Tuesday, 28 February 2017

Right to Reply - The 'Dark' Ages

Continuing my series where I ask three authors questions about their specialist period and invite them to reply, either agreeing or disagreeing. This month, authors Matthew Harffy, Justin Hill, and Glynn Holloway, who all write books set in the 'Dark'Ages, give me their opinions:~

Wes Hael (welcome), Gentlemen. Who is the mightiest warrior of the age, and why?

MH: Hwaet! Throw a log on the hearth and fill your horn with good mead, for I will tell you the tale of the greatest warrior king to walk this land of Albion in a time when middle earth was yet young.

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Stained Glass depicting Penda's death (Attribution)

Stepping from the mists of time comes Penda, son of Pybba, king of all of Mercia. He was a man hungry for battle fame and glory. He ruled for a score and ten years and in his long reign Penda slew five other great kings. 

Some say his power came from the old gods, for it is true that he eschewed the Christ, instead giving sacrifice to Woden, Thunor and Tiw. The priests say now that these pagan gods are nothing and cannot hold sway over men. But think you of the pallid, blood-spattered corpses of followers of the nailed-god that were strewn before Penda and his warband and ponder. Mayhap the old gods are all but forgotten now, perchance their power wanes, but Penda cut great swathes across Albion in their name. He gave them blood and they rewarded him with victory and a dragon’s hoard of gold.

JDH: Pah! Nonsense! Clearly the greatest warrior was Harald Hardrada –the superstar of his age. In fact, it’s only the fact that he is a Viking, that his achievements have been trivialised, overlooked, or ignored.

Harald is driven out of his homeland by Knut the Great, as a teenage boy on the threshold of manhood, and is driven into the East – modern Russia – but which was then the Mirkwood of the Germanic imagination. It was everything that Tolkien made it out to be in the Hobbit - dangerous, deadly, sinister – but the real-life Mirkwood came with terrifying Turkic horsemen named the Pechenegs, rather than spiders. 

Near-contemporary depiction of Byzantine Varangian Guardsmen

Harald learns the hard way. He fights and works his way south, ends up in the Varangian Guard, fighting and leading campaigns around the Mediterranean for the Byzantine Empire (ending up in the Emperor’s personal bodyguard) and being drawn into the Byzantine politics of the age, where he puts down a palace coup – personally blinding the Emperor of Byzantium. 

This is all before the age of thirty!

After that he has twenty-odd years of raiding around the Baltic, burning Hedeby, and crowning his achievement with a final victory on the fields outside York, at the Battle of Gate Fulford. 

GKH: Penda, stepping from the mists of time – followed by a resounding chorus of, ‘Who are yer?’
The answer is, ‘Penda  - just one of many warlords of my time.’

Harald Hardrada, the Thunderbolt of the North. He was the Thunder Box of the North by the time Harold Godwinson got through with him.
No, gentlemen, I’m afraid neither of these two candidates will do for the title, Mightiest Warrior of the Age. Undoubtedly, that honour should to the aforementioned, Harold Godwinson.

Harold Godwinson 02.jpg
Harold places the crown on his own head

Hardrada may have enjoyed great victories during his time with the Varangian guard but how much greater is Harold Godwinson in defeating such a formidable foe in one battle at Stamford Bridge? Harold achieved more in a single day than Alfred the Great did in his lifetime and all this after a legendary march north from London.

The next battle Harold fought was Hastings, here he might face some criticism because he lost but I’ll have none of it. 

Harold’s army consisted of around three thousand housecarls, the rest were made up from the fyrd, a sort of militia. All of William’s soldiers were professionals and most of them seasoned veterans. Add to this, William had cavalry, infantry and archers, while Harold had only foot soldiers and you find yourself wondering what took William so long? The battle lasted all day – two to three hours was the usual time in this era – and this was against an army that had marched up to Yorkshire, fought a great battle, sustained a good deal of fatalities and casualties, marched south to Sussex, to do it all over again. Duke William won the by the skin of his teeth. I think you must agree, Harold is the greatest warrior of his time.         

Which is the best battle of the age, and why?

MH: Penda fought many battles, drenching the land with the slaughter-dew of his foes. But perhaps his greatest victory was at the battle of Maserfield. It was in the long warm days of Weod-mōnaþ, the time some call August, in the marches of Powys and Mercia where Penda, allying himself with the men of Powys, stood in the shieldwall before his greatest rival of the time, Oswald of Northumbria. King Oswald had returned from exile after Penda and Cadwallon of Gwynedd had slain the previous king of Northumbria, Edwin. 

Oswald had swept down from the north, defeating Cadwallon at Heavenfield and set about forming alliances with other kingdoms by marriage, religion or with the edge of a blade. By the year 642, he was the over-king of most of the realms of Albion. He was strong in his faith of Christ and led his men bravely, but his god seemed to abandon him as he marched into Mercia to his final battle.

