Images of flood on the day of the battle
12 panoramas of the battle site
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A narrative of the battle
This is an attempt to compose a narrative of the events, actions and reactions surrounding the battle. It is based on the evidence we have uncovered, but some speculation or judgments are incorporated into this story to attempt to convey the atmosphere and factors all those taking part might have had to consider that morning.
At Fulford there is no evidence of any parlay. No embassies were exchanged. King Harald did not send to demand submission or ask for hostages. Unlike all the various domestic disagreement on English soil in early decades of the 11th century, such as the coup against earl Tostig, a confrontation between opposing armies was settled by negotiation and without shedding blood. Something was different about the coming clash at Fulford as we have no hints that any contact was made between the armies before the battle itself.
Battle was not the only option available in this period. A force that was clearly inferior might accept terms and submit. The honourable exchange of hostages from the family of the weaker party was normal. Bede records another approach that avoided the need for battle. King Oswin of Deria simply sent his army back to their homes when he realised the overwhelming force that King Oswy from the neighbouring Bernica[i] had assembled against him. Battle was a choice.
One is forced to conclude that all the parties must have recognised that in the existing context a battle was the only way to resolve the issues. King Harald was out to conquer England and Earl Tostig was planning to destroy those who had evicted him ten months before. Both sides were resolved to fight.
Speed is a weapon used by all good commanders. Harald did not rest at Riccall. His forces had arrived during the Tuesday and immediately prepared for battle. In the morning, his army moved across the causeways and on towards York.
In the summer of 1066, raids by Earl Tostig had kept the northern armies active so Earl Morcar had an army assembled and well motivated to fight. The raids on the Norfolk and Lincolnshire coasts by Tostig had the effect of drawing Morcar’s brother, Earl Edwin, to the east coast in order to defend his Mercian territory.
Earl Edwin would probably have brought his army over to help his brother even without Tostig’s raids. York had been the centre of national life earlier in the year when King Harold had married Edwin’s sister, Edith. Edwin was now doubly bound to fight any invaders.
There was also a very personal component for Edwin and Morcar in the fight with the ousted Tostig. He had led a cavalry army through Mercia three years earlier, aiming to destroy the ally of Edwin’s father, Gryffedd in Wales. Tostig was also implicated in the circumstances surrounding the subsequent death of Edwin and Morcar’s own father and in making their sister, married to King Harold II, a widow. The coming battle against Tostig was very personal.
Earl Edwin positioned his main force ready to meet the invaders if they chose to head west and into Mercia. From the Mercian location near Tadcaster, it would take half a day to march and join Morcar’s army once the intentions of the invaders were known. When King Harald’s move towards York was clear, only those Mercians who had horses would be available to move quickly enough to join the Northumbrian army at Fulford.
The support of his brother, and a contingent of the best Mercian warriors, was part of the plan to defend the ford. The speculation that Earl Edwin and his hearth-troops, or Huscarls, were given the crucial role of defending the river bank beside the Ouse is not based on any early source but makes sound military sense.[ii] Ultimately, it would be their failure to hold this flank that would play a critical part in the defeat of the defenders at Fulford.
Forewarned of the landings at Riccall, the earls and their experienced commanders had doubtless spent some time selecting ground that would favour them in the battle to come.[iii] Morcar decided to wait south of York, which was excellent from a defenders point of view. The tidal ford was surrounded by marshy land and the defenders overlooked their attackers.
At the ford, the Earl’s flanks were both secure.
Flanks are a preoccupation of every commander. They did not want the Norse to get round the end of their line and attack them from behind. The weapons, arms, leadership and training were all designed to fight a battle along the shieldwall.
Morcar’s right flank was protected by the river Ouse and beside the river was the extensive marsh, known at the Ings. Nature had indeed constructed a good defensive position for the English.
We hear that King Magnus, Harald’s half-brother, ‘ordered the whole army to be gathered by the war trumpets into battle array, and ordered all the men to arm, and to lie down for the night under their shields; for he was told the enemy's army had come to the neighbourhood.’ So it was evidently good practice to be in position in good time. Perhaps many of Morcar’s men slept with the shield and a cloak providing their shelter the night before the battle at the ford.
Earlier we estimated that it would take five hours for King Harald to get his full force on the move along the two natural routes towards York
King Harald had three forces under his control. The smallest belonged to Tostig and his ally Cospig, reinforced by a small contingent from Scotland. They could probably only count on a few hundred good warriors. Then there were the troops from Orkney and Shetland with their earls. There is no account of the size of this force but they might have added 1000 fighters to Harald’s army. Harald would trust these troops less than those he knew and would expect them to prove themselves. Finally, Harald had his Norwegians, which many suggest was over 10,000 strong. Many of these would be his veterans from the Danish wars.
All divisions would have to leave a significant contingent to protect the base and their ships, from which we arrive at a best-guess of 6000 warriors moving to Fulford for the battle.
The tactic that Harald had developed when fighting for the Byzantine Empire was to allow the mêlée to develop and then strike with his most potent force. He knew the quality of his Norwegians and that he could rely on them. It was Earl Tostig and the Earls of the outer islands who he would expect to lead the attack.
When the first Norse reached the ford they would see a line of shields. The English might be sitting or squatting, but good military practice dictates that their shields would be facing the assembling enemy. The edges of their shields would be set to overlap to make sure that the gaps for missiles were as small as possible.
A shield was the warrior’s friend. Before the battle it acted as a mask. In the heat of battle the shield provided some sense of invulnerability. It could be used as a weapon but it might also save their life by absorbing or deflecting lethal weapon strokes. Shield construction was a compromise between weight and protection. Depending on the type of wood employed, the shield would be about 6 mm thick. Experiments have shown that this is too thin to stop the thrust of a spear and a few sword swipes would soon hack a shield to bits. The covering of leather gave the shield some flexibility and prevented it being shattered by weapons such as battle axes. There were reserve shields, with some in the front rank slinging a second shield on their back.
The real protection provided by a shield was therefore somewhat illusory. King Harald fought without one, boasting in one of his poems that his swinging axe was his shield. This also illustrates the point that it was not possible to handle a large axe or a spear and carry a shield.
But the use of the shield had a fundamental effect on tactics. The shield is not only for personal defence but provided collective protection for those around. When the sword was raised to strike, the left side of the attacker’s body would be exposed. This same advice must have been drilled into every army since man devised an art of warfare.
Figure 5.3 & 5.4 Roads to battle: The topographic map on the left shows two feasible routes to the battle. The direct route to the east follows the moraine. The western route moves through land that is largely out of sight from the west bank of the Ouse, which was held by the Mercian army. The map on the right plots the recognised Roman roads. There are none indicated between Riccall and Fulford (or Stamford Bridge).
The sun rose shortly before six o’ clock[iv] on the 20th September and daylight comes quickly in autumnal Yorkshire. The halo of light that hovers near the horizon during the summer nights was gone. The moon had set and the night sky was dark but at Riccall the camp would be stirring. It was probably not only the prospect of a battle that roused the warriors that morning but the penetrating, damp-cold along the riverbank.
Perhaps an hour after first light, Harald’s mounted scouts might have begun to report back what they had seen at the ford. Once the sun was up, the evidence that the earl was making his stand at the ford would be clear. In the dark, perhaps some fires would have told the scouts that an army was assembling.
It was probably a little after 9 o’clock when the first formed troops of the invading army arrived on the battlefield after the march from Riccall. Their priority was to have a drink. The battle itself would be thirsty work so it was important to go into battle well prepared. The river was nearby. It was safe to go and fill their water skins ready for the hard work ahead.
But it would be another two to three hours before the full force of the Norwegians arrived. Earl Tostig was noted as an intelligent and scheming man. He would have recognised that he did not want to provoke an attack before the full force was ready.
