The year of 1066 saw three major battles focusing on the struggle between the major contenders for the throne of England. The first and often forgotten battle was Gate Fulford, where brothers Morcar and Edwin, Earls of Northumbria and Mercia respectively, failed to hold off an invasion by the Norwegian Harald Hardrada and the disaffected Tostig Godwinson. How Tostig and Harald Sigurdsson, who earned himself the wonderful sobriquet The Hard to Counsel, ‘Hardrada’, got together has been the subject of speculation by most historians. But it seems that Tostig, having tried to join in with William of Normandy’s plans and was not successful, gathered a fleet and men whilst in Flanders, aided by his wife’s relation, Count Baldwin. We saw previously, that he had been unsuccessful in his plan to invade England, and so he went north after being chased by brother Harold’s bigger fleet from Sandwich. He summered with his sworn blood brother, Malcolm, King of the Scots and from there he most likely made contact with, The Lightning Bolt of the North, Harald Sigurdsson as he was also referred to in the sagas.
Harald’s fleet set sail during the summer and first arrived in Orkney to gather the local Viking forces of Jarls Paul and Erland. He then travelled southwards to meet with Tostig and his smaller fleet; poor Tostig, always a smaller, poorer, unfulfilled whatever it was. So Harald, his large fleet and great army, and Tostig’s, eh-hem, smaller gathering, ravaged the Yorkshire coast, destroying the town of Scarborough by throwing burning embers from a bonfire onto the thatched roofs of the houses. Not a nice way to win friends and influence people.
The next town to be met by their ‘warm’ arrival was Holderness whose citizens attempted to put up a resistance but were pretty much swatted like flies and from there, the combined forces of Harald and Tostig sailed into the Humber. They moored their ships, at least 300 for Harald, in the Ouse at Riccall and marched on to York, a major strategic stronghold and if Harald could take it, he would be in a strong position to conquer the north, piecemeal, using York as his base. It stands to reason that Tostig was looking for revenge, against the citizens of York who’d given their support in ousting him from the earldom. Not sure there were many in York, who, when they learned what was coming, were looking forward to the party.
How Tostig persuaded Harald Sigurdsson to undertake this invasion is a matter for exploration. Harald and Swein of Denmark had ended their long war in 1064, and it’s possible that Tostig had gone to his cousin, Swein, before he had gone to Harald for help. If he did, as the later Harald Saga states, its most likely that Swein was loathe to leave his kingdom for fear of resumed Norwegian attacks from Harald. So that then left Tostig with only Harald Sigurdsson to turn to.
If we are to understand what may have prompted Harald to invade England, we should look back further to eight years ago. The sources’ evidence for 1058, especially the Welsh and Irish Annales, are decidedly insistent that a Norwegian fleet ravaged the English kingdoms citing that their leader was Magnus, son of Harald, King of Norway. Later Domesday evidence shows that the west coast of Tostig’s Northumbrian lands were left wasted which could support evidence of a Viking harrying in that year as the annales claim. According to M & S Davies in their book about Gruffudd, Magnus’ presence amongst the allied forces of King Gruffudd and Alfgar of Mercia in 1058, would have meant something major was going down. The Irish Annales claim that Magnus was after the kingdom for himself and this cannot be ruled out, however his ambitions did not come to fruition but there is no evidence as to what happened that year other than that there seems to have been a major incident which the English, perhaps too embarrassed to admit, wanted to keep quiet about, in which there was most likely a huge pay off.
Tostig, would have been aware of the involvement of Magnus in the ‘incident’ of 1058, and may have viewed this as the prince acting on behalf of his father Harald, who was, at the time, battling with Swein over Denmark in an effort to expand his empire further. It would not be unreasonable to conject that Harald had lent his support to Magnus joining Gruffudd and Alfgar in the invasion of England. The agreement may have been that should they be successful, Harald would be invited to be king. So was MAgnus acting on Harald’s behalf? As things happened, the Norwegians accepted the money in exchange for leaving, which might have been what caused the embarrassed silence of the English chroniclers. So, if we follow this line of evidence, Tostig, knowing that Harald had once been interested in the English crown, turned his attention to the Norwegian king and the Thunderbolt jumped at the opportunity. How the magic duo were going to divide the kingdom up between them is not really known. However, conceivably, Harald would be king and Tostig probably dux Anglorum in his old lands in the north.
