Battle of Gate Fulford: Norwegian Vikings Defeat Saxon Militia

« Previous story
Next story »
Battle of Gate Fulford: Norwegian Vikings Defeat Saxon Militia

Norwegians charging Saxon shieldwall at battle of Gate Fulford
Artist unknown, image courtesy of
(Unless otherwise indicated, all illustrations are courtesy of Wikipedia)

Today in Military History: September 20, 1066

Today’s battle was a prelude to the final defeat of a Viking invasion force, led by the Norwegian King Harald Sigurdsson (aka Hardrada, “the Ruthless”), who sought to fulfill his dream of conquering England.

Harald Hardrada, “The Last Viking”

If we can believe the saga-writers, Harald Sigurdsson had lived an incredibly adventurous life. As the half-brother of deposed King Olaf Haraldsson (aka Saint Olaf), Harald had fought alongside him at the battle of Stiklestad in 1030. [For more on Saint Olaf and this particular battle, please see my previous post of July 28, 2010 “Battle of Stiklestad: Deposed King of Norway Defeated by Peasant Army.” With the death of Olaf and the defeat of his army, Harald fled Norway and headed east. Along the way, he formed a warband of 500 men like himself, exiles from Norway.

By 1031, Harald and his retinue eventually ended up in what is today Russia (known to the Vikings as Gardariki or the “kingdom of towns”). They made their way to the city of Novgorod, which was ruled by Yaroslav the Wise, Grand Prince of the Rus, and were hired to serve in his army. Harald and his troops participated in at least one major campaign against the Poles, and possibly also fought against other Kievan enemies and rivals such as the Chudes in Estonia, the Byzantines, as well as the Pechenegs and other steppe nomad people. Shortly afterwards, Harald was appointed co-commander of Yaroslav’s defense forces. Sometime later – possibly 1033 or 1034 – Harald and his men traveled south to Mikligard, the “Great City” of Constantinople and capital of the Byzantine Empire.

Ambitious for power, yet lacking the money to back up his yearnings, Harald offered his services to the Byzantine emperor, Romanos III, to serve in the Varangian Guard. This unique unit was the personal bodyguard of East Roman emperors for the next 200 years. It was recruited primarily among the inhabitants of Gardariki, but also attracted many men like Harald, men from Scandinavia who were outcasts, outlaws and exiles. They also had no personal connections to the emperor or the ruling families of the Byzantine Empire, and supposedly were not influenced by the intrigue of the Byzantine court. The Varangian Guard was also unique in that they were allowed to keep most of their armor and especially their weapons, particularly the two-handed Danish battle axes that made them famous.

For approximately the next decade, Harald and his retinue participated in military campaigns in Greece, Asia Minor, Cyprus, North Africa and Sicily. During these campaigns, Harald gained a reputation not only for his prowess on the battlefield, but for a cunning mind that devised stratagems that sometimes allowed him to achieve his objectives with little fighting. By 1042, Harald and his men decided that they wanted to return home to Norway, where his nephew Magnus was on the throne. Harald asked permission to leave Constantinople, but he was rebuffed (and possibly imprisoned on trumped-up charges). However, he escaped with his men and a huge personal fortune he had accumulated under the service of three separate emperors.

[The sagas note that aside from the significant spoils of battle he had retained, he had participated three times in “polutasvarf” (loosely translated as "palace-plunder"), a term which implies either the pillaging of the palace exchequer on the death of the emperor, or perhaps the disbursement of funds to the Varangians by the new emperor in order to ensure their loyalty. It is likely that the money Harald made while serving in Constantinople allowed him to fund his claim for the crown of Norway. If he participated in polutasvarf three times, these occasions must have been the deaths of the Emperors Romanos III, Michael IV, and Michael V, in which Harald would have opportunities, beyond his legitimate revenues, to carry off immense wealth.]

