Linking the landscape with the literature

As the landscape emerged from the research, it became a habit to re-visit the literature. One needs to recall all the caveats discussed earlier about the ambiguities introduced when work is translated between languages and across time. These compound the difficulty of matching the physical evidence with the limited descriptions provided of landscape. However, it is often the actions, or inactions, of the warriors that are associated with a piece of landscape which allows one to test if what they did, as recorded in the surviving literature, can be related to the surface of 1066 that has been revealed by our work. The aim must be to see if any single aspect of the 1066 landscape cannot be sensibly reconciled with the literature. Because it is probably possible to find many places where any battle can find a ‘good fit’, it is not an unnecessarily harsh test that demands a near ‘perfect fit’. Therefore it is important to match the battlescape to every aspect to the literature, within the bounds of our understanding of the land, tactics and, of course, our interpretation of the words employed. The source and translations of the extracts below are all listed in chapter 1.

1 From the Kings’ Sagas we read: “The one arm of this line stood at the outer edge of the river, the other turned up towards the land along a ditch; and there was also a morass, deep, broad, and full of water.” If this is transliterated to read ‘One part of the army remained by the bank of the river Ouse and the other deployed inland along Germany Beck; and the Ings is also visible on the other side of the Beck’ the words suggests that the Norse army approached along the river-bank. This provides the invaders with several, feasible routes to Riccall. The next passage might support the use of the riverbank as the approach route for King Harald’s army and this would make good tactical sense. The words ‘a morass, deep, broad, and full of water’ would very accurately describe the battlesite during the morning of the high tide.

2 Another description from Norse sources is similar. It notes that there are two ‘arms’. This can be interpreted as Harald’s experienced Norse troops providing one army with the junior partner, Tostig, and his small force plus the Orkadian contingent as the other army. “And King Harald went ashore and set to arraying his host, and one arm of the array was ranked on the banks of the river, whereas the other stretched up inland over towards a certain dyke162, and a deep marsh was there, both broad, and full of water.” The translation of the words ‘stretched up’ and ‘towards’ are unclear and ‘the marsh broad and full of water’ could be either the Ings or the Beck. Both would have been receiving the tidal flow as the warriors formed up for battle so both make sense. This passage can also be read to suggest that King Harald led his army along the river route while the other force took the inland route along the line of the A19. This second ‘arm’ advanced or perhaps ‘stretched up inland over towards’ the dyke which was receiving one of the highest tides of the year. Because this passage mentions going ashore this could be interpreted as landing from ships rather than describing the approach to the battle. The latter would be consistent with the way the battle developed. The river approach route was longer so any scouts deployed to watch the direct approach route would only see Tostig’s contingent of the army at first. Any reconnaissance troops sent by Earl Morcar risked being isolated if they tarried to watch for those taking the longer riverside path. But going ashore could imply that Harald’s contingent arrived by boat. This cannot be entirely excluded as a possibility but it is extremely unlikely. The fast-rising morning tides would make this journey fast and effortless but the river-borne route would render them vulnerable to attack along the way. The river route also requires a detour, close to Mercian-held land and it would be difficult to coordinate the arrival time with any party sent to secure the landing. Our understanding of the landscape offers Germany Beck itself as the best landing and we can be confident that Harald’s army did not land there. So a boat trip, if that interpretation is put on the words, is highly unlikely but not completely impossible. The suggestion that Harald stayed near the river does fit our interpretation of the location and course of the subsequent battle.

3 “Now the banner to the King was near the river and there the ranks were serried, but near the dyke were they more scattered, and the men thereof also the least trustworthy.” This reference also fits the picture of King Harald and his best troops gathered near the river, with the part of the army that we interpret as Tostig’s army spread rather thinly along the Beck. The accusation suggested in this translation of how much Harald could trust this ‘scattered’ contingent probably suggests little more than their affiliation to another earl. They were not Harald’s troops and it was Harald’s men who provided us with the story. The troops that deployed along the Beck were probably assigned to Tostig, the ousted earl of Northumbria.

