31 December 2009

Abuse of hostages in Anglo-Saxon England...

There was similar etymology of the OE word for hostage, gisl, to the Irish giall and the Welsh gwystl and the use of Anglo-Latin sources of the same Latin term, obes, as that used in other European Latin sources.

Whilst godparentship, baptismal sponsorship and enforced marriage may have operated in the same vein of relationship, hostages were seen as a brutal yet practical & effective political tool, which, despite the varying uses and reasons for it, illuminated the power which underlay the mechanisms of that authority.

Hostages ranged from the noble 'guest' in court to ensure ‘good behaviour’ of their kin elsewhere, like a bird in a gilted cage, to the war captive seized in or immediately after battle and pawned as part of a peace treaty, however fragile.
Some were well treated by their captors, others were mutilated and/or killed in calculated acts of barbarism. Hostages served as a crude means of backing up an agreement for which the threat of violence was rarely far beneath the surface.

Cnut dumped his recently-deceased father King Sweyn Forkbeard’s hostages ashore at Sandwich in 1014 minus "hands, ears and noses"(ASC). Brutal, but interesting that he didn’t kill them- maybe some code of conduct prevented men in this era from doing so;-

The hostages had been given to Cnut’s father, not he, so technically the English recalling Ethelred from exile was seen as legal, as the only ones proclaiming him king were his own fleet. Whilst mutilation of these hostages was acceptable to the Danes politically, to the English Cnut wasn’t then the legitimate king and therefore any agreements that the hapless hostages previously signified were now null and void.

• To Cnut maybe, this brutal act was a reminder to the English that they had broken their agreement (as he perhaps saw it?) – in the succession, and in this shocking show of power that he still meant business?

• Heming’s Cartulary records a certain Aethelwine, nephew of earl Leofric, as having lost both hands whilst a hostage of Danes. But given the ‘normal’ use of hostages in Anglo-Saxon England, these ‘atrocities’ were comparatively rare.


With the Viking's slayings of armies and hostages usually called barbaric, the killing or mutilating of hostages maybe had a more practical and symbolic nature. It was usually seen as a kind of termination of an agreement.
But even King Ethelred had had English hostages killed and mutilated himself. Aelfgar son of earldorman Aelfric was one hostage that was blinded on the king’s orders in 993. He did the same to other English noblemen in his reign.

874 is the first instance of giving hostages (gislas salde)- Overlordship. Ceolwulf, ruler of Mercia(by the Vikings as a puppet ruler, on condition that he hand Mercia over ‘as they wished to have it’)- was described by rival Wessex sources as a ‘foolish king’s thegn’ (implying submission to the Vikings). Wessex-Mercian relations at this time though were uneasy, as always- Alfred had lent his support to a rival branch of the Mercian royalty.

In 876 hostages were given to Alfred by the Vikings (exchange for money?) under Guthrum- Peacemaking. At wareham, cowed by Alfred, they “gave hostages (gislas sealdon) who were the most important men next to the king in their army’ and swore oaths to him on the holy ring- a thing which they would not do before any nation.”(ASC); “Picked hostages”(Asser).

In 877 Vikings gave hostages to Alfred. (probable exchange)- Peacemaking. “More than were asked for” (Athelweard). This same year though, the Vikings broke their recent treaty and slew their hostages .

In 878 the Vikings again gave hostages to Alfred. Guthrum’s crushing defeat at Ethandun by Alfred ended with the Treaty of Wedmore that year, gift giving and the leading Danes baptised. They swore to move out of Wessex to E.Anglia to settle- and incredibly they stuck to their word, until after Guthrum’s death in the 890’s.

Later examples of hostage giving;-

885 Exchange of hostages between Alfred and the Vikings. Renewed peacemaking (to enforce the 878 treaty?)

886 Another exchange between the W.Saxons and the Vikings. (Legal sureties?)

892 Another exchange between the W.Saxons and the Vikings- Peacemaking.

893 Vikings under Haesten gave hostages (Peacemaking- exchange for money?)

914 Danish chieftains Hroald and Ohtere submitted and gave hostages to the men of Gloucester & Hereford (Edward’s Mercian allies, their acting as agents thus signifying his dominance there)during that king’s brutally effective Reconquest of 'England' (910-20). Overlordship – they would also leave Edward’s realm.

930 Wentsaete (?men of Gwent) to W.Saxons- overlordship.
930 Wentsaete to Dunsaete (via W.Saxon king’s discretion)- legal sureties

991 In the Battle of Maldon Poem, Northumbrians are recorded as giving hostages to Earldorman Byrthnoth (via king Ethelred?). Chief hostage being AEsferth, son of Ecglaf – overlordship.

994 English gave hostages to Norse chieftain Olaf Tryggvasson at Southampton- peacemaking. These were probably given as surety for Olaf’s safety, for that Norse nbole was escorted to Andover(Hants) at this time to be baptised.

1013 Northern shires to Sweyn Forkbeard- submission. The ASC (C) says that this was “Earl Uhtred and all the Northumbrians”; “the people of Lindsey”; “all the people belonging to the district of the Five Boroughs” and “all the Danish settlers [Here] north of Watling Street” The fact that hostages were given, not exchanged, seems to suggest that the northerners, while fiercely independent against the southerners, weren’t allied with the Vikings either.
1013 W.Wessex and later London also submitted to Sweyn (died early 1014).

1014 Cnut, because Ethelred was being recalled from Norman exile to be king (and not him after his recently dead father, thus rendering his political position and ambition for the kingship as hopeless), and chased by Edmund Ironside’s army, dumped the hapless English hostages his father had been given, ashore at Sandwich minus their hands, ears & noses.

