Wednesday, 19 July 2017

1066 and All That - The Battlefields of Fulford & Stamford Bridge

Battlefields Trust - Fulford

Visiting battlefields is a great way to experience history from the viewpoint of the soldiers involved even accepting all the changes that have occurred to the landscape that may well have occurred in the intervening decades, centuries or millennia.

That said the further back in history the modern day traveller goes, the more interesting the interpretation of landscape often becomes, to the point that one can never really be certain if where one is stood is where the event occurred in the first place. Just ask all the people who visited Bosworth until recent times.

The map, inspired by the Battlefields Trust interpretation, showing the two armies lined up on the Germany Beck

Given those constraints one also has to contend with modern day events such as land developments and other stuff that is all about life going on around a place of historical interest.

The two battlefields of Stamford Bridge and Fulford, both close to York and hence incorporated into our week's holiday visit, encapsulate all those issues, but I hope in this post illustrate why even then the casual visitor can still get  a great sense of the feel for the landscape even then.

The sign at least confirms where we are but forewarns of the hazards of modern day battlefield touring

The year 1066 is a date most British people, when asked would recognise even if they might not be certain as to why they recognise it (blame that on modern history teaching - don't get me started).

Some people might even be able to blurt our something about the Normans and Hastings and Harold getting an arrow in the eye, and even fewer might be able  to talk about the other key players in that eventful year and even the latest discovery of the newest battle in the series, namely Appledore, down here in Devon, fought between the forces of King William I and Harold's two sons seeking to overturn the new order three years later in 1069.

Most of the latter are likely to be historians or wargamers.

Not much chance of exploring the banks of the Germany Beck that way!

Of the three battles that occurred in 1066, the Battle of Hastings, fought in October of that year, is the one that grabs the limelight away from the two equally interesting ones at Fulford and Stamford Bridge, fought the month before.

Battle of Fulford
Battle of Stamford Bridge
Battle of Hastings

No you cant have a look around here either!

The two battles of Fulford and Stamford Bridge close to York are separated by only a few miles and a week in their dates. They pretty well mark the end of the Viking age, certainly in Britain, as with the defeat of Norwegian King Harald Hardrada and King Harold's brother, Earl Tostig Godwinson, the threat from Scandinavia was crushed once and for all before Harold turned his army south and his date with destiny at Hastings a month later.

Oh and just in case you thought you might try and have a look over here !

Fulford, just south of York is where it looked for a moment as if Hardrada and Tostig had stolen a march on all the players by grabbing a victory over the Northumbrian and Mercian English under the Earls Morcar and Edwin.

The two earls, unsure of when or if they could expect support from Harold's main army located in the south, awaiting a Norman invasion, opted to march out of the walls of York  with their estimated 5,000 man force and offer battle to the 9,000 strong Viking army on a little stream called the Germany Beck that leads into the River Ouse on one flank and into a marshy morass on the other.

The location is the theory intertwined with possible sites close to the named place, Fulford. Now you see what I mean about all this uncertainty!

Ah well, at least I got to see the modern day Germany Beck

So arming myself with all the latest, greatest stuff from the Battlefield Trust, 'God bless em', (see the link at the top of the post) I headed off to check out this supposed location.

The battle was a fairly straightforward clash of lines that typified the era, supposedly fought over the beck with the Vikings turning the English left flank in the marsh land and rolling up their line.

I had rather hoped to walk along the beck to get a better feel for things but as you can see, on the day I visited, the Battlefield of Fulford was one giant road work, and so I contented myself with a picture of the Germany Beck and the lower reed beds at the River Ouse end of the line, which if anything captures what the terrain in this battle was all about.

These reeds and plants mark the lower end of the beck and show what the terrain might have looked like close to it in 1066

Putting the disappointment of coping with modern day life and particularly much needed road improvements we headed off for a bit of lunch and the Battlefield of Stamford Bridge, about four miles away lying south east of York on the River Derwent.

As someone brought up in London for many years Stamford Bridge was another place entirely, being the home ground of Chelsea Football Club. As a wargamer, this Stamford Bridge is a far more interesting and prettier place to visit and a town that seems to take its place in history seriously, if all the little hints around the place to the great events that occurred there are anything to go by.

Battlefields Trust - Stamford Bridge

Following the defeat of his local representatives at Fulford, King Harold moved with his main army north in a very quick march; so much so that he literally caught his brother and Hardrada off their guard when he arrived a week later.

Map of Stamford Bridge taken from the Battlefield Trust interpretation of the battle
Stamford Bridge is a town keen to remember its place in English history

We knew we were in the right place!

The Viking army was making the most of some late September summer sun and the men were relaxing without their mail when they had the shock of seeing the approach of Harold's army suddenly coming into view with all their metal work glinting in the sun.

As the English army drew up on the River Derwent a final attempt was made at a peaceful resolution between Harold and his renegade brother Tostig, as a delegation of three riders rode forward to parley.

One rider presented himself to Tostig explaining that if he was yet still now prepared to not take arms against the King he would in spite of his actions be granted a fifth of the Kingdom, to which Tostig asked and "what will he offer Harald, King of Norway?"

The answer came that;

"Since he was not content with his own kingdom, I'll give him six feet of English ground - a little more, perhaps, since he's a tall man. But nothing more than that, since I don't care about him".

Loyal to his Viking allies, Tostig refused the offer but also did not betray to them that it had come directly from his brother King Harold, who was the rider who had come forward from the group to make it, and now returned to the English line.

