Friday, 1 October 2010

Pre-battle parlez?

Egil Skallagrimsson, the Icelandic warrior-poet serving king Athelstan, stated in his Saga (sometimes sounding like folk-tale rather than fact), says that prior to engaging the enemy, king Athelstan and his war council;-

“… sent an envoy to king Olifr to deliver a message that king Abalsteinn wishes to `hazel out' a battlefield for him, and challenge him to battle on Vinheibr by Vinuskogar and that he wishes that they should not raid his land, and that whoever has victory in the battle should rule over England.

He stipulated that a week was to elapse before they should meet in battle, but that whoever should arrive first should wait for his opponent for a week. 

And it was the custom then that once a field was `hazelled' for a king, that he could not raid without dishonour before the battle was ended.
King Olafr complied and halted his army, did not raid, and waited for the appointed day. 

Then he moved his army to Vinheiðr. A fort stood to the north of the heath. King Olafr established himself there in the fort, and had the greatest part of his host there, because around it was a wide expanse of country, and to him it seemed better there for supplying provisions which the army needed to have. 

And he sent men of his up onto the heath where a place had been arranged for the battle. They were to select tent sites, and make ready before the rest of their army came up. 

But when those men came to the place where the field was hazelled, there were hazel stakes set up there over the entire area to mark off where the battle was to be.
It was necessary to take care in picking out the place, so that it should be level where a great army was to assemble. 

Where the battle was to be it was in fact the case that there was a level heath, but on one side of it a river flowed down and on the other side of it was a great wood. But where it was the shortest distance between the wood and the river, and that was a very long space, there king Malsteinn's men had pitched their tents, so that they stretched the whole way between the wood and the river. 

They had set up their tents in such a way that there were no men in every third tent, and few in any of them at that.
And when king Olafr's men came up to them, they had a crowd of men in front of all the tents, and Olafr's men could not go into them.
Aðalsteinn's men said that all their tents were full of men, so that their troop had hardly any space there. But their tents were so high that one could not see up over them to find out whether they were many or a few rows deep. 

They thought that there must be a great host of men there. King Olafr's men pitched their tents north of the hazels; and all the way to that point the land sloped downward somewhat. 

Aðalsteinn's men said day after day that their king was on the point of arriving or had arrived at the fort which lay to the south of the heath. Reinforcements joined them both day and night. 

When the time agreed upon had elapsed, king Aðalsteinn's men send messengers to meet with king Olafr with these words, that king Aðalsteinn is ready for battle and has an immense army, but he sends word to king Olafr that he did not wish that they should engage in such a great slaughter as was impending.  

He proposed that Olafr should rather go home to Scotland, and Aðalsteinn will give him as a pledge of friendship a silver shilling for every plough of land in his kingdom and he wishes that they would establish friendship between them.  But when the messengers reach king Olafr, he had begun to make ready his army, and intended to ride out; but when they delivered his message, the king halted his movement for that day.  

He sat in council, the leaders of the army with him.  Men were of entirely different opinions.  Some were very eager that they should accept his offer.  

They said that it would have turned out a most successful expedition if they returned home after receiving such a great payment from Aðalsteinn.  Some held back and said that Aðalsteinn would offer much more the next time if this was not accepted; and the latter counsel was adopted.  

Then the messengers asked king Olafr to grant them time to meet with king Aðalsteinn again, and find out whether he was willing to pay out more in order that there might be peace.  They asked for a truce of one day for riding back, a second day for discussion, and a third for the return journey.  The king granted them that…”

But king Athelstan was playing for time and deceived Olaf, who realised it too late...

Could such a thing have happened?