The hours before a battle are a strange sensation; the mind wanders into the beauty of all that surrounds you, the very nature and colours are mesmerising as fleeting glances of wildlife and wildfowl are the only intrusion into the study of direct environment that will soon be changed into hell on earth. However, the tranquillity of that precise time offers confined opportunity to think of ones loves and life and all that accompanies it albeit far removed from the mayhem of what was about to occur and an inherent fear that loved ones; even ones own sons might be amongst those that gathered in this spot to defend the land that sustained them, yet by their very presence may possibly deny them such simple joys.
Pondering upon the landscape and vista, the old grey hoar apple tree was most distinctive with its gnarled and aged trunk that had born witness to invasions and incursions into this land by a multitude of cultures, leaving traditions and customs as legacy aplenty of their arrival. And effectively the anticipated contest may well prove a long sought after culmination of a long and bloody campaign of the northern races that began with invasion and settlement back four hundred years in the seventh century.
Immigrant cultural incursions had transformed this nation into one that was becoming known as Angle-land or England, but transition had not evolved to such an extent that petty feuds and wars continued aggressively between one region or another across this still somewhat divided land. True, there was slow and steady increase in the representation its indigenous people enjoyed but reigning Kings were quite able and willing to harken to advice given by regional representatives. The tenacity in which the Angles and Saxons held on to the concept of freedom and self reliance was legendary, but it still struggled to enlist the support of differing regions and warlords into a cohesive and unified defence of slowly increasing mutually held beliefs and benefits.
Even family rivalry was divisive and conflict ridden and whilst factions concentrated their venom on each other, it seemed quite natural that it served to compound more widespread descent and rivalry between one region or another. Such rivalries oft stemmed from feuds of high station and alternate kingdoms that had forged areas of influence seeking prosperity and security for their own communities. Even religion at this time was still divisive as ancient pagan beliefs based upon nature and things that were tenable fought for precedence in this expansion of Christianity that was already one thousand years in the coming but not yet fully adopted.
That said, it was for ancient custom and belief that the location of this hoar apple tree was a known meeting point in that region and was considered to mark an ancient pagan site, known for centuries and generations by those that would muster there. But, for the moment, musing on all that had preceded this day was no more than a mental diversion of the sobriety of what may soon transpire in these green and hallowed fields.
Thankfully the frequency of raids and invasions was slowly diminishing as the more prominent warlords vied for position and land, but message had been conveyed declaring that Vikings had landed near York and won a significant victory at a place known as Fulford Brigg prior to setting up camp at a more easterly location at Stamford Brigg. Where, caught completely off their guard and still in drunken revelry of their victorious battle at Fulford they were given short thrift and thorough trouncing by the new presiding king from the most southerly region ruled by the south Saxons.
The legendary warlord Harold Hardrada was adhering to advice based upon jealousy and rivalry offered by Tostig Godwinson who had paved the way for invasion with his intimate knowledge of the region and tenuous links with loyal followers in the area, who not great in number, saw potential in allying themselves to this great Norwegian warlord and Tostig, brother of the king with higher aspirations.
Word had it that a great slaughter ensued and both Harold Hardrada of Norway and Haroldâ€™s feuding brother Tostig. were slain along with several thousand ill equipped, semi drunk and unprepared
Viking warriors still wallowing in previous victories including the sacking of York were caught ill armed and ill prepared to withstand the might of the Saxon army that Harold Godwinson had mustered and led from the south to a resounding victory in the dales of Yorkshire.
They too were much weakened by celebrating this major victory as ominous news from the south reached them full of foreboding that demanded immediate response with urgency. Once again Harold mustered his remaining Huscarls and loyal fyrdsmen and raced south. His force had been depleted to some extent and should well have expected strong support form the men of York but they chose to remain, bury their dead and rebuild the homesteads that had fallen foul to the ravaging Vikings and the northern fyrdsmenâ€™s absence would prove sorely missed in a struggle that was within a fairly short period of time to engulf them and destroy all that they had held dear. Short sightedness and simple fatigue had manifested a soft option and physical extraction from the yet unknown peril in the south that in a few short years would cost thousands of lives in what became known as 'the harrying of the north'.
Meantime Haroldâ€™s long march south weighed heavily on his men after the previous march northward, a great victory then a race south that inevitably diminished his number, but resolutely striding forward their path often broken by messengers setting forth to muster more and convey the meeting place designated where this new foe would be met and vanquished.
To their front on the far horizon were the ominous plumes of spiralling smoke that spiralled skyward indicating the destruction of earthâ€™s natural produce on land and field or roof of home. And this message by design increased the urgency of Haroldâ€™s quest to race south to defend his home, county and nation from yet another ambitious invader, William the Bastard of Normandy.
Williamâ€™s grandfather had been part of the retinue that had been granted dominance over the land surrounding the estuary leading to the river Seine in a region that was to be named Norsemandy or Normandy. The land being granted to these Norsemen on condition they defended the entrance to the river that led straight to Paris and thus deter further siege and ravage they oft suffered under numerous earlier Viking raids.
Having indirect lineage to the Confessor, William had attempted and failed to persuade Harold of his right to the throne upon the demise of the King, some said Harold had sworn an oath upon holy relics to uphold that claim, but that was just rumour and heartily denied by the king and those in his service and present whilst guest of this magnanimous regional Kingdom. None the less, that inheritance would now be hotly contested and the final invasion of Norsemen who sought to impose their will upon the land their forefathers had failed to subdue.
Thoughts of home and loved ones, intertwined with confusion over the scant news that reached the ranks, intermittently disturbed by the gradual swelling of number by individual and groups of fyrdsmen. Amidst their number were familiar faces simply acknowledging arrival by a simple nod of the head or casual wave of hand and that seemed to suffice. But their arrival yielded another source of broken information in as much as confirmation of William ordering burning of farmsteads in the home county of the king as a more fearful revelation that he had ordered the sinking of his vast fleet, thus denying his vast army any means of withdrawal.
In response came a loud buzz of indistinct, varied dialects and accents that spread across the fast growing muster as they caught sight of the approaching army and gave resolute cheer to welcome the far too distant mass as yet unable to hear them. It was hard to determine how many had gathered as the number increased steadily with stragglers stretching from one field to the other. By recognition alone, individuals joined familiar faces and groups that slowly swelled to implement first signs of organisation and cohesive groups of tried and trusted men that preferred to fight alongside each other.
