Copyright by Brian Howard Seibert
THE BATTLE OF CORBRIDGE (Circa 918 AD)
When Prince Hraerik got back to Northumbria, things had changed. Prince Ivar had married young Princess Blaeja even though she was still under the age of majority.
“He raped her,” the elder Princess Blaeja told Hraerik. “His men smuggled him into her bedroom and he raped her while his men guarded the door. He used threats and promises to keep her quiet and he raped her another two nights before she finally told us what he was doing to her.”
“I’m very sorry this has happened,” Prince Hraerik apologized. “He seems to take after his grandfather, King Frodi, a bit too much and he hasn’t handled rejection well.”
“He wasn’t rejected,” Princess Blaeja explained. “King Ivar asked for her hand in marriage and Princess Hraegunhild agreed to the close match. She only requested that the marriage take place after Princess Blaeja has reached the age of majority. I think he preferred not to wait.”
“Again, I am very sorry this has happened. I shouldn’t have left. I take it Ivar has converted to Christianity?”
“Yes. He converted willingly. A little too willingly.”
“How is young Princess Blaeja?”
“She is frightened and confused and I think she may be pregnant. She has accepted her fate and has moved into King Ivar’s chamber. And the Saxon Princes of Northumbria have assembled a large army in Umbria and look ready to return.”
“And how do you feel about that?” Hraerik asked.
“You have my full support and the support of my family. I loved Oddi and my children will always be his children, even young Princess Blaeja. We are all Hraes’. We are all Danes. We are Angles from Jutland, not Saxons from Germany.”
“Thank you,” Prince Hraerik breathed and he hugged the young princess he had once refused to plunder. “I still remember when Duke Rollo and I told Oddi that he had to plunder you. I think he handled it well.”
“Oddi was a gentleman,” Blaeja stated in a way that implied Ivar was not.
“Oddi was a warrior and a gentleman,” Hraerik agreed. “There will never be another Helgi Bjorn ‘Arrow Odd’ Hraerikson.” Then Prince Hraerik began to tell Princess Blaeja about his trip to Ireland. Princess Blaeja had not heard that Queen Olvor had died. But she was happy to hear that Hraerik had set Princess Hraegunhild up as a Hraes’ trade agent, just as Oddi had set herself up years prior. Hraerik concluded their meeting by saying, “I seem to be doing a lot of things lately that are patterned after things that Oddi did.”
“Like son, like father,” Blaeja said.
Scouts had been sent south to Umbria to watch for movements of the Army of the Saxon Princes but they reported no activity. The threat manifested itself from the north when scouting parties returned to York with news that a northern Bernician army was on the march. Prince Eldred of Bamburgh was not a prince of York, but as the ruler of Bernicia, the northernmost province of Northumbria, he saw the flight of the York princes as an opportunity to expand his realm. To that end, he enlisted the aid of the Scot King Constantin mac Aeda of the Kingdom of Alba and led a combined Scottish and Anglish army south against the Vikings occupying York Castle.
“How are your legs?” Hraerik asked his son.
“Not bad. I’m getting some phantom pain, even with the opium.”
“It’s addictive. The alchemists can’t give you stronger doses. I heard you got married while I was away. You couldn’t wait until I got back?”
“The Angles are coming. I need a son for my subjects in Denmark. I may not survive the next battle.”
“We’ll handle the Anglish Princes of Northumbria,” Hraerik said flatly.
“Well, let’s get sacking Angleland then.” Ivar replied. He was in a lot more pain than he let on and he wanted to get into battle. He wanted to die in battle. His mother raised him in the Norse version of the ancient tripartite religion….the Odin, Thor, Tyr tripartite versus the Roman version of a Jupiter, Mars, Mercury triumvirate or the Greek form of a Zeus, Apollo, Neptune tripartite. They all promised warriors eternal life after death in battle. And they were all great warrior states. But it was not eternal life that Ivar sought. His brother, Oddi, had refused to let their father cut off his poisoned leg, preferring to die, rather than live short one leg. And, had Ivar not blacked out from the pain of having his leg bones torn away, he would never have let the medical alchemist save him. But Ivar was not sure that death by having trees tear you apart even met the parameters of death in battle, so he did not complain and he waited patiently, sure that death in battle awaited him. How could one survive in battle being borne about on a buckler? How long could that last?
