Fulford Battlefield Research Website


 Recording the events of September 1066
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The literature

The most recent analysis of all the literature is covered in the opening chapter of the project report.

Literature was only ever going to provide one strand of evidence and a useful guide to point towards the arena where the battle took place. The scarce references have been analysed to identify features that can be related to the ground or other events.

  • Statements in the literature are open to challenge because they lack the precision to uniquely identify the area, which has changed in the intervening millennium.  
  • A few firm conclusion do emerge from the literature:
    • There was a battle on Wednesday 20th Sept 1066
    • The armies were divided by a water-filled 'ditch'
    • It happened south of York
    • Earl Morcar led the Northumbrian English and was supported by his brother Earl Edwin.
    • However, no reference is inconsistent with the suggested location.

The Anglo Saxon Chronicle makes 4 references to the battle. The background to the various Chronicles is explored.

Heimskringla or Saga’s of the Nordic Kings, was written in Old Norse, about 1225 by the poet and historian Snorri Sturluson. This provides a rare narrative of the battle. Recent scholarship allows the text to be reassessed. The Orkney Saga provides a tragic footnote.  

English Sources

Local charters and records of disputes provides useful data about the landscape, location and use of the land to hel develop a picture from around the time of the battle. 

French Sources

French sources are silent about Fulford. 

  • William of Poitiers in his Gesta Guillelmi notes:

“In fact Harold had gone away to Yorkshire to fight against his brother Tostig and Harald, king of the Norwegians.” (Gesta Guillelmi,of Poitiers: Davis & Chibnall, Oxford Medieval Texts II.8)

There is no further discussion of the Norwegian battles in this encomiast for Duke William.

  • Guy Bishop of Amiens wrote his Carmen de Hastingae Proelio before May 1068 and there is some evidence that it was performed to King William in 1067 after his coronation. Ironically, the manuscript was lost within a generation and only rediscovered in 1826. As a result, most Anglo-Norman accounts follow the version given by William of Poitiers when discussing the events down south, following Fulford.

Other litetrature

You can read a description of a contemporary battle in the Song of Maldon

Finding Fulford by Chas Jones looks at some of the issues raised by the landscape and the literature.

Historical methods

Eadmer was a young man in 1066 and sets out the role of a historian and the importance of recording events:

“What an inestimable benefit have they conferred on posterity who with an eye to the good of future generations have committed to writing a record of events of their own times.  This is the conclusion which seems to be borne in upon me when I note how men of the present day under stress of difficulties of one kind or another search labouriously into the doings of their predecessors, anxious to find there a source of comfort and strength and yet, because of the scarcity of written documents which has resulted in the events being all too quickly buried in oblivion, they cannot for all their pains succeed in doing so as they would wish. 

“I cannot doubt that those who have composed such records, provided they have laboured with a good motive, will receive from God a good reward. 

“Accordingly, having this consideration in mind I have determined, while aiming at brevity, to set down in writing the things which I have seen with my own eyes and myself heard.  This I do both to comply with the wishes of my friends who strongly urge me to do so and at the same time to render some slight service to the researchers of those who come after me if they should chance to find themselves involved in any crisis in which the events which I record can in any respect afford a helpful precedent.” (History of recent events in England Tr G Bosanquet  1964  pt8)

This passage provides a manifesto for all of the historians where the role of the written record as a guide for future actions is expounded. However, it should be noted that Eadmer talks about writing ‘with a good motive’ rather than a strict adherence to the facts. Eadmer had a political agenda so we cannot regard him as a good historian.  

William of Malmesbury is keen to record how good his library of material is. In his prologue to Gesta Regum Angulorum he discusses his education:

“… in particular I studied history which adds flavour to moral instruction by imparting a pleasurable knowledge of past events, spurring the reader by the accumulation of examples to follow the good and shun the bad”.[ii]

The task of recording events was taken seriously. So once an error, such as the identification of the Norwegian king as Harald Fairhair, had been recorded, it was probably reiterated by other historians. Harald Fairhair [Harfagri] ruled Norway from 880 to 930 and was unknown to English history having only ventured once to the Orkney Islands, while the Harald who we know as Hardrada should be recognised as the King of Norway throughout the Fulford narrative. Harald Hardrada has a 'walk-on' part in the bigger story of the English. His invasion lasted just one week. But the confusion over the nicknames applied to Norse kings cannot have a definitive explanation.