Urgency prevailed preventing Harold tarrying in London and crossing the great river at the place called Medway in his rush southward, with mood seemingly jocular at the clear signs of his rallying host of warriors that weaved erratically across the landscape toward the appointed meeting place. Their image was truly magnificent as the sun reflected brightly off the armour and the sky seemed translucent to the bright colours of shield, banner, and retinue. Harold sat proud and dignified upon his broad shouldered pony. Alongside and directly behind him were two of his brothers Gurth and Leofwin and prominent Huscarls that served his family and nation unquestionably. Their sense of urgency was only betrayed by facial expression as they patiently paced themselves to remain at the head of the baggage train and main force of defenders trudging that great distance from the north to extreme south.
Regional banners betrayed the presence and sad absence of whole domains of manpower, in particular Anglia and the strong and resolute force of manpower under the leadership of the Leofricâ€™s who by definition maintained a family feud that, in its culmination was to herald the death of his primary rival and the destruction of the land and property held dear. There was also little sign of the West Saxons, the men of Wessex, though undoubtedly with greater distance to travel; their arrival would be slower than many that gathered on the hill of the hoar apple tree.
The call to arms gained momentum as Haroldâ€™s force neared the prow of the hill to the welcoming roar of the ever increasing retinue. The long man banner had been unfurled and risen to the peak of the hill and regional commanders were naturally drawn to the direct vicinity where quite clearly a council of war would ensue. Other standards flew proudly on that crest including the wyvern being tubular like a windsock and the raven banner mocking a copy flown in the Norman host in assumption of direct link to this famous banner of a Viking warrior King.
Outriders thundered toward them with ponyâ€™s nostrils steaming and bodies dripping sweat with the urgency of passage. Reports of local scorched earth and wanton slaughter reached the ears of the areaâ€™s prime figurehead, the king himself. His rage was heartfelt yet silent in mind, as each act of cruelty reinforced his resolve to vanquish his enemy. Strong encouragement for victory well noted by the invading forces.
Quite obviously this was a battle of conquest, no quarter given or expected and the largely mercenary army William had mustered, revelled in the promissory expectation of land and riches as their chosen master spread his tentacles of power across this fertile land held even then, in strong esteem. William had astutely declared this a Holy Crusade and bore the blessed banner given his host in Papal protection from Rome and the Vatican, a gift of immense significance from the Pope, whose ambition of expansion knew no boundaries or limits. With the promise of Holy redemption in excuse of violent invasion, William had mustered manpower from the territories of Charlemagne as well as Saxon lands and tribes of Germanic origins. Effectively, the cultures of middle Europe, with strong essence of Celtic, Nordic, Germanic blood had been displaced by the Angles and Saxons in this land and were now in effect coming home to the place formerly inhabited by their forefathers. This racial lineage and religious quest added strength of will and purpose to the marauding army, whose prowess were yet untested and battle tactics untried.
In Haroldâ€™s host stood two brothers from Wessex sharing as close a bond of blood that could hardly be equalled much less challenged, with loyalty and will tested to the extreme in battles of yore. Their manner quiet and unassuming, the taller of the two stretched lazily on the grass below, gazing wide eyed at the landscape of rolling hills and downs where he had taken great pleasure in free movement and admiration. Whilst his brother, an armourer of some renown, glanced pensively at the state of shields and armour of others gathered there, commenting to his veteran bother they showed little sign of battle tested scars or usage. As well as expressing the mental note of the sheer quantity of farm implements as weapons abundant in the host, which once again bode badly for the fighting skill and prowess of those gathered that day.
Doubtless the army on the march were of greater calibre, a warrior breed who would thankfully take the brunt of the coming conflict. The only obvious pitfall was in sheer fatigue of foot slogging such a distance, but hopefully the numeric strength of those on the hill plus resolute will of indignation at invasion, would support any shortcomings as the heat of battle ensued. Or that was the theory. Bemusing on such concepts was interrupted by the arrival of a short ginger fellow with a heart of gold and an unchallengeable belief in this new religion of Christianity now seeking the comfort of familiar face. His receding ginger locks had earned him the nickname of a dwarf or Gremlin, but he bore it well and beamed with the happiness he enjoyed fully enhanced by his Faith.
Having recognised the vocal tone of the Wessex brothers, he greeted them with enthusiasm and no sooner had he sat down, that he engaged the taller of the two in the Viking game of hnuffentuffel. With a casualness born of confidence he engaged in an intense spell of verbally catching up on lost time with each individual since last in their company. At the same time, the ease of his moves of respective pieces on the gaming board seemed almost in considered allowing for the speed in which they were taken. This beaming confidence much enhanced by the fairly unusual interest in his nations history, in particular the period of Roman occupation and spoke enthusiastically of a Roman Villa he had stumbled upon near the Saxon Shore fort of Portchester. Energetically he enthused about the decorative mosaic floor still evident albeit surrounded by an overgrown field and remnants of walls still adorned with decorative plaster indicated the sheer size of this villa which spoke volumes as to the importance of who the occupier must have been. Still, almost secondary to his enthusiasm he played and won several games consecutively and implored others to offer contest to receive frustrated refusal as there wasnâ€™t really much point in taking on this clever and highly intelligent person.
The two brothers, very different in personality had become a legend in their own individual right. Roy had evolved two completely opposite skills, he had green fingers on his hands that could tend and nurture plant life with an ease of familiarity that few can boast, yet on the other hand he wielded a skilled hammer at shaping helmets and blades much needed at this time and earned a considerable reputation as a skilled armourer.
Meantime his erstwhile contestant ployed his more familiar hand to entertainment as a jongleur that sufficiently financed his longing to walk the land of his birth and enjoy its visual bounty from hills and dale in silent joy. Both had enjoyed the pleasures of female companionship and both suffered the evils of betrayal, whilst the older brother had partnered a young liberated woman with controversial opinions and a deft skill at minding the needs of horse, hound and man.
Thoughts and memories of these people had been shared over thirty years of life and offered solace and comfort in the company of so many strangers however strong their common purpose was. In the fullness of time the number swelled further with comrades of previous campaigns. Fullen, a tall, blonde figure had fought as a mercenary in the lands of the Moors just south of the land of the Franks. He was skilled in weaponry and deft in open hand, bare knuckle fighting or wrestling. If he had any draw back, which is matter of opinion of the reader, it was his roving eye that cast lustful gaze at the loins of single women. His greeting as heartfelt and warm as he eagerly shook each manâ€™s hand in turn, his hand on their forearm and theirs on his.
