Sunday, 17 June 2012


Welcome back! Another exciting post in my travelogue around the historic UK awaits. This time, it's the cathedral city of Hereford, in the border area between England and Wales.

Hereford, because of its location, has often been caught between the English and raids from the Welsh, which is presumably what led to the foundation, in the Saxon era, of Hereford Castle, one of the first castles to be built in the country sometime in the early 1050s by Ralph 'the Timid', the French-born Earl of Hereford who came over from Normandy with Edward the Confessor when the latter was made King of England in 1042. Upon Ralph's death in 1057, the Earldom was held by Harold Godwinson, then Earl of East Anglia, who set about re-fortifying the castle and city defences against the Welsh almost immediately.

^ Castle Green, the site of Hereford Castle

Things, of course, didn't end well for Harold when he was made King in 1066, and following the Battle of Hastings in October that year, the Earldom passed to William fitzOsbern, one of William the Conqueror's closest friends and advisers, presumably with the proviso that he continue the conquest in the midlands and into Wales (Earl of Hereford also included Gloucestershire, Worcestershire and Oxfordshire). William was a fabulously landed man, with vast estates in Normandy and across newly-conquered England, including the Isle of Wight. fitzOsbern was actually the man King William chose to act as regent when he himself was off in France. The creation of fitzOsbern as Earl of Hereford was possibly the first peerage of England in the modern sense, and he was certainly the first Marcher Lord. These chaps, as previously mentioned, were incredibly powerful landowners charged with subjugation in their respective jurisdictions, and able to administer the law as they saw fit, tax the populace, create boroughs and markets, and hunt in the forests. The men given these powers were William the Conqueror's trusted advisers, and the only way they would lose these powers to the King, outside of forfeiture for treason, was through escheat, by dying without an heir. The Earldom of Hereford was, oddly, the first of these to be lost in 1075. William died at Carisbroke Castle on the Isle of Wight in 1071, following the Battle of Cassel in Flanders, and was succeeded by his son Roger de Brateuil (another of William's titles had been Lord of Brateuil in Normandy), who did not keep on such good terms with King William, marrying his sister Emma to the Earl of Norfolk against the King's wishes. The two earls rebelled against William, but the revolt collapsed when Bishop Wulfstan of Worcester prevented Roger from joining his strength to Norfolk. fitzOsbern must have been so disappointed.

During the Anarchy, when the country was split between King Stephen and Empress Matilda, the castle at Hereford was besieged twice, and the city sacked at one point. When the Earldom of Hereford was recreated in 1141, the castle remained a royal possession, and it was from here that Henry IV staged attacks against the Welsh during the Owain Glyndwr rebellion. During the Civil War, the castle was held for King Charles, but isn't really talked about, presumably the war just passed it by. The city itself was besieged numerous times during the course of the war, as it changed hands between the two sides. The Wye Bridge, built in 1490 and for centuries the only crossing of the river into the city, was partially demolished in 1645 to prevent the Parliamentarians from taking the city. It was later rebuilt, of course, with pointed arches, as seen in the right of this picture:

By 1650 it was being dismantled to use the stone elsewhere in the city, and in 1726 the ruins were ordered pulled down to create the parkland that survives to this day, part of the moat being retained as Castle Pool:

Hereford is, of course, more famed for its spectacular cathedral, built from 1107 on the site of a much older sacred space, the diocese of Hereford traditionally believed to have been created in 676. The Saxon Cathedral was destroyed in the Welsh raid of 1055, and the present building was begun over the course of 1107-58 in the Romanesque style.

The Cathedral was never a monastic abbey, but governed by a Dean and Chapter in a system that is largely the one used in Anglican establishments to this day. As such, it was pretty much left alone during the dissolution of the monasteries, immediately becoming a cathedral of the Church of England.

Cathedral, as you may or may not know, comes from the Latin "cathedra", which means a "seat", which is used in terms of the centre of the diocese, but there is also a literal meaning here, as the Bishop's Cathedra is a ceremonial seat used by the Bishop to give teachings from:

Anyway. Disaster struck the cathedral at Hereford in 1786, when the western tower fell down, destroying part of the nave up to the quire. The repair work was carried out by James Wyatt, the man responsible for the tremendous Fonthill Abbey in Wiltshire, one of the bastions of silliness in Gothic Revival architecture.

The great Victorian church-restorer George Gilbert Scott worked on the cathedral in the 1850s, and the West Front was altered to be more in-keeping by his son John Oldrid Scott.

There is a lot of good stuff in the cathedral, such as this effigy of Sir Richard Pembridge, one of the first Knights of the Garter, created under Edward III (the garter can be seen just below his left knee):

Probably the most famous thing in the cathedral, however, is the Mappa Mundi, dating to about 1300 and which hung innocuously on the wall in the North Quire Aisle for years. Centred on Jerusalem, of course, the map not only shows with often-alarming accuracy the continents, but also the supposed inhabitants of these far-off lands, such as people with no heads, whose faces are in their chests. Such monsters were genuinely believed to live in these lands, and when Marco Polo travelled to the Orient in the fifteenth century, he was genuinely baffled as to why the people who inhabited China were ordinary men. As for the Chinese, they were confused as to why the Europeans weren't horrific in appearance.