Window with portrait of Harald in Lerwick Town Hall, Shetland Islands, Scotland; Photograph by Colin Smith, via Wikipedia
Window with portrait of Harald in Lerwick Town Hall, Shetland Islands, Scotland
Photograph by Colin Smith, via Wikipedia

Returning first to Novgorod, Harald resumed his service with Grand Prince Yaroslav, married his daughter Elizabeth, and finally sailed home for Norway in 1046. Threatening to take the Norwegian throne by force, Harald and his nephew Magnus agreed to jointly share the kingdom, so long as Harald shared half his fortune. Less than a year later, Magnus was dead (variously reported as drowning, falling off a horse, or becoming ill while on board a ship) and Harald was now the sole ruler of Norway.

For the next 17 years, Harald sought to expand his kingdom by claiming the neighboring realm of Denmark as part of his patrimony. Raids and invasions spawned retaliations, and the two nations finally agreed to a truce in 1064. Harald was recognized as the Norwegian monarch, while Sven Estridsson was recognized by Harald as the king of Denmark. During that time, Harald ruled Norway with a ruthlessness that shocked his people, collecting taxes until the people were on the verge of rebellion. One historian stated that the only reason the Norwegians did not revolt is because they could not find a sufficiently strong leader to replace Harald. His actions earned him the cognomen “Hardrada,” which roughly translated means “hard-ruler” or – more simply – “ruthless.”

Background to the Battle

Map of the Kingdom of England, 1065; image courtesy of
Map of the Kingdom of England, 1065; image courtesy of

In the latter months of the year 1065, Hardrada received intelligence that the king of England, Edward the Confessor, was dying. Edward had no close legitimate heirs, so there was sure to be a dynastic struggle. Seeing an opportunity to win himself a second kingdom, Harald began making his plans. When he received news of the death of Edward in early January of 1066, Hardrada accelerated his timetable. He assembled a fleet of ships, recruited men and gathered supplies throughout the spring and summer of 1066.

Hardrada had a very tenuous claim to the English throne, which he probably would not have pursued except for an unusual event. In October of 1065, the people of the English province of Northumbria petitioned their king to remove Tostig Godwinson as their earl. Tostig was unpopular and frequently acted in a high-handed manner. The Northumbrians finally had enough; they rebelled, called out their militia and began a march toward London to demand Tostig’s removal. King Edward the Confessor agreed to the ouster of Tostig, replacing him with his brother Morcar. Tostig was outlawed and exiled, and he swore to re-capture Northumbria.

After spending the next year-and-a-half making raids along the southern and southeastern English coast, Tostig eventually ended up in Scotland. He arranged a meeting with Hardrada, who was marking time in the Orkney Islands, which were ruled by his sons. Tostig convinced Harald that England was ripe for the plucking, and that the best place to start was Northumbria. In addition to Tostig’s personal revenge motive, Northumbria population largely consisted of upper- and middle-class folk descended from Norsemen, which would almost certainly welcome a Viking ruler. Convinced by the deposed Saxon earl, Hardrada and his fleet sailed for Northumbria.

He sailed for the British Isles probably in late August or early September, with a fleet numbering 200 longships, about 100 auxiliary vessels, and an army estimated between 10,000 and 15,000 warriors. Hardrada’s fleet first attacked the port town of Scarborough, looting it and burning it to the ground. Then, his ships sailed up the Humber and Ouse rivers, arriving at Riccall, which was about 10 miles south of the city of York, the capital of Northumbria. [In the ninth and tenth centuries, York was known to the Norse as “Jorvik.”] On the morning of September 20, the Vikings and their allies disembarked and began marching northward toward York, probably using a no-longer-extant medieval road which paralleled the River Ouse.

Norwegian Viking Army

The vast majority of the Norse army was composed of Norwegians. These men were a mixture of: professional fighters of various noblemen’s retinues: trained soldiers known as bondi, who comprised the vast majority of the Norse middle class. They were farmers, craftsmen, and fishermen. They were usually called to defend the nation in times of emergency. Or, when the king sought overseas conquest, they would be called to arms. Finally, there were probably a smattering of men who might be called “professional pirates” who spent their lives sailing the North and Baltic seas, the English Channel, and other areas nearby, attacking merchant ships for their cargo.

In addition, there is some evidence to support the supposition that Norse residents of the Orkneys and adventurers from Scotland joined the Norse expedition, purely for either loot or the excitement. This army included Tostig Godwinson’s men, who comprised Flemish infantry – a gift of his father-in-law, the duke of Flanders. There also may have been some very loyal Saxon retainers that stayed with their Lord Tostig, despite his change of fortune. The size of Hardrada’s army is unknown, though a good guess would be about 10,000 men.

Anglo-Danish housecarls, backbone of Saxon army, artist unknown; Image courtesy of
Anglo-Danish housecarls, backbone of Saxon army, artist unknown
Image courtesy of

Saxon Army

The Saxon military force opposing the Norwegians was composed almost exclusively of fyrd, the Saxon militia that served only a limited number of days per year – usually in a national emergency. In this case, the northern Saxon earls called up their local fighting men when they received word of the pillaging and destruction of the town of Scarborough.

The fyrd could roughly be compared to the U.S. military’s National Guard or Reserves. They supplied their own weapons and armor, thus giving any town militia a rough, ragtag appearance. In addition, the earls probably had housecarls, more professional, well-paid personal retainers, which formed the experienced core of the Saxon forces. Total numbers for the English are unknown, but it is believed they numbered between 4000-5000 soldiers.

Prelude to the Battle

Marching toward York, Harald’s army came to a pair of small villages about 2 miles south of the city. These villages, named Water Fulford and Gate Fulford, straddled a stream (today called Germany Beck) which drained an extensive marshy area to the east of the Ouse. A ford provided a crossing for the Beck, but the Vikings were in for a nasty surprise…

The Vikings’ recent attack on Scarborough provided sufficient warning to the two northern earls, Morcar of Northumbria and his brother Edwin of Mercia. Both of these men owed their positions to their brother, the newly-crowned King Harold Godwinson. The two earls placed their troops between the invading Vikings and the city of York.

The English army deployed on the north side of the ford, where the ground was much firmer. This was the strongest defensive position south of York, where an army could stand against an attacking force. At the ford the area between the river and the marshland was about a quarter of a mile wide. These two natural barriers provided good protection for both the left and right flanks of the English army.

It was here that Edwin and Morcar formed their defensive shield walls, across the narrow frontage of slightly higher ground immediately north of the ford, awaiting the Viking army which was approaching along the road from the south. Morcar’s forces covered almost the entire front, from the marshland to the ford; Edwin’s men were concentrated between the ford and the river, forming a deep and compact front next to the river.

Battle of Gate Fulford

Map of general area of battle of Gate Fulford (city of York is app. 2 miles north of Gate Fulford); Image courtesy of, Adapted from a map by the UK Battlefield Trust.
Map of general area of battle of Gate Fulford (city of York is app. 2 miles north of Gate Fulford)
Image courtesy of,
Adapted from a map by the UK Battlefield Trust.

The Norse invasion force rapidly deployed to meet the English army. However, it was still difficult for any army to deploy from march column into battle line. Harald assigned Tostig’s forces to his army’s right flank, along with some of his less experienced Norsemen. Only about half of Harald’s army was in line when the English took the initiative. Earl Morcar launched an attack across the ford against the left flank of the Viking army. It is thought that this initial attack came either mid- or late morning.

For the next hour or two, the English and Norse armies made short, sharp attacks to feel out their opponents. A few volleys of arrows, axes smashing shields, the quick stab of the spear, were all little vignettes of this battlefield. Finally, King Harald deployed all his men in line, and unfurled his personal battle standard, Landøyðan, “Land-Waster” or “Land-Ravager.” Hardrada ordered a single blast of a horn, and the entire Norse left flank attacked across the Beck and over the ford.

Possible appearance of Hardrada's 'Land-Waster'
Possible appearance of Hardrada’s “Land-Waster”

The savagery of the Viking attack, as well as their greater numbers, decided the issue very quickly. Earl Edwin’s Mercian contingent was pushed back away from the Beck, against the river. This attack came so suddenly, it appears that the majority of Edwin’s militiamen were able to withdraw fairly intact and in good order, back in the direction of York. Some Mercians tried to jump into the River Ouse to escape, with many of these men drowning.

