The text of the article that appeared in Medieval History Magazine Dec 2004.


Trying to get a ‘new’ battle accepted into the historical ‘fixture list’ has proved difficult. English Heritage was sanguine in its appraisal. Little evidence could have survived the 938 years separating us from the battle on 20th September 1066 they pointed out.

Medieval battlefields are not artefact-rich environments. The armies arrived, fought, died, fled or marched away after a few hours. The combatants came clad in iron armour, clutching iron weapons. Such ferrous fragments that survived the attention of scavengers would rust, so the material is not popular with archaeologists or conservationists. No site of this antiquity has so far yielded a recognizable weapon.

Battles of this era did not leave structures. There is no evidence that eleventh century defenders enhanced any natural defences by digging or building. The intervening centuries would have degraded any surface evidence while the regular floods, prevalent in this area, might have flushed or buried items beneath centuries of silt.

The location of any mass graves was also unlikely. The damp, acid soil and subsequent agricultural activity would have dissolved and distributed any mortal remains within a century of the battle. Contemporary accounts record that wolves lived in the nearby woods ready to accelerate the dispersal process.

The limited literature seemed the best place to begin the hunt for Fulford followed by a study of the local geology and the landscape before extensive archaeological survey work was begun.

1066 started badly for Anglo-Saxon England

The chronicler sets the scene. King Edward died and was buried in his recently built and consecrated west minster. Harold Godwinson was confirmed as king of England by the nobles of the land. Harold then set off to visit his kingdom aware of the perils that attended many accessions at that time.

‘In this year came king Harold from York to Westminster the Easter following the Christmas of the king’s death, Easter being on 16 April. At that time, throughout all England, a portent such as men had never seen before was seen in the heavens. Some declared that the star was a comet, which some call "the long-haired star": it first appeared on the eve of the festival of Letania maior, that is on 24 April, and shone every night for a week.’ (1)

Harold had fences to mend and plans to prepare which had necessitated his journey to York. His brother, Tostig, had been ousted the previous year by an uprising of the Northumbrians. Tostig had been replaced by Morcar, brother of Edwin, earl of Mercia. A dynastic marriage to the house of Mercia would provide the unity that Harold’s kingdom needed to meets its enemies. Harold married Aldyth, making her Queen of England. The northern earls became his brothers-in-law. Their task was to keep Harold’s northern kingdom secure against invasion.

Tostig, from his exile base in Flanders, had already begun to visit the other contenders to the throne of England. Embassies to the Normans, Danes and Norwegians are recorded. The effect of Tostig’s travels in the spring of 1066 would have a profound influence on the subsequent events. By early summer, it was time for Tostig to make his presence felt around the south and east coasts of England.

‘Soon thereafter came earl Tostig from across the sea to the Isle of Wight, with as many household troops as he could muster, and there he was given both money and provisions. He sailed thence, and did damage everywhere along the sea coast where he could, until he came to Sandwich. When king Harold, who was in London, learnt that his brother Tostig had come to Sandwich, he gathered together greater naval and land levies than any king in this country had ever gathered before, for he was credibly informed that duke William of Normandy, kinsman of king Edward, was about to invade to conquer this land, just as it subsequently came to pass.’(1)

Tostig had chosen his first target well. The early attacks were on the estates of the Godwinson family. Honour made it impossible to ignore these raids but when Tostig learnt that king Harold was on his way to confront Tostig at Sandwich, ‘he sailed away, taking with him shipmen from the port; some went willingly, but others unwillingly. He sailed north into [the Humber], and there harried in Lindsey, slaying many good men there. When earl Edwin and earl Morcar perceived this, they marched thither and drove him out from the land.’(1)

The chronicler goes on to tell us that Tostig ‘stayed the whole summer.’ Tostig’s months of coastal raiding had a more important role than raising troops, supplies or treasure. His actions forced the English armies in the north and south to mobilise. In addition to the hearth-troops retained by each nobleman for the routine exercise of their power, there was the reserve force that lived among the community.

The rules of the fyrd had evolved from a Saxon muster for an expeditionary force to something that we might recognise as a territorial defence force.

‘It seems that at this time fyrd service was performed in two month periods, but it is unclear how many times a year the king could call upon this service. What is clear is that the warrior sent was given money for his own maintenance from the lands he was serving. This payment was, on average, twenty shillings for each two month period - a figure equivalent to the pay of many post conquest knights! This high 'rate of pay' further argues for the professional nature of the late Saxon fyrdman.’(4)

It is tempting to interpret the spring travels and subsequent raiding by Tostig as a demonstration of strategic sophistication. His coastal raids forced the fyrd to use up their service time and resources. Tostig would have learnt from his embassies that William’s fleet and the army of Northmen could not be ready until the end of the summer. His actions seized the initiative and weakened the country’s defences for later in the year.

