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.

Battle
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.

Domesday
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. 

So...
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.