Harold had dispersed outriders to determine the strength and location of the enemy and having a good knowledge of the surrounding area, decided upon a location to engage the enemy. Discussion with leading figures that had mustered was intense to the enth degree and included strict instructions on conduct and tactics that would be distributed by Huscarls amidst the fyrdsmen to leave no doubt in the minds of those assembled, that this was a fight for very nation and way of life. The influence of Anglo Saxon England was strongly threatened by the Norse ancestry of this bastard King William, whose iron rule was legendary and the callous disregard for his Dukes and fighters was equally well known. His ambition was clear, conquest, and subjugation, with no limits to his expectation of those that fell under his command.
News of the muster had spread far a field and fighters and volunteers had been arriving for several days. Accepting many had no cohesive leadership, Harold chose to deploy them on the right hand flank of his defensive line as that area had the advantage of a steeper rise for the oncoming enemy to surmount. The front line across the whole field would of course be the Huscarls, with the men of Kent and other trusted warriors and further mixed bands with differing degrees of cohesion on the left flank. Any stragglers or baggage trains with additional provisions and supplies could safely muster at the centre rear with fair confidence the dispersal of their supportive wares would be safe from enemy incursion.
Harold had witnessed the strength and shock value of Williamâ€™s use of men on horse and whilst the Saxon way was inherent from the Vikings, horses were used as transport only. A good warrior fought with his feet firmly placed on the ground. Harold also knew that William had witnessed the power of his Huscarls and axemen, but had not really experienced the strength and tenacity inherent with an Anglo Saxon shield wall. Whilst archery was as yet undeveloped, but many short bows existed as rural use for hunting game and ease of acquisition. Several wagon loads of arrows had been ordered and arrived for dispersal amongst the lower ranks of farm hands and fyrdsmen. The number of arrows distributed was considered adequate bearing in mind the minimal belief held in the value of their impact upon hand to hand close contact combat.
Dusk slowly slipped into night as mead was consumed in bulk, whilst lustier engagement of men and women enjoyed the more carnal images of love, passion, and emotion. Much rested the victors of Stamford Brigg spoke quietly of conquest, victory, and slaughter at the same time, of respect for the gathered army and the intensity of Williams training regime that would have ensued inland whilst long ships were under construction. Unfavourable winds too had played a major part in delaying his embarkation and had it been otherwise it was conceivable that both armies and invading forces could have landed at the same time. It seemed equally possible that the treachery of Haroldâ€™s brother Tostig might well have engaged in co-ordinating such joint action that was only foiled by the strongest enemy of man, nature.
As much as night had brought more relaxed occupations it did not fail to yield a growing number of men in response to the call to arms. Amongst their number came Blood eye and Black Harry somewhat lubricated but no less chatty as his infernal need to talk was in itself a legend best avoided. Blood-eye held his tongue as was his way and held his peace, but his welcome was genuine and his willingness and reliability to engage in repelling these invaders was unquestionable, even if his ability to function was heavily supported by a massive intake of alcohol. Harry in the meantime sought a scrap wherever it could be found and perhaps more importantly, more receptive ears to absorb his often vitriolic tirade of verbal abuse.
Sven too had arrived from the fenland whose people had largely shunned the call to arms because of the long standing feud between the Leofricâ€™s and the Godwinson's. Svenâ€™s choice of home was such that it offered escape from former life and external pressures that had engulfed him and his first partner and caused them to separate acrimoniously. But now, thankfully he shared a good life with a devoted lady and a growing family that were his strength and joy. He enjoyed a pride for them that accompanied his belief in the old Gods of nature and paganism with a resolution that was only equalled by his passion.
In more relaxed moments of comfort men below an almost leafless great oak and gazed lazily at the star filled sky, taking note of the constellations particularly the plough, which was a consistent sign of bearing to the benefit of land and town dwellers alike. The sky also yielded an unfamiliar sight in a large shooting star with a long silver white tail, perhaps n omen, but an omen of what? Interrupted momentarily by a blanket of cloud that shrouded the clear silver glow of the moon.
Interruption of thought subsided to that of lustful curiosity as a lithe young female obstructed the path of the moons light that shone translucently through her thin cotton garment revealing sheer joy of female beauty barely concealed. Deliberate action on her part revealed the smooth curvature of naked female form, yet her perfectly formed sleekness betrayed nothing of age as the shallow protrusion of light caused arousal of male passion as clothes were adjusted to avert shyness or reveal.
Seemingly unconcerned by choice the young female gently crouched to her knees with both legs deliberately parted to allow passage of a guided hand as she grasped the wrist of a young warrior and guided it meaningfully under her cotton garment to the dampened warmth of fleshy gash of manâ€™s desire. Shamelessly fingers eagerly invaded the depth and hollowness of female genitalia in lustful expectation and selfish yearn. Sweeping hair to one side with practised dexterity fingers entered, to thrust soothingly caressing the walls of vagina, occasionally submitting to the urgency of thrust, sharp and fast to excite female orgasm and the deep throated sighs that acknowledged climax.
Love making was quite prolific upon cloaks placed upon slightly damp grass and many enjoyed the fruits of sexual union, a new dawn, a new day and an era about to change into a time unknown. was about to erupt. Yet such uncertainty did not deter one couple who engaged themselves in the matter of mutual union or marriage in the eyes of the old Gods, binding of each left hand, sharing blood and giving rings, culminating with each individual planting an acorn in the same spot knowing that in the fullness of time the two would propagate into one sturdy oak tree as recognition of union, and there could not be a more magical a place for a tree to grow in perpetual wedlock with nature than this. With great hope for the future the bride and groom saw no ill in the days to come holding the firm belief that their joining would bear fruit and flaxen haired Saxons would run freely through these lands regardless of the outcome of the impending challenge.
Slipping slowly away, night gave way to dawn and hundreds if not thousands groaned and yawned noisily as that fateful day opened dry and clear opposed to inclement weather to hamper both sides of protagonists alike, perhaps more so those on horse but it wasnâ€™t to be. Numbers had increased, prayers had been offered and reports of the enemies nearing location had reached the commanders and final preparations engaged at breakneck speed. As was the nature of battle since time began, illustration of tactics and ploys were scratched on mother earth as King Harold dispersed his forces to the best of his experienced ability, Hako would control his left flank, his less practised brother to his right.
