Benebalcrag, May 7th 794
by Robert Westall
Part 2 of 2
At the last moment, the fleet split. Right ships steered for the North Bay, and the rest turned away round the headland, with a flurry of oars.
The worst had happened. Now, if we defended the north cliffs, the greater forces would take us in the rear. But if we did not defend the north cliffs, our stockade would fall anyway. Was ever such a decision to be made? “Defend the North,” I said, and it was not I, shaking like a leaf, but a stranger who said it. We were in the hands of the Lord. I watched the fyrd spilling out through the stockade as the first dragon-head grounded on North Bay.
I saw the first Vikings leap ashore. They were huge and stripped to a leather breach-cloth, so they seemed all flesh and metal. Many had beards and hair that fell to their waists. A strong rancid stench blew upwards to my nostrils. I had not smelt them before.
They ran towards the cliff foot, yelling horribly. I saw our first arrows fly, glinting in the sunlight, and one of the heathen fell on his face and ceased to move. I confess I felt joy. At least they were mortal men who were subject to Death. Then I had no time to watch the battle, for the other part of the fleet was entering Tyne. I prayed again. These ships looked so small and far off. Yet if they steered the ill way for us, I and all my people would be dead, before the sun moved a hand’s breadth in the sky.
Men in the Viking ships were pointing up the river. I looked where they pointed and saw our sister-monastery at Jarrow, lying peaceful in the sunlight, with royal ships at anchor on the Slake below.
The twelve ships headed straight for them, ignoring us completely. I shall never know why. Perhaps they always meant to split their forces and attack Jarrow. Perhaps the Lord did make them mad; or perhaps being Vikings, they could think of nothing but what was immediately before their eyes, like children.
I have heard since that they are better at fighting than thinking, and very hard to command in battle. When their sails had grown small against the glitter of the distant water, I posted a watchman and left the tower. They could not turn, and row back against the wind inside the hour, so we should have ample warning of their return.
I could tell things were going well for us before I reached the north cliffs. Saxons make a merry hum when they are winning a battle, like a house wife at her spinning wheel when the wool runs true. There was much shouting about being Edringas. (My name is Edric. I must tell them soon that they are not my warriors, but God’s.)
It was all rather simple. The Vikings either stood on the beach, trying to defend themselves with their round shields against the hail of arrows, spears and rocks, that descended on their heads; or else they would try to climb the cliffs, which meant that they reached our shield-wall out of breath; their hands were too occupied with hand-holds to use their weapons properly. If they kept their hand-holds they were quickly speared and fell down upon their comrades, carrying others to their deaths. If they released their hand holds to fight better, the least pressure on their shields knocked them over backwards with the same effect. Quite a lot were dying as they stood on the beach, too. They hadn’t the least chance of winning the battle, or even of harming us seriously. So far, we had suffered two losses. One man had fallen down the cliff through over-enthusiasm, and another had had a foot severed by a lucky sword-blow.
They are vicious brutes these Vikings; a head taller than our own men, and carrying swords of a size we could not wield. Their one desire is to make a reputation by murdering and plundering, before dying sword in hand and going to their drunken heaven, which they call Valhalla. But each man fights alone, as if his comrades didn’t exist, and so they were no match for our disciplined shieldwall.
A panting servant tugged at my arm and pointed back at the tower. I ran back to it like the wind, fearing the other enemies were returning from Jarrow.
Instead, I saw a dreadful sight. The monastery across the river was in flames. The famous library where the Venerable Bede had worked, was no more. Our Anglo-Saxon boats seemed to have escaped, and were lying motionless further upstream. I cried in anguish “Why has God allowed this?”
The servant pointed to the east. The light was darkening and a heavy cloud was drawing towards the land, trailing shadows of rain beneath. The wind blew colder and much stronger.
“There’s a squall coming up”.
“The Vikings were re-embarking. I saw the striped sails unfurled. They began to put out into the Slake. As they did so, the fury of the squall hurled itself onto them, and onto us. It became near as dark as midnight. In the flare of lightning I saw the pirate ships heel over as they hit the sandbanks with which the Slake is dotted. Boat after boat capsized. Only seven reached the main channel of the river, with sails hauled down and oars flailing. The wind was so strong I had to cling to the tower parapet for dear life.
Now the royal Saxon boats, seeing their chance, were moving in to attack. As the battle moved towards us, I remembered the fighting in the North Bay. If the Jarrow Vikings landed in our rare, we could still be beaten. I ran back. Little had changed. We had lost three more men, but a lot more Viking bodies lay at the cliff’s foot. The remainder were wrestling with their ships which, caught by the squall, had been swung round sideways to the shore. We had to get rid of them quickly.
“Bring fire-arrows quickly”. They fetched some, their points fringed with oil-soaked cloth. The squall was dying down. There was no time to lose.
A hail of arrows swept down on the long ships, some of them trailing clouds of smoke. More Norsemen fell and one of their sails exploded into flames. The ropes holding up the spar on the mast, burnt through, and the flaming mass fell on the deck. Instantly the whole ship was alight. Then, the same thing happened again. It was enough to break their resistance. I could not but admire the way they got the other boats out to sea. Only one tangled with its burning neighbour, and was lost. All the living foe escaped.
I ran back again to my tower. The river battle was approaching our headland. Some of my men had climbed down to the north beach, to stupidly exult the dead, but I quickly recalled them behind the stockade.
Now there were six Viking ships left. The other lay capsized on a river sand-bar. Men were swimming ashore from it, to our side of the river. Our Northumbrian boats clung tight to the other raiders, and I saw the occasional arrow fly. Then, as the two depleted Viking fleets came in sight of each other, round the cliff, the Northumbrian ships fell back, outnumbered. We sat behind our stockade and wondered what the Vikings would do next.
They had lost nearly half their ships, and nearly half their men. Perhaps the survivors of North Bay had over-estimated our numbers. Our shallower bay was now guarded by Northumbrian ships. They thought better of continuing the fight, and sailed away.
No sooner had we drawn breath than a terrified fisherman ran up to say that Vikings were murdering and raping in the North Shiels, a group of fishermen’s huts on the river bank. As he spoke, they went up in flames. These were the Vikings who had swum ashore from the ship on the sand bar.
I took no chances. I took the whole fyrd and marched down, keeping up a shieldwall all the way. When we reached the Shiels, the scene was foul. A dying child told us the pirates had fled down the shore to the river mouth. There, on the beach called the Haven, we cornered them.
I got my men into a ring, four spears deep. Some were for engaging their foe in single combat, but I was determined that no more of my people should die.
Slowly, we hemmed them, and forced them into the water. There, they flung themselves on our spears in a last attack. They were only twenty in number, but they took a long time to kill, and in the end I did lose two more men. I think they became mad at the end – what they themselves call “Baresark”. They dedicated themselves to their father Odin, foamed at the mouth, and charged like bulls. Sometimes they bore down a dozen spears with the weight of their bodies. It seemed more a hunting of strange sea-beats than a fight with men. We made very sure they were finally dead. When all was finished I stood and stared at the bodies, as the waves washed over them, wondering if Vikings are human at all, and whether they will return.
I think not. They lost many of their chiefs in the two battles, including their King Ragnar Lodbrog, who was captured alive, and whom King Ethelred threw bound into a pit of vipers.
My men have flayed the Viking corpses, and nailed their skins to their doors to dry. It is not a practise I approve of, but one cannot change human nature over-night. These Northumbrians are still half-heathen themselves.
Praise be to God!