Authors: Griff Hosker
Tags: #Literature & Fiction, #Genre Fiction, #Historical, #Military, #War, #Historical Fiction
That night Edward came over to me as we lay beneath the stars. “We have gained few men in this drive north, my lord.” He sounded disappointed. He would not be downhearted; it was not Edward’s way.
“I know but it is the quality of the men which is important. Fear not, Edward. I believe that what we do will make this part of England stronger. We need knights like Phillippe. He may have few men with him but he believes in something and that is what is important.”
Warkworth was the most perfect site for a castle I had ever seen. It had two loops of the Coquet protecting three sides. All it needed was a ditch to the south and it would be invincible. When a new Bishop was appointed I would advise him to build a stone castle here too. It had a ditch and a motte but that was all. The hall was barely begun.
William of Warkworth was older than the other two knights I had met. Sir Hugh Manningham was already there and speaking with the knight who looked to have experienced war. Sir William clasped my arm, “I have heard of you Earl Alfraed of Cleveland and I expected, from the tales of your exploits, an older man.”
“Thank you, Sir William. And can I say that you have a fine castle here. If it was made of stone then it would be impregnable.”
“I have pressed those in Durham for the funds but they say to wait for a new Prince Bishop.”
“The King will appoint one soon. In the meantime has Sir Hugh told you what we plan?”
“He has and you may have my men too. It is the chance for glory and treasure. A ransomed Scot brings in much gold.”
“And how many men do you bring?”
“Eight men at arms and six archers.”
“Excellent. Then we leave tomorrow for Norham.”
Norham was just another motte and bailey but this one was as close to Scotland as one could get. The River Tweed ran alongside its walls. Scotland claimed this land. To them this was Scotland. We were in Lothian. Since time immemorial men had fought over this river and this border. Berwick was across the river and just seven miles away at the coast. I did not envy Roger of Norham his precarious position.
It was late afternoon when we rode up. I noticed that the gate remained closed. I was not offended. If I lived this close to the border then I would be cautious too.
“I am the Earl of Cleveland and I am here on the business of King Henry of England!”
The gate slowly opened and a young knight approached me. “I am Roger de Puiset and I am Baron of Norham. Forgive my welcome but this is the edge of the world. When we see unknown knights we are cautious.”
I dismounted and clasped his arm. “There is no need for apology. My men will camp here but may I come inside your walls and speak privately with you?”
“Aye, my lord. I am honoured that you visit.”
I waved to Edward and he led the men to the river. It was a good camp for there was both water and wood. I left Scout for Leofric to care for and followed the Baron into his castle.
As we walked I spoke, “How many men do you have?”
“Eight men at arms and six archers. I have ten servants and slaves.”
“Tell me how you manage to exist here?”
“It is not easy but the Scots in Berwick have yet to test us. I think they feel that we are not worth bothering about. They often ride along the river and cross at the ford. I think they do it to show they are not afraid of us. I do not bar their crossing. I have not enough men.”
His hall was small but cosy. I sat and took off my coif and cloak. “I have information which leads me to believe that the Scots and Northumbrian rebels will attack our land soon. I have brought my battle north to forestall it.”
He did not seem surprised. “We have heard rumours of the garrison at Berwick being reinforced. And riders have been here more frequently of late. The people hereabouts are loyal to the King. Have you enough men to stop an army?”
“I know not but we shall use your castle as a bastion. We can certainly slow them up. I will have other knights and their men at arms and their archers reinforce you. I will put most of the archers in your castle. I intend to use our horsemen to stop this attack before it begins. Where can they cross the river?”
“Here. There is ford which crosses the river to the island and the north bank.” He pointed beyond his walls.
“Can the island be defended?”
He looked surprised as though he had not even thought of that. “Perhaps but we have these walls…”
“A few archers could cause mayhem to anyone trying to attack across this river. Leave that to me. I have the finest archers in the land. What of your people. Can they fight? Will they fight?”
“I know not. They work the land and the river.”
It was disappointing that he had not trained his fyrd but that could be remedied. “Then tomorrow send out to your people. They should bring their animals within these walls and they can defend it too. I would deny the rebels any opportunity to live off our land.”
“But if the Scots do not come?”
