The Dawning

As the year 1066 dawned, a king lay dying at Westminster. Not a great king; he would not be remembered for brave deeds in battle or the noble dispensation of justice. His primary claim to fame was that he was responsible for the completion of a building, the essence of which still stands today. Edward, later to be known as the Confessor, drifted in and out of consciousness. Surrounded by his council of state, the Great Witan, they waited for his life to progress gradually to its end. On 5 January Edward died childless, and the question of the English succession, which had loomed for so long over the politics of Northern Europe, entered its final and fateful phase. Although Edward was canonised in 1161, as a king he was a failure, obsessed with his place in heaven, he neglected his duties as king, indulging his time and money on the building of the great Abbey church at Westminster. He was a man out of place – a Saxon but not a Saxon.

    Most of his formative years were spent in exile in the lands of his mother, Emma of Normandy. His father, Ethelred the Unready, had lost his throne to the mighty Viking king Canute when England was added to the Norseman’s already considerable domain of Denmark and Norway. Emma, every a woman to see an advantage, married Canute to remain as Queen of England and her Saxon son was sent over the Channel to be brought up in the court of her brother, Richard II, Duke of Normandy. And there Edward remained until the Norse dynasty died out in 1042. When he returned to claim his birthright, this man in his late 30’s was one hundred percent Norman. He brought with him a plethora of Norman clerics, advisors and servants. By the end of Canute’s reign three great lords held power under the king. Godwin, Earl of Wessex, held the south and southwest of England, the heart of the old Saxon kingdom; Leofric, Earl of Mercia, husband of the legendary Lady Godiva, controlled the midlands and the Welsh Marches; finally, in the north, was Siward, Earl of Northumbria. These men had gained their power under Canute and were not willing to see that power curtailed by a bunch of Norman favourites brought in by a king they did not know and to whom they felt little loyalty.

    Godwin, the most powerful lord, already had issues with EdwardisHis. When Canute died in 1035 there was an attempt to restore the Saxon line and Alfred, Edward’s younger brother, had landed on the Sussex coast with a Norman mercenary bodyguard and tried to make his way to London. On reaching Guildford, Alfred and his escort were met by Godwin who fanned loyally to the young Atheling and, it is recorded in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, even promised the young man the throne. Godwin seems to have suggested that they go to Winchester after a night’s rest. The next morning they headed south west and soon reached a ridge called Guildown, now known as the Hog’s Back. At which point Godwin seized Alfred and had most of his escort slaughtered. Alfred was later blinded and murdered on the Earl’s orders.

    The reign was a constant conflict between Godwin and the court party made up of Normans. Although Godwin managed to get his daughter, Edith, married to the king, it is doubtful if the marriage was ever consummated by the monk-like Edward. Matters came to a head in 1051 with the visit to England of Eustace II, Count of Boulogne. Eustace was a political ally of Edward’s but Godwin had family links with rivals of Eustace. While Eustace was returning to the continent his entourage became involved in a brawl in Dover. Edward was furious and demanded that Godwin punish the men of Dover which was within his domain. Godwin refused and Edward took the opportunity of exiling the whole Godwin family. It did not last long – Godwin returned in 1052 at the head of a small army supported by Flemish allies and much of the English population. Edward had no choice but to restore Godwin to his previous position.

    Godwin’s sudden death the following year might have solved Edward’s problems, but no! The old Earl had a whole plethora of sons to haunt Edward. The most capable of these was Harold. He followed his father as Earl of Wessex and through his own merit became even more powerful than the old man. Harold was the iron fist in the velvet glove; he made himself indispensible to Edward. Harold’s older brother Tostig, Earl of Northumbria, had ambitions of his own but not the skill and intelligence to further them. Harold was conscious of the danger across the Channel in Normandy. William of Normandy had already expressed his intention of pressing a spurious claim to the English throne. In addition noises were coming from across the North Sea from the highly experienced warrior, King Harald Hardrada, who saw himself as a successor to Canute. Harold Godwinson could not afford a kingdom in turmoil so when some northern lords revolted against Tostig’s bad rule he supported the rebels and had his brother banished. Although justified, it was to cost Harold dearly later.

    There now took place a most unfortunate incident. Probably in 1064 Harold was at sea when winds drove him ashore on the coast of Ponthieu. Here he was captured by Guy, Count of Ponthieu, who held him for ransom. Ransom was a recognised means of income at the time! William, Duke of Normandy, who was Guy’s overlord, saw the opportunity to meddle in English affairs. He requested, then demanded, Guy give Harold up to him. Guy reluctantly conducted Harold to William’s court, probably at Rouen. Politics apart, William and Harold appear to have got on well. They went hunting together and Harold even took to the field with William against the Bretons. William honoured him by making him a knight. The Norman Duke invited Harold to make a pack with him whereby William became king on Edward’s death and Harold be confirmed as Earl of Wessex and William’s right-hand man. They could seal the agreement with a marriage between Harold and William’s daughter. But this was just speculative talk. It became obvious that William was not about to release Harold until he was assured of the Saxon’s support. William proposed an oath. Oaths could, of course, be broken, particularly when given under duress. However, William had a trick up his sleeve. Under the table or alter upon which Harold swore there was concealed a sacred relic, said by later chroniclers to have been the bones of Saint Edmund. An oath thus reinforced had a triple sanctity, well recognised throughout Christendom. It was a super-oath and the obligation, although taken unbeknown, was none the less binding upon Harold. Harold was allowed to return to England.

