This October sees the 951st anniversary of the Battle of Hastings, and of course you don’t need to be an eminent historian to remember that most celebrated of dates in English history – yet while 1066 is the pivotal year that every schoolchild knows by heart, there were in fact two decisive battles fought prior to Hastings, instrumental in determining the final outcome, and the bloody carnage of both engagements took place far to the North, on Yorkshire soil…
Overshadowed perhaps by the the final conflict between the Saxon hero, Harold, and the French villain, William of Normandy – or William ‘the Bastard’ as he was otherwise known (in reality, both were of Viking descent and neither had a particularly strong claim to the English throne) Hastings – or the ‘Battle of Senlac Hill’ as preferred by pro-Saxon Victorian historians – is one of those landmark events that shines brightest from the dimness of the Dark Ages. Consequently, the importance of both the battles fought at Fulford in York and at Stamford Bridge seems diminished in the collective national consciousness. Indeed neither are represented in the stitches of the Bayeux Tapestry, yet an alternative outcome to either of these battles could have forced a fundamental change in the history of our Isles, and affect how we live our lives today. From the formation of the United Kingdom to our Constitution, our economy, even down to the way we speak, while it is well nigh impossible to determine the course of British history without the Conquest, an alternative outcome to either Stamford Bridge or Fulford could have had considerable ramifications also. Time for both of those Yorkshire battles to take a share of the limelight then.
The first of these bloody engagements. which certainly seems to have fallen between the cracks of popular history, was the Battle of Fulford, also known as the Battle of Fulford Cross or the Battle of York. On the morning of 20th September 1066 the armies of Morcar of Northumbria and his brother Edwin of Mercia clashed with the forces of King Harald Hardrada of Norway, supported by Earl Tostig, King Harold of England’s disgraced turn-coat brother, the opposing sides facing one another across the marshland beside the River Ouse in Fulford, one-and-a-half miles from the centre of York. This valiant Saxon attempt to face down the superior Norse army that had come to reclaim Britain as a Nordic nation was doomed to defeat and failure, however. On that day the northern earls were outnumbered 4-1 when they took their positions on the miry ground at Fulford against Hardrada’s estimated 12,000 Norsemen, disgorged from 300 longships which had sailed up the Ouse and moored at Riccall. With the front ranks locked together in a shield-wall, the Saxon spearsmen utilised any gap they could find to assault the axe-wielding opposition, yet caught between Harald Hardrada’s men on one side and Tostig’s army on the other, the Saxons were finally overwhelmed and their fate was sealed. As they fell back, trapped between the Vikings and the River Ouse, those who were not cut down or crushed were drowned, and it was said that the tidal estuary of the Ouse, known locally as Germany Beck, ran red with the blood of fallen Saxons.
Prior to the Fulford massacre, everybody in England had been on invasion alert during 1066, and King Harold was now placed in an unenviable position. Should he march his army north to confront Hardrada, leaving the south of England unprotected against the threat of invasion from across the Channel, or remain where he was in anticipation of the Norman offensive, leaving Hardrada to consolidate his control in Yorkshire? Taking the decision to march north, Harold was optimistic that he could defeat Hardrada and still be able to return south in time to confront William’s army.
After Fulford, the Vikings received the surrender of York, the city capitulating without resistance, averting the inevitable sacking and savage reprisals had they fought on. Decamping to Stamford Bridge, some seven miles to the east of York, Hardrada presumed that Harold would not leave the south of England unprotected against the threat of Norman invasion, and felt confident enough to leave a third of his men and armour with the longships moored at Riccall. However, when Harold’s army reached York on the morning of the 25th, their numbers bolstered by the remnants of Morcar’s and Edwin’s defeated forces, he immediately marched from the city to Stamford Bridge, taking Hardrada completely by surprise. At a parley prior to the battle, Harold offered his traitorous brother, Tostig, his earldom back if he would lay down his arms and rejoin him. When Tostig asked what English lands Harald Hardrada could expect if he dismissed his Viking army, King Harold’s derisive reply was that ‘he would offer Hardrada seven foot of good English soil, or as much as he needed as he was taller than other men‘. Battle commenced…
While the exact location of the main battlefield at Stamford Bridge is now difficult to determine, the site of the initial action was for control of the bridge itself. Incredibly a huge and formidable Viking berserker clutching a massive double-bladed battle axe held the narrow crossing single-handedly, impeding the entire Saxon army. The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle records that he slew up to 40 Englishmen, but was finally vanquished when one of Harold’s men ingeniously floated under the bridge in a half-barrel, and thrust his long spear through the laths of the bridge, mortally wounding the seemingly unstoppable warrior from beneath.
With the way now clear for the Saxon army to storm across the bridge, locking shields with the enemy on the western bank, the fierce and bloody battle raged on for hours, until, as dusk fell, Harald Hardrada, who had tirelessly wielded a two-handled sword to devastating effect, was finally struck down by an arrow to the windpipe. Remaining true to his traitorous allegiance, Tostig took up the fallen Viking Raven Banner, the ‘Land-Ravager’, and fought on until he himself was slain. Echoing the fate of the defeated Saxons at Fulford, as the routed Viking army was pursued, many of the fleeing Norsemen were drowned in the river. This was a decisive victory for Harold, and notwithstanding those who’d perished in the River Derwent, so many of the invaders had fallen in such a small area that the field occupying what is now called ‘Battle Flats’, to the south-east of the town. was said to have been still whitened with bleached bones some 70 years after the battle. Tellingly, of the 300 ships the Vikings arrived in, only 25 were needed to return the survivors to Norway.
In spite of his betrayal of his brother, Tostig’s body is believed to have been taken to York and buried at York Minster, presumably at King Harold’s behest, and while Harold had promised Hardrada a grave in ‘good English soil’, his the body was taken back to Norway and interred in Nidaros Cathedral, Trondheim.
Harold’s victory was short-lived, however, as even while celebrating the Viking defeat at a banquet in York, he received word that Duke William had made landfall in Sussex. The rest, as they say, is history…
Though the Battle of Stamford Bridge is probably the better known of the two precursors to Hastings, when questioned, most people will still allude to Chelsea FC’s home ground! There has, however, been a recent revival of an old, almost lost, local tradition dating back to the Battle of Stamford Bridge. Pies baked in the shape of a small boat with a symbolic spear-like wooden skewer protruding from the crust are once again customarily eaten on the first Sunday after the 25th September to commemorate the turning point of that historic battle. Perhaps this accounts for the fierce face of the Viking warrior gracing the iconic pub sign for The New Inn, formerly The Swordsman Inn. The site of the pub is just upstream from the present road bridge, where the original 11th-century bridge would have been, and where the mighty giant Viking berserker met his infamous battle’s end from beneath!