The Battle of Fulford isn’t one that gets chatted about over breakfast regularly. It’s not well known, and is often considered just another minor clash against the Norse. But though it was sadly a battle lost to the Vikings, it was definitely more just an unfortunate badge to concede. For the outcome at Fulford actually had a significant impact on Harold’s efforts at Hastings three weeks later. This vicious and bloody fracas, therefore, was very probably a pivotal moment in English history.
It was a combined Saxon army marshalled under the banners of Mercia and Northumbria (Earl Edwin and Earl Morcar) that took up a defensive position a mile and a half south of York, near Gate Fulford. King Harold Godwinson, who was in London, would likely have received word of a Norse challenge, but his troops had quite a distance to travel and weren’t there on that fateful day in September, 1066. However, with that said, and despite the fact that he had set off to head north, it’s unlikely Edwin and Morcar were aware he was on his way. And this lack of knowledge probably led to their decision to leave the protective walls of York to meet the invaders at Fulford rather than face a siege. On the flip side, their opponents, King Harald Hardrada and Earl Tostig, presented a considerable force that had ransacked Scarborough and then sailed up the Humber still in battle mode. Which leads us to the next question…
The Viking army will undoubtedly have been a force to be reckoned with. Even if one looks to mitigate possible exaggeration in contemporary reports, it is likely to have numbered over ten thousand. The English defence, on the other hand, was probably half this size. As already mentioned, Edwin and Morcar were unaware of Harold’s possible support. If they had known about it, they may have waited and stayed behind the defensive walls of York; but more of that later. So what was going on?
If you’re reading this because you’re interested in medieval history, you won’t need us to tell you these were troubled times. Edward the Confessor had died earlier in the year, and Harold had taken the throne. But there were others who felt they had a claim too. Harald Hardrada, King of Norway, being one; William, Duke of Normandy, being another. To add to this inflammatory mix, Earl Tostig, Harold Godwinson’s brother, also had his eye on the Earldom of Northumbria. So it’s no surprise that Hardrada’s plight was one he would support; their union would work for both of them. The Earls of Mercia and Northumbria – Edwin and Morcar – therefore, had little choice but to scratch each other’s backs, or they would simply be swallowed up.
So, if Harold wasn’t wedged between a rock and a hard place, he was certainly stuck between choosing to defend against a flood of long ships at the Tyne, or an impending Norman fleet crossing the Channel. The winds that frustrated William and prevented him landing on the English shore were the winds that blew the Norwegians initially instead.
It was 20th September, 1066. The land around Fulford was flat and marshy. And the fighting that took place there was ferocious. Strategically, it would seem that the English found themselves out gunned almost from the start, surrounded by water. The Norse army had advanced along the banks of a ditch forking out from the River Ouse. When Harold initially made his move, the invaders had appeared to falter. But Hardrada was an experienced strategist and he’d retained a large proportion of his troops back against the river. As the Saxons attacked, Harald’s left contingent swung around in a pincer movement and trapped them. Not to put too fine a point on it, the Mercian/Northumbrian coalition was decimated. It’s said the number of bodies was so great that the Norwegians were able to cross the meadow without getting their feet wet.
Interestingly, although the English surrendered, Harald did not attack the City of York. It’s surmised by many that he probably wanted to protect it from looting by his army, with a mind to ruling from there himself and enjoying the benefits it had to offer. But whatever his reasoning, Hardrada set up camp at Stamford Bridge instead. Also interestingly, Edwin and Morcar had chosen not to fight the Vikings from behind the walls of York. And it is likely that it was this decision that led to the significant loss of men they suffered at Fulford.
And this is the reason why Fulford is so pivotal in our history. For the impact was not about the loss of face and territory, but about the loss of manpower. The number of English casualties was huge. It’s true that King Harold’s actual army was not touched, but the support he’d probably been counting on against a French invasion was badly disabled.
Just five days later, Viking and Saxon forces met again at Stamford Bridge… But that’s a story for next month. So until then, we’d like to leave you pondering on how the winds of fortune blow sometimes. For Fulford, they blew in from the north, and held William of Normandy at bay. But at what cost? A significant one, it would seem, and one that would turn the course of English history forever.