1016 Earl Uhtred to Canute – overlordship. Howver, this proved futile and fatal, for the earl was treacherously ambushed and murdered with his retinue of unarmed men- in cold blood when he went to a truce meeting in Northumbria under guarantees of safe conduct by noble bitter rival Thurbrand at his hall (usually feudal disputes, hatred and bloodshed were set aside for these lavish meetings), a man who had also submitted to and maybe even previously plotted with Cnut.
1016 London & Queen Emma to Cnut’s army. After Ethelred died of old age (and the stresses of his reign?) “300 hostages” were given to the Vikings besieging the city (Thietmar of Merseburg).
Cnut also demanded large sums of geld plus the deaths of Emma’s stepsons (Edmund- who fled to fight on- & Eadwig). Thietmar also records that- similar to Cnut’s mutilation of his father’s English hostages three years before- the danes did the same again now.

1046 S.Welsh to Swein Godwineson – overlordship.

1051 Hostages between Godwine & King Edward (never implemented) –Edward refused to give any to the earl, though Godwine’s youngest son (Wulfnoth- named by Orderic), and Swein’s son(Hakon- named by Eadmer- was released to Harold in 1064) were perhaps given over at this point. On Godwine’s return from exile in 1052 they may have been snatched by the fleeing Norman clergyman, Robert of Jumieges, as he escaped to Normandy? Or were they given to Duke William during Godwine’s exile in 1051/2(to ? via Edward?)?

1061 In earl Tostig’s embassy party to Rome was a young Northumbrian noble- Gospatric(who saved Tostig’s life when attacked by robbers). He may have been a hostage demanded and given by his kinsmen before the earl’s departure, to ensure no revolt sprang up in his absence? But the atmosphere seems amiable.

1063 (Spring) Welsh (people of Gwynnedd?) to Earl Harold
“ (Autumn) Welsh (people of Gwynnedd?) to King Edward

1066 (Sept) The city of York offered (picked? “All the leading men”) hostages to Hardrada & Tostig, never delivered due to King Harold’s shock attack.
“ (Sept) Prince Olaf of Norway gave hostages to King Harold after his crushing victory over the Norse at Stamford Bridge under Olaf's father, Harald Hardrada.
“ (October) Men of Canterbury to an advancing William
“ (October) After a violent stand-off, the men of London finally submitted to William, giving “as many [hostages]as he required” (Poitiers)

1067 Eustace revolted against William’s rule and attacked Dover castle, Odo’s realm, where his ‘nepos’ (son? nephew?)is alledged to have been held by William since before he left England in early 1067, to ensure good behaviour?

(Acknowledgement to Ryan Lavelle)

13 December 2009

Celtic women- according to the Romans


In 377 B.C. there was "Macha of the Red hair" who was known as the queen of the whole of Ireland.

The first Celtic ruler recognised by classical writers was Onomaris (“ Rowan tree”), who was warrior queen of the Scordisci in today’s Serbia.
Onomaris, one of the honoured Galatians, and her tribesmen were oppressed by famine and sought to flee from their land. They offered themselves as subjects to whoever wanted to lead them, and when none of the men wanted to, she placed all their property in common and lead the settlers, of whom there were many.
She crossed the Danube in their wanderings through south-eastern Europe and ultimately led them into battle against the Illyrians of the Balkans, eventually founding a capital at today’s Belgrade. she ruled over the land as queen.

A later ruler from the same area, although less documented than Boudicca, was Teuta (231 to 228bc), who fought the Greeks (and antagonised Rome at the same time) in Illyria around 200bc. She was subdued by Rome but allowed limited rule.
The name ‘Teuta’ is linked with the Gaelic Teutates, meaning ‘people’, and the Irish-Gaelic  tuath (‘the tribe’)- literally the people’s queen.
Similarly Boudicca means ‘victorious’ in Gaelic, in Welsh the word is buddugol and in Irish Buach.
It could be that Boudicca and Teuta are not their real names, but nicknames, rather as the semi-legendary Arthur means ‘the bear’, maybe referring to his battle standard?

A major female Celtic figure is Chiomara, wife of Ortagion of the Tolistoboii of Galatia (Turkey). When the Romans invaded Galatia under Gnaeus Manlius Volso in 189 BC,
During this war Vulso was victorious in a campaign against the Galatian Gauls. One of his troops was put in charge of a group of captives, including Chiomara, described as "a woman of exceptional beauty". He made sexual advances towards her, and when these were rejected, raped her.
He then offered, to assuage his shame, to ransom her back to her people, sending one of her slaves, also a captive, with the message. Her countrymen came to the appointed place with the ransom, The exchange took place on a riverbank in neutral territory. 
When the centurion was busy picking up his gold, Chiomara assented, with a nod, according to Plutarch, or by speaking to them in their own language, according to Livy - that her kinsmen were to cut off his head. She then took his head in Celtic fashion to her husband, in the folds of her dress.

The exchange of greeting related by Plutarch is fascinating:
'Woman, a fine thing [is] good faith.'
'[A] better thing, only one man is alive who has had intercourse with me.'
The Greek historian Polybius is said to have met her at Sardis, and been impressed with her "good sense and intelligence"

"A whole troop of foreigners would not withstand a single Celt if he called his wife to his assistance. The wife is even more formidable. She is usually very strong. She begins to strike blows mingled with kicks as if they were missiles from a catapult...The voices of these women are formidable and threatening, even when they're being friendly."
A Roman observer


In some early Celtic tribes the descendence of the mother seems to have been predominate and the women seem to have been free, proud and sexually rather promiscuous.  Caesar reports, that in Brittany some women shared several husbands among each other. When rebuked by the Empress Julia Augusta because of her loose morals, the wife of the Caledonic Prince Argentocoxus answered:

"We fulfill the necessity of nature much better than Roman women do, for we have intercourse openly with the best, whereas you are abused secretly by the least!"

