Friday, 24 February 2012

The Battle of Lydford 997 - The build up

The monument to the battle
In the year 997 that most unfortunate of kings, Ethelred the Unready, had been on the throne of England for 19 miserable years. He had come to the throne in murky circumstances following the murder of his popular half-brother Edward. Ethelred had been only a child at the time, a puppet of powerful nobles, but he never really recovered from the way he gained the throne. Combined with a talent for choosing incompetent officials and a knack for annoying people, the distrust engendered by Edward’s death meant that Ethelred was rarely in a position to achieve much.

The Vikings sensed the weakness of Ethelred’s regime and descended on England. Ethelred tried fighting, then he tried bribery and diplomacy. Nothing worked for there was simply too much plunder to be had for little effort. Finally, in 997 the Vikings came to Devon.

We do not know who led the force of raiders who came to Devon late that summer. It may have been Swein Harroldson, a leading Danish prince whom we know to have been an active Viking at about this time. Whoever led them, the Vikings followed a strategy of swift, lightning moves. They landed to raid and plunder as much territory as possible within a few days before dashing back to their ships to get away before the local armed militia, or fyrd, could be summoned. They began in Cornwall in the spring, then moved north to attack the coasts of southern Wales before moving east to Watchet in Somerset, where they stayed for longer than was usual. Some time around August they put out to sea again and disappeared over the horizon.

Moving out of sight of land the Danes headed around Land’s End and then made a strike at the Tamar Valley. The landing achieved surprise and success. The villages were entirely unprepared and the Vikings captured huge amounts of livestock, newly harvested crops and cash. They then moved up the Tamar, pillaging as they went.

Despite the incompetence of its royal government at this time, England was not entirely defenceless. A century earlier Alfred the Great had defeated an earlier and much more powerful Viking threat by efficient use of the existing military systems of England and the introduction of dramatic reforms. These were still in place and, as the Danes moved up the Tamar Valley, the men of Devon put them into effect.

The key to the defence system was the burgh, a fortified town or village. The walls of these strongholds were maintained by the men of the surrounding villages whose taxes paid for materials and whose forced labour kept the fortifications in good repair. As soon as danger threatened the villagers had to move themselves, their families and everything they owned to the nearest burgh. In theory no village should be further than a day’s walk from a burgh, though such was not always the case.

For fighting men the English relied upon the fyrd, a militia of partly trained local men. Each village was expected to provide a certain number of men to the fyrd. The families clubbing together to afford the weaponry and armour demanded by the king, and a young man being chosen to go off to war as occasion demanded. These men were equipped in similar fashion to those who had fought at Bindon and Posbury, though the greater wealth of 10th century England meant that more men could afford mail coats and quality arms than before.

The traditional system had been caught unawares by the sudden attack of the Vikings, but it was now swinging into action. The burgh which protected the upper Tamar Valley was Lydford. In 997 this was a small town, more important for the fact that the king’s courts of justice and local government were based here than for any mercantile wealth or great population. The town was positioned on the north bank of the River Lyd where a small tributary enters the river. The angle between the two water courses formed a steep-sided hill which dropped sheer on two sides, with a mighty earth and timber fortification on the third side.

As the Danes advanced, the locals poured into Lydford driving their livestock before them and bringing in lumbering wagons loaded with the harvest. By the time the Vikings arrived the town was packed with refugees and their wealth, while the walls bristled with armed men.

from Battlefield Walks in Devon by Rupert Matthews

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