Hereford also has a world-famous Chained Library - a library where the books are chained to the shelf to stop you stealing them. It was originally kept in the Lady Chapel up at the east end, but was moved during the Victorian era to allow the strange airiness of the space here to be seen:

The Lady Chapel, one of the earliest examples of English Gothic, does have a strangely alien feel compared with the rest of the Cathedral, presumably because of its much lower ceiling. Even the exterior looks like a later addition than the 1220s:

For the heritage hunter, Hereford also has the Old House, on the High Street:

Part of a much longer row of shops and dwellings when it was built in 1621, it now stands sadly forlorn in the centre, surrounded by much more modern buildings. It remains as a museum to Jacobean life.

Earlier, I mentioned William fitzOsbern. A very powerful man like that has of course left a very visible reminder of his time in the world, one of which is the nearby border castle at Wigmore.

The earldom of course passed into the hands of the crown with the forfeiture in 1075, and the castle at Wigmore was almost immediately given by William to his supporter, Ranulph de Mortimer. Wigmore Castle became the Mortimer family seat in England.

Perhaps the most famous Mortimer was Roger, 3rd Baron Mortimer and the first Earl of March, a title created for him in 1328. Roger Mortimer was a central figure in the events of the 1320s, particularly the Despenser War, where he was one of the leading barons who opposed Edward II's favouritism of Hugh Despenser the younger. During this time, Roger became the lover of Queen Isabella, Edward II's estranged consort, and is alleged to be the man responsible for the murder of Edward II in 1327, reputedly killed by a hot poker up the bum. This story is largely believed to be a fabrication, and it is not actually known how Edward died. Edward's son was crowned Edward III but Queen Isabella and Roger ruled during this time, until Edward III asserted his independence in 1330 by arresting both and hanging Mortimer at Tyburn.

Wigmore Castle was seized by the crown at this time, but restored to the Mortimers in 1343, along with the title of Earl of March in 1355. Roger's great-grandson Edmund married into the Plantagenet dynasty, marrying the granddaughter of Edward III and so giving the Mortimers a claim on the English throne. The third Earl of March, Edmund's daughter Elizabeth married Sir Henry 'Hotspur' Percy, known as one of the most famous soldiers of his day and who rebelled against Henry IV at Shrewsbury in 1403. Edmund's son, another Roger, was named heir presumptive to Richard II in 1385. After the usurpation of Richard by Henry of Bolingbroke, later crowned as Henry IV, the Mortimers lost this place in the succession. A plot was begun in 1415 to kill Henry V before he could leave England for Agincourt and replace him with Roger's son, another Edmund.

The plot failed, but forms part of the basis for Shakespeare's Henry V.

With the death of this Edmund, the Mortimer line came to an end, and Wigmore passed, along with the title of Earl of March, to the Duke of York, his nephew. This Duke of York is a very significant chap, as he is essentially the cause of the Wars of the Roses, having a stronger claim to the throne than Henry VI, who was already mentally ill. But that's a subject for another day!

Wigmore Castle remained a royal castle once Edward IV was crowned King after the battle of Towton. It wasn't kept as well as other royal properties, however, and was sold under Elizabeth I to a local family, who made it indefensible during the Civil War to prevent it being used. Since then, it has been allowed to decay quietly, becoming overgrown with woodland.

As it is presented today, Wigmore Castle looks almost exactly like most ruins did in the eighteenth century onwards - overgrown and remote, almost inaccessible, but a haven of wildlife of all descriptions. Masonry that has fallen down is left in situ, overgrown - the gateway entrance survives to its full height, but only the top 5ft or so is visible. As such, it presents to me something of a thorny problem: the castle is an extremely important site in English history, and deserves to be thoroughly studied and explored, but to do so would be to damage the ecosystem beyond repair that has matured here for centuries. It is an interesting experiement in heritage management and presentation, being drastically different from the usual manner of stripping back entirely the undergrowth, and carefully mowing the lawns etc, but I find myself wishing it was an experiment that could have been carried out somewhere else!

^ two carved corbels from Wigmore Castle, now held in the British Museum.

Wednesday, 13 June 2012

William the Conqueror: more than just a battle and a book

I'm changing my approach for this blog, as I feel a need to draw together some research to better aid both the blogs I've posted, and those that are forthcoming. In no particular order, then, I present the first in a planned series of 'History Lessons', William the Conqueror: more than just a battle and a book.

William 'the Conqueror' was born in 1027 the bastard son of Robert I, Duke of Normandy, and Herleve, the daughter of the local tanner. A Norman legend tells of how Herleve had a dream the night she conceived William, of giving birth to an enormous oak tree whose branches covered first Normandy, in northern France, and then the kingdom of England too. You don't need a map to understand what the Normans were trying to say there. Herleve did quite well for herself after her dalliance with Robert, marrying Herluin, the Vicomte de Conteville, having two more sons with him, Odo and Robert, both of whom would become prominent in William's reign. 

