Mixing Fact with Historical Fiction – My version of the Battle of Fulford Gate

The fact is that most historical records are not complete. The veracity of what does remain can often be questioned. Although I did a lot of research for The War wolf it was with relatively few different sources. 1066 belongs to the period that used to be called the Dark Ages, a reference to the lack of written records, not sunlight. It is the last year in the civilisation of the Anglo-Saxons, a people whose civilisation was older than 500 years. Their cultural traditions embraced aural poetry and story-telling. Towards the end of their time some Saxon literary works did find their way into being written down, but those that survive give only a glimpse of a rich and vibrant culture that has since been lost.

I acknowledged both advantages and disadvantages to this situation. First, most of the important dates, events, and people were recorded. There might not be as much detail as I would like, but there was enough to flesh out the story. Second, a lack of definite information allows room for the imagination to work. It seemed logical to create a host of fictional characters to help fill out the narrative. All the historical people filled the upper-echelons of society, kings, noblemen, and priests, but what about those people further down? Saxon society was tiered. At the bottom were the peasants, who were arranged into several classes from slave to quite well off. They ruled over by the theigns, a kind of middle-class. They also enjoyed several ranks from lower-theign, one step up from a peasant, to royal theign who was appointed to a position of authority by the king. Many of these were rich and powerful people in their own right. Next came the aristocracy and they too were subdivided. The eorldermen were eorls who given fifes by the king to manage on his behalf. The larger or richer the fife the more important the man. Some, like Wessex and Mercia, were even seen as paths to the throne itself. The top rank of the eorldermen was that held by the royal family, headed by the king of course.

As King Harold of England came from a rather large family, the Godwins, it was not particularly difficult to illustrate the top social ranks. Creating theign and peasant characters proved to be an entertaining way to illustrate many of the more mundane but necessary aspects of life in the eleventh century. Coenred was one of the first characters that I drew. He was logically predicted by my plan of writing about three successive battles. Clearly, a soldier needed to provide the link between them. That said, I did not want a man who just followed orders. Coenred is a huscarl, a professional warrior in the service of a great lord. He has rank and status. The huscarl stands almost on the same level as a high-theign. Instead of peasants and lower-theigns he has his brother huscarls and the fyrdmen, the peasant warriors called to the army each year, as well as some of the lower-theigns who also have an obligation to provide a military service, to be responsible for.

One of the first scenes that I wrote for Coenred was where he sits in the great hall at York and reminisces about his violent past, just before he is interrupted by the arrival of Mildryth, the woman who is going to change the direction of his life. His character formed very naturally. Eorl Edwin and Eorl Morcar were both young men at the time of the Battle of Fulford Gate, Saxon boys entered adulthood at 15 years old, but I wanted Coenred to be experienced. Their father, Eorl Aelfgar of Mercia, had only recently died and I thought that it might be possible that he would ask his faithful captain of huscarls to educate the boys in what it meant to be a nobleman. By the time the novel opens Edwin has tired of being under Coenred’s tutelage and Morcar, forever following in the footsteps of his older brother, is showing the same impatience. This is a point of conflict that directs Coenred further towards the heart of the crisis of his people while Edwin and Morcar move further away from it.

Having a warrior as a main character also allowed for me to describe the weapons, armour, preparations, and actual combat of the men out on the field of battle. Portrayals of fighting from this period in either films or television dramas are seldom accurate. Both the Saxons and the Vikings fought with remarkable discipline. They also fought in exactly the same way; the shield wall. This was a formation, usually some five rows deep but that depended on the number of men available and the ground they were fighting on. The front two rows would be manned by those in the heaviest and most expensive armour. The job of the front row was to hold their shields in an interlocking formation that provided excellent protection. The row behind them used swords and axes against the nearest enemy. Behind them the less well-equipped men employed long fighting spears with which they would overreach the shield wall and try to stab opposing soldiers. The strength of the shield wall was its solid mass, but this made it unwieldy and slow moving. When two such formations came together it became a war of attrition as each side attempted to open a space in the other by hacking down the men in the front row. Occasionally, crafty commanders would attempt to outflank their adversary or lure them into an attack that would pull them out of position. This kind of combat was very wearying, and it was not unknown for warriors in the front rows to drop out to catch their breath, their place being taken by another so as not to endanger the integrity of the shield wall. This was especially true of the richer and more high-ranking individuals.