From the shoulder of the moraine cut by Germany Beck, Tostig could see in front of him an amphitheatre filled with tidal, muddy water from the Ouse. The English also enjoyed a grandstand view of this arena from their straighter, steeper shoulder of the moraine. This was the place where people and animals forded the beck when the tide ebbed. If a causeway existed, the defenders would have probably removed it.
Figure 5.5 Dispositions: This diagram shows the beck in 1066 with its width indicating the level reached during high tide on the day of the battle. King Harald’s troops could have approached the battle without being spotted and remained out of sight until the counter-stroke was launched by him towards Earl Edwin, with the aim of outflanking the advancing Northumbrian line. It is possible that the land occupied by the Mercians beside the river Ouse was only dry enough to occupy once the tide ebbed, leaving the flank exposed.
Bows were a common weapon whose everyday use was for hunting. However, they could be employed in battle like a sniper weapon or to harass an assembled force by firing over the shieldwall. The epic poem Beowulf mentions ‘the iron-tipped arrow shower’ suggesting that it was also recognised as a collective weapon. A shower of arrows could wound many at 50 or 100 metres unless the energy was absorbed by a well-positioned shield.
Little is actually recorded about how these ‘long range’ weapons were employed as they were used by the rear ranks and were probably not specialist warriors trained in the arts of war. King Harald of Norway would be killed by an arrow in his throat when he left the protection of the shield-wall at Stamford Bridge.
At thirty meters an iron-tipped arrow would have the power to penetrate a shield. However, the energy would be taken out of the arrow, making the embedded shaft an inconvenience rather than a mortal danger. The Bayeux Tapestry shows the shields of those in action with arrow shafts embedded in them. However, some arrows would have hit legs and shoulders unprotected behind a shield.
The casualties would have eased their way to the back of the line for whatever remedial treatment was available. This dangerous game might have lasted for over an hour at Fulford while the tide ebbed. There was no incentive for the English to make a move. The invaders would have to make the costly move into the ditch where they would become the targets for javelins and spears.
Two concerns might have troubled the young earl as the hours rolled round towards midday. The first was the continuing stream of warriors arriving from Riccall. The second was the impatience of his men. After an hour of arrows, his archers would probably have exhausted their supply. It is hard to keep an army standing about.
King Harald could have moved most of his troops to Fulford before midday. He too would have had a good look at the location. At Stamford Bridge the two leaders would confer about the battle and taken some time to make their plan. However, the cunning plan that would be followed at Fulford bears all the marks of Harald’s planning. Like Tostig, he was someone who kept his own counsel. In all probability Tostig knew nothing of Harald's plan to cross the ford.
As it approached the middle of the day and the water at the ford was flowing back into the ebbing Ouse, Harald sent his least experienced troops into the attack. The ford was offset to the right, perhaps fifty metres away from the centre of the English line that was deployed along the north shoulder of the beck. The troops chosen to lead the Norse attack for King Harald would probably have been the Orkney islanders he had brought with him, led by their Earls and with Earl Tostig’s small force in the centre. Harald expected little of these troops as they advanced into the muddy amphitheatre around the ford. Indeed the ground was still muddy, making it difficult for them to move. But once they had waded into position they would certainly not be able to run away.
King Harald had assembled his good troops near the riverbank where the land was much firmer. The shape of the moraine meant that he could keep his army and his presence concealed in dead ground. Here the Norwegians were out of sight and out of harm’s way. Keeping his best troops concealed, the cunning King Harald would have helped to make the English over-confident, which is what he required for his plan to work.
The time for shouting and psychological warfare from both sides was over. Now the battle began. The next weapon to be employed was the javelin. These were light throwing spears similar to the Roman pilum to judge from those found buried in graves of the 10th and 11th centuries. The tactic for their use was tried and tested.
