History Today

The Third Battle of 1066

By Guy Schofield

Reproduced with permission October 1966

A few days before King Harold reached the north to win the battle of Stamford Bridge in September 1066, the invading Vikings defeated the English at Fulford, near York.

Historians have emphasized that the losses sustained by King Harold’s army in defeating Harald Hardrada of Norway at Stamford Bridge must have weakened the force with which he had to oppose William of Normandy at Hastings shortly afterwards. This, and the exhausting marches of the King’s levies between London and York, contributed to William’s victory. Less attention has been paid to what was probably a more decisive factor – the disaster that befell English arms at the other battle of 1066, the Battle of Fulford. It has been unduly neglected, sometimes dismissed as little more than a curtain-raiser for what was to follow; yet a study of the facts suggests that it was of bitter consequence for Harold Godwinson.

The three great earldoms of the land were those of Wessex, Mercia and Northumbria. Harold himself, while overall monarch, was also Earl of Wessex, as his father Godwin had been. Mercia and Northumbria, constituting between them the whole of the midlands and north country, were united under two brothers, Earl Edwin of Mercia and Earl Morcar of Northumbria. The combined strength of their provinces appears to have been at least fully a match for that of Wessex and the lesser earldoms associated with it in the south. This had been demonstrated in 1050. In that year Earl Godwin, with the southern armies, had challenged King Edward the Confessor near Gloucester. Edward summoned the earls of Northumbria and Mercia to his aid. Confronted by their power Godwin at first temporised and then submitted. This distribution of military resource is important when the events of 1066 are considered. Nearly half the war-making potential of the Kingdom lay in the fyrd levies and housecarles under the command of Earls Edwin and Morcar, whose base was at York. The other half, commanded immediately by the King, was based on London. There was thus an army of the North and an army of the South, designed to meet the circumstances of the hour.

By the early summer of 1066, the English authorities had become fully alive to the menace of double invasion. The general strategy appears to have been that King Harold in the south, with the bulk of the fleet, would watch the movements of William of Normandy, leaving the earls of Northumbria and Mercia to deal with Harald of Norway and his ally, the exiled Earl Tostig. It is sometimes argued that the north of England, being far more interpenetrated by Norse blood and custom than the south, contained elements of quislingism; but there is not a shred of reliable evidence to sustain this theory; for the Norse sagas themselves record the bitter opposition they met even at the hands of unarmed Yorkshire rustics, as Snorri’s tale of Styrkar confirms. Out of earlier divisions the English realm had now emerged; and in this crisis loyalty to the nation – and to all the good things it afforded its inhabitants – subdued regional feuds.

During the greater part of September, the wind blew from the north, down the North Sea and across the Channel. This frustrated William, but it enabled Harald Hardrada to steel a march over his rival and further his design on the English crown. He sailed from the region of Sogne fjord and crossed to the mouth of the Tyne, where he was joined by Tostig, Harold Godwinson’s brother, who was set on regaining the earldom of Northumbria, whence he had been ejected in favour of Morcar after a revolt at York. It would seem he was prepared to help the Norwegian King to conquer England on condition that he himself was restored to his old privileges. He had gathered a force of longships and, earlier in the summer, had ravaged the Humber estuary; but Edwin and Morcar had by then put their provinces on a war footing and he had been driven off with ease.

From the Tyne Hardrada and Tostig sailed southward. They attacked and burnt Scarborough, hurling fire on the houses from the top of what is now known as Castle Hill. Then, rounding Spurn Point, they turned their ships into the Humber, en route for York. It is difficult for us to envisage naval operations carried so far inland as the neighbourhood of York; but the longships of those days could navigate comparatively narrow rivers; and the Humber and its tributary Ouse offered a perfect waterway up to the gates of the Northumbrian capital. As the invaders rowed westward, the English scouts beheld a formidable armada. One can only speculate about precise numbers; but some reasonable approximations are possible. According to the Norse Heimskringla, the Norwegian fleet consisted of well over 200 ships ‘beside provision ships and small craft.’ The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle speaks of ‘a very great sea-force, with 300 ships or more.’ How many Tostig was able to add is not known; but he had been busy accumulating strength, and may possibly have mustered 30 vessels. If the grand total is conservatively reduced to 200 ships of war, certain deductions can be made.

The longship of the 11th century was an open craft, averaging about 80 feet in length and 17 in beam, with some 15 oars on each side. A complement of 60 to 70 men was customary on warlike operations. But even if we assume Harald’s 200 longships to have provided no more than 50 fighting men apiece, the total would still have amounted to 10,000. Some modern historians have estimated that the Norman army at Hastings did not amount to more than 7,000 men. If that was so, then the Norwegian invasion of Yorkshire may well have been considerably more the dangerous. Its strength was probably greater than the English had expected; and, what is more significant, realization of its unexpected strength may have been why Harold of England felt obliged to march north, even though he knew William’s arrival in the south was imminent.

Here we have to dismiss some modern ideas. We are not the only generation that has used espionage, nor the only people to have elaborate communications. As the Norman host assembled at the mouth of the Dive, it is reasonable to assume that Harold in England had a rough estimate of the forces involved. Though he could hardly have kept a check on the more distant Norwegians, London must have received early reports of their strength when they entered the Humber. The main roads of England were not intolerably bad: they ran on Roman foundations. Relays of couriers and fine horses were available; and it is likely that other methods of signalling had also been organized.

Unless we are to credit him with an even more marvellous march than he actually achieved, we must accept the theory that Harold collected his army of the South and set out for Yorkshire on about September 18th – before he had received any news of an engagement with the invaders. Two good reasons may have influenced him. His confidence in the ability of Morcar and Edwin to destroy the enemy had been shaken by what he had learned of the enemy’s strength. Further, he probably saw that the time had now come, with one invader actually here, to end the dangerous division of England’s forces. Combined into a single host, the army of the South and the army of the North, operating under his royal command, could overwhelm Harald of Norway, and then return to London ready to meet William. Separated as the armies were, the issues both north and south began to look disturbingly uncertain. But events were to outpace him. As his thanes, housecarles and fyrdmen trudged along the Ermine Street, through Waltham, Stamford and Lincoln, affairs in Yorkshire drew to a climax.

Some historians, particularly Freeman, have been critical of Morcar and Edwin. They have blamed them for not going out to meet the invaders along the coast, for allowing them to venture so deeply into the country. This criticism has given rise to doubts about the loyalty of the two brothers; but it is demonstrably unjust. Surely it was wise strategy not to disperse their forces in harrying operations; it was wiser to allow the enemy to penetrate far inland, ‘lengthening his lines of communication’ as modern soldiers would say. Moreover, it gave the English a substantial base at York from which to operate. There is other evidence that the northern earls were clear-headed in their dispositions. This concerns the ships under their command. No hint has come down to us of any action between ships, either at sea or in the Humber estuary; but the old records suddenly inform us that an English fleet was stationed at Tadcaster on the river Wharfe. A glance at the map will show the shrewdness of this positioning. It meant that, if the Norwegian fleet sailed on to York beyond the junction of the Ouse and the Wharfe, it could be cut off from the sea by the English ships slipping a few miles downstream. The fact that the Norsemen landed at Riccall suggests they were alive to this possibility: they did not risk going beyond the junction of the two rivers. It looks, indeed, as if Morcar and Edwin were resolved to give battle somewhere in the flat land around York, which is what happened. Did they know that their King was hastening north to join them? If so, it might have been wiser to remain within York’s palisades until he arrived. But the die was cast when they ventured forth.

It was Wednesday, September 20th. Along the placid waters of the Ouse, the lines of Norwegian ships lay tied up near Riccall, with over one-third of the fighting men on guard over them. The scene must be little different today; but it is still a lonely place. The river, perhaps 200 feet wide, runs between low banks lined with alder hazel and scrub. The fields are monotonously level, some pasturage, some cornland. Hardrada, under his famous banner Landwaster, marched towards York, followed by 7,000 to 8,000 warriors. They halted at Fulford or Apud Fulford (Fulford water) as Simeon of Durham aptly called it. Today, it is a congested suburb of York: then it was open country.

For the most detailed account of the battle we have to turn to the Heimskringla. In respect of Stamford Bridge, this source is unreliable, having incorporated traditions relating to Hastings; but about Fulford it displays more convincing realism, especially in its insistence on the sodden nature of the field. The low land south of York is still apt to be flooded after rain. September 1066 was a dry, hot month in Yorkshire; but even so, the undrained river meads of those days would remain heavy and damp.

The Heimskringla explains how the Norwegian line stretched from the bank of the Ouse eastward along a ditch, and adds that ‘there was also a morass, deep, broad and full of water’. The English, significantly described as ‘an immense army’, appear to have launched a confident attack on the defenders of the ditch, approaching at an angle and, after fierce fighting, rolling them up in disorder. The Norwegians gave way and ‘Earl Morcar’s banner advanced bravely’. But the Norwegians were more experienced solders; and they certainly had a more experienced general. Hardrada kept his main strength near the river; and, at some well-chosen moment, when the tumult of axe, sword and spear was at its height, he threw out this left flank in a pincer movement, enfolding the English and driving them back into the ditch itself. The fighting was protracted and bloody; but, as the day wore on, the English found themselves in desperate straits. In the end they broke, and a fearful slaughter ensued, culminating in a rout. Some ran upstream, some down; but a great company died along the ditch, and there were so many bodies when it was finished that the invaders were able to go ‘dry foot over the fen.’ From all accounts, it is clear that the mobilized power of Mercia and Northumbria was cut to pieces at Fulford. What remained of the best levies and housecarles of the two earldoms was scattered and demoralized. The ‘immense’ army of the North had been broken before the army of the South could reach it.