The bridge at Stamford is a bit sturdier than in 1066 and a lot busier

Many a commander would have considered falling back to the boats, reinforcements and getting some time to prepare for the fight, but Hardrada was not that kind of a warrior and he opted to make his stand on the open ground behind Stamford Bridge.

The problem was that he needed time to allow his mainly unarmoured, unprepared men to form their shield-wall and, so the story has it, that one of his best warriors armed with a Dane Axe held the wooden bridge over the river for several minutes single-handedly fighting off attempts to cross it and in the process killing forty English warriors until felled by an English spear thrust directed up from under the bridge by another warrior floating along on a barrel.

It must be true because there is a pub commemorating the whole thing!

The peaceful slow flowing River Derwent - Note; rivers in Britain are rarely blue even on a hot sunny afternoon!

The New Inn adds to the town's commemoration of its place in history

Once the bridge was clear the English mass flooded across, eager to maintain the momentum of their attack and to stop any attempt to break contact.

Geese with their goslings in Stamford Bridge near the pub

The main road through Stamford Bridge is busy, but the town is a pretty place and was made even more so by the glorious sunny weather on the day we visited, encouraging a walk along the Derwent with an ice cream and taking in the wildlife.

Evocative of the great events that happened here, in a year when England changed for ever

Lilly pads and flowers about to bloom on the Derwent

The Small Tortoiseshell Butterfly is a common British species in the summer, adding colour here to the banks of the River Derwent

As I said, the town takes its place in history seriously and it was nice to see the monument recording this keynote battle in English history.

The small memorial to the battle in the town

After checking out the river crossing and the fight for the bridge area, it was off to find the location of the main battle site.

At this point the precise placing of events becomes a little more open to educated guesswork, but the current thinking is that the two armies met on what is called locally "Battle Flats", still an area of open farmland behind the town.

The Minster Way that leads out of Stamford Bridge (houses in background) out on to the Battle Flats and through the centre of the Viking line

The small culvert railing that identified the stream or beck that runs across the flats

On leaving the houses and streets of Stamford, the open land makes for a compelling location and the site of the Viking line forming up on a small beck that leads down to the Derwent appeals to the wargamer in me as an obvious defensible line that an army outnumbered  and 'caught on the hop' army would choose as the best possible place to make a stand.

Still a little water flowing on a hot sunny afternoon

One other aspect of walking around battlefields, particularly ancient sites that are relatively unmarked or signed is the fun of interpreting the map and working out where everything is.

There are no signs on Battle Flats and the road simply winds its way across open ground with a disused railway embankment running parallel to it, and so it was back to the map to look for that little beck indicating the supposed position, which would need a channel to go under the road. That was when I saw the little railing above the tiny bridge over the culvert, practically hidden among the summer verge.

The beck follows the line of bushes, centre, out to the tree line, marking the route of the disused railway and identifies the end of the Viking line to its left

The curve of nettles marks the bank of the beck leading out across the flats that marks the suspected Viking line 

The line of the beck meandering across the fields certainly makes sense as a possible location for the actual main battle, with Hardrada's and Tostig's army badly outnumbered to begin with, having just 6,000 men to face off against the 15,000 English, barrelling across the fields before them.

Although later reinforced by a further 3,000 men coming up from the boats at Riccall, the counter-attack put in by these men was not enough to reverse the result.

If the Viking line position is correct, the English army charged into it across these fields from the left

Looking out across the open fields of Battle Flats it was not difficult imagining the clash of the Viking and English armies, that eventually saw the Viking line collapse into a rout to the boats at Riccall and potential sanctuary.

The story has it that so many men died on these fields that the ground lay covered in bleached white bones for up to fifty years after the battle.

The losses suffered by the Vikings meant that only twenty-four boats out of the three hundred they arrived in were required to carry the survivors back to Orkney and then on to Norway.

The pretty town of Stamford and a sunny walk, ice cream in hand, around the River Derwent and Battle Flats more than made up for the disappointment of limited access at Fulford, but both sites left a lasting impression of why the battles were fought where they were, if they were, and all the caveats that sentence implies.

Next up, more from York with the Yorkshire Museum, Jorvik, York, the Minster and the walls. Sadly, due to a minor operation on the left leg requiring a few stitches, I wasn't able to attend Devizes this year, so no report this time, but the painting desk is back in service with a brand new daylight lamp which is absolutely fantastic, together with a nice new paint rack to go with it, pictures to follow.

Not only that but Mr Steve has been off on further travels to interesting sites, and I have a report on that little adventure to post.


  1. Glad you enjoyed your trip to Gods Own County. Your not far off Towton and Marston Moor in that neck of the woods.

    Regards Ken
    The Yarkshire Gamer

    1. Hi Ken,
      Thank you. Yeah I know, they're covered off in the first two posts for this month. Managed to get to Marstom Moor for the anniversary.

  2. Well "Battle Flat" certainly looks like a good spot for a battle. If, indeed, that was where it was. As one who spent several years in Leicester looking at the "wrong" Bosworth field, I am always a bit suspicious.


    1. Hi Vince,
      Yes I know, you always have to look at these places with an element of caution, and I don't want to create a hostage to fortune. I often feel the best aspect of getting into the local area is the feel overall for the terrain and landscape, given that the precise details of these battles are very rare.

      I guess the hope will be in future that better archaeological techniques will bring even more clarity to what we think we know, which is exactly what happened at Bosworth.


  3. Nice commentary on these two battlefields. I used to walk my dog on the site of the battle of Barnet, now they're not so sure it seems to have moved a bit, they're all a long time ago and it's fun speculating, plus as far as Barnet is concerned there is a big dig on at the moment and as you said archaeological evidence is what will determine these sites in the future.
    Best Iain