Battle of Gate Fulford: Norwegian Vikings Defeat Northumbrian, Mercian Militia
September 22nd, 2010 by Siggurdsson
Today in Military History: September 20, 1066 Today’s battle was a prelude to the final defeat of a Viking invasion force, led by the Norwegian King Harald Sigurdsson (aka Hardrada, “the Ruthless”), who sought to fulfill his dream of conquering England. [To see the final result of this invasion, please return to my very first post on the Burn Pit on September 25, 2009, “This Day in Military History: Battle of Stamford Bridge.”] Today’s Historical Lecture: Harald Hardrada, “The Last Viking” If we can believe the saga-writers, Harald Sigurdsson had lived an incredibly adventurous life. As the half-brother of deposed King Olaf Haraldsson (aka Saint Olaf), Harald had fought alongside him at the battle of Stiklestad in 1030. [For more on Saint Olaf and this particular battle, please see my previous post of July 28, “Battle of Stiklestad: Deposed King of Norway Defeated by Peasant Army.”] With the death of Olaf and the defeat of his army, Harald fled Norway and headed east. Along the way, he formed a warband of 500 men like himself, exiles from Norway. By 1031, Harald and his retinue eventually ended up in what is today Russia (known to the Vikings as “Gardariki” or the “kingdom of towns”). They made their way to the city of Novgorod, which was ruled by Yaroslav the Wise, Grand Prince of the Rus, and were hired to serve in his army. Harald and his troops participated in at least one major campaign against the Poles, and shortly afterwards was appointed co-commander of Yaroslav’s defense forces. Sometime later, Harald and his men traveled south to Miklagard, the “Great City” of Constantinople and capital of the Byzantine Empire. Ambitious for power, yet lacking the money to back up his yearnings, Harald offered his services to the Byzantine emperor, Romanos III, to serve in the Varangian Guard. This unique unit was the personal bodyguard of East Roman emperors for the next 200 years. It was recruited primarily among the inhabitants of Gardariki, but also attracted many men like Harald, men from Scandinavia who were outcasts, outlaws and exiles. They also had no personal connections to the emperor or the ruling families of the Byzantine Empire, and supposedly were not influenced by the intrigue of the Byzantine court. The Varangian Guard was also unique in that they were allowed to keep most of their armor and especially their weapons, particularly the two-handed Danish battle axes that made them famous. For approximately the next decade, Harald and his retinue participated in military campaigns in Greece, Cyprus, North Africa and Sicily. During these campaigns, Harald gained a reputation not only for his prowess on the battlefield, but for a cunning mind that devised strategms that sometimes allowed him to achieve his objectives with little fighting. By 1042, Harald and his men decided that they wanted to return home to Norway, where his nephew Magnus was on the throne. Harald asked permission to leave Constantinople, but he was rebuffed (and possibly imprisoned). However, he escaped with his men and a huge personal fortune he had accumulated under the service of three separate emperors. Returning first to Novgorod, Harald resumed his service with Grand Prince Yaroslav, married his daughter Elizabeth, and finally sailed home for Norway in 1046. Threatening to take the Norwegian throne by force, Harald and his nephew Magnus agreed to jointly share the kingdom, so long as Harald shared half his fortune. Less than a year later, Magnus was dead (variously reported as drowning, falling off a horse, or becoming ill while on board a ship) and Harald was now the sole ruler of Norway. For the next 17 years, Harald sought to expand his kingdom by claiming the neighboring realm of Denmark as part of his patrimony. Raids and invasions spawned retaliations, and the two nations finally agreed to a truce in 1064. Harald was recognized as the Norwegian monarch, while Sven Estridsson was recognized by Harald as the king of Denmark. During that time, Harald ruled Norway with a ruthlessness that shocked his people, collecting taxes until the people were on the verge of rebellion. One historian stated that the only reason the Norwegians did not revolt is because they could not find a sufficiently strong leader. His actions earned him the cognomen “Hardrada,” which roughly translated means “hard-ruler” or – more simply – “ruthless.” Background to the Battle In the latter months of the year 1065, Hardrada received intelligence that the king of England, Edward the Confessor, was dying. Edward had no close legitimate heirs, so there was sure to be a dynastic struggle. Seeing an opportunity to win himself a second kingdom, Harald began making his plans. When he received news of the death of Edward in early January of 1066, Hardrada accelerated his timetable. He assembled a fleet of ships, recruited men and gathered supplies throughout the spring and summer of 1066. Hardrada had a very tenuous claim to the English throne, which he probably would not have pursued except for an unusual event. In October of 1065, the people of the English province of Northumbria petitioned their king to remove Tostig Godwinson as their earl. Tostig was unpopular and frequently acted in a high-handed manner. The Northumbrians finally had enough; they called out their militia and began a march toward London to demand Tostig’s removal. Tostig was outlawed and exiled, and he swore to re-capture Northumbria. After spending the next year-and-a-half making raids along the southern and southeastern English coast, Tostig eventually ended up in Scotland. He arranged a meeting with Hardrada, who was marking time in the Orkney Islands, which were ruled by his sons. Tostig convinced Harald that England was ripe for the plucking, and that the best place to start was Northumbria. In addition to Tostig’s personal revenge motive, Northumbria also had a large Norse-descended population, which would almost certainly welcome a Viking ruler. Convinced by Tostig, Hardrada