    Harold need not have been overly worried. Edward was still well if approaching 60; William could be killed by a stray arrow in a border dispute or be struck down by a sudden illness.

    There was one great fact and custom that William did not understand. The throne of England was not in the gift of Harold or even Edward. Although it was normal for the succession to come down to the eldest son or eldest living relative, it was not the Saxon Law. The King was appointed by the Great Witan and only by them. Edward could not in law name his successor.

    At the meeting of the Great Witan following Edward’s death they hailed Harold Godwinson, King of England; a decision that was to set in motion a year that changed English history forever.

    But more of that next month!!

January 2011





A Year of Destiny (2)



By the end of January Harold Godwinson was established as King of England, appointed by the Great Witan. However, the wolves were circling, the prize, the rich lands of England.

Harold’s first problem was his elder, exiled, brother Tostig. Early in May Tostig, who had taken refuge with the Count of Flanders, made his expected attempt to return to England. He raided the Isle of Wight and occupied the Kent town of Sandwich. Gathering a fleet of 60 ships he sailed up the east coast to the mouth of the Humber, raiding the Lincolnshire coast as he went. Earl Edwin of Mercia called up his levies and cut Tostig’s forces to pieces which, in turn, prompted a mass desertion. Tostig thereupon made his way north with a diminished fleet of twelve ships to take refuge with Malcolm, King of Scotland. The Saxon outlaw was never a viable alterative to Harold as King of England. These events were merely a prelude. The real dangers were assembling their forces over the seas in Norway and Normandy.

    Harald Hardrada, King of Norway, was the epitome of a hairy Viking. His forbears had been kings of parts of a fragmented Norway. The 1020’s were a stormy period in Norway. Olaf II, known as Fairhair, had been king since 1015 but his hold on the throne was growing weak. In 1028 Cnut the Great, King of Denmark and England, made an alliance with discontented elements within Norway. Olaf had taken the Christian faith and threatened death to anyone who would not convert! Cnut and his allies forced Olaf Fairhair into exile but he returned the following year with an army of 3,600 men to reclaim his crown. Among that number was a young Harald Sigurdsson, later to be given the epithet Hardrada (hard ruler). There was a battle at Stiklestad, north of Trondheim, in which Olaf was fatally wounded and the throne of Norway passed permanently to Cnut. Olaf’s men fled and the dead king eventually became a saint – a more unlikely candidate for sainthood one can not imagine!

    Harald gathered a group of survivors and by 1031 they had reached the land of the Kievan Rus, a great tract of land centred on Novgorod, deep in modern Russia. Here he served the Grand Prince Yaroslav and took part in a campaign against the Poles. Around 1034 Harald, together with a band of 500 warriors, moved south to Constantinople, capital of the Byzantine Empire. This was the last remaining remnant of the old Roman Empire. The emperor ruled an area consisting of modern Greece, Bulgaria, western Turkey and a few bits and pieces around the Black Sea coast. Harald and his men were enrolled as an elite bodyguard to the emperor called the Varangian Guard. It appears that he may have been imprisoned at some time on the orders of the Empress Zoe. It is suggested that he was charged with misappropriation of funds (once a Viking, always a Viking!), but he was released on the accession of a new emperor, Constantine IX.

    In 1042 Harald requested to be released to return to his homeland but was refused. He left anyway with a considerable stack of treasure, some suggest, plundered from the royal treasury, and by 1045 he was back in Norway. The king of Denmark and Norway at this time was Magnus I. Magnus and his mother had been in exile with the Kievan Rus during Cnut’s rule. On Cnut’s death, he was declared king of Norway at the age of eleven in 1037. Harald’s return to Norway in 1042 brought about a dangerous situation and the possibility of civil war. Fortunately common sense ruled and a compromise was found. Magnus and Harald were to rule the country jointly. The death of Harthacnut in 1042, one of Cnut’s sons, brought Magnus the throne of Denmark but not without a fight. Cnut’s nephew, Swyn, had other ideas. Magnus left Harald in charge of Norway to defend his claim to Denmark. Swyn was defeated and forced in to exile but Magnus did not live long enough to enjoy his triumph. On 25 October 1047 he died suddenly. The cause is in dispute, accident or disease, a fall from a horse or a fall overboard from a ship. There does not seem to be any suspicion of fowl play. This left Harald Hardrada in charge of Norway and Swyn returned to be king of Denmark to found a new dynasty that lasted almost two hundred years.

    Harald now had the power base he needed to invade England and the time to build a force in ships and men. This intension was delayed by a drawn-out conflict with Denmark but by the summer of 1066, with a truce in Scandinavia, he was open to advances from Tostig, Harold Godwinson’s elder brother. Harald sailed from Norway with a great fleet and army. He called at the Orkneys to collect reinforcements from those islands and Ireland, and headed south, meeting up with Tostig off the north east coast of England. He continued south to the customary Viking gateway to England, the Humber estuary. The largest army since the Roman invasion, a thousand years before, was about to land on English soil and Harald Hardrada sailed closer to his date with destiny.

Next month: William the Bastard.