Those brave, strong and tall women were to be found even at battlegrounds. Whether they wore weapons and took an active part in the fighting or else only encouraged their men by yelling and shouting and cared for the wounded couldn't be proofed, but the former seems likely.
Ammianus Marcellinus has to say:

 “…a whole band of foreigners will be unable to cope with one [Gaul] in a fight, if he calls in his wife, stronger than he by far and with flashing eyes; least of all when she swells her neck and gnashes her teeth, and poising her huge white arms, begins to rain blows mingled with kicks, like shots discharged by the twisted cords of a catapult”.

The following account comes from a Roman historian named Marcus Borealis. It was written during an invasion of Rome by Celts:

"The women of the Celtic tribes are bigger and stronger than our Roman women. This is most likely due to their natures as well as their peculiar fondness for all things martial and robust.

The flaxen haired maidens of the north are trained in sports and war while our gentle ladies are content to do their womanly duties and thus are less powerful than most young girls from Gaul and the hinterlands."

An unidentified Roman soldier of the same historical period wrote the following:

"A Celtic woman is often the equal of any Roman man in hand-to-hand combat. She is as beautiful as she is strong. Her body is comely but fierce. The physiques of our Roman women pale in comparison."

In "The Annals of The Empire" Volume 17 Book 1, British historian  Alfred Edwards writes about the interesting attitudes of Celtic women towards Roman women:

"The ancient Celtic women realized that they were physically superior to the ancient Roman women. Anthropological evidence has shown that the average female Celt was a foot taller and from fifty to a hundred pounds heavier than the average female Roman.



Her bones and muscles were much bigger and stronger in much the same way that the average modern man's musculoskeletal system compares to the average modern woman's. The differences were dramatic to say the least.

These differences shaped the attitudes of the Celtic women. They saw Roman women as weaker vessels who should serve them in much the same fashion that they served Roman men. They derisively called Roman women "half women" and Cui Rainogh which roughly translates to those weaker than old women and young girls.

There are even some stories about Celtic women raiding Roman households and spiriting away female citizens and slaves, who became their maids or concubines. These events were rare, but they did occur."

In 377


5 December 2009

William I and the witch

During Hereward's large and hugely effective rebellion at Ely 1069-71, because of which William took personal command by the vast but murky marshes as his men suffered heavy losses in Hereward's cunning ambushes, the Norman king got more desperate...and hired a witch!

Odd action for a supposedly 'Christian' king who had invaded a 'corrupt' nation in order to bring the English church 'back into the fold' (but one which a visiting Papal legate in 1061-2 found nothing 'corrupt' about?)?

One of William's commanders, Ivo Taillebois, suggested using the services of 'an old woman' (witch) who could cast spells and curse the valiant defenders, so hopefully crushing their courage and will to resist. Some others who had survived the violent skirmishes dismissed Ivo, but William accepted the idea and had her brought to him.

With the Norman wooden assault 'towers' ready (from which to fire crossbows from, or espy their numerous but hidden enemy), the witch mounted the foremost one and began 'cursing' Hereward's men and tried to provoke them.

She also reputedly bared her buttocks at them - reminiscent of the defender at Exter in 1067 who bared his genitalia at the Normans under the bastard himself, and farted at them (he may have soon regretted that- there were brutal reprisals when the town fell- just as those jeering but hapless townsfolk at Alencon did two decades earlier).

However, Hereward and a retinue of men were reputed to have disguised themselves and mingled with the English fishermen who had built the causeway and when ready, they threw off their disguises and fired flaming arrows at the unused heaps of wood on which the towers stood, throwing the Normans into disarray- and the towers into pillars of fire.

Many Norman troops, maybe in the mindset of witches and spells, fled in terror at the sight of raging fire spreading, and the crackling sound it made- chased fiercely by Hereward's men who slew them with swords/ bows and various missiles(with the English knowing the trackways well, William could do little to rally his men).

The witch, choking and terrified, fell headlong from the flaming tower and broke her neck. As the flames whipped by the wind into ferocious mini-storms, the towers collapsed into the tinder swamps and spread quickly in a wide area. Fire now engulfed a large area of the Fens. Maybe this is when William Malet died?

Of course, as the siege took it's toll, some of the fearful Ely monks led the Normans into the treacherous marshes...and betrayed Hereward's men.

4 December 2009

Bishop Odo - ambitions to be Pope?

In 1082 Bishop Odo -the arrogant and extravagant force behind the success of 1066- apparently had serious designs to "become Pope" (even rumoured to have sounded out clerics as to whether there was remote precedent for a bishop becoming king!), causing his final quarrel with his half-brother, king William I, who owed Odo alot and had relied heavily upon him.

Odo knew very well of Pope Gregory VII's troubles in Rome, (ie. being deserted by Cardinals as German Emperor Henry IV threatened Rome militarily), & so he maybe hoped to present himself as an option between Gregory, and Henry's choice- the anti-Pope Clement III- and expecting martial aid from Norman-Sicilians, then beginning to dominate the region?

Since 1070 when he had lost the Archbishopric of Canterbury to Lanfranc (his great rival, as they hated each other personally and politically), Odo must have realised that his ecclesiastical prospects in England were crippled whilst Lanfranc was whispering into his brother’s ear?

At first, from 1080, William – riled by the pope’s ill-advised attempts to get him to acknowledge the Papacy as overlord over England that year- may even have vaguely backed Odo early on in his design to influence the Papacy. But by now Odo had gone too far…

In his pomposity, it seems that he had tried to 'buy' the papacy itself, by offering bribes of coins/letters to the Roman pilgrims and influential noble families in order to smooth his passage to his prospective See there.