A shower of these javelins might be unleashed when the enemy was perhaps ten seconds away from contact. This would bring down a proportion and pierce the shields of others, rendering them useless, so opening up the charging enemy to counter strokes. This might have been what the English did. The attacking shieldwall was quickly put into reverse and pushed back down the slope. At this point Morcar should have stopped.
However, the saga tells us that ‘When the earls advanced downwards into the fen, the arm[y] of the Northmen's line which was at the ditch gave way; and the Englishmen followed, thinking the Northmen would fly. The banner of Earl Morcar advanced then bravely.’
The English evidently succeeded in pushing the opposing shieldwall back at the ford. Given the slope which currently favoured Morcar, it would have been relatively easy to use their ‘step’ drill, with the shieldwall advancing as one to push the attackers backwards. This was probably achieved in the normal push and hack of close-quarter fighting, helped by the slope. Only much later in a battle, when tiredness and lack of replacements became a factor, would the shieldwall be penetrated and begin to fragment. At this stage, every gap in each shieldwall on both sides was quickly repaired with fresh shields and replacements from the rear ranks.
In spite of the mud at the ford, the English steadily pushed the invaders back. The English had now been drawn into the amphitheatre where the Norsemen still lined the slopes. The arc carved by Germany Beck now began to stretch the English line.
To keep the shieldwall intact, men had to be drawn in from other parts of the line. The numbers were still sufficient to allow this, but the English line was getting thinner as it advanced. The line at the ford would be stretched to twice its length it if advanced just 40 metres at its centre. Their reserve was probably committed to support this advance as the line was stretched by the landscape.
Fighting is an exhausting business. Those at the front of the shieldwall could be expected to maintain contact for no more than five or ten minutes before pausing for breath. So after a rush, and five minutes of hard fighting, those at the front of both lines would want to disengage and put a small space between them. If they could not separate they might attempt to change places with those just behind. If a shield had been hacked by sword or axe it would be imperative to move behind those who could afford some protection.
Any gap in the shieldwall could be exploited by the opposing spearmen. There was plenty of killing work for those just behind the front shields. They could stab in many directions with a battle spear which required the use of both hands. The axe was another two-handed weapon for those deprived of their shield.
An army equips its men with a mixture of weapons to meet the different conditions. The heavy axe might have had a shaft measuring over 1.5 metres. Used from behind the protection of a shield-wall, an opportunist axeman could split skulls and shatter shields. However, any two-handed weapon user would be vulnerable to a counter-jab from an opposing spearman or sword-carrying warrior.
A heavy axe is not easy to steer so would have been employed in diagonal or horizontal strokes. If the axe embedded itself in a shield or entangled in the body and armour of its victim, the weapon might have to be abandoned. However, the axeman was ideal for plugging any breach in the shield wall. The lethal axe could provide vital moments for those around to close the gap.
The ‘bearded axe’, so-called because the base of the blade seems to protrude rather like a beard, is not the natural shape for chopping wood where a flatter blade would be more suited. The angle would make it well suited for slicing whatever came in its path.
During a battle danger came from many directions. Those wielding their swords at the front had their focus on the man opposite them. Behind the front man a warrior was armed with a spear attached to a long shaft of ash, which would allow him to jab at any one of half a dozen warriors fighting in the first few lines of the opposition while the shieldwalls were in contact.
Many of the battle spears found have wings. These could be used to hook behind a shield and expose the carrier to a sword thrust. Both shieldwalls would be engaged in this lethal search for some exposed body-part that they could attack.
For personal protection, front-line warriors wore an iron helmet and armour. Any blow to a head encased in iron would have been traumatic but the effects could be mitigated by some wool padding acting as shock-absorbing material. The very few metal helmets that have survived have protective metal flaps over the ears and holes around their base which it is conjectured were used to suspend pieces of chain mail to protect the neck. Hardened, thick leather helmets would have been more comfortable and quite effective for the second-line fighters.
