3 January 2010

Duke William - Jewish ancestry?

Was William’s mother, Herleve, jewish?

In 1051 Duke William invaded the wild and hilly region of Belleme (strategically placed and contested by French Kings, Normandy AND Anjou) aiming to block Angevin expansion & capture the two key frontier forts of Domfront and Alencon, that bitter rival Geoffrey of Anjou had garrisoned with troops, and that William feared would be used as a springboard to invade Normandy further. But Geoffrey retreated before the Duke's army.

However,according to William of Jumieges, at Alencon, the spirited defenders taunted the besieging Duke by hanging hides over the town's walls and shouting "Hides for the tanner", reputedly a derogatory reference to his tanner mother's lowly birth, and also his bastardy.

Wace's account might give a clue as to the original French of the Joke which the Duke found so offensive. The French for skin, according to Wace, is "la pel".
In the masculin "le pel" the word means stake, pallisade, or wall. Bearing in mind, it is conceivable that the defenders of Alençon were making a pun by shouting "the walls, the walls" to the Duke [the pelterer]. But more probably, the pelts or skins did not refer to animals, but to human corpses.

"Pellis" in Latin, and "la pel" in old French, can both indicate animal as well as human skin. Could the mockery have been insulting because Duke William's grandfather had been a pollinctor in the only known sense of the word, that is, a person who prepares corpses for burial, an undertaker or even an embalmer.
As such, the father of Herleva naturally would have dealt with skins, not however with those of animals, but of human beings.

The people of Alençon could not possibly have referred to this profession by beating human corpses or skins, so they therefore used pelts as a direct euphemism. In French, they shouted 'Pelterer' and Orderic translated this as pelliciarius, thereby preserving the double meaning.
He still knew the nature of the insults and the real occupation of Herleva's father; whereas, half a century later, neither Wace nor Benoit seem to have been aware of the real facts.

When the town was finally captured, William singled out those responsible, blinded them and had their hands & feet cut off, then threw them over the high walls.
As William returned to Domfront, it immediately surrendered, having heard of the brutal atrocities at Alencon, but William couldn't capitalise on these successes with his available forces, and withdrew.

Were these hides simply hung over walls as defence against fire -as was common practice then –or was William’s mother, Herleve, jewish?
Almost exclusively tanners were jews at this time, so was it an anti-semitic taunt?

The generally accepted belief is that these young and militarily inexperienced brother Earls (Edwin of Mercia; Morcar of Northumbria) had only their own independent Northumbrian and Mercian interests at heart, and so betrayed not only King Harold by failing to show up at Santlache on October 14th, but also the nominal young king Edgar afterwards by fleeing London, intially.

But is it as straight-forward as this?

A first cousin of theirs, Abbot Leofric of Peterborough, was actually present at the battle at Santlache (Hastings), so their family's involvement in Harold's cause was taken seriously, despite the traditional antagonism between the Godwinsons and Edwin & Morcar- and their renegade father, Earl Aelfgar, before them.
They also had a vested interest in seeing Harold succeed- their own sister Ealdgyth, the new and official queen, was pregnant with their king's child!

In all fairness, they had resisted Tostig's raids in Lindsey, forcing him to abandon his attacks and seek refuge in Scotland with King Malcolm III, his 'sworn brother'. This could be seen to be more because of their hatred/fear of the ousted Tostig's vengeful wrath than of loyalty to Harold.
Then they blocked the route to York from the Norse invasion army at Fulford Gate under King Harald Hardraada/Tostig, but lost that brutal pitched battle, fled the field and were in no position to fight on with such devastated forces.

Whether they were at Stamford Bridge or even Santlache is a moot point, it is of course very possible that they were, with remnants of their bodyguard, under peer pressure or loyalty. Certainly someone with the authority and notoriety led fresh troops and panicking men at the 'last stand' at the Malfosse.

They did not submit to William immediately after Oct 14th, but rallied around Edgar in London, briefly. It was only after the witan and churchmen chose to submit to the duke that the young Earls joined them at Berkhamstead.

In a few short years, during which they don't appear to have collaborated with William's new regime, they escaped from his gaols and raise revolt against him, with Hereward at Ely in 1070-71.

So, were they really traitors?

King Harald Hardraada & Duke William - alliance in 1066?

Did these two formidable warriors make a pre-agreed pact to co-invade England in the build up to 1066, as some believe? (I don't!)

What possible motive would these notoriously ambitious and avaricious men have had? The embittered and ousted Earl Tostig (Harold's own brother) reputedly visited both men (plus Denmark's King Swein, his cousin) to persuade them to invade.
How could it have even been practical? The same South-Westerly wind that whisked Hardrada to England in late September 1066 was keeping William pinned to the Normandy coast at exactly the same time?

Surely the military crux of a two-pronged plan is to attack, or at least appear to attack, at exactly the same time?? And of course, there is not even one mention of this in any contemporary source?  

King Harald Hardrada of Norway had been locked into bitter internecine warfare with the redoubtable King Swein of Denmark king for 20yrs- and both had designs on invading England (Swein actually prepared a fleet in the late 1040's!)
Why would two deeply avaricious men- each believing themself to be Edward's successor via vague and hollow 'promises' made to both Norway & Denmark in the late 1040's by the Anglo-Norman king- have made vague plans to 'divide and conquer' when we know from original sources that both over-ambitious men wouldn't have shared the glory or wealth?

In short, the two experienced and cunning warriors would never have tolerated, or trusted, each other.