Morcar, Earl of Northumbria

Morcar was the son of Elfgar, the Earl of Mercia. He is known to have had at least three brothers, Eadwine, Sigehelm and Burgheard, as well as a sister, Edith. (1)

Harold Godwinson was the most powerful Anglo-Saxon leader during this period and his brother Tostig was the Earl of Northumbria. Tostig developed a reputation as a strong military leader. At this time the area was in a lawless state and men were forced to travel in parties of twenty to protect themselves from the attacks of robbers. Tostig imposed new laws and all captured robbers were punished with mutilation or death. This strategy was successful and Northumbria came under his firm control. (2)

Tostig's biographer, William M. Aird has pointed out: "Tostig is described as a man of courage, endowed with great wisdom and shrewdness of mind. He was favourably compared with his brother Harold, both being distinctly handsome and graceful, similar in strength and bravery." It is recorded that Tostig "so reduced the number of robbers and cleared the country of them by mutilating or killing them so that any man... could travel at will even alone without fear of attack". (3) It was argued that "a man of property could travel the country safely, even carrying a purse of gold". However, some chroniclers accused him of using his position to enrich himself. (4)

Morcar, Earl of Northumbria

In 1065 the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle reported that Harold's brother, Tostig, the Earl of Northumbria, was guilty of robbing churches, depriving men of their lands and lives, and acting against the law. (5) In October, a group of rebels, supported by Morcar and his brother, Earl Eadwin of Mercia, broke into Tostig's residence in York and killed those of his soldiers who did not escape. The rebels then nominated Morcar as their earl. Anyone associated with Tostig's regime was killed. (6)

When Edward the Confessor heard the news he called a meeting of his nobles at Britford. Several made complaints about Tostig's rule claiming that his desire for wealth had made him unduly severe. The king sent Harold Godwinson to put down the rebellion. Harold disagreed with this policy as he was convinced it would result in a disastrous civil war. At a meeting at Oxford on 28th October, Harold yielded to Edwin's demands. Tostig was banished from the country and Morcar was confirmed as the new Earl of Northumbria. (7)

In 1065 Edward the Confessor became very ill. Harold claimed that Edward promised him the throne just before he died on 5th January, 1066. (8) The next day there was a meeting of the Witan to decide who would become the next king of England. The Witan was made up of a group of about sixty lords and bishops and they considered the merits of four main candidates: Harold, William of Normandy, Edgar Etheling and Harald Hardrada. On 6th January 1066, the Witan decided that Harold was to be the next king of England. (9)

King Harold

King Harold was fully aware that both King Hardrada of Norway and William of Normandy might try to take the throne from him. Harold recognised that his country was likely to be invaded both in the south and in the north. He visited York where he had meetings with Earl Morcar and Earl Eadwine of Mercia. He returned to London in time for Easter. (10)

In early 1066, Harold's brother Tostig, with a fleet of sixty ships, attacked the Isle of Wight, occupied Sandwich, and then sailed up the east coast to the mouth of the Humber. The soldiers of Eadwin and Morcar managed to drive him away and Tostig now took refuge with Malcolm III, the King of the Scots in May, 1066. (11)

Harold fully expected a Norman invasion. It was claimed by the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle that by June 1066 he had "gathered such a great naval force, and a land force also, as no other king in the land had gathered before." (12) Harold placed his navy and some of the soldiers on the Isle of Wight. The rest of his soldiers were spread along the Sussex and Kent coast. "The object of this arrangement was that in the event of a landing the lookouts on the coast would signal the arrival of the enemy (probably by lighting a beacon) and Harold would then sail from the Isle of Wight with his army to fall upon the invaders". The reason for this is that the prevailing wind, particularly during the summer months, is from the south-west. "It was more than likely that the wind that would carry the invading fleet would be the same upon which Harold would sail, to land behind the invaders or on an adjacent beach." (13)

