These comments relate to the City of York consultation paper for a residential development in the Germany Beck area of Fulford dated 13 December 2000 (AIM/DG/DT/L55/2). I am very grateful for advice and access to the archaeological data given by Council officers.
Having studied the proposal I wish to raise a detailed rather than a principled objection to the proposal on the grounds that:
1 Any development should not destroy the visual aspect of the battlefield
2 All sources of evidence about the Battle of Fulford should be fully explored before work commences.
The Battle of Fulford has been overshadowed by the other great battles of 1066 at Stamford Bridge and Hastings. The sequence of events that flowed from the defeat of the northern Saxon Earls at Fulford led to the Norman Conquest of Britain.
The battle was a gallant attempt to face down the superior Norse army that had come to reclaim Britain as a Nordic nation. The Saxon leaders, the Earls Edwin and Morcar, knew that King Harold had just sent the army home to their farms after a summer waiting on the South Coast for William to invade from Normandy. Nevertheless, this small army attempted to stop an army that outnumbered them 6 to 1 by blocking the way to York at Fulford.
The little written evidence about this battle is included in annex A. It does not allow the detailed location or course of the battle to be plotted. However, the circumstantial evidence for both the location and the course of the battle are explored in annex B.
The extensive archaeological investigations undertaken on part of the site in 1996 produced no evidence of a battlefield. However, this is not surprising. Regular flooding will have buried or carried away what little was not cleared up after the battle. More sensitive geophysical investigations and deeper trenches would be required both along the Beck within the proposed area and downstream towards the Ouse.
Because the proposed development will disturb the ground, much evidence will be lost unless this investigation is undertaken before any development commences. The convention of preserving archaeology by covering it is inappropriate for a battle site. It is the landscape itself that is important.
On a personal note, as the local guide for various visiting military dignitaries to Imphal Barracks on the Fulford road, I have explored the site with a number of experienced senior commanders and discovered how they might have fought the battle over the terrain. Annex B presents a consensus view of the battle.
Of particular relevance to the proposed development is the outflanking and encirclement manoeuvres which fall within the development area rather than the early part of the clash that took place along further along the Beck. The locations must remain speculative until more investigations are carried out and conclusive evidence might be hard to find.
There are 2 areas of particular concern on plan 6 of the development proposal.
The access road crosses the suggested location of the east flank of both armies and passes through a location for the possible final, fatal phase of the battle for the Saxon army. [12:17, 12:18] This road would completely destroy the integrity of the site. (An alternative plan would be to remodel the existing junction or create an access towards the city).
The second area possibly covered by the battle is within the development but marked as part of the ecological area. This will also be built over to create the access road destroying the key terrain of the battle.
Suggested work would included
A topographic survey of the area within the OS grids 60774690, 61704918, 61704890, 61124848, 60754848 to enable the terrain of 1066 to be reconstructed. Some work has been done by the MAP consultants( ref 96/25).
Soil cores or profile trenches, coupled with micro-biological examination, at selected spots in the survey area to determine the original topography.
A geophysical study along the Beck from the Ouse to the fork at Grid 61704900. It would be necessary to investigate the area outside the proposed development to help establish the Beck as the site of the battle. The purpose would be to establish the extent of land disturbance and look for the presence of metal which might indicate items lost in the mud.
Little is known of the way bodies were cleared after ancient battles but it is believed that the process was thorough. The remains of the warriors were treated with respect while the weapons and garments of the fallen were collected. The swampy nature of the land makes it likely a few items might not have been retrieved. It is likely these included some metal fragments. These traces might allow the course of the battle to be plotted. As a city where so much of heritage is conserved and displayed, the Fulford battlefield might join its list of impressive attractions with a visitors centre on the site.
Annex A - The evidence from Anglos Saxon Chronicle and Nordic sagas
Annex B - Some graphics of possible battle scenarios and locations
The evidence Annex A
All agree Wednesday, September 20 1066.
There is no record of the time that the battle stated or finished.
Gate Fulford between the Ouse and fenland at the end of a ditch.
The course of the battle
Harold's way to York was blocked by of Earl Edwin and Earl Morcar, their housecarls plus a reluctant, local fyrd. The Worcester MS of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle "gathered from their earldom as great a force as they could get, and fought with that raiding-army and made a great slaughter." But they were "killed and drowned and driven in flight; and the Norwegians had possession of the place of slaughter."
