Battle of Fulford, 20 September 1066

The first, and least known, of the three battles of 1066 that ended at Hastings. In 1065, Harold’s brother Earl Tostig of Northumbria had been overthrown by his own thegns after holding the title for ten years. The rebels installed Morcar, the brother of Earl Edwin of Mercia. The rebels marched to Northampton, where they joined with Edwin. Edward the Confessor was no fan of the Godwin family, and accepted Morcar as the new earl of Northumbria. Tostig and his wife Judith went into exile in Flanders, then ruled by Judith’s half-brother.

On 5 January, the Confessor finally died. On the following day, Harold was crowned king at York. His first problem was to secure the loyalty of Mercia and Northumbria. To do this he had to overcome the fear that Tostig would be restored. He appears to have given Morcar a guarantee that this would not happen, and soon after this Harold married Edith, the sister of Morcar and Edwin. These actions secured the north for Harold, at least for the moment, but they also gained him a new enemy. In the summer of 1066 Tostig was to provide yet another hostile element that blocked Harold’s route to securing the crown of England. In exile Tostig may have conspired with one or both of William of Normandy and King Harald Hardrada of Norway, the two other potential claimants to the English throne. Orderic Vitalis, writing between 1095 and 1109, has Tostig sent against England by William. In his later works (The History of the Church), written by 1124, he has Tostig encouraging William to invade, before also visiting King Harold in Norway.

Tostig led the first invasion of England in 1066. According to the Anglo Saxon Chronicle, Tostig landed on the Isle of Wight soon after the appearance of Halley’s Comet at the end of April, with what was probably the smallest army involved in the events of 1066. With this force he raided along the south coast, until reaching Sandwich (Kent), where he discovered that King Harold was due to appear soon with the massive forces he was raising to defend the south coast against William. Tostig took sailors from Sandwich and sailed north in sixty ships. This brought him closer to his personal enemies, Earl Morcar of Northumbria and his brother Edwin of Mercia. Tostig and his sixty ships landed in Lindsey (Lincolnshire), where he was attacked and defeated by Morcar and Edwin. Reduced to twelve ships, Tostig took his battered army north to Scotland and a rendezvous with King Harald Hardrada, who was preparing his own invasion.

Meanwhile, Harold with his large army and navy waited on the south coast for William. Finally, on 8 September, with supplies running low, Harold was forced to release his men. It was at this moment that Harald of Norway, with a fleet of 300 ships and Tostig in support, finally chose to move, appearing first on the Tyne, before sailing south to the Humber, from where they advanced on York. When the news reached Harold, he immediately began the march north, gathering a new army as he went.

Any danger that Morcar and Edwin would side with Harald Hardrada was removed by the presence of Tostig in his army. While Harold was marching north from London, Morcar and Edwin were themselves raising an army from Northumbria and Mercia. The ‘C’ version of the Anglo Saxon Chronicle, the only contemporary source to provide any detail of this encounter, describes their force as being as big as they could muster. The two armies met in battle on the River Ouse, south of York. Fulford is not given as the location of the battle until the next century, but is a perfectly credible site for the battle. The Chronicle describes the battle as a ‘great slaughter’, with the English inflicting heavy casualties on the Norwegians, but suffering more themselves, with many ‘killed and drowned’. Many of these casualties may have come at the end of the battle as the defeated army attempted to escape across the Ouse. Morcar and Edwin were forced to withdrawn, and did not play any part in the remaining fighting of the year. This may be the true significance of the battle of Fulford. Although Harald Hardrada was able to occupy York, he soon went on to defeat at Stamford Bridge five days later, but Harold would be denied support from Mercia and Northumbria when he faced William.

The Battle of Hastings , Stephen Morillo, Boydell, 1996. A very valuable work, containing both translations of a selection of the most important contemporary sources and a selection of articles covering the main areas of controversy. A good way to get an understanding of the main debates about the battle.
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The Battle of Hastings, 1066 , M.K. Lawson, Tempus, 2002. A comprehensive study of the battle and the buildup, with a good section on the surviving sources. The account of the battle itself gives a good summary of the different interpretations of the battle that have appeared over the years.
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How to cite this article: Rickard, J. (4 July 2004), Battle of Fulford, 20 September 106,

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