When the actual fighting starts in The War Wolf Coenred gave me and an excellent point of view from which I could both describe the progression of the battle and the individual struggles of the soldiers involved. Several readers have complimented my account of the battle. The narrative gets up close and bloody, but also steps back at key moments to help the reader imagine the events as they develop. The actual course of the battle is surprisingly well known. Eorl Morcar did launch an attack against the weaker right flank of the Vikings. In doing so he surrendered a perfectly good defensive position, which made no real sense. King Hardrada of Norway’s army was almost twice the size of the Saxons, even though most of it was still marching from Riccall. I decided that a mix of a youthful lust for glory and inexperience were Morcar’s motivation for this foolhardy act. I also put Tostig, King Harold’s younger brother, on the right flank of the Vikings. The presence of him and his Saxon adventurers added a bit of bite to the proceedings.

From a position behind the centre of the Saxons, Coenred does his best to stop disaster befalling this people. It is a futile task. Morcars gets pulled both out of position and away from his brother, Edwin. The Vikings break through at the centre, separating the Northumbrians from the Mercians. Coenred attempts to plug the gap but he has too few men. At least he had the sense to put some seasoned warriors with the young lords. Thrydwulf, a peasant who has risen to the rank of a huscarl, rescues Eorl Edwin on Coenred’s orders and takes him to the safety of York. Another huscarl, Hereric, forms 500 huscarls into a tight formation and fights to win Eorl Morcar time so that he can reach Coenred and his small band who wait to receive him and spirit the nobleman to safety. Each and every huscarl swears a death-oath when being taken into service. It is their badge of honour, either they will die defending their lord’s life or, should they fail in that, then they will die on the field of battle or kill all of his enemies. This oath is not taken lightly. Hereric and his man perform an act of suicidal bravery in turning on the thousands of Vikings that now oppress them. Their bravery distracts the enemy from pursuing Morcar, who reaches safety, but condemns all the brave Saxon warriors to death.

Edwin and Morcar did survive the battle, but there is no account of how they did this. The 500 huscarls did turn at bey and perish before their enemies. It seemed natural to me as the writer to combine Morcar’s escape from near certain death or capture with the sacrifice of the huscarls.

After the conclusion of the battle I was able to examine the consequences for the people of York through characters like MIldryth, a woman of the theign class, and her friend Branda, a peasant of some note. Many men from York joined Edwin and Morcar’s fyrd, their army, and they did not return. The Saxon defeat at Fulford Gate was total. The Army of the North was destroyed. Only a handful of stragglers escaped, led by Coenred. Edwin and Morcar fly to Durham and the presumption of safety. They effectively abandon their people.

Writing about a battle can be very exciting. We, as people, enjoy conflict. One thing that I was keen on was not to make all the death and destruction seem to be without value, however. The Vikings joked afterwards that there were so many dead Saxons that they could fill the Germany Beck from the marshlands to the River Ouse and walk its length without getting their feet wet. Those men were the husbands, fathers, brothers, and sons of relatives who lived in York and the immediate area. Many families were devastated by their loss. And yet they did die for a very spurious reason, the arrogant thirst for glory that motivated both Edwin and Morcar. It led them to getting their tactics badly wrong against Harald Hardrada, a Viking king said to have never lost a battle in his long life. In many ways this illustrated a key point of historical fiction that interests me as a writer, that the actions of the great often have tremendous repercussions on the people much lower down the social ladder. It has always been the same. The common-folk make up the bulk of the armies, do most of the fighting and the dying, and come home, if they are lucky, with the least. I doubt very much if King Hardrada or King Harold or Duke Guillaume of Normandy were aware of the misery that resulted from both their victories and their defeats.

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