Professional warriors would all expect to own what the Vikings called a ‘byrnes’. This suit, made from rings of wrought iron, would mitigate the effect of a slashing blow. However, it was the padded jack below the armour that would absorb and spread the energy and reduce the damage to flesh and bone. Experiments have shown that chain mail would not be effective at stopping a spear but might limit the penetration. Even members of the levy who stood well behind the shield wall would expect to wear a padded jack to reduce the effect of blows.
This iron armour would be effective at limiting injury during close quarter battle. If the opponent could not swing their axe, make an effective stroke with their sword, or if action was limited to prodding and poking with their spear, the riveted links could prevent serious injury. Lethal as the fighting looked, the chances of survival were good so long as the shieldwall and cohesion of the formation remained. And, ironically, the armour was more effective if the warrior was very close to the their attacker. Any space that allowed weapons to be wielded made the conflict more lethal.
After an hour of plodding and pushing progress, the leading English fighters would be exhausted and the Norse formation was still holding, possibly reinforced by later arrivals. The stretched line of the English had spent this hour driving into the Norsemen’s line, fighting in the mud at the ford.
The situation might have looked good for the English. However, King Harald had managed to draw Morcar from his strong position and across the ditch. Morcar had also been forced to thin his line. This salient had meant that the English shieldwall was now about 600 metres long. Earl Morcar was also on the lower ground. He would not be in such a good position to observe what was going on.
“ [Harald] had the standard 'Landwaster' carried forward and made so hard an attack that all were driven back. Morcar's brother had had his standard brought along the river, downwards against the army of Harald, but when the King hardened his attack, the earl and his men fled along the river.”
King Harald had identified the weak point in the English defence. If he could force his way across the beck beside the river, he would be in a position to surround the English. One saga suggests that this attack was led by King Harald himself.[v]
As a prelude to this attack Harald ‘ordered a war-blast to be blown and urged them on.’ At this point in the battle three-quarters of the warriors on both sides had been spectators rather than participants. Apart from the exchange of arrows and insults, the only action had been at the ford. Now, all along the line the Norsemen made their way into the ditch and began to wade towards the English shieldwall on the other side. In some places the separation was only thirty metres but in most places the opposing shieldwalls along the banks of Germany Beck were nearly fifty metres apart.
The effect of an attack along the whole length of the line allowed the cunning King Harald to launch his attack. English warriors would now need to focus their whole attention to the front to ensure their personal survival. The full-frontal attack was a decoy which would prevent any English war bands going to the aid of parts of the line that were under pressure. There would be no more fresh reinforcements fed into the overstretched line at the ford, or at the outpost beside the river.
This sequence of events was not haphazard nor exploiting a sudden opportunity. Harald had offered an attractive ‘sacrifice’ to Earl Morcar knowing that he was bound not only to accept it but to continue the advance because it must have felt to the English as if they were winning. Now was the moment for Harald to strike, and cross the beck.
The reputation of the banner known as ‘Landwaster’ had evidently impressed the author of Encomium Emma which records that,
“the Danes had a banner possessed of a wonderful property, which although I believe it will seem incredible to the reader, nevertheless, because it is true, I will insert it for him for the sake of truth. For although it was woven of a very plain bright silk and had no figure embroidered on it yet always in time of war a raven seemed as it were to appear on it, in victory opening its beak and beating its wings, restless in its feet, but very quiet and drooping in its whole body in defeat.”
The track beside the river must have seemed an easy place to attack. There was no wide ditch to cross, just some small streams. When King Harold, or one of his younger and fitter captains, led this charge along the riverbank, it might have taken less than half a minute from the time the charge began until the full weight of King Harald’s ‘best men’ hit Earl Edwin and his Mercian guards. They would inevitably have given ground as they absorbed the energy of the charge. The key was how quickly they could recover the situation.
Faced with such an attack, all the Mercians could do was maintain their shieldwall. The loss of the riverbank might not have appeared too serious at first. This was a rather isolated outpost of the battle. The main action was off to their left. They had glimpsed the line advancing but from their position very little of the battle was now visible. The moraine was six meters higher than their position at the riverbank, while the ford was at the same level and some willow trees obstructed the view.