William succeeded to the duchy of Normandy in 1035, aged 8. It helped that Robert had had no other children, but also that William had the support of both the Archbishop of Rouen (the Norman capital), and the King of France. Still, there were many contenders for the duchy, and while no direct threats were made on his own life, William still had to endure abduction attempts, and other tortures such as witnessing his steward's throat being cut while they were in the same bed. All of this probably served to harden William into the ruthless warlord he became. Aged 20, he fought a battle with his cousin Guy of Burgundy, defeating him and establishing his powerbase at Caen, away from the traditional capital at Rouen. In another unorthodox move, William married his distant cousin, Matilda of Flanders, even though the Pope had expressly forbade it. As penance, both established abbeys in the centre of Caen. His soubriquet 'the Conqueror' was achieved by his invasion of the neighbouring region of Maine in 1063, and not by his invasion of England three years later. 

The story of the Battle of Hastings and the Norman Invasion of England begins some years before the famous date in 1066, around the 1010s. The Anglo-Saxon kings of England had been ousted in 1013 when the Danish King Svein invaded, leaving Ethelred to flee to Normandy (this is the famous 'Ethelred the Unready') with his children. His queen, Emma, was the daughter of the Duke of Normandy, so it was a safe port. However, Emma remained in England and, following Ethelred's death in 1016, she married the new Danish King of England, Canute (this is the famous Canute who is said to have tried to assert his dominion over the sea). Emma is an interesting figure in Dark Age history, as she seems to have married Canute of her own volition. She had already had children with Ethelred, but went on to have more with Canute and favoured her Danish family over her Saxon one. Canute died in 1035 and, by a strange twist of fate, both of his sons had also died by 1042. The earl of Wessex, Godwin, who was himself related to Canute by marriage, instead used his exceptional power and influence to bring Ethelred and Emma's son Edward back to England and to the throne. Emma, meanwhile, spent the following years plotting to put the Norwegian King Magnus on the throne.

Earl Godwin is a very interesting man, and at first seems to have been very much a power behind the throne, marrying his daughter Edith to the new king, and ensuring his sons Harold and Tostig succeeded to important earldoms. Edward, however, was a very pious man (he is the famous 'Edward the Confessor'), and is said to have taken Edith begrudgingly - so much so that he refused to ever consummate the marriage. There isn't really any evidence for this, save the words of the Norman chroniclers who strove so hard to legitimize the claim of William on England that sometimes they protest too much. Certainly, Edward went a long way to asserting his dominance as king in the 1050s and first expelled Godwin from the kingdom, then packed Edith off to a convent. Either way, Edward and Edith had no children. 

^ here is Edward, under the canopy on the left, with the words "Edward Rex" helpfully placed over him.

Saxon England was a very advanced state in comparison to some on continental Europe at this time. The state organisation was very sophisticated, with an incredibly efficient taxation system. This was in part a relic of the Roman occupation, but also was borne out of necessity, as the Saxon kings were frequently victims of Viking raids, and throughout the 9th and 10th centuries resorted to paying off the raiders (raising a specific tax known as Danegeld - during Ethelred's reign, £48,000 was raised in a very short space of time to pay them off). The kingdom was subdivided into four earldoms, which corresponded roughly to the old Kingdoms of the 7th and 8th centuries of Wessex, Mercia, East Anglia and Northumbria. These earldoms were further subdivided into shires, which were themselves divided into Hundreds, an area covering maybe a dozen villages. Each Hundred was divided into a number of hides, which was a measurement of productive agricultural land that could be taxed. Shires were administered from a town, where the courts and sheriffs were located. Each sheriff knew the size of his administration down to the hide, so knew how much money he was owed in tax. 

In addition to having efficient state apparatus, England was also renowned for having the purest coinage in medieval Europe. This is because of the system of mints located throughout the country - possibly as many as 60 by the 980s - that recalled all of the coinage every five years and reissued new coins. Coin-clipping was rife throughout the medieval period - coins were made of precious metals of course, and so were routinely clipped off in an effort to gain enough metal to make other stuff with. This often led to the coins becoming barely recognizable  but in England the problem of mutilated currency didn't often occur as the new currency would often be re-minted before the coins became so corrupted as to be worthless. Anyway, the point of my extolling the attractions of Saxon England is precisely that, to emphasize just how attractive the country looked to an invading party. 

Edward, apparently, had promised to William in 1051 the throne of Saxon England if he died without an heir, which seems to have been a nasty habit as he later made the same promise, apparently, to Earl Harold Godwinson, the son of Godwin and, by this time, a very powerful man in Saxon England, thought to be the wealthiest, and a great military strategist. A curious incident in 1064 made Harold undertake a journey by sea that shipwrecked him on the shores of Normandy, where he was captured by a local lord but rescued by William. 

^ William (seated, under the canopy near the centre) and Harold (the rather desperate figure stood before him).