The tranquil setting had transformed overnight to a heaving, mass of humanity, shuffling nervously from one group to another, eagerly searching out recognised faces or acknowledged leadership. Of course bright stained standards offered immediate recognition as they fluttered aggressively in the first strong gusts of wind that drew dark clouds away to permit the natural rays of sun to filter brightly earthward in welcome warmth.
Atop the designated location a deep, heaving line of warriors stretched some half mile long and a hundred yards deep, across the crest of the hill that overlooked a gentle valley allowing clear, concise vision over the rolling hills its south and west. Numerically the mustered force was estimated to be near to six thousand men and the human hum of the multitude of nervous yet excited voices reached a crescendo that was very near to deafening. Appointed officers strained vigorously to be heard as they relayed direct orders, as laid down by the King to those in their direct control.
Water canisters were stacked high and intermittently to the rear with drinking implements of clay and horn cast wistfully to the ground nearby. Soothsayers and healers laid out their herbs and potions on outstretched cloth some fifty yards behind the rear echelon of defenders and muslin cloth was energetically torn into long thin strips to act as binding for wounds, with kindling wood stacked in readiness to cause fire that would cauterise a deep wound. Meanwhile woman broke bread and cut cheese to add nutrition, and the sweet aroma of honey based mead could be detected quite clearly above the natural fragrance of apple juice from surrounding orchards.
Refrain from premature adrenalin was measured by religious chant and moderate consumption of ale to raise the morale of those assembled along the deep line. Further need for care in controlling intake was to avert inherent drowsiness to hamper performance and energy, balanced only slightly by the possibility of enhancing courage to face an onslaught as yet untried on these shores. Meanwhile Priests and Monks scurried from rank to rank dispensing baptisms and blessings en mass, so that God could receive the vanquished and heaven be enhanced by their presence, an all embracing concept when Pagans minds revelled in the prospect of Valhalla and the never ending feast of virgins and ale to greet its heroes. Whilst pensively Harold, now mounted, surveyed the line making minor gestures to move backward or forward and offered encouragement or recognition of familiar faces.
Such was the time in which these events were taking place that Christian founders in Rome saw no contradiction in perpetrating the slaughter and persecution that their predecessors suffered for their ideology and faith. Now with Holy Roman blessing justifying slaughter and mayhem inflicted upon heathens and disbelievers on these shores still not enjoying complete conversion which by death they could bring about.
Atop the hill most prominent sagas would tell of outdated round shields bearing the spiral wheel of the sun, representing the Hakenkreuz, or swastika that would be depicted in future times to signify pagan worship and heathens deserved of conquest. The truth was, professional soldiers such as Huscarls that is, those not armed with two handed axes, all bore the extended shape of shield known as the kite, amidst many in the ranks that owed fealty to local overlords and acted as protector of both family and lands. These professional fighters had enhanced their prowess by state of the art equipment, whilst the lower ranks and retinue had plundered the bodies of the dead Vikings at Stamford Brigg and laid claim to mail shirts and Norse style helmets, sometimes very different to their Saxon counterparts. One other benefit with decisive potential was an improvement on personal weaponry to lend support and courage that would enhance the victory that would soon follow the one enjoyed in the north.
Local farmsteads had been ravaged upon Williams instruction and news of the muster point soon spread to offer hospitality to homeless farmers families. Small columns of bedraggled refugees, wandered into the fields like rag tag and bob tails, with few possessions, wailing babies and grim stories of horror and depravity. Without remorse William had unleashed his superior forces like a hammer on an anvil to establish the way it would be in the future and leave no shadow of doubt in the minds of those resisting, that there were no lengths he would not go to, nor depths he would not journey to impose his will. His strategy to promote fear and foreboding was not to execute or slay the peaceful populace, but maim the body as walking testimony to his intent and character. Hands cut off, or ears, perhaps nose, or tongue, no cruelty too fierce nor mercy given.
Decades had passed along with generations of migrant settlers who were sore used to such deprivation but no less hurt by its implementation. Sympathy gave scant comfort to the well versed and practised Saxons who suffered years of ravaging incursions to simply turn the soil once more to eke out a meagre existence. Lowly homesteaders were offered sustenance, medical treatment, and care, with compassionate treatment of bloody stumps offering ample evidence of Norman contact. Whole families wandered deep furrowed track-ways as morbid witness to the carnage that beset them. Widowed wives, coarse from wailing bearing testimony of paternal defence of family and resultant price.
An outrider broke cover from dense woodland on the other side of the valley and raced urgently up the slope engulfed in a cloud of dust kicked up by his mounts heavy roughshod hooves. His carriage was clearly visible having veered to one flank catching sight of Harold still surveying his troops. Bringing his steed to a dead stop some ten yards to Haroldâ€™s front, he dismounted and humbled himself before his King before addressing him upon command.
He had located the advance forces of Williamâ€™s army and made good effort to count them whilst patiently waiting for the main force to follow, well assured of no ambush relayed by Norman settlers at the Roman port of Dover. Somehow, William had transported upward of fifteen hundred trained warhorses and a convoy of two wheeled carriages bearing, arrows, spears, mail shirts and replacement shields. Mounted warriors became known as knechts, the Saxon word transposed to more familiar name knights, carried a long lance with pointed pennant near the blade called a guidon. Each bearing border of different colour and circles of varied number to identify and ascertain the man that bore it.
Archers in similar number to the mounts walked lazily through the dust bearing various length bows with the odd variation of mechanical crossbow. The rest of the retinue contained a mixture of nationalities making up foot soldiers of infantry and banners and flags identified their place of origin and location of commanders. To one side were three mounted figures with one particular steed being magnificent in demeanour and quite probably a gift from more southern magnates or diplomats. It seemed safe to assume this proud looking pair of man and horse was William himself who sat in regal clothing of wool, linen and silk, with banded crown adorning head to complete the vision of regency. Close retinue of chosen guards also bore the great banner of silver cross and three pronged long flaps of two green and one mauve indicating the blessed authority of the Pope.
In all the scout had estimated the number reached over five thousand and included Franks, Germans, Bretons, Hungarians and Netherlanders. The force slightly smaller in number made up for that disadvantage by the volume of mounted knights borne by hundreds of tons of horse meat, trained to kick, bite and head butt any that dared stand in their path.