His soldiers were made up of housecarls and the fyrd. Housecarls were well-trained, full-time soldiers who were paid for their services. The fyrd were working men who were called up to fight for the king in times of danger. All earls had their own housecarls and Harold had a substantial force at his disposal. They were paid mercenaries and were equally adept in land and maritime warfare. (14)

Meanwhile, Tostig was negotiating with King Harald Hardrada about a possible invasion. Eventually the reached an agreement to attack Harold. After appointing his son, Magnus as regent he formed alliances with warriors from Iceland and Ireland. Tostig also convinced Hardrada that Harold was extremely unpopular in the north of England and that people living in this region would join them in their attempt to overthrow the king of England. (15)

Fulford Gate and Stamford Bridge

Harold waited all summer but the Normans did not arrive. Never before had any of Harold's fyrd been away from their homes for so long. But the men's supplies had run out and they could not be kept away from their homes any longer. Members of the fyrd were also keen to harvest their own fields and so in the first week of September 1066, Harold sent them home. The sailing season was also drawing to a close for the year. Harold therefore decided to arrange for his navy to travel along the Thames to London to enable essential repairs to be carried out. Harold, after a short stay at his home in Bosham, rode to the capital with his housecarls. (16)

In the first week of September, 1066, Hardrada's men raided Scarborough and slaughtered most of its inhabitants. Sailing on, the fleet entered the Humber estuary. Morcar, the Earl of Northumbria, and Eadwine, Earl of Mercia, were not willing to engage the enemy and retreated before him up the Ouse, before turning into the inland waters of the Wharfe to Tadcaster. Hardrada anchored at Riccall. After leaving a substantial force to guard the fleet, Hardrada, Tostig and about 6,000 men marched on York. (17)

On 20th September, Morcar and Edwin went into battle with Hardrada and Tostig at Fulford Gate. It has been estimated that the Norwegians had about 6,000 troops and the defenders 5,000. According to the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle "many of the English were slain, drowned or put to flight and the Northmen had possession of the place of slaughter". (18)

Other sources say casualties were high on both sides but it is clear that the invaders had a clear victory. (19) According to one source: "Trying to escape the pincer movement, the English veered away into the marsh, where they foundered in the bog until cut down or sucked into quicksands; those who tried flight on the other side mostly drowned in the Ouse. Soon the marsh and the ditches were clogged with human bodies, to the point where the Norwegians waded in blood and marched over the impacted corpses as if on a solid causeway." (20)

Hardrada then moved onto York, which formally surrendered on 24th September. Hardrada took 150 children hostage from prominent families in Yorkshire as surety for their loyalty. Morcar and Edwin and the remnants of their army escaped into the countryside. The Norwegians now withdrew to Stamford Bridge, a place where several Roman roads met. The bridge would have been quite large by eleventh-century standards. (21)

It has been claimed that a messenger told Harold about the Norwegian victory at Fulford Gate he said that Hardrada had come to conquer all of England. Apparently Harold replied: "I will give him just six feet of English soil; or, since they say he is a tall man, I will give him seven feet." Harold then sent a summons for the men of the fyrd to reassemble, just days after they had been released from their long summer vigil. Having gathered as many of his men as he could he started for the north on about the 19th September. (22)

Harold and his English army had to travel from London to York. The 200 mile (320 km) journey usually took two weeks, or more depending if the roads were passable. (23) The historian, Frank McLynn, the author of 1066: The Year of The Three Battles (1999), has commented "the speed of his advance has always drawn superlatives from historians used to the ponderous pace of medieval warfare, but it may be that a good deal of his force was on horseback and that, as was the custom with Anglo-Saxon armies, they dismounted before fighting." (24)

Peter Rex argues in Harold II: The Doomed Saxon King (2005) that his housecarls were on horseback: "Such mounted infantry could manage twenty-five miles a day. They were also expected to have at least two horses, riding one and allowing the other to proceed unburdened. Harold no doubt could also expect, as king, to commandeer fresh horses along the way. If he did literally ride day and night he could have made Tadcaster in four days, although that would mean without sleep." (25)

