Battle of Fulford

The Battle of Fulford took place at the village of Fulford, near York in England on September 20 1066, when King Harald III of Norway and Tostig, his English ally, fought and defeated the Northern Earls Edwin and Morcar. Tostig was able to identify the most valuable hostages afterwards, thus ensuring lasting compliance from the defeated English. Tostig was Harold Godwinson's brother who was banished. He allied with Harald and promised him the crown. In return Tostig would be given his own English lands. Tostig and Morcar were mortal enemies because Morcar took Tostig's place of being Earl of Northumbria.

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 at Germany Beck 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 gave 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.

Background Information

When the Anglo-Saxon king Edward the Confessor died in 1066 with no child, and thus no heir to the throne, it created a power vacuum into which three competing interests laid claim to King of England.

The first was Harald III Sigurdsson of Norway who pressed his claim on the basis of an agreement between his predecessor and nephew Magnus and Harthacanute that the last of them to die should inherit England, Norway and Denmark - the same claim that Harald had used to press his claims on Denmark. The second was William the Bastard, the Duke of Normandy, because of his blood ties to Ethelred the Unready. The third was an Anglo-Saxon by the name of Harold Godwinson who had been elected by the Anglo-Saxon Witenagemot of England to be king. The stage was set for a battle between the three. However, the Norwegians were the first side to initiate hostilities. They invaded England before the Normans, due to the bad weather conditions in the English Channel that delayed Duke William's invasion.

English charge

The English struck first, advancing on the Norwegian army before it could be fully deployed. Morcar's troops pushed Harald's back into the marshlands with their attack, 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 the force of the better of their troops to bear upon them, still fresh against the weakened Anglo-Saxons.

Harald's countermove

Harald brought more of his troops from the right flank to attack the centre, and sent more men to the river. The men were outnumbered, but they kept pushing and shoving the defenders back. Their efforts worked and 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 forced into defeat. Edwin and Morcar however, managed to survive the fight.

The remaining men in Fulford surrendered under the promise that the victors would not loot their city. The treaty was kept, as King Harald turned his attention towards York.

Consequences of the loss

The battle of Fulford did not yield a huge gain or loss to either side, but fits into the important chain of events of the English Autumn of 1066. As a section of the total force of the nation, the English losses were not decisive and the Norwegians retained a sizeable army, prepared for an attack on York. The Battle of Stamford Bridge ended these designs, with the defeat of Harald's army, and it is unlikely (though not totally implausible, given the vague data), that the losses at Fulford were a significant contributing factor to this later defeat. Fulford was not to be the battle to end all Scandinavian attempts at English conquest, and neither was Stamford Bridge - Sweyn II Estridsson of Denmark sent an army to England after the Norman Conquest, but was bought off by the Normans. Had the Norwegian invasion been defeated at Fulford Gate, King Harold Godwinson would have been forced into neither the taxing marches nor the battle losses that the defeat at Fulford thrust upon him, altering significantly his army at the Battle of Hastings.

It might have required more than was possible from the outnumbered English army, but if the Battle of Fulford had gone the other way, 1066 could have been a very different year for the Anglo Saxon people of Britain, and the history of England, and the whole United Kingdom could have run another course entirely.

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