February 2011



Year of Destiny (3)

 William the Bastard (1)

To appreciate William the Bastard’s place in history we have to go back a hundred years before his birth, to the early 900’s. This was the time of “The Scourge of God.” Viking raiders were pillaging the coasts of Saxon England, Ireland, the northern isles, the Low Countries and the Channel coast of France. They had even found their way in to the Mediterranean Sea and raided western cities in Italy. One of these raiders was Rolf, or Rollo, son of Rögnvald, earl of Möre. Rolf was Norwegian but he had put together a small army of Norseman coming from Norway, Sweden and Denmark and in 911 they entered Gaul (France did not exist yet!) via the Loire valley. The Vikings were eventually defeated in a pitch battle outside the walls of Chartres by the troops of Charles III (“the Simple”), Holy Roman Emperor and King of the Franks. Like the old Roman emperors, Charles saw a chance to protect his northern shore by using the poacher/gamekeeper principle. He gave Rolf and his successors the strip of land that was to become Normandy in return for defending it against others like himself and giving fealty to Charles and converting to Christianity. Inevitably Rolf and his son, William Longsword, expanded their lands to encompass all of present-day Normandy including the city of Rouen.

    It is not clear when the family adopted the title of duke but by the 940’s they were referred to as Dukes of Normandy (land of the Northmen). The arrangement worked fine for the French but Normandy became a haven and a base for Scandinavian raiders on England. The situation changed when Emma, sister of Duke Richard II married King Ethelred II (the Unready) of England. When Ethelred was deposed by Cnut the Great in 1016 the sons of Ethelred and Emma, Edward and Alfred, took shelter in Normandy with their uncle while their mother married Cnut! As shown in part one, this exile had a great effect on the boy, Edward, and was to have serious consequences when he became king of England in 1042.

    Duke Richard II died in 1026 and was succeeded by his eldest son Duke Richard III. The new duke had a younger brother named Robert. He was probably in his late teens when his brother became duke. Like most young aristocrats of his time he sowed his wild oats among the lower classes under his rule. There are a number of romantic legends as to how Robert met his mistress but I dare say it was a matter of lust on his part and social advancement on hers. The girl’s name was Herleve, daughter of a tanner named Fulbert of the town of Falaise. She too was a teenager. There must have been some genuine affection as after the birth of a boy, William, the couple went on to have a daughter, Adelaide, who married three times and is an ancestor of half the noble houses of both France and England. Eventually Herleve was married off to a Norman nobleman, Herluin, Count of Conteville. By him she had further children including Odo, Bishop of Bayeux and Earl of Kent, and Robert, Count of Mortain and, later, one of the largest landowners on England.

    William was born sometime around 1027 or 1028. In 1027 his uncle Duke Richard III died suddenly. There is considerable contemporary talk along the lines of Robert helping his brother on the way to eternity. Robert was the one to gain by becoming the duke. Richard did have a legitimate son, Nicholas, but the child was consigned to a monastery first at Fécamp and then to Saint-Ouen in Rouen. Robert was to rule Normandy for nine turbulent years. He fell out with everyone during this short time, including his uncle, Robert, Archbishop of Rouen. Not for nothing was he given the nickname the Devil or the Black. In 1031 the young Duke seems to have calmed down and was reconciled with the Archbishop who returned from exile to take on an influential role in government.

    Throughout the Middle Ages there was one thing that scared the pants off all rulers, the eventual destiny of their immortal soul! In late 1034, no doubt troubled by his numerous sins, Duke Robert made the sudden and astounding decision to depart on pilgrimage to Jerusalem. In a time when the personal presence of a ruler was vital to order this is an unthinkable course of action. He must have had a lot on his conscience. Archbishop Robert together with other Norman nobles attempted to show the Duke the folly of this but he was determined. The boy, William, Robert’s bastard son, was brought out of obscurity as an heir should anything go wrong and Robert left Normandy for the Holy land with a large retinue and much of the ducal treasury  in an effort to cleanse his soul. Robert reached Jerusalem after months on the hazardous road through Asia Minor and down through Muslim held Palestine He made generous endowments to the various holy places and set off home duly cleansed.

    At this point fate stepped in and changed history. While returning through Asia Minor Robert was struck down by a mortal sickness and on one of the first three days of July 1035, in Bythinian Nicaes, he presented his soul to his maker and died. And so the Norman reign of the seven year old William began.

    Fortunately Archbishop Robert was there to take control. Together with a small group of nobles he retained order and continued good government. Unfortunately in March 1037 he died. Robert was a member of the ducal family and headed the church in Normandy so he had the presence to rule on the boy’s behalf. With his departure the situation degenerated with disastrous rapidity. So violent was the confusion which ensued that one could be forgiven for assuming that those involved were moved by a simple delight in disorder. Count Alan III of Brittany, one of William’s guardians, died in 1039 and William’s steward, Osbern, was killed in a scuffle in the very bedchamber of the boy duke. Walter, brother of Herleve, together with Osbern’s sons, William FitzOsbern, who became Earl of Hereford, and Osbern FitzOsbern, who ended up as Bishop of Exeter, took on the role of protectors of the boy. Walter frequently had to fly for safety with the boy, taking refuge in the homes of the poor.

    By 1040 the main influence for order was Mauger, Archbishop of Rouen. Remember Nicholas, the son of Duke Richard III? He was by now the Abbott of Saint-Ouen and became one of William’s closest supporters. Together with William, Count of Arques these men managed to stop matters falling into total chaos. Pretenders for the ducal throne came and went over the next few years and, some how, William survived. Despite the effort of good men by the mid 1040’s William and his party were fight for their very existence.