With no doubt of the strength of the opposing force Harold resolved himself to a fight that would change the course of history and be highly dependant upon the resolution of those in the shield wall, to hold ground and position. It was essential to deny free rein of horses bearing advantage of height, weight of number and pulsating composition. Harold strained to gaze in the direction of the pointed arm of the scout, with his right hand shielding the sun, but evidence to support the report was only visible in towers of spiralling smoke and heavy plume of dust kicked up by the tramping feet of the approaching army.
Haroldâ€™s defenders had positioned themselves well according to instructions and many sat pondering over life and loves and quietly absorbing the dribs and drabs of new comers asking for friends and comrades to join their number. Regardless of the volume of massed, urgent voices, the small band was pleased most joyously to receive the arriving company of Pat and Faithkeeper. Both had resided in the rural outskirts of Londonium and nurtured a true friendship together that was retrospectively shared by all those present. Pat, had been a bit of rogue in his youth and sometimes ostracised by his peers, whilst mischievous, he was dependable and only five foot six in height, his body frame seemed as wide as it was tall and his bodily disposition like that of iron. Faithkeeper on the other hand was quiet and passive, but his willingness to help anybody, in any circumstances and in any way he could, caused the benefactor of his kindness to take great care not to take liberties of him. Having vigorously shaken the hand of each of the close company in turn, they reclined to the ground to enthuse about previous experiences as well as growth and expansion of respective families and well being. Both their wives had travelled with them and received the same warm and sincere welcome from all in their company.
Chatter ebbed remarkably quickly as the defenders caught sight of something in the distance and stood up like a human wave to view the first signs of spectacle that was the reason for their presence. Each head gaped awe struck and silent in the same direction as at last, the procession of approaching Normans could be seen flowing over the top of a gentle hill some quarter of a mile away. The width of the column was hard to determine and could easily accommodate fifteen or twenty people and its true length could never be appreciated as the Normans disappeared into a valley before its tail surmounted the hill top. In what seemed like ages the vision was observed from afar and it was only when the column vanished out of sight, did individuals break silence using odd cuss word or mocking incantation.
Throats and tongues contracted in nervous response into acute and unnatural dryness and as the majority of those gathered experienced this sensation, they gulped to create saliva and anxiously dampened the facial chasm. Concerned glances betrayed minds that raced with mixed feelings at first of bravado but quite naturally innermost thoughts of fear, fear that could not be revealed. And one by one at first and then in great clusters of humanity the retinue took to foot and began hastily donning body armour and ring mail to be chastised by their leaders as being impatient and premature and to rest easy whilst the opponents slowly entered the field and took up opposing position.
Dawn had launched the great solar orb into the sky and few wisps of clouds offered erratic shade denying any hint of warmth on the autumnal scene of leafless trees and rust coloured leaves lay carpet like on the landscape. Great flocks of birds had previously flocked southward emigrating to warmer climes, leaving the sky unnaturally clear and any sign of wildlife had quite clearly gone to ground. Tranquillity was soon disturbed as the eager chatter as the Saxons exchanged personal impressions of the image they had recently witnessed. Now, as the hullabaloo died down, there was still time to rest, so into recline and ease of limbs was once more adopted and the throng of chatter rose once more to break silence whilst time passed slowly, awaiting arrival and disposition of opposing contenders.
Eerie silence struck the lazing defenders, who relaxed and somewhat jubilant had at long last picked out the image of the approaching column amidst the tree filled hillside. Unmoved with deliberate lack of concern was betrayed by their contemporaries as eyes turned downward in curiosity as the very first mounted knights burst from cover and William and his retinue delivered firm commands and gestures causing them to extend the front line in parallel to the brow of the hill where Saxon forces had spread. The sound of movement must have been great but in reality the gap was far too great for any more than the wind carried hum to break the early mornings silence.
Having broken cover there appeared a unified air of disdain shared amidst the host, it was as if they been encouraged to respond with disdain to conceal natural fear these great numbers of formidable warriors posed. Whilst relief expressed by some of the Normans mounts was tangible as they broke cover and expressed relief at the freedom of space they enjoyed since breaking the undergrowth. Relishing this new found freedom of movement they were momentarily exuberant having endured hours of slow passage keeping pace with the slowest and least mobile of the human train. Initially, the urgency of movement presented an image of chaos that swelled in area some fifty feet into the open field. But when some mystical voice bellowed loud but incoherent to those at distance, the whole force wheeled left and right to face up the slope and move jerkily into line and shift controllably forward in a line some quarter of a mile wide and eighty feet deep.
Fully armoured in case of ambush the mounted men came to rest some fifty yards closer than the entrance point and slumped lazily into their saddles or stretched on horses necks to make good use of the remaining period of relaxation soon to erupt into a time or terror and death. To their rear the greater majority of foot soldiers were somewhat hampered by steeds wheeling left and right to face upward and resolute toward the foe.
Atop the hill, with some still casually seated with bravado concealing concern all shared in an unearthly silence disturbed slowly by the growing clamour of cloth on cloth, shields bumping shields and deep breathing assisting this burst of human energy. Upon reaching full height final adjustments were made to ease on mail shirts that lay at their feet, too soon to don, but no less ready for the event. Nervous, chirping voices began to deliver a message of contempt of the scene they were watching, with. derisory comments mockingly increased in substance and volume, as if to reassure the host of voice box un-nerved by pensive silence until reaching this point in time.
Down the slope the increasing image of armed men broke cover of the densely wooded orchard and entered the field of play. With evident discipline they travelled left and right and only turned to face the enemy when course of passage was denied when other humans now standing congested, awaited further instruction.
Considerable time passed as the human train shifted position into three distinct phalanxes to face up the hill. Some well versed warriors amidst the Saxon onlookers deduced the strength of foot soldiers was complete as less heavily armoured companies of men broke cover and through their ranks with bows still unstrung, suggesting the numerical compliment of archers was seen by their tactician to be of great importance to the anticipated outcome. Curiosity and eager observation had consumed a fair part of early morning sunlight that offered ample diversion to those in the ranks, still intermittently disturbed by stragglers arriving steadily to take share of this great adventure.
