Tuesday, 20 September 2016

1066 And All That: Fulford, 20 September 1066

Harald’s invasion came first. After landing at Riccall in Yorkshire, Harald and Tostig marched for nearby York; just south of the city, the northern English army of earls Edwin and Morcar barred the way. Edwin commanded the army of Mercia (in the modern English midlands), and Morcar the army of Northumbria (the northern part of modern England, which had been governed by the unpopular Tostig before Morcar). They had taken up a strong position, flanked on the English right by the deep, impassable River Ouse, and flanked on the English left by the marshes of Heslington.

Fulford is without doubt the least well-known of the three major battles in Britain in 1066 (but as it happens, also the subject of one of my earliest wargaming articles, published back in 1997) – not only in the twenty-first century, but closer to the time, too: no detailed account of the battle has survived. The best we have is Snorri Sturluson’s Heimskringla saga; written around 1230, and of some dubious historical value, it describes the action as follows:

King Harald now went on the land, and drew up his men. The one arm of this line stood at the outer edge of the river, the other turned up towards the land along a ditch; and there was also a morass, deep, broad, and full of water. The earls let their army proceed slowly down along the river, with all their troops in line. The king's banner was next the river, where the line was thickest. It was thinnest at the ditch, where also the weakest of the men were. When the earls advanced downwards along the ditch, the arm of the Northmen’s line which was at the ditch gave way; and the Englishmen followed, thinking the Northmen would fly. The banner of Earl Morukare advanced then bravely.
(from Project Gutenberg)

The English formed up on the northern bank of dyke, the level of water in which may have risen and fallen during the battle. The size of the English army is not known, but the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle notes it was as 'great a force as they could get', and probably numbered around 5000 warriors mustered from Mercia and Northumbria. The English force would have been focussed on the housecarls of both earls (professional, household warriors), supported by the fyrd (regionally raised levies, though not inexperienced or untrained) and possibly by Welsh allies of Mercia.

Opposing them, the Norse force marching on York was probably larger, perhaps in the region of 6000-8000 warriors, as part of the army was left at Riccall to guard the ships. Among the ranks were presumably Tostig's Englishmen and Flemish mercenaries, warriors from the Orkneys, Scottish allies, Harald's housecarls, and the best of his leidang (a Norse equivalent to the fyrd, who served overseas only on expeditions as huge as Harald’s 1066 campaign).

Battle began early in the afternoon, with the two shieldwalls approaching into javelin range. Edwin's Mercians held the riverside half of the English battle line, with Morcar's Northumbrians closer to the marshland. Opposing them, Harald was by the river, so faced Edwin; and Tostig met Morcar's men. The shieldwalls fought across the dyke; most likely, the attacking Norsemen would have needed to cross the dyke so may have been at a disadvantage. The Northumbrians on the English left pushed back Tostig's command, probably crossing the dyke to do so. This success may have broken the solid line of the English shieldwall, but whether due to this, Norse reinforcements arriving, or a more general attrition further along the line, the English right buckled under a counterattack possibly led by Harald in person.

As the English right broke, the entire battle line broke; confused, panicked Englishmen fled to the temporary safety of York, or drowned trying to scare across the river or through the marshes. Harald's son Olaf pursued the English as far as the gates of York.


Coming soon… refighting the battle using my Scottorum Malleus IV rules.