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Battle of Fulford

From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

The Battle of Fulford was fought on the outskirts of the village of Fulford[1] near York in England, on 20 September 1066, when King Harald III of Norway, also known as Harald Hardrada ("harðráði" in Old Norse, meaning "hard ruler"), and Tostig Godwinson, his English ally, fought and defeated the Northern Earls Edwin and Morcar.[1][2][3]

Tostig was Harold Godwinson's banished brother. He had allied with King Harald of Norway and possibly Duke William of Normandy but there is no record of the reasoning behind his invasions. The battle was a decisive victory for the Viking army. The earls of York could have hidden behind the walls of their city but instead they met the Viking army across a river. All day the English desperately tried to break the Viking shield wall but to no avail.

Tostig was opposed by Earl Morcar who had displaced him as Earl of Northumbria.[4]

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  • ✪ The Battle of Fulford 1066 AD
  • ✪ 20th September 1066: Harald Hardrada wins Battle of Fulford
  • ✪ The Battle of Stamford Bridge 1066 AD
  • ✪ Battle of Fulford, 20 September 1066
  • ✪ Finding Fulford, The forgotten battle of 1066


It's September of the year 1066. King of Norway, Harald Sigurdsson, reaches Yorkshire shores with his 300 strong fleet of ships, in order to fight for the English throne. His first target is the thriving city of York. The Last great Viking Invasion of the British Isles is about to begin. Northwestern Europe, the final years of the Viking Age. King of England, Edward the Confessor falls into a coma and dies, heirless, a few weeks later. The quickest claim to the throne was made by influential earl Harold Godwinson, who was able to convince the Witenagemot to choose him as the new king. Harold was crowned on the 6th January 1066, just one day after the death of the old king. But Harold wasn't the only claimant to the English throne. Hearing of his coronation, two other serious pretendents emerged: Duke William of Normandy, later to be known as William the Conqueror, and Harald Sigurdsson, nicknamed Hardrada, King of Norway. Both soon started to gather forces to invade England, and turn their claims more serious. In this episode, we are going to focus on the northern pretendent. Hardrada, meaning „stern counsel” or „hard ruler” was a fearsome, almost seven foot tall man who gained a reputation as a mercenary hired by Grand Prince Yaroslav the Wise of Kievan Rus and later, as a member, and eventually a commander of the elite Varangian Guard serving the Byzantine Emperor. In early September he finished war preparations and set sail for England. He resupplied in Orkney, where some local Norsemen joined his fleet, and soon was reinforced by Tostig Godwinson, Harold's exiled brother, who seeked an opportunity to reclaim the Earldom of Northumbria. From Harald's point of view, Tostig's help was useful not only because he was the English king's brother, but because he could also provide invaluable information and intelligence about invaded lands. Together they burned and sacked Scarborough and then headed farther south, reaching the Humber estuary on the 18th of September. Harald's first target was the city of York, so they sailed up the river Ouse and once their scouts had reported that numerous English forces were defending the city, they landed ten miles south of York, and started to prepare for the upcoming encounter. Anglosaxon forces were hastily levied several days prior to the battle. The majority of them were formed by Mercians and Northumbrians, led by two brothers, Earl Morcar of Northumbria and Earl Edwin of Mercia. The English spread their troops in a line along the Beck to secure their flanks. Edwin took the right flank, close to river Ouse, while Morcar commanded the left flank, spreading as far as the fordland to the east. The total number of English soldiers was roughly 5,000 men. Much of the terrain south of York was covered by marshlands, which significantly limited the manouverability of the opposing forces. The first Norse units arrived at the battlefield and lined up to oppose the Anglosaxon. At this point, Harald was probably outnumbered by the English, as he left a significant portion of his troops to guard the ships, and many Norsemen were still either disembarking, on their way to join the King's forces. Morcar and Edwin couldn't attack the Norsemen during their deployment to take the advantage of their superior numbers beacuse of the Beck in front of them which was flooded due to the tide, rendering early attack risky and hard to perform. When the tide finally receded around midday, the English decided to attack right away, trying to take advantage of their still bigger numbers, as Harald's army was being constantly reinforced by arriving units, and would eventually outnumber the defenders. At first, Morcar with the men of Northumbria charged the Norse centre and right flank, where Harald's least experienced soldiers along with Tostig's forces were deployed. Fierce melee fighting started on the boggy terrain along the ford, with losses on both sides. The English initially managed to push back the Norsemen, but as time passed, and fresh viking units arrived to support their folks, the battle down the ford had no clear winner. Harald waited while battle commenced on the right and in the centre, hoping his least experienced units could hold ground against a good portion of the English forces, playing for time. When the majority of his best men eventually joined him, he lead the charge along the Ouse river and struck Edwin's forces. Despite his lower numbers, Hardrada was able to push the English line back into the marshes, taking advantage of having tough and experienced soldiers under him. In the centre, neither side was able to make any progress in that boggy bloodbath. Morcar, being unable to see the whole battlefield from his position on the slightly lower ground around the ford probably didn't realise, that Edwin's flank was being crushed by Harald's best men. Soon after, being aware that his troops were losing badly, Edwin commanded a retreat north to the city, hoping to organise a defence from there. While some of the Vikings chased fleeing English left flank, the rest of Harald's troops now turned on to attack Morcar's side and rear. The Anglosaxons tried to regroup to oppose Harald's units, but failed, being unable to reform their line quickly enough to effectively face the new threat on the boggy ground. Soon, being outnumbered and outmanouvered, Morcar commanded his units to retreat as well. Harald Hardrada won the battle, but didn't avoid casualties. From about 6,000 of his soldiers involved directly in the battle, he lost around 900 men either wounded or dead. Losses on the English side were probably slightly lower, but their value as a standing army then was non-existent. York surrendered to the Norsemen, and was spared by Harald, possibly because Tostig didn't want his capital looted. Harald's landing was succesful. Soon after capturing York, he built a camp 7 miles east of the city, at Stamford Bridge and awaited the gathering of hostages from around the region. He had no idea, that English king, Harold Godwinson was already a few days away from York, rushing north leading an army of men 15,000 strong to repel the Viking invasion. A game-changing battle, in the close vicinity of Stamford Bridge village was just about to happen.