4 “The Earls bade the whole multitude of their array slink down alongside the river.” The Earls referred to in this context are Morcar and Edwin, although there is some confusion in the Norse sources about whether Walthiof, who became an earl under William I, was a key leader of the English at the time of the battle. (See the earlier discussion in chapter 1) Because all the earlier texts suggest that King Harald was massing his force beside the Ouse they would be concealed from view. Perhaps the English Earls were aware or suspicious of this deployment. If so, it would make sense to reinforce their flank beside the river. Does the use of the word ‘slink’ imply that they moved cautiously across the Ings? The dictionary suggests that slinking involves moving furtively and such action would be appropriate when deploying before a battle, in sight and probably in range of the enemy. There is no cover from view on the English side so all their deployments would be observed from the Norse bank. Whether it was moving though the wet land or deploying in a way that did not provide an easy target for archers, a number of words can be employed but ‘slinking’ is satisfactory. They would have had to pick their way carefully over the muddy land. The state of the tide also suggests that little action would be possible much before the middle of the day so there would have been ample time for observation of the deployments. If the land was waterlogged, the Ings might have appeared impassable in the morning and deployments to extend the flank to the river might only have become necessary when the water receded. This sentence is ambiguous because the ‘river’ might be the Ouse or the Beck. But either interpretation makes sense in this context. The land was waterlogged that morning so the Earls might well have chosen to deploy their troops once they had assessed the apparent disposition of their enemy and the ground was firm. This passage does suggest that deployment was being observed and that in turn lends support to the reconstructed landscape which would make that possible and the suggests that the armies did not engage immediately, which itself supports the tidal model for the day of the battle. But might the word ‘slink’ simply be mildly derogatory? The Norse history that we have comes from the records of the skalds, and they were very good with words.

5 However, Heimskringla recorded a deliberate deployment by the English. “The earls let their army proceed slowly down along the river, with all their troops in line.” This is an alternative Norse view of the ‘slinking’ deployment. This can also be interpreted as the Earls reaching the battle site by moving slowly beside the ‘river’, in this context the Ouse, and then forming their shieldwall. It is impossible to provide any sensible military interpretation if the river Ouse is where they decided to form a shieldwall, and it would be absurd to lead the army to Fulford beside the river. It must be referring to the Beck which is often translated in the surviving narratives as a ditch or a dyke but which that morning had the appearance of a river. The substantial obstacle presented by Germany Beck would have prevented the Norse army from making an aggressive move while the English were ‘slinking’ or slowly forming up along the Beck. The text implies that the English shieldwall deployed to cover the perceived threat from the Norse forces. This extract suggests that this was a deliberate and not a rushed deployment since the excellent defensive position occupied by the English along the north bank of the Beck allowed them to deploy safely, out of range of most weapons. A preemptive charge by the invaders was impossible. The Norse commander had the advantage of marginally higher ground, so the early arrivals could observe and record the English deployment and also report any weak points in the line. But one cannot rule out that the terminology in the literature is designed to express the slow response of the earls to the outflanking manoeuvre when it was unleashed a short while later, according to the same narrative. If Harald had waited until the falling tide made the Northumbrian right flank appear vulnerable, this source might be noting that the response of the earls to this threat was slow, and would lead to their defeat. Both interpretations can be easily reconciled with the landscape as well as the tactics of the time and could lead to the outcome that all the literature reports.

6 “The king’s banner was next to the river, where the line was thickest. It was thinnest at the ditch, where also the weakest of the men were.” There is only one place where King Harald’s banner could be next to the river and that was opposite Earl Edwin and his small force of Mercians who were guarding the riverbank crossing. Since everybody taking part was near the Beck, the river referred to here can sensibly be understood to mean the Ouse and this is consistent with the earlier statements of the approach and deployment of Harald’s army. King Harald’s army, beside the river bank, could be concealed from observation while the only forces visible to the defenders would be the ‘weaker’ troops of Tostig’s army ‘at the ditch’. The translation of these ‘weaker’ troops might be less of a judgement on their capability and more an objective statement of their arms and armour because they were not part of Harald’s expeditionary army. It is likely that any experienced warriors on the English side would not simply assess the enemy’s numerical strength but might also be able to form a judgement of the fighting ability of the opposition. There would be clues in the weaponry and the way they deployed. Earl Morcar and his military advisers must have been unimpressed by the display of ‘the weakest men’ because Morcar would soon abandon his strong, battle winning position on the north side of the Beck, tempted by this ‘weakness’. The terrain does not lend itself to forming a straight line on the Norse side. At the ford itself the army would deploy around the amphitheatre-shaped basin, which would place them perhaps 100 metres from the English shieldwall. The terrain would have stretched the Norse line. However, the thin line would close up as they descended the slope to the ford. The Norse right-flanking troops, beyond the ford, would be able to face their opponents across the peat-filled Beck. The writer might be indicating that the best and most numerous force was mustered with King Harald, while the other troops were spread along the ‘ditch’ or Beck. This description fits the landscape and also the way the battle unfolded.