The two apparently got on quite well, and Harold even fought with William at one point, and received armour from him. Before taking his leave, Harold made a solemn oath to uphold William's claim to the throne of England when the time came.

^ one of the most crucial panels in the tapestry, Harold is shown between two reliquaries swearing his oath, while a figure behind the seated William points to the words in the commentary above, "ubi Harold sacramentum fecit", where Harold made an oath.

The adventures of Harold in Normandy are recounted quite nicely on the famous Bayeux Tapestry, which was commissioned after the events in Hastings by the winners, so of course can be showing us whatever it damn well likes. That is was commissioned by Bishop Odo, William's half-brother, should make us even more sceptical. But I digress...

^ Edward the Confessor's body is laid to rest in Westminster Abbey.

Harold returned to England, and all was well until January 5, 1066, when Edward the Confessor died without an heir. Piety is all well and good, and indeed the more pious one was in these times, the better the chance of getting a good seat in heaven was (an idea of prime concern to the medieval mind), but when it is taken to the extreme that a King dies without having any children is quite the dangerous notion, as the power vacuum left behind in these circumstances can be devastating, as the events here will show. Edward's death without an heir was, quite simply, a disaster for the kingdom and acted, as Professor Bartlett puts it, as the starting pistol for the events that led up to the Norman invasion. Harold was apparently proclaimed King of England by the Council of England after Edward's deathbed promise, and duly crowned at Westminster Abbey later in the day of Edward's funeral.

^ Harold is crowned king by Archbishop Stigant. The Normans would later try to villify him, as well.

There was, however, the problem that Harold was not actually a descendant of Kings, but there were a few such men waiting in the wings. William, as I've mentioned, was a cousin to the late King Edward. The current King of Norway, Harald 'Hardrada' ('the hard one'), also made a claim to the throne of England. This was based in large part on the apparent promise of Canute that the aforementioned Magnus would succeed to the throne, but Magnus had died leaving Hardrada as his heir. Hardrada was also aided and abetted in his claim by Tostig, the disenfranchised brother of Harold and former Earl of Northumbria. To confuse matters further, Edward the Confessor's older half-brother Edmund 'Ironside', while dead, had left heirs who also had a claim to the throne - Edmumd's son, another Edward, had returned to England in 1057 with his own son Edgar 'the Aetheling', and while this Edward had died not long after setting foot on the shore, Edgar had been welcomed at court, and some believe Edward the Confessor may have been intending for him to succeed him. 

^ William is outraged, and orders the trees to be felled to construct the invasion fleet.

William, a mere Duke in France, was determined to claim his kingdom across the sea. He sent an envoy to the Pope to ask for his blessing in the forthcoming war, citing the oathbreaking of Harold as a prime motivation. The Pope sent, in reply, a Papal banner to fight under, turning, as Simon Schama says, a dynastic feud into a holy war. French nobles who were unwilling to fight for him when he was merely seen as something of an invader, now flocked to the man.

The scene is therefore set, with William on the Normandy coast, waiting for a favourable wind that will allow him to cross the channel, and Harold on the English shore, waiting for him, when news arrived in September 1066 that Harald Hardrada has invaded the north. In five days, Harold marched his army north and met the Norsemen at Stamford Bridge, where he secured a decisive victory on 25 September, both Harald Hardrada and Tostig perishing in the conflict. This march has been the topic of some debate, as Stamford Bridge is over 180 miles from the south coast, and so to cover the distance in that time would have involved marching his entire army for 12 hours a day at a steady jog of 3 miles per hour. However, the Saxon army was largely made up of local fyrd, who were pressed into service by their overlord, or thegn, for two weeks' military service each year. Harold would only really have needed his elite bodyguard, the housecarls, and picked up the thegns and their fyrd as he got closer. Either way, news soon arrived that the Normans were sailing, hardly giving the Saxons time to enjoy their victory. Ignoring advice to the contrary, Harold immediately marched his men back south, this time in three days, to discover that the Normans had landed during the night of 27 September.

^ the Normans are under way!

Apparently, William fell over when he landed on the beach at Pevensey, which deeply unsettled his men. The story goes, he picked up two handfulls of earth and said to them, "How can you say we have lost, when I have England in my hands?"

The Normans brought with them several flat-pack castles, that could quickly be erected to fortify a position as and when needed, which the promptly did at both Pevensey and Hastings, as they marched along the south coast.

^ to the left, the Normans are building a castle; to the right, the razing of Hastings.

The battle took place on Senlac Hill, overlooking the town now called Battle in honour of the cataclysmic events that took place there, for the whole day of 14 October. The English held the high ground, defended by a characteristic Saxon shield wall, their soldiers all on foot. The Normans joined from the lower, marshy ground, which immediately disadvantaged both their archers and cavalry. 

^ the Norman cavalry begin their charge...

^ ... straight into the Saxon shield wall. Notice the grisly tableau of corpses in the bottom-right corner!

The battle went badly for the invaders at first, with William being thought killed at one point, which prompted a partial Norman retreat, leading to the English pursuing them down the hill. William, who had three horses killed from under him during the course of the day, had to lift up his helmet to prove he was still alive. 

