Sunday, 24 July 2011

Who was to blame for the fall of the Anglo-Saxon empire?

When William Duke of Normandy was crowned King of England on Christmas Day 1066, the Anglo-Saxon dynasty came to an end. Defeat at the Battle of Hastings on 14th October 1066 effectively ended the military struggle against the Normans and once William’s coronation took place on Christmas Day 1066, the political struggle also ended. Although there were a number of rebellions in the following years, the Anglo-Saxon’s had been conquered.

So where did it all go wrong?

In 1042 when Edward the Confessor became King of England he had only recently returned from living in Normandy. He was a very pious man and liked nothing more than to hunt with falcons and attend church services. However, he became a weak king and relied heavily on his Norman advisors. This infuriated the Anglo-Saxon Earls who after a considerable campaign persuaded Edward to send the Norman advisors back to Normandy. The Earls were also concerned about the succession to the Throne and encouraged Edward to take a wife. He eventually married the sister of Harold Godwinson (later King Harold), but the marriage was a sham. Edward took a vow of chastity and would therefore not provide an heir. This proved to be the most contentious issue of his reign.

Edward the Confessor
There were many claimants to the Throne: William Duke of Normandy was a cousin of Edward and claimed that he had been promised the throne if Edward did not produce an heir; the Viking King Harald Hardrada also claimed he had a right to the throne; Edgar the Aethling at fifteen years old, the grandson of Edmund Ironside, a previous King of England, also had a claim to the throne; and then there was the most powerful man in England, the Earl of Wessex, Harold Godwinson. The Witan council eventually appointed him King on Edward’s death. This appointment was to trigger a catalogue of events, which culminated in the Battle of Hastings.

Before the Saxons and Normans met on Senlac Ridge, King Harold had been advised to wait for reinforcements from the North before challenging Duke William in battle. The Saxon army marched for nine days after their successful victory over the Viking army of Harold Hardrada at Stamford Bridge near York and was tired but triumphant. However, Harold was outraged at the rampaging and pillaging of the Norman army in his own Earldom on the English south coast and wanted rid of the Normans from English soil. He left word in London for the Northern forces to join him without delay, but we now know they were never to arrive. This impatience was Harold’s first fatal mistake. The next took place during the Battle of Hastings. Harold had positioned his army at the top of Senlac Ridge and formed a defensive shield wall. This tactic was effective for a considerable amount of time. Harold believed that the Norman’s would eventually tire of attacking up a steep hill and when the reinforcements arrived, drive the Normans back into the sea. In the middle of the battle, Harold had an opportunity to force home his advantage and win the day. On a number of occasions, the Norman left flank retreated and allowed the shield wall to move forward. However, Harold kept the wall static and lost his opportunity. If Harold had advanced the shield wall as one and forced the Norman’s back down the hill, whilst the left flank was in retreat and disarray, the outcome of the battle may have been different.
King Harold

On September 24th 1066, the Anglo-Saxons achieved their last battle victory at Stamford Bridge. The Viking invaders led by Harold Hardrada had a few days earlier defeated the Northern Saxon army at Gate Fulford near York. The Northern Saxon army was lead by the Earls of Mercia and Northumbria, Morkere and Edwin.

Although these Earls were brothers-in-law to Harold, they both harboured a desire for independent kingdoms. After King Harold had led the Saxon army North to defeat the Viking invaders at Stamford Bridge, they heard news of the Norman invasion by Duke William in the South. Without delay, Harold lead the majority of the Saxon army South in the belief that he would recruit on his journey and that Morkere and Edwin would recruit in the North and then join Harold to defeat the Normans. However, the Northern Earls had other ideas. Although they marched South at a much slower pace than Harold had required, they were too late to join battle at Hastings. After the Battle of Hastings, Edwin and Morkere pledged their allegiance to the only remaining Saxon heir to the throne, Edgar the Aethling. However, instead of using their forces to encounter Duke William, they yet again betrayed their Anglo-Saxon Kingdom in the hope that they would bargain for an independent state. The Northern army marched back home and waited for the Normans to come to them. In 1070, the Normans came in force and wreaked havoc that would leave famine and desolation in that part of the country that would last for over a decade. The ‘Harrowing of the North’ was a sorry tale and instigated by the Northern Earls betrayal of King Harold.

In summary, the Anglo-Saxon empire fell for a number of reasons; King Edward had no desire for an heir and preferred Falcons to children; King Harold was too impatient and lost the Battle of Hastings; and the Northern Earls were too selfish to fight for the Anglo-Saxon Kingdom and were only concerned about a Northern state.
If there were one choice to be made for the main protagonist for the fall of the Anglo-Saxon empire I would have to choose an ineffectual King that put his personal pleasure before his kingly duties. King Edward, guilty as charged!