The pious drone of a monkâ€™s voice was a little irritating and the delivery of his message of ever lasting life after death, contrasted by the fires of Hades, was delivered with subdued enthusiasm, sometimes in earth born tongue, oft broken by religious Latin Regardless, he moved amidst the throng of humanity getting more and more impatient as the enemy host seemed to shuffle on the spot as if in preparation of some form of inspection parade. Of course this was not the case and merely reflected the sheer mass of humanity and substantive physical potency this force imposed upon the onlookers. Fidgeting, shallow breathing, and growing irritability were just a few of the natural responses the defenders endured, with few, quite the opposite, breathing deeply in anticipation and anxious fear. Some took deep swigs of cool, fresh water they had born in leathern pouches across their shoulders, whilst others sought the supply of more comforting alcohol that in truth simply enhanced the mood in which they found themselves, boosted further, by enthusiastic whoops and cries aimed in the general direction of the source of shared frustration.
Harold dismounted his horse which was led to the rear and stood legs apart with hands on hips to survey a lone figure he recognised that gently trotted to the front and observe the opposition as had his equal counterpart. The image he cast was truly awe inspiring, yet had a menace about it which was clearly displayed albeit a sixth sense. His rock like torso resonated with the cold, shiny steel of his armour covering from knee to crown, only separated low and central to permit the parting of legs that hung loosely to both sides of his magnificent beast. His lower legs were visible and appeared covered with a thick felt wrapping and his head was crowned by an ornate Norman conical helm with protruding nasal bar resting neatly on a coif constructed as one with the rest of the hauberk. Just above the chest there rested a second layer of mail, that when engaged in battle could be drawn up over throat and jaw and tied securely by laces to the helmet straps at its rim. Over his back was slung his kite shield, being cushioned with neatly padded protection in a light blue suede, with only a central hole breaking its cover allowing a steel boss to permit hand access and several thick leather straps to present alternate arm holds for use on horse or foot, both defensively or aggressively. Sturdy and resolute with great sense of purpose the figure trotted quite calmly in parallel to the shuffling mass, and cast cursory glances up the slope then back to the case in hand as predetermined tactics were slowly verging on completion.
As if his magnificence was not enough confirmation of who this was, was supported by the revelation the device on his kite shield transmitted when changing direction on his steed. It was based upon an off white field with an outer blue border that emphasised the shape and was richly surmounted by a yellow, gold tinted cross with each terminating arm decorated by a triple break, fashioned like tear drops. There was a steel boss located at the meeting of the four legs of the cross and quite clearly this shield was new to this renowned warrior as it bore no sign of human contest of this man that had never shirked full contest in battle since teenage maturity.
King Harold had fought at his side in France and had no doubt in his mind that his prowess was well founded and his resolve unbreakable. Quite obviously the bastard had satisfied his curiosity and turned to face the way he had first entered and beckoned his personal retinue enter the field and following instruction of a waving arm the Standard bearer took it upon himself to parade the Papal banner in full view of the gathered Saxons, declaring in broken tongue that excommunication was a certainty for any that stood in contest against the Holy Roman empire. Followed by several passes he galloped the short distance to his master William and came to rest by his side. From this blatant statement of Papal support and backing, William had raised a Christian army to endorse his claim and embark upon his legitimate crusade, or that was how he saw it.
The physical dispersal of Williams army seemed complete but the ranks were roughly interrupted by hundreds of archers making their way to the front and taking up positions on the fore indicating quite clearly in what form the first assault would take. Whilst those on the opposing line began to don defensive garb and shuffle shields or otherwise behind others to defy the first rain of arrows that would surely open the fight.
Most Saxons wore a thick padded aketon or body garment, over which would be placed the coat of mail or hauberk of steel plates or ring links and the length of mail simply determining its place of origin, a short body and sleeve indicated it was of Norse descent whilst knee length, elbow length garments were Saxon albeit heavily influenced by their continental cousins. Helmets were similar, although some were absent of nasal bars and a few bore the cheek plates of Viking origin, quite clearly part of booty after the engagement at Stamford Brigg. Weapons too were similar, a great number of spears and swords for the more professional soldier, with others bearing arms of farm implements converted from scythes and bills being prolific. There was however one weapon the Normans had learned to fear, the Dane axe! Sometimes single handed but more often double handed and in the hands of a skilled Huscarl, it was easy to reach head height of a mounted man, to make him a little shorter by its severance at neck with one single, destructive blow. Not only could this fierce weapon decapitate a man, it could do the same to a horse.
Both sides appeared ready and stood impatiently awaiting first commands to open the days combat. However blessing had to be given as a Bishop strode to the front of the mounted ranks, beckoning the host bow down to their knees, whilst mounted figures simply bowed their heads to pray in reverence for this man known as the Bishop of Odo. A short service was conducted in Holy Latin, which as a language stood more chance of understanding in this multi national gathering than single tongue of this multi national force and if it wasnâ€™t understood, it bore enough mystique to generate awe and humbling of spirit, that was now blessed to engage in great slaughter and do so in the name of the only true God, the one of Christianity. Archbishop Odo was a known figure to many but rarely seen in hostile environment but piously he conducted this pre battle service that struck fear into the hearts of the Saxons. Their own religious contrition was more personal and close being administered by different orders of monks designated clearly by the colour of their habits, who by nature of origin, had largely stemmed from the shores of Bretony, France and Normandy. No less disposed to their cultural background they administered blessing regardless favour or reserve.
Formality over, the two sides watched each other in deathly silence. Someone would have to break the impasse, but who would it be? Agitation only interrupted by final adjustments of straps and armour that were excessive and heavily duplicated. But the silence maintained until a lone horseman broke rank from the Normans and galloped monetarily toward William, exchanging very few words then turning about to race down the front line of his contemporaries chanting something powerful and evocative, but still too distant to fully register in the ears of the defenders. Lengthily words resonated along the valley of human embrace,
The Emperor bent his head full low;
Never hasty of speech I trow;
Leisurely came his words, and slow,
Lofty his look as he raised his head:
"Thou hast spoken well," at length he said.
"King Marsil was ever my deadly foe,
And of all these words, so fair in show,
How may I the fulfilment know?"
Hostages will you?" the heathen cried,
"Ten or twenty, or more beside.
I will send my son, were his death at hand,
With the best and noblest of all our land;
And when you sit in your palace halls,
And the feast of St. Michael of Peril falls,
Unto the waters will come our king,
Which God commanded for you to spring;
There in the laver of Christ be laved.'
"Yea!" said Karl, "he may yet be saved."
