Fulford battlefied under threat

July 2015 dig

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It is worth investigation some of the alternative locations to see if they can also be made to fit the available evidence.

Various sites for the battle were suggested by antiquarians. All of these, along with some of their variants, were assessed during the project. As a part of the methodology all sites that made sense according to the primary literature, or where a sensible defence could have been mounted, were investigated.

This discussion is about the other places where I now believe the battle could not have happened mainly for topographic or serious military flaws in these alternative locations. The map at the foot gives the layout of these zones. It also imposes the other known site at Battle (aka Hastings) suggesting that Fulford had a similar but slightly larger footprint on the landscape.

Alternative sites for the battle of Fulford

It was an interesting and necessary exercise to address ‘alternative’ sites. During the first years of the hunt for the Fulford battle site many of these were considered as possible locations. My interest in the battle began when I moved to Fulford Road in 1983. I hope it will be instructive if I rehearse the process that led me, after 20 years, to favour Germany Beck as the battle site.

There was no obvious candidate for the battle. So I began a formal Fulford investigation in early 1998 with an examination of the secondary literature. A retired archivist of the Borthwick Institute, Reginald Dearlove, also had a special interest in the battle and was able to provide details of the various suggested locations recorded in antiquarian literature. This was very useful in defining the scope of the projected research.

The Fosse

Could the battle have taken place close to the southern wall of the city? This fits the general model that emerges from the literature as there is a river on one side and many marshy areas to the east. Indeed, the south and east of the city were difficult to approach except along the two moraines that now carry the Selby (A19) and Hull (A166) roads.

There are some problems of military interpretation with this site. It is quite literally a last ditch defence if we assume that the Fosse provided the ditch noted in the literature. There was no room for manoeuvre. If the English army advanced, their line would have to expand as the moraine widened dramatically when it reached the area known as Fishergate. When the Norse army advanced after their outflanking attack they would immediately be inside the city and we know that this did not happen. Furthermore, there is some evidence that the area was already built on and this was not an area where a leader of the time would draw up his shieldwall to defend the city.

This is the best alternative site if one relies solely on the literature. However it fails to convince because no writer suggests such an intimate proximity to the city itself.

No field research was undertaken to explore this theory but several local archaeologists were consulted, since the area has been subject to many investigations, but nothing has been found to suggest anything dramatic happened around 1066.

The Ings

The Fulford Ings was the popular choice among commentators, although no published mention of this location could be traced. The ‘ditches’ that cross the Ings do not provide any significant obstacle behind which a commander would think of mounting a defence. There were other problems with this location.

Broadhead in his article gives the location of the battle as taking place on Fulford Ings, even giving a grid reference: 609488. This is along the line of the modern, canalised, Beck. His use of the place name, 'Fulford Ings' has led to some confusion. The modern Ings are understood to start about 50 m north of the Beck and extend for 800 m towards York. The earliest work was designed to test the attractive hypothesis that the battle was fought along the Ings.

By a happy chance, a DPhil student from Manchester University, Susannah Gill, was willing to undertake an environmental survey of the Ings for her dissertation. This revealed that the Ings was an unlikely location for the battlefield because it was too wet.

Dr Andy Howard’s explanation of how the Ings developed, trapped behind the levee that ran beside the river, plus a study of the drainage, hay-making and pasturing that has developed in the last millennium, ruled the Ings out as a place for the battle. There was just not enough room to accommodate anything beyond a skirmish in the wet and broken land.

But to compound the rejection of this site, there were also good military reasons to rule out the Ings based on the descriptions in the literature. The defending army would simply be bypassed by the attackers if they arrayed themselves for battle on the Ings. The attackers would have occupied the dry high ground (along the present A19) that leads directly to York, leaving the erstwhile defenders with the problem of dislodging them. Once you start considering this as the battle, there are no points where the site can be matched to the picture we have from literary sources.

This is not how it happened and so the site makes absolutely no military sense.

Naburn

When talking to local historians and antiquarians early in the project, they raised the possibility of Naburn as a battlesite. These were investigated during the early stage of the project with some soil survey and metal detection work related to these areas.

I received several reports of military-style artefacts being discovered along both banks of the river near Naburn. However, nothing could be found to support these suggestions in spite of much local oral investigation. It was feasible that military artefacts might have been moved downstream in the mud by the flow from York to emerge at Naburn during one of the regular floods. So finds at Naburn would not be inconsistent with Germany Beck as the focus of the battle.

Several of these never-seen items, I was told, were made of bronze so were very unlikely to be related to the 1066 battle. However an investigation of the banks leading to Naburn formed part of the projected plan but one that was frustrated by problems of gaining access to the land.

There is another beck at Naburn but it is not cut through the glacial moraine so does not have steep banks and it is not easy to see where the marshy area would have been as the land rises away from the river.

Finally, this site is not defending anything. The Norse invaders would simply have bypassed the army and then attacked them from the east, forcing the English into the river Ouse.