Thursday, 21 July 2011

Opening to 1066: Rebellion!

It had been a busy and mentally exhausting evening for Brother Ulric. In his humble parish church laid the dead and dying soldiers from the Battle of Hastings. The significance of the Battle had not been discussed with his fellow Monks, as they were tending to the spiritual and physical needs of their compatriots. The consequences of the Saxon defeat would come later. Now he had to tend to the dying and administer their last rites before they passed from this earth.
More than fifty bodies had been transferred from Senlac Ridge by cart or horse. There were a few walking wounded, but most of the casualties lay on the cold stone floor hours if not minutes from their appointment with St Peter. The church was constructed from the local oak and ash trees and was situated five miles from Caldbec in a village called Oakfield. Local villagers were helping with nursing duties, but the monks directed the activity.
As the Infirmarer, Ulric was directing operations with a cool and calm efficiency. At thirty years old, he had seen the injuries from sword fights and knew how to treat them and also knew how to comfort those past healing. His elder brother, Magnus had often got into drunken brawls and had received many a cut from a knife or a dagger. As the eldest son, Magnus had been destined to serve their Earl as a Housecarl, and Ulric the priesthood as the younger brother. That was the card life had dealt him and he had made good use of this opportunity. The Abbot had quickly seen Ulric’s eye for organisation and had made him the Infirmarer a mere five years after joining the Abbey. His knowledge of herbs, a soothing voice and calmness under pressure was in dire need this evening.
Ulric held the hand of a dying farmer firmly and yet gently to let the dying man know he was not alone. As one of the fyrd, the farmer was not a trained soldier, but had been called up to help his Earl fight the Norman invasion. The farmer’s voice was but a whisper, so Ulric knelt closer to hear his last confession. Ulric caught a few words about being sorry for being a bad husband and then the farmer convulsed for the last time showering Ulric’s face with spittle, blood and bile. Then he was still. The pained expression that had been etched on his face since the Norman sword had slit across his stomach was now replaced with a placid calm that removed ten years from his age. Ulric gently closed the farmer’s eyelids, muttered a prayer, rose and moved to seek out his next patient.
In the darkest corner of the church behind the altar lay an injured Housecarl. He was lying on his back with his head resting on a rolled up woollen cassock. His hands were clutched across his stomach as if he held back his entrails. His right eye was bruised and swollen covering most of his vision and a roughly cut cloth tourniquet had been applied to his right leg just above his knee. A candle flickered his shadow onto the wooden church wall and it was the movement of this shadow that had caught Ulric’s eye. The Housecarl had raised his arm to gain attention and by sheer luck or fate, Ulric had seen it through the corner of his eye. Ulric knelt down by his patient and mopped his brow with the cloth that had been placed by a freshly drawn bowl of water.
The Housecarl began to speak in a controlled but stuttering fashion. Each word painfully transmitted through clenched teeth, “The King… dead!” he began.
“I know my child. May God have mercy on his soul,” Ulric responded making the sign of the cross with his thumb on his forehead.
“No,” the Housecarl rasped in reply, “I saw.. him”
“Saw him when?” Ulric whispered.
“Changed armour….not dead!”
“Changed with whom? During the battle?”
“Near the end… escaped”
“Rest my child. Do not exert yourself.”
The Housecarl lurched forward and roughly grabbed Ulric’s collar. In severe pain and in his final moments he whispered in Ulric’s ear, “Harold….lives” and slumped back to his resting place.
“Who are you my child?” Ulric enquired.
The Housecarl never responded to Ulric’s question. Ulric’s heart was now beating fast. His mind swam with the information he had just been told.
As Ulric closed the warrior’s eyes for the last time a Brother had seen the last few minutes of Ulric’s conversation and had approached his colleague.
“An interesting confession Brother Ulric?” Brother Raymond enquired.
Ulric jumped at this sudden interrogation, as he had not heard Raymond approach. Ulric rose slowly and turned to face his Brother. His mind now fully engaged in the present, “Who was he Brother?” Ulric responded ignoring the question.
“Godfrey of Waltham. A Housecarl that had served with King Harold for many a year,” Raymond replied confidently, “He was one of the last to see the King before he fell.”
“I’m not so sure,” Ulric replied walking past his colleague, “I’m not so sure”.
Ulric headed straight for the church door and out into the night. It was raining lightly and the slight drizzle ran down his face and refreshed his furrowed brow. The last five minutes had turned a night of sorrow into one of hope and encouragement. What if Godfrey was right and Harold had managed to switch clothing? The Saxon King could fight another day. All was not lost!
Ulric stood yards from the church door looking to the heavens; his arms outstretched welcoming the pouring rain, as it now cascaded in a heavier descent. A smile etched right across his face. Brother Raymond watched Ulric from the church door and shook his head in bewilderment. Raymond had known of the Housecarl, Godfrey for a number of years. How could Ulric question his identification? With the dying Saxon soldiers still in need of his attention, Raymond turned about and walked back into the dryness of the church leaving Ulric in the rain.
Ulric was now on his knees in a puddle that had formed in the sodden earth where he knelt. This did not seem to bother the monk. He again looked up into the night sky, outstretched his arms and began to laugh uncontrollably. The soldiers from the Saxon army lay in his church, the battle was lost, but yet he laughed. Tears of joy mixed with the autumn rain ran down his face.
“He lives,” cried Ulric into the night sky, “he lives!!”