The Anglo-Saxon king Edward the Confessor died on 5 January 1066 without an heir.[5] The only surviving member of the royal family was Edgar, the young son of Edward Ætheling. On the day of King Edward's funeral, 6 January, Harold Godwinson, the Earl of Wessex, rushed to London, where he was crowned king in the Abbey of Saint Peter of Westminster, by Ealdred, Archbishop of York.[6] Harold Godwinson was elected as King by the Witen, who had gathered in Westminster to celebrate the feast of Epiphany. However, two powerful earls, brothers Edwin of Mercia and Morcar of Northumbria, challenged his authority. Sources indicate that Harold moved north to confront them; however, in the end he secured their loyalty by marrying their sister, Edith, the widow of Griffith of Wales. By securing the loyalty of Edwin and Morcar, Godwinson increased his strength in the north. These men were, in fact, the first barrier between Harold Godwinson and Harald Hardrada.[7]

Tostig, the exiled brother of Godwinson, also felt he had a claim to the English throne. During his exile, he lived in Flanders, whence, according to the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, he invaded in May 1066 against his brother.[8] At Sandwich Tostig is said to have enlisted and impressed sailors.[8] He then sailed north, where he battled Edwin, the Earl of Mercia. After a quick defeat at the mouth of the Humber, he arrived in Scotland under the protection of King Malcolm of Scotland. Later he met and made a pact with Harald Hardrada, King of Norway, whereby he agreed to support Hardrada in his invasion of England.[8]The medieval historian Orderic Vitalis has a different version of this story; he says that Tostig travelled to Normandy to enlist the help of William, Duke of Normandy.[9][10] Then, as William was not ready to get involved at that stage, Tostig sailed from the Cotentin Peninsula, but because of storms ended up in Norway, and made his pact with Harald Hardrada there.[8] Whether in Norway or Scotland, it is certain that Tostig allied himself with Hardrada, where they fought side by side at the Battle of Fulford. Tostig was a useful ally for Hardrada not only because he was the brother of his adversary but also because he knew the terrain.[11]

Hardrada, like Tostig, William of Normandy, and King Harold Godwinson, was another claimant to the throne. Hardrada set sail for England in September 1066, picking up supplies in Orkney and was reinforced by Tostig, who brought soldiers and ships. They sailed together along the River Ouse towards the city of York.[12] In Orderic Vitalis' version it says that in the month of August Hardrada and Tostig set sail across the wide sea with a favourable wind and landed in Yorkshire.[13] They arrived at the mouth of the Humber on 18 September. Having disembarked from their ships, their armies quickly moved towards York. On 20 September 1066, they were confronted by Godwinson's earls, Edwin and Morcar.[14]