Middlethorpe

One archaeologist advocated the case for the area between the Terry’s factory site and Bishopthorpe, where the Archbishop of York has his palace. This area is known as Middlethorpe but it does not provide an obvious place for a shieldwall battle.

The chroniclers who give us some information also introduce some confusion when they talk about a battle on the northern bank of the Ouse. But most sources put the location south of York which moves the battle to the eastern bank of the Ouse. Middlethorpe is on the west bank and to the south-west of York. But one can overlook such discrepancies and find other reasons to reject this site.

Both armies would have to cross to the west bank of the Ouse to fight. This might have been possible for the Norse if sandbars and low tides had allowed this, but the evidence for fording places across the Ouse nearby are extremely limited. The tides at the time would be extremely high with a concomitant very low tidal level. But the onrushing bore would threaten a repeat of the closing of the Red Sea, with its fatal consequences if they got the timing wrong. But, there is no mention or hint of this in the crossing of the Ouse in any writing.

The presence of the Mercian army to the west of the Ouse was a good reason to keep these two English armies apart and for the Norse to stay on the east bank and fight one army at a time. A battle on Middlethorpe would make reinforcement from the Mercian army not only practical but probable.

This is a telling objection to this proposal. The Mercian army effectively ‘held’ the west bank of the river. They had taken up a blocking position near Tadcaster to defend Mercia and must have been mobilised for battle once they saw King Harald’s army leaving Riccall. We know that Earl Morcar’s brother, Edwin Earl of Mercia, did join the battle so they were evidently alert to the threat. So the Norse men would not have crossed the river unopposed.

One variation of this theory has the Norse using their ships to reach York and then landing on the west bank, a cunning move to outflank Morcar if he was actually on the eastern bank around Germany beck. A Hollywood producer might conjecture a D-Day style landing by King Harald on this part of the Ings, but it didn’t happen. The practical objections to this proposal are too numerous. They would have been slaughtered as they landed and it would be many centuries before an opposed, mass landing from ships could be attempted. It would also have been a very simple matter for those on dry land to destroy ships riding the flood tide. Turning a single ship or tree across the river would have caused a fatal pileup for men clad in armour.

Even had the opposing armies come face to face, there is no obvious place in this landscape for either of the combatants to anchor their flanks except by stretching their shieldwalls to fill a gap of 2100 metres between the river bank and the Knavesmire, which might or might not have been wetland in 1066.

And one has to assume that the contemporary scribes got their left and right confused since the river was now on the eastern side of this possible site, which would be the left for the English and right for the Norse. The alternative is that the scribes were right and the armies were transposed with the Norse nearer York, but this is too far fetched.

The area lacks anything that one could call a ditch and there are no equivalent becks entering this stretch of land that are visible today, even using LIDAR or on any old maps.

This was one of the areas chosen by archaeologists for a comparative survey but it yielded only modern debris. The area was also subject to some soil survey work as a way to understand the Ouse. The possibility that the Fulford Ings had at one time extended further west to include the Middlethorpe Ings (or vice versa) could not be excluded until the evidence demonstrated the stability of the course of the Ouse.

Finally, if one respects the tradition that has named this the battle of Fulford (and sometimes confusingly referred to as Gate Fulford), this name cannot sensibly be attached to a battle on the Middlethorpe Ings.

Tillmire

The possibility of Tillmire as the location for the battle was introduced by the archaeologist for those who want to build an access road along Germany Beck. Tillmire lies well outside their proposed building zone.

This not only suffers from the same problem of fighting a battle on the soggy Ings , although no core samples from this area of marsh have been examined, but it is still noted as important wetland for wading birds and there are several lakes stocked for fishermen on Tillmire which does not make it a likely candidate for a significant battle between opposing shieldwalls.

And Tillmire also fails the military probability and literature tests. It makes no sense for the English army to stand aside and leave the road to York open by forming a shieldwall somewhere among the wetlands of this common mire.

A proper analysis of warfare shows that most battle sites are chosen by one side in order to defend some strategic location or a location where they will have some advantage to allow them to destroy their enemy. The notion that a battle was like a sports fixture where armies would meet by appointment on a ‘killing field’ is misconceived. An army would not expose themselves on a patch of open wetland and wait to be attacked.

There is no ditch of military significance in the area of Tillmire and there is no river to act as a flank. Both of these are strongly indicated as landscape features by the literature and this only works if the shieldwall could be stretched to fill a gap about 3000 metres from Tillmire to the river Ouse. (At Germany Beck the available forces could be concentrated to cover a gap 515 m wide.) A shieldwall that could not have been even 2 men deep would be brushed aside if the invaders had even bothered to go onto the Tillmire to challenge them.

Water Fulford Ings

Ormsby, writing in 1895, suggested that the battlefield took place on the land opposite Bisopthorpe Palace, near Water Fulford. This area was investigated and the area produced some interesting finds. Among the non-ferrous items were cloth seals and shield weights. These suggest that there was some trading activity and we speculated that these might not have been licensed, which might account for the number of items found that were abandoned perhaps in confusion when the sheriffs men appeared. But this is pure speculation!

One of the possible reprocessing sites was found in this area. This produced the part-made arrowhead and possible ship nails. But this is the most westerly of the reprocessing areas and if one accepts that these are related to the battle one might surmise that the balance of the fighting was much further east if one looks for the midpoint of the metal-working sites identified.

Water Fulford could just about fulfil the requirement for a battle north of the river as the Ouse briefly veers west providing a north bank. The area is, and has for two millennia been, Ings and much too wet to support a shieldwall battle. This is an outstanding hay meadow which produces several wonderful flushes of wild flowers each year. It has survived because it is not attractive to modern agriculture as the ground always has substantial wet sumps. (Those tempted to explore this open area should take great care as there are many swamps and quicksands. In early summer, when it is normally drier, the area has some of the finest flowering water meadows to be found.)

But there are reasons other than the swamps to suggest that this area would not be a place for the battle. There is no ditch so there is no sensible place to defend the city. Without placing themselves across the access road to York, the Norse army would have bypassed Morcar’s men and moved on towards an undefended York, leaving Morcar stranded and cut off from his base.

So this area makes no military sense and highlights the danger of being guided solely by one literary reference and without inspecting the actual terrain.

Walmgate

Walmgate Stray was believed, before any research was done, to have been wetter so might have provided part of the marshy flank mentioned in the literature and a possible escape route for the routed defenders. However, both of these speculations could be dismissed after the soil survey.

The area of Walmgate Stray (also the part known as Low Moor) was surveyed with the small auger. The soil cover ranged from 10 to 70 cm with a transition layer before compact yellow sand was found. In spite of appearances, this area has not been a swamp as there was no layer of alluvial material in the top metre which sits on the hard moraine material.

The stray is crossed with many shallow ditches which help drain the land into Germany Beck. These drainage ditches are almost certainly man-made to improve the quality of the pasture on the stray. These ditches have no military significance and would not delay any army for a moment.

Once the true nature of the area was known, there is nothing in the literature, landscape or physical evidence to point towards Walmgate as a place that had any role in the battle of Fulford.

St Oswald's road

Map evidence caused us to assess the St Oswald's road area as a possible site for the battle as we believe that this is the locus of the village sometime known as Gate Fulford, where there were buildings at the time of the battle. But subsequent investigation of the place naming evidence for Gate Fulford, as well as the topography itself, ruled this out as a place for the battle.

It is unfortunate that the name of Gate Fulford was being employed in the 19th century, at the time when mapmakers were starting their work and the study of Anglo-Saxon history was enjoying a renaissance. The modern village of Fulford was created after the time of the battle and it is common to find the alternative names of Gate Fulford and Fulford printed on the early maps, but this reflects the ‘political’ problems associated with naming the village that was discussed in chapter 3 of Finding Fulford

Once it was clear that there was no marsh to the east of the moraine (Walmgate Stray) and that no ditch could be located, the possibility of ‘Gate Fulford’ being the site of the battle was not pursued.

Germany Beck

There were even some early objections to this location. If the battle had taken place along Germany Beck, as many suggested, it seemed impossible that some evidence would not have emerged. This was because the beck is bounded by Fulford Cemetery, so is arguably the best excavated piece of land around York, although archaeologists would be quick to point out that digging a hole for a grave, and exploratory excavation, are quite different matters.

Several talks with the grave-diggers and permission to consult the records revealed that not one single item of any possible interest had been found. There was no local ‘buzz’ about artefacts that had been found and privately disposed of. This seemed to be barren territory if one was looking to identify a battle with a hoard of weapons.

Germany Beck is the location of the battle in the History of Fulford. The authors were instrumental in placing a small memorial stone to commemorate the battle, which is very near to the spot that we now know is above the site of the ancient fording place. It is humbling that it took me a decade of hard, dirty work to reach the same conclusion as these veteran archivists and historians.

K Penn, the author of the 1973 report evaluating routes for the Outer Ring Road, placed the battle ‘along Germany Beck’. The work for the Royal Society for Historic Monuments (RSHM) suggested the centre of mass for the English army was just west of the A19 and north of the modern Ings and close to Germany Beck. This has been followed by most modern historians.

This report proposes that the part of Germany Beck that offered the best defence in 1066 was to the east of the moraine gap. All commanders who are able to choose the ground, as Morcar was, would oblige the enemy to struggle up the slope in order to attack them. So the conclusion reached after the fieldwork is in broad agreement with all the modern published opinions about the location of the battle.

Summary

All of these proposals, apart from Germany Beck, can be confidently dismissed as the place for the battle.

 

 

 

Related sites Facebook  Twitter (@ helpsavefulford)        Visiting Fulford        Map York

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 Belt, floodplain housing estate.

And another website for the Fulford Tapestry that tells the story of the September 1066: This tells the story embroidered into the panels.

The author of the content is Chas Jones - fulfordthing@gmail.com  last updated June 2015

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