On 25th September Harold's army arrived at Stamford Bridge. Harold and twenty of his housecarls rode up to the foot of the bridge on the left bank of the Derwent and had a meeting with Tostig. Harold promised his brother that if he changed sides he would be rewarded with the return of his earldom and one-third of all England. Tostig answered that it would never be said of him that he brought the king of Norway to England only to betray him. He turned on his horse and rode away. (26)

Tostig said they should retreat back to his boats. Hardrada rejected this as being unworthy of a Viking warrior. Aware he was outnumbered he sent a message to his men with his fleet at Ricall to come as soon as possible. He gave orders that his men should stop Harold's army from taking the bridge. "It is said that one particular giant of a man held the bridge single-handed, felling all his attackers with swings from his battleaxe. He was only defeated when he was stabbed from below by a man who was floated down the river under the bridge with a spear." (27)

Once Harold's men had crossed the bridge they engaged the enemy in hand-to-hand combat with swords and axes. The Norsemen were soon being "cut down in their hundreds". The shield-wall was breached and Hardrada was killed by an arrow in the windpipe. His men hesitated about what to do next. Tostig stepped forward and urged them to continue fighting. Tostig was also killed and the rest were forced into the River Derwent, where large numbers drowned. (28)

Norman Invasion

Harold and his men were left in possession of the battlefield for only a matter of minutes before the rest of the Viking army, fully armed and armoured, appeared on the scene. The Norwegians immediately delivered a ferocious charge which nearly succeeded in breaking the English, but Harold's army stood firm and by the end of the day, those Vikings still alive, under cover of darkness, retreated. Harold chased them back to Riccall. The twenty-year-old Olaf Haraldsson, now in command of the Norwegians, asked for a peace settlement. Harold agreed and allowed the Vikings to return home. The Norwegian losses were considerable. Of the 300 ships that arrived, less than 25 returned to Norway. (29)

Despite the victory, Harold had suffered heavy casualties and his army was severely depleted. However, the battle had shown Harold was a general of great talent. While celebrating his victory at a banquet in York, Harold heard that William of Normandy had landed at Pevensey Bay on 28th September. Harold's brother, Gyrth, offered to lead the army against William, pointing out that as king he should not risk the chance of being killed. "I have taken no oath and owe nothing to Count William". (30)

David Armine Howarth, the author of 1066: the Year of the Conquest (1981) argues that the suggestion was that while Gyrth did battle with William, "Harold should empty the whole of the countryside behind him, block the roads, burn the villages and destroy the food. So, even if Gyrth was beaten, William's army would starve in the wasted countryside as winter closed in and would be forced either to move upon London, where the rest of the English forces would be waiting, or return to their ships." (31)

Harold rejected the advice and immediately assembled the housecarls who had survived the fighting against Hardrada and marched south. Harold travelled at such a pace that many of his troops failed to keep up with him. When Harold arrived in London he waited for the local fyrd to assemble and for the troops of Morcar and Eadwine to arrive from the north. After five days they had not arrived and so Harold decided to head for the south coast without his northern troops. (32) John of Worcester suggests that the men deliberately withdrew their depleted forces from Harold's army. (33)

William the Conqueror

On hearing of the Norman victory Morcar and his brother sent their widowed sister to Chester and then joined Archbishop Ealdred of York and the citizens of London in the election of Edgar Etheling as king. However, soon afterwards, the brothers withdrew their troops and returned home. William of Poitiers claims that they submitted to the William the Conqueror at Barking in January 1067. (34)

In March 1067 William returned to Normandy. As a precaution, he took as hostages, Prince Edgar Etheling, Eadwine, Earl of Mercia, Morcar, Earl of Northumbria, Stigand, Archbishop of Canterbury and Harold's brother, Wulfnoth Godwinson. William evidently hoped that he had removed all the English leaders who might have led revolts against the Norman government. (35)

While he was away, several disturbances broke out. The first revolt took place in Wales was directed by Eric the Wild and the rebels failed in their attempts to capture the newly-built Norman castle at Hereford. This was followed by a more serious rebellion in Kent that was led by Count Eustace of Boulogne who was dissatisfied by the land that had been granted to him by William. After Eustace's failure to capture Dover Castle he escaped back to his territory in Europe. (36)

William returned in December 1067 and led his army into Devon and Cornwall. He laid siege to Exeter and after eighteen days the residents surrendered. The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle states that "he made favourable promises to the citizens which were badly kept". (37) William ordered a castle to be built in the town and left behind a garrison to guard against further unrest. (38)

According to the twelfth-century chronicler Ordericus Vitalis, in May 1068. Eadwine rebelled because William had failed to honour his promise of his daughter's hand in marriage. Morcar joined his brother in revolt and they enlisted aid from people in Wales. However, they were easily defeated by William. (39)

The brothers were pardoned but in 1071 they fled as they believed they were about to be imprisoned. They were on the way to Scotland, Eadwine was murdered by his own men. Morcar now joined Hereward the Wake, and other rebels who captured the Isle of Ely. After the king laid siege to the Isle of Ely, Morcar surrendered and was imprisoned, doubtless because the Conqueror feared that he might foment further rebellion. (40)

Morcar was taken to Normandy where he was imprisoned until the death of William the Conqueror in September, 1087. Morcar returned to England but was immediately imprisoned by William Rufus. Nothing further is known about him and it is assumed he died in prison. (41)

Primary Sources

(1) Anglo-Saxon Chronicle (1065)

And the man-slaying was on St. Bartholomew's mass-day. And then, after Michael's-mass, all the thanes in Yorkshire went to York, and there slew all Earl Tostig's household servants whom they might hear of, and took his treasures: and Tostig was then at Britford with the king. And then, very soon thereafter, was a great council at Northampton; and then at Oxford on the day of Simon and Jude. And there was Harold the earl, and would work their reconciliation if he might, but he could not: but all his earldom him unanimously forsook and outlawed, and all who with him lawlessness upheld, because he robbed God first, and all those bereaved over whom he had power of life and of land. And they then took to themselves Morcar for earl; and Tostig went then over sea, and his wife with him, to Baldwin's land, and they took up their winter residence at St. Omer's.

(2) William M. Aird, Tostig of Wessex : Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (2004-2014)

Orderic Vitalis, writing in the early twelfth century, believed that during his exile Earl Tostig had visited Duke William of Normandy in an attempt to forge an alliance against Harold. Similarly Snorri Sturluson's King Harald's Saga, written at the end of the twelfth century, suggests that Tostig had travelled to Denmark and then Norway in order to enlist the aid of kings Swein and Harald in his attack on England. After Tostig's departure, his brother Harold may have formed an alliance with earls Eadwine and Morcar and began to advance his own claims to the English throne. The enmity between the brothers was not ended by Harold's coronation and Tostig was absent from the ceremony.

Shortly after the appearance of Halley's comet on 24 April 1066, Tostig attempted to recover his place by making raids on England. He attacked the Isle of Wight, taking plunder and provisions before moving along the coast to Thanet, where, according to Gaimar, he was met by Copsi. They attacked ‘Brunemue’ before entering the Humber. Driven out of Lindsey by earls Eadwine and Morcar and deserted by his Flemish allies, Tostig made his way to Scotland. He seems to have joined up with King Harald Hardrada of Norway at the mouth of the River Tyne early in September 1066. The two entered the Humber and by way of the Ouse landed at Riccal. On 20 September they defeated the forces of earls Eadwine and Morcar at Gate Fulford but were themselves defeated and killed by King Harold at Stamford Bridge, on the Derwent, on 25 September. Tostig's lieutenant, Copsi, may have been with his master at the battle, but he survived and was later to hold the earldom under William I. After Tostig's death, his widow, Judith, remained in Flanders until late 1070 or early 1071, when she married Welf (IV), duke of Bavaria.


Student Activities

King Harold II and Stamford Bridge (Answer Commentary)

The Battle of Hastings (Answer Commentary)

William the Conqueror (Answer Commentary)

The Feudal System (Answer Commentary)

The Domesday Survey (Answer Commentary)

Thomas Becket and Henry II (Answer Commentary)

Why was Thomas Becket Murdered? (Answer Commentary)

Illuminated Manuscripts in the Middle Ages (Answer Commentary)

Yalding: Medieval Village Project (Differentiation)



(1) William M. Aird, Morcar : Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (2004-2014)

(2) Peter Rex, Harold II: The Doomed Saxon King (2005) page 17

(3) William M. Aird, Tostig of Wessex : Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (2004-2014)

(4) William of Poitiers, The Deeds of William, Duke of the Normans (c. 1071)

(5) Anglo-Saxon Chronicle (1065)

(6) William M. Aird, Tostig of Wessex : Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (2004-2014)

(7) Peter Rex, Harold II: The Doomed Saxon King (2005) pages 189-192

(8) Robin Fleming, Harold of Wessex : Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (2004-2014)

(9) John Gillingham, The Lives of the Kings and Queens of England (1975) page 21

(10) David C. Douglas, William the Conqueror: The Norman Impact Upon England (1992) page 190

(11) William M. Aird, Tostig of Wessex : Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (2004-2014)

(12) Anglo-Saxon Chronicle (1066)

(13) John Grehan and Martin Mace, The Battle of Hastings: The Uncomfortable Truth (2012) page 24

(14) Charles Warren Hollister, Anglo-Saxon Military Institutions on the Eve of the Norman Conquest (1962) pages 16-18

(15) Frank McLynn, 1066: The Year of The Three Battles (1999) page 196

(16) John Grehan and Martin Mace, The Battle of Hastings: The Uncomfortable Truth (2012) page 25

(17) Frank McLynn, 1066: The Year of The Three Battles (1999) pages 197-198

(18) Anglo-Saxon Chronicle (1066)

(19) Kelly DeVries, The Norwegian Invasion of England in 1066 (2003) pages 255-259

(20) Frank McLynn, 1066: The Year of The Three Battles (1999) pages 198-199

(21) Peter Rex, Harold II: The Doomed Saxon King (2005) page 229

(22) John Grehan and Martin Mace, The Battle of Hastings: The Uncomfortable Truth (2012) page 27

(23) Arnold Blumberg, Too tired to fight? Harold Godwinson’s Saxon army on the march in 1066 (December 2013)

(24) Frank McLynn, 1066: The Year of The Three Battles (1999) page 199

(25) Peter Rex, Harold II: The Doomed Saxon King (2005) page 229

(26) Frank McLynn, 1066: The Year of The Three Battles (1999) page 202

(27) John Grehan and Martin Mace, The Battle of Hastings: The Uncomfortable Truth (2012) page 28

(28) Peter Rex, Harold II: The Doomed Saxon King (2005) page 230

(29) Frank McLynn, 1066: The Year of The Three Battles (1999) pages 204-205

(30) Ordericus Vitalis, Ecclesiastical History (c. 1142)

(31) David Armine Howarth, 1066: the Year of the Conquest (1981) page 163

(32) Frank M. Stenton, Anglo-Saxon England (1989) page 592

(33) John of Worcester, Chronicle (1128)

(34) William of Poitiers, The Deeds of William, Duke of the Normans (c. 1071)

(35) Maurice Ashley, The Life and Times of William I (1973) page 78

(36) David C. Douglas, William the Conqueror: The Norman Impact Upon England (1992) pages 212-213

(37) Anglo-Saxon Chronicle (1068)

(38) Maurice Ashley, The Life and Times of William I (1973) page 79

(39) Ordericus Vitalis, Ecclesiastical History (c. 1142)

(40) William M. Aird, Morcar : Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (2004-2014)

(41) Frank Barlow, William Refus : Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (2004-2014)