^ William, the figure in the centre, pushes back his helmet to reveal his face.

The retreating action proved so effective in luring the English from their strong position that they feigned retreat twice more. With numerous cavalry charges and hailing arrows, the English line was weakened. 

^ Bishop Odo, Williams's half-brother, is seen in the centre here with a huge club "rallying the troops" - so long as he didn't shed blood, a bishop was perfectly entitled to take an active part in a battle such as this.

It all ended badly for Harold, who was of course wounded in the eye before being killed. His body was so badly mutilated in the carnage that it took his mistress to identify him, by several "secret" marks known only to her. 

^ perhaps the most famous panel of the tapestry, showing Harold wounded in the eye and subsequently cut down.

Despite the brutality of the fight, William established an abbey on the site to atone for the blood spilt that day, with the altar placed at the spot Harold is thought to have fallen.

The Battle of Hastings strikes me as not so much won by William as lost by Harold. If the shield wall had held, the Normans would likely have worn themselves out and made easy work for the Saxons soon enough. The fact that the Normans were highly-trained soldiers, who had been brought up in a very strict code of loyalty and honour to one's lord, whereas the Saxon fyrd were fighting because they were told to. They were fighting for their own land, of course, but they hadn't been trained to do so. The fact that the right flank pursued the retreating cavalry down the hill and did not hold the shield wall demonstrates this untrained nature, and also shows how little control Harold really had over his army. The Saxons were also exhausted, having just marched to and from York, and fought a battle, within the space of a week. Harold had left a lot of his troops at Stamford Bridge, too, so was fighting with a smaller force than he had initially lined up to meet the invasion. William had only brought over a small invasion army, so if Harold had brought the full force to bear it is entirely possible that he would have defeated William, and I would be writing this in a much more Saxon English today! 

Forecyme! (That is to say, Onwards!)

Hastings was just the beginning
William then rampaged up the coast to Dover, ravaged his way through Kent and Surrey to Wallingford, where his army was replenished by reinforcements from Normandy who had taken the old English capital of Winchester. Here, William received the submission of Archbishop Stigand (who had crowned Harold earlier in the year), following which he received the submission of the English earls at Berkhamstead Castle in Hertfordshire. He knew he had to be crowned, and soon, as rebellion was beginning to be organised around Edgar, nephew to Edward the Confessor and the last of the House of Wessex with a claim to the throne. On Christmas Day 1066, William was crowned King, but during the ceremony the Norman knights circling Westminster Abbey, mistaking the shouts of acclamation for a riot in the church, set fire to the surrounding area. The coronation continued, but William was said to be visibly shaking until the end. Hardly the most auspicious start to his reign.

The Rebellions
In 1068, the city of Exeter rebelled, causing William to intervene personally. Following a 15-day siege, the inhabitants chose to surrender rather than have the town razed. William built a castle in the city and then moved north, building castles as he went at Warwick and Nottingham, before arriving in York and being received with the keys of the city. He built a castle there, too, before heading back south, building more castles, at Lincoln, Huntingdon and Cambridge, before leaving for Normandy. His half-brother Bishop Odo, newly created Earl of Kent, was left in charge of the country.

King Harold's son Godwine made two unsuccessful attempts to regain his father's throne, launching from Ireland in 1068, where he was repelled at Bristol, and again in 1069, when he tried to take Tavistock but was driven off to an unknown fate. Shrewsbury was razed by the Welsh in 1069 also, the rebels getting to Stafford before being defeated.

The Earls of Northumbria, still Saxon and brothers-in-law to King Harold, were evidently not impressed with the Normans getting so far north, and descended as far as Durham, killing every Frenchman they could find, then joined in 1069 with Edgar, at the head of a Danish fleet, and together they marched on York. William returned to England as fast as he could, and scattered the rebels, with Edgar escaping north to Scotland. William spent Christmas at York, famously wearing his coronation regalia in the ruins of the Minster church as a show of force after having paid the Danes to go away, before embarking on the infamous Harrying of the North, his retaliation to the rebels' actions.

As the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle puts it, "he laid waste to all the shire" - it was a systematic destruction of all lands and livestock in the land between the Humber and the Tees. The inhabitants of these areas are reputed to have turned to cannibalism to survive. York was given a second castle, and Durham was given the Earl-(later Prince-)Bishop, who was personally appointed by William and invested with enough power so as to appear to be a separate kingdom altogether.

William returned south by way of Cheshire, still in open revolt against Norman rule, and built a castle there before refortifying that at Stafford. The border with Wales proved to be an equally rebellious and dangerous area, which prompted the creation of the Marcher Lords, three knights of undisputed loyalty to William - Hugh d'Avranches at Chester, Roger de Montgomery at Shrewsbury, and William fitzOsbern, King William's closest friend and one of the few people known to have fought alongside William at Hastings, at Hereford. While not as powerful as the Earl-Bishop of Durham, each Marcher lord had considerable power to exercise over his domain, and was actively encouraged from the start to make military incursions into Wales to further the Conquest.

