14 May 2013

Tuesday Talk Guest Post : Three Kings One Throne

As part of his Blog Tour to celebrate the release of 
Three Kings One Thron
author Michael Wills has shared his thoughts on....

The Days of Wooden Ships and Iron Men

Thank you, Helen, for inviting me to contribute a post to your blog. I thought that I would air some ideas about the physical prowess we expect of the characters in our novels. What do I mean by this? Well, my novels rely on plenty of action and sometimes involve pushing my characters to extremes of physical endurance. When I am writing an action scene I find myself wondering whether the physical effort required of my subject to achieve whatever I am writing about, is really within the realms of possibility. We are all writing fiction, but generally in non-fantasy historical fiction, the reader has to be able to believe in the credibility of the story. For example, is a particular feat of arms, or an extreme physical feat realistically achievable? To make that judgement we perhaps subliminally consider whether a well trained, well built individual could do the same thing today. In the case of my novel, Three Kings – One Throne, I was writing about warriors in the eleventh century. I reasoned that surely a thousand years of human evolution cannot have significantly changed the physical characteristics or abilities of the average man or woman.

But is this so?

Consider the outstanding “yomp[1]” which British Marines made on the Falkland Islands in 1982, from San Carlos. They walked 56 miles in three days carrying 80lb loads, and then fought a battle. (An average of 19 miles a day). This physical achievement is rightly considered to be truly historic. And yet, a little more than 900 years earlier a column of marching men, also carrying loads, though of unspecified weight, journeyed from London to Stamford, around 220 miles. They did it in a maximum of six days. (An average of 37 miles a day).

I make this comparison not in any way to belittle the courageous achievement of the Marines. I want to use this illustration to suggest that our ancestors really could achieve physical performance which today is unrealistic. Yes, you could argue that trained athletes could easily outperform the soldiers who followed King Harold’s Fighting Man banner in 1066 on his forced march north. But a large proportion of Harold’s troops were fyrdsmen, not trained warriors. They were farmers, fishermen and merchants, performing their required annual duty to their king.
As a young teacher I was once foolish enough to agree to join some of my pupils in the Kent Messenger 50 mile walk. Apart from being physically fit, (in those halcyon days before my spare tyre appeared, my second teaching subject was P.E.), I was acutely aware on the long walk of three other vital factors. These most important things were nourishment, weather and footwear. Food and drink was provided at regular intervals, we walked at night to avoid the heat and I had excellent walking boots. And by the way, I was not carrying anything. Yet when I arrived at the finish after twelve hours, I was good for nothing apart from a very long rest. I have to be honest and relate that two of my pupils finished before me, they were both asleep on the grass verge when I crossed the line.

A well-shod modern soldier can expect to be provided with a calorie intake of around 3,500 per day. For men and women on strenuous duties, British and American Army regulations state that between 4000 and 5000 calories a day are to be provided. What of King Harold’s army of fifteen thousand men marching with the burden of their weapons and equipment, wearing simple unsprung leather shoes or boots? Would they have been provided with sufficient food of a quality which could have given such daily nourishment?  It seems very doubtful. Yet, when this weary army reached Stamford they fought like tigers in a tremendously physically exhausting battle, on a hot day.

Shortly after, the survivors of the battle had to march back to London or wherever their homes were. And then, within three weeks, many of them made a second forced march, this time in wet conditions, to their deaths at Hastings.

Senlac Hill
 (where the English formed their Shield Wall)
There are of course many other historical examples of extraordinary physical feats. But it seems that they were, to the people involved at the time, no more than a normal part of a warrior’s occupation. An example in my book is when, in 1031, Prince Jaroslav in Novgorod ordered his army of Varangian mercenaries to launch an attack on the Læsir, (Poles). The warriors  travelled 150 miles by boat and then marched the final 420 miles over rough terrain at an average of 20 miles a day. They then fought a series of hard battles before embarking on the return journey.

What of the battles themselves? I was quite surprised when I first watched a re-enactment Viking battle. It was so pedestrian! Propaganda has it that the Vikings leapt from their ships and sprinted up the beaches to raid their victims. I challenge anyone to leap into waist deep water carrying a heavy shield and sword, and then to try running. Yes, if the Vikings were lucky they might find that there was a sandy sea bottom to stand on, but more likely a stony or very muddy one. Incidentally, anyone who has spent several days at sea and then immediately tries to run on land is likely to fall over; it takes a while to correct your balance.

However, when battle commenced it was a long hard slogging match which demanded super-human effort. Apart from the use of bows and arrows as a prelude to hand to hand fighting, men wielded swords and axes for hours on end. They smashed and bashed at each other’s shields seeking to weaken their opponents. There was no chivalry; a fighter was as likely to get an axe in the back as a spear in the front. The effort was simply enormous and for those who were lucky enough to survive at the end of the battle, there could have been few with no wounds.

So what do I conclude? Everything I read about soldiers of the Middle Ages leads me to believe that we, as authors, are on generally safe ground when we portray our characters as being as physically capable as well nourished, medically fit modern man. Indeed, if anything, the people we write about were fitter, tougher and much more resilient than we are today. And forget the image of a muscle bound, sword wielding warrior, so loved by designers of historical novel front covers, your average Middle Ages soldier was just that, an average person of his time. The short, the tall, the thin, the pinch faced and the double chin.

