Sunday 25 September 2016

The Battle of Stamford Bridge

Today is the 950th Anniversary of the Battle of Stamford Bridge fought on 25th September 1066, a striking victory for the English over the Norwegians but it is all too often overshadowed by the Battle of Hastings.

The Claim of Thrones
As we approach the 950th anniversary of the Battle of Hastings on 14th October it is easy to overlook the events of 1066 in the build up to the defeat of the English resulting in the Normans taking the throne. The Battle of Hastings was the final conflict in a short month which saw battles fought between the English and Norwegians in Yorkshire just three weeks earlier. King Harold's battle weary army had then to march south and face William's forces who had landed on the Sussex coast.

The plaque at Stamford Bridge commemorating the battle
The year started with the death of King Edward (The Confessor) on 5th January 1066. The last Anglo-Saxon king died without a clear heir to the English throne. Several claimants came forward leading to the disputed succession of Harold Godwinson, Earl of Wessex who was elected king by the Witenagemot, an assembly of the ruling class of Anglo Saxon England. According to the Anglo Saxon Chronicle after Harold was crowned by the Archbishop of York he reigned for forty weeks and a day.

Two claimants to the throne immediately came forward: William, Duke of Normandy, and Harald Hardrada of Norway. William claimed that King Edward had promised him the throne and that Harold of Wessex had agreed. Harald Hardrada's claim to the English throne was based on an agreement between his predecessor Magnus I of Norway and the earlier King of England Harthacanute that if either died without an heir, the other would inherit both England and Norway. Both William and Harald now prepared for invasion.

The Battle of Fulford Gate
Harald Hardrada's forces were swelled by the addition of Tostig Godwinson, King Harold's exiled brother and Earl of Northumbria. Earlier in the year Tostig had raided south east England, but retreated when faced with King Harold's navy. Tostig turned his attention to Norfolk and Lincolnshire but was  decisively defeated by Edwin, Earl of Merica, and Morcar, Earl of Northumbria. Tostig's men deserted him in his hour of defeat so he fled to Scotland where he spent the summer with King Malcolm III.

Later that summer a Norwegian invasion force totalling around 10,000 men led by Hardrada and Tostig sailed up the River Ouse and advanced on York. The Anglo Saxon Chronicle records that on eve of St. Matthew the apostle, i.e. the 20th September, they engaged with a northern English army of around 5,000 men led by the Earls Edwin and Morcar at the village of Fulford. York fell to the Norwegians but under terms that the Norsemen would not force their way in to the city. The Norwegians then offered peace to the Northumbrians in exchange for their support in Hardrada's bid for the throne before retiring to Stamford Bridge, 7 miles east of York.

At this time King Harold was in Southern England, anticipating an invasion from France by William, Duke of Normandy. On hearing of the fall of York, Harold took his houscarls and all the thegns he could muster to Yorkshire, covering a distance of 185 miles in just four days, taking the Norwegians completely by surprise.

It is estimated that around 1,500 fell on the battlefield but no mass grave has yet been discovered. However, between 1985 and 1986 York Archaeological Trust carried out excavations at St Andrew's Church, Fishergate, York. From 402 skeletons uncovered 29, all male and in double graves and bearing evidence of weapon trauma, are thought to be the result of a single violent event. It has been suggested that these may have been victims of the Battle of Fulford Gate.

The Battle of Stamford Bridge
The exact location of the Battle of Stamford Bridge is not known but the favoured site is an area just south-east of the Yorkshire town known as “Battle Flats” on east bank of the River Derwent. A common theory is that the Norwegian army was split in two with forces to the east and west of the Derwent.

Location of Stamford Bridge
However, the sudden and unexpected arrival of Harold's Anglo Saxon army on the 25th September seems to have caught the Norwegians by complete surprise with the English army attacking the west side of the Derwent. The Norsemen were slain or fled across the bridge before Harold's main force arrived at the battlefield. The Anglo Saxon records that a single Norse warrior held the bridge:

“But there was one of the Norwegians who withstood the English folk, so that they could not pass over the bridge, nor complete the victory.  An Englishman aimed at him with a javelin, but it availed nothing.  Then came another under the bridge, who pierced him terribly inwards under the coat of mail.  And Harold, king of the English, then came over the bridge, followed by his army; and there they made a great slaughter, both of the Norwegians and of the Flemings.”

By now the Norsemen on the east side of the Derwent formed a shieldwall but as the Saxon army poured across the bridge the formation started to break being completely outflanked. A counter attack led by Eystein Orre, whose troops had been guarding the Norse ships at Riccall (9 miles south of York), described as “Orre's Storm” briefly checked the English advance. The battle raged on for hours beyond the bridge. With Tostig slain and Hardrada killed by an arrow through his throat the Norwegian army disintegrated and was all but wiped out by King Harold's Anglo Saxon army.

