6 October 2012

Paddling Across Mired Battlefields - 1066

It’s that time of year again, the anniversary of when the course of Saxon England irretrievably juddered hard left. Over the past couple of weekends I’ve attended guided walks led by the ebullient Russell Marwood of the York Archaeological Trust. They were a delight and I shall be looking out for some more.

The first was around the battlefield of Gate Fulford when, on 20th September 1066, the invasion led by King Harald III of Norway – Harald Hardraada to most of us – sent the English northern earls and the raised fyrd reeling. We modern battlefield walkers returned to our cars and flasks of hot coffee, leaving the risen ghosts of the victors to finish off the dying and march the couple of miles to the gates of York to demand food and hostages.

Last weekend we were at Stamford Bridge, east of York. Here, on 25th September 1066 the Norse army, or most of it, was disporting itself during a warm and sunny day. Harald Hardraada was awaiting more hostages, this time from northern England, in an attempt to persuade the population to support his march south for the Crown.

Unbeknown to him, the Crown, in the shape of King Harold Godwinson, his crack housecarls and a Midlands fyrd raised enroute, caught them off-guard after a forced march that would take some beating even today - about 185 miles in four days. The result was not so much decimation as obliteration. Mediaeval texts have it that up to 300 longships sailed up the Humber but only 23 sailed down. Harald Hardraada and most of his nobles were not among the survivors.

Russell Marwood doing this thing
Except… did it happen at Stamford Bridge?

As Russell Marwood explained, pinpointing the position of any 1000 year old open battlefield is no easy task. Usually there is little in the way of archaeological deposits. The victors, sometimes even the vanquished, did not leave valuable armour, weapons and accoutrements lying among the dead, even if, as a later writer maintained, the bleached bones of the fallen were still to be seen decades later.

Much of the “evidence” for such a battlefield comes from written texts, by triangulating information from several, in this case mostly from the Norse sagas as the English were, shall we say, a bit busy. Also, routes built by the Romans and maintained – and York would have had plenty - have been lost to us, or their archaeological footprints are still being discovered.

However, our group was led over the current bridge spanning a very swollen River Derwent to gain a view of a “hollow-way”, which sounded, and looked, as if it had come as much from the pages of one of JRR Tolkien’s masterpieces as a descendant of a Roman road. The river had been tidal at this time and Stamford – probably a derivative of “stone ford” – was just that. We learned that it could be crossed on foot at low tide as late as the 1960s. So what need was there for a bridge – the one a single heroic Norseman held for so long before a dastardly Englishman pierced his nether regions from below while in a “tub”, or possibly a coracle?

There are hefty stone foundations behind the older modern houses which might account for a bridge, and an old snicket – a pathway – still leaves the spot, crosses the modern road and rises up between more houses. But once a single thread is pulled, more than one tends to begin unravelling. Why send a fella with a pike out in a boat to skewer an enemy holding a bridge? Why not just loose a sheaf of arrows in his direction? Is the “rock that marks the spot”, or at least commemorates the general area of the deed, out by a couple of miles?

Commemorative seating at Stamford Bridge

 This is where we find there are interesting people among the group. Tom Wiles, from the area, is a re-enactor of the period strutting his stuff under the banner of The Volsung Vikings. He is also one of the locals who have formed the Battle of Stamford Bridge Society with a view to truly commemorating the date of the battle. There was a fascinating exchange between him and Russell Marwood, and the agreed opinion was that the Battle of Stamford Bridge was as likely to be the Battle of Catton, especially as Roman roads have been newly discovered in the area, and possibly the site of a bridge.

Methinks I need to lay my hands on a detailed Ordnance Survey map of the area and do a bit of internet research prior to having another day out. But this is for a series of books on the far horizon so there’s no great rush. Who knows what research others might throw up in the meantime?

As for the Mediaeval power struggle, it wasn’t so much Norse 1 – English 1 as the endgame for them both. King Harold Godwinson of England had no sooner washed the blood from his sword in York than word arrived that fair winds had allowed William the Bastard, Duke of Normandy, to sail across the channel and his men were erecting pre-fabricated fortifications near Hastings.

What must Harold have thought? “Damnit” must have been the least of his epithets. Well, if he could do it once… And so he gathered his housecarls and those uninjured in the battle and set off south with a steely look in his eye. The Battle of Hastings took place on 14th October. Alas, now the steel in his eye turned out not to be just an attitude of mind.

William II, Duke of Normandy became William the Conqueror and, after a series of skirmishes which inflamed his temper no end, he was crowned King of England on Christmas Day 1066. For what happened after that the Brits still bear a grudge.


  1. Is there more to come? A bit about the grudge, perhaps? And are you suggesting that there might be a wee north-south divide? Or that we still have a problem with the French? Answers - when you're ready.

  2. Alan: is that a wooden spoon I see in your hand? LOL! I wasn't going to commemorate the Battle of Hastings, but info has since come to hand so I'll be finishing off the trilogy on 14th. Do come back and have a look.