The spreading of mesenchymal-like cell layers is critical for embryo morphogenesis and tissue repair, yet we know little of this process in vivo. Here we take advantage of unique developmental features of the non-conventional annual killifish embryo to study the principles underlying tissue spreading in a simple cellular environment, devoid of patterning signals and major morphogenetic cell movements. Using in vivo experimentation and physical modelling we reveal that the extra-embryonic epithelial enveloping cell layer, thought mainly to provide protection to the embryo, directs cell migration and the spreading of embryonic tissue during early development. This function relies on the ability of embryonic cells to couple their autonomous random motility to non-autonomous signals arising from the expansion of the extra-embryonic epithelium, mediated by cell membrane adhesion and tension. Thus, we present a mechanism of extra-embryonic control of embryo morphogenesis that couples the mechanical properties of adjacent tissues in the early killifish embryo.