The Battle of Hereford
Hereford, October 24th 1055
Ralph walked along the rampart of his palisaded defences as the chilled late autumn morning swathed the burgh in a cloak of mist. He was proud of his strong timber and earth castle that he had built inside the burgh of Hereford not long after his uncle King Edward had invested him with the office of earl four years ago. If he looked out over the parapet on a clear day, to the north of the burgh, he would be sure to see any sign of the enemy coming.
This morning would be like any of the other mornings that had passed since, upon hearing Burghred’s news, he had wasted no time in gathering his huscarles and racing across the ancient tracks to the West Country, sending out summonses to all the mounted men that Edward had commended to him. Looking out over the fog-laden hills, he contemplated another morning of watching and waiting. Down in the courtyard, his men would be on standby. He was proud of his accomplishments in Hereford and fiercely proud of the mounted cavalry he had trained. Some of the Englisc looked upon his ideas with derision, but he would show them just what his mounted army could achieve. He had stubbornly refused Harold’s offer to rally the Wessex fyrd to aid him, convincing everyone, except for Harold, that he had no need of them. This was not, he had said, a matter of national emergency. His mounted soldiers would be match enough for Alfgar and Gruffydd, he had guaranteed them.
“Another morning and still they do not come,” muttered William Malet, joining him in leaning against the wooden barrier. Dressed and ready for battle, the men wore their armour of little metal links skilfully chained together to form the hauberk, the tunic of maille that protected the length of their torso, arms and upper legs. Under them they wore a padded jerkin which would stop the metal from chafing them, adding to the protection that their maille already afforded them. “I am beginning to think that they never will.”
“Oh, they will come alright; your cousin Burghred was sure of it. It seems your uncle has been collecting his forces all summer.” Ralph looked sideways at Malet. “And when they do, Will, we shall be ready for them. Ha, we will soon have our chance to prove to Godwinson that we are quite capable of sorting out our own defences!”
“In hindsight, do you think it was wise not to accept his offer to call out the Wessex fyrd?” Malet asked retrospectively.
“What? And have nice, golden, shiny Harold take all the glory? No, my friend, this one is for us. Besides, it would be a great waste of manpower. Costly too. Our combination of cavalry, light infantry and bowmen is the right formula needed to win the battle against the Wéalas.”
Malet looked a little sceptical and Ralph looked at him scornfully. “You do not doubt that the victory will be ours, William?”
“No, Ralph, I do not. It is just that—”
“I know that perhaps it is hard for you to go to war against your uncle,” Ralph suggested sympathetically.
Will shook his head and replied firmly, “You know how I feel about that brainless idiot! He has the intellect of a newt, uncle or not.”
“Then why do you have that doubtful expression on your face?”
“I just thought that perhaps it would have been advantageous to have the Wessex fyrd here, just in case. After all, Harold is—”
“Harold is not here!” Ralph responded angrily. “And what’s more, we do not need him!”
“But the men are untried and inexperienced, Lord,” Malet gently argued.
“Are you doubting me, Will?” Ralph thrust a disturbed look in his friend’s direction.
“No, Lord. No…”
“You know how I have been waiting for this chance to ingratiate the Witan, Will? And why should I not? I have royal blood coursing through my veins. I am throneworthy! An atheling!” He thumped the edge of the wooden strakes in earnest. “Why should I work so hard all these years only to have Harold Godwinson come along at the last minute and interfere in my command? This victory will gain me the accolade that I deserve and put an end to the threat that comes swamping over the marcher borders!”
“My Lord, you are indeed throneworthy!” Malet said supportively. He frowned slightly, changing his cynical expression to one of fervent loyalty.
“If only the Witan would recognise me as so,” Ralph said regretfully. “Mon Dieu! They send out to lands afar, searching for long-lost Englisc princes, doing deals with that bastard in Normandy, dropping hints at Swein of Denmark and, all the time, here I am, a prince with the blood of Alfred, right under their snotty noses! So what if I was born on the distaff side of the royal line? I am just as much a contender, if not more. The King, my uncle, loves me, does he not? And yet still I have to prove myself...and prove myself I will!”
“My Lord, we will win this. If they come today, I swear we will win this!” Malet replied with genuine sincerity.
He was standing in front of Ralph as the earl leaned with his back against the parapet, the wind blowing his short dark hair forward. The Earl put a grateful hand on Malet’s shoulder. “Thank you, Will. When I finally sit on the throne of this damned kingdom, I will see that you are rewarded for your loyal service.”
“Good God!” Malet interrupted. “Look, my Lord!”
Ralph saw that Malet was surveying the valley behind him intently. He swung round and faced the view over the hills. He felt his stomach tighten as he realised what his friend had been staring at: the fast moving shadow of a lone horseman, galloping amidst the thick morning haze that drifted toward them across the plain.
“It’s one of your scouts, my Lord. Look, he holds your banner aloft. That means they are coming…At last they are coming...”
“Then we must see that the men are ready. Fitzscrob!” Ralph yelled loudly for his captain. He grabbed his helmet and shoved it onto his head.
“Yes, my Lord?” A small, lithe Norman dressed in maille came running up the wooden rungs of the rampart to join them.
“See that the men are armoured and the horses ready,” Ralph ordered. “Alfgar and Gruffydd are on their way. We will ride out to engage them.” He felt a ripple of excitement in his veins and a fluttering in his stomach. “Maintenant! Now, Fitzscrob! Que vous attendez? What are you waiting for? Allez, allez!”
“Yes, my Lord,” replied the little man dutifully as he turned and ran quickly down from the parapet.
Ralph breathed in deeply as he secured the chinstrap of his helm. He had been waiting for this moment and now it had arrived. At last he could show the world his worth and that Edward and his Englisc subjects need not look to that far-off place, Hungary, for their next king. He pictured himself sitting on the throne in Edward’s Palace of Westminster with his wife Gytha by his side. Yes, now his chance had come…