    At this point and for the first time in all of this confusion, a new element enters the equation. Henry I, King of France, is William’s liege lord and, as such, has a technical obligation to protect his subordinate. In the autumn of 1046, after 10 years of chaos, the opposition to William began to crystallize into a co-ordinated assault on the young duke. It was now that King Henry took a hand in affairs. Early in 1047 he entered Normandy at the head of an army resolved to rescue Duke William from his enemies. The French army advanced towards Caen and met up with William and a small contingent of nobles loyal to the duke. Together they marched to Val-ès-Dunes and encountered the rebel force. This was a defining moment in the history of Europe. The battle was a confused affair. A near contemporary, William of Jumièges says, “The king and the duke, unafraid of the strength and enmity of their enemies, offered them battle and after many engagements between groups of cavalry inflicted a great slaughter on their foes, who at last were seized with panic, and took refuge in flight, throwing themselves into the waters of the Orne.” William appears to have shown considerable prowess in the battle, a sign of things to come.

    For the first time William was relatively secure on his ducal throne. There would be others who sort to overthrow him on his journey to 1066, including his liege lord, but that is for next month!

March 2011



Year of Destiny (4)

 William the Bastard (2)

Eleventh century Europe was a seething anthill of competing rulers, little more than a collection of robber barons. Be they king, duke or count, all were intent in gaining advantage over their rival or neighbour. If a ruler sat back, content with his lot, he would soon find himself at the end of a rope or with an arrow or sword through his neck! In the Middle Ages might was right and the meek never inherited the earth! The Church made a vain attempt to control the violence by declaring a Truce of God. This took the bizarre form of forbidding war on certain days of the week. For example you could fight on a Monday but not on a Tuesday, a sort of violence diet. Like most diets, it didn’t work!

    William was now established as Duke of Normandy but he could not remain so without support. Over the next decade he gathered around him a new aristocracy; young men like himself who owed their wellbeing to William and, in return, gave him their loyalty. We have met some of them already; the FitzOsbern brothers, Walter, brother of his mother, then the  families Beaumont, Montgomery, de Warrenne, Tosny, Le Claire, Ferrières and Montfort. These names would be writ large in England after the Conquest.

    Considering William’s hazardous childhood and youth, it is not surprising that his character possessed a ruthless streak. Survival had made him so. In 1047 the town of Alençon got themselves involved in a dispute between Normandy and Anjou. As a consequence William laid siege to the town. At this point the town fathers must have taken leave of their senses. They hung animal skins over the walls as an insult to William’s illegitimate birth and a reference to his mother’s humble status. Days later the Duke took the town by storm and allowed his troops the freedom to sack and pillage. In addition a number of leading citizens had their hands struck off. No one tried that one again!

    While William’s star rose it was watched with interest and concern by his liege lord, Henry I, King of France. In the midst of yet another dispute with Anjou, Henry decided in 1058 to bring his once ward down a peg or two. Henry appears to have intended a large scale raid, by entering Normandy through the Hiesmois and cross the Bessin as far as the estuary of the Dives and then ravage Auge and Lisieux before returning to French territory. William had no intention of taking on a superior force with his limited resources in open battle. He tracked Henry’s progress with scouts and made no attempt to stop their advance. Confident in their superiority, the French grew careless. Heavy with pillage, they came to the tidal estuary of the Dives River and began to cross at the ford at Varaville. Here William stuck!  When half of the French army had crossed, the incoming tide made it impossible for the rest to follow. William launched a savage attack on that part of the French force, including the baggage train carrying the booty, waiting to cross. The result was a massacre. It is said that Henry stood on a hill and watched half his army put to the slaughter. The king beat a hasty retreat and never again invaded Normandy at the head of a hostile force.

    Some historians dismiss the battle at Varaville as a minor engagement of little significance but I believe this to be wrong. It was not at as vital as Val-és-Dunes but it was an important brick in the wall of William’s international reputation. Here was a young, insignificant prince of a minor province on the periphery of greater France giving one of the most powerful men in Europe a seriously bloody nose. Over the following years William’s influence grew in Western Europe; he was the coming man.

    Even before Varaville Baldwin, Count of Flanders saw the advantage of connecting the house of Flanders with that of Normandy. The marriage of William and the Count’s daughter, Matilda, was first suggested in 1049 but Pope Leo XI, at the council of Rheims in October of that year forbade it on the ground that the two were within the prohibited degrees of relationship. Despite this the marriage took place, probably in 1051 but not later than 1052. It was not until 1059 that the marriage received papal sanction from Pope Nicholas II at the second Lateran Council. By then the couple had three sons!

    William now turned his attention to England. His great aunt Emma had been married to both King Ethelred II and Cnut the Great and, as far as William was concerned, that was good enough to mount a claim to the throne. When in about 1064 Harold Godwinson, his only real Saxon rival, fell into his hands like an apple from a tree, he must have thought all his Christmases had come together. The oath extracted from Harold would be used to full advantage later (see part 1).

    Ever the calculating commander, William realised that the resources of Normandy were insufficient to invade a country as large and as well armed as England. In manpower alone he would only be able to launch little more than a raiding party. The call went out all over Europe for men to join the enterprise. Knights came from France and Brittany, Maine, Picardy and Poitou, Burgundy and Anjou and as far a field as Norman-held southern Italy. Normandy began to resemble an armed camp. These were men, younger sons, out to gain land and estates that were not available to them at home. They came because of William’s reputation and because he was a winner. William also had an ace up his sleeve. Early in 1066 he sent an embassy to Pope Alexander II to obtain his blessing for the invasion. Because of the breaking of Harold’s oath the Papal sanction was given and Alexander sent a papal ring and the Standard of St. Peter. This promoted the invasion from a military operation to a crusade! Every shipwright, carpenter and sail maker in Normandy was working flat out through 1064 and 1065 building ships to carry the army across the treacherous Channel when everything was ready.

