Fri 19 Sep, 2008 01:59 pm
Memoriam of a great but tragic battle for the English...
The mighty Norse king Hardrada ('ruthless') left between c.3000 of his 12,000 strong Norse fleet - veterans of over 20yrs of bitter and savage internecine warfare- at Riccall to guard the precious treasures and longships, and with the rest of his c.6,000 men he marches inland towards York (maybe half-expecting a submissive welcome from the Norse descendants at York, as Tostig had promised- esp. as English remnant armies had been brushed aside down the N.East coast during the past few days).
Hardraada's army marched towards York without their chainmail (due to the unseasonably hot September weather) soon finds it's path blocked by the huge army under Earls Edwin (Mercia) commanding the Saxon right (opposite Hardraada and his Norsemen) and Morcar (N'bria)the left (opposite his nemesis Tostig and the Flamish)
When he encountered the defenders, Harald quickly lined up his army to oppose them, as was the custom.
Huscarls & fyrdsmen lined up across the road and fields, 2m South of York -Earl Waltheof had perhaps also joined the brother Earls Edwin (Mercia) and Morcar (Northumbria)- with his own retinue, maybe altogether totalling 7-9,000.
The Saxon position was flanked to the left by higher ground (marshy below) & it's right by the wide River Ouse.
Why didn't the young Earls shut up inside the walls of York, holding out until their erstwhile brother-inlaw Harold could come?
* Pride(?)- keen to show that as teenagers they could match the heroic achievements of their experienced brother-inlaw, Harold, thus overruling their advisers?
* Did they make an error of judgement and underrated Hardrada (in their youthful exuberance & hatred for Tostig?)
* Did they think that Harold was too busy preparing for William 190m away, and so acted 'on their own'?
Hardraada sent his least experienced troops to his right (Flemish under Tostig included?). He expected little of these troops. Indeed the ground was so boggy that it was difficult for them to move in. But once they had waded into position they would certainly not be able to run away.
Harald kept his veteran troops near the riverbank where the land was much firmer. He could either force a way through to York or turn the defender and force them back to the swamp.
It is worth contemplating what battle was like for a warrior.
He could wade in wielding his axe, sword or spear for 10 minutes before pausing for breath. A Roman cohort would only be expected to fight for 15 minutes before being relieved- they would try to attack in little groups with a swordsman and shields at the front.
At c.10am a fierce English charge across the shallower frontal marshes by Morcar's English at Tostig's right flank over the ford cut a deep swathe into Harald's army & almost carried all of the Norse right(Tostig and his Flemish) before it (less marshy on that flank) whilst Edwin's flank successfully held off Viking attacks.
Hardrada had deliberately kept his main strength on his left flank- near the river; and, at the well-chosen moment, when the tumult was at its height and the English (esp. the left) was busy engaging, he personally led a fierce charge of warriors from the Norse left around the English rear and routed the saxon right, enfolding the English and driving them back into the ditch itself, then eating into the centre and left, slowly surrounding the Saxons.
The fighting was protracted and bloody; but, as time wore on, the English found themselves in desperate straits. The English fyrdsmen, seeing Vikings coming from behind, broke in panic and a terrible rout ensued.
The rout. The fleeing saxons were butchered as they fled and many 100's panicked and veered into the quicksand marshes & were sucked under and/or drowned in the clogged-up Ouse, whilst commanders Ed & Morcar (& Waltheof?) retreated to York, trying to rally their disordered army.
Meanwhile Harald, having routed the Saxon right, turned inwards & met his opposite Viking right also they pincered inwards to meet Harald (having driven the Saxons from the higher ground, though many fought around the village & road).
The remaining and surviving English were now almost completely surrounded- men panicked as they saw the norsemen blocking their rearward escape.
In the end a fearful slaughter ensued, culminating in a rout through the almost closed gap. Some ran upstream, some down; but a great company died along the ditch, and there were so many bodies when it was finished that the invaders were able to go ‘dry foot over the fen.’
c.1pm, But a large, defiant close-knit group of about c.500 beleaguered huscarls still tried to fight their way out of the maelstrom, but, overwhelmed by greater numbers, they were massacred fighting to the death.
Fighting does continue sporadically by pockets of stubborn English along the river and at Heslington(1m west of Fulford) but the Norsemen had won.
Maybe 3000(?) English died. But an overconfident Hardraada was soon to be totally outwitted militarily...unknown to him, a mighty king was already on his way northwards with a huge mounted army of tough and feared huscarl warriors...