The monasteries, seats of immense wealth and power always in the medieval period, were also brought under William's control by his replacement of English Bishops with his own choice (except at Worcester, where Bishop Wulfstan was allowed to continue on in his role).

The last show of English resistance was at Ely, where a chap called Hereward started out killing Normans, at first in retaliation for their having killed his brother. After a short guerilla-style war in the marshes, this last stand petered out with Hereward escaping, passing into local legend much like the later Owain Glyndwr would do for the Welsh resistance in the 1400s. But that'll be another story...

In 1072, William made a final attempt to rid himself of Edgar the Aetheling by making a preemptive strike against Scotland, causing King Malcolm III to sue for peace. As part of this peace, Edgar was expelled from the Scottish court, but the Scots still made cross-border raids with distressing frequency in the years to come. Edgar eventually took part in the First Crusade.

And with that, William's hold on England was secured, six years after the initial landing.

Whether the idea to make a record the country's wealth at this time was William's or not, no-one can be absolutely certain, but it was agreed at the Christmas court held at Gloucester in 1085, and the clerics and officials were soon dispatched around the realm. The questions being asked were the same everywhere: who owned the land in King Edward's time? Who owns it now? How many people live here? How many houses? How many animals? How much do they pay in tax? How many mills are there? How many farms? And the crucial question - can more be had? Called The Book of England, it quickly became known as Domesday, named after the Day of Judgement, and was used to settle border disputes and the like for hundreds of years after.

In a sense, it acted much like a modern census, with regional results combined into one big result. There are two Books, Great Domesday holds the records for most of the realm, with Little Domesday (actually a more detailed survey) covering just East Anglia, but in a lot more depth than is in the larger book. There are parts of the country missing, however, such as London and Winchester, thought to be too much work to survey everyone in each; Cumberland and Westmorland were not yet conquered; and the Bishop of Durham had the exclusive right to tax the County Durham, so it too was not included.

The book was compiled and presented to William in less than a year, which is again demonstrative of just how organised the kingdom was under the Saxon kings - most of the work had already been done, in terms of how the land was organised etc, so all that was required was a transcription. 

All in all, the Conquest resulted in an immense carve-up of the land in England, concentrating the power in the hands of a few "cronies", as Simon Thurley puts it. The 1086 Domesday Book, executed under the supervision of the Bishop of Durham, demonstates this quite clearly - in the time of King Edward, there were roughly 4000 Saxon landowners, which changes to just about 200 Norman magnates in the years following 1066.

And what about William? Well, having secured his realm, he was off in Normandy putting down a rebellion in 1087 when his horse jerked, and he fell against the pommel of the saddle, which apparently burst his corpulent stomach. His death was quite ignominous, with the nobles in attendance on him at Rouen immediately looting his corpse before leaving to consolidate their own power, leaving the clergy of Rouen to ship his body back to his capital at Caen for burial. Like his coronation at Westminster Abbey, his burial was also memorable for the wrong reasons: he had grown too fat for the purpose-built coffin, and when the monks tried to force him in, his corpse burst open and let forth some noxious fumes. His grave has been disturbed numerous times since, most devastatingly during the French Wars of Religion in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, when his bones were scattered, all save a lone femur. This was eventually reburied in 1642, only to have the tomb destroyed anew during the French Revolutionary Wars.

The Norman Conquest of England was, of course, the last successful invasion of the country. Not just a military action, the conquest was also a cultural invasion. The entire ruling elite was replaced, wholesale, and as such the language of rule and law became French, something that still exists today. But it goes deeper than that. Robert Bartlett tells us that an animal running around in the muck goes by its former Anglo-Saxon name (eg, pig), but when it has been cooked and is on your plate, it has the more 'refined' French word (eg, pork). The Norman hold on England wasn't entirely iron-fast, however, and the descendants of William would continue to squabble and bicker over rule in the country for many years, by the 1130s resulting in a ruined and broken land.

Monday, 11 June 2012


Ah, historic London! The capital of the UK and the largest urban area therein, with a history going back 2000 years. Prehistoric London was most likely a very small settlement, with only scant evidence found in the area for habitation. The Time Team discovered some 3000-year-old timbers that most likely formed part of a river crossing, and the 'Battersea Shield', now in the British Museum (see more below), found in the Thames, is dated to the Iron Age. Geoffrey of Monmouth gives London some incredibly colourful history, founded by some chap from Troy after he'd defeated some giants. Hm.

It was the Romans who founded an important civilian settlement here shortly after the invasion of AD43, Londinium. The capital of Britannia was founded at Colchester, because the Romans believed this to be the capital of the country before they arrived - it was common Roman practice to take over the capital as a show of force. Londinium was destroyed by Boudica and the Iceni shortly after its establishment, but the Romans didn't give up and restored the settlement, so that by the second century it had grown to the extent that it replaced Colchester as the capital. At this time, the Wall was constructed around the settlement.

