There were three major battles in the year of Conquest. Those of Hastings and Stamford Bridge are nothing short of famous, yet a much less-known conflict preceded them 950 years ago today on the 20th September 1066 at Fulford, some two miles south of York.
The Norwegian king, Harald Hardrada, accompanied by Tostig, the deposed Earl of Northumbria and estranged brother of the English King Harold, defeated a northern army led by the brothers Edwin and Morcar, earls of Mercia and Northumbria respectively.
Hardrada was seen at the mouth of the River Humber on 18th September and by the evening of the 19th he had sailed up the River Ouse to Riccal. Tostig had been Earl of Northumbria for nine years and doubtless knew the terrain well. Riccal offered room for mooring and natural protection for the invaders 300 longships. At first light on Wednesday the 20th September as Edwin and Morcar's troops headed south out of York so too did Harald's army begin the ten mile hike north from Riccal to York. By the time Harald was within site of Fulford the northern earls were already set-up, it was to be the last great battle between two shield-walls on English soil.
The only detailed account of the battle was written in the 13th century by the Icelandic skald Snorri Sturluson. Snorri tells of an 'immense army' drawn up by Edwin and Morcar. Generally estimated at around 5,000 men they drew their lines in an area of marshland adjacent to the Ouse now known as Germany Beck in the grounds of the present-day University of York. With a stream in front, marshland to the rear and left flank and the Ouse to the right flank the English were well-positioned defensively at the 'foul ford', blocking the route to York. As Hardrada arrived on the scene the advantage of higher ground meant that he had a panoramic view of the layout of the English troops and the difficult terrain his viking army had to traverse in order to engage them in battle.
It is estimated that the two evenly numbered armies faced-up at around 10.30am. Edwin took the right flank blocking the road to York that ran parallel to the Ouse, facing him were Hardrada's troops, with Morcar blocking the left flank route, facing Tostig, the man he had replaced as Earl of Northumbria. The shield-wall was 300 to 400 yards long and 3, 4, 5 soldiers deep. As the invaders strove forward to make contact with the defenders it is said the English unleashed a hail of javelins, opening up Hardrada's men to a counter-attack and Morcar's men pushed the vikings back down the slope of the beck. Snorri takes up the narrative;
'When the earls advanced downwards into the fen, the arm of the Northmens line which was at the ditch gave way and the Englishmen followed thinking the Northmen would fly. The banner of Earl Morcar advanced them bravely.' (Snorri Sturluson - 'King Harald's Saga')
The English continued making inroads into the viking shield-wall, pushing them back, but Hardrada, it is said, had an old trick up his sleeve. Some viking troops arrived late and Harald had stood others, his elite warriors, close-by. Within an hour Hardrada had struck a devastating blow on the English right flank along the bank of the Ouse. The fast-receding tidal river created a marshy gap in the line of defence. Edwin's Housecarles stood their ground but the support troops from the fyrd, the reserve army, began to falter and Hardrada got the breakthrough he was probing for, leaving the English shield-wall shuffling backwards, broken and in disarray. Now on the north bank of the beck/stream Hardrada was able to get alongside and attack Morcar's right flank, in effect opening up another front by turning Morcar's troops. With Tostig's troops now able to outflank Morcar's on the other side, by noon the English army was gradually being encircled. At some point around 1pm Edwin and Morcar break-off and flee, whilst many hundreds of the English are encircled and massacred. Florence of Worcester takes up the narrative;
'The English fought so bravely at the onset that many of the enemy were overthrown; but after a long contest they were unable to withstand the attacks of the Norwegians and fled with great loss... More were drowned in the river than slain on the field'. (Florence of Worcester)
After beating the exiled Tostig in coastal warfare on two occasions during the early summer weeks, Edwin and Morcar were routed and two days later surrendered on terms. Hardrada and Tostig had won the day but, perhaps because Tostig did not want to sack York, they made their way north-west to Stamford Bridge to receive the English surrender. Within five days King Harold Godwinsson was upon them.
King Harald Hardrada composed a poem describing the fate of the English;
All lay fallen
In the swampy water,
Gashed by weapons;
And the hardy
Men of Norway
Could cross the marsh
On a causeway of corpses.'
Image: Harald Hardrada King of Norway depicted in glass in Kirkwall Cathedral, Orkney Islands.
Peter Marren - 1066 The Battles of York, Stamford Bridge & Hastings.
Charles Jones - The Forgotten Battle of 1066, Fulford.
Video is of a commemoration cairn being built on the site of the Battle of Fulford at Germany Beck on the 950th anniversary of the battle, 20th September 2016. Filmed by Hidden Context TV @HidConTV and organised by HelpSaveFulford @helpsavefulford