Morcar’s forces, however, were not so lucky. With pressure along the entire streambed, Harald launched a flank attack in mid-afternoon, after waiting some time for the tide of the River Ouse to go down. This attack, spearheaded by some of Harald’s “best men” (perhaps some warriors from his old Varangian Guard days), crossed the beck near the junction with the Ouse. The attack began to surround the Northumbrian levies. [There is also the possibility that Hardrada eventually outflanked the English position through the marsh, perhaps using the old Roman road which is thought to have crossed the marsh several hundred yards to the east of the ford.] Relentless pressure drove many Northumbrian militiamen into the marshes, where they were either cut down or drowned. Some of Morcar’s men managed to retreat to York, joining Edwin’s forces within the city’s walls. Probably by late afternoon, the battle of Gate Fulford was over.


Casualties were probably heavy on both sides, likely anywhere from 1500-2000 men killed and wounded on each side. Both English earls escaped the battle. York surrendered to the victorious Viking army but Hardrada did not occupy the city. The city fathers managed to negotiate a truce which gave York to Harald, but saved it from being looted. Harald instead fell back upon his camp and fleet at Riccall, leaving instructions for the burial of the Viking dead. In addition, Hardrada arranged for the Northumbrians to bring hostages, tribute and supplies several days later at a small bridge seven miles to the east of the city. The scene was now set for one of the most dramatic and decisive battles of the Viking era.

Footnote #1: Five days later, King Harald Hardrada of Norway fell in battle with King Harold Godwinson of England, at the climactic battle of Stamford Bridge. With that Viking loss, many scholars consider the year 1066 to be the end of the Viking Age. [To see the final result of this invasion, please read the 2013 re-posting of my very first contribution to the Burn Pit from 2009, “Battle of Stamford Bridge.” ]

Footnote #2: After the battle of Stamford Bridge, the brothers Morcar and Edwin refused to muster their militiamen to join the troops of their brother King Harold, which marched south to confront William of Normandy at Hastings. Both men initially opposed the Norman invasion, then gave their fealty to William. However, over the next five years or so, Morcar and Edwin rose in revolt, were forgiven by King William, but revolted again. Edwin was betrayed to the Normans by his own men in 1071 as he was attempting to flee to Scotland. He was killed out of hand. Morcar survived longer, as an involuntary “guest” of William. When the Conqueror died in 1087, on his deathbed William ordered Morcar released from prison. However, William Rufus, the Conqueror’s son who succeeded him on the English throne as William II, re-captured Morcar, took him to England and threw him into prison once more. Presumably, Morcar perished there.

Footnote #3: In 2000, British citizens of the modern town of Fulford banded together to save the battlefield of Gate Fulford from being destroyed by modern development. In an attempt to publicize this effort, concern citizens created what has become known as the “Fulford Tapestry,” a sort of prequel to the Bayeux Tapestry, sewn in the same style as the better known embroidery. It was unveiled in 2012, displayed at York during the Jorvik Festival (a super-medieval/renaissance fair). Below is one of the five panels of the tapestry, showing Hardrada (wearing thegold helmet) leading his men in the latter portion of the battle.

Panel #4 of the Fulford Tapestry, showing King Harald of Norway leading an attack (Note what is surely Land-Waster, Harald’s battle banner, on the left); Image courtesy of
Panel #4 of the Fulford Tapestry, showing King Harald of Norway leading an attack
(Note what is surely Land-Waster, Harald’s battle banner, on the left)
Image courtesy of

Posted in top stories | 1 comment
« Previous story
Next story »


* To comment without a Facebook account, please scroll to the bottom.


This battle is called the "Battle of Fulford". "Gate Fulford" doesn't exist, and the existing village of Fulford is not a town as claimed here but a suburb of York (but formally a separate village). Otherwise well researched, but its odd this article managed to get the name of the battle and info on the place itself wrong.

Add new comment

Plain text

  • No HTML tags allowed.
  • Web page addresses and e-mail addresses turn into links automatically.
  • Lines and paragraphs break automatically.
This question is for testing whether or not you are a human visitor and to prevent automated spam submissions.
Have a tip for us? A link that should appear here? Contact us.
News from the World of Military and Veterans Issues. Iraq and A-Stan in parenthesis reflects that the author is currently deployed to that theater.