It may also be coincidence that the twin invasions were launched simultaneously and at the very moment when the English forces had been stood down. No records survive to indicate whether Tostig had orchestrated a co-ordinated plan of attack. It is intriguing to imagine the subsequent events had both invasion succeeded. King Harold felt the need to keep two armies on standby during the summer and into the autumn. The force available at Fulford would be halved. Harold, it appears, took the threat of a coordinated plan of attack seriously.

Things did not go entirely to plan for Tostig if the chroniclers are to be believed. All his raids were driven off and many of those pressed into service at Sandwich apparently deserted him just before he sailed north to meet king Harald of Norway. However, the chroniclers might have misunderstood Tostig’s guerrilla tactics. Tostig only released the press-ganged seamen that had inflated the size of his fleet, when the time came for his rendezvous with king Harold of Norway.

Meanwhile, King Harold of England was putting his own plan into operation. He would position his southern force at the western end of the channel where he could rely on the tides and prevailing wind to speed him to confront the expected landing from Normandy.

‘Then came king Harold to Sandwich, and waited there for his household troops to gather, because it took a long time for them to be mobilized. When they had assembled, he then sailed to the Isle of Wight, and lay there the whole summer and autumn, and the levies were stationed everywhere along the coast, although in the end it was all to no purpose. When the festival of the Nativity of St Mary came [8 September], the men’s provisions had run out, and no one could keep them there any longer: they were therefore given permission to return home.’(1)

Harold must have hoped that by September he had survived the year of crisis and that it was now too late in the year for a campaign of invasion to begin.

The Northmen arrive

If William and Harald planned to launch their invasions simultaneously, the English weather intervened to influence the course of history. Harold’s own fleet was hit by a storm as it made its way east along the Channel.

‘Then the king rode up and the ships were sailed to London, but many were lost before they arrived. Then while the ships were in port, king Harold from Norway came unexpectedly north into the Tyne with a great pirate host – it was anything but small, for it numbered about [three hundred ships] or more – and Earl Tostig joined him, as they had previously agreed, with all the host he had been able to muster. They sailed together with their combined troops along the Ouse up towards York.’(1)

The storm that battered Harold’s ships as they dispersed to their home ports probably had its origin in a strong north wind which is an autumn feature of northern metrology to this day. This wind would favour the Northmen and blow their longships south. Harald brought his family and proclaimed his elder son, Magnus, king of Norway before his departure.

‘When King Harald was clear for sea, and the wind became favourable, he sailed out into the ocean; and he himself landed in Shetland, but a part of his fleet in the Orkney Islands. King Harald stopped but a short time in Shetland before sailing to Orkney, from whence he took with him a great armed force, and the earls Paul and Erlend, the sons of Earl Thorfin; but he left behind him here the Queen Ellisif, and her daughters Maria and Ingegerd. Then he sailed, leaving Scotland and England westward of him, and landed at a place called Klifland.’(5)

To accompany his invasion, William, duke of Normandy, had a banner and relics blessed by the Pope. The weather nearly wrecked his plans. The fleet of 700, simple transport craft set sail for England from the River Dives on 12 September. William’s attempt to cross the Channel was driven back to the coast by the north-wind and the ships took shelter in the Somme estuary.

It would take two weeks to gather and re-organise the surviving fleet at St Valery-sur-Somme before embarking on a desperate night crossing when the wind at last returned to its habitual south-west.

So far the literary sources have provided a good outline of the major events that would shape the history of 1066 and set the scene for the opening battle at Fulford. However, the chroniclers then dismiss the battle itself in a few lines.

‘Together [King Harald and Tostig] sailed into the Humber until they came to York, where earl Edwin and earl Morcar, his brother, fought against them, but the Norwegians had the victory.’(2)

‘but before king Harold could arrive, earl Edwin and earl Morcar had gathered as great a force as they could from their earldom, and 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.’(1)

The literary sources tell us what happened but do not help us to learn why the events unfolded in the way they did. The search for Fulford will have to look elsewhere if we want to appreciate more of the drama that lead to the eventual defeat of the norse invasion.

What the landscape can tell us?

