20 September 1066

Fulford, near York, Yorkshire (then capital of Northumbria)

Saxon troops of Mercia and Northumbria, under Earl Edwin and Earl Morcar, respectively vs. a Norse army under King Harald Hardrada, with the aid of Earl Tostig, brother of King Harold Godwinson of England

King Edward the Confessor of England died in early January 1066. In his place, Harold, Earl of Wessex, took the throne. But the succession was not a smooth one; two other nobles claimed the crown; Harald Hardrada, King of Norway, and William, Duke of Normandy.

While William gathered a fleet and waited for favourable winds to sail across the Channel to the south coast of England, Harald gathered an invasion force in the north. The very winds that kept William waiting impatiently in Normandy helped speed Harald's fleet of longships across the North Sea. To support him he had the exiled brother of King Harold, Earl Tostig.

Harald sailed from Norway to the mouth of the Tyne, where he joined with Tostig. Tostig claimed the Earldom of Northumbria, and was quite ready to support Harald in his invasion in return for help in gaining the Earldom, Together they sacked and burned Scarborough, and sailed up the Humber.

The combined forces of Harald and Tostig must have been formidable; even allowing for exaggeration of their strength in contemporary reports, it seems likely that the invasion force numbered over 10,000 men at arms. By comparison, the Norman army that was victorious at the Battle of Hastings numbered less than 7,000. This comparison may serve to give some idea of just how powerful a threat the Norse army represented.

It seems likely that King Harold, waiting in the south, received news of the strong Norse force, and began to march north to meet the threat, even before battle had been joined in the north.

Harald Hardrada landed at Riccall, and marched on the city of York. Harald left a sizeable force of men to guard his fleet, but even so, his army must have numbered over 7,000. They met the defending army, made up of levied troops from Mercia and Northumbria, at Fulford, on the outskirts of York.

The terrain around Fulford was flat, but sodden; a mixture of watermeadow and marshland. The Norwegian army advanced along the banks of ditch leading east from the River Ouse. The English attacked the Norwegian line and pushed them back in disarray. But Harald was no fool; he had kept the bulk of his troops back against the river itself, and as the English advanced, Harald's left wing swept around in an abrupt pincer movement, trapping the English against the ditch.

The fighting was fierce and terrible, but as the day wore on, the English spirit broke, and the armies of Mercia and Northumbria were cut to pieces. Some were trapped against the ditch, others fled, and the bodies of the English lay so plentifully upon the ground that, according to their own accounts, the Norse were able to advance over the meadow without getting their feet wet.

York prudently surrendered to the invaders, but Harald did not enter the city; perhaps eager to spare the city he hoped to rule the effects of looting by his own men. Instead, he retired to Stamford Bridge to await the gathering of hostages from around the region.

The Norse had but five days to enjoy their victory at Fulford. On 25 September, King Harold surprised Harald Hardrada at Stamford Bridge, and inflicted a decisive defeat on the Norsemen. Hardrada himself was killed, as was Tostig, and the Norse withdrew.

That is not the end of the tale, however, for scarcely had the dust of Stamford Bridge settled when news came of a landing of Norman troops under William of Normandy on the south coast. Harold ordered Morcar and Edwin to gather new levies, while he sped south once more with his exhausted troops.

Perhaps unwisely, Harold chose to meet William in battle before the fresh northern troops could arrive. On 14 October 1066, he met William's army at Hastings, and there Harold, in turn, was killed, and the Saxons were decisively beaten.

The repercussions of Fulford were enormous. The losses suffered by the Mercian and Northumbrian levies at Fulford meant that the army led by Harold into battle at Hastings was desperately undermanned. It is not a stretch of the imagination to claim that the Battle of Fulford led directly to the success of the Norman invasion that followed.

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