I was inspired to write my first novel, The War Wolf, after a visit to York. I live locally to the city and this was one of many such journeys. It occurred to me on this occasion that there was something amiss with the city’s obsession with all things Viking. The Vikings ruled York for about 88 years. That is it. In 866 Ivar the Boneless captured York and it became part of the Danelaw, following the signing of the treaty between King Alfred of Wessex and King Guthrum. King Eadred, grandson of King Alfred, took back York in 954. He had successfully reconquered all of the Danelaw and re-established the Saxon rule of England. If you visit York today, then places like the Jorvik Centre will extol the history of the Viking occupation in preference to the Saxon domination that lasted some 600 years.
The fact is that the Saxons were occasionally defeated in battle by their close relatives, the Norse, but they proved to be an obstinate foe and they never fully succumbed to the Vikings. Indeed, at Stamford Bridge, not far from York, the Saxons under King Harold defeated the largest Viking army ever to set foot in England. That was the starting point of my writing about 1066. I suppose that I wanted to put the record straight to some degree. It is only my opinion, but it seemed to me that the Saxons were always represented as the losers. The fact that they also enjoyed so many victories when it really mattered, such as the Battle of Edington, can often appear as an afterthought.
So, I set out to write about the Saxon victory at Stamford Bridge and discovered through doing the necessary research that there was an earlier battle, fought on 20 September 1066, at Fulford Gate, York. I found it curious that Fulford Gate existed as little more than a footnote to the other two key battles of the year, and yet it seemed to me to be of the utmost importance. Prior to this battle King Harold’s attention had been firmly fixed on the movements of Duke Guillaume of Normandy. He rightly expected that the Normans would invade, but he also seems to have discounted the claim for the English throne made by King Harald Hardrada of Norway. This was a mistake. Allied to Harold’s embittered younger brother, Tostig, the former Eorl of Northumbria, King Hardrada launched a surprise invasion of England. He attacked York with a view to making it both his capital and base in the north of the country. Hardrada’s success forced King Harold to assemble an army and march north to face the Vikings. This was the reason why the Norman invasion went uncontested. Duke Guillaume’s men landed on the 28th September 1066, only 3 days after the Battle of Stamford Bridge.
The Saxons lords, Edwin, Eorl of Mercia, and his younger brother, Morcar, Eorl of Northumbria, were in York prior to King Harald Hardrada’s arrival and they had with them an army. The young noblemen chose glory over prudence and fought a pitched battle against one of the most famous Vikings of the day; they lost. Not only that, their army was all but destroyed. If they had closed the gates of York and manned the walls with their army, as most expected them to do, then Edwin and Morcar could probably have held the Vikings at bay while King Harold dealt with the Normans. Once he had done that, Harold could have marched north and rescued York, but that is not how the history played out.
The Battle of Fulford Gate was the first of the three major battles of 1066 and it deserves to be recognised as such. I chose to do that in writing The War Wolf. Inevitably, this led to a trilogy of books, the Sorrow Song Saga. In my next post I will look in more detail at what happened at Fulford Gate.