Tuesday, October 13, 2020

Conquest of England 1066 AD. The battles of Fulford, Stamford and Hastings.

By Garrett Pearson


1066 AD Proved a decisive year for Anglo-Saxon England.

King Edward shown on the Bayeux Tapestry

The English King Edward the Confessor died childless on January 5 of that year and failing to nominate an heir created a power vacuum for the throne. The only true claimant was a nephew of Edward’s, Edgar Ætheling. Edgar however, aged only fourteen and residing in Hungary was virtually unknown to the Saxon people and thus devoid of support in England. 

Three forceful claimants sought the crown, Earl Harold Godwinson of England, King Harald Sigurdsson (Hardrada) of Norway and William, Duke of Normandy.  

Each claim was tenuous; Harold’s claim cited a promise given him by Edward on his deathbed. Hardrada’s, based on distant ties to the former Anglo-Danish King Canute, and William by a promise he claimed given to him years earlier by Edward. William also claimed that Harold, whilst a detainee or guest of his in Normandy, had given an oath of fealty to him and promised support in his claim to the English throne. 

Harold was crowned King on January 6 by Bishops Stigand of Canterbury and Ealdred of York with the support of the English Witan, the Saxon assembly of nobles. Harold’s coronation was astonishingly quick, perhaps done before objections could be raised, previous Kings usually taking time to be exposed to their people and Lords.  

Rebellion and invasion

Harold’s estranged and younger brother, Tostig Godwinson, the former Earl of Northumberland and whom Edward exiled before his death, now sought to reclaim his Earldom. After raiding the Isle of Wight and the southeastern coast of England but to no gain and little effect, he looked for greater support against his brother from the other claimants, William and Hardrada. 

Allying himself with Hardrada the pair agreed to meet with their fleets at Tynemouth on the northeast coast of England. Hardrada, abandoning his long and unproductive war against Denmark arrived with three hundred ships and an army of approximately nine thousand men, consisting mainly of Norsemen but supplemented by vassals from Orkney and Shetland and some Scots mercenaries supplied by King Malcolm III. Tostig arrived with twelve ships, and supported by some exiled Saxon retainers and Flemish mercenaries supplied by his brother-in-law, Count Baldwin of Flanders.   


Battle of Fulford – September 20

Battle of Fulford - Mathew Paris (Public Domain)
After sacking Scarborough and the northeast coast, Hardrada’s and Tostig’s fleet turned into the river Humber and sailed inland, landing and disembarking at Riccall (Richale) some ten miles south of York (Jorvik). 

Two miles south of York at Fulford, they were confronted by brothers Edwin and Morcar, the respective Earls of Mercia and Northumberland and around five thousand Saxon troops. 

The Earls drew their army up along the north bank of the Germany Beck with Edwin and his Mercians on the right flank by the river Ouse and Morcar and the Northumbrians to the center with marshland to their left. Hardrada’s men were still coming in from Riccall when battle commenced, the Saxons seeking victory before all of Hardrada’s troops arrived. Owing to the high tide on the Ouse, the beck was also in flood forcing the Saxons and Norse to fight across it. With difficult conditions for both armies, Hardrada committed his light troops along the beck hoping they could hold the Saxons until more of his men came up from Riccall. Initially the Saxons enjoyed success, pushing Hardrada’s men back but as the heavy Norse troops arrived and were marched around the riverbank, where the tide had now fallen; they attacked the Saxon right flank driving Edwin and his Mercians off. More Norse pushed around the Saxon left flank, both contingents then turning to attack the rear of the Saxon center, cutting them to pieces. Casualties were heavy on both sides though the power of the northern Saxon army was broken and both Earls managed to escape.

Harald and Tostig marched eight miles east of York to Stamford to await and accept hostages and the surrender of the city, Stamford being chosen as it was a well-known landmark on the boundary of the east and north ridings of Yorkshire.

Battle of Stamford – September 25

With the northern Saxon army destroyed and believing Harold to be in the south watching for William, Hardrada sent half of his troops under his Earl (Jarl) Eysteinn Orri back to their ships at Riccall, the rest relaxing in the meadows by the river Derwent at Stamford.

Harold however, hearing news of the Norse invasion had force-marched north from London, completely surprising the Norse contingent at Stamford. Expecting no trouble, many of the Norse had sent their mail hauberks and shields back to their ships, now, unprepared and with hastily drawn battle lines, they faced the Saxons. The speed of the Saxon arrival suggests that most were mounted but whether they dismounted to fight on foot as traditional or attacked mounted is still a moot point. With Saxon numbers estimated at ten to twelve thousand men, Hardrada dispatched runners back to Orri at Riccall, some fifteen miles away calling for reinforcements.

The Norse were gradually pushed back. Seeking to regroup on more favorable ground, they crossed a narrow bridge whilst a lone warrior with a double-handed axe held it against the Saxons. Buying time for his comrades, he is reputed to have slain between twenty and forty men before finally succumbing to a spear in the groin thrust from beneath the bridgeboards by a Saxon warrior.

During a lull in the fighting, the chroniclers, Snorri Sturluson and Henry of Huntingdon, cite that a warrior approached Tostig and Hardrada offering Tostig his Earldom back. When Tostig asked what terms for Hardrada, the man is said to have replied “Only six feet of English ground or more, as he is taller than other men.” The warrior was reputed to be Harold.

Battle recommenced and Hardrada fell to an arrow through the throat, Tostig was also slain. Jarl Orri and his men arrived in late afternoon having ran the fifteen miles from Riccall. Committing immediately to battle they stalled the Saxon onslaught but succumbing to exhaustion and a foe that sensed victory they were pushed back, Orri being killed in the melee.