He was also planning to guard a newly-bought and lavish palace in Rome with large numbers of Norman knights- who were much-needed for England’s defence at that time, as ordered by his half-brother William.

William- then in Normandy as Odo sailed to England and then prepared to head for Rome from the Isle of Wight- was infuriated by this rebuff of his authority (not to take knights outside of England) and saw this all as the ultimate betrayal (Odo was meant to be William’s regent in his absence!) and dashed back in person to the Isle of Wight.

William questioned Odo’s underlings as to his half-brother’s whereabouts, and found Odo (his men had already made off with much of the stashed treasure- hidden in woods and other places) and had him arrested- put the fallen bishop and secular warrior on trial.

Odo was accused of ‘corruption’ for abusing his rule as Earl of Kent in England as regent whilst William was away (Odo had been brutal, ruthless and arrogant as regent- defending Normans that raped and pillaged, and didn't uphold the 'rights' of the oppressed and dispossessed English).

In 1083 Odo was tried by William as a layman & Earl of Kent and NOT as a churchman (advised by Lanfranc and cunningly avoiding Odo's claims that as a churchman he couldn't be touched), he was imprisoned until released on William's death in 1087- released only against the dying king's wishes.

Odo was not totally disinherited however- in the Domesday book, he was 2nd richest man in England, but years later (1088) after he rebelled against William II in favour of the new king's brother, Robert Curthose, he was deprived of his land in 28 counties and lost his English titles, then finally WAS dispossessed & banished from England by Rufus.

But, partially in Odo's defence- didn't the Papacy demand that bishops and heads of state make such a military pilgrimage to Rome?

1 December 2009

The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle: Silent for all of 1064?

During a period of thriving political and military activity in England and on the continent, the ASC strangely entered virtually nothing in it's annals for the year 1064, for some reason.


The only event- seemingly unrelated to the other major events of the era- including Harold's "oath" this year, is the murder of Northumbrian noble Gospatric at King Edward's court (at Tostig/Edith's request?) with the laconic line;


"...Shortly after Christmas in 1064 Gospatric was killed at the king's [Edward's] court."

Why is this the only entry for the year that annalists found nothing to record during this beehive of activity?
Major events dominated political, military and ecclesiastical life in relation to England, so it seems strange to me that during this very well documented era, there is 100% silence for a whole year?

Were the English annalists deliberately omitting something? Have the many records been "edited" by someone over the centuries? There had been major events occurring before and especially after this year.

Momentous events surrounding 1064 were:-

1061- Tostig led an embassy to Rome(which was attacked by robbers) in which Ealdred received his pallium from Pope Nicholas II, and so was appointed Archbishop of York.

King Malcolm of Scotland led a huge sweeping raid through Cumbria in Tostig's absence from Northumbria.

1062- Papal legates escorted Tostig's party back to England, and found nothing 'corrupt' about the English church- even about Stigand- whom they sat in synod without demur.

Duke William invades Maine and in the following year he becomes THE dominant power in northern France.

Earl Aelfgar of Mercia dies, being succeeded by his young son- earl Edwin

King edward commanded earl Harold to invade Wales and attack Welsh King Gruffydd ap Llewelyn, who had menaced the marches for years in "treacherous" alliance with earl Aelfgar. The Welsh king avoids pitched battle, plus the terrible weather, force Harold to return home.

1063- King swein of Denmark and King Harald 'Hardraada' of Norway agreed a truce in their 20yrs of warring, leaving each free to look outwards to England and the continent.

Earls Harold and Tostig launch a huge, decisive, two-prong attack on Wales and after a brutal campaign, Gruffydd's own men are forced to kill their own leader if Wales isn't to be destroyed totally. Harold takes Gruffydd's head back to Edward as proof of a subdued Wales.

1064- Silent ASC concerning Harold's voyage to France/Normandy and his coerced 'oath' which even the Normans themselves record as being procured by "deceit".

1065- A huge Northumbrian revolt against Tostig's rule as earl(in his absence) ousts him, alledgedly with Harold's collusion who negotiates on behalf of his king, and a distraught King Edward is eventually forced to outlaw his favourite.



To the best of my knowledge, I don't think the oath is referred to in the ASC after 1066, maybe either because it didn't happen, maybe because the annals (in various abbeys, etc) have been edited or perhaps because the writers simply considered it 'old news' in an uncertain, dangerous and rebellious post-1066 England under the watchful Norman yoke?

During the times of Alfred the Great, the ASC left some years vacant, but surely that was at a time when there was LESS, direct, continental involvement?

24 November 2009

Harold Godwinson in Normandy

What was Harold doing on the continent?

This inexplicable visit is not mentioned in any English sources (had they any knowledge of it?) as the ASC was totally and strangely silent for the year entry 1064.
As the Norman sources were written after the events of 1066, their interpretation of what may have happened are therefore suspect, probably twisted out of all proportion with propaganda designed to airbrush Harold from history.

Certainly Harold seemed to be on a personal mission- Edward didn't have the power to order him to stop (though in the Bayeux Tapestry a crestfallen Harold is afterwards seen lowering his head to Edward, as if to say "I told you so"?).
Harold set out to sea from his manor at Bosham and is seen in the Bayeux Tapestry boarding his ship with hunting birds etc, but was shipwrecked on the treachorous coast at Ponthieu in a storm, despite the expertise of the English seamen.