So I have allayed my worry that I was being unrealistic in my novel Finn’s Fate, when I described a winter journey, north of the Arctic Circle, by three brothers before they were conscripted as Vikings. And I have stilled my concern that the even more momentous travels and battles of the last of the Viking and Anglo Saxon kings, as told in Three Kings – One Throne, really did happen. For many of the true feats of our ancestors are incredibly exciting, exacting and really almost beyond belief.

[1] Yomp – Your own marching pace


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Helen says:
Interesting post Mike, as authors we can only do our best to imagine what things were like in the past - and double our best to attempt to be as accurate as possible.  I would assume that Medieval Man (or woman *laugh*) was used to walking, far more than we are now, because we've grown used to the car, bus, train, bike. I recall walking two miles to school (on my own) when I was 9 years old. There are many of the generation before me who walked much further every day, in every weather, to school and back. Now it would be unthinkable for a child to walk more than half a mile to school (and never alone!) There are countless stories of young men between WWI and WWII (and shortly after) who walked or rode their bikes miles every evening to see their "sweetheart". I do think we are somewhat softer now!
Many of my readers know that I have my own novel relating to the year 1066 and I did extensive research to write it. May I mention...

Harold did not march all the way north to Stamford Bridge with a complete army. He only took his "regulars" the official, full-time army - his Huscarls. He was joined on his way north by the Fyrds of the areas he passed through i.e. Cambridgeshire, Huntingdonshire, Leicestershire, Lincolnshire... so the "ordinary" men did not march the entire distance, and the huscarls were very probably mounted - it is also possible that these men fought on horseback at Stamford Bridge (apparently many horseshoes were found on what is believed to be the battle site). Then of course, the fyrdsmen went back to their homes, and the huscarls and Harold rode back to London. Which resulted in the horses being too tired/lame etc to use against Duke William. And yes, Harold and his standing army were perfectly capable of fighting on horseback. Harold bred his own horses (one of his studs was at Crowhurst in Sussex, near Battle)
When the call came to meet at the hoar apple tree, several miles from Hastings, it was the southern Fyrd who were called out (although it is very probable that men from the north did decide to accompany Harold south - again, those with horses to ride). So Essex, Kent, Sussex, Hampshire, Surrey, Wessex, Devon were the men called to fight in October 1066, not those from the north - although many of them did march with Harold, and many more came down as soon as they could - but by then, it was too late...

The field at Battle
(photo courtesy Alison King)

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  1. Thank you, Michael and Helen, for a terrific discussion.

    I remember walking or cycling several miles to school from the age of about 7 years old and going for twenty mile all-day bike rides at weekends from about 12 or 13 years old.
    "We was 'ard". ;-)

    Presumably many of the men who made up the fyrd had strenuous outdoor occupations with a fair proportion of physical labour which would have made them a lot more prepared than if we called people up today as a local militia.

    It may have changed from my time in uniform, but the British Army Battle Fitness Test for men used to include a 3 mile run with 1.5 miles in under 12.5 minutes. Not exactly taxing, but I wonder how many modern men could pass it if plucked off the street?

  2. Thank you Alison - I would assume that everyone (healthy that is)could walk a lot better than we do now because everything had to be done walking (or riding a horse or in a cart but horses had to be caught first and carts got bogged in mud....)

  3. what a jolly good read this post is thanks Michael and Helen. I agree too that the force that fought at Stamford Bridge was collected on the way up. If men walked up from the south I doubt they'd be fit for fighting a battle at the end of it. Harold's own household guards would have been mounted and so could have easily made the journey north without too much problem, apart from saddle soreness, lol. Ive read a lot of interpretations of Stamford Bridge and it would seem that the battle broke initially with the English huscarles riding down on the unsuspectinng Vikings.
    I will always wonder how the men fought on that ridge all day from Dawn to Dusk without a break. Many battles in this decade had been no more than skirmishes compared with Hastings. It seems concievable that there would have been some sort of exchange of warriors in the front row to give the men in the forefront of the battle a break like the Romans did, but who knows....I think Micghael is absolutely right - what on earth would they think of our efforts today?

  4. I read somewhere that some battles (circa 9th/10th c)were even arranged & fought in a marked out area (usually with only a few men) Sort of:
    "Hey Sven I think we ought to settle this feud."
    "Ok Ed. When and where?"
    "Well I can do Tuesday afternoon."
    "Fine, about 2.30ish at the Lea Meadow?"
    "Aye, that'll be fine. Meet you there."

    And i bet they stopped at 4pm for a quick cuppa...... *laugh* seriously, many battles were fought between only a few men - Hastings must have been awesome. I wonder if it would have been so well remembered had Harold won though?

  5. Very interesting comments. Yes, how was it that these, our ancestors, were capable of such feats of endurance despite poor diet, primitive medical care and clothes which could hardly compare with modern lightweight weatherproof togs. And what about footwear? I had a hawthorn barb go through a wellie last week; I wonder how long the leather soles of marching men lasted on old Roman roads?
    They were resilient and they were tough, I don’t think that Harold had many sick notes passed to him before Hastings.

  6. Haha, Mike, you just reminded me of that part in your book (I wont mention it here) you know what I mean *winks knowingly.;)


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