A detailed discussion of the size of the Norwegian Army assembled by Harald

Extract from Dave Cooke's as yet unpublished guides to the battles of Fulford and Stamford Bridge.

(Reproduced with permission)

"Harald Sigurdsson brought a great army to England in 1066. The bulk of it was raised from his Norwegian subjects. How did a king of Norway raise his army, and what resources were available to him? The core of any Scandinavian army was the Hird. These were the King’s own household troops. The Hird consisted of three main sections: Hirdmen, huscarls and gestrs. The Hirdmen were professional soldiers, paid and maintained by the king, and formed the elite of the army. Huscarls and gestrs were considered to be a lower echelon, although still part of the nucleus of the army. Harald had a force of 120: 60 Hirdmen, 30 huscarls and 30 gestrs. Each of the king’s jarls also had a similar, if smaller, household. Added to these paid soldiers were pirates and mercenaries, and these formed the bulk of Viking raiding forces.

In 1066 Harald Sigurdsson did not bring a raiding force to England, but an army of invasion. The Leidang, a levy of ships and crews raised locally, formed a major part of this army. Each area was responsible for raising a set number of ships and their crews. In the mid-10th century areas had to raise the following number of ships:

Vik-dwellers 60 x 20-benchers + 1 other ship
Agder 16 x 25-benchers
Hordaland 24 x 25-benchers
Firthmen 20 x 25-benchers
Raumdale 10 x 20-benchers
Trondelag 8 x 20-benchers
Halogaland 1 x 30-bencher, 13 x 20-benchers
Rogaland 24 x 25-benchers
Sogning 16 x 25-benchers
More 16 x 25-benchers
North More 20 x 20-benchers
Naumdale 9 x 20-benchers

This gives a total of 238 ships. The number of men needed to man these ships was over 27,000. This raises an interesting point as to the size of Harald’s army and fleet, which will be considered shortly. To provide the crews each farm, or group of farms, had to provide one man over the age of eighteen. Single men were called first, followed by farmers who had labourers and, finally, farmers who did not have labourers. It can be seen from this that an attempt was made to keep the economy intact, even when the nation was at war. This levy of the freemen is often referred to as the “bondi”. A full Leidang was only called out in a national emergency, usually when faced by a foreign invasion. For operations outside the home country, it was usual to call out a half Leidang. Snorri Sturluson reports such a call out: “King Harald then sent word throughout Norway, raising a half-levy of the whole army”.

It is worth considering the size of King Harald’s invasion force at this point. As has already been shown, in the mid-10th century a full Leidang produced 238 ships manned by 27,000 men. By the mid-11th century, the Leidang would almost certainly have produced a larger number of ships, with an equivalent rise in the number of crewmen. In 1066 King Harald sailed into the Humber with between 240 and 500 ships, as is reported in the various contemporary chronicles. The most frequently mentioned number is 300, reported in two of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicles. It is generally accepted that the most common longship, the 20-bencher, had a crew of approximately 100. If a fleet of 300 of these ships had sailed into the Humber, 30,000 men, who would have formed an army of the same size once they had landed, would have manned it. It should also be taken into account, at this point, that the 20-bencher was the smallest ship mentioned in the Leidang. It is generally accepted that King Harald’s army did not exceed 10,000 men, giving an average of just over 30 men per ship. So here is quite an anomaly.

Snorri Sturluson provides one possible explanation:

“King Harald sailed south with his own men to meet the main army. A great host was gathered there, and it is said that King Harald had over two hundred ships, apart from supply ships and smaller craft”.

Here is a reduction of the fighting fleet by one third. But this still gives a manpower strength of 20,000. It should also be borne in mind that Harald was joined on the Orkneys by a contingent provided by the Earl of Orkney, and by Tostig and his twelve small ships as the fleet sailed down the East Coast. So the size of Harald’s army continues to grow.

Snorri writes that Harald had 200 longships when his fleet gathered at the Solund Isles, but it is nor clear if he actually sailed with this number. In the mid-10th century the period of service for the Leidang was only two months. By the 12th century it had grown to four. Using the higher figure, this still does not give much time to organise and carry out an invasion. It is obvious that Harald intended to winter in England, should his invasion be successful. He brought his wife and daughters to Orkney, with the intention of bringing them to England, once he had established a foothold. Is it possible that Harald disbanded the Leidang and sailed with only the Hird? There is at least one precedent for this. Snorri writes that during the build up to the battle of Nissa (August 9th 1062) Harald “sent back all the farmers’ levy, keeping only 150 ships”. The Hird and the mercenary element of Harald’s army manned these 150 ships. At the time of the Nissa campaign Harald was facing only one enemy, King Svein of Denmark. Svein had proved himself to be an opportunist. Although Harald was at peace with Denmark, it is not beyond belief that Svein would have used

Harald’s absence to begin a new round of hostilities. With this in mind, it is unlikely that Harald would have stripped his country of all its professional warriors. Someone had to provide a nucleus, and the leadership, of the army, should Svein have taken this course of action. If this is accepted, then it is quite possible that Harald sailed with a relatively small, elite, force of only 6-7,000 men. This was then reinforced to a total of 9-10,000 by the Orkney contingent, Tostig’s men, and freebooters and mercenaries, drawn from as far afield as Iceland, the Isle of Man and Ireland. So King Harald sailed into the Humber with, possibly, 150 assorted warships. There is still a large anomaly with the number of ships reported. Accepting the above explanation, and the figure of 300 ships for Harald’s entire fleet, where did the remainder of the ships come from? Snorri Sturluson provides an answer. When the Norwegian fleet gathered at the Solund Isles it contained a large number of supply vessels. An experienced commander, such as Harald was, would have made careful preparations for his invasion. One final point: Duke William crossed the channel with a similar-sized fleet, which contained an army of only 7,000 men. Of course, another explanation is that the chroniclers simply exaggerated the size of the Norwegian fleet. After all, other chroniclers in the same period reported an English army of 400,000 and a Norman army of 60,000 at Hastings!

© Dave Cooke 2003