There is only one detailed source for this battle, Snorri Sturluson’s Saga of King Harald. It may not be 100% reliable, but its the best one. What we can be sure of is that, leaving their ships in Riccall, Harald and Tostig marched on York. Meanwhile, the young earls Edwin and Morcar, assembled their troops at Gate Fulford by the bank of the River Ouse. This was 2 miles from the city walls. They would have had plenty of time to gather intelligence about the movements of the Norse and send messages south to King Harold to ask for assistance. The Norwegians were a vast army and this was going to be no minor skirmish. This was obviously a serious attempt to invade and conquer.
But if there had been plenty of time to send word to Harold to come to their aid, why didn’t the northern earls wait before going out to engage the invaders? There may have been many reasons. Perhaps time, or maybe they were too young and impetuous, and felt a battle fought on the defensive would be doable. They may have wanted to assert their independence and strength, feeling that they were equipped to handle such an invasion. They were able to call on a large body of men who owed military service from their earldoms. There was also possibility that they may have been paranoid that Harold would strike a bargain with his brother Tostig and restore him to his former earldom which was now Morcar’s. If I had been in their shoes, I might have felt this way too, because Harold had a reputation for talking, rather than fighting. Despite the union between their sister Aldith and the king, the young earls may still have harboured suspicions toward Harold. It was because of Tostig that Alfgar, their father had been overlooked for the earldom of Northumbria and when Harold had returned from exile in 1052, Alfgar had been made to give back the Earldom of East Anglia to Harold. Then later, when Alfgar’s father, Earl Leofric, died, part of the lands of his earldom had been carved up and given to the Godwinsons. One can see why when over the years the Godwinsons had cultivated the notion that they were greedy, power hungry and self-serving. Bringing Tostig back into the fold would benefit Harold greatly to have him back ruling the north.
But whatever the reasons to not await Harold’s arrival, Morcar and Edwin failed to keep York from falling into the hands of the enemy, despite fighting bravely and putting up a great resistance. The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle tells us that the earls’ army was as large a force as they could muster. Snorri Sturluson insists it was an ‘immense’ army. Most likely it was at least 5,000 men plus. York, itself, could muster 1,000 men alone. Then there would have been the armies of the surrounding shires from Cheshire to the Scottish borders. The earls would have had their own huscarles, personal body guards numbering around 300 men or so each. This would have taken some mobilising and it shows how relaxed the attitude of the Vikings were, that allowed them the time to do it, and that was eventually to be their downfall. As they approached Gate Fulford, Harald’s scouts saw the formidable army lining up against them. ‘Gate’ is actually meant to mean a road through a ‘foul’ (muddy/swampy) ford.
King Harald’s Saga informs us that the Norse king’s standard, The Raven, was placed near the river at the back of his army which then stretched all the way up ‘where there was a deep and wide swamp, full of water’ no doubt the ‘foul’ or full ford. Moving toward the Norse army and using the stream that ran across the approaching road to strengthen their front, they manoeuvred in close formation as a shieldwall. Morcar led the vanguard and faced Tostig’s troops on the opposite side of the stream and Edwin’s men faced Hardrada nearer the Ouse.