Battle of Hastings Tactical Analysis

When King Harold of England faced Duke William of Normandy on the 14th October 1066, they both used different tactics to try and win the Battle of Hastings.
Harold had positioned his 7000 strong Anglo-Saxon army on the high ground at the top of a ridge. His army fought on foot and formed a defensive shield wall many men deep to counter the charge of the Norman cavalry.
Duke William's 7000 men of Normans, Bretons and Flemish were formed in three sections of infantry and there was also a contingent of Norman cavalry. They faced the Anglo-Saxons up the hill that had a steep gradient.
The positioning of the Anglo-Saxon troops at the top of the hill gave them a distinct advantage. Not only did it give them a bird’s eye view of the battlefield, but also a physical advantage as the onus was on the Norman army to meet the shield wall and break through it after an arduous uphill climb. Even the Norman cavalry had to fight uphill!
At the beginning of the battle at approximately 9am, the tactics of Harold and William were simple. Harold’s shield wall had to stand firm and not break, whereas William had to breakthrough the wall.
The initial Norman assault of infantry failed miserably and so did the first cavalry charge. It was during this first cavalry charge led by William at the head of his Mathilda squadron that a rumour spread that William had been unseated and killed. His horse had been killed, but William survived with a few bruises and made it back amongst his men. After mounting his second horse of the day, William had to raise his visor to show his face to his men and prove he was alive.

The steep hill of Senlac Ridge
William’s first piece of luck occurred in the next phase of the battle. The Anglo-Saxon shield wall was holding firm and the Norman left flank was taking such a beating that the Flemish infantry fell and back and began to run down the hill. Approximately 1000 Anglo-Saxons saw that they were winning and ran down the hill to chase the fleeing Flemish. William quickly saw an opportunity and sent his cavalry to encircle the marauding Anglo-Saxons and trapped them between the Norman lines and the cavalry. This breakout from the wall left it severely weakened and encouraged William to mount another assault.
The second major assault also met fierce resistance and ended with severe losses to the Norman troops. It was at this point at about 1pm that modern military strategists believe that Harold should have forced home his advantage and moved the shield wall down the hill about 50 yards. This action would have been totally demoralising to the Normans’ as they were no nearer breaking through the shield wall. To see it advancing toward them may have broken their resolve. It is now believed that Harold chose to remain static as he was receiving small numbers of reinforcements during the battle. He firmly believed that the Northern army promised by Earl Morkere and Earl Edwin would arrive during the battle. A few more thousand men would have changed the outcome of the battle, but as we now know, it never arrived.
However, William was not to know this, so his initial objective remained the same; he had to breakthrough the shield wall before any Anglo-Saxon reinforcements arrived or the battle would be lost and with it the English crown. He employed a two-pronged attack that would win him the day. William’s archers were running out of arrows, but he insisted on one last salvo to be timed at a precise moment. William instructed his archers to aim at the shield wall just as his infantry would meet it simultaneously. The Anglo-Saxons could raise their shield to defend a falling arrow, but not keep it against their body to defend a thrusting sword at the same time. This tactic was executed perfectly and the shield wall began to falter.
The next phase of the Norman attack involved the cavalry crashing through the weakest point of the shield wall therefore causing panic amongst the Anglo-Saxons. It was during this phase in the fighting that Harold was probably killed and the battle won.
Although William did receive a certain amount of good fortune during the battle, it could be argued that he employed the more creative tactics. William was mounted on a horse during the battle and had a good view of the battle as it took place, whereas Harold’s view was restricted to looking over and around the soldiers in front of him.
Battle Abbey as it stands today