Local tradition claims the bones of the fallen lay about for some time uncared for in the fields after the battle of Stamford Bridge. Eventually they were gathered up and buried, so the story goes, in a plot belonging to the priest of Bossall. Later, a chapel dedicated to St. Edmund was built on the site. In the spring of 1067 Harald Hardrada's body was taken from England by his son Olaf to be buried in St Mary's church at Nidaros (Trondheim) in Norway.

The battle of Stamford Bridge was a decisive victory for the English who had fought two major battles within five nights of each other. In the meantime just three days later on the eve of St. Michael's day, 29th September, Duke William landed his Norman army on the south coast of England at Pevensey.

The Death of Anglo Saxon England
With barely time to patch up their battle wounds and make good their weaponry King Harold now marched his army south to meet William's Norman forces on the 14th October, covering 270 miles in just three weeks immediately after the Battle of Stamford Bridge.

The scene from the Bayeux Tapestry
depicting the death of King Harold of England at the Battle of Hastings

The battle is said to have been fought at a place now called Battle just outside the East Sussex town of Hastings. Harold was clearly hopeful of repeating his success at Stamford Bridge but the Anglo Saxon army was defeated and the English crown passed to the Duke of Normandy. As every schoolboy knows, King Harold famously fell with an arrow in his eye. Battle Abbey was said to have been built “on the very spot” where William the Conqueror defeated King Harold.

There can be little doubt that the engagements at Fulford Gate and Stamford Bridge, fought within just five nights of each other, had a significant impact of the strength of Harold's forces at Hastings some three weeks later. This was a formiddable Anglo Saxon force that had soundly beaten the Vikings in two successive battles.

If Harold's forces had not been taken north by the conflicts with the Norwegians in Yorkshire, and he if had had time to be better prepared to face the Norman invasion army on the south coast the result would almost certainly have been quite different.

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Monday 12 September 2016

Abbots Bromley Horn Dance

12 September 2016, Abbots Bromley, Staffordshire

The annual Horn Dance takes place today, Wakes Monday, one of few ancient customs to have survived into modern times. The antlers (or horns) are collected from the church in the morning, then the Horn Dancers, comprising six Deer-men, a Fool, Hobby Horse, Bowman and Maid Marian, perform their dance to music provided by a melodian player at locations throughout the village and its surrounding farms and pubs, taking in a walk of 10 miles or so. At the end of the day the horns are returned to the church.

No one seems to know when the Horn Dance ritual started, but it is recorded as being performed at the Barthelmy Fair in August 1226 and the currently used reindeer antlers have been carbon dated to the 11th century. But just how old is the Horn Dance?

The dancers, c. 1900 (Wikipedia commons)
So what's going on here: men dancing in horned headgear seems to be a throw-back from a very ancient cult and immediately suggestive of Shamamism.

Not only was the red deer a major food source and antlers used as picks in the construction of ancient monuments but there appears to have been a red deer cult stemming back to at least the Neolithic in Northern Eurasia. It always strikes me as very convenient that the ancient people who constructed these ancient megalithic monuments, such as Stonehenge, left antler picks in the bottom of the trench or under a stone, providing a dating source for the construction of the monument. Perhaps it was more than that, after all why discard your tools?

Stonehenge Offerings: The deposition of cremations (skulls), burials of adult and child remains, antlers,bone pins, pottery and mace-heads. Also shown is the NE-SW axis and the southern most moonrise (bottom right)
 - after Castleden, 1993.
At Stonehenge we find the Aubrey Hole nearest the centre of the north-east entrance, AH55, was honoured with a deposit of two antlers, perhaps stressing the axis of the monument. Another, AH21, close to the southern entrance was found to also contain antlers.

Furthermore, between the sarsen circle and the ditch at Stonehenge are two irregular, concentric rings (or a spiral) of pits known as the Y and Z Holes. Discovered by William Hawley in 1923 these enigmatic pits are the last known structural activity at Stonehenge, dated to around 1,600 BC.

A jumbled stack of five broken stag antlers; two picks and three entire antlers were found in the bottom of Y Hole 30; significantly, again adjacent the monument axis. Radiocarbon dating has revealed the antlers are much older than other artefacts deposited in the same series of pits suggesting they had been curated elsewhere prior to deposition.

Clearly this is structured deposition; evidence of an ancient deer cult or just discarded prehistoric tools?

Much of the above I posted as a comment on Kris Hughes blog Go Deeper

Abbots Bromley Horn Dance

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