    By the summer of 1066 William was ready to launch his bid for the English throne. Unfortunately the weather had not read the script for the wind blow from the north. Medieval ships had great difficulty in sailing against the wind and, with such a large fleet, to set sail in anything but ideal conditions would have been courting disaster. William was not about to risk the whole enterprise on a turn of the weather. He waited, his fleet gathered in the estuary of the Dives. By September the situation was becoming desperate. It would soon be the season of autumn gales and the opportunity would be lost. William could not afford to keep such a large army supplied and in order until next year. The bones of St Edmund were brought from their resting place at St. Valery and carried with religious pomp along the sea-shore.

    The next day, after six weeks, the wind changed. Frantically the thousands of men and horses were loaded on to the vast armada of ships. As darkness fell the fleet slipped their anchors and moved out into the Channel. Special arrangements were made to keep the fleet together, the rendezvous being the mouth of the Somme, and the Duke by night having a lamp of special brilliancy upon his masthead. William’s vessel was faster than the rest and by morning he found himself alone in mid-channel. He hove to, took breakfast and waited. The fleet soon hove into sight and they continued.

    On September 28 the fleet dropped anchor in the safety of Pevensey Bay. The dice was casted. William, Duke of Normandy, was about to fulfil his date with destiny.

April 2011




Year of Destiny (5)

Stamford Bridge 

All summer King Harold patrolled the Channel with his small navy, waiting for William of Normandy’s inevitable invasion. His army, consisting of its core of housecarls, heavily armed professional infantry, and the levies from the southern counties, known as the “common fyrd”, sat prepared to repel the invader. As the year progress, the King was saddle with a problem. If William did not come soon he would have to release the fyrd as harvest time was fast approaching. At the end of August he took the decision to do just that. The housecarls remained on high alert but the fyrd were to return should the need arise. Harold probably decamped to London.

     Sometime around 20th September the crushing news reached London that a vast Viking fleet under King Harald Hardrada and Harold Godwinson’s own brother, Tostig,  had landed in the Humber estuary. Harold recalled his housecarls from the south and headed north, collecting as many of the fyrd as he could along the way. Meanwhile the earls of Mercia and Northumbria, Edwin and Morcar, confronted the Viking horde at Fulford, just south of York. At first the Saxons made good progress but, as more of the Vikings arrived from their ships, the Earls’ men became hard pressed. They were up against highly professional soldiers many of whom had fought in the east of Europe as mercenaries. Eventually the Saxons were forced to surrender on the understanding that York would not be sacked. Hardrada had come to invade not just to pillage.

     By the time news of Fulford had reached Harold, he was already on his way north. Hardrada had come with more than 300 ships. Some chroniclers put his army as high as 15,000 strong but it is more likely to have been around 9,000. Nevertheless this was as large a force, if not larger, than that being amassed by William of Normandy. Hardrada briefly occupied York, re-supplied his army before returning to his base at Riccall, close to his ships on the banks of the river Ouse. Harold Godwinson and his army travelled the 185 miles from London to York in an amazing four days. At York he learnt that arrangements had been made for the Vikings to pick up more supplies and hostages at a meeting place on the banks of the river Derwent at a small bridge known by the name of Stamford. The location was a quiet river valley east of York; the approach from the city was shielded by a low line of hills.

     The Viking army was spread out both sides of the river, the majority on the eastern bank. The weather was unseasonably hot and they had left off their armour. The Saxons took the Norseman completely by surprise. They had no idea there was an army in the vicinity. The Vikings were at an enormous disadvantage. The vanguard of the Saxon army fell on the Vikings on the west bank and annihilated them. By the time the bulk of the Saxons arrived the surviving Vikings were fleeing across the bridge to join their main body of troops. The English advance was then delayed by the need to pass through the choke-point presented by the bridge. According to a number of chronicles, including the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, a giant Norse axeman held the bridge to buy time for his fellows. He may have been armed with a Dane Axe, a lethal weapon with a four foot shaft topped by a large steel axehead. The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle states that he cut down up to 40 Englishmen before an English soldier floated under the bridge in a half-barrel and thrust his spear up through the slats of the woodwork.

     The delay gave the Vikings the chance to form a shieldwall. The Saxons poured over the bridge and formed a line of their own, locked shields and charged the Viking army. Scandinavian and Saxon armies almost always fought on foot, their tactic being a line of men, 5 or 6 deep, with locked shields. If one fell another would take his place keeping the shieldwall unbroken. Victory would come to the side that penetrated his opponent’s wall. The battle raged for hours but the Norse decision to leave off their armour was beginning to take its toll. The Norse army began to fragment allowing the Saxons to force their way in and break up the Viking shieldwall. It was now that Hardrada and Tostig were killed. The Norse army disintegrated and was virtually annihilated.