Centuries earlier, when the Jutes had ferried the Saxons across the British Channel and they’d disembarked upon the beach, the Britons were said to have described them as being so many they were like sand upon the sand upon the beach. The Anglish Prince of Bamburgh must have thought the same thing when he saw the Army of the Hraes’ approaching the great plain south of Corbridge. The Viking army marched north along a stream the Bernicians called the Dubglais or Dan Stream, but the locals preferred the name Devil’s Water because it seemed to bring Vikings to the Tyne. The Bernicians were only expecting Danes, but they found themselves facing so much more. Soon hazel poles had been set out upon the expansive field south of the Tyne River, marking the field of battle, and a Bernician cavalry unit returned from accepting the markings and told of a vast encampment from which flew the Raven Banners of the Hraes’, as well as the standards of the Danes, Swedes, Norwegians, Goths, Angles and Irish.
Prince Hraerik had been teaching his son the art of handling great hosts. Supply, logistics, sanitation, training and now strategy….all the things he had been taught by General Yggerus, the Goth, prior to the great Battle of the Goths and the Huns. He started with the strategy of the wedge and the crescent and different variations of the two. But Hraerik had never had the luxury of having superior numbers over his enemies….until now. Scouting reports had indicated that the Bernician army and the Scottish army had a combined strength of about thirty thousand men, half the size of the Hraes’ army.
“When Hannibal Barca fought the Romans at the battle of Cannae,” Hraerik explained to his son, “he used the crescent against the Romans’ wedge. He spread his veteran troops thinly across the center of his crescent, because he knew they wouldn’t break, and as the Roman wedge drove his veterans back at the center, his wings collapsed around the wedge and encircled the Romans. The Carthaginians then attacked the Romans from all sides, driving them in on themselves, and they slaughtered all fifty thousand of them. I read this in the original Latin histories when I was imprisoned by the Emperor of Byzantium.”
“I’ve studied the Battle of Cannae,” Ivar replied. “It is one of the most successful uses of the crescent against the wedge.”
“Everybody has studied Hannibal’s greatest victory, but I was imprisoned in Constantinople for months, so I also studied Hannibal’s greatest defeat. In North Africa he fought the Romans once more and he knew they would not use a wedge again, so he faced them with two thirds of his forces and he kept a third in reserve behind a rise across the field of battle. His plan was to engage the Romans’ formation against matched formation, and, as the battle progressed, his reserves would appear over the rise and strike fear into the Romans and they would break and run. But by the time his reserves appeared over the rise, his main army had already been beaten. He had waited too long. I have studied this field of battle and we have just such a rise to employ. Let us use Hannibal Barca’s strategy but let us get the timing right this time.”
Ivar agreed. They would use the failed strategy of a long dead Carthaginian general to defeat the Angles and Scots. Ivar would lead the main body of troops and Hraerik would lead the reserve forces into battle once the Bernician forces were fully engaged. Hraerik promised Ivar he would not be late.
The next morning the Scots and Bernicians were arrayed across their side of the hazel-poled field of battle, all thirty thousand of them. Ten thousand Bernicians were on the left flank under command of Prince Ealdred of Bamburgh, twelve thousand Scots formed the vanguard under King Constantin mac Aeda of Alba and eight thousand Picts, blue warriors of the far north, were on the right flank led by Prince Domnal of Strathclyde.
