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These are the relevant sections from Snorri's version of the the Kings' Sagas.


When King Harald was clear for sea, and the wind became favourable, he sailed out into the ocean; and he himself landed in Shetland, but a part of his fleet in the Orkney Islands.  King Harald stopped but a short time in Shetland before sailing to Orkney, from whence he took with him a great armed force, and the earls Paul and Erlend, the sons of Earl Thorfin; but he left behind him here the Queen Ellisif, and her daughters Maria and Ingegerd.  Then he sailed, leaving Scotland and England westward of him, and landed at a place called Klifland.  There he went on shore and plundered, and brought the country in subjection to him without opposition.  Then he brought up at Skardaburg [Scarborough], and fought with the people of the place.  He went up a hill which is there, and made a great pile upon it, which he set on fire; and when the pile was in clear flame, his men took large forks and pitched the burning wood down into the town, so that one house caught fire after the other, and the town surrendered.  The Northmen killed many people there and took all the booty they could lay hold of. There was nothing left for the Englishmen now, if they would preserve their lives, but to submit to King Harald; and thus he subdued the country wherever he came.  Then the king proceeded south along the land, and brought up at Hellornes [Holderness], where there came a force that had been assembled to oppose him, with which he had a battle, and gained the victory.


“Thereafter the king sailed to the Humber, and up along the river, and then he landed.  Up in Jorvik were two earls, Earl Morukare, and his brother, Earl Valthiof, and they had an immense army. While the army of the earls was coming down from the upper part of the country, King Harald lay in the Usa [river Ouse]. King Harald now went on the land, and drew up his men.  The one arm of this line stood at the outer edge of the river, the other turned up towards the land along a ditch; and there was also a morass, deep, broad, and full of water.  The earls let their army proceed slowly down along the river, with all their troops in line.  The king's banner was next to the river, where the line was thickest.  It was thinnest at the ditch, where also the weakest of the men were. When the earls advanced downwards along the ditch, the arm of the Northmen's line which was at the ditch gave way; and the Englishmen followed, thinking the Northmen would fly.  The banner of Earl Morukare advanced then bravely.


“When King Harald saw that the English array had come to the ditch against him, he ordered the charge to be sounded, and urged on his men.  He ordered the banner which was called the Land-ravager to be carried before him, and made so severe an assault that all had to give way before it; and there was a great loss among the men of the earls, and they soon broke into flight, some running up the river, some down, and the most leaping into the ditch, which was so filled with dead that the Norsemen could go dry-foot over the fen.  There Earl Morukare fell.  So says Stein Herdisason:

                 "The gallant Harald drove along,

     Flying but fighting, the whole throng.

     At last, confused, they could not fight,

     And the whole body took to flight.

     Up from the river's silent stream

     At once rose desperate splash and scream;

     But they who stood like men this fray

     Round Morukare's body lay."


This song was composed by Stein Herdison about Olaf, son of King Harald; and he speaks of Olaf being in this battle with King Harald, his father.  These things are also spoken of in the song called Harald's Stave:

     “Earl Valthiof's men

     Lay in the fen,

     By sword down hewed,

     So thickly strewed,

     That Norsemen say

     They paved a way           

     Across the fen

     For the brave Norsemen."


Earl Valthiof, and the people who escaped, fled up to the castle of York; and there the greatest loss of men had been.  This battle took place upon the Wednesday next Mathias' day (A.D. 1066).


“Earl Toste had come from Flanders to King Harald as soon as he arrived in England, and the earl was present at all these battles.  It happened, as he had foretold the king at their first meeting, that in England many people would flock to them, as being friends and relations of Earl Toste, and thus the king's forces were much strengthened. After the battle now told of, all people in the nearest districts submitted to Harald, but some fled. Then the king advanced to take the castle [York], and laid his army at [Stafnfurdubryggja] Stamford Bridge; and as King Harald had gained so great a victory against so great chiefs and so great an army, the people were dismayed, and doubted if they could make any opposition.  The men of the castle therefore determined, in a council, to send a message to King Harald, and deliver up the castle into his power.  All this was soon settled; so that on Sunday the king proceeded with the whole army to the castle, and appointed a Thing of the people without the castle, at which the people of the castle were to be present.  At this Thing all the people accepted the condition of submitting to Harald, and gave him, as hostages, the children of the most considerable persons; for Earl Toste was well acquainted with all the people of that town.  In the evening the king returned down to his ships, after this victory achieved with his own force, and was very merry.”[i]

Snorri is believed to be the editor of another history of these events which attaches the title ‘Tyrant’ to Harald. ‘The Sagas of Olaf Tryggvason and of Harald the Tyrant’ is assumed to draw on some similar sources. The tale is similar but adds a little to our narrative of the battle.

