Wednesday, 26 September 2012

Battle of Gate Fulford Part Two

In Part One, we saw that Harald Hardrada beat Edwin of Mercia's right flank with a lightening charge accompanied by warhorns that heralded his victory. Edwin's huscarles broke and died where they stood and the levies panicked and fled back toward 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. 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's hands. Later, younger brother Morcar had been elected Earl by the Northumbrians in a 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.

The devastating defeat must have been harrowing for the brothers in their first real engagement. They appear to have fought bravely and the battle may have gone either way. The Battle of Fulford Trust believe that the Vikings outnumbered the English and this may have contributed to Hardrada's forces being able to roll up round them and crush them as re-inforcements 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 out numbered 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 a 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 backround together. Those that fled the onslaught made their way back to York, those that didn't were slaughtered where they fought.

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 takes place 5 days later. In that battle, the victorious Vikings were to meet a new enemy, the army of Harold, the King of England.

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.

If you enjoy reading about the events of this period you may enjoy my novel Sons of the Wolf  available also on Amazon and all good leading bookstores. Visit my website for more about the author

Coming up soon the Battle of Stamford Bridge

Tuesday, 25 September 2012

The Battle of Fulford Gate Part One

The year of 1066 saw three major battles focusing on the struggle between the major contenders for the throne of England, recently vacated by Edward the Confessor who died in early January of that year.   These men were Harold Godwinson, Harald Sigurdsson and Willliam of Normandy. 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. Harald's fleet set sail during the summer and first arrived in Orkney to gather the local Viking forces of Jarls Paul and Erland. They then travelled southwards to meet with Tostig and his smaller fleet and ravaged the Yorkshire coast, destroying the town of Scarborough by throwing burning embers from a bonfire onto the thatched roofs of the houses. The next town to be met by their not so welcome arrival was Holderness whose citizens attempted to put up a resistance but were pretty much swatted like flies and from there sailed into the Humber. Harald moored his ships in the Ouse at Riccall and marched on to York because it was 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. Tostig would have been looking for revenge for the killing of his men and the stealing of his treasury and for York's support in ousting him from the earldom.

There is only one detailed source for this battle, Snorri Sturluson's Saga of King Harald. It is full of incorrect facts but it is also the only one available. What we can be certain of is that leaving their ships in Riccall, they marched on York. Meanwhile, 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 the King 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.       

Why didn't The young brothers Edwin and Morcar wait for Harold's army to march from the south to augment their forces before they engaged the invaders? There may have been many reasons. Perhaps time, or maybe they felt a battle would be better fought on the offensive. They may have wanted to assert their independence and strength, feeling that they were equipped to handle such an invasion. There was a possibility also that they may have been paranoid  that Harold  wanted to strike a bargain with his brother Tostig and restore him to his former Earldom which was now Morcar's. There may have been many reasons, but whatever, they lost and much of the northern army was depleted, perhaps why they most likely did not fight at Hastings.

The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle tells us that the Earls' army was as large a force as they could muster. Sturluson insists it was an 'immense' army. Most likely it was at least 5,000 men plus York itself could muster 1,000. 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 the relaxed attitude of the Vikings that allowed them the time to do it, that was eventually to be their downfall. As they approached 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 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 manoevered 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 that Tostig's Norwegians were pushed back. Unfortunately after a long struggle, with Tostig's troops heavily engaged by Morcar's and being hardpressed, Hardrada leads a devastating charge to cut them down with a blast of horns and war trumpets. Edwin's huscarles are slaughtered and the English begin to break up. Seeing that defeat was imminent, the levies broke up and fled back to  York. Snorri attributes  the victory to Harald's great warrior skills and courage but it was a hard fought battle on both sides.

You can follow the formation and the battle lines here

If you enjoy this blog you may want to read my novel
Sons of the Wolf set against the back drop of these events.

