Of Fyrdmen and Shields
When the breakthrough finally happened in September 2097, Dr Gilbert Briggs, the new head of the UK Advanced Science Institute based in Norwich, volunteered to be the first human guinea pig. No one knew if he would survive.
The Institute’s more senior academics instantly disliked him, mainly because of his youth. When they became his subordinates they all secretly hoped he would be disassembled on a molecular level forever. As the boss, he was adamant that no one but him would be the first to travel back in time.
Three years earlier, he had been employed as a very junior postdoctoral researcher at the Institute when the rudiments of time travel shifted from pure theory to a practical attempt at building a working device. There was one thing none of his detractors could deny, no matter how much they may loath him – he was a gifted academic with an analytical mind. He had achieved two superb doctorates at the University of East Anglia, one in theoretical physics, and the other in experimental engineering.
For years the only attempt at time travel in its other guise, teleportation, barely succeeded when a few particles were moved from one teleporter to another. Whether or not they had altered irrevocably was the subject of much debate within the academic world back in the first decade of the twenty-first century. Up until that moment teleportation was only possible within the realms of science fiction. But like all the fantastic, seemingly impossible things dreamt up by imaginative writers, time travel was about to become a reality.
The successful breakthrough was finally achieved when a laboratory rat was sent from one teleportation unit, lost for a few brief seconds, before reappearing at the other seemingly unharmed by the experience. That was five years ago. Now the long awaited next step could be taken thanks to Briggs’ brilliant engineering breakthrough – the Teleportation Gate.
The time had come to send a human test subject to a place and time in the past and return them intact to the present. The Institute’s most senior academic, Professor Malcolm, had grave misgivings over his former juniors’ breakthrough. Since the academic world had shifted its gaze away from him towards young Briggs, Malcolm did his level best through his contacts in the old boy network to have Briggs removed. Like the rest of the senior academics at the Institute, he seethed with academic jealousy. Publically he backed his young boss. Privately, like his colleagues he hoped the young upstart would die.
Briggs was suitably attired for the occasion in clothes of the period he was about to go to. All evidence of anything twenty-first century was removed from him. The only item he would take with him from the present was the minute teleportation chip, another of his innovative designs, which was in effect a miniaturised homing beacon that sat hidden beneath the skin at the nape of his neck, enabling the Institute technicians to lock on and return him.
Briggs was being sent back to eleventh century England. His mission was to observe all that unfolded on the momentous day at Hastings when the decisive battle of the Norman invasion took place. It was heavily emphasised by the Institute’s historical research department that under no circumstances was he to participate in any way other than mere observation. Should he do so, he may inadvertently change history.
Briggs was about to step into the unknown. Gathering up his bag and staff he strode to the Teleportation Gate. The operators checked that his chip’s homing signal was being received and preset the destination date and place. Nodding that he was ready; he stood patiently waiting for the process to begin. The technicians checked over all of the gate’s failsafe systems one last time; then at his command, the teleporter’s power slowly began to build.
His body began to tingle, not in an unpleasant way. Every atom within his body was excited by the process as the gate slowly disassembled him before sending him back in time.
Before he realized it he found himself standing on a small mound at the edge of the Great Weald – the massive forest that still covered the English countryside back then, behind Senlac ridge where the Anglo-Saxon army’s vast shield wall stood. The date was October 14th 1066.
His mind drew comparisons between the empty eleventh century countryside he was now observing and the heavily populated East Sussex of the twenty-first century that he knew. He lifted his hand to shield his eyes while taking in the scene before him.
In the far distance immediately below where the Anglo-Saxon army stood defiant, Briggs could see cavalrymen on their horses and behind them the foot soldiers and archers of the invading army from across the Channel.
By landing his invasion force at Pevensey, Duke William had forced King Harold into a bloody showdown. His Norman army marched the relatively few miles up from the beach after hearing that Harold had just arrived and was assembling his army in readiness for battle.
Briggs stared in utter amazement at the very real and tall figure out of England’s historical past – the Anglo-Saxon king Harold seated on his horse, a little way behind his shield wall.
A body of heavily armed bearded fyrdmen walked out of the forest behind Briggs. “What are you doing here lad? You should be down there with our brothers, not skulking up here on the hill like a coward!” Briggs felt rough hands haul him to his feet. A spear point dug into his back as he was prodded down the hill to the shield wall. Despite the passage of time, Briggs could understand the old English that his accuser spoke, or at least some of the words.