The local geology has been friendly to those hoping to find Fulford. The landscape has been stable since the last ice-sheet retreated. The melting ice carved a channel in the compacted material of the moraine that the glacier had built at its front edge. The sea level was many meters lower providing a forceful flow of water that carved out the course of the river Ouse that has remained stable over the subsequent millennia.

Fulford is located at the place where an extensive, ancient lagoon drains into the river Ouse. This is the only place where the moraine is breached. Until modern hydrology and building technology became available, the landscapes was reserved for annual pasture.

The place where the moraine is breached remains the obvious place for a crossing point. The existence of a deep layer of peat on the lagoon side of the moraine indicates, and micro-fossil dating confirms, that the area was a morass until around the time of the battle. This was the ford.

‘Ford, is one of the commonest topographical place-name elements as indeed we might expect, in view of its importance to the new settlers in any area. It is also well-represented in English documents recorded before 731 and it is likely to have been used to form place-names from an early stage in the Anglo-Saxon settlement of Britain.’(3)

‘Further, most names (ending) in -ford must have had a local significance and it has been pertinently said they can only reflect routes by which villagers communicated with their neighbours.’(3)

‘It has been shown that the commonest word compounded with ford are descriptive of the ford itself.’ So long, broad, stony, shallow and deep are all common.  ‘The water was 'clear' at Sherford, 'slaggy' (muddy) at Slaggyford and 'foul' at Fulford, a name found in at least six counties.’(3) Happily, there are no other instances of the name Fulford are documented in the area.

There is another intriguing clue in the names. According to Cameron when ‘Gate’ is prefixed to village-names it implies that the place is located on a Roman road. Until the eighteenth century, the villages of Gate Fulford and Water Fulford were recorded. However, the identity of the road has yet to be confirmed but it would confirm the place as a significant crossing point. The stream crossed by the ford is known as Germany Beck.

The nature and shape of the landscape dictates the course of every battle so can the landscape be closely matched to the literature? The river was on one flank and the Ouse has remained in its course although it has wandered a little, constrained by the underlying strata to follow its present course. An area of marshy land provided the other boundary although work is still needed to define the full area of this morass. A natural feature which can be translated from the Nordic sources as ditch, dyke or marsh separated the sides and at Fulford, Germany Beck has meandered little from its present course since the ice-sheet retreated.

The land created by these geological forces matches the literature extremely well.

‘King Harald now went on the land, and drew up his men. The one arm of this line stood at the outer edge of the river, the other turned up towards the land along a ditch; and there was also a morass, deep, broad, and full of water.’(5)

There is one other natural feature that will influence the course of the battle described in the sagas. Whenever a river floods, it has a tendency to raise a levee beside its banks. The heavy material quickly drops out of suspension, depositing the finer material further from the river. The bank is then consolidated and forms a dam to limit the flow of flood-water back to the river. Beside the river Ouse, this has produced an environment know as the Ings.

The Fulford Ings are marshland that tithe maps show would later be employed as summer grazing by sheep. The mining of zinc and lead from the Yorkshire Dales since Roman times has provided a ‘pollution scale’ that can be used to date the stratified deposits of alluvial material on the Ings. A representative core-sample indicates that the Ings were wet in 1066 and would not have supported a warrior. Any fighting would be confined to the margins along the river bank or at the base of the escarpment.

The moraine on which Fulford is constructed rises about twenty metres above the Ings. So the English troops in the centre and on the left flank would not be able to observe those defending the riverbank to their right. The first they would see of any outflanking troops was when the attackers reached the top of the moraine escarpment some 200 metres behind their shield-wall. Such was the landscape on which earl Morcar mustered the men of Northumbria to defend England.

The battle begins

A study of the sizes of the respective armies could provide the material for another article and still leave scope for speculation. The number of ships and size of army that the kings of Norway mustered in previous campaigns makes it safe to assert that Harald’s army was at least five thousand strong but a strong case can be made for a force of twice that size.

One unintended consequence of the summer raiding by Tostig was the presence at Fulford of the professional troops of Mercia and their earl, Edwin. A party of Mercian warriors was stationed on the river Warfe near Tadcaster to oppose any attempt by the invaders to row their longships inland, towards Mercian territory.

The Northumbrian nobles had risen against their earl, Tostig, the previous year. A full attendance to support their imported earl, Morcar, could be expected. An English force of three thousand would have provided a shield-wall to cover the six hundred metres between the river and the morass that marked their left flank. The English were probably outnumbered but with five warriors per metre and with marshy ground covering two-thirds of the opposing bank, this strategic choke-point would have been effectively covered.