According to the Worcester Chronicle the English fought bravely at the onset, and that Tostig’s Norwegians were pushed back. Tostig’s troops were heavily engaged by Morcar’s men and hard-pressed. It was then that Hardrada lead his famous devastating charge to cut them down. With a blast of horns and war trumpets ringing through the air, Edwin’s huscarles are slaughtered and the English began to break up. Seeing that defeat was imminent, the levies broke and fled back to York. Having overwhelmed Edwin’s men, Hardrada now closed in to support Tostig on his right flank and Morcar’s men were trapped in the swamp. Many met their deaths there in those murky muddy waters, sucking their bodies into its ravenous depths. Florence of Worcester claims that there were less men killed on the battlefield that drowned than in the river.
According to the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle the day saw great slaughter on both sides but the Norsemen took possession of the field and the glory was theirs. Many corpses were bogged down in the river and the ’causeway of corpses’ was to be remembered long after the battle as men recalled using the them to clamber over to the other side of the stream and flee. Those that managed to flee, escaped to the relative safety of York with both the earls and their surviving men.
The young brothers were inexperienced and could have only have been aged between 17-19 at the time. They were the sons of Alfgar of Mercia, the rogue Earl who had allied himself on more than one occasion with the Welsh to oppose Harold Godwinson and King Edward. Alfgar had died around 1062 and Mercia had passed into his son, Edwin. Later, younger brother Morcar had been elected earl by the Northumbrians in an unprecedented move to oust Tostig Godwinson as their earl. Tostig had been Earl of Northumbria since 1055 but his harsh rule had made him unpopular and the men of the north revolted in 1065, demanding that they would have none other than Morcar as their leader, threatening to blaze a trail through the country if their demands were not met. This shows the respect that they must have had for Earl Leofric and Alfgar, that the men of Northumbria chose a son of Mercia to rule them.
The devastating defeat must have been harrowing for the brothers in their first real engagement. They appear to have fought bravely and the battle might have gone either way. Harald Sigurdsson’s amazing, courageous charge brought the end to the battle. The Battle of Fulford Trust believe that the Vikings outnumbered the English and this may have contributed to Sigurdsson’s forces being able to roll up around them and crush them as reinforcements arrived. Peter Marren (2004) states in his book 1066 The Battles of York, Stamford Bridge and Hastings that he does not necessary agree with this theory that the English were outnumbered, and that the armies were comparable in size.
The lie of the land meant that Edwin and Morcar’s troops would have had difficulty in keeping track of each other. According to The Battle of Fulford Trust, if either of the English flanks gave way, the other side would not have known and this would have made them extremely vulnerable as they were to find out when Hardrada made his charge. Hardrada also had a much better view of the battle from some higher ground on the approach. From this higher vantage point, he would have been able to command his troops more effectively.
Considering the lack of experience and their youth, the young English brothers made a brave attempt to hold off the invaders and defend their city. They had obviously picked their spot with great care and thought, but their rawness in the field may have led to them disregarding such an important point as the lay of the land. Once their lines were broken, the Norwegians were able to break through and push them sideways without their respective flanks being able to pull back round together.
During the 1990’s excavations of bones thought to be those of Edwin’s and Morcar’s men were found with unhealed sword cuts to legs and arms, cracked or decapitated skulls and the typical injuries that are caused by arrows and other sharply tipped weapons such as spears. Many injuries were in the back and at least one had multiple deep cuts.
As violent and brutal as this battle was, it was just the first that the warriors of England were to endure that year. Edwin and Morcar and his surviving troops didn’t make it to Hastings. But there was another northern battle yet to come before Hastings took place. The Battle of Stamford Bridge. In that battle, the victorious Vikings were to meet a new foe, the army of Harold, the King of England, who was no untried boy.
Follow the battle lines below
References and further reading
Marren P (2004) 1066 The Battles of York, Stamford Bridge & Hastings Pen and Sword books Ltd, Yorkshire.
Swanton M (1996) The Anglo-Saxon Chronicles The Orion Publishing Group Ltd, London.
Davies M & S Davies The Last King of Wales The History Press, Stroud.
I.W. Walker (2004) Harold the Last Anglo Saxon King Sutton Publishing Ltd, Gloucs.