“They will.” It was good that I had come for I was now certain that any rebel army would have swept through Norham unchecked. We were lucky that they had delayed until the better weather had arrived. I was also in no doubt that they were counting on the men being in the fields tending to the land too.
I spent another hour going over with the young knight what he needed to do. He seemed more confident by the time I had finished.
When I reached my camp it was ordered and it was hidden. It was beyond the wood and hidden from the river yet it was close enough to the castle for us to be able to defend it. We would have surprise and the rebels would receive a shock. “Sir Phillip and Sir John, take your men into the castle. You will be the garrison.” I did not know their level of skill and they had the fewest men. I would use the knights I did know. They nodded and left. I waved Dick over. “Dick I want twenty archers hidden on the island. They will not need horses but I want them camped there. That is the ford. Put a good captain in command. They are to deny the crossing to the enemy for as long as possible. When the time is right they flee to the castle.”
“Then I will command.”
“No, Dick, I want you to scout out Berwick and the lands to the north. We need to know where the enemy is. Put a good captain in command.”
He was disappointed but he bowed, “As you wish, my lord.”
“Yes, my lord?”
“I want the camp hidden from the northern bank. When the Scots come I want them to think that they just have to take the castle. There are woods.” I pointed to the horses which grazed on the lush grass of the bottoms. I want the horses hidden behind the woods.”
He grinned, “Aye my lord. They will not know anything.”
By the time I joined my knights I was mentally exhausted. I had so much racing around inside my head. Edward said, patiently, “Will you tell us what we do, my lord?”
“I am sorry but I have been preoccupied. We now have a chance I did not expect. There is the ford. The island is a boon for archers can use it as a gate. If we can disguise the fact that we are here then we can draw our enemy to the castle and use our horse to attack him. I have sixteen men at arms, eleven archers, three knights and the fyrd inside the walls of Norham. Dick has twenty archers on the island. When the enemy attacks us, our archers will cause as many casualties as they can and then withdraw to the castle. The enemy will surround the castle. They will see the archers on the island as our trick. They will surround the castle and then we will attack their rear. No matter how many men they have they will be caught between the rock that will be Norham and the lances of our knights and men at arms. This flame of rebellion will be snuffed out before it sets the border alight.”
They seemed pleased with my words but I was not as confident as I had sounded. I had no idea how many men would be attacking us.
When I woke, for my men let me sleep late, Dick and his scouts had disappeared. I ate the food which Leofric insisted I ate and I went, on Scout, to the island with my squires. I forded the river. It came up to my foot but even men on foot could cross it. In heavy rain it might become impassable. My archers all knuckled their foreheads as I passed but all were well hidden from the Scottish side. I dropped into the river on the other side. Here it was deeper and the current, somehow, stronger. That was good. An enemy would struggle to reach this side of the island and my men would have an easier escape.
We rode up the small ridge which had a wood on the top. Once there we stopped. “John, hold Scout.” I walked to the eastern end of the ridge and stood behind a large elm tree. To the east I could see Berwick and the main road from Scotland. There were carts and wagons on the road coming down the coast road from the north. Berwick and the enemy camp looked dangerously close to this tiny wooden castle. I looked at Norham. It would appear inconsequential to the Scots. Its best defence was the river but once across the ditch there was no obstacle to a determined army. I wondered why they had allowed it to survive and then remembered that it had only been built in the last year of the Bishop’s life. All of the attacks since then had been down the western side or the central part of this land.
I had seen enough. I mounted my horse, “Come, we will return to the camp and await Dick and his scouts.”
As we rode back William asked, “Will we fight?”
“If they come then we will fight. It will be a good test of how far you have improved over the winter.”
Having viewed the defences of the castle I left my horse with my squires and strode over to the castle. Sir Roger greeted me. “We can now man all of the walls, my lord.”
“Good. Have you summoned your people yet?”
I made my voice as commanding as I could, “Then do so now. Time is important and I would not have your people suffer.”
“But the enemy are not here yet.”
I waved a hand at the ditches. “And those ditches would not stop a one legged man with piles! When your people come have them deepen the ditches and make them ankle breakers. Put stakes in the bottom.”
“Sorry, my lord! I will do so.”
He was young and siege warfare was a harsh lesson. “Have you supplies and water?”
“We have the river….”
“And if the enemy are there then you will lose men getting the water. If you have no well then fill any container you can find with water. Your castle is made of wood. It will burn easily.”
