The Battle of Fulford took place at the place identified by Symeon of Durham as the village of Fulford near York in England, on 20 September 1066, when King Harald III of Norway, also known as Harald Hardrada ("harðráði" in Old Norse, meaning "hard ruler"), and Tostig Godwinson, his English ally, fought and defeated the Northern Earls Edwin and Morcar.
Tostig was Harold Godwinson's banished brother. He had allied with King Harald of Norway and possibly Duke William of Normandy but history has left us no record of what role Tostig saw for himself if the invasions were successful. The battle was a decisive victory for the Viking army. The earls of York could have hidden behind the walls of their city but instead they met the Viking army across a river. All day the English desperately tried to break the Viking shield wall but to no avail.
Tostig was opposed by Earl Morcar who had displaced him as Earl of Northumbria.
When the Anglo-Saxon king Edward the Confessor died in 1066 without an heir, Earl Harold Godwinson was selected to be the new king by the powerful people of the land (Witenagemot) who had gathered at Thorney Island where Edward's Westminster Abbey was dedicated days before he died.
The first sign of real trouble for Harold came from his brother, Tostig. According to the Anglo Saxon Chronicle, Tostig landed on the Isle of Wight in May 1066, before ravaging the south coast of England, and ending up at Sandwich, Kent. At Sandwich Tostig is said to have enlisted and impressed sailors. He then sailed north where after battling some of the northern earls he arrived in Scotland meeting and making a pact with Hardrada, King of Norway, whereby he agreed to support Hardrada in his invasion of England.
The medieval historian Orderic Vitalis has a different version of this story; he says that Tostig travelled to Normandy to enlist the help of William, Duke of Normandy. Then, as William was not ready to get involved at that stage, Tostig sailed from the Cotentin Peninsula, but because of storms ended up in Norway, and made his pact with Harald Hardrada there.
In early September 1066, Hardrada set sail from Norway with 300 ships. As he approached the English coast, his fleet was joined by Tostig's ships and they sailed together along the River Ouse towards the city of York. In the Orderic Vitalis version it says that in the month of August Hardrada and Tostig set sail across the wide sea with a favourable wind and landed in Yorkshire.
Edwin had brought some soldiers to the east to prepare for an invasion by the Norwegians. The battle started with the English spreading their forces out to secure their flanks. On the right flank was the River Ouse, and on the left flank was the Fordland, a swampy area. The disadvantage to the position was that it gave Harald higher ground, which was perfect for seeing the battle from a distance. Another disadvantage was that if one flank were to give way, the other one would be in trouble. If the Anglo-Saxon army had to retreat, it would not be able to because of the marshlands. They would have to hold off the Norwegians as long as possible.
Harald's army approached from three routes to the south. Harald lined his army up to oppose the Anglo-Saxons, but he knew it would take hours for all of his troops to arrive. His least experienced troops were sent to the right and his best troops on the riverbank.
The English struck first, advancing on the Norwegian army before it could fully deploy. Morcar's troops pushed Harald's back into the marshlands, making progress against the weaker section of the Norwegian line. However, this initial success proved insufficient for victory to the English army, as the Norwegians brought their better troops to bear upon them, still fresh against the weakened Anglo-Saxons.
Harald brought more of his troops from the right flank to attack the centre, and sent more men to the river. The invaders were outnumbered, but they kept pushing and shoving the defenders back. The Anglo-Saxons were forced to give ground. Edwin's soldiers who were defending the bank now were cut off from the rest of the army by the marsh, so they headed back to the city to make a final stand. Within another hour, the men on the beck were forced off by the Norwegians. Other invading Norwegians, who were still arriving, found a way to get around the thick fighting and opened a third front against the Anglo-Saxons. Outnumbered and outmaneuvered, the defenders were defeated. Edwin and Morcar however, managed to survive the fight.
York surrendered to the Norwegians under the promise that the victors would not force entry to their city, perhaps because Tostig would not want his capital looted. It was arranged that the various hostages should be brought in and the Norwegian army retired to Stamford Bridge, 7 miles (11 km) east of York, to await their arrival.
It has been estimated that at Fulford the Norwegians had about 10,000 troops of which 6,000 were deployed in the battle, and the defenders 5,000. During the battle, casualties were heavy on both sides. Some estimates claim 15% dead giving a total of 1650 (based on 11,000 troops being deployed in the battle). From all accounts, it is clear that the mobilised power of Mercia and Northumbria was cut to pieces at Fulford.
Because of the defeat at Fulford Gate, King Harold Godwinson had to force march his troops 190 miles (310 km), from London to York. He did this within a week of Fulford and managed to surprise the Viking army and defeat them at the Battle of Stamford Bridge. In the meantime William, Duke of Normandy, had landed his army in Sussex on the south coast. Harold marched his army back down to the south coast where he met William's army, at a place now called Battle just outside Hastings. It is probable that Harold's intention was to repeat his success at Stamford Bridge by catching Duke William unawares. The Anglo-Norman chronicler Florence of Worcester commented that although the king [Harold] was aware that some of the bravest men in England had fallen in two recent battles and that half of his troops were not assembled, he did not hesitate to meet the enemy in Sussex. It is likely that the engagements at Fulford Gate and at the Battle of Stamford Bridge, fought within a week of each other, seriously affected Harold's strength at the Battle of Hastings some three weeks later. There is no doubt that if Harold had not been diverted by the battles in the north, then he would have been better prepared to fight William at Hastings and the result might have been somewhat different.
- Symeon of Durham. Symeonis Dunelmensis p. 81.
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