     In the final stages of the battle the Vikings were reinforces by troops who had been left to guard the ships on the Ouse. These men were led by Eystein Orri, Hardrada’s daughter’s fiancé, and were fully armed for battle. It is said that some of his men collapsed and died of exhaustion on reaching the battlefield. Their count-attack, called “Orri’s storm” in the Norse chronicles, very briefly checked the Saxon advance but was soon overwhelmed and Orri was slain. The slaughter was so great that it is said that the field of battle was still white with bleached bones 50 years after.

     The Norse were driven back to their ships where King Harold accepted a truce from the survivors which included Hardrada’s son, Olaf, and Paul Thorfinnsson, Earl of Orkney. They were allowed to leave on pledging never to attack England again. The Norse losses were so horrific that of the fleet of over 300 ships that had come, only 24 were need to carry the survivors away. They sailed north to winter in Orkney. In the spring Olaf returned to Norway to share the kingdom with his brother Magnus. By then Harold Godwinson was long dead.

     The battle of Stamford Bridge took place on 25 September. Three days later William, Duke of Normandy landed his army at Pevensey Bay.


Next month: Hastings.

May 2011



Year of Destiny (6) 

Senlac Field 


There are a few moments in history that change the world – this is one of them.

King Harold had rushed north to meet the threat from Hardrada’s Viking hordes and won an overwhelming victory at Stamford Bridge. It is not difficult to understand the consternation when news arrived at York that William of Normandy had landed on the south coast. The King’s younger brother, Gyrth, counselled that they should delay to enable them to gather as large an army as possible. Unfortunately Harold was intent on facing William at the earliest moment. Perhaps being new on the throne, he wished to show his people he could defend the country against all invaders.

    Harold marched south with all haste collecting the Fyrd as he went. The core of his army were the housecarls, professional, heavy infantry. These men had travelled north from London, covering 185 miles in four days, fought a full blown battle and were now marching south to engage again. Harold and the army reached London probably on the 9th or 10th of October. On the 12th he left the city and headed towards the south coast and William.

    In the meantime William had made camp just outside Hastings and had occupied his troops by raiding the surrounding countryside for supplies.  William could not afford to fight a drawn-out campaign. Most of his men were little more than mercenaries, fighting for profit, land and booty. It was therefore vital that the Duke engineered a decisive battle. He would not be able to hold his army together if they had to fight a series of punishing engagements.

    Where the Saxons fought on foot behind the mighty shieldwall, the Norman secret weapon was heavy cavalry. These were knights clothed in chainmail and armed with sword, spear and kite shield. Their horses were specially bred, large stallions, who were trained to kick, butt and bite an enemy. William had managed to pack over two thousand of these war horses on to his fleet. It gave him mobility on the battlefield and few infantry formations could stand up to a concentrated charge of yelling, thundering muscle and steel. Most turned and ran.

    Harold and his army arrived at Senlac Hill, some 6 miles north-west of Hastings on the night of 13 October. He deployed his army of housecarls and Fyrdmen along a ridge that straddled the Hastings-London road. The Saxons numbered somewhere between seven and eight thousand. The housecarls took up the centre while the Fyrd made up the two flanks. Through the night they prepared and waited, it was now William’s move.

    They did not have to wait long. William marched his army the short distance from their camp at Hastings and began to assemble early in the morning of the 14th. His army consisted not only of heavy cavalry but also well armed, professional infantry and archers, some of them crossbowmen. The Normans formed up with the archers at the front followed by the infantry and lastly the cavalry. William commanded the centre with the Bretons contingent on the left and the rest made up the right flank.  The intension was to soften the enemy with arrows, engage with infantry at close quarters and, finally to sweep away any remaining opposition with the mounted knights. It didn’t quite happen that way! William’s jester, Taillefer, begged the honour of starting the battle. He rode towards the Saxon host, it is reported, singing the Song of Roland and juggling a sword. He managed to kill one Saxon before being killed himself. The event does not appear on the Bayeux Tapestry!

    The Duke opened the battle with a hail of arrows to which the Saxons had no reply. As the archers were firing up hill, most of the arrows either buried themselves in the shieldwall or sailed harmlessly over the heads of the Saxons. William then sent forward his infantry expecting the shieldwall to break but after almost an hour of heavy, hand to hand combat the Saxon line held. The failure of his foot soldiers to breach the wall forced the Duke to bring in his cavalry sooner than planned. They charged up the hill only to be met with a wall of axes, spears and swords. Most shied away while those who did not were stabbed and brought down. William was becoming desperate. At one point the rumour spread that he had been killed and he had to remove his helmet and ride along his lines to show he was still in command. The battle raged on and casualties mounted. This was not the easy victory William had anticipated. Slowly the battle began to go against the invaders. The first sign was the collapse of William’s left flank. The Bretons could take no more and began to fall back and then to run.

    Harold was fighting on foot in the centre of his army. Unfortunately what he gain in moral he lost in control. All the Saxons had to do was hold their position and keep their shieldwall intact. If they could do that, William would be defeated. As the Bretons ran, the Fyrd on Harold’s right followed with hoots of victory. They raced down the hill and hunted their enemy all the way behind the original Norman lines. Here they found themselves in the marshy bottom of the valley. Cut off from their fellows and without the protection of the shieldwall, William saw his chance. He brought his cavalry across the battlefield and hit the isolated Saxons in the rear who were slaughtered to a man. Realising that he had the advantage of better discipline, William engineered several fake “retreats” with similar results. Despite this tactic the shieldwall remained.