Tuesday, 11 September 2012

The Battle of Hereford

October 24th 1055 was a date I am sure would stick  in the minds of many of the people who lived in the Earldom of Herefordshire and in those of the people of Wales, for many years to come. For the poor, unfortunate survivors of Hereford, the names of Gruffydd and Alfgar would most likely invoke terrible memories of burning buildings and blood strewn streets. As for the Welsh people, the Cymry, they would remember it as one of their great successes, a victory over the Saes invaders who had stolen their land. These days, the ravaging of Hereford is a little known battle and mostly, only those who have an interest in this period of history, would be able to admit that they knew of it. It certainly wasn’t a fight on the scale that the Battle of Hastings was and it wasn’t a hard won victory for the vanquishers; but it was a devastating blow to the Franko-Norman Earl of Hereford, who, in his effort to pre-empt the Welsh King Gruffydd and the outlawed English Earl Alfgar from sacking his burgh, lost both his reputation and his standing in English affairs, when he and his guard, left the field of battle leaving many of his mounted army to die. 

Photo Attributed to Len Howell

            Gruffydd, self-proclaimed King of Wales, became so after he had won his bid to become supreme leader over the other Celtic kingdoms of Wales. He had been King of Gwynedd and Powys and had fought successfully against a Mercian army c 1040, killing Edwin, Alfgar’s paternal uncle. He soon began to harbour ambitions of uniting Wales against her enemies and so set about ridding himself of any impediments to realising his goal: Gruffydd ap Rhydderch, ruler of the South was one of them. This he did, probably with the aid of the exiled Alfgar of Mercia.    
          Alfgar had washed up on the shore of the River Conwy at Gruffydd’s palace at Rhuddlan, Northern Wales after being found guilty of uttering treasonable offences toward his King, Edward the Confessor. With him he brought a fleet of mercenaries from Dublin. It would be the second time that Gruffydd had used a renegade outlaw exiled from England to assist him. The first was Swegn Godwinson, the scandalous older son of Godwin, outlawed for bad behaviour. This shows that Gruffydd was not above taking advantage of the discord that often went on at the English court. He was an astute and ruthless ruler, and to the Welsh, he was the Shield of the Britons. Unfortunately for him, he was to be betrayed by his own people some years later when  murdered, they sent his head to Harold, Earl of Wessex.          
           Alfgar, son of Leofric, Earl of Mercia and the legendary Godiva of naked horse ride fame, appears to have been an unruly, truculent man, envious of the success the Godwins were  having. The Anglo Saxon Chronicles don’t go into a lot of detail but  he was banished from England after some angry outburst which could have been treasonous. He was stripped of all his wealth and lands. Like the Godwinsons before him, he was determined to return and first went to Ireland to gather a force before approaching Gruffydd, his family’s natural enemy.          
           The King’s nephew Ralph was made Earl of Hereford around 1052. Ralph was the son of Edward’s sister Goda and her deceased husband Drogo de Mantes who had been the Count of Valois, the Vexin and Amiens. His older brother Walter, became the Count after Drogo and appears to have died along with his wife in tragic circumstances. Ralph may have been raised at the court of  Normandy and travelled to England either with Edward or perhaps arriving shortly afterwards. He was most likely to have been in his mid to late twenties at the time of the battle. Ralph wanted to introduce Norman style tactics into English warfare and although it was probably not unheard of for English troops to fight on horseback, it was not the usual preferred method. 
           The mounted warrior would have looked very different to previous warriors who fought on foot. The maille that was being worn by this time was becoming longer than the usual byrnie that had formerly graced the bodies of 11thc warriors. The byrnie (or haubergeon) was more of a maille ‘shirt’ where as the hauberk generally well covered the thighs and groin areas. Kite shields were also becoming popular as we see in the Bayeux Tapestry and they were more practical for using on horseback as the kite shield gave greater coverage to the unprotected side of the warrior’s body. He could hack or spear with his weapon-hand which would defend his other side from his shoulder down to his foot whilst he was horsed. He would also wear a conical shaped helmet like these spangenhelm wearing warriors.