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St Oswald

Penda’s host destroyed the Northumbrians and Oswald was killed. His body was hacked into pieces, each part raised aloft on great stakes as an offering to Woden. Penda had broken the strangle hold of the Northumbrian kings and it would be weakened for many years.

JDH: I’d give the nod here to Edmund Ironside, who I think is really the man who deserves the title of the Last Anglo-Saxon King. 

Edmund has the misfortune of being the son of Ethelred the Unready, a king who lived too long, and largely squandered the work of Alfred the Great and the House of Wessex. Edmund is one of the most spectacular Anglo Saxon figures: his life brilliant, bright, as brief as a shooting star. 

Edmund Ironside - MS Royal 14 B VI.jpg
Edmund Ironside

While Ethelred’s reign is a list of defeats and disasters, Edmund ends up rebelling against his father, the Mercians and a large number of Wessex aristocracy – who are keen to accept Knut as their king – and in 1016, he leads a rag-tag of retainers in a summer of resistance, criss-crossing southern England and beating Knut’s larger Danish army five times, at Penselwood, Sherston, London, Brentford, and Sheppey. 

A brilliant campaign, and a testament to the charisma and character of the English king with the coolest nickname. 

GKH: The best battle of the era is without doubt, Stamford Bridge.

To qualify for the best battle there must be a fearsome adversary. I think you’ll agree, Vikings were fearsome. Your opponent must have a great leader and Hardrada easily qualifies here. His army had already won a victory at Fulford Gate against the Northern Earls. It was an easy victory for the Norwegians, so their capabilities were proved. 

Another ingredient is the ordeal that Harold’s army had to endure in marching two-hundred-and-twenty-five miles over six days, before engaging their enemy in battle. Add to this are the legendary Berserkers, Hardrada had with him. They stood like giants on the bridge across the River Derwent, between the English on one side and the Norwegians on the other. Only the quick thinking of a housecarl, jumping into a washtub, sailing under the wooden bridge and thrusting his spear into the Berserker where he least expected it, enabled Harold to cross the river and engage his enemy. 

So, there you have a recipe for a great battle, which ended in a resounding victory for the English. It was one of our finest days. Even to this day, the good people of Stamford Bridge celebrate Harold’s victory by eating Spear Pie.  

Which is the best weapon to use in battle, and why?

MH: Those who measure such things in the cold light of day would say that the spear, coupled with a wall of strong linden-boards, is the best weapon of war. But I am a scop, a spinner of yarns, and I say that it is the sword that is the greatest and noblest of all the weapons. Picture the blade, mottled and threaded with different patterns and hues. The iron could be the skin of a fish, or the ripples playing on water. And the hilt, the guard and pommel are also things of exquisite beauty. Golden rings and precious metals interlaced with garnets adorn the finest swords and such splendour marks them for what they are: a thegn’s weapon, a lord’s blade, a king’s sword.

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Pattern-welded blade (Attribution)

Swords are not borne by any fyrd-man. No ceorl will strap a tooled and bejewelled leathern scabbard to his side. No. The sword conveys to all that its owner is a man of worth. An oathsworn man. Mayhap a man to whom one should swear an oath.

A sword is the symbol and the soul of a true warrior.

JDH: Last week we had a couple of trees brought down, and rather than pay someone to split the logs, I bought a new Gränfors axe, which are hand crafted in Sweden, and stamped with the smith’s initials. 

So, I’ve been swinging and chopping, and each swing has allowed me to muse on the effect of an axe on the human body. Chroniclers talk of how the English bearded axe could cut through horse and rider in one swing, and I believe it. There’s something quite simple, and beautiful, about the axe. It has a minimalist quality to it, and I doubt there’s anything quite as effective and destructive. 

GKH: Best weapon must be the bow. You can use it on horseback or standing, you can even use it if you’re up a tree. Enemies can be dealt with from a distance as well as up close. Arrows can even penetrate armour and with the ability to shoot twenty arrows or more in a minute, you can do a fair amount of damage. Burning arrows can also be used to set fire to your enemy’s defences.

And finally, with a bow and arrow, you can hide behind a tree and from a safe distance, shoot someone in the back and then run off laughing into a forest to become a legend. Centuries later, people will still be telling stories and singing songs about you.

Better to fight on horseback, or on foot? Why?

MH: What foolishness is this? Are you moonstruck? Battles are not fought from the back of a mount. How would such a thing be possible? For surely any man attempting such a craven thing would be thrown from his saddle. I heard once in a great hall in Frankia that there are men far to the east who fight on horseback. That they have created some means to hold their feet fast whilst mounted. But I have never seen such a thing, nor do I believe it could be so.

Battles are fought face-to-face and toe-to-toe. Shieldwalls stand and clash like waves beating against a cliff. No beast would be brave enough to charge such a thicket of spears. It takes the bravery of men to heft their war-gear, don their helms, and approach their foes until they can smell their breath and sweat and fear.

Cavalry Vs Shield Wall

JDH: Yes, Matthew is spot on here. I’m all for planting my feet on the ground and standing in a phalanx of well-armoured warriors. 

