As a novelist using historical settings, I particularly enjoy yomping across the landscapes I'm interested in, even if they aren't necessarily going to feature in my fiction. It is even better when I am part of a small group being taken round by someone knowledgeable.
The past couple of Sundays I’ve been on the Yorkshire Archaeological Trust’s 1066 York Battlefields walks led by Russell Marwood. Russell might be an archaeologist but no mummified air of dry academia enshrouds him. From his wild hair to his bright yellow hiking socks, he is Mr Enthusiasm For His Subject – just what a writer needs to fill in a few gaps and light the flame of inspiration.
A condensed bit of background for those not versed in this part of British history:
In early January 1066 the English King Edward (known as The Confessor) died without leaving a blood heir, never a good idea. Harold Godwinson, his leading Earl, was elected to succeed him and in very short order became King Harold II. However, various people weren’t happy about this, particularly William II Duke of Normandy (modern northern France), and King Harald III of Norway. Each coveted the English throne - the stable kingdom and its efficient tax collection system, more like - believing it had been promised to him alone. Both started amassing ships.
By September it was down to the wire, so to speak, with only the weather, as ever, not being cooperative. Then the wind started coming from the north, and with it the Viking Norsemen, picking up allies in the Isles of Orkney enroute. Between 200-300 longships entered the River Humber close to where I live, sailing its tidal tributaries into the heart of England, then called Northumbria, north of the Humber (get it?). Their sights were set on taking York. Named Jorvik by the Norse a couple of centuries before, it had been their power base when the country had been split under the Dane Law, so it suited Harald III, now known more often as Harald Hardraada, to regain control prior to taking on the south of the country.
The first battle was on 20th September at Gate Fulford, just south of York. With the River Ouse blocking one side, the English set up a shield-wall at Germany Beck – amazingly still running – and awaited the opposition. But with all this water swilling around it was tough to call the axe-blows with certainty. The natural flood plain at that end of the shield-wall turned into a mire. The English couldn’t hold the line and…. English 0 Norse 1.
Russell Marwood gave us a very good rendition of the whys and wherefores as we walked along. He even got us grouped, and moving, as a section of shield-wall on the bank of the Ouse where it is met by Germany Beck. Looking down that gentle slope, as a member of the fyrd, the raised militia, I don’t think I would have been too joyful about standing my ground as one of the four or five deep behind the front shields. England had been at peace for more than a generation. My training would have been cursory at best, and I was supposed to stand against the finest of Norway coming at me in full mail armour and carrying the sort of blood-reputation which has lasted to this day.
We battlefield walkers might have gone off to our warm cars and hot lunches, but the Norse advanced to York, promising to keep the walled city intact if it gave up plenty of food and hostages from among its leading citizens. Would you have argued?
The whistle will blow for the second half next time. Do call back in a few days. I might even have some pictures.
If you are interested in a bit of further reading: