saw claimants from across Northern Europe, including the King of Norway, Harald Hardrada, and an embittered Tostig Godwinson, brother of Harold. 

However, across the English Channel lay, waiting in the wings, the Duke of Normandy, William, who also had a claim to the throne.

In September 1066 CE, King Harold had his forces stationed in southern England, expecting a swift attack from Normandy. 

Yet a year before, Harald Hardrada had sailed, from Norway, with, according to the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, a fleet of more than 300 ships. 

Stopping in the Orkney Islands (then possessions of the Norwegian crown), the forces of Hardrada met up with Tostig and spent much of 1066 launching aborted campaigns. 

Fast forward a year later, and the invading force had taken Jorvik (York). 

When Harold learned of the town's fall, he had to race northward to stop the southward advance of Hardrada's forces.

King Harald Hardrada received an arrow to the windpipe in the decisive battle. Illustration: German Vizulis / Shutterstock

A bridge too far

Part of the charm of the works of Snorri Sturluson, the 13th-century Icelandic chronicler, is that he has left us with so much vivid color in his historical compilations. 

With Hardrada's men on the march southward, King Harold had to march his men (his elite Huscarls and as many men as he could muster) from London to Yorkshire as quickly as he possibly could. 

He did this in only four days which, at a distance of 185 miles / 297 kilometers (about twice the distance from Washington, D.C. to New York City), makes Harold and his men the medieval equivalents of Usain Bolt.

Surely the rapid pace set must have affected Harold's men when they arrived at a bridge near the River Derwent in Yorkshire. 

On one side, Harold and his motley crew of Anglo-Saxon (tired) warriors, and on the other, Harald Hardrada, a man who had spent his life quite literally fighting his way around Europe and West Asia, and a force of as many as 11,000 men.

What makes this battle a great one is that Harold and his men, tired, beleaguered, and surely mentally paranoid about the incoming invasions of all the claimants to the English throne, managed to gain the element of surprise over the Norwegians. 

Whether true or not, a key part of this battle involved a Norse axeman holding off, single-handedly, more than 40 of Harold's men before being eventually felled.

Sturluson relates how the element of surprise, which caught the Norwegians off guard, not allowing many of them to put on armor, proved decisive. 

The battle raged on, with the bridge as a center point of the ebbing and flowing of military momentum, but eventually, the lightly armored force of Hadrada was broken by the aggressive Anglo-Saxon Huscarls

The situation for the invaders only worsened when Hardrada received an arrow to the windpipe – not the first time a king would be killed by a stray arrow on a battlefield in England that year – and the die was cast. 

Harold and his men mopped up the Norwegian stragglers, and many drowned while fleeing across the river. King Harold lived on to fight another day.

Why does this battle signify the end of the Viking Age, then?

The death of Harald Hardrada at Stamford Bridge traditionally signals the end of the "Viking Age." 

Many historians point out that Hadrada's invasion was the last time that a king from a Viking society would invade and meddle with the Anglo-Saxon realms. 

This is only partially correct; two more kings – Magnus Barefoot of Norway and Sweyn Ulfsson would also launch military campaigns, in the British Isles, in the late 11th century and early 12th century CE.

Other scholars point out that, by the time Hadrada's windpipe received that fatal puncture, the petty kingdoms and tribes throughout Scandinavia had become the medieval kingdoms of Denmark, Norway, and Sweden thanks, in large part, to the centuries-long process of the Christianization of Scandinavia

This is also true, but it would be centuries before this process was complete. The Old Norse religion would remain a vital part of many Scandinavian peoples' lives well into the 13th century CE

In fact, a "Swedish Crusade" was called in 1150 CE to try and rid the new Swedish kingdom of pagans. 

However, 1066 CE did mark a turning point in which the three Scandinavian kingdoms – Denmark, Norway, and Sweden – would only be more and more Christian and never fall back into worshipping the Old Norse Gods again – at least in the upper echelons of power.

The defeat of Hardrada was indeed the last time a Viking king could have won the English throne and secured the Anglo-Saxon realm for himself. 

Hardrada's downfall, however, didn't mean that King Harold's kingdom was secure from existential threats.

Less than three weeks after Stamford Bridge, William, Duke of Normandy, invaded southern England. Harold, and his men, then had to rush down all the way to meet them at a field in Hastings. 

Now, imagine the physical, mental, and psychological that a bloody battle would take (Sturluson relates how many Norwegians died of exhausting at Stamford Bridge as the battle raged on and on) and then having to psyche yourself up to do it all again in less than a month. 

A degree of mental and physical exhaustion must have played a part in that decision by Harold and his men to charge down from their hilltop position at Hastings.

William's victory at Hastings (when poor old King Harold got one better than Hardrada and was killed by an arrow in his eye... if we are to believe that most beautiful piece of Norman propaganda, the Bayeux Tapestry) spelled an end to Anglo-Saxon England and the end of the early medieval period of English history.

England underwent a transformational pivot, in 1066 CE, which started with the death of a Viking king, to gaze across the English Channel. The past was Viking, and the future was Norman.

For more on the events and invasions of 1066 CE, visit the BBC History Extra website here

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