Thursday, 14 July 2011

The Guilty Conscience of William the Conqueror

After completing my novel 1066: Apocalyptic Visions I had always wondered why William Duke of Normandy had to go to such lengths to gain approval from the Pope to invade England and remove Harold Godwinson as the rightful King. If William had a rightful claim to the English throne then why did he need the Pope’s blessing?
Also, why did William build not one, but two abbeys in Caen?
This seems like an over zealous act of piety. To build one church in a town is acceptable, but to build two Abbeys in the same town in 11th Century Normandy needs further investigation.
In 1050, William married his cousin called Matilda. She was the daughter of Count Baldwin V of Flanders, but as she was a blood relative, the Church did not acknowledge this marriage. William knew the consequences of this arrangement but underestimated the Church’s response. As he was a pious man, he could not cope with the mental anguish of being a ‘bastard’ son and his marriage being declared immoral by the Church. One of these actions could be rectified to aid his guilty conscience, so he petitioned the Pope and asked for the marriage to be blessed on the proviso that he built an Abbey for men and one for women in the capital of Normandy, Caen. After lengthy petitioning, the
Pope declared their marriage legal in 1059.
In 1067, the majestic Norman Romanesque Abbey aux Hommes was completed in Caen at considerable expense to William. This church would become the burial church of William and still stands as an imposing central point in Caen today. The Abbey aux Dames was completed in 1130 and is where Matilda was buried.
Therefore, William carried out an act against the Church that he knew was wrong at the time and then begged for the Pope’s forgiveness. Read on as there is a common theme developing here.
King Edward, known as the Confessor, was 38 when he became the English King in 1042, and had spent 27 years of his life in exile. Most of this exile was at the Court of the Duke of Normandy, as his mother was the eldest daughter of Richard I, Duke of Normandy.
King Edward invited Norman Councillors to the Royal Court at Gloucester to advise him at certain times during his reign, and therefore had an affinity towards Normandy.
In 1051 Edward asked William, Duke of Normandy to be his heir to the throne if he died without producing any children. It could be argued that this discussion was a plausible one, as Edward felt threatened at the time by the Earl of Wessex, Harold’s father. By giving the throne to a Norman would deprive the most powerful man in England the only thing that he could not buy. Not content with a conversation some fifteen years previous, William was then supposed to have received homage by Harold Godwinson in 1063.
Harold’s small sailing party had been swept by the English tides to the French coastline and is taken prisoner by Guy Count of Ponthieu. They are then handed over to William and became William’s “guests”. It was during this visit that Harold was apparently to have sworn allegiance to William in the presence of a Holy Relic. This oath was an agreement that William would become the King of
England if Edward the Confessor died without an heir. This homage is depicted in the Bayeux tapestry and shows Harold talking to William with the Holy Relics of Bayeux cathedral hidden beneath a cloth. Does this show that William had tricked Harold into an oath that was religiously binding? Swearing an oath in the presence of a Holy Relic in the 11th Century was the equivalent of swearing on the
Bible in modern times. Bearing in mind that the Bayeux tapestry was commissioned by the half brother of William, Bishop Odo, it could be argued that the deceitful depiction of this oath was deemed to be less of an issue for the Norman’s because they had the Pope’s blessing for the invasion of England.
Even though William had supposedly received an invitation to become the King of England from Edward, and had an allegiance oath sworn to him by Harold, the most powerful man in England, William still felt it necessary to gain a Papal decree to invade. For a man known for his paranoid control over his Dukedom, this seems over the top to say the least. Did he need this Papal
blessing to rally his troops for the invasion? I would say not as he ruled with an iron fist and demanded allegiance from his vassals. William was a very religious man, so did he need to fight on the right hand side of God? Perhaps, but the argument he placed before the Cardinals in Rome does not add up.
William vowed to bring England into line as a Papal fief if he were to become King of England and restore Peter’s Pence. This was a payment to the Church that England had stopped a few years before Edward the Confessor’s death.
England had no Vatican representative so William vowed to restore this as King of England. Very pious of him, but he could have achieved this after he had taken the Throne. Why was his argument to the Pope not based on the oath that Harold had sworn on the Holy Relics or the fact that Edward had already promised him the throne? One answer does spring to mind and that is that
William felt guilty of his trickery and could not base an invasion on a conversation fifteen years previous. William needed a Papal blessing to aid his conscience and nothing more.

In 1828, American Senator William L Macey declared ‘to the victor
belong the spoils’ when referring to the Presidential Election of Andrew
Jackson. After the Battle of Hastings and the creation of the Bayeux Tapestry,
William could have altered this saying and changed it to a Norman verse, ‘to
the victor belongs the propaganda’.