Monday the 25 September 1066 marked a momentous turning point in the history of Yorkshire and England. A battle took place at Stamford Bridge which was as significant as the Battle of Hastings which followed a month later. The great Warrior King of Norway, Harald Hardrada, set out to conquer England, with a huge invading army, sailing up the Humber and Ouse to soon defeat a small Saxon force at Fulford, south of York.
Once the Norwegians had captured York, at that time England’s second city, they would control the whole of the North of England.
But Hardrada was outmaneuvered by Harold Godwinson of Wessex, only crowned King Harold II of England a few months before. Godwinson managed to secretly bring his own large army to what should have been a relatively small-scale handing over of York hostages at Stamford Bridge a few miles away on the River Derwent. Many of Hardrada’s forces remained at Fulford.
To complicate matters further, Harold’s unpopular brother Tostig, created Earl of Northumbria, the northern province which included the old former kingdom of Jorvik that we now call Yorkshire, had switched allegiance to join the invaders, clearly hoping to usurp Harold to become token King of England under Norwegian rule.
The gamble failed. The English forces held the element of surprise and the ensuing fighting was ferocious, thousands were killed and wounded, and both Hardrada and Tostig were slain during the battle. The English prevailed and it is said that only 24 of a total of 300 invading ships returned down the Ouse to Norway.
But it was a pyrrhic victory. Hardly had the English time to bandage their wounds, when the army had to march 300 miles to Kent to take on an equally formidable foe, William of Normandy whose narrow victory over Harold’s exhausted army in October 1066 changed England forever.
Stamford Bridge was more than just a prequel to Hastings. Had events gone the other way, William might not have been able to defeat a powerful Anglo-Norse combined force. Perhaps Stamford Bridge’s significance in English history has been overshadowed by a familiar southern perspective, itself a result of Norman invasions.
Our perspective of Hastings and its significance is to a great extent determined by a great piece of what is essentially English folk art, the Bayeux Tapestry, created by gifted Anglo-Saxon needlewomen in the decade or so after the conquest. Why shouldn’t Stamford Bridge, an equally vital part of our national story, receive similar treatment?
This was part of the thinking of a small group of people in the East Riding village of Stamford Bridge, where memorials to the battle still stand. These included members of the Battle of Stamford Bridge Heritage Society, but others interested in their local history and needlework.
950 years later, a vibrant new commemoration
Meeting together in March 2015 in the village cricket club, a decision was taken to create a Stamford Bridge version of the famous Bayeux Tapestry, in time for the 950th anniversary of the battle in 2016.
It was to become a far more formidable task than any of those present at that meeting would imagine. The group were fortunate in having in the local community some outstanding individuals – most notably Tom Wyles, chair of the Heritage Society and a driving force in the early days, plus his co-chair Chris Rock, a professional graphic designer.
But equally important was Shirley Smith, herself a long serving member of the Embroiderers’ Guild, skilled textile artist, embroiderer and teacher. Shirley became the mentor of the 24 member Stamford Bridge Tapestry Group, who between them began an extraordinary journey, which included not only study and perfecting the techniques of tapestry embroidery, wool on linen, but also understanding the brilliant narrative techniques of the Bayeux stitchers, both in terms of historic accuracy dealing with an epic military struggle, but also touches of realism and humour that make the Bayeux Tapestry the masterpiece it is. Much was owed to the contribution of designer Chris Rock.
Weaving a national heirloom in the midst of adversity
Unlike many so called ‘heritage’ projects developed by public or national agencies, this was a purely grassroots, bottom-up process, developed and led by people in a small East Riding community. They were not afraid, however, to use the expertise of professionals in countless ways, such as using ‘natural’ colours, which if not quite the herbal dyes used in the 11th century, could replicate as closely as possible the palette of colours used by medieval tapestry makers to create identical effects, as well as mastering such techniques as Bayeux stitching to create breath-taking detail.
It was a long process, not just the sheer technical demands of the task, but also fundraising to pay for materials, including the high-quality linen required for the tapestry itself. Tragically, Tom Wyles, such a driving force behind the project, died suddenly of a cardiac arrest in 2016, even before the anniversary which had initially inspired the group. Then came Covid which forced people apart, yet perhaps intensified the value of the project bringing individuals together at a dark time of isolation and stress. Despite these issues, the project with its 12 magnificent panels, was finally completed in June 2021, and was dedicated to the memory of Tom Wyles. It is hoped that it will eventually be recognised as a ‘national heirloom’ of Britain.
The other remarkable factor was the wider community involvement, most notably the Stamford Bridge Sports Association, who manage the Old Railway Station, including what is known as Platform 66, now used as a popular social and youth club and community focus. Stamford Bridge Station is a Grade II listed building designed by G T Andrews, on the former York–Beverley railway line, at the end of a fine viaduct, now an attractive walk and cycleway, on Sustrans National Cycle Route 66.
The interior of the building was adapted by retired local architect Peter Arnott to create a small heritage gallery space. Platform 66 is open to the public every Tuesday between 10am and 2pm, but the tapestry can also be viewed whenever the bar in the Old Station is open, from 12 noon to 2pm at weekends, or evenings most days. This makes it is easily accessible to local people. Groups are welcomed with talks on the history and making of the tapestry by volunteers, with options of a pre-booked lunch in the Old Station. Full details of the tapestry and visiting options are at The Battle of Stamford Bridge Tapestry Project.
Community empowered art garners national significance
A superbly illustrated book by Heather Cawte, The Battle of Stamford Bridge Tapestry features all 12 tapestries, and the full history of the tapestry project.
The Stamford Bridge tapestry is far more than a brilliant piece of communal art of national significance. It is also an illustration of how a community can use its heritage in a dynamic way, to establish the identity of that community, a pride in who they are, celebrating the past but also looking to the future and what it is to be Yorkshire. It will also create significant economic benefit for the whole area.
It is an empowerment, an assertion of something that is both inspiring and positive. The tapestry is as relevant to the 21st as its predecessor was for the 11th century.