Late in the day, Harold offered the remaining Norsemen the chance to leave, never to return, under pain of death. The Norse casualties were so great that only thirty ships were required to take the survivors back to Norway.

Battle of Stamford Bridge & death of Hardrada (unknown artist)

Invasion and the Battle of Hastings 14 October

William’s fleet of some seven hundred ships, a mixture of warships and transports landed at Pevensey Bay on September 28 or 29. He immediately dispatched troops to invest Hastings town and to ravage the surrounding countryside. 

Harold, resting in York when he heard of Williams’s invasion set off south reaching London in four days. At this speed, it is thought he rode ahead with his Huscarls (personal guard) with others to follow on as soon as able.

Harold was urged to wait in London for the men from the north and for more men to come in but being a successful, confident and vigorous commander; he refuted the advice, and marched to meet William. Word was put out for men to assemble by the ‘Hoar apple tree” a well-known landmark, long since lost.

It is surmised Harold’s speed was a plan to catch William unawares, William however stole a march on Harold and the two sides came in sight on opposing hills on the early morning of October 14. William on Telham hill with his papal banner, a gift of support from Pope Alexander the second to aid his endeavours against Harold the ‘oath breaker.’ On Caldbec hill, Harold set his banners of the fighting man and the dragon of Wessex, his brothers Gyrth and Leofwine in support. His men formed up on a hammer shaped ridge at the hill front, above a boggy area called Santlache meaning ‘Sandy Stream’ and punned later by the Normans as Senlac, meaning ‘blood lake.’

William moved to the low ground between the hills expecting Harold to come down off Caldbec hill and fight him, Harold sensibly refused.

Battle commenced at 0900hrs with volleys of arrows from the Norman archers. The Saxons, in dense formation raising their shields against the incoming storm suffered little damage, William then dispatched his infantry uphill in an attempt to shatter the Saxon shieldwall. His men were met by a hail of missiles, arrows, clubs, stones and javelins, the Saxons roaring defiance with cries of ‘Ut, ut, ut’ (out, out, out) after a prolonged struggle and no sign of the wall breaking, William sent his mounted knights in support. However, with the wall unbroken the best the knights could do was ride in and away stabbing with their lances else hurl maces and javelins in an attempt to break the wall. 

With the Saxon wall showing no sign of breaking, the Breton contingent on William’s left flank broke and fled back down the hill, some of the cavalry floundering in the soft ground and a cry went up that William was dead. Some Saxons broke ranks and chased the Norman rout, seeing crisis, William threw back his coif and helmet showing himself alive and rode amongst his men trying to stem the panic. Managing to rally his men, the Normans counter attacked and slaughtered the Saxons on the open ground. 

A break in the fighting had both sides reforming, the Saxons adjusting their shrinking shieldwall and the Normans regrouping for another assault. The battle continued into the afternoon with the Normans again making no headway against the Saxon defence. At the height of a full assault on the shieldwall, the Normans again began falling back down the hill as if in disarray, the Saxons, once more sensing victory and against all commands, broke ranks and gave chase. On the low ground, the Normans turned and easily slaughtered the Saxons, who in loose order were easy prey to the mounted knights. 

With the loss of the men in the low ground, the Saxon shieldwall shrunk again. William, seizing the moment committed to a full assault by all his troops, his archers this time causing casualties in the weakened wall. The infantry forced gaps in the Saxon ranks, the knights riding in to widen and split the defences open, Gyrth and Leofwine both slain as the knights forced through. Harold, the last King of the Saxons was killed alongside his Huscarls, they closing about their King and dying to a man around him, such were the bonds of oath and warrior brotherhood.

Death of Harold depicted - ambiguously? - on the Bayeux Tapestry

The battle had raged since 0900hrs in the morning until sunset, about 1700hrs at that time of year making it the longest fought battle on English soil. The fighting had been fierce, William having three horses killed beneath him.

Estimates of combatants vary widely, the main consensus being the sides were roughly even in number and around eight to ten thousand men on each side 

Did Harold die from an arrow in the eye? The Bayeux tapestry portrays such a scene or is Harold depicted twice, shot by the arrow and then ridden down by a Norman knight? No one can say for certain how he died. Harold’s body was so mutilated that his mistress, Edith Swanneshals, was summoned to identify it, doing so by tattoos that only she would have been privy to.

Battle won; the conquest was far from over. William was crowned King of England on Christmas day 1066 but would be occupied up until his death in 1087 AD dealing with Saxon insurrection, Danish invasion and revolt by his own Norman Lords.


Interesting questions and thoughts arise from this short but turbulent period:

If Hardrada had triumphed at Stamford, would he have beaten William and England become predominately Norse?

Were the Norman retreats a planned ruse?

If William had lost, English royalty, culture, language and laws would be completely different.

Military experts conclude that, if the Saxons had not moved from the ridge, the battle outcome had to be a win for Harold or at the very worst a withdrawal of the Normans.


Garrett Pearson was born and raised in the northeast of England; he is married with two grown sons. Captivated by the long and turbulent history of his homeland he became a passionate student of English history and ancient military history. He is an author of Historical Fiction, a member of the Historical Novel Society and a guest blogger to English Historical Fiction Authors (EHFA). He specialises in Dark Age England and the Saxon/Viking wars as well as the Second Punic War between Carthage and Rome.




Author’s email is garrettpearsonauthor@gmail.com 

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