and his fleet sailed for Northumbria. He sailed for the British Isles probably in late August or early September, with a fleet numbered at 200 longships, about 100 auxiliary vessels, and an army estimated between 10,000 and 15,000 men. Hardrada’s fleet first attacked the port town of Scarborough, looting it and burning it to the ground. Then, his ships sailed up the Humber and Ouse rivers, arriving at Riccall, which was about 10 miles south of the city of York, the capital of Northumbria. On the morning of September 24, the Vikings and their allies disembarked and began marching northward toward York, probably using a no-longer-extant medieval road which paralleled the River Ouse. The size of Hardrada’s army is unknown, though a good guess would be about 7000 men. This army included Tostig Godwinson’s men, who comprised some very loyal English soldiers, as well as Flemish infantry – a gift of Tostig’s father-in-law, the duke of Flanders. Marching along this road, Harald’s army came to a pair of small villages about 2 miles south of the city of York. These villages, named Water Fulford and Gate Fulford, straddled a stream (today called Germany Beck) which drained an extensive marshy area to the east of the Ouse. A ford provided a crossing for the Beck, but the Vikings were in for a nasty surprise… The Vikings’ recent attack on Scarborough provided sufficient warning to the two northern earls, Morcar of Northumbria and his brother Edwin of Mercia. Reacting fairly swiftly, the two earls mustered their respective militias, who also probably had small contingents of more professional troops, and placed their troops between the invading Vikings and the city of York. The English army deployed on the north side of the ford, where the ground was much firmer. This may have long been chosen as the strongest defensive position where an army could stand against an attacking force. At the ford the area between the river and the marshland was about a quarter of a mile wide. These two natural barriers provided good protection for both the left and right flanks of the English army. It was almost certainly here that Edwin and Morcar formed their defensive shield wall, across the narrow frontage of slightly higher ground immediately north of the ford, awaiting the Viking army which was approaching along the road from the south. Morcar’s forces covered almost the entire front, from the marshland to the ford; Edwin’s men were concentrated between the ford and the river, forming a deep and compact front next to the river. Total numbers for the English are unknown, but is believed to been about 3000-5000 soldiers. The Batttle
The Norse invasion force rapidly deployed to meet the English army. However, it is still difficult for any army to deploy from march column into battle line. Harald assigned Tostig’s forces to his army’s right flank, along with some of his less experienced Norsemen. Only about half of Harald’s army was in line when the English took the initiative. Earl Morcar launched an attack across the ford against the left flank of the Viking army. It is thought that this initial attack came either mid- or late morning. For the next hour or two, the English and Norse armies made short, sharp attacks to feel out their opponents. A few volleys of arrows, axes smashing shields, the quick stab of the spear, were all little vignettes of this battlefield. Finally, King Harald deployed all his men in line, and unfurled his personal battle standard, known as “Land-Waster.” It was probably a gonfalon type banner, with a large black raven. Hardrada ordered a single blast of a horn, and the entire Norse left flank attacked across the Beck and over the ford. The savagery of the Viking attack, as well as their greater numbers, decided the issue very quickly. Earl Edwin’s Mercian contingent was pushed back away from the Beck, against the river. This attack came so suddenly, it appears that the majority of Edwin’s militiamen were able to withdraw fairly intact and in good order, back in the direction of York. Some Mercians tried to jump into the Ouse to escape, with many of these men drowning. Morcar’s forces, however, were not so lucky. With pressure along the entire streambed, Hardrada’s flank attack began to surround the Northumbrian levies. Relentless pressure drove many of these men eastward into the marshy land. [There is also the possibility that Hardrada eventually outflanked the English position through the marsh, perhaps using the old Roman road which is thought to have crossed the marsh several hundred meters to the east of the ford.] Many Northumbrian militiamen were driven into the marshes, where they were either cut down or drowned. Some of Morcar’s men managed to retreat to York, joining Edwin’s forces within the city’s walls. Probably by early afternoon, the battle of Gate Fulford was over. The Aftermath Casualties were probably heavy on both sides, likely anywhere from 1000-2000 men killed and wounded on each side. Both English earls escaped the battle. York surrendered to the victorious Viking army but Hardrada did not occupy the city. The city fathers managed to negotiate a truce which gave York to Harald, but saved it from being looted. Harald instead fell back upon his camp and fleet at Riccall, leaving instructions for the burial of the Viking dead. In addition, Hardrada arranged for the Northumbrians to bring hostages, tribute and supplies several days later seven miles to the east of the city. The scene was now set for one of the most dramatic and decisive battles of the Viking era. Footnote #1: Four days later, King Harald Hardrada of Norway fell in battle with King Harold Godwinson of England, at the climactic battle of Stamford Bridge. With that Viking loss, many scholars consider the year 1066 to be the end of the Viking Age. Footnote #2: Most of the battlefield is unchanged from the way it was 900+ years ago. There is an historical marker near the probable site of the battle. The UK Battlefield Trust is working to preserve the battlefield from modern development.
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