Images of flood on the day of the battle
12 panoramas of the battle site
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What happened to the bodies?
This is what we thought when the project started:
"Little is known of the way bodies were cleared after ancient battles but it is believed that the process was thorough. The remains of the warriors were generally treated with respect although there is evidence that it was a year or more before the bones were laid to rest. Meanwhile the weapons and garments of the fallen were collected. Metal and fabric were too valuable to be abandoned."
The total fatalities probably exceeded 1500 of which most would have died on the battlefield itself rather than of their wounds. No mass graves have been discovered. A group of 11 burials with battle wounds have been excavated by a church (St Andrewgate cemetery) near the city gate and dated to the time of the battle on the site of the modern Novotel.
The soil on the battlesite is shallow with the underlying moraine less than a metre below so burial would have been impossible and the flooding, time and the acidic conditions would have removed all traces of human remains.
So what happened to the bodies?
Five days elapsed before king Harald and earl Tostig entered York for a 'Thing' or council and the City surrendered.
Why didn't we find an bodies
The most common question from visitors to the project was ‘have you found the bodies’.
Some thought and effort has been devoted to this matter. The search for bodies was not a part of the plan since no mortal remains have been located at either Hastings or Stamford Bridge (although I am not aware that any systematic searching has been undertaken at either of these sites). However, we know nothing about the post battle burial processes. There are very few references to the disposal of mortal remains.
William of Poitiers writes that William after Hastings
Chris Daniell in a lecture on the subject of the disposal of bodies comments, ‘[the previous] account is interesting for several reasons, firstly it acknowledges the possibility that the bones of the English could have been devoured by wolves and vultures, but that William saw an element of cruelty in this approach, and so whilst allowing the English to bury their own, he buried the Norman dead.’
He notes that William of Jumieges describes it rather differently: 'having despoiled the corpses of his enemies and buried the bodies of his dear comrades, William the Conqueror took the road to London.’ It does suggest that there is a difference between the treatment of the victor's dead and the defeated.
Estimating the number of dead
We do not know much about the fate of the fallen so it was worth trying a few thought experiments as a guide to the places and type of material that might be encountered at any disposal place.
The chroniclers of this era do not record the size of armies or the casualties in quantitative terms. In earlier centuries, when armies were numbered in their tens, there are some occasions when the figures for the dead are given. Those studying the political and social organisation of the time might be able to explain why this did not happen once armies were numbered in the thousand.
We are told that casualties on both sides were heavy at Fulford. The Norse had to take the battle to the English, putting themselves at a disadvantage, while those trapped at the ford would have perished, as would many more during the early retreat phase.
Casualty rates in the range of 10-15% are noted in pitched battles where firearms are used. This figure is an aggregate for the army with some subunits possibly suffering 50% casualties while supporting or reserve units might lose only a few percent. We do not know much about the structure of forces in the 11th century. The length and ferocity of the battle at Fulford suggests a guesstimate of 15%. This would suggest that the mortal remains of abound 1650 (15% of 11,000 – itself an estimate) were on the battlefield.
If the whole extent of the fighting, from beside the river to the furthest reprocessing site along the retreat route this represents less than one body per metre across the battlesite.
Places to look for bodies
Those wounded early in the battle would be able to withdraw in the lulls that followed each assault. They could pass back through the line to receive attention. A small collection of 11 skeletons was excavated near York that can be dated close to the time of this battle. Some show multiple wounds, including a high proportion delivered while the victim was already prone, and probably already dead.
It is conjecture by these might have been among the few who had left the battle as walking wounded but had been overtaken and killed later in the battle when King Harald crossed the beck, or they could be part of Earl Edwin’s Mercians who retreated towards the city.
The St Andrewgate cemetery is the only one so far identified as having bodies that can be related to the battle. When the old St Oswald’s church was decommissioned the possibility of searching for bodies from the battle was investigated but nothing could be found to make this a profitable avenue of research. There are some charters that tell us bodies from Fulford in the 12th -15th century had to buried at St Mary’s, the other side of town.
Was the disposal of the mortal remains a major issue?
The local population did not have a strong personal motive for clearing the battlefield. Although they might have gone to look for the small contingent of local men who had been killed, these would be numbered in a few tens. Most of the soldiers at Fulford were many miles away from any family member who might have taken personal care in their disposal.
Perhaps the Norse fallen fared better, but we have no word about their fate. There are a few references in the literature to tell us that there were ceremonies and the occasional monument was raised when news reached home of those who had fallen far away. The logistics of either moving or burying the bodies was substantial.
The value of the salvage ensured that the bodies would be collected if the Bayeux Tapestry is to be believed. The victors, especially their comrades and kin, would surely want to honour the dead but nothing is known about the ritual. If many bodies were in the mud, as the literature and landscape suggest, these would have to be extracted before they could have been stripped; so one might speculate that they were assembled in small piles around the places of the action.
Anybody familiar with Flanders fields will recognise that bodies were normally buried close to the place where they fell and the limited evidence from this under-researched area of conflict studies suggests that this was also the ancient way. If the bodies were gathered into groups of 20-30, this small piece of land along the beck could have been dotted with 50 or more sad mounds.