King Harold of England arrived at Tadcaster on Sunday, four days later. By then he must have heard about the catastrophe at Fulford, and have known that he had arrived too late. According to the Anglo-Saxon chronicle he ‘collected’ the fleet at Tadcaster; in other words, he ordered the shipmen to join his land force. Then he pressed on to York.

In the meantime, York had capitulated to the Norwegians, but the victors did not enter the city in force, perhaps because Earl Tostig was anxious that his capital should not be looted. It was arranged that hostages from various parts of the shire should be brought in; and the Norwegian army retired to Stamford Bridge to await their arrival. The choice of Stamford Bridge is interesting. It lies seven miles to the east of York, athwart the river Derwent. Many tracks converged on it; but it is also worth noting that it was on the Roman road to the coast. If unforeseen disaster overtook the fleet 15 miles away at Riccall, the army was in position to retreat along this route to the coast.

On Monday, September 25th, the Norsemen lay about the meadows beside the Derwent. It was very hot; and, the Heimskringla tells us, the men had cast off their heavy mail and gear. They could relax; they were conquerors. Suddenly a mass of ‘shining shields and bright armour’ was seen approaching from the direction of York. Harold of England had swept through the city and pushed straight on to Stamford Bridge. The enemy was astounded; they had no suspicion that England’s army of the South was in their neighbourhood. This is one of the clearest pieces of evidence that an English fifth column did not exist.

Despite some contrary opinions, it seems that the Battle of Stamford Bridge must have lasted most of the day. Every foothold was contested. From the beginning to the end, the English were on the offensive. First they fell upon the Norwegians who occupied the western bank of the river. Then came the ferocious struggle for the ford, which appears to have been the real crossing of the water. The celebrated story of the mighty Viking who held the bridge may be based on fact; but it was probably no more than a wooden footbridge beside the ford. Hardrada, taken unawares, and knowing that his army had suffered grievous depletion at Fulford, formed a ring or defensive ‘square’ on the eastern side of the river, where the houses of the village now stand, along an elevated ridge. He also sent an urgent message to his lieutenant Eystein Orre, who was with the ships at Riccall, ordering him to bring up reinforcements. But the Norwegian seems never to have been able to extricate himself from the remorseless English pressure; and before the day was done, he lost his life, as did his friend Tostig. Harald of Norway was a mighty soldier. As one looks now across the fields, the cottages and the gardens to the distant Howardian Hills, one wonders whether his big bones still lie here, and, if so, where on should measure the ‘seven feet of English ground’ that Harold of England granted him.

The Battle of Stamford Bridge was decisive in our history; it ended once and for all the long dream of Scandinavian adventurers that they might one day annex this agriculturally rich island. Remnants of the English army that had been defeated at Fulford no doubt had their revenge here; and earls Morcar and Edwin may well have participated, for they remained faithful to the King. After having sent home the fragments of the Norwegian force in 24 of their 200 ships, Harold celebrated his triumph at York; but almost immediately he received news that William had landed at Pevensey. Once more, with his soldiers, he took to the road, this time southward. His last command was to Morcar and Edwin, whom he urged to raise a new levy from Mercia and Northumbria, and hasten to his aid. This they loyally did; but by the time they reached London, William had become the Conqueror and Harold was dead. All these events belong to a far distant past; yet we still feel for the tragedy of Harold Godwinson. Had the Norsemen not prevailed at Fulford, a much more powerful army would have confronted William at Hastings; and the North country would have met the invaders shoulder to shoulder with the South.

'The combined strength of their provinces appears to have been at least fully a match for that of Wessex and the lesser earldoms associated with it in the south.'





'Out of earlier divisions the English realm had now emerged; and in this crisis loyalty to the nation – and to all the good things it afforded its inhabitants – subdued regional feuds.'




'But even if we assume Harald’s 200 longships to have provided no more than 50 fighting men apiece, the total would still have amounted to 10,000. '




'Its strength was probably greater than the English had expected..'





'There is other evidence that the northern earls were clear-headed in their dispositions.'

' Had the Norsemen not prevailed at Fulford, a much more powerful army would have confronted William at Hastings; and the North country would have met the invaders shoulder to shoulder with the South.'

Thanks to History Today for permission to reproduce this article © History Today 1966