“Now having come thus far on his journey King Harald fared south to the Humber and went up that river and lay in it beside the banks. At that time there were up in Jerirk [York] Earl Morcar and his brother Earl Waltheof and with them was a vast host. King Harald was lying in the Ouse when the host of the Earls swooped down against him.

“And King Harald went ashore and set to arraying his host, and one arm of the array was ranked on the banks of the river, whereas the other stretched up inland over towards a certain dyke, and a deep marsh was there, both broad, and full of water. The Earls bade the whole multitude of their array slink down alongside the river.

“Now the banner to the King was near the river and there the ranks were serried, but near the dyke were they more scattered, and the men thereof also the least trustworthy.

“The Earls then came down along by the dyke, and that arm of the battle-array of the Norwegians which faced the dyke gave way, and thereon the English pushed forward after them and as it seemed that the Norwegians would flee. Therefore did the banner of Morcar progress forward.

“But when King Harald saw that the array of the English had descended alongside the dyke and was coming right toward them, then commanded he the war-blast to be sounded, and eagerly encouraged his men, and let the banner 'Land-waster' be carried forward; and even so fierce was their advance on the English, that all were repulsed and there fell a many men in the host of the Earls.

“This host was even soon routed, and some fled up beside the river and some down, but the most of the folk ran right out into the dyke, and there the fallen lay so thick that the Norwegians could walk dry-shod across the marsh.

“There too fell Earl Morcar. Thus said Stein Herdisason:

  'Many in the river sank

  (The sunken men were drowned);

  All round about young Morcar of yore lay many a lad.

  To flight the chieftain put them;

  The host to swiftest running

  Olaf the Mighty is.'

 “The song that follows was wrought by Stein Herdason about Olaf the son to King Harald, and he said, by which we know that Olaf was in the battle with his father. This is told likewise in 'Haraldsstikka:'

  'There the dead lay

  Down in the marsh

  Walthiof's fighters


  So that they might

  The war-wonted horsemen

  There wend their way

  On corpses only.'

“Earl Walthiof and those men that contrived to make their escape from out the battle fled even up to the town of York, and there it was that the greatest slaughter took place. This battle was on the Wednesday or ever St. Matthew's Day.

“Earl Tosti had come west from Flanders to King Harald, and being come to England joined himself with the Earl so that he had his part in all three [sic] battles. And now things came to pass even as he had told Harald at their meeting they would come to pass, that a number of men would flock to them in England, and these were both kinsmen and friends to Tosti; and their company added greatly to the strength of the King.

“After the battle whereof we have but now heard related, all the men of the countryside hailed King Harald, although some few fled. And now set King Harald forth to take the city, and placed he his host by Stanford Bridge, but for the reason that the King had won so fair a victory over great lords and overwhelming odds were the people dismayed and deemed it hopeless to withstand him. Then took the citizens council together and they were of one mind to send word to the King giving themselves and likewise the town into his power. This same was proffered even at such time that on the Sunday fared King Harald and his men to the city, and there they held a council of war without the walls, and the citizens came out and were present at the council.

“Then did all the folk promise obedience to King Harald; and gave him as hostages the sons of great men even according as Tosti chose, for the Earl knew all men in this town; and in the evening the King went to his ships elated with the victory he had won and was very joyful.

“It was furthermore covenanted there should be held a Thing in the city early on that Monday when would King Harald appoint governors and grant fiefs and rights. Now that self-same evening, after the sun had gone down, approached King Harald Godwinson with a vast host the city from the south, and rode he into the city by the will and consent of all the citizens.”[ii]

The format of the battles described in the two preceding texts is very similar. It was not the job of the historian to homogenise them but instead Snorri passes on both versions. While the battles are the same, the prelude appears different. In one, the earls attack the Norse - The text can even be interpreted to suggest that the Norse army was still in their ships when the earls ‘swooped down’ on them.

Orkney Sagas

Because Harald’s fleet stopped at The Orkney Isles on its way to England, and the Earls from Orkney joined the invasion, we should expect to find that Fulford is recorded in their Sagas. It is our understanding that the Orkney Isles was the place where the Norse survivors after Stamford Bridge overwintered, so we might expect their sagas to be well informed about the fate of the invasion although the stars in this version will be different.