King Harald soon had his best troops on the firm ground that formed a levee or causeway on the defenders’ side of the beck. This was also the place where the defenders were thinnest on the ground and had, a short time before, been the obvious place to provide reinforcements for the expanding and advancing English line. The delta had not seemed like a place that needed much defending with no shieldwall opposite.
When one source suggests that the earls were slow to respond to the threat at the river, it was understandable. There are two possible explanations for this text.
First, the rising tide would have made it impossible to occupy the levee. The text might be suggesting that the force led by Earl Edwin might only have deployed to defend the exposed flank as King Harald launched his attack. Perhaps Edwin was responding but it is probable that the experienced warriors would have recognised the threat the falling tide would present but that same expertise employed by the Norse force would have recognised this as a tactical opportunity.
Second, from his position near the ford, the events next to the river would not be seen by Earl Morcar. Once he was made aware of the threat his options were limited. The fact that he survived is a credit to his leadership and the quality of his fighting men. The time was probably a little after 1 o’clock and the tide was a few hours away from ebbing toward its very low level. The thin shieldwall along the delta was being driven back and up towards the track where Morcar's men were still getting the better of the Norsemen.
Once enough of King Harald’s men had crossed the beck, Earl Edwin had to fall back. The Mercians were secure from attack on their right because that flank still lay along the river bank. They could only make their left flank safe by retreating to where the Ings were too soft for the Norwegians to come round and attack them from behind. If they did not make their open flank secure, they would be driven into the river. This would be a fatal option for a warrior clothed in iron armour.
Once Earl Edwin and the Mercians retreated 50 metres, which they had to do in order to secure their own position, the right flank of Morcar’s army was thrown open to attack. Earl Edwin might have spotted this but it was unrealistic to send for reinforcements since the only way to reach the main force now was back along the river bank, and that would mean rushing several kilometres. Edwin’s Mercians were now effectively isolated from Morcar’s Northumbrians.
Earl Edwin’s battle along the levee lasted through the rest of the day. So long as they held the shieldwall, the Mercians would be impossible to defeat. The Ings extend half way back towards York. The Norwegians would have to charge their line repeatedly to force it back. The Mercians could yield a kilometre or more before there was any risk to their flank.
They were probably relatively safe because the focus of the battle, and King Harald’s attention in particular, was now on the destruction of Morcar’s much bigger army. The ‘Landwaster’ moved away and with it the pressure on the riverbank. Even if Earl Edwin could fight his way back to the beck, which is unlikely, the Norwegians were already across in strength and preparing to surround the unsuspecting English.
Edwin’s Mercians were now a sideshow for the battle at the ford. At dusk they might have been able to slip back to York after perhaps five hours fighting. But there is one source which indicates that this force surrendered after a very bloody fight within sight of York. Later, Edwin possibly met Harald, who let him go after a negotiation that favoured Edwin; much to the annoyance of Tostig who wanted him executed.
It might have taken the Norwegian’s half an hour to cross in sufficient numbers to force the Mercians back and then to fight their way to the ford. While this was going on, the rest of the Norsemen were suffering appalling casualties as they attempted to cross the wide, boggy ditch to the English bank. This was the battle that Morcar had wanted to fight. For his men overlooking the ditch and dealing out death to any of the attackers who reached their bank, eventual victory must have seemed within sight because the disaster beside the river was well out of their sight.
Surrounding the men in the ford
The first thing many of the English warriors would have known of the trap that was about to enclose them might have been when those behind them were felled by the first Norwegian warriors to reach the ford. Having pushed Edwin’s Mercians back along the bank, fresh legs would have raced the 80 metres along the English side of the beck and up the incline to appear at the backs of the English.
As the minutes passed, dozens more Norwegians arrived to attack the defenceless backs of the English. The confusion would not have lasted long. Even amid the noise of battle the English would have been alerted to the disaster that was looming.