* Was Harold hoping to visit Baldwin of Flanders to help negotiate with William in order to secure the release of his brother(Wulfnoth) who was later moved to England on William's orders & kept in close custody and freed upon his death in 1087 only to be in chains during William II's reign? Maybe Wulfnoth died a free man at Winchester priory? Harold's nephew Hakon (Sweyn Godwinson's son)- was also held by the duke since Jumieges kidnapped them in 1052 and may also have been the purpose of Harold's voyage? But if so, why had Harold waited this long to free them?
* Was Harold intending to visit various European leaders (ie. The Norman 'puppet' Pope or The Holy Roman Emperor- as in the late 1050's)? Was Harold sailing to arrange a political marriage between one of his sisters- Elgiva?(d.1066, was she the mysterious Elgifu in the Bayeux Tapestry?) and a nobleman in Flanders/Ponthieu/France or other European nation, building an alliance against William?

Guy of Ponthieu (who captured Harold and his retainers on the shipwrecked coast) and Harold were previously acquainted- in 1056 on the continent in the presence of Baldwin V... and only the Normans say that Harold was in any danger!!!
Another noted Englishman- a certain Hereward (not ‘the Wake’ but exiled son of a king's thegn) similarly fell into the hands of one of Guy's neighbours (Manasses of Guines). When he established his identity, he was released and treated honourably.

Blown off-course in a storm & wrecked upon the coast notorious for this- Local Count Guy (William's former foe but now his vassal since the vicious battle of Mortemer in the 1050's) claimed all booty- as permitted from wrecks- from such "accidents" and so maybe Harold et al were victims of the false harbour lanterns that deliberately enticed ships to their doom?
Harold & his advisor/huscarl/servant retainers were fettered by Guy's men (the brutal types who would not normally even blink at torturing a hostage to exact higher ransoms) & led off to a gaol at Guy's castle at Beaurain.

But one escaped to find the ambitious & greedy William who, seeing a golden chance for personal gain(Ransom? Succession issue? Sizing up his rival?) he immediately raced to Guy and ordered his vassal to hand them all over- or maybe 'dire events' would ensue.
William had them taken to his Norman capital Rouen as his honoured "guests", where they met William's own family, watched tournaments and ate lavishly etc. It suited William to be shown as Harold's rescuer (obligation to him) and tie the powerful earl to him by even knighting him!
Harold was possibly even flattered by William's praise of his recent Welsh 'conquests' in order to win him over?
Maybe William browbeat him into more than one Brittany campaign with the Duke (wanting to witness his man's battle strengths & weaknesses for a later date?).

William used a rebellion in Brittany's east to advance to Dol, Rennes and to Dinan (to punish Count Conan II for recent raids into Normandy's Western frontier, where Conan submitted). Harold distinguished himself valiantly- once pulling two drowning Norman troops out of marshes.

William and Harold had both got the measure of their 'opposite' numbers (strengths, weaknesses, battle-prowess and character) and maybe only superficially exchanged pleasantries for a time they both by now must have inwardly known would soon drastically change?

Back at the scheming duke's main hall in Rouen(?), William then secretly had some holy relics hidden in a chest beneath a sheet...with an "oath" from Harold in mind...

22 November 2009

1065: Revolt against Earl Tostig of Northumbria





October
A huge and efficiently-organised Northumbrian revolt arose directly against earl Tostig's rule, led by powerful thegns from Yorkshire, Mercia and Northumbria, but earl Tostig himself was in Wiltshire hunting with Harold...coincidence?

Had Harold covertly colluded with this concerted, huge rising of powerful thegns (who as a feuding earldom, had never before allied themselves together) as Tostig later accused Harold of, in 'revenge' for Tostig's suspected collusion in Gruffydd ab Llewelyn's attacks on Harold's own castle at Portskewet years before? 
Did Harold willingly sacrifice his brother for a secure northern alliance?

Tostig’s personal piety- and his Flemish wife Judith’s are beyond doubt. They had bestowed lavish gifts upon the church of St Cuthbert (also York, Beverley, Hexham and Ripon?).
Judith commissioned the Gospels of Countess Judith (now in Pierpont Morgan library in New York), written by English scribes and artists to record her generosity. This contained exquisite illuminations by the gifted artists that flourished in pre-1066 England.

Tostig had spent much of his early ten-year tenure establishing a close relationship with the thegns and churchmen of the northern earldom. He also made the wise decision of using a local man, Copsi, as his deputy. 

The Northern noble’s grievances against Tostig were;-

·        Tostig’s “enormous taxes which he had unjustly levied upon Northumbria”  These were much higher under him than traditionally in Wessex- not normal, as southern king’s wanted to sweeten the less agriculturally fertile and less financially wealthy North (for compliance) with lower taxes. Tostig had thus angered all of tax-paying Northumbria.
·        Due to Tostig’s retainer’s sacrilege, he had alienated himself from the community of St Cuthbert,
·        He had ruled too harshly and also skimmed off some profit from his treacherous dealings (“He oppressed the nobles with the heavy yoke of his rule because of their deeds…and was accused of punishing wrong-doers more from a wish to confiscate their property than for love of justice”) But then, ‘severe’ justice could simply mean efficient rule that stopped nobles guilty of the same crimes from benefiting?
·        The rebels demanded “a return to the laws of Canute”  which were now seen as a yardstick for good and just government.

In his later years, however, it seems he spent too much time attending to the affairs of King Edward, and left the running of Northumberland to his deputy Copsig ( lowly Yorkshire thegn) and secured by his Huscarl bodyguard. He had also, after the Welsh campaign, become drawn into local politics. 

The involvement in local Northumbrian noble blood feuds, which until then he had avoided, came to a head when he had two notable thegns, Gamal Ormson and Ulf Dolfinson, killed in his own chamber whilst they were under a safe conduct.
Tosti was also said to be behind the murder of Gospatric Uhtredson  (youngest son of the slain Uhtred) at the court of King Edward(Xmas 64) alledgedly with sister Queen Edith's connivance, or orders? 