The Normans responded in hearty cheers and the beginning of a chant of â€˜Pax Dieu; Pax Dieuâ€™ was their response to the power and confidence these words engendered. And whatever it was, it most certainly encouraged the interlopers to raise spirits high and expectations greater. Just twice did this lone rider parade his recital to the front ranks of mounted knights, and then he reined his horse heavily and dug his heels in deep to attain maximum speed up the slope to the upper mound, completely alone and displaying great courage, along with cheery gay abandon.
"Lords my barons," the Emperor said
"King Marsil to me hath his envoys sped.
He proffers treasure surpassing bounds,
Bears and lions, and leashed hounds;
Seven hundred camels that bend the knee;
A thousand hawks that have moulted free;
Four hundred mules with Arab gold,
Which fifty wains might scantly hold.
But he saith to France must I wend my way:
He will follow to Aix with brief delay,
Bend his heart unto Christ's belief,
And hold his marches of me in fief;
Yet I know not what in his heart may lie."
"Beware! beware!" was the Franks' outcry.
Hardly believing this solitary knight would deliver his attack alone, the front rank of Saxons barely flinched as his steed got nearer and nearer and his chant much clearer and its content finally recognised passing the news of its title to bemused comrades who watched on in awe. It was the Song of Rou or Hrolfganger, the great warlord that had subdued the peoples of Western France to establish Normandy and settled its fields as the southern most stronghold of the Viking host. Like a saga of old, the words resonated like a song in great length and romantic detail and had been a rallying call to many that had all but forgotten it till that day. Bearing three spears held upright behind his left arm controlling both shield and reins, he galloped at great speed toward the line and reined in just ten yards to its front, with the premier row flinching momentarily he deftly hurled each spear in turn, with two subdued by shields, but a third piercing the chest of a Saxon, drawing the first blood and first death of the day. With great haste the somewhat stunned Saxons adjusted their armour and took on posture reflecting greater respect and resolve.
Turning about with an urgency of conviction his back was greeted by raucous cheers as the Saxons considered quite naturally, that he was in retreat, but no. A hundred yards down the slope he raised his drawn sword in salutation of the massed ranks and turned once again shouting the word â€˜Taelifer, Taelifer, Taeliferâ€™ His name bellowed loud and clear as two Saxons strode urgently forward in great distance covering strides, every now and then turning to their comrades seeking approval and vociferous support. But by now, the Taelifer had galloped at speed and was upon them in no time. Almost caught completely off guard their defence was weak and half hearted, the weakness cost them both their lives as his sword arm swept to one side then another cutting both men down where they stood. And without pause he raced his brave steed straight into the throng of shocked Saxons, to be pierced by multiples of spears, yet not immobilised until the first rank reeled back in shock, and as the steed somersaulted to disgorge its master, he found himself launched into the mass and simply slaughtered in grisly form with blood and limbs scattered liberally. A severed arm was hurled into the air, to be caught momentarily before being launched once again into the heaving mass. The carcass of both beast and man were dragged unceremoniously forward and out of the ranks of those that had slain them to offer but a minor obstacle in the path of the imminent attack.
A roar of approval left the lips of his comrades down the hill in glorious recognition of the concept of his ancestors in being â€˜berserkâ€™ a glorified form of suicide that ensured personal sacrifice was a mere penance for breaking the will of an enemy and slaughtering as many as possible before destruction. Horsesâ€™ hooves stamped as if in accord with the roar of their mounts, kicking dust skyward, whilst nostrils steamed in frustration showing an eagerness to go and at long last get stuck into the fray. None-the-less, William was not prepared to risk his finest knights to test the mettle of the shield wall without at very least attempting to decimate it and cause breaches he might later exploit. Pre determined orders were relayed and the archers strode one leg forward toward readily prepared clusters of arrows, pushed gently into the ground for speed of access, with the additional bonus of causing contamination of natures dirt to further injury to wounds inflicted.
Upon command the first fusillade of Arrows flew horizontal falling well short into the rising ground some twenty yards in front of their targets. Adjustments were made to the elevation of loosed arrows but three full volleys fell short and a valuable number of arrows were wasted and lost. Stocks were replenished from carts at the rear but even when the arrows reached their targets there was very little effect as the shield wall offered almost total protection for the deep ranks of men and they clattered to the ground uselessly. Very few shafts penetrated the linden wood shields with many breaking and even some simply bouncing off. Those that survived intact were eagerly gathered up in the lull between volley as new arrows were knocked in place and archers awaited command in the vain hope of penetration.
As frightening as the threat was to absorb mentally, the fear was strongly enhanced by the sheer sound of so many shafts piercing air and ear in transit to their targets. As much as that thought instilled fear into the hearts of the witnesses, they still retained distinct advantage in being able to shrink behind their shields, and then break any shafts that protruded from them to ensure no impediment of defence or movement, when human contact inevitably reached their lines.
Several volleys later the ploy was abandoned at a pre determined signal which startled the static horses into violent, heavy footed action. With feet cupped firmly in stirrup, the knights dug vicious spurs at their heels, with no concern for injury thrust into the rump of their steeds. Surging forward startled by infliction of pain caused instantaneous response they lurched forward on horse in seething, snorting mass. The sound of hooves and agitated whinnying was only enhanced by the chanting knights as each roared in unison â€˜Pax Dieu; Pax Dieu; Pax Dieu.â€™ To be welcomed by the corresponding chant â€˜ Out; Out; Out;â€™ as swords crashed upon shields to cause a massive thumping designed to put fear in the horses, usually bearing more positive and detrimental response, but these were well trained and thundered forward regardless! Unrelenting the charge gained momentum and the sound of hooves that caused the ground to tremble then it slowed slightly as the crown of the hill was reached. Spurring them on, the mounts approached the solid wall of shields before releasing one, sometimes two spears into the deep ranks of Saxons. First casualties were surprisingly light as the transit of spear is actually quite easy to follow and parry, probably the most difficult part was to try and do so, so that the point penetrated the surface of shield, thus slowing its momentum and hopefully prevent it skimming from the surface and into the body of unprepared warriors stationed deeper in the line. Meanwhile the horses un-nerved at the impregnable shield wall reared and bucked and hurled some, but not many of their charges, heavily onto the ground. Others taking control of their mounts took the opportunity to hurl the last of their spears before retiring down the hill somewhat disgruntled and dis-dishevelled
It seemed completely incredible that the human wall of flesh could withstand the sheer weight and impact of the first mounted charge but the line held firm as the crash of contact was phenomenal and whilst the horseâ€™s hooves sounded like thunder, the point of contact was as crisp and concise as a bolt of lightening. Many of the horses bore the wounds of arrows sticking awkwardly from their upper bodies with worse to come as pierced torsoâ€™s whinnied in pain as levelled spears sunk deeply into their body. Some were little more than irritated by the receipt of stones cast heavily from the slings of younger and less experienced fyrdsmen but others were mutilated horribly as the great axe wielding Huscarls swung from left to right gouging great valleys of blood and gore that stretched from neck to top of front legs. Some of the riders of considerable weight were literally catapulted into the closed ranks of Saxon defenders, their bodies pressing heavily on their heads and bringing several men to ground before being butchered like hunks of meat, staining the fast muddying field with the first bloody streams that would give this place its nickname of Slackening, or Slacken, the lake of blood. But, at the front the surviving knights that had made first contact were now crushed by the sheer weight of their contemporaries charging from behind. Horses wheeled in panic, others reared and discarded their passenger heavily, to be crushed under foot by stamping hooves that saw no line of retreat and doomed to destruction administered by either friend or foe. Thrashing wildly in pain, the injured horses became a further barrier and impediment denying access or closeness of space to permit the Normans to engage their foe.