York was treated mildly possibly because Harald wanted it for winter quarters. The city agreed to support Harold in his conquest of England and was not sacked. Harold did not even leave an occupation force but returned to his fleet at Ricall. The Northumbrians offered hostages to assure this support. These were scheduled to be delivered at an unknown location in 5 days.
Nordic Saga evidence
From 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).
87. OF HARALD'S ORDER OF BATTLE.
Thereafter the king sailed to the Humber, and up along the river, and then he landed. Up in Jorvik were two earls, Earl Morukare (Morkar),and his brother, Earl Valthiof (Edwin), and they had an immense army. While the army of the earls was coming down from the upper part of the country, King Harald lay in the Usa (Ouse). 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.
The earls let their army proceed slowly down along the ditch, with all their troops in line. The king's banner was next the river, where the line was thickest (The only firm ground). It was thinnest at the ditch, where also the weakest of the men were. 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.
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; and there was a great loss among the
men of the earls, and they soon broke into flight, some running
up the river, some down, and the most leaping into the ditch,
which was so filled with dead that the Norsemen could go dry-foot
over the fen. There Earl Morukare fell. Earl Valthiof, (Edwin) and the people who escaped, fled up to the castle of York; and there the greatest loss of men had been. This battle took place upon the Wednesday next Mathias.
89. OF EARL TOSTE.
After the battle now told of, all people in the nearest districts submitted to Harald, but some fled. Then the king advanced to take the castle, and laid his army at Stanforda-bryggiur (Stamford Bridge); and as King Harald had gained so great a victory against so great chiefs and so great an army, the people were dismayed, and doubted if they could make any opposition. The men of the castle therefore determined, in a council, to send a message to King Harald, and deliver up the castle into his power.
All this was soon settled; so that on Sunday the king proceeded with the whole army to the castle, and appointed a Thing of the people without the castle, at which the people of the castle were to be present. At this Thing all the people accepted the condition of submitting to Harald, and gave him, as hostages, the children of the most considerable persons; for Earl Toste was well acquainted with all the people of that town. In the evening the king returned down to his ships, after this victory achieved with his own force, and was very merry.
A Thing was appointed within the castle early on Monday morning, and then King Harald was to name officers to rule over the town, to give out laws, and bestow fiefs. The same evening, after sunset, King Harald Godwinson came from the south to the castle with a numerous army, and rode into the city with the good-will and consent of the people of the castle. All the gates and walls were beset so that the Northmen could receive no intelligence, and the army remained all night in the town.
This song was composed by Stein Herdison about Olaf, son of King Harald
"The gallant Harald drove along,
Flying but fighting, the whole throng.
At last, confused, they could not fight,
And the whole body took to flight.
Up from the river's silent stream
At once rose desperate splash and scream;
But they who stood like men this fray
Round Morukare's body lay."
"Harald's Stave" is another song covering the battle
"Earl Valthiof's men (Edwin)
Lay in the fen,
By sword down hewed,
So thickly strewed,
That Norsemen say
They paved a way
Across the fen
For the brave Norsemen."
The background, and the possible events, on Wednesday, 20 September 1066.
On the morning of 20 September 1066 the northern earls, Morcar of Northumbria and his brother Edwin of Mercia, placed their troops between the invading Vikings and York, the capital of Northumbria. Their mission was to stop King Harald of Norway and Earl Tostig, King Harold of England's brother securing York as their base for the re-conquest of Britain.
Morcar must have reached Fulford well ahead of the main force of Vikings although Harald would have sent one of his trusted commanders ahead. These scouts would have reported back that the way to York had been blocked. Morcar was able to deploy his small army on the ground of his choosing. The Saxon commanders had doubtless spent the days before selecting suitable ground.
It is estimated that Harald's arrived with up to 12,000 men. The largest 30 metre longships carried 40 soldiers but there would have been many smaller boats and a good deal of baggage. If the 300-ship count in the sagas is taken as correct, the headcount would probably be nearer 9,000. Not all of these would have been soldiers. There would have been the cooks, foragers, armourers plus the normal compliment of sick, lame and lazy. Perhaps a third of the Viking army remained with the fleet at Riccall. The fighting strength of the Vikings at Fulford was probably about 6,000.