I saw that he had not thought this through. “Sorry, my lord.”
I smiled, “And stop apologising. I am not being critical but I have no time to think of your feelings. I have been through this before. You are getting the benefit of the lessons I have learned at a high price. They might not cost you; they cost me.”
It was dark when Dick and his three scouts rode in. They were exhausted and I saw that their horses were lathered. They had ridden a long way. He dismounted and took the ale which Wulfric gave him. I waited while he drank it.
“They have a huge army, my lord. They are camped to the seaward side of Berwick. I saw many banners but none of the Scottish King.” I nodded. If this failed then the King of Scotland could distance himself from it. “There are more men coming each day. I saw the roads clogged with marching men. Their numbers are being swollen by the hour.”
“You have done well; a last question. “When will they be ready?”
“They are almost ready now, my lord. It is hard to see where they will place the new warriors who are arriving.”
I nodded, “Go and eat.” When he had gone I waved over my waiting knights and Wulfric. “It is as I expected. They will attack soon. They think that our men will be working the fields and sowing crops. I want the remaining archers under Dick kept as a mobile reserve. When the rebels attack the island we let it fall. When they pursue our archers to Norham we do not intervene. I want them with their backs to us before we attack. We have ten knights and almost seventy men at arms. We will have one chance to destroy this army and that will be with a charge of two lines of horsemen carrying lances. We will be attacking from their rear and their side. We have to make a decisive strike and rip the heart from the enemy. We destroy his will to fight.”
Edward nodded, “And the squires?”
I thought of my young son. Would I expose him to such danger? He was a squire and I could not play favourites. He would have to take the same risks as the others. “I will have John and my banner with me. The other ten squires will form a reserve. They will fill in the gaps when men fall.”
I spent some time going over the details of who would ride where. I had learned that organisation ensured success. Knights randomly vying for a position of honour could only result in disaster. Wulfric, satisfied, left to speak with the men at arms. Mine and Edward’s formed the bulk of the mounted men at arms. Wulfric would lead.
The next morning Sir Roger sent out his men at arms and by late morning a stream of people arrived at the castle. I think the young knight had taken heed of my words for he put the men to work on his ditch as soon as they arrived. I kept our men hidden in the woods. Surprise was a weapon which would work only once. Dick and his scouts rode out at noon to watch the road from Berwick. They were our eyes and ears.
By nightfall all that were coming to Norham had reached us. The ditch had been deepened and the stakes within would discourage attack. Dick brought back the expected news. The Scots and the rebels were preparing to move. By dawn we would know the numbers of the attackers. Dick had only been able to estimate numbers. Some of the enemy were within the castle at Berwick and some were camped on the seaward side. It was only when they attacked that we would know their true numbers.
We rose well before dawn. My men were fed and horses prepared but not mounted. It was just a few miles to Berwick and it would take the enemy a short time to reach us. Dick’s archers, on the island, were led by Ralph of Wales. He was a good man and he would judge the right moment to release arrows. I waited with Wulfric, Dick and Edward under the eaves of the trees. We were hidden but we could see the dark shape of the small island which lay in the middle of the river. The sky was becoming lighter and I saw the trees on the island take shape. I saw nothing but Dick did. He said quietly, “There are men on the island, my lord. Ralph and his men are using their knives.” It was only after staring hard that I saw the body lying half out of the water on our side of the island.
These were the enemy scouts and soon the main force would arrive. They would arrive blind for their scouts were dead. The sky grew lighter and I heard, from across the river, the sound of horses and the jingling of metal on mail. I nodded to Wulfric who left to organise the men. Dick slipped away to command the few archers who would remain in this wood. I stood with Edward and we waited.
The island and the trees prevented us from seeing the northern bank of the river but it was close enough to hear. The noise of the approaching army grew. I could imagine what was happening. The men at arms would cross first and then the knights. Once the men at arms approached the river bank then Ralph would have his men release their arrows. I heard the screams and shouts which told me that men were dying. I heard a horn calling and there was a roar. There were more and more shouts and cries until the first of the archers slipped across the river to stand on the southern bank. There were eight of them and they knocked an arrow and waited. Then the next ten archers began to wade across the river. I saw men on foot hurrying after them. None made the river. The waiting archers slew them.