Tosti had in his entourage another Gospatrick (Maldredson), a kinsman of King Edward and King Malcolm of Scots.
This Gospatric, who had acted valiantly during an attack on Tosti's party whilst returning from a visit to Rome in 1061/2, was the head of a rival family to that of his namesake.
Both were descendants of Ealdorman Waltheof of Northumberland (not the later Waltheof- the son of Earl Siward of Northumberland, though he was related). These killings were used as the main reason by the northern thegns when they rebelled. 

Tostig had also arrested a local brigand, Aldan-Hamel and imprisoned him at Durham, but he escaped and fled to the sanctuary of St Cuthbert’s church. Tostig’s retainers chased him and paused. Their leader, Barcwith, shouted out in anger  to break down the doors, and was about to do so when he was struck down by “an arrow from on high” He died in agony 3 days later.
What horrified the Northumbrians was the sacrilege- a grave crime and in English eyes the kind of thing that the Scottish raiders did.

But there was another underlying reason: money.
The northern shires had been subjected to a lower tax regime than those in the south. Tosti made the mistake of trying to redress this anomaly. The result was a revolt that involved 'all the thegns of Yorkshire' so the various versions of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle tell us.
The reason for Tosti increasing the tax yield may well have been his need to refurbish his coffers after the expense of the joint 1063 Welsh Campaign with Harold, against Welsh 'king' Gruffydd ab Llewelyn (the Earl kept 1/3 of the take, the king got the rest).
Tosti may well have felt that he would be able to weather any local opposition as in his 10 year rule he had considerably reduced lawlessness in the earldom, curbed the power of local landholders and through intrigue and craft, neutralised the Scots. He seriously miscalculated. 

The tax, and the fact that his men were using arbitrary justice to enforce collection led that autumn to the thegns of Yorkshire and many others from throughout Northumberland to seize and occupy York and they slayed all 200 of Tostig's huscarls-  including Amund and Ravenswort- (the latter held lands near the estates of the rebels).
Now, their following snowballed into a full rebel army, and the next day they won what appears to have been a pitched battle. Against whom?
Having sacked the treasury and taken back what they deemed their's by right, the northern thegns then declared Tosti outlaw and sent for Morcar, the young brother of Earl Edwin of Mercia, to be the new earl. Their choice of an outsider, with no Northumberland connection and little Norse blood, appears to have been dictated by a need to avoid splitting the rebels by picking from the local powerful families with their long running blood feuds.
It would also have been influenced by the fact that Tosti was a favourite of King Edward and his brothers ruled most of England. Proclaiming Morcar earl would ally them with the next most powerful family in the land. Declared deposed by this odd alliance.

King Edward was so enraged (Tostig apparently being his favourite) that he(and his Norman advisors) was all for war, but Harold himself wasn't- again not wanting a crippling civil war to leave England open to foreign invasion.
Other earls and nobles felt likewise- as in 1051/2, and the campaigning season was hit by worsening weather.

Morcar led the massive rebel army south, killing, enslaving, plundering, terrorising, sacking &  raping through Lincoln and Derby

Joined by Mercian Earl Edwin (Morcar's brother), they were rebuffed for support by the townspeople at Nottingham, so Morcar allowed his men to run amok with vile atrocities (Maybe present were some of Gruffydd's disaffected warlike Welshmen still burning to avenge 1063? or local Northumbrian/Welsh mercenaries?).
They raided the local countryside for cattle & food, killing or enslaving all who would not support them- according to many sources the ravaging continued even after Tostig's deposition was endorsed.

Harold led a Royal army north to speak on the king's behalf- met them several times for discussions, often wild and heated- Tostig accusing Harold of complicity (though he swore an oath denying such charges at Northampton when reporting on negotiations) .
The rebels now moved to Oxford.
But finally, maybe to conceal his own possible complicity in ousting his brother,ceded to rebel demands(Tostig was overthrown and laws of Cnut's taxes revived) at Oxford on Oct 28th

Edward had meanwhile summoned the Witan in London to discuss the crisis, again hoping(as in the crisis of 1051-2) that support for the rebels would dissolve if he dragged his feet. 
It didn't, and Edward was so apoplectic that he had a series of strokes and was taken ill to his bed.

A few days later, a frustrated and embittered former earl, Tostig, his wife Judith and their children and retainers crossed the Channel for the winter under the protection of Judith’s brother Count Baldwin V of Flanders..



20 November 2009

Earl Harold's "oath" of 1064

No witnesses were ever named for this 'oath'- was it a public oath- and in the open air? (as in the Bayeux Tapestry)?

English custom was that they were always sworn on a gospel book, (Normans say Harold swore manibus junctis- feudal fashion) so was it 'under duress' or procured by deceit, which would render it worthless anyway, certainly outside of Normandy?

William of Jumieges never went as far as stating that Harold had sworn what later they said he did.

Normans had a voracious reputation for chicanery and inventing outrageous claims- Dudo of St.Quentin- historian of the early dukes- had the gaul to state that William Longsword and Richard the Fearless reigned over "half the world".

Was William's daughter -Adeliza- 'promised' betrothal to Harold? A way of binding him to the duke, whatever, this fell through (did Harold refuse?) or was one of Harold's sisters proposed to a Norman noble?

The Normans state that Harold coveted the crown himself – even if true, why would Harold willingly and freely swear this oath, thereby ruling HIMSELF out of the succession as the most qualified candidate?

