Fulford, 1066

In  my opinion, England was lost at Fulford, near York, on 20 September 1066.

Fulford, near York, site of a bloody battle in 1066
Fulford, near York, site of a bloody battle in 1066

As I explained in my last post, Yorkshire had exiled its hated Earl, Tostig, only for him to return with an army.

Now that army marched on York, while the King, Harold Godwinson, was guarding the south coast. He knew that William of Normandy was coming.

For the northern Earls Edwin and Morcar, this was personal.  Tostig was returned to take revenge on those who had campaigned against him – with Morcar and Edwin top of the list.  And Tostig was here to take revenge on the brother who had advised the King to exile him.  The brother who was now King.

In order to further his own ends, Tostig had persuaded Hardrada that he had a better right to the throne of England than did Harold Godwinson.  Now their combined armies marched on York.  On 20th September, 1066,  Edwin and Morcar assembled their combined armies to meet him on a narrow ridge on the extensive marshes two miles south of York, at Fulford Gate.

Little has been written about the battle that ensued – it was overshadowed by William’s victory at Hastings the following month.  Tantalisingly, historian William E Kapelle suggests that the lack of written sources indicates that the people of York were willing to accept Harald Hardrada as their king.  I personally think that they fought because they definitely did NOT want Tostig Godwinson.

However, whatever the motives, all sources agree that a battle took place.  It was long and bloody.

The most detailed study of the battle I have discovered has been made by Charles Jones, who has combined literary sources, landscape analysis, archaeology, and discussions with modern-day military leaders, to suggest how the battle unfolded.  I have had the privilege of meeting Charles, and recommend his book, Finding Fulford, for further reading.

Charles Jones, who has extensively stud
ied the Battle of Fulford.
Charles Jones has extensively studied the Battle of Fulford

Charles suggests that the battle took place on the banks of Germany Beck, a small tributary of the great River Ouse.  The Ouse at the time was a tidal, navigable river that led from the Humber Estuary into York.  Germany Beck is a much smaller water course that runs more or less east to west, joining the Ouse at Fulford.  For miles around, the land here was more or less flat, much of it marshy.  Charles believes that Morcar chose to line his army up on slightly higher ground on the north bank of Germany Beck.  His right flank was protected by the river Ouse, where his brother Edwin’s army lined up.  Morcar’s left flank was protected by more marshes, locally named ings.

The English Earls lined up their armies here to defend York against the invading army, who had beached their ships at Riccall, around 8 miles to the south.  They marched north, probably along the route that today is the A19 trunk road.

Charles Jones points out the path he believes the Norse army took to Fulford.
Charles Jones points out the path he believes the Norse army took to Fulford.

Charles estimates that around 5,000 Northumbrian and Mercian men fought that day, against around 6,000 of the invaders.  The two armies lined up against each other, on either side of Germany Beck, as the tide went out.

Charles suggests that, unusually, there was no talk before the battle.  Each side had decided that negotiations were not an option.  Hardrada sounded a horn to start the advance.

11th century battle was all about teamwork.  Alone, your chances were low.  Together, they were much better.  Together, the men formed a ‘shield wall’.  In a line, side by side, men locked their shields together.  Behind an intact shield wall, you were relatively safe, and had a good prospect of victory.  Shield walls, however, were more than one man deep.  The deeper the shield wall, the better.  Men in the ranks behind the front line could swing long axes, or prod with long spears, protecting the fighters in the front line. Rear ranks were available to plug the gap if a front man fell, and, crucially, they lent their weight to the advance.   

The shield wall battle relied on teamwork.
Shield Wall battle was all about teamwork

As the tide ebbed and Germany Beck became little more than a ditch, the men in Morcar’s shield wall pushed forward, moving down the hill and pushing the section of the invading army led by Tostig into the ditch.   They fought hard, but they were winning.

Unbeknown to them, though, Hardrada had kept his best men hidden at the back. Now, he ordered them along the bank of the Ouse.  The low tide enabled them to cross the Beck, and attack Edwin’s flank.  Now Edwin’s army must fight on two fronts.  They were beaten back.

This left Morcar’s flank open.  Hardrada’s men were able to run round behind Morcar’s Northumbrians, and attack them from the rear.  The Beck ran red with blood, bodies sank into the mud.  What had looked like victory for Morcar’s men now turned into a rout.

The English were forced to flee.  Most who survived fought their way up the Beck, eastwards to Heslington, where the University of York now stands.  As the tide came up, many drowned.

The combined armies of Edwin and Morcar were defeated.  Charles estimates that maybe around 25%  of the English army died – a death rate more than twice that of the devastating losses in the trenches in World War 1, which, according to the BBC , was 11.5%

Now, Hardrada, the most feared warrior in Europe, entered York.

What would he do next?

About Helen Johnson

Freelance writer specialising in Yorkshire's history and heritage.

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