Most British people can name at least one battle from 1066; the Battle of Hastings. In fact this is the one event that seems to encapsulate the very essence of 1066 as a subject; the killing of King Harold and (almost) inevitable Norman Conquest of England.
Some people can also name a second, earlier encounter; the Battle of Stamford Bridge. It is often reported that this is the battle that fatally injured King Harold’s Saxon army, along with the forced route march from London to York and back again to reach Hastings, making the Norman Conquest of England (almost) inevitable.
But why did King Harold have to march north to save his kingdom and let the Normans land in the south unopposed? The answer is because there was a third battle, one that preceded Stamford Bridge; the forgotten battle of 1066.
For some reason most accounts of the Battle of Fulford Gate held on Wednesday 20th September 1066 are reduced to a sentence in the preamble to the Battle of Hastings. I find this curious as major engagements are usually considered important in telling the history of campaigns, especially those events that lead to such drastic consequences as seen in 1066; an entire civilisation was destroyed!
For Harald Hardrada, the King of Norway, the invasion of Northumbria represented a tactical masterpiece in his attempt to claim the English throne. He landed his army at Riccall, close to York, which was too far for King Harold to interfere with. He expected some resistance from the local eoldermen of course, they were duty bound to protect the kingdom but he probably anticipated a siege of the walled city of York. What he actually got was a pitched battle at site not of his choosing.
King Hardrada was a very experienced military commander who had only ever been on the losing side once and even then he had been but a boy. He had fought all over the known world from Norway to Russia and onto the Holy Land. Against him at Fulford Gate stood two young brothers, the eorls Edwin and Morcar, and they had chosen a defensively strong position.
The Saxons fielded a mixed force of approximately 4500 men, about 2,000 of which might have been well armed and armoured, the remaining 2500 would have been less well equipped and trained peasants and villagers. Against them the Vikings brought an army of some 7000 Norse warriors with another 3000 guarding the fleet at Riccall. For the early medieval period these figures are impressive and are similar to those engaged later at Stamdord Bridge and Hastings, in other words this was a very serious encounter.
In fact there is much about the Battle of Fulford Gate to occupy the imagination of anyone with an interest in this kind of history. The defence of York by the Saxons has about it a quality similar to the more famous Battle of Thermopylae (480 BC) in that a smaller indigenous army attempted to hold back a much larger invader at a strong defensive position. It is almost a hopeless cause but undertaken with admirable bravery on the part of the Anglo-Saxons.
There is also the chance to see how the military mind of Harald Hardrada might have worked in formulating a plan to nullify the advantages of his enemy. Although the battles of this period most often involved the pitting of two shield-wall formations against each other this does not mean that there was not some tactical manoeuvring going on as well. King Hardrda displayed his experience in the way he was able to coax his younger adversaries into making a critical mistake.
The strategic impact of the Battle of Fulford Gate is also important. At the conclusion of the battle the Norwegians found themselves in a seemingly strong position. They had captured the capital of Northumbria and knew that it would take King Harold, who was in London watching the movements of the Normans, some time to arrange a response to the threat that they now posed. At this point it was King Hardrada of Norway who posed the greatest threat to England, that is why King Harold moved north to meet him.
If Eorl Edwin and Eorl Morcar had chosen to act differently, however, then the course of 1066 might have been very different. Although their army was smaller than the Vikings’ it was sufficient to man the walls of York and repel any attacks; a siege would have been necessary. Had the eorls employed that tactic then Harald Hardrada might well have found himself trapped between two Saxon forces when King Harold did move north and the subsequent battle might have left the Saxons in a much better condition to meet the threat of the Normans; but that’s history for you!