To March for God – a story of the first crusade (possible new series)
Wilfred looked away from the harsh bite of the sun, and rubbed the back of his hand over a sweaty forehead; he took in the view once more of the most famous city in Christendom.
He had expected sparkling palaces, majestic sweeping straight roads, towering pristine white columns and streets paved with gold. Instead he found decay, neglect and grime. And a smell; a smell that made the communal dung pits of London seem tame in comparison. And the heat! The further south he had marched the more the heat had become unbearable, and this was before he reached the holy lands.
Wilfred thought back to the trek, all those miles on foot, all the way from his home in the Fenlands of Norfolk to London, over marshy bogs, muddy roads, not stopping even during torrential downpours and thunderstorms. When he reached London he and the Norman soldiers he was with had joined the swarm of other like minded souls who were all preparing for the long walk to Dover.
He heard from the varied people that he had walked with, that from all across Europe, from cities and lands he had never heard of, that a vast army was mustering in Rome to march to Constantinople and then onto the holy lands.
He had worked his passage across the channel; fore he could not afford to pay for victuals and a sleeping space, unlike the Normans he walked with, who could afford a reasonable place to sleep, and who did not have to work their way across the sea.
He had worked as a galley hand, scrubbing pots, plates and cutlery for the knights that had been on board his vessel. He was lucky, most Saxons found themselves either sleeping on the deck or cramped down below. As the galley boy he was allowed to sleep on the floor of the hot kitchens at night. He only slept there for two nights before he reached France, but on the first night he had been forced to break the nose and put a blade to the throat of the Gascon galley cook who had tried to be a little too friendly to the young man.
When he landed in France, it had been his first experience of being completely surrounded by people who spoke a different tongue, of course he had learned a few words of French from the Normans he travelled with, the very same bunch that now ruled the lands back home; but the words were still strange and wonderfully sounding to him. Nobody made allowances for the fact he did not speak their tongue, he just had to learn fast. He was quite proud of how he could pick up a few new words every day.
It was strange that he could hate the Normans so, after spending so much time in their company; but it had been drummed into him literally from birth that these men had stolen his birthright, however he still found himself entranced by the sweet sound of their tongue. It was so less harsh then the language of the Saxons.
He mused on how things could have been different not just for him, but for the whole of England if William of Normandy, now called the conqueror had failed in his task to subjugate the people of his homeland. His own father had fought at Stamford Bridge and then at Hastings; a famed man of the shield-wall, a huscarl of noble standing, a man who had lost his King, his lands and his standing after the defeat of King Harold.
His father never ceased to tell a young Wilfred when he was growing up, that not only his lands had been stolen from him, but also his culture and rights as a Saxon man, that the Normans should be the young Wilfred’s most implacable and hated enemy. But that he would have to be as crafty and nefarious as the Normans themselves, if he was to get the upper hand on them.
Wilfric trained his son hard; every day he made the young man train after working on the small farm that still remained in the family’s hands; Wilfred picked up heavy rocks, ran for miles, trained with spear, sword and of course the famed Saxon battle-axe, he wrestled unarmed with his father and his friends, he learned to fight an armed man when he was unarmed.
He fought, smaller, bigger, heavier and taller men, he fought more than one man at a time; he learned what to do if you were knocked on your back, how to get up quickly and safely and regain the initiative. Above all he learned how to fight somebody on horseback when on foot; after all one day he would need that particular skill to fight the Normans.
Wilfric taught his son every trick and ruse he knew, and then he had the young man packed off to the local Normans motte and bailey castle to train as an ‘untrained’ young warrior and learn the Norman way of warfare; after all who better to teach you to fight your enemy then your enemy themselves.
At first the Normans had been mistrustful of the young Saxon, but Wilfred had been told by his father to let the Normans gradually see just how good the young warrior’s potential was. So as time wore on they relaxed around him and began to see him as one of a growing number of Saxons who were coming to terms with their new overlords. What’s more they could see how promising Wilfred was, they would overlook his heritage, as his sword arm was so strong and skilful.
Wilfred remembered the words that his father had instilled in him before he left to train with the local Norman garrison, the same men he now travelled with; ‘Son, never forget. These men have stolen your future and the future of every Saxon of this land; you and many young men of your age should be serving good men of proud and noble Saxon lineage. Instead you have to beg and plead for crumbs from their high table; you will never be a huscarl and you will never stand in a shieldwall with your friends and neighbours protecting what you hold dear. They have robbed you of your rightful destiny.’
His time in France had passed quickly, he had met a few other Saxons in his travels; mostly peasants, but the odd soldier too, he felt an immediate bond and kinship with them that had been lacking when he trained with the Normans with only the one exception. Over the next weeks they had walked south, following a path beaten by other men who were seeking glory, redemption or gold in Jerusalem.
Wilfred smiled to himself, just a few weeks ago he had thought that when he had arrived in Rome he would meet a host of crusaders ready to fight the Moslems and retake the lands lost by the eastern Roman Empire nearly 500 years beforehand. Instead it seemed that only the most devout of men had made the trip to the eternal city.
He had known nothing of the history of the lands that they were travelling through and aiming to reach, but in his long trip to Rome he had been schooled by a man at arms who was serving with him; Francis who was the one exception to the Norman rule of looking down their long noses at him, happened to be a greybeard who was old enough to have served with William the Conqueror.
He was roughly the same age as Wilfred’s father and unlike many of his compatriots he had learned the language of the Saxon people of England. For a Norman, the man was actually not that bad; unusually for a fighting man he could also read and write and seemed to know the history of every land they marched through.
As Wilfred stood staring at the view of Rome, wondering what had happened to the glorious city of the Emperors that Francis had told him of, a shadow passed his shoulder and the resonant tones of the Norman could be heard, ‘I tell you my friend, I bet you are wondering what happened to the venerable city of the ancients. Well I was too, but I’ve had a look around and it’s still their under all the grime! I’ve found out where all the other ‘crusaders’ are too’.
‘It seems that most of the peasants have followed a man named Peter the Hermit, some sort of holy man apparently. Whilst most professional soldiers have chosen to march with and proclaim fealty to the four leading men of the moment, Raymond of Toulouse, Godfrey of Bouillon, Hugh of Vermandois and Bohemond of Taranto. There is however a whole host of other leading men who are taking there own forces there in smaller groups, just like our own, although some have attached themselves to one of the four main armies. Apart from Hugh of Vermandois and Robert of Normandy they have all chosen not to come to Rome to seek a blessing.’
Wilfred digested this recent news with interest; so it seemed that most of the leading men had chosen to go their own way without being blessed by his holiness Pope Urban, that surprised him, surely they would have wanted the sanction of holy mother church!? The pope had been the man to call Christendom to arms in the first place at the council of Clermont. It seemed ridiculous to the young Saxon that they had not seen fit to be pay homage to the pope.
Francis looked at the Saxon and laughed, ’I know what you are thinking my young friend; but this is not about religion or God for the rich and powerful; its about money and land, and the chance to make a name for themselves. But for God’s sake don’t repeat my opinion or we will both be dead men.’
Wilfred saw the honest and earnest expression on his friend’s features. He nodded his agreement. They had not even reached the holy lands and already his first youthful delusions had been shattered.