Facing them were thirty thousand Hraes’ troops in matching formation. Ten thousand Hraes’ troops formed the vanguard under Ivar, with five thousand Dierans and five thousand Dublin Vikings under Jarls Oitir and Gragabai of Ireland on the left and ten thousand Norwegians and Swedes under Biorn on the right flank. Prince Ivar was at the center of his formation, perched upon Hraes’ Ship’s Round carried by the four biggest warriors Hraerik had ever seen.
“When you take Tyrfingr into battle,” Hraerik offered, “keep it sheathed as much as possible and try to use stabbing strokes.”
Prince Ivar held Tyrfingr by the grip and said, “I’ll keep it sheathed as much as possible.” They were both too familiar with the dangers of the blade.
Hraerik watched with his officers from horseback on the peak of the rise with thirty thousand men arrayed across the depression behind him. On the field in front of him, archers from both sides loosed their darts and, as the formations closed in on each other, spears were thrown, and then the ranks closed and the battle became fully engaged. Hraerik watched and waited and he felt as though he was Hannibal on those desert sands trying to get the timing just right.
Prince Ivar had no illusions of Carthaginian generals—he was in the thick of battle fighting for his life. The four warriors that bore him on his buckler, carried him with one hand and protected themselves with their own shields in the other. But Ivar was wearing Frodi’s Danish helmet, Oddi’s Roman corselet and swinging Hraerik’s Tyrfingr in a double handed fashion. Scots were falling before him as the blade clove through painted shields and gilded helms with equal ease. His men tried to protect him as best they could, but they were four big men charging forward, linked together by a shield with their prince battling upon it. The rest of the Hraes’ army was having trouble keeping up with them, but they knew they must and all pressed on.
Hraerik watched in amazement as the eight legged Sleipnir Ivar was riding crashed through the shield wall of the Scots and began penetrating the thickest part of their wedge. He ordered his officers to return to their regiments and they all rode back to their thirty thousand and led their troops up the rise. When they all crested the rise, the Scottish army saw their vast numbers and began to waver. But the wild Picts on their right flank were driving back the Dierans of Northumbria and causing great slaughter, so this bolstered the Scottish resistance and Ivar’s advance slowed somewhat.
When Prince Hraerik led two thousand Roman cataphracts over the crest of the hill, he immediately saw that the left flank was collapsing under the Pict attack and he led his heavy cavalry straight for them. Just as the Dierans fled, the cataphracts hit the lightly armed Picts and just swept over them, then circled around and attacked the Scots from behind. The remaining Picts fled west towards Strathclyde and the setting sun while the Scots and Bernicians fought on a bit, then fled north for the Kingdom of Alba under cover of darkness. The fallen Picts were spread in a wide swathe across the western field of battle and the Scots and Bernicians were in full retreat, leaving their dead across the center and eastern flank trailing north as the living fled for their lives.
Prince Hraerik saw his friends, Jarls Oitir and Gragabai lying dead on the field and when he caught up to his son, Ivar was still sitting upon his shield, spattered in blood from head to thigh and his four men were around him, spattered in overspray. “You look like Odin himself on his eight legged horse, Sleipnir,” Hraerik exclaimed. “I think you scared the Jesus right out of those Scottish warriors. Are you alright?”
“This is all their blood, not ours,” Ivar assured his father.
By weeks end, Bernicia had fallen into the hands of the Hraes’ and Jarl Biorn was left to hold Bamburgh Castle with a force of Norwegian troops. King Ivar had given strict orders that this was a reoccupation of his grandfather’s realm. No citizens were to be harmed and no property was to be damaged. Only officers were to be billeted in Corbridge; the troops stayed in a camp set up outside of town. Tribute would, of course, be collected. Prince Hraerik rode back to York with Ivar in his royal carriage and, as they left Corbridge, he pointed out Hadrian’s Wall to his son. “The Romans ruled Briton for four hundred years and it’s been five hundred since they left, but that wall looks like it was built yesterday.”
“The Romans were great builders,” Ivar said, looking at the turf growing atop the stone wall.
“And even greater destroyers,” Hraerik replied, looking south towards York.