‘When the earls advanced downwards along the ditch, the arm 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 Morukare advanced then bravely.’(5)

The defenders were in a strong position so it is not obvious why Morcar made the first move. The attackers would have to cross the ditch to bring the battle to them. We have no records to indicate that earl Morcar was an experienced soldier. He was probably just 20 years old. He was facing an army led by arguable the greatest warrior of that era with thrity years fighting experience. Harald had led the Varangian Guards in Constantinople while in exile and had on occasions stood aside while the Emperor’s army was mauled to make sure his prowess as a commander was appreciated.

The skill and subtlety of his military mind had even led Harald to fake his own death on one occasion. The besieged city was then begged to provide him with a Christian burial. The coffin of a suitable size to contain his giant frame was employed to wedge open the city gates while the pall-bearers grabbed their weapons from the box and held the gate until the rest of the ‘mourners’ could arrive.(5)

At Fulford, King Harald had put his weakest troops, possibly those who had joined him in the Orkneys, to confront earl Morcar at the ford. The inexperienced earl might have been tempted by this target and left the high ground. The micro-topography of a battlefield can be important. When the English ‘advanced bravely’ they moved into a small valley from where they could no longer see the rest of the battle. King Harald now made his move.

‘When King Harald saw that the English array had come to the ditch against him, he ordered the charge to be sounded, and urged on his men. He ordered the banner which was called the Land-ravager to be carried before him, and made so severe an assault that all had to give way before it;’(5)

The English outflanked

Bringing an overwhelming superiority to bear on the battlefield has always provided the seed of any military victory. Re-enactment groups have, in the last decade, provided a much firmer basis than pure speculation to talk about the way battles at the time were fought. The wedge or ‘pigs-head’ can break most shield-walls.

Successful defence, on the other hand, relies upon a rapid response to isolate and then destroy each breakthrough. An attacker normally has their flanks exposed to counter-attack once they break through. The landscape where King Harald launched his assault would favour the brave as it would prevent such a riposte.

Harald’s assault along the firm ground near the river had only to progress about a short distance before the Ings would protect his advancing flank. Once the right flank of the English force was forced back ten or twenty metres it was isolated from the rest of the army. The Northmen would have the river on their left and the marsh on their right. With little or no risk of an attack from the rear, king Harald’s gambit was a winner.

The use of soil surveying has helped to identify those areas over which the battle on the English right flank, beside the river, could continue. They had a narrow front of less than fifty metres to defend as they withdrew towards York, two kilometres behind them. For half of that distance their flanks, as well as those of their attacker, would be protected by the river and the Ings.

Because the city was not captured, it is legitimate to speculate that this force was able to block the road to the city until their leaders, exhaustion or nightfall halted the Northmen. The effectiveness and discipline of these defenders prompts the further speculation that they had an effective commander. Earl Edwin is the obvious candidate although his role on the battlefield is nowhere recorded. This retreat along the river to York was however a side-show. The English army at the ford were now fatally exposed but oblivious to their fate.

The plight of those in the shield-wall near the river was unenviable. Fresh Norse troops had a firm foothold and a secure crossing place to the defended bank. If an English warrior turned to fact this new threat, they would be exposed to attack by missiles from those across the ditch. The options were to fall back or be overrun. It is unlikely that the right wing could have held out for very long and once they reached the escarpment, the superior numbers of attackers would allow them to bypass any remaining defenders.

When the Norse army reached the top of the escarpment they would have emerged among some sparse buildings. Once clear of these they would have been able to see the English army two hundred metres away to their right. They had only to rush down the slope to seal the fate of those who had advanced so bravely at the ford perhaps an hour before.

Regrettably, this feature is the only one to be significantly changed by man or nature since the time of the battle. When the nearby ring road was constructed in the seventies, this low-lying land was illegally filled. In 1066 the ground would have risen on all sides. Pressed into this boggy terrain, and surrounded, the fate of these troops was sealed.

The press of warriors would have limited the scope to wield weapons effectively. There would be no line behind which a wounded warrior could retire to stem the bleeding, no place where a drink could be snatched while others held the line and no chance to catch ones breath as missiles and blows rained in from all angles. Shields would soon be shattered or weighted down with spears it had intercepted. The warriors in the centre could not charge or dodge as their boots got stuck in the mud at the ford. Their fate was sealed.