This saga does appear to contain an unusual number of ‘errors’ which poses a problem if we want to pick and choose only those passages that fit our interpretation. The battle appears to be an original account that is not derived from other sagas. Nor does it appear to have been one of the accounts used when the 13th century compilations were made, but no scholarly study on this has been identified so far. They were set down at the very beginning of the 13th century so it predates Heimskringla. It would be interesting to know if Snorri rejected its contribution or was unaware of it as the Orkney’s links with Norway, and therefore Iceland, were weakened by this time. 

The Story of Heming, which forms a part of the Orkney Sagas, tells us.

“20. [The Norse Invaders] went on land, but some watch the ships.  Those brothers Morcar and Earl Valtheof, and Aki their brother in law, gathered an army as soon as they hear of the Norwegian invasion.  They met at that river which is the upper Ouse, and there the hardest fight arises, and is kept up till ‘nones’ [mid afternoon in this context].  Eystein had gone through the array of the English and killed Aki the tall.  Then he sees that Morcar has got at the back of Tosti's battle; and so he moves with his men to the back of Morcar's battle.  And when Earl Morcar sees that, he orders his men face about and defend themselves well and manfully. And at last, flight broke out among his men, and they fled out into the river and Earl Morcar is slain and the most part of his folk.  Many too sunk beneath the stream.”

This is close to the shape of battle set out earlier with Morcar advancing to outflank Tostig before Earl Eystein, rather then Harald himself, leads the outflanking move. Eystein was Harald’s top commander and scheduled to become his son-in-law so we know they were close. It is not yet possible to put a name to Aki as King Harold (of England) was the only known brother-in-law of Morcar and Edwin.

This saga provides another detail about the fate of Earl Edwin, if we accept that he is Earl Valtheof in this context. (The identification of Valtheof is discussed later.)

“By that time King Harald had taken Earl Valtheof prisoner.  Then Tosti goes to the king and said, ‘Let those brothers both make the same journey.’  ‘You would kill,’ says the King, ‘those that you capture but I will have my way with him.’  Then the King said to Valtheof, ‘I will give thee peace if thou wilt swear never to fight against me, and to send me word the same day if you know that treachery is plotted against me.’  ‘I will not swear that’ says Valtheof; ‘to save my life but I will stand by my brother Harold, so long as I may; but I will send you word if I know that treachery is plotted against you, if that will save my life;  but I will swear no oath;  for it looks to me as though Tosti does not mean me to have much inheritance.’  The King left Valtheof quite free to go free.  Tosti says, ‘A senseless deed to let that man loose who you think so good that he need to give you no oath!’  ‘I believe’ said the king, ‘that his word is better than your expressions.’  Tosti said, ‘Let us go with our army to London, and let us waste the land with fire and sword, and give no peace to any man, neither women nor children.’  And so it was done.”

This supports the idea that Earl Edwin’s flank protection force was the one that faced Harald’s (or Eystein’s) out-flanking manoeuvre because they, rather than Tostig, capture Edwin.  This is consistent with the interpretation that has emerged from the literature.

Surrender was not dishonourable and the text makes it clear that Edwin subsequently behaved well. He was not willing to betray is ‘brother’, Harold. However, it should be noted that the same set of saga’s also records that the Norse army.  “… slew Morcar, Godwin's son, but earl Gurth his brother fled out of the battle.”

Morcar was not Godwin’s son, although the only contemporary ‘Earl Gurth’ was Harold’s brother. From the context, Gurth appears to be confused with Edwin.

The tension, and the lack of trust between Harold and Tostig, is evident and the saga goes on to make it clear the plan to set out for London was not followed, nor were the many other options Tostig proposed.

"I think I have heard seven plans for what might happen, but now I seem to know no plan at all," commented King Harald to Thiodolf, his skald, the day after the battle. He then decides to take his army to York and demand their submission and cooperation. The Sagas of the Norwegian Kings also hints at tension between these key players so the description of the battle and even the submission of Earl Edwin do have a ring of authenticity and add to our understanding of events.

[i] This version is taken from the Online Medieval and Classical Library Release  15b translation by Samuel Laing (London, 1844) with author’s alternatives are noted in square brackets.

[ii] From Gutenberg project


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The author of the content is Charles Jones - fulfordthing@gmail.com   Last updated April 2015

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