Retreat was a particularly dangerous phase in any battle. If controlled and conducted carefully, it is possible to extract troops with few casualties. Retreat is not the same as running away. Turning your back towards your enemy presented them with almost every advantage. Instead of a shield to parry the blows, the enemy had an open target to hurl any available missiles at. The fugitive is largely ignorant of any dangers as they cannot see behind except by turning round. If they turned, momentum would also be with the pursuer. At the battle of Brunanburh it is recorded in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle that ‘the west Saxons hewed the fugitive from behind terribly with their sharpened blades’.
The real danger comes if a retreat becomes disordered and turns into a rout. This is a situation that can turn defeat into a slaughter. So long as the army maintained its cohesion it could avoid the slaughter that would result if it ran away. One soldier surrounded by three enemies is bound to die as he cannot face them all. Two soldiers have a chance as they can protect each other’s back. This crude military logic can be extended to show that it makes sense to stick together. Anglo-Saxons and Norse warriors all understood this lethal logic.
There might have been a short respite for the defenders as the first of Harald’s breathless troops arrived having fought their way up a small hill. Perhaps Earl Morcar’s housecarls were able to stem the flow but soon the weight of Norwegian numbers would have ensured their success. Within the space of another hour the defenders had been dislodged from their position across the Ings and along the beck.
Perhaps two hours after the battle had begun, the men who had pressed forward earlier at the ford were being surrounded. They could not break contact and run because they would have been felled by spears from their opponents. The ground on which they were standing did not allow any rapid movement and, if they had a chance to look round, they would see that the Norsemen now occupied the ridge that they had held that morning. Within a short while the men at the ford were isolated from the rest of the army.
The English were under attack on three fronts. The battle along the river, as we have seen, was of no further significance to the battle at the ford. The English, who had stood their ground all-day and dealt out destruction to any who made it across the ditch, were still an effective force with Earl Morcar as their leader.
The final front was in the amphitheatre at the ford. Here the fate of the Northumbrians was being sealed. They were surrounded. They could not escape so they would have to stand and fight. It could take several hours to destroy this ring of warriors.
Tales that the beck ran red with Saxon blood are credible. With the hard clay lying only a short distance below the mud around the ford, when the saga tells us that one could walk ‘dry-foot’ across the bodies, it might be an accurate description as the bodies lay surrounded by the alluvial mud. There was no escape route for these men. They had been fighting longer than any others and death was inevitable.
For Earl Morcar, now reduced to half an army, the situation was perilous. He had skilfully managed to extract himself and kept some troops together for an organised retreat. Florence of Worcester[vi], using a source that is lost to us, provides this commentary. The English ‘fought so bravely at the onset that many of the enemy were overthrown; but after a long contest the English were unable to withstand the attacks of the Norwegians and fled with great loss.’
He adds, ‘More were drowned in the river than slain on the field.’ It would be difficult to drown in the Germany Beck of 1066 once the tide had ebbed. However, the coincidence of a very high tide might have brought half a dozen surges of muddy water up to the ford over the next few days, possibly providing a macabre spectacle of the bodies in the mud which might appear to have drowned.
The comment that they ‘fled’ might also be accurate. One of the chronicles agrees that the English ‘fought that host and made great slaughter of them; but a great number of the English were either slain or drowned or driven in flight, and the Norwegians had possession of the place of slaughter.’
The saga and several Nordic poems about the battle agree that after a long battle, the English fled: ‘and they soon broke into flight, some running up the river, some down, and the most leaping into the ditch.’
They all agree that the English exit was along the ditch. But this could describe a withdrawal rather than a rout. An organised withdrawal was the only way to avoid a massacre and nowhere do we find suggestions that the flight of Earl Morcar and his surviving troops was a rout.
Placed in the context of the landscape where these events took place it was possible to conduct a tactical retreat. There were several areas where dry ground stood above the wetland. These ‘islands’ would provide ‘stepping stones’ during any retreat.