7 “When the earls advanced downwards along the ditch, the arm of the Northmen’s line which was at the ditch gave way; and the Englishmen followed, thinking the Northmen would fly.” This passage appears clear although the translation’s juxtaposition of ‘downwards along’ needs some clarification. Earl Morcar’s advance involved going down a slope since they occupied some firm footing along the firm northern edge of the Beck. If the earl had stationed himself, and his banner, near the centre of his line then he would be on the approach slope that would lead him to the ford. The inclusion of the word ‘along’ might perhaps imply that the entire shieldwall joined in this advance. They would also have to move downwards whenever they advanced. Another source suggests that it was the Norse who went down into the ditch to close with the enemy and, from a military and landscape perspective, the left and right flanks of Morcar’s shieldwall should not have moved, leaving the central section to descend the slope at the north side of the ford. However, the last section of this quotation implies that all Morcar’s men did abandon their positions as they thought they were about to rout the invaders. With the momentum behind the attackers, the ‘weaker’ Norse troops must have looked a tempting target. This Norse ‘arm’ would have given ground to the fresh force advancing from firm ground and down the slope. A good commander would have reinforced his crumbling line but this cunning commander, Harald, had a much better plan, so he waited as “The banner of earl Morcar advanced bravely” across the 1066 landscape.

8 “But when King Harald saw that the array of the English had descended alongside the dyke and was coming right toward them...” Earl Morcar had forced the ‘weaker’ Norse troops at the ford to give ground, descending from his advantageous position on the high ground in the process. If he managed to force his way over the ford and up the slope to the south of the Beck, he would indeed have been able to see the ‘serried’, or closely packed, lines of troops of King Harald mustered in dead ground, near the river on the 1066 landscape south of Germany Beck. Knowing this landscape, a modern commentator might have written that, with the momentum of the slope at the ford behind them, the English would soon be on the higher ground from where they would be able to see King Harald’s men mustered.

9 “When King Harald saw that the English array had come to the ditch against him, he ordered the charge to be sounded, and urged on his men. He ordered the banner which was called the Land-Ravager to be carried before him, and made so severe an assault that all had to give way before it;” This was the point when Harald ordered an all-out attack to check Morcar’s advance as he prepared to unleash his main, and possibly unobserved, force in an outflanking move. The literature suggests a two-stage counter. The first was to rally the Norse forces who were being pushed back and the text suggests that the order was sounded on a horn. There is no mention of reinforcements being thrown into the line but it was imperative that Morcar’s advance was held because, in battle, the hunter can quickly become the hunted. If Morcar could advance 200 metres beyond the ford, King Harald’s ‘arm’ would find its back to the river and with the slope of the ground working to the benefit of the rampant English army. So Harald had to ensure that the advance was contained before unleashing his counter-stroke. So once Morcar was committed to, and contained in, the low ground near the ford, King Harald made his move. This looks like a planned counter attack against Earl Edwin’s flank-defence force alongside the river Ouse. Having contained Morcar’s advance in the ‘amphitheatre’ at the ford, the Northumbrians were prevented from observing this counter attack along the river bank. So Morcar would have been slow in responding to the threat posed by King Harald’s counter-stroke. The literature does not tell us that King Harald led the counter-attack in person. But it implies that this veteran warrior of 50 years, and many battles, followed the banner which he described as his most prized possession. Nor does this portion of text say that the counter-attack was beside the river, but this can be implied because that is where Harald’s army was assembled according to the earlier passages. The riverbank assault also makes sense of the following passage which follows-on from the previous description.