This still gave Harald an impressive numeric superiority. The English army was perhaps as small as 1000 men. Each of the Earls could have put 500 well trained warriors into the field. These were their housecarls. Earl Edwin had brought his force by boat from Mercia during the summer anticipating this invasion. His boats were moored in the river near Tadcaster.
The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle (Worcester MS) says they "gathered from their earldom as great a force as they could get." They could also summon the local fyrd. These conscripts would have had cousins among the invading Viking. The Nordic rule of England established by King Canute had ended just 30 years before. Their loyalty to these Saxon subjects could not be relied on.
With such a small force, Morcar needed to find a narrow position where he could stop Harald's progress. He needed a choke point that he could effectively block with the troops he had available. At Fulford the ground was marshy and crossed with many ditches. The gap between the river and the marsh at this point was just 200 metres wide. Across the front ran a stream that drained the marsh and the fen land to the east. This was known as the German Beck and would play a central part in the days fighting.
The defensive position
The spot chosen was excellent from a defenders point of view. The Vikings would need to follow one of the roads from the south although some might follow the longer route along the riverbank from Riccall to York. The position at Fulford would block all southern approaches and there would be no easy route round.
Nature had constructed a very good defensive position for the Saxons. On the attacker's side the ground was marshy while the defender bank was firm ground. Germany Beck meandered so Morcar would have to stretch his troops to cover 300 metres. With about 1000 good troops, the line was 3 or 4 ranks deep with the housecarls in the front. Behind them would be the unreliable fyrdmen.
The Saxons could not risk the Vikings going round their line and attacking from behind. The flanks both seemed secure. On the right was the river Ouse. To the left the ground became too swampy for troops. Today this area is still known as Fordland, a land crossed by numerous rivulet fords. Earlier maps call this areas Dam Lands. This was wet land and the Vikings would have at least a half hour detour to find a crossing place.
This was a good place to block Harald's advance. The river on the right and the marshy ground to the left would stop the Viking's bypassing them. In front of the Saxons there was more marshland as well as the beck which formed a trench 3 metres wide and 1 metre deep with naturally steep sides that the Vikings would have to cross in order to attack them. These would provide significant obstacles .
The only obvious weakness of the defenders position was some higher ground on the Viking approach. This would be a good location for Harald to observe the battle. The lie of the land would prevent the 2 flanks of the Saxon army observing each other. If either flank gave way the other would be in grave danger but they would only discover this when it was too late. The Saxons would also not be able to see the Vikings approaching or any of them moving round the fenland.
A less obvious danger was the marshy land of Fulford Ings behind their position. The track on the York side of the beck was little more than 10 metres wide in places. There was little scope to retreat before they were driven into the swamp. They would have to hold their position along the bank of the Ouse at all costs.
The battle begins
Harald's army probably approached along the three routes and tracks from the south. When he encountered the defenders Harald lined up his army to oppose them as was the custom. It would take several hours for all his troops to arrive. He sent his least experienced troops to his right. He expected little of these troops. Indeed the ground was so boggy that it was difficult for them to move in. But once they had waded into position they would certainly not be able to run away. Harald kept his good troops near the riverbank where the land was much firmer. He could either force a way through to York or turn the defender and force them back to the swamp.
There is no record what time the battle began. If the Vikings left Ricall at first light the vanguard might have arrived at Fulford about 10am. It would take Harald an hour to put his army into their initial positions. Harald, with such a numeric superiority, probably launched his attack as soon as these troops were in position. He had experienced commanders who would direct those following. So battle might have begun about midday.
There would have been plenty of shouting and psychological warfare from both sides beforehand. According to Hardrad's saga, it was the Saxons who struck first which made military sense. They knew they could not resist the full might of the invaders so it made sense to strike before the full Viking force arrived.
The battle seemed to have started well for the Saxons. Morcar's left pushed Harald's troops back along the track and into the marsh but progress was slow as the troops waded through the reeds. The Saxon advance, quite literally bogged down.
At this point it is worth contemplating what battle was like for a warrior. He could wade in wielding his axe, sword or spear for 10 minutes before pausing for breath. A Roman cohort would only be expected to fight for 15 minutes before being relieved. They would try to attack in little groups with a swordsman and shields at the front. The axe and spearmen would be behind. These warriors from the rear rank had no hands free to hold a heavy shield as their weapon needed both hands.