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 to secure their flanks. On their right flank was the River Ouse, and on the left 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 were to give way, the other one would be in trouble.[1] 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.[4]

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.[1]

English charge

The English struck first, advancing on the Norwegian army before it could fully deploy. Morcar's troops pushed Harald's back into the marshlands, 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 their better troops to bear upon them, still fresh against the weakened Anglo-Saxons.[1]

Harald's counter-move

Harald brought more of his troops from the right flank to attack the centre, and sent more men to the river. The invaders were outnumbered, but they kept pushing and shoving the defenders back. 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 defeated. Edwin and Morcar however, managed to survive the fight.[1]

York surrendered to the Norwegians under the promise that the victors would not force entry to their city, perhaps because Tostig would not want his capital looted.[15] It was arranged that the various hostages should be brought in and the Norwegian army retired to Stamford Bridge, 7 miles (11 km) east of York, to await their arrival.[15]


It has been estimated that at Fulford the Norwegians had about 10,000 troops of which 6,000 were deployed in the battle, and the defenders 5,000.[16] During the battle, casualties were heavy on both sides. Some estimates claim 15% dead giving a total of 1650 (based on 11,000 troops being deployed in the battle).[17] From all accounts, it is clear that the mobilised power of Mercia and Northumbria was cut to pieces at Fulford.[15]

Because of the defeat at Fulford Gate, King Harold Godwinson had to force march his troops 190 miles (310 km), from London to York.[18] He did this within a week of Fulford and managed to surprise the Viking army and defeat them at the Battle of Stamford Bridge.[19] In the meantime William, Duke of Normandy, had landed his army in Sussex on the south coast. Harold marched his army back down to the south coast where he met William's army, at a place now called Battle just outside Hastings.[20] It is probable that Harold's intention was to repeat his success at Stamford Bridge by catching Duke William unawares.[18] The Anglo-Norman chronicler Florence of Worcester commented that although the king [Harold] was aware that some of the bravest men in England had fallen in two recent battles and that half of his troops were not assembled, he did not hesitate to meet the enemy in Sussex. It is likely that the engagements at Fulford Gate and at the Battle of Stamford Bridge, fought within a week of each other, seriously affected Harold's strength at the Battle of Hastings some three weeks later.[18] There is no doubt that if Harold had not been diverted by the battles in the north, then he would have been better prepared to fight William at Hastings and the result might have been different.[15][18]


  1. ^ a b c d e f DeVries. The Norwegian Invasion. pp. 255–259.
  2. ^ Ross, David. "The Battle of Fulford". Britain Express. Retrieved 13 January 2016.
  3. ^ "Battle Of Fulford". UK Battlefield's Resource. The Battlefields Trust. Retrieved 13 January 2016.
  4. ^ a b Howarth, David (1977). 1066; The Year of the Conquest. Dorset Press. ISBN 0-88029-014-5.
  5. ^ David C. Douglas. William the Conqueror. pp. 181.
  6. ^ Barlow. Edward the Confessor. pp. 244–245.
  7. ^ David C. Douglas. William the Conqueror. pp. 182–3.
  8. ^ a b c d Barlow. The Godwins. pp. 134–135.
  9. ^ Woods. Dark Ages. pp. 233–238.
  10. ^ Barlow, The Godwins Chapter 5: The Lull Before the Storm.
  11. ^ David C. Douglas. William the Conqueror. pp. 189–190.
  12. ^ DeVries Norwegian Invasion pp. 236–252
  13. ^ Jones. Finding Fulford. p. 39
  14. ^ David C. Douglas. William the Conqueror. pp. 193.
  15. ^ a b c d Schofield, The Third Battle of 1066 in History Today, Vol. 16, pp. 689–692.
  16. ^ Jones. Finding Fulford. pp. 202–203.
  17. ^ Jones. Finding Fulford. p. 235.
  18. ^ a b c d Brown. Anglo-Norman studies III. Proceedings of the Battle Conference 1980. pp. 7–9.
  19. ^ Woods. Dark Ages, pp. 238–240.
  20. ^ Barlow, The Godwins, Chapter 7: The Collapse of the Dynasty.


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This page was last edited on 8 March 2019, at 10:29
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