10 “… and there was a great loss among the men of the earls, and they soon broke into flight, some running up the river, some down, and the most leaping into the ditch, which was so filled with dead that the Norsemen could go dry-foot over the fen.” Turning points in battles can come quickly. Unleashing his force of fresh Norsemen from their concealed position would have had a devastating effect on the morale of the English who might have thought they were close to victory. As well as fatigue and thirst, the shieldwall would have lost its integrity. If they now found Norse warriors behind their shieldwall, one should not be surprised by the observation that ‘they soon broke into flight’. The landscape makes sense of the English running up and down the river, if the river here is understood as the Beck. If the Norse counter-assault began at the ford, then the Beck to the east (up?) and west (down?) would provide feasible routes to retreat. If one substitutes the Ouse as the river mentioned here, Earl Edwin’s flank-force could have run back towards York or up the Beck. However, it is the mention of ‘most leaping into the ditch’ which supports the notion that the north bank, previously occupied by the English, had now fallen to the Norse army after Harald’s counterstroke. If Earl Edwin had been outflanked and the Norsemen now occupied the north bank, the English at the centre had two choices. One was to retreat towards York and the other was to move into the Beck. The York option would have involved desertion and the landscape might already have allowed the attackers to block off the York option, leaving the ditch as the only viable route of retreat. This is all consistent with another statement that “... most of the folk ran right out into the dyke”

11 Assuming Earl Edwin was ready to meet this charge from Harald’s best men beside the river, the landscape would permit him to organise an orderly retreat along the levée with their flanks protected by the river Ouse and the Ings. “Earl Walthiof (Edwin?) and those men that contrived to make their escape from out the battle fled even up to the town of York, and there it was that the greatest slaughter took place.” There are a number of references in the Norse literature to Earl Walthiof and it has been argued earlier that this is either confusion with Earl Edwin or the two earls were collocated as this force was able to retreat to the city. This version suggests that there was a battle in front of the city, although the evidence suggests that any such ‘last-ditch’ defence was successful since the city does not appear to have been captured on the day of the battle. The small sample of skeletons from St Andrew’s churchyard at Fishergate, which provided the access route from the city towards Fulford, have weapon injuries. But these injuries suggest ‘less formalised fighting’ and even that the ‘victims lying on the ground’ rather than the victim of a pitched battle to protect the city.163 If this isolated force, that had failed to hold the junction of the Beck and the river, had ‘fled out of the battle’ their only route was along the levée beside the river towards York. We have one source that talks of Earl Edwin being captured by Harald but there is neither enough literature nor landscape evidence to suggest what might have happened near York. One should perhaps take this at face value and accept that Edwin’s men made a ‘last stand’ to block access to York, possibly. Earl Edwin himself might have submitted once further defence was futile although the location is unclear. However, this ‘greatest slaughter’ might be located where St Oswald’s Road approaches the river Ouse. At this point, the Ings finish and some of Harald’s men might have moved round to cut off their retreat. Edwin’s force would have then been in a hopeless position. This would have kept the location of this incident well away from the city limits.164

12 The rather gruesome claim that the attackers could walk dry-shod to the city is consistent with the hard boulder clay at the fording place that was probably covered with a layer of alluvial material and vegetation. The deepest alluvial deposit found near the ford was 25cm. This suggests that the mud and water was deep enough to drown a man but their body would not be lost in the mire as it would sink no lower than the hard clay. Symeon of Durham and John of Worcester make similar records of the battle: “After a long contest the English were unable to withstand the attacks of the Norwegians and not without some small loss they turned to flee and many more were drowned in the river than fell in battle.” In this quote it is also necessary to interpret the river as the Beck (and in the earlier discussion of the literature, the location of the battle on the north bank of the river is consistent with this identification). After the successful outflanking move, the only way for Morcar’s army to retreat, was along the Beck. It is impossible to know if the cause of death was drowning, although to an observer it might appear that way. The chroniclers however are drawing a distinction between those who died from wounds and those who were suffocated under water. The muddy Beck in flood was certainly deep enough to drown an active warrior. When the tide rushed in soon after the battle it could have concentrated the victims at the ford. The tide arrived with sufficient force to move bodies, so the bodies from the Ings might well have been carried to the ford where the slower flow might have deposited them, possibly in some rough alignment with the flow. It might be the spectacle of these ‘stepping stones’ on the days after the battle that is being reported by Norse sources.