10 Facts About the Battle of Fulford

Tristan Hughes

4 mins

22 Nov 2018

When someone mentions 1066, you would be forgiven for thinking of either Harold Godwinson’s victory at the Battle of Stamford Bridge or his famous defeat at the hands of William the Conqueror at Hastings nearly a month later.

Yet there was another battle that occurred on English soil that year, one that preceded both Stamford Bridge and Hastings: the Battle of Fulford, also known as the Battle of Gate Fulford.

Here are ten facts about the battle.

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1. Fighting was sparked by the arrival in England of Harald Hardrada

The Norwegian king, Harald Hardrada reached the Humber estuary on 18 September 1066 with up to 12,000 men.

His aim was to take the English throne from King Harold II, arguing he should have the crown because of arrangements made between the late King Edward the Confessor and the sons of King Cnut.

2. Hardrada had a Saxon ally

Tostig, the exiled brother of King Harold II, supported Harald’s claim to the English throne and had been the one who initially convince Harald to invade.

When the Norwegian king landed in Yorkshire, Tostig reinforced him with soldiers and ships.

3. The battle occurred south of York

An image of Harald Hardrada in Lerwick Town Hall in the Shetland Islands. Credit: Colin Smith / Commons.

Although Hardrada’s ultimate aim was to gain control of the English crown, he first marched north to York, a city that was once the epicentre of Viking power in England.

Hardrada’s army, however, soon found themselves confronted by an Anglo-Saxon army just south of York on the eastern side of the Ouse River near Fulford.

4. The Anglo-Saxon army was led by two brothers

They were Earl Morcar of Northumbria and Earl Edwin of Mercia, who earlier in the year had decisively defeated Tostig. For Tostig this was round two.

The week before the battle, Morcar and Edwin hastily gathered together an army to confront Hardrada’s invasion force. At Fulford they fielded some 5,000 men.

5. Morcar and Edwin occupied a strong defensive position…

Their right flank was protected by the River Ouse, while their left flank was protected by ground too swampy for an army to march through.

The Saxons also had a formidable defence to their front: a stream three metres wide and one metre deep, that the Vikings would have to cross if they were to reach York.

Swampland by the River Ouse south of York. Similar land protected the Saxon’s left flank at Fulford. Credit: Geographbot / Commons.

6. …but this soon worked against them

Initially only Harald and a small portion of his army arrived at the battlefield facing Morcar and Edwin’s army as most of Harald’s men were still some distance away. Thus for a time the Anglo-Saxon army outnumbered their foe.

Morcar and Edwin knew that this was a golden opportunity to attack but the River Ouse’s tide was then at its highest and the stream in front of them was flooded.

Unable to advance, Morcar and Edwin were forced to delay their attack, watching with frustration as more and more of Harald’s troops began to assemble on the far side of the stream.

7. The defenders struck first

At around midday on 20 September 1066 the tide finally receded. Still bent on attacking their foe before the full might of Harald’s force could arrive, Morcar then led an attack on Harald’s right flank.

After a melee in the marshlands, Morcar’s Saxons began to push Hardrada’s right flank back, but the advance soon petered out and came to a standstill.

8. Harald gave the decisive order

He pushed forwards his best men against Edwin’s Saxon soldiers stationed nearest the Ouse River, quickly overwhelming and routing that wing of the Saxon army.

As a small hill ensured Edwin’s force was not within sight of them, Morcar and his men probably did not realise their right wing had collapsed until it was too late.

Harald’s best men routed the right flank of the Saxon army. Credit: Wolfmann / Commons.

9. The Vikings then surrounded the remaining English

Having chased Edwin’s men away from the riverbank, Harald and his veterans now charged the rear of Morcar’s already engaged men. Outnumbered and outmanoeuvred, Morcar sounded the retreat.

The English lost nearly 1,000 men although both Morcar and Edwin survived. It did not come without cost for the Vikings however as they too had lost a similar number of men, presumably mostly against Morcar’s forces.

10. Hardrada did not have long to savour his victory at Stamford

After Fulford York surrendered to Harald and ‘the Last Viking’ prepared to march south. He didn’t need to, however, as barely five days after Fulford, he and his army were attacked by Harold Godwinson and his army at the Battle of Stamford Bridge.

To coincide with the upcoming broadcast of ' The Vikings Uncovered ' on BBC1 and PBS next week, Dan takes us behind the scenes and talks about his extraordinary experiences making the show.Listen Now