GKH: I was tempted to say horseback because of the manoeuvrability – it’s much easier to outflank an enemy if you have speed but then on the other hand, if the infantry reforms there is not a lot you can do on horseback. So, why not do as the Saxons did; ride to battle on horseback, then dismount and form a shieldwall? Protected by their shields, the guys with their spears, axes and swords can take care of anyone the archers failed to hit.

Even these days, if you want total victory, you must have boots on the ground – that’s boots you notice, not hooves.


Matthew Harffy is the author of the Bernicia Chronicles, a series of novels set in seventh century Britain. The first of the series, The Serpent Sword, was published by Aria/Head of Zeus on 1st June 2016. The sequel, The Cross and The Curse was released on 1st August 2016. Book three, Blood and Blade, was released on 1st December 2016.
The Serpent Sword, The Cross and the Curse and Blood and Blade are available on Amazon, Kobo, Google Play, and all good online bookstores.
Killer of Kings and Kin of Cain are available for pre-order on Amazon and all good online bookstores. Kin of Cain is available tomorrow!

Contact links:
Twitter: @MatthewHarffy

Justin Hill studied Medieval Literature at St Cuthbert's Society, Durham University. 
The Independent on Sunday listed him as one of the UK's Top Twenty Young British Writers in 2002. He has won the Somerset Maugham Award, the Betty Trask Award, the Geoffrey Faber Memorial Prize and been shortlisted for the Thomas Cook Travel Book Award and the Encore Award. 
He is currently writing the Conquest Series: which covers the events around the Battle of Hastings in 1066. Shieldwall, the first of these, was a Sunday Times Book of the Year. 
Find Justin on Amazon
and on his Website
Connect with Justin on Facebook

G K Holloway left university in 1980 with a degree in history and politics. 
After reading a biography about Harold Godwinson, he became fascinated by the fall of Anglo Saxon England and spent several years researching events leading up to and beyond the Battle of Hastings. 
1066 is his debut novel. Currently he is working on a sequel. One day he hopes to write full time. 

Visit G K Holloway's website http://www.gkholloway.co.uk

I'm honoured to say that Glynn and I also collaborated on the #1 best-selling e-book of alternative history 1066 Turned Upside Down

1066 Turned Upside Down: Alternative fiction stories by nine authors by [Courtney, Joanna, Hollick,Helen, Whitehead,Annie, Belfrage,Anna, Morton,Alison, McGrath,Carol, Redgold,Eliza, Holloway,GK, Dee,Richard]

Thanks to Matthew, Justin and Glynn for this lively debate! Next month: The Twelfth Century.


  1. Wonderful!!! I can just imagine a smoky hall with these three gentlemen at a table, a cup of mead in their hands, swapping tales of mighty deeds, great warriors and leaders and their preferred method of despatching their enemies. I do hope that the mead didn't take over and it all came to blows later!!! Oh, and I'm in the Edmund Ironside Camp for greatest leader!!

    1. Thanks Richard - glad you enjoyed it; I always expected that this one would be quite lively!
      I, of course, have to remain impartial... all I will say is, where was Edward the Elder in this discussion???

    2. Or Offa? Ah, but one could go on and on - butI wouldn't want to cross swords, axes or even a quiver of arrows with these gentlemen in case the Blood Eagle is applied!

    3. Or Aethelflaed, for that matter?

    4. Or Aethelflaed, for that matter?

    5. Indeed - although how much she actually fought, is not known. I made the best of her in my novel, though, I hope!

  2. Brilliant! Although best battle is Maldon.

    1. Ah yes - nobody mentioned The Battle of Maldon and valiant Bryhtnoth!

  3. Of course, the *real* heroic kings are the ones who rule peacefully and with respect for the law, allowing the wealth of their kingdom to increase through trade and security. But it's always the ones who fritter away the wealth of their kingdoms on wars and expeditions that get into the history books.

    1. That's a fair point, Andrew - and one which I tried to redress when writing about King Edgar's reign. My novel, Alvar the Kingmaker is set primarily during his reign when, according to Stenton, 'nothing much happened.'My new non-fiction piece for the anthology In Bed with the British also focuses on a period when the monarchy was relatively stable, but events other than wars still made things rather lively!

  4. Fantastic! I too picture a smoky hall with flowing mead. I raise my horn to you all.

  5. Replies
    1. It was good, wasn't it Paul - am I'm pleased to report that the debate remained bloodless!

  6. Thanks for having me on your blog, Annie. It was fun!

    1. Thank YOU Matthew, it was great fun reading all the responses/arguments.

  7. When will Justin Hill's "Viking Fire" be available in the U.S.?

  8. Loving the debate gents. I'm afraid I'm with Justin on Harald Hardrada at the moment - though no doubt, fickle female that I am, I will change my mind when the next hero comes along....!!

    1. It's a woman's prerogative to change her mind ;)