    As the afternoon advanced William could see his great gamble failing. The kingdom of England was trickling through his fingers like the sand on Hastings beach. As the autumn light began to fade he made one last, massive effort to break the shieldwall. He placed his archers in the rear and ordered them to fire in the air so that the arrows would rain down on the heads of the enemy. In a combination of this and an all out charge of infantry and cavalry, William made his last throw of the dice. A single arrow from an unknown archer changed history. Harold Godwinson, King of England, was struck in the eye. As Sir Winston Churchill says in his History of the English Speaking People, he was “unconquerable except in death.” This great loss broke the Saxon moral and the Fyrd began to slip away into the forest. Harold’s brothers, Gyrth and Leofwine, had already been killed in the battle. His loyal housecarls remained to defend his body and fell to a man. By nightfall the field was William’s.

    The Normans attempted a pursuit but this was checked. Behind the Saxon line, on the reverse side of Senlac Hill was a deep ditch. A large number of Norman horsemen fell into the ditch and were slaughtered.

    There is confusion as to what happened to the body of the dead king. By the morning the field was covered with naked bodies, stripped of their armour and valuables. Harold’s body was smuggled from the battlefield to Waltham Abbey, Somerset, which he had founded. Although Henry VIII destroyed the abbey in 1540, a church remains on the site. There are two stones to commemorate the passing of the dead king. One says, “This stone marks the position of the High Altar behind which King Harold is said to have been buried 1066.” The other simply says, “Harold King of England Obiit 1066.”

    On that day of 14th October, over 900 years ago not only did the last English King of England die, so did 400 years of Saxon England. The future would mean many years of pain and humiliation for her people.


Next Month: The Aftermath of Defeat.

June 2011


A Year of Destiny (7)


The Aftermath


After the battle William paused for breath and moved his forces east along the coast. He sacked Romney and secured Dover and Canterbury. He sent messengers to Winchester, the site of the national treasury, and received its submission from Harold’s widow, Queen Eadgyth. William then marched west to Southwick, south of the Thames, but Saxon resistance stopped him from crossing the river to London. He was forced to head up river as far as Wallingford ravaging the land as he went. Once north of the river he advanced on London and had reached Berkhampstead by late November.

    As soon as the news of Harold’s defeat reached London the Great Witan elected Edgar the Atheling, great grandson of King Ethelred the Unready as king. As a boy of fifteen it is difficult to see how they thought he could stand up to a seasoned warrior of William’s quality. And, of course, he didn’t. William and his army stood outside the city, promised not to sack the place and Edgar and his backers surrendered. William was crown King on Christmas Day, less than a year after the death of Edward the Confessor. The affair did not go quite to plan. When Archbishop Aldred asked, “Will you have this Prince to be your King?” the shouts of ascent from the assembled Normans were so loud that it spooked the guards outside Westminster Abbey who thought they were under attack. They panicked and set alight some houses close by. In turn many of those in the Abbey heard the commotion outside and some rushed out with swords at the ready thinking there was a revolt among the citizens. What should have been a sign of triumph degenerated in to farce!

    Make no mistake, England was an occupied country; as occupied as Poland in 1939 and France in 1940, and with just as vicious a master in charge. William quickly imposed his will. All land was held by the king; this was granted to tenants-in-chief in return for military service. They in turn granted land to lesser nobles with the same obligations. Within a year the humblest manor was in the hands of a Norman. The church was completely overhauled. Every bishop, every Abbot, Abbess, Clerical Clerk and court official was Norman. Norman merchants took over the guild offices in the major towns. Every sheriff, reeve, and forester was Norman. Within a couple of years 10,000 Normans ruled 1.5 million Saxons.

    The whole of the legal system was swept away. Under the Saxons, except for the most serious of crimes, a man accused of theft or injury was tried before a jury of his peers and, if found guilty, was fined in accordance with his crime. The money would go to the injured party. If the guilty person could not pay the fine he became the virtual property of the injured party until the fine was paid off. That way you get punishment and restitution. Under Norman law you had Trial by Ordeal. If a man was caught thieving he was made to grasp a red-hot iron bar and had to walk so many paces. The hand was bound up and a stipulated number of days later it was inspected. If there were still blisters, he was guilty and hanged! It was the will of God! The legal system of England went from reasoned argument and proof to luck and superstition. It was not until the time of Henry II that some logic and proper organisation returned to the law.

    The south of the country was quickly pacified; the north would prove less easily brought under the yoke. Edgar had managed to flee to Northumbria and he engineered a revolt by the old Saxon kingdoms of Mercia and Northumbria. William put this down and Edgar escaped to the protection of King Malcolm III of Scotland. The Saxon pretender married off his sister, Margaret, to the Scots King and managed to gather support from the King of Denmark, Swyn II. A combined army moved south through Yorkshire in 1069, taking York, but was stopped by William north of Lincoln. They were then driven back and eventually heavily defeated at the River Aire.

    William decided to solve his northern problem once and for all. In the winter of 1069-70, in what became known as the Harrying of the North, he devastated the north. He burned every village, killed every cow, pig and sheep, burned all the crops, winter stored food and hay. He drove the population from their homes with the inevitable result of wide spread starvation. The region became so depopulated that the Norman lords, who were granted the lands after, had to bring in settlers to work the fields. It took at least 200 years to even begin to recover.