Following the Roman retreat in the fifth century, London was incorporated into Middlesex, then in the seventh century into the Kingdom of Essex, when the first post-Roman Christian Bishop arrived, Mellitus, and established the first St Paul's Cathedral. Sacked twice in Viking raids in 842 and again in 851, London came under the Kingdom of Mercia following its capture by Alfred the Great in 886. Absorbed into the greater Kingdom of Wessex early in the tenth century, it competed with the traditional capital of Winchester for political importance, but it wasn't until Edward the Confessor spent most of his time at Westminster that London began to be recognised more formally as the capital.

It was Edward the Confessor that founded Westminster Abbey, above, and the Palace of Westminster, the modern Houses of Parliament. The Abbey has the distinction of having held the coronation of every crowned monarch of England since that of William the Conqueror in 1066, in a coronation ceremony that dates back to Saxon times and King Offa.

The Abbey as it stands today is largely the work of Henry III, though it was extended again in the fifteenth century, and the two west towers were added by Christopher Wren in the eighteenth century.

The Benedictine monastery that originally stood here was the second-wealthiest in Britain, after Glastonbury, which allowed it to stay open until the very last stages of the Dissolution, though was almost immediately re-established as a Cathedral of the new Church of England.

^ the chapter house ceiling.

The Chapter House has some excellently-preserved medieval floor-tiles, having been covered by a wooden floor until the nineteenth century:

Being such an important church to the monarchy, it houses many royal burials, including Henry VII and Elizabeth I. It also held the royal treasury in the Pyx Chamber, one of the most secure treasuries in England. The Pyx is a wooden strongbox that holds the standard for coins, against which all newly-minted coins are compared at the Trial of the Pyx, conducted once every three months during the medieval period, but now is held annually whenever the Royal Mint issues new coins.

The Abbey is a Royal Peculiar, rather than subject to any bishop, and presided over by a dean.

The Abbey is tremendously decorated, often quite stunning at times. For example, the quire, the nave, and the lady chapel. Marvellous stuff!!

The Palace of Westminster, just across the road behind the Abbey, was originally built by Edward the Confessor as I've said, close to the Abbey that he wished to be his burial place. It was both the royal palace and the seat of the parliament, the principal residence of the King of England until Henry VIII moved slightly up the road to Whitehall Palace.

The building today, however, is a Victorian creation. On the night of October 16, 1834, the palace caught fire, destorying almost the entirety of the old palace. A competition was held for the design of the new palace, which was to be built in either Elizabethan or Gothic style, styles that were intended to evoke a strong sense of Britishness.

The resulting palace was the work of Sir Charles Barry and Augustus Pugin, the latter a leading figure in the Gothic Revival that was sweeping the country. Pugin in particular was quite the fanatic, and the two fell out because of the balance in the river front that, he felt, denoted a Classical look.

^ the Victoria Tower, the monarch's ceremonial entrance into the palace.

The Clock Tower, containing the famous bell Big Ben, is said to be the most-photographed clock in the country:

The only parts of the building to survive the fire were Westminster Hall, and the Jewel Tower.

^ Westminster Hall, on the left, with the great south window.

^ the Jewel Tower is the stone structure to the mid-right of the picture.

The Jewel Tower shows what the old palace would have looked like, built in white 'Kentish rag'. It was used by Edward III as a personal treasury, hence its name. It was used in this way until 1621, when it became the Parliamentary records office.

The records were removed to the Victoria Tower once the parliament building was complete, and in 1869 it became the office for weights and measures.

Across the water is Lambeth Palace, the official London residence of the Archbishop of Canterbury.

I quite like the look of this place. The Tudor gatehouse, Morton's Tower, above, is reminiscent of Hampton Court, which I also like very much.

Just to the left of the bust in the photo above is a niche that once held a statue of St Thomas Becket, which was removed by Henry VIII. 

Getting back to Parliament, and further up Whitehall we have Horseguard's Parade, the former tiltyard of Whitehall Palace.

This is where they go trooping the colour to celebrate the monarch's birthday each year. A little further up are the Admiralty buildings, now used as government offices, and Admiralty Arch, between Trafalgar Square and The Mall:

The Mall runs straight down to Buckingham Palace, the official residence of the British monarchy since 1837:

The palace was constructed as Buckingham House in 1703, for the Duke of Buckingham, and acquired by George III in 1761 for his wife Queen Charlotte, for the sum of £21,000 (roughly £3m in today's money). At this time, St James' Palace was still the official residence of the monarchy (Whitehall having burned down in 1698):

St James' Palace was built by Henry VIII on the site of a former leper hospital. After being partially destroyed by fire in 1809, the palace began to decline in importance until Queen Victoria formalized the move to Buckingham Palace. Onwards! The Canada Gates opposite Buckingham Palace, installed in 1911 as part of a memorial to Queen Victoria, who had died in 1901.