But instead a storm blew his embassy off-course and unluckily into William hands (eventually) and, knowing all too well his gaoler's track record of assassinations, grim gaols that meant a death sentence and penchant for brutality- especially poisonings,(a nephew of King Edward, earl Ralf's younger brother, Walter, Count of Mantes, and his wife, died prisoners this year in William gaols- poisoning rumours. But the two nobles were never seriously considered by Edward as successors)

And William powers were such that he could simply 'take over' a noble's castle when he wanted, and take hostages from them- usually sons, brothers or nephews.

William’s father Robert ‘the Devil’ had been suspected of poisoning his own brother Richard, after all?

Harold went along with the deed whilst as a Norman "guest" for his own 'safety' and that also of the hostages Wulfnoth & Hakon etc, knowing how worthless the "sworn oath" meant in English eyes and how he could easily shrug it off when back home?

Only the King & Witan could decide the succession- not some half-baked Norman oath- esp under duress, thus invalid in English eyes!

Maybe also Harold, having seen his Norman rivals in action in Brittany, decided how strong they were and realised that the 'true heir' Edgar Aetheling(a boy of 14 -whose father had died in 1057[murdered?]he had backed for the throne only recently?) was too weak & inexperienced to resist such formidable and organised foes, so he must seize the throne himself? (Until Edgar reached maturity, or forever?)

All major powers near Normandy had either been coaxed into an alliance or crushed -

  • Count Eustace of Bologne (who had supported William's own rebel uncle, William of Arques) was now an ally to the east, and also near him the buccaneering warrior Count of Amiens & Valois had ended his alliance with French Kings, becoming William's friend.
  • Anjou was still ripped apart by civil war and so unable to pose danger.
  • Count Guy of Ponthieu was now a vassal.

Harold returned to England with Hakon, but without his brother, Wulfnoth. Shortly after that King Edward had a prophetic dream of the tree of England being 'split asunder, not to be rejoined' (retrospective post-1066 Normanism?)

19 November 2009

878: Alfred - burning cakes and battle-victory!

Rout at Chippenham January- Having taken 5mths to reinforce, strengthen and marshall his reduced army after the fleet-part’s disaster off Swanage, Guthrum now acted fast- whilst the English celebrated the Christian ‘twelfth night’.

It being a Christian feast day the Saxons were presumably taken by surprise - indeed it is possible that Wulfhere, Ealdorman of Wiltshire, allowed the attack either through negligence or intent, for on Alfred's return to power later in 878 Wulfhere was stripped of his role as Ealdorman.

Wulfhere was guilty of deserting an army under the personal command of the king. But more importantly, he had contravened his oath to king and country(the opening chapter of “Alfred’s Code”)- in extreme cases this could result in forfeiture of lands and titles.

According to the Code, an oath-breaker who refused to submit to punishment could be physically forced to lose his arms and lands.

Curiously, acc to a charter, Wulfhere and his wife were forfeited of their lands due to his desertion, though her role in this is unclear and she is not even named in the Charter, as laws limited a married woman’s liability.

She must have played some role to even be jointly ousted from their estate, as laws were clearly defined about joint involvement. Has Wulfhere acted alone without her, he alone would have been exiled.

Guthrum, attempting to capture Alfred alive- and knowing that he would be leaving one well-stocked burh to seize another- to put him through the horrific ordeal of the ‘blood eagle’, Guthrum rode over the snowy Wiltshire landscape and seized Chippenham- maybe many English were drunk (off-duty) and the guards etc too few and unready to hold the attack (without the disbanded fyrd)?

Many nobles submitted, but Alfred and many men escaped. For the next 4mths Guthrum held this fortified burh.

Desperate Alfred Pursued by Guthrum’s men on horseback from a chaotic Chippenham, and rebuffed by many of even his own unsympathetic and fearful kinsmen in towns when asking for/ demanding shelter/food (whom he surely punished later or raided and attacked from Athelney?), and who may have informed the enemy of his whereabouts(?) Alfred fled for the safety of Athelney- a series of marshy and lethal waterways and islets. He finally reached there three weeks later.

Athelney marshes The levels comprised of both woodland and fenland in which stags, wild goats and other beats grazed (wild boars?), and it was criss-crossed with timer trackways, some submerged, leading to settlements in the extensive and impassable low-lying marshes, therefore perfect for guerrilla warfare, and v.difficult to penetrate.

Rising out of the fenland, and often flooded by the inflowing sea-waters from the Bristol Channel, were scattered islets of high ground.

One of these had been inhabited by a an order of holy men in the 4thC, seeking solitude for the practices of their devotions. The church which grew up around them was rebuilt in the 8thC and was the early religious life fabric of Glastonbury Abbey, which quickly became known as a centre for learning and Celtic Christiantity.

There existed the constant danger that Guthrum might weave his fleet up the river Parret and locate Alfred’s stronghold there, who already led aggressive raids upon the Danes and also to gather supplies (whether his own people agreed to or not?).

As a youth, Alfred would have hunted, fished and hawked there, knowing the marshes well. The king, some nobles, retainers, family (Edward?) and the men of Somerset with their earl, Aethelnoth – maybe 200 men in all- built a fortified base in the murky, dangerous and swampy islets of the isle of Athelney. Even today floods can make this region inaccessible. To survive, the desperate Alfred had to steal, borrow and raid in order to eat, moving quietly through swamps and secret trackways.

All the while keeping in touch with his underground resistance network with the men of Wiltshire and Hampshire (and others from Somerset?), Alfred also sent out/led guerrilla raids against probing/lost Vikings.

If Alfred had given up and sailed off into exile, the English language would have died out, and we would be speaking Danish/Norse. But he his out with his retainers and heavily-armed thegns etc.

