Writing about an actual historical event in a piece of fiction is challenging, especially if, as the writer, you are keen on being authentic and accurate. I most certainly was. I undertook a lot of research into both the actual battle, how it was fought, the weapons and armour, why it happened, and what the outcomes were. I would say that the level of research that I carried out largely influenced the way I wrote the book, The War Wolf.
It would have been easy just to concentrate on the actual battle and limit the story to that one event, only this engagement between Saxons and Vikings was not an isolated affair. As I read the history of 1066 it became clear that there were several important figures, real historical personages like King Harold Godwinson, Duke Guillaume of Normandy, and King Harald Hardrada of Norway, who each had a different agenda that inevitably, it seemed, brought them into conflict with each other. King Hardrada’s rule was failing. He had fought a long war against Denmark that had ended in a forced peace that gave him neither profit nor glory. Hardrada needed both military success and a means of replenishing his treasury. The death of King Edward in January of 1066, followed by the arrival of Tostig Godwinson, King Harold’s younger brother and recently ousted from his position as Eorl of Northumbria, appears to have inspired Hardrada to take the crown of England for himself.
Harald Hardrada assembled a mixed army of Norwegians, Danes, and foreign adventurers, some of them Saxons following Tostig. He travelled to Orkney to try and augment his soldiers. This was not the actions of a popular king and leader. There was an element of desperation to his preparations. Nevertheless, Hardrada succeeded in launching a surprise attack. He sailed his ships up the Humber to the River Ouse, landing at Riccall, a few miles from York. From there he mobilised his forces and approached the city.
Eorl Edwin of Mercia and his younger brother, Eorl Morcar of Northumbria, were in York with an army of some 5,000 men. Their sister was married to King Harold Godwinson, but this connection did not seem to have eased the friction between Wessex and Mercia. The wisest choice before the two young Saxon noblemen would have been to close the gates of York and man the Roman walls with their army. However, they seem to have believed that they could win glory for themselves if they fought at Fulford Gate.
The land that Edwin and Morcar proposed to defend was just south of York. It was bordered on one side by the River Ouse and on the other by marshland, which appeared to protect the flanks. Before the Saxon position ran Germany Beck. It had the makings of a strong defensive position. Also, in Edwin and Morcar’s favour was the fact that they could get their troops into position very quickly, whereas the Vikings had to march from Riccall.
Morcar initiated the battle by moving to the attack. Quite rightly, he had identified that the Viking flank near the marshland was weak, but in going onto the offensive he immediately surrendered the defensive advantages of his position. Hardrada maintained the strength at the centre of his line and moved some of his best troops onto his left flank where they faced Eorl Edwin and his smaller number of Mercians. The Viking right flank gave way before the determined Saxon assault, but the centre held, causing Morcar’s forces to pivot at that point. As the right flank gave ground the Northumbrians moved so that their backs were not towards York but rather the marshlands.
Recognising the critical point of the battle had come Hardrada launched two counterattacks. The first pushed through the centre and effectively forced apart the Mercians and the Northumbrians. The second pushed along the bank of the River Ouse and turned the Mercian’s own flank. Eorl Edwin had no choice but to begin the retreat to York, Leaving Morcar trapped against the marshlands with no obvious route for escape. It is a matter of historical fact that Morcar did escape, however, but the largest part of his army was slaughtered. They were trapped against the marshland and faced on three sides by their enemy.
When it comes to writing battle-scenes there are different approaches that the author can take. There are advantages to seeing the battle unfold from the point of view of one or two major characters. This can prove very immersive to the reader and gives an opportunity to describe in detail the struggles of real people in life and death situations. However, being so close to the action does not allow for an overall account of how the fight is proceeding across the entire field. An eye in the sky approach is often favoured for that that, although I personally find that it can become too remote. I tried to do something of both. One of the advantages of having seasoned warriors in the midst of battle was, I found, that they could reasonably explain through their own thoughts how the struggle was developing. For the Vikings I had King Hardrada, a veteran of many battles, and Tostig Godwinson, who was a very capable leader of men. For the Saxons I had the fictional Coenred, a huscarl.
Writing an account of Fulford Gate allowed me to explore why some of the events that were recorded happened. One question is why did Edwin and Morcar take to the field when they could have withstood a siege and wait for Harold Godwinson to rescue them? The answer, I believe, lay in the very name of Godwinson. Morcar had been promoted by King Edward to the Eorldom of Northumbria after he had removed and exiled Tostig Godwinson on the advice of his own brother, Harold. The houses of Wessex and Mercia had long been rivals and it was not implausible that Harold might offer Tostig back the Eorldom of Northumbria so as to make peace with his brother and separate him from Hardrada. A victory over one of the most famous Vikings of his day and the brother of the King of England would have boosted the reputations of Edwin and Morcar immeasurably. A thirst for glory was very much a way of life for Saxon nobility. Men did not become great lords by hiding behind walls.
A wiser man, such as an experienced warrior like Coenred, would have seen things differently. With the advantage of age, he felt less swayed by aspirations of glory and more inclined to fulfil a lord’s genuine obligation, to protect the people and defend the kingdom. These opposing views inevitably creates a point of conflict between the lord and the soldier. Even more so when there is a significant difference age between the two.
Both Edwin and Morcar survived the defeat at Fulford Gate, thanks to Coenred, but neither participated in the other two battles to come. The record of 1066 is far from complete, which leaves plenty of room for writers like me to develop ideas. I played on the youth of the Saxons lords, using it as a reason as to why they removed themselves from all further conflict. They were disappointed in the outcome and resentful of King Harold coming to rescue them five days later. Coenred, a man of honour, can not indulge that luxury. His primary role as a huscarl is to defend his lords’ lives, which he accomplishes, and then his lords’ people. When Edwin and Morcar head for the safety of Durham, Coenred chooses to take what survivors he can muster to Tadcaster instead. In his opinion this is the correct course of action. It allows him to remain relatively close to York but also on the main road from London, up which he hopes that King Harold will send a relief force. This leaves the key character who links all three battles in a perfect position to be present for the next major conflict at Stamford Bridge.