              Most likely he would go into battle with a few javelins to project at the enemy, or a spear to skewer them with. His sword or hand axe would be for closer hand to hand fighting when proximity to his opponent made the longer arms too difficult to use. If he was able to afford them, he would no doubt be wearing some maille chausses on his legs to protect them whilst he was in the saddle.           
             Ralph had been working on his Norman style defences too, building wooden structures with palisades, the pre-runner to castles. These would have consisted of a motte, a mound of earth with a towered structure within an inner bailey. The wooden fencing would have contained ramparts and lookouts. These were posted around the marcher borders and in Hereford itself. Ralph was obviously out to impress his uncle the King and may have considered himself worthy of being his successor, although there is no evidence to believe that he ever did, apart from the fact he was of the Royal bloodline through his mother. This might have been one reason why he was never declared an atheling, because he came from the distaff side of the House of Wessex. A great resounding defeat against the Welsh might have brought him the adulation and respect that he desired. Perhaps it would have gained him the title atheling. Unfortunately for Ralph, it was not to be.   

            On October the 24th, the two armies faced each other across the plain. Here is what the D version of the AS Chronicle said about it

".....And soon after that, Earl Alfgar, son of Earl Leofric,
was outlawed well-nigh without fault; but he turned to
Ireland and Wales and there got himself a great band ,
and travelled thus to Hereford; but there Earl Ralph came
against him with a great raiding party, and with a little
struggle they were brought to flight, and many people
killed in that flight, and then turned into Hereford market
town and raided it, burned down the famous minster which
Bishop Athelstan built, and killed the priests inside the min-
-ster, and many others as well, seized all the treasures in
there and led them away with them. And then when they had
done most harm, it was decided to reinstate Earl Alfgar, and
give him back his earldom and all that was taken away from
him. This raid was made on October the 24th....."

           The Abingon Manuscript elaborates a little more and states that after Alfgar was outlawed, he went to Ireland and raised an army and then sought asylum with King Gruffydd of Wales. The allied forces then go into Hereford and Earl Ralph comes against him with a 'great army'. "But before a spear could be thrown, the English people fled because they were on horse; and great slaughter was made". The Manuscript also states about 400-500 English were slaughtered and the enemy lost none. It has  also been suggested that Ralph and his men left the field leaving the English to die. Hence he is later known as Ralph the Timid. As there is little evidence of a full eyewitness account of what happened that day, one has to imagine how this might have occurred. Whatever happened, the day belonged to a victorious Gruffydd and Alfgar. Alfgar, we see was reinstated and Gruffydd most likely given Lordship over the lands around Archenfield. Harold Godwinson had come with a great army to chase the Welsh and their allies back into the mountains but there was no return match and Gruffydd’s Welshmen and Alfgar’s Hiberno-Norse made away with slaves, livestock and treasures from the church they had sacked.
          The people of Hereford were left to lick their wounds and Harold rebuilt the defences that seemed to have been neglected by Ralph. The fact that Alfgar was never called to account for this outrage shows how brutal and non-consequential life could be in these days. The fact that he got away with it shows how little regard there was for the ordinary people concerned. The razing and ravaging of lands was often a punishment levelled at the nobility but although it is an absurd notion for us to protest the irony of it with our 21st century outlook, the lower echelons of life in medieval times mattered only to their immediate lords for what they were worth in economical terms. A simple local thegn may have been devastated at the loss of his ‘people’ but for the major nobility it was more of a financial disaster than an emotional one. As for Ralph, it seemed he may not have ever got over the disgrace and he disappears from the pages of history until he dies in 1057. The Earldom of Hereford later passed to his son Harold, after the Conquest.


Barlow F (1997) Edward the Confessor (2nd ed) Yale University Press, US.  
Stenton F (1971) Anglo Saxon England (3rd Ed) Oxford University Press, Oxford.
Swanton M (2000) The Anglo Saxon Chronicles (2nd ed) Phoenix Press, London.

This Battle features in my novel Sons of the Wolf and was part of the research I did for it.