Ubba having survived the battle off Ireland (West?) which killed his brother Halfdan, he had regrouped at Anglesey and sailed to Guthrum for orders from his waiting base in S.Wales, and his orders were to seek out Alfred from behind from his base there with ’23 ships’ of 1200 men- part of a pincer attack.

Battle at Countisbury Hill The Devonshire fyrd, under earldorman Odda, was aware that the Danes were probing the north Devon coastline to try to sneak into Alfred’s hideaway, and he knew he was the last hope of stopping them- he entrenched his Devon men in a disused ancient fort here.

But because they had hurried there (to avoid Ubba’s approaching men), it’s defences were poor and the walls and meagre provisions could not withstand a major siege/attack.

Likewise, Ubba knew he had to defeat the entrenched Devonshire army blocking his path if he were to commence with Halfdan’s plan to pincer-attack Alfred and, caring not to lose precious casualties in a frontal assault, besieged it.

Instead of delaying until they were suffering from extreme thirst and hunger and couldn’t fight, Odda’s men sallied out against the Danes- crashing into them with all the ferocity and of defending homesteaders, eventually massacring the Vikings so badly that they were routed back to their ships.

Out of the 1200 Danes, over 800 were slain, including Ubba himself- Guthrum’s plan had suffered a major reverse, but the English also captured the Raven banner called Hrefn or the Raven.

While the Anglo-Saxon chronicle only briefly mentions the battle, it does draw attention to the capture of the banner, which is interesting considering that it does not single out any other trophy captured by the English in the many other victories they had against the Danes.

What made this banner so special? Sources tell us that out of the three commanding brothers of the Vikings – Halfdan, Ivar, and Ubba – Ubba was the most superstitious and prone to consultation of pagan seers to dictate his course of action in battle.

As Ubba’s battle flag, the Raven banner therefore held specific ritual meaning amongst the Danes, and is even described as being as ritually important to the Danes as the ‘holy ring’ that the Danes used to declare their peace with Alfred after the battle of Edington some months later.

Alfred’s loyal earls After hearing about Odda’s great victory, the king summoned all those earldormen and thegns to him (ie; Athelnoth of Somerset) and the earl of Hampshire, those who had not already either fled overseas or submitted to the Danes. Earldorman Odda meanwhile guarded the Devon coast.

No mention of Dorset nobles/fyrd is recorded as being at Athelney or Ethandun- had their chiefs submitted to Guthrum? Tellingly, this was the stemland of Alfred’s nephew Aethelwold, who would side with the Danes after Alfrd’s death. Earldormen Wulfhere of Wiltshire was ousted from office and fled to Mercia.

In Athelney Alfred secured the loyalty of these nobles and senior commanders with oaths, for the upcoming battle against Guthrum which he was planning. He had also stepped up his guerrilla attacks on the Danes and any disloyal locals. Thus armed with good reconnaissance and preparation, Alfred acted.

By this time Guthrum had moved his army north of Salisbury plain- and when Alfred heard this he decided now was the time to ride his small but warband of leaders, heavily-armed thegns and retainers out of Athelney marshes after six long weeks and -using a probably complex but sadly unrecorded underground network- to unite with the gathered fyrds of Somerset, Wiltshire and part of Hampshire and “they were overjoyed to see him” (Chronicler Athelweard recorded)

Guthrum’s scouts must have reported Saxon burhs emptying of men and, himself warily watching his own back for an un-tamed Alfred, but not yet knowing for sure that the king had ridden out of his secret base, let alone organised a huge army to fight, prepared his (5000?) men on high ground near an old hillfort called Bratton- with a commanding view.

Battle of Ethandun (Edington) May Appearing in view were Alfred’s army (4000 men?). They had no option but to climb the steep hill to the level ridgeway, dispersing the Viking skirmishers (berserkers??) and press forward in a tight, spear-pricked shieldwall against Guthrum’s similar but statis formation- all the while both forces yelled war cries and insults. Weapons beating shields.

The air would have also filled with hand throwing weapons (spears, axes, clubs, bow??)

Alfred’s army clashed with Guthrum’s waiting army and, after a ferocious and grim day-long struggle when the Danes looked like breaking, Alfred ordered his line forward- routing the Danes in a dreadful slaughter- even mounted units pursuing them in a merciless rout as far as Chippenham 15m away.

Outside the now-besieged Danes at Alfred’s former base of Chippenham, the Saxons vengefully slew every Dane they could. Did Guthrum deliberately fight a rearguard action in order to halt casualties? Maybe unlikely given the following…

The Saxons arrived at Chippenham, encircling it and slaughtered any enemy they could find, seizing cattle, weapons and booty. Here the victorious Alfred’s army camped and surrounded the hungry, fearful Danes for two weeks. Guthrum maybe hoped that the Saxons would grow impatient and disperse as at Nottingham, but Alfred held his army firm and ready- despite their poor reputation against Danish strongholds. But it is said that they even reverted to eating their own horses to stay alive.

Guthrum was forced to negotiate with Alfred, who maybe was relieved that, despite his crushing victory, he knew this lethal cat-and-mouse could not go on indefinitely. But, remembering Guthrum’s betrayal at Wareham, Alfred maybe kept his troops on alert.

“The Peace of Wedmore”

To save face for both commanders, Alfred and Guthrum start to talk via envoys. Guthrum –wearing a symbolic white robe and forced to ‘tour’ Wessex to show the English Alfred’s victory- swore an oath to leave Wessex forever and agreed to become Christian (and 30 of his senior leaders). The Danelaw was formed.

Three weeks later at Aller (nr. Athelney), there is a baptismal ceremony and 12days of feasting at Wedmore. They were allowed to stay in Wessex until Autumn - watched closely by Alfred, the Danes moved to Cirencester for a year, then into into distant E.Anglia where they settled and farmed.

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