I take two lessons from this. The first is that the writers had faith in the accuracy of their sources. My second conclusion is that these errors enhance the credibility of the sources since the historians had evidently set out to make an accurate record of the recorded ‘facts’ and did not seek to amend them.

So when the historian, William, includes material that is not part of the recognised texts, I assume that he is clear about its provenance and so does not deny us access to knowledge gained or the received wisdom of the generation that followed the conquest. Speaking of the capture and blinding of Alfred, Edward ‘The Confessor’s’ brother:

“…nine-tenths of his companions having been beheaded, for the lot saved every tenth man from death. This I have not omitted, because it is a well-known story; but, since the Chronicle is silent, I do not affirm it as certain.”[iii]

William was not a story-teller but was a good political commentator. His views were those of the Church, the establishment and the English. He is harsh in his views about all matters ‘Danish’ and sees the judgment of the divine in all failed enterprises and he is my favourite recorder of the medieval history. He did have some near-contemporary detractors of his habit of expressing some personal views. This is from an unknown Waltham scribe, writing the Life of Harold Godwinson in Three Lives of the Last Englishmen, (translated and edited by M Swanton, Garland 1984).

‘The most eloquent William of Malmesbury agrees with this in his History and promises to take a half-way position between those who commend and those who detract. I should have thought he would undoubtedly have insisted on the truth for the sake of its very virtue, and not voluntarily cheated the merits of the case of their just praise or due criticism. But because he wrote about things he had heard of but not seen, by the law of historians the truth of the writer is assured when the truth of the facts themselves is wrecked. Otherwise not even the most blessed Gospel-writers would have escaped the risk of mistakes. Thus Joseph is called the Saviour’s 'father'; thus certain of the disciples are called 'brothers' more specifically than the rest, not that their real but their putative father had them as sons, adopted rather than natural. So not being familiar with the truth and therefore following general opinion, this man is known to have introduced into his History what is plainly the opposite of the truth, however much the truth of things is relied on to support the story.’

So criticism of other writers methods was already practiced which enhances ones respect for the credibility of these scribes.

In his work on the English bishops, William of Malmesbury displays a fluency in capturing the machinations and personalities of that era. He provides a wonderful insight into the people as well as the events. We hear how Archbishop Anselm ‘could not hold to the direct route home’ after a Papal Council because ‘Wibert had sent an artist to Rome to paint a picture of him [which was then used by those searching in order to detain Anselm] so that however he disguised himself he could not hope to avoid detection’. [History of English Bishops I,55] Is this the earliest recorded use of a ‘Wanted’ poster?

Turning to the Norse sources, we find a similar rigour being attached to the matter of recording history. Snorri, an aspiring skald himself, recognised that the stories would become inaccessible as the style of recording events changed with the spread of literacy and skaldic comprehension declined. He opens his chronicle of the kings with the following observation on his own methodology.  

“In this book I let be written old narratives about rulers …which I have heard from well-informed men, also certain histories of previous generations as they were taught to me.”

Snorri also encapsulates the dilemma of every historian when he recognizes the need to exercise his judgment.  

“And although we do not know the truth of these, we know that old, learned men judged such to be true.”

But, referring to the many tales surrounding King Harald of Norway, Snorri notes “these came not as history and these were not included, because we will not put unsubstantiated stories into this book.” Happily he felt some were well attested and could be included to give us our portrait of a remarkable warrior.


[i] William of Malmesbury  Gesta Regnum Angulorum   Mynors, Thomson & Winterbottom book 2,228

[ii] ibid book ii prologue.

[iii] Ibid book i,188.5


[v] William of Malmesbury 


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

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