It is possible that Earl Morcar and the rest of his army simply took to their heels but this probably did not happen, not least because of the fatal consequences of a rout that were outlined earlier. It is probable that the battle went into a final phase.
Earl Morcar, protected by his housecarls would have extracted himself from the ford before it was surrounded. He would have had a force of perhaps 2-3000 troops from his left flank who had relatively fresh legs. They were in danger of being outflanked.
Their only option was to fall back to secure their flanks as they were now outnumbered by Harald’s men. The best route for Morcar to retreat was along the line of the beck. Once they passed beyond their flank position there would be some respite. Serious fighting on this soft land would have been difficult so a relatively safe retreat from the battle should have been possible.
This battle could have gone on into the late afternoon but this was no longer a battle of shield walls. The English were in retreat through the fenland. It would make no sense to delay their departure once they realised that there was no way to fight back.
Had Earl Tostig known that Earl Morcar had survived he might have organised a more effective follow-up. However, the saga reports erroneously that Earl Morcar had been killed at the ford. Perhaps his banner had fallen among the dead at the ford. This was the story that was carried back to Norway by the few survivors and is the story recorded in their sagas.
The direction of Morcar’s retreat would lead them towards the village of Heslington. From there the survivors could make their way out into Holderness or find a route back to York. Pursuing the retreating English was drawing the invaders away from the road to York.
Whatever the course of this final phase of the battle, the victory went to King Harald. All of the key players had survived this long and hard battle. But the records all agree that the casualties on both sides were high. Given the reckless charge undertaken by the Norsemen across the exposed deep ditch of Germany Beck, high casualties were to be expected. The English might have lost about a quarter of their number in the battle, mostly killed.
The battle was over and the way to York was open. Earl Edwin was back in the city, possibly after a short spell as Harald’s prisoner, so there was still some leadership in the city. Some of Edwin’s Mercian foot soldiers might even have reached the city in time to hear of the defeat. If they did arrive in York, their presence might have prevented the city from being occupied or sacked by the victors.
The city quickly came to terms. Earl Morcar was, wisely, elsewhere. King Harald and Earl Tostig went into York themselves to arrange for hostages, provisions and support before returning to the ships. The inhabitants recognised Harald as their king and agreed to assist him against Harold Godwinson. Harald demanded 150 hostages. They had the customary five days to deliver the hostages. Monday was the day agreed. King Harald and Earl Tostig left content ‘that all would go southward with them, and gain this land’.
The battle at the muddy ford appeared to have settled the issue of England’s government. However, two more extraordinary battles over the next few weeks would bring about different resolutions. Instead of becoming one of the iconic battles of the English story, Fulford, like its victims, would soon be lost.
Many speculations have been incorporated into this narrative. It is offered as the one that is consistent with all that has so far been discovered. It has the added merit that it makes good sense from a military perspective.
Figure 5.6 Riccall & Stamford Bridge: For those
already thinking about the next battle, this map shows York, Riccall, Tadcaster
and Stamford Bridge. There is also a chart of the various distances, in
kilometres and a key to the terrain. (top left).
[i] Deria and Bernicia were the component kingdoms of the Northumbrian earldom. The royal houses were still locked in a blood-feud which was why Tostig and then Morcar, both outsiders, had been given the earldom.
[ii] The saga implies that this
was undefended and Earl Edwin responded rather slowly to the threat posed.
[iii] They had doubtless reconnoitred a similar position along the river Wharfe where the longships would be forced to land and confront the Mercian army in a location that the defenders hoped would put the invaders at a disadvantage.
[iv] The times are all GMT and are used to allow the sequence of events to be appreciated.
[v] Although the Orkney Saga has Ore actually leading this charge with King Harald close behind. This makes sense as a 50 year old has no business leading a charge and Harald was sensible enough to recognise this.
[vi] Also known as John of Worcester – see chapter 1
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 - firstname.lastname@example.org last updated June 2015