    One of the most remarkable events of William’s reign was the Doomsday survey. It is amazing to think that by 1086 he had organised the country to such an extend that he was able to send out his clerks to record every hide of land, every cow, pig and sheep, every hide of common land, mill, plough, and fish pond. All this was achieved in just over the year. No only that, they also valued each manor both in 1086 and in 1066 before the conquest! In is interest to see the massive fall in value of the northern lands! Here is an example of a local entry:-  Byeflete (Byfleet)  Held by Uluuin (Wulfwin) from Chertsey Abbey. 2½hides; 1 church; 1 mill worth 5s; 1½ fisheries worth 325 eels; 6 acres of meadow; woodland worth 10 hogs. It rendered £4.

Here is another:-

Wedrige (Weybridge) Held partly by Chertsey Abbey and the Bishop of Bayeux; 6 hides; 1½ ploughs; 32 acres of meadow, wood worth 9 hogs. It rendered £4.

    William divided his time between his new kingdom of England and Normandy. As he grew older so he became more intractable. The growing power of France was pressing on his borders. Stung with fury, in 1087 he led his army across the frontier spreading fire and ruin all the way to the gates of Mantes. He surprised the city and, amid the horrors of the sack, fire broke out. As William rode through the streets his horse stumbled among the burning ashes and he was thrown against the pommel of his saddle. He was carried in agony to the priory of St. Gervase at Rouen and there, high above the town, he lay in pain through the summer heat. He had his sons gathered together and divided his lands between them. His eldest son, Robert, got Normandy; William received England and Henry, the youngest, five thousand pounds of silver and the prediction that he would one day rule over both.

    On the morning of Thursday 9th September 1087 the king awoke to the sound of the bells of Rouen Cathedral, he begged forgiveness for his sins and died, aged 59. Panic ensued among the servants. They laid hands on arms, plate, the linen and royal furniture, even the king’s clothes, leaving the corpse of one of England’s greatest kings naked and abandoned on the floor. It was some hours before he was shown the deference and respect in death that he demanded in life.

How far had the mighty fallen.


Next month:- Children of the Conqueror

A Question Answered!


Several of you have questioned my assertion last month that the Battle of Hastings changed the world. History is made up of facts; it’s the historians’ job to interpret those facts. Like economists, these interpretations can be many and varied! Here is my explanation of the logic behind the statement.

    Saxon England at the beginning of 1066 was what can best be described in modern day terms as a Scandinavian type country. She was part of Europe but not an active participant in it. As we have seen, she had her own culture based partly on Nordic and partly on the Old Saxon customs of their German origins. She held no land on continental Europe and I have been able to find only a few dynastic marriages between the Saxon royal house of Cerdic and European houses. England traded with the continent to a limited degree but there was no vast traffic across the channel. There was a far greater traffic across the North Sea.

     When William the Conqueror defeated Harold Godwinson on Senlac Field all this changed. England ceased to be on its own but became part of a greater entity. The King of England was also Duke of Normandy. By the reign of Henry II, the first Plantagenet king, the King of England was also Duke of Normandy, Count of Anjou, Count of Maine, Duke of Aquitaine and Count of Poitiers. He ruled most of northern France and the Atlantic coast down to the Pyrenees. Indeed he ruled more of France than the French King! Over the next four hundred years English history is dominated by the defence of these lands or attempts to re-gain them once lost. Tens of thousands of lives and vast amounts of treasure were expounded in an almost endless round of wars and conflict. We think modern Greece has problems. Edward III, regarded as one of England’s greatest kings, mortgaged the country up to the eyes to fight his wars with France. When he defaulted on his loans half of Italy went bust! I believe none of this would have happened if Harold had won the battle of Hastings. The country would not have been drawn into the machinations of the constantly changing political picture of Europe. As I have mentioned before, Europe was ruled by a group of “robber barons” bent on greed and power. A Saxon England would have been outside of this.

    England eventually lost her last continental possession, Calais, in January 1558. Queen Mary Tudor is said to have stated that when she died Calais would be inscribed on her heart. Its loss was regarded as a national humiliation and it did serious damage to the already unpopular Mary’s prestige.

    The seeds of competition had been sown over the previous centuries. There was a new kid on the block – Spain. By the end of the reign of Mary’s sister, Elizabeth I, England would be fighting Spain in the Caribbean, France on North America and Portugal in Africa. The nationalistic need to compete was now deep in the English psyche. The direct result of that competition was the British Empire. It was Britain against France and Spain in North and Central America and the Caribbean, France and Portugal in Africa, and later, France and the Dutch in the East Indies and India. In the 1770’s Britain lost one empire and in the 1780’s gained another. By the diamond jubilee of Queen Victoria she ruled an empire on which the sun never set and consisted of a quarter of the world’s population. The empire provided ready markets for British goods once the Industrial Revolution was triggered in the second half of the eighteenth century. Because of this built-in market, Britain’s industrialisation expanded at a far greater speed and extent than any other country. She became the “Workshop of the World.” History is a continuing story built on previous events and none of this would have come about without William’s victory at Hastings. With it we joined the rat race that was political Europe.

    As an emotional, amateur historian, my Saxon heart cries out with grief at the death of brave, impetuous Harold Godwinson and the loss of the unique and splendid Saxon culture of England, but my Norman blood rises with pride at the shout of Crecy, Agincourt, Blenheim, Assaye, Trafalgar and Waterloo. And so I reiterate my assertion that as the sun set on that October day in 1066, a small, brief, fleeting moment of history did indeed change the world.

    Whether it be for good or ill, I will let you determine!


July 2011