The most common weapon was the spear made with a 2 metre long ash shaft with an iron tip. It could be thrown but was normally used to jab. Shields were round, made of wood, often covered with leather and in the centre was an iron boss. The shield would absorb the shock of axe and arrow and could be used to batter and shove the enemy while the spear carriers arranged behind stabbed at the opposing side. Some Vikings wore chain mail and helmets for protection but the Saxons had little armour.
The nobility used swords and would stand in the front rank as befitted their status. The swords were about thirty inches long. These were longer than the short stabbing swords developed by the Romans but designed for use at close quarters. The metal workers had developed the art of adding edges that could be sharpened and withstand the blows of battle without shattering the shaft itself.
Bows were used for hunting but were often employed in battle like a sniper
weapon or to harass an assembled force. There was also the single and double
headed battle axe. This could be used from behind the shield wall to split the
helmets and skills of the opposition. In open battle it could be swung with
devastating effect to scythe down the opposition while the berserk, wielding his
axe, remained out of range of sword or spear.
There would be a great deal of pushing and shoving that would be less exhausting than open battle. With the front ranks locked together, it would be up to the spearmen to make a gap in the shield wall or an axe man to split a skull before any progress could be made.
In practice, casualties would be light while they were in close contact. The mortal danger came when the battlefield opened out. Then axes and swords could be used lethally. As bodies fell, the ground would become impassable. The battle would have to move on otherwise the bodies of dead and injured would keep them warriors apart. Fulford was about to create the conditions for such a massacre.
The turning point
Harald reacted to the early setback on his right by ordering more troops to attack in the centre. Meanwhile the Vikings pushed forward by the river where they outnumbered the defenders. The pushing and shoving worked. The Saxons were forced to give ground. There are reports that Edwin and the frydmen where stationed on the bank to hold this vital ground but they were no match for the Vikings now charging towards them. They were soon cut off from the rest of the Saxons by the marsh and headed back to the city. They were the lucky ones.
The loss of the riverbank might not have appeared too serious at first. With the Vikings pressing in the centre the Saxon leaders might have been distracted. The Vikings were now on the firm ground that formed a causeway on the defenders side of the beck. The Saxons were now driven back along the ditch and up towards the track where Morkars men were still getting the better of the Vikings. There might have been a short respite for the Saxons as the Vikings had to fight their way over a smaller beck and then fight up a hill but their sheet weight of numbers would have ensured their success.
Within the space of an hour the defenders had been dislodged from their position along the beck. The situation for the Saxons was now becoming perilous although it would have been hard for many of them to perceive it as this was going on behind them and behind a small hill. The Vikings who had fought their way from the river bank along the beck were now behind half of the Saxons near the main track.
Other Vikings who arrived later, probably moved along the fen land to find a crossing point. The detour probably took them half an hour. About the time that Hardrada was leading his men up from the river these latecomers were arriving from the other direction. The Saxons were now under attack on 3 sides. Some, possibly including Morcar, were first cut off from the troops defending the Beck and then were forced back down the road to York to make their escape although some sagas say that Morcar perished.
More Vikings moved along the high ground watching the Saxons at the other side of an opening ravine. From their vantage point they could see that the Saxon's escape was cut off. The Saxons were being driven towards their doom. Beyond the road, the terrain fell away steeply. Between the Vikings on the high ground and the Vikings driving the defenders backwards was a natural pit. The fate of the Saxons was sealed. They could do little as they fell backwards. Those who were not cut down were crushed. Tales that the beck ran red with Saxon blood are credible. The battle was over and the way to York was open. Probably half the Saxons perished.
The Chronicler records that the Vikings also suffered heavy losses. "They made a great slaughter too; but there was a good number of the English people slain, and drowned, and put to flight: and the Northmen had possession of the field of battle."
The city came to terms. The Vikings would not loot the city or otherwise damage it. King Harald and Earl Tostig went into York themselves to arrange for hostages, provisions and support before returning to the ships. The inhabitants recognize Harald as their king and agreed to assist him against King Harold Godwinson. Harald demanded 100 hostages. They had the customary 5 days to deliver the hostages. He left content "that all would go southward with them, and gain this land". The next meeting would be at the hall near Stamford Bridge.
© 2001 Charles Jones