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?

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