It was unseasonally warm for the time of year as the three noblemen drew up their men to form ranks next to the banks of the river Ouse, they numbered in the region of 5000. The strip of land they had chosen for the battlefield lay between the river and a beck (the local name given to a stream or watery ditch), though usually a mash the ground was firm under foot, except for the land around and beyond the beck which was still water-logged, and there they waited, though they didn’t have to wait for long.

From the south came the forces of Harold Hardraada, King of Norway who lay claim to England as the direct descendent of King Magnus of Norway who had made a pack with Harthancnut, the former King of England that if ether one of them was to die without a direct heir then the other was to become the king of both lands, but on Harthancnuts’ death the Saxon witan (council) refused to honour this agreement and so elected that Edward the Confessor should return from exile in Normandy to become King Edward I (it is while Edward was in Normandy that the William of Normandy claimed that Edward declared him his rightful heir to succeed him on his death and so the reason behind William of Normandys’ invasion merely days later), Hardraada was here to clime his birthright. Drawn up before his army was the smaller Saxon force led by the inexperienced 24 year old Edwin Earl of Marcie and his brother Morcar Earl of Northumbria aged only 20. The brothers were joined also by Waltheof son of Siward (former earl of Northumbria).


Battle of Fulford Gate in a larger map

Hardraadas’ army had been joined by Tostig the former Earl of Northumbria, lord of York and his men, swelling Hardraadas’ ranks to approximately 7000. Tostig was the brother of King Harold Godwinson (Harold II, who had succeeded Edward I on his death and the cause of William of Normandy’s’ impending invasion) and had only the previous year been defeated in battle by the brothers Edwin and Morcar at York and ousted from his position. Tostig was an unpopular lord responsible for unfair taxes, raiding churches and many deaths amongst his people, and he now wanted revenge.

The two armies drew up, men shouted insults to each other, jeering and goading. Then the cry went up, the call to form the shield wall. With a thunderous clatter the wooden shields were drawn together, each man overlapping his shield with that of the man to their right forming an solid wall bristling with swords, axes, spears and murderous intent. A second cry went up and the wall began moving forward step by step with the sound of metal weapons being rhythmically banged against the lime wood shields. Then the clash as the two walls met like thunder.

Though the battle initially looked to be going the Saxons way as their left flank under Waltheof made light work of the inexperienced Vikings Hardraada had placed there along the muddy edge of the beck, pushing them back. Hardraadas greater experience began to show. He ordered Tostig who was positioned to the Saxon right against the river to move towards the centre and hold it freeing him to release a portion of his experienceced men from the centre to shore up his right flank, this took the English by surprise and quickly the tide began to turn. Hardraada pressed home his advantage turning it into massacre. Man were caught in the marsh ground as they tried to run, trapped by beck or river, groups of men were surrounded and beaten down and by the end of the day it was said that there were so many dead that the Vikings could walk across the marsh without getting their feet wet using the Saxon bodies as stepping stones. Miraculously Edwin, Morcar and Waltheof all survived and would fight Hardraada again only days later alongside King Harold Godwinson at the battle of Stamford Bridge where they would defeat him and his army.

Though the Battle of Fulford Gate is hardly remembered even in York it was a key engagement for if Edwin, Morcar and Waltheof had defeated Hardraada then Harold Godwinson would not have needed to force march his army north from his encampment near Hastings waiting for William of Normandy’s invasion and the likelihood would have been he would have defeated William and English history would have been very different indeed.

For further details and information on the forgotten battle please see the links bellow.
UK Battlefields Resource Centre

There is also an interesting book by a local York historian and re-enactor Keith Mulhearn called Fulford the First Battle of 1066 (ISBN 0 9535520 2 4)


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