“Here’s another volunteer my lord,” his accuser informed Earl Gyrth, brother of King Harold, and the Housecarl in charge of the shield wall. A sword and shield were thrust into Brigg’s unwilling hands.
Somehow he had to make sure he was at the back of the wall no matter what. Gyrth had other ideas. He roughly shoved Briggs into the shield wall between two of the toughest warriors in King Harold’s fierce army of fyrdmen. For what seemed like an eternity Briggs and his fellow defenders stood there as William’s knights prepared to charge uphill to the waiting defiant Anglo-Saxons.
Then he saw William give the command to his cavalry. As the chainmail armoured cavalry rode forth, Briggs’ compatriots began beating their swords and battle axes on their shields crying “out, out, out,” psyching themselves up into a frenzy of blind hate for the invaders who now rode at full gallop up the slope towards them.
Briggs glanced behind him and saw Harold slowly riding behind the line encouraging his recently blooded army. Only days earlier they had successfully beaten the Viking invasion force of Harald Hardråda and King Harold’s own brother Tostig Godwinson at the battle of Stamford Bridge near York. Now the Norman’s, a mix of Viking and Gaul blood, threatened from the south. Hearing of William’s arrival, Harold force marched his tired army to meet the new threat. Gyrth had urged him to delay his arrival to gather more men, but Harold’s need to defend his realm overruled his brother’s concerns; time was of the essence.
The line of charging horses and their riders unnerved Briggs; he was absolutely terrified. He was completely out of his twenty-first century comfort zone.
His mind screamed, “this is not supposed to be the way the mission happens. I’m only an observer for Christ’s sake!”
He instinctively ducked when a Norman sword swung dangerously close to his exposed naked head as the knight rode along the line of stabbing Anglo-Saxon swords and swinging battle axes, probing the impenetrable defences of the Anglo-Saxon shield wall. His shield was locked firmly in place by the two on either side of him. Blindly he thrust his sword through the gap in the shield wall on his right, hoping and praying that it would remain un-bloodied; the last thing he wanted was to instantly wipe out a twenty-first century individual by killing his ancestor! The Norman knights rode back down the hill relatively unscathed by their probe of the shield wall.
Harold jumped from his horse and came over to where Briggs and his companions stood. His gleaming helmet bore a gold band in the shape of his crown. He was clothed in his chainmail hauberk. At his side, his sword hung from his belt. At his back was his shield. Briggs studied Harold Godwinson at close quarters. He was a fine looking, handsome moustachioed man with long flaxen hair. If he had walked down any street in twenty-first century England, all female heads would have turned to admire him.
The fyrdmen of Harold’s shield wall still continued shouting “out, out, out,” to the rhythm of their swords and battle axes being beaten against the back of their shields, defying the Norman invaders below them, taunting them.
Minutes before Briggs was unceremoniously forced into the shield wall, William’s archers had unsuccessfully launched a black cloud of arrows on the fyrdmen and their shield wall, largely to no effect. Now to pile insult upon insult, one or two within the shield wall temporarily dropped their shields, turned and contemptuously bared their buttocks at the invaders, accompanied by raucous laughter from their fellow Anglo-Saxon defenders.
One young Norman knight bristled at the insult to his lord and master, Duke William. Taking it very personally, he rode forth at full gallop to the vocal encouragement of his fellow knights. Briggs could hear the incensed knight’s horse’s laboured breathing over the thunder of its hooves as it charged up the hill straight at where he and Harold were. The knight had snatched a spear from one of the foot soldiers as he rode through the ranks. He tucked its shaft under his right armpit as he urged his mount on with his left hand which was protected by his long shield.
Briggs stood transfixed as he recognised the charging Norman’s very familiar coat of arms, brightly displayed on his shield. Galloping towards him was his own ancestor, Gilberte de Brige, angry and bent on doing harm. Briggs was on the point of yelling out to him in twenty-first century French that they were related, but quickly thought better of it. Gilberte’s horse was closing the distance rapidly.
Time seemed to slow almost to a standstill as Gilberte grew ever closer; Briggs studied his ancestor closely despite the great personal danger he was in. Compared to the angry warrior charging at him, his own generation were pussy cats. Any ridiculous twenty-first century fleeting thoughts of sitting down for a friendly chat with his ancestor that Briggs may have had, instantly evaporated as Gilberte closed the gap, with bloody vengeance in his eyes.