When the sagas report that the victors could cross the ford dry-shod using the fallen warriors as stepping stones, it is credible although it is difficult to imagine that the victors would have chosen to do so. The ground at the ford has a thin covering of mud rather than the deep layers of peat found fifty metres away from the ford itself. The bodies of the warriors who fell at the ford would have been pressed down and soon encountered the firm material of the underlying moraine.

However, this was not the end of the battle. The shield-wall on the English left flank had been separated from their enemy by a peat bog that probably defied either side’s attempts to cross. The battle here would have been limited to the exchange of missiles until they saw the approach of the outflanking Northmen. With their obvious route back to the city blocked, retreat along the beck was their only option. There is much evidence of another Roman road just half a kilometre away although the existence of the road has yet to be established.

A disciplined force could have held up a determined attack for many hours in this terrain. Attackers could not charge across the soft ground so any assaults would be ponderous and relatively ineffective. As the outcome of the battle became obvious to everybody one can speculate that shows of aggression gradually replaced more sustained assaults.

We know that earl Edwin survives the battle so his hearth troops would have kept the discipline among the surviving troops on the left flank. Various sources simply record that the English eventually fled ‘along the ditch’ and Heslington is mentioned as the destination in one account which is consistent with ancient and modern geography.

After the battle

Fulford was a long and hard-fought battle. English and Norse sources record that both sides sustained heavy casualties. The English could claim to have held their own in the battles on the wings but had lost the clash in the centre disastrously after a promising start. This interpretation gives credit to the skill and discipline of both armies but it was King Harald’s superior tactical appreciation of the ground that won the day for the Norsemen.

To accept the result of any battle, uncritically, without studying how and why the events unfolded in the way they did can be compared to a football fan whose interest is confined to the team list and the final score rather than studying the beautiful game itself. A study of the dynamics of a battle sheds some light on subsequent events.

The success of the forces on the wings helps explain why it would be some days before Harald and Tostig entered York to accept the surrender. They ‘offered to conclude an abiding peace with the citizens provided that they all marched southwards with them to conquer this realm.’(1) That, at least , was the victor’s plan.

Harald and Tostig set out on Sunday with part of their army, probably those who were still fit after the battle. Their mission was to collect the hostages promised by the nobility of Northumberland. They left much of their armour and weaponry at Riccall. It was probably in need of repair although the sagas suggest the decision was taken because the weather was hot. It was a bad decision. The divided, Norse force was caught and destroyed the following day. The Mercian troops who had blocked the way inland now attacked the base at Riccall. The invaders were scattered or massacred.

The brother-earls, Edwin and Morcar survived Fulford with their lives and reputations intact. They would soon accept William as their new king before, belatedly, playing their part as leaders among the English resistance. The events after 1066 are proving a fruitful area of study. One can envy historians who have the luxury of revising the story as more evidence emerges.

Sadly, archaeology is not always afforded this luxury. The builders are poised to ‘develop’ the area of the battle. The landscape that has changed little in 1000 years will be reshaped to accommodate 600 homes. The beck along which the battle was fought will be filled to provide an access road. The forensic problem set by the planners is one of ‘proof’ while, cynically, the would-be developers deny access to the site so preventing the gathering of evidence. So Fulford could soon be lost again. Such is the sad story of Fulford.


1 Anglo-Saxon Chronicle C - The Abingdon Chronicle: British Museum, Cotton MS. Tiberius B i.

2 Anglo-Saxon Chronicle D - The Worcester Chronicle: British Museum, Cotton MS. Tiberius B iv.

3 'English Place Names' by Kenneth Cameron (1996 Batsford 0713473789).

4 Ben Levick July 1995 (Regia Anglorum Publications)

5 Heimskringla Online Medieval and Classical Library Release #15b. Originally written in Old Norse, about 1225 by the poet and historian Snorri Sturluson. English translation by Samuel Laing (London, 1844).

Further Reading

Mercia And the making of England Ian Walker Sutton Publishing 2000 0750921315 A wonderful synthesis of the sources that illustrates how the earldoms became a kingdom in the two centuries before the Norman invasion.

Bloodfeud: Murder and Revenge in Anglo-Saxon England Richard Fletcher Allen Lane 2002 A gripping investigation of the bloody feuding among the leading families of Northumbria that opened the way for Morcar to become their earl in 1065.

English Resistance, The underground was against the Normans. Peter Rix Tempus 2004 0752428276 A scholastic analysis of the literature that demonstrated the extensive resistance that existed to the establishment of Norma rule throughout England after ‘the conquest’ of 1066.