Possible methods of disposal
The need to bury bodies so that they do not pollute the watercourse, seems to be a piece of folk wisdom. It is unlikely that many would have been washed into the river by the ebbing tides but some burials with cut marks found downriver, near Rawcliffe, might be relevant. In fact the rushing high tides are more likely to have moved the bodies further along Germany Beck.
The Norwegian invaders as well as the Anglo-Saxons had generally adopted Christian burial customs by 1066. So bodies would be buried without any grave goods, which removes one possible grave-marker for us to find. The embedded arrows that provided the mortal wound for some soldiers at Towton also provided the evidence for the initial burial site of some of the victims of that battle in 1412. The Towton model also shows that temporary burial, followed by removal to an ossuary, was practiced and there is a suggestion that this happened at Stamford Bridge. Were the bodies left and then the battlefield bones from Fulford cleared some years after the battle?
There are some mentions of the bodies being left where they fell and the bones subsequently being gathered. Martin and Birthe Kjølbye-Biddle of the University of Oxford have argued that the disarticulated remains of more than 250 individuals found near Repton suggests that there was a practice for Viking bones to be brought together some time after the battle. The dating of this is at least a century prior to the Fulford battle and it is hard to assess if the establishment of Christian practices in Norway might have affected the way bodies were disposed of.
Burial near the battle site at Fulford would have posed a problem because of the shallow soil and the moraine that would have been impenetrable to grave diggers. With some effort, a stack of bodies could be covered but large scale internment was not an option.
It was noted much earlier that the land on the Norse bank has been a cemetery for two centuries, but no evidence of previous burials has been found. This compacted sand would have made an obvious burial place but would have required some organisation and effort to arrange and there is nothing to suggest that they undertook such a task.
The local soil is acidic, subject to flooding and has, in recent years, been well cultivated. All these conditions would serve to dissolve or incorporate into the soil any bones that were left on the site.
The zones of charcoal staining in the soil at a contextual level consistent with the period of the battle were identified near the beck in one of the places where digging is possible. Perhaps cremation was employed. Samples of the black seams found during the research were removed with an auger then washed and examined by eye for evidence of bone fragments. None were identified. So an early interpretation that this was the site of a funeral pyre was not pursued. A later interpretation suggests that these were pits in which charcoal was prepared for the metal workers. One cannot rule out cremation, but we have no evidence for it at Fulford.
Cremation was not an unknown method of disposing of bodies. The site of Heath Wood, Ingleby, near Repton, was excavated by Julian D Richards of the University of York. The cemetery comprised 59 barrows covering the site of a funeral pyre. ‘Sacrificial offerings’ of animals were associated with this site, which can be dated to at least a century before the battle.
Near to the battle site on Lamel Hill, excavations in 1848 by John Thurnam revealed the remains of 200-300 bodies. These were believed to be positioned beside the road running from York to Derventio. Among the bones examined at the time, only a single skull showed any weapon injury which would rule this out as a battle cemetery. The dating suggests this was a post Roman to Anglian burial site. The cemetery was more extensive until the site was used for a gun emplacement in 1644 during the Civil War siege of York. The human remains that were disturbed by this work were concentrated in the mound. This mound was subsequently used as a hill for a windmill.
Other reports on excavations of various other tumuli found south and east of York were investigated through the pages of the Yorkshire Philosophical Society. One report by William Procter in 1849 produced 150 or more bodies from a barrow known locally as ‘Danes Graves’, 3 miles north of Driffield, when it was opened in August of that year.
Similarly named tumuli on Skipwith Common revealed that there were no bones in any of the barrows. These lie along a route that might have suggested itself for those rushing to reinforce King Harald when he was isolated from his base at Riccall five days after the battle at Fulford.
Technology might in the future offer the prospect of extracting more information from the environment. Several sites in Scandinavia where long-term occupation was suspected have yielded excellent 'maps' of human activity when subject to the sort of phosphate analysis used in agriculture. DNA and fatty-acids can now be detected and multiplied for analysis when found in minute and degraded samples. It would therefore be sensible to remove and conserve a significant set of samples for future and further analysis by future tools and techniques. Whether samples from a matrix or a more focused sampling would be the best approach is a matter that needs further debate.
The fate of the bodies at Fulford is likely to remain a mystery. Since burial was impractical, and removing bodies from the site for disposal elsewhere is not mentioned in ancient or modern conflict history, it is assumed that the bodies were gathered when any material was stripped. Whether they were covered or cremated, the natural processes would have quickly dispersed the remains.
But the really interesting discoveries were from the thousands of bit of rusty iron. The evidence suggests that they did tidy up after the battle probably gathering the bodies when they gathered the metal. Perhaps when we are able to return to research the metal working areas we will learn more about the fate of the fallen.
There is a site devoted to saving the battlesite: The site has the story of the process that has allowed the site to be designated an access road to a Green Field, flood-plane housing estate. Visiting Fulford Map York
And another website for the Fulford Tapestry that tells the story of the September 1066: This tells the story embroidered into the panels.
There is a blog covering these sites where you can leave questions and make comments.
The author of the content is Chas Jones - firstname.lastname@example.org