The first charge repulsed, the knights gathered their composure back in the line they had formerly held, where modest numbers of twenty or thirty horses wheeled around the archers and raced up the hill to charge in parallel with the shield wall to launch further missiles and spears. No sooner had the first group made contact, than the second repeated the process but from the other end and this ploy was little more than irritable as defence was speedily impressed and the front lines absorbed the attack with very few spears penetrating that initial line.
To greet them, as each group neared the front line, they were greeted by a maze of missiles and stones, hurled by arm or leather sling. Injuries were slight and could well have increased in severity had greater numbers of archers been in the throng, but this was not the Saxon way. It was a quickly recognised shortfall as those few archers that were there caused some casualties and a greater number of injuries to both man and horse. This tactic was employed for some fifteen or twenty thrusts before it was realised how little impact it was having. So relaxed was the confidence of defence, that the bulk of the rear lines took the opportunity to refresh themselves and take rest where appropriate logs and stumps offered seating which at least elevated them higher than the ground, permitting critical eyes to gaze across the proceedings, prepared for action should the need arise.
Severely irritated by the failure of his crack troops William recognised the modest number of archers in the Saxon ranks were no real threat and instructed his archers to move forward a further fifty metres and begin another volley of arrows. Taking advantage of the time available, many horses, fatigued at the constant racing up and down the hill were changed for fresh ones brought forward from the baggage train at the rear. The tired steeds in turn were left to graze and rest as evidence so far suggested that this was going to be a long and drawn out battle. Wounds were tended resulting in few if any absentees from the line, including both man and horse. Meanwhile the foot soldiers grew impatient, burdened the weight of their armour, inaction, and static position that radiated human heat to a high degree and increasing discomfort in the inability to move and create airflow. Regardless of their discomfort volley after volley left the bows and whistled horizontally to crash against shield or hill. Few injuries were suffered as the impact of delivery increased very slightly and fewer deaths, if any. The arrows in flight were bodkins designed in thin mess of point to break through and open any mail links to pierce skin, but the under garment or hauberk was also reinforced by padded horsehair and in the rare event of that being insufficient, a further garment of thick wool added one more layer of protection and for those of greater wealth may finally conclude with a linen shirt or tunic.
William recognised very quickly the need to thin the shield wall or better still break it, and surmised pinpoint attacks on either flank or centre might well apply sufficient pressure to cause Harold to relieve the onslaught of one area and thus weaken another and by such an act, William knew he must be fully prepared to exploit such opportunity. He decided to exploit this ploy and embarked all horsemen to the immediate front of his left hand phalanx, to remove their presence as an obstruction to the ground forces now instructed to launch the first attack on foot.
Of course now the fairly steep slope became an obstacle that exaggerated the sheer weight of armour on back that weighed on average around 45lb. Thus whilst the knights engaged in hurling spears once again, or the odd foray to use sword and club, the foot soldiers slogged grudgingly up the slope at a modest pace to start with, but declining to fits and starts of movement as the distance closed. Then as the distance diminished to that of a stones throw the mounted knights rode one last circuit then cleared the area by retiring back to their position down the hill, leaving it open to attack by the men on foot.
With supreme effort the phalanx closed on those standing on Haroldâ€™s left flank and the great crash of steel on wood resounded across the gentle valley. Spears protruded forward like the quills of a porcupine from the Saxon wall and to a large extent were able to deter close quarter contact and occasionally pierce the flesh and armour of the opponents. Initial mistake that cost lives was not realising until contact was made, the full resilience of the defending army, albeit they fought for the most selfish of reasons, survival! The ferocity of effort to break through the wall was never doubted, but the strength it contained in itself held firm and fast to inflict the first numbers of casualties to the heavy, breathless assailants. The sheer crush of the attacking forces denied adequate access to the greater numbers unable to squeeze between the advance combatants to engage the enemy. Whilst the shield wall itself was to open and close at erratic timings allowing a Huscarl to stride through, deliver a scathing attack and destruction to withdraw without injury and the wall closing the gap at their backs.
Casualties began to mount and those injured would rarely survive their wounds, especially if they were left to the mercy of the defenders should the Normans withdraw. But that was the last thing on Williams mind as the few casualties were replaced in the shield wall, quite the opposite could be said about the longevity and commitment of the attack. Frustrated at the obvious failure to even dent the Saxon shield wall, they were instructed to withdraw. As for wounded comrades, only their friends or family offered help and most were left to be butchered as the field showed the first changes of colour from autumn rust, to blood soaked red.
At no point did the receiving defenders appear under pressure and any consideration to race to their aid was heavily curtailed by the barking commands of the leading war captains. Effectively Williams ploy had failed, but then he could hardly leave it at that and in opting to increase the pressure he launched an attack by his crack troops, the chosen ones, the Normans in the absolute centre. The horses gently moved aside to allow the passage of those on foot, whilst the archers engaged in administering attacks that in theory should have ended when their comrades passed through their number and to their front. This time however, one or two saw the common sense in raising their aim and loosing over the heads of the heavily armoured Normans, but it was not imme