“For god’s sake when will I be returned to the twenty-first century?” his mind screamed again.He had lost all concept of time since he first arrived here on the battlefield. Was it ten minutes ago or an hour?
Gilberte was close enough now that Briggs could clearly see his facial features beneath his helmet and nose guard. “God almighty, the family resemblance is uncanny. If we stood side by side, we could pass for twins!” Briggs thought.
Gilberte’s protected right hand tightened its grip of the spear’s shaft as he was now only a few feet from Briggs and the shield wall. Despite his chainmail hood and helmet emphasising the sound of his own blood pounding in his ears, Gilberte, like his terrified descendant in the shield wall ahead, could hear his horse’s laboured breathing and pounding hooves. The heat of the day and the effort of charging uphill made the magnificent animal sweat profusely, creating lines of white foamy lather that broke through its dark chestnut coat and beneath its saddle and the colourful saddle cloth that also bore the family coat of arms.
Briggs could now hear the metallic rustling of Gilberte’s chainmail armour and the clanking of his shield against his armoured left thigh. That cruel spear point was directly aimed at him, ready to end his mortal existence.
“Come on, come on! When the hell is the recall going to happen?”
Briggs caught a whiff of Gilberte’s horse’s laboured breath and sweat as it mingled with the heavy body odour of his fellow defenders. He struggled to break free from the shield wall, but he was firmly locked into place by the two powerful warriors at either side of him. King Harold stood immediately at his back, sword drawn, ready to parry the spear should it pierce the wall.
“For the love of god, recall me now, get me the hell out of here!” Briggs’ mind pleaded.
Time seemed to slow even more as the tip of Gilberte’s spear savagely struck the edge of Briggs’ shield, travelling past his shoulder. Harold dodged it and swung his sword at the cruel point as it searched in vain for flesh. At the same moment, Gilberte’s exhausted steed crashed into the shield wall at full gallop, unhorsing its rider and sending the fyrdmen of the shield wall flying. Gilberte was catapulted over the wall and fell in a heap behind Briggs and Harold.
Harold raised his sword over his head ready to strike down Briggs’ ancestor. Microseconds later, Harold, Gilberte and two dazed Anglo-Saxon fyrdmen who had survived the bone shattering impact, stared in utter disbelief as he slowly began to dematerialize in front of their eyes. For the briefest moment, they all forgot about the battle they were engaged in on that fateful day.
“Gods blood man! You had specific orders from the history wallahs only to observe. What possessed you?” Professor Malcolm cried out in anger and frustration, conveniently putting aside the fact that without Briggs’ genius, what had happened minutes earlier would still be nothing more than an unproven theory that he and the rest were incapable of solving.
Briggs sat quietly while everyone ranted and raged at him in the debriefing after he had regaled his account of what had just happened in his life minutes before, and yet more than a millennia in the past, still quite unable to fully comprehend what he had actually witnessed and reluctantly been subjected to.
Because of his unwilling participation in the battle, important lessons had been learned. While technically no one, even Malcolm, doubted it was a resounding success, it would be a long time before the Institute made any more attempts at sending someone back into the darkest reaches of time. Safeguards against personal participation in historical events by possible descendants in the future had to be worked out thoroughly before another attempt was made.
Briggs had only one unanswered question that night as he sat brooding in his flat. “What happened to my ancestor? Did he survive the encounter unscathed?” He assumed that he must have survived. But had he? Perhaps he had already fathered the next generation before the invasion, in which case whether or not Gilberte survived the day was largely immaterial.
He now had a new mission. The first step was to search through his own family’s ancient records and the many historical accounts of the Battle of Hastings, written a few years after that fateful day when England as an Anglo-Saxon nation ended forever and the Normans took control. No matter how much biased authors like William of Poitiers, William of Malmesbury, Florence of Worcester, and Eadmer, embellished their various accounts in favour of William, Briggs would seek the truth.
Had Gilberte charged the shield wall that day on his own, Briggs was determined to find out? After all he may have been a thoroughly nasty individual and a product of that barbarous time, but he had clearly demonstrated his determination and his sense of honour to his frightened descendant, traits which still prevail deep within his psyche over a thousand years later…