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.

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