The Gates are at the entry to Green Park, along which runs Constitution Hill, running up to Apsley House and Pall Mall:

Apsley House, also known as Number One, London, was the house of the Duke of Wellington. Now a museum to the famous Duke, it stands across the road to the Wellington Arch:

The Arch, designed by Decimus Burton as a triumphal entry to Green Park in celebration of the Duke's victory at Waterloo in 1815. It was intended as part of a grand processional entrance to Buckingham Palace, which George IV was having refurbished also at this time, but was moved slightly when Piccadilly was widened in 1880, so that the arch now looks down Constitution Hill. The house is on the corner of Hyde Park, the opposite end of Park Lane to Marble Arch:

This arch was also part of the redesign scheme, originally a celebratory arch at the entrance of Buckingham Palace. It was moved to Hyde Park in 1850, on the site of the old Tyburn gallows, a famous site for public executions from the middle ages until the late eighteenth century.

Down Knightsbridge, we come to Kensington, and 'Albertopolis'. The Royal Albert Hall, opened in 1871 by Queen Victoria in memorial to her dead husband Albert, the Prince Consort, who had died in 1861, is the centre of a number of buildings originally planned by him as a permanent fixture following the Great Exhibition of 1851.

Since 1941, the Proms have been held here, following the destruction of Queen's Hall during the war. The Royal Albert Hall itself did not suffer too badly in the war, as it was apparently used by the German bombers as a landmark.

Across the road in Kensington Gardens is the Albert Memorial, above. Designed by Sir George Gilbert Scott (the church restorer mentioned in previous blogs), it was opened in 1872, with the statue of Albert himself installed in 1875.

Among the other institutions in the area, the Natural History Museum is my personal favourite, being quite the stunning building.

Back to the centre!

At the other end of Piccadilly is Piccadilly Circus, above. Continuing on down Shaftesbury Avenue, you'll get to the British Museum, which has lots of interesting stuff!

Lots of good stuff! Including the Rosetta Stone, the Nebomun Wall Paintings, and all the other immensely good statuary, there is a lot of British stuff, including the Mold Cape and the Sutton Hoo horde:

Also found here are the famous Elgin Marbles, originally part of the Parthenon in Athens. They were removed in the early nineteenth century by the 7th Earl of Elgin when he was serving as British Ambassador to the Ottoman Empire. The removal has been controversial ever since he did it, with many calling it vandalism and looting.

Magnificent! Well worth a visit, I must say.

^ the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden.

I shall take you now out of Westminster and into the City of London. The Cathedral of the City, St Paul's, mentioned a whiles back as being founded back when Mellitus was brought to be Bishop of London.

The present construction dates to the late seventeenth century, following the Great Fire of London. Built by Sir Christopher Wren in the Baroque style, it went through five different plans before finally the construction began in 1675, and was inaugurated in 1697.

The Cathedral is crowned by a dome, finally added in 1708 when the Cathedral was finally consecrated. Apparently, the total cost of the Cathedral came to £1,095, 556 (£147m in today's money). It is quite stunning, though.

Just north of the Cathedral is Temple Bar, the original gateway between The Strand (Westminster) and Fleet Street (City of London), but due to road-widening (again!) it was dismantled in 1878, before being bought and rebuilt by a brewer in Theobalds Park, Hertfordshire. It was brought back to the city in 2003 and re-erected and restored.

From here, we continue further east, and one of the most important structures in the capital.

The Tower of London was built by William the Conqueror late in 1066, with the White Tower being built in 1078.

It is difficult to see now, of course, but when it was built this was quite possibly the most fearsome building ever built in England. Built in stone in the middle of a settlement largely made up of single-storey timber buildings, it is a dominating presence that speaks volumes of the Norman intent in Britain.

This fearsome reputation has continued throughout its thousand-year history, despite the fact that it was originally a royal palace and not a prison. It has also served as an armoury, the Royal Mint (as mentioned in the Chester blog), and the home of the Crown Jewels. It has been continually refortified under successive medieval monarchs as a show of just how important a castle it was.

Despite the infamous notoriety of the Tower, only seven executions were ever carried out within the actual walls. A near-impregnable fortress, it was used to imprison the more important people, including several royals - Richard II was held here before being taken to Pontefract Castle (where he was killed), and Henry VI was held here before being murdered in 1471. Two of the most famous prisoners were Edward V and his brother Richard of Shrewsbury, the Princes in the Tower, were kept here and apparently murdered by their uncle, Richard of Gloucester (later Richard III) - though I must admit, I don't really agree with this! Personally, I believe it more likely they were killed by the Duke of Buckingham, trying to find favour with Richard.

Anne Boleyn and Catherine Howard were both executed on Tower Green, above.

The famous Traitor's Gate, above, was originally just the sally port installed by Edward I, but gained a notoriety for being the way into the Tower for, well, traitors during the Tudor period. The route by water along the Thames was particularly gruesome, as prisoners were taken under London Bridge, whereupon the heads of executed prisoners were displayed on spikes.

The remains of the Wardrobe Tower, demolished in the nineteenth century to improve the view of the White Tower, show a Roman bastion from the remains of Londinium:

And so we have come almost full-circle! There is of course so much more of historic London to be seen than this short survey has shown. I can highly recommend a trip to this wonderful city!