What happens instantaneously on a pinhead that exists nowhere and everywhere? Most economic activity according to the dominant strain of economics. The absence of space and time is just one reason why such economics is so unhelpful in addressing questions of justice, equality and the environment.

Cities grow in particular places and over certain periods in history, forests grow somewhere and when they are cut down this happens one day at a time and, even in the age of the internet and global trading, most markets still have locations and goods take time to be delivered – from China or elsewhere. Like the movement of the planets, the changing weather, animals hunting and plants growing, economic activity happens in space and time – it can’t do otherwise.

Space and Time play little role in Economics – though they are crucial in all economic activities

Given the absolute centrality of space and time for all things economic you might be forgiven for thinking that they would be important components in modern economic ‘science’. They are not. In neoclassical economics, which retains a vise-like grip on both academia and policy making and provides the intellectual support for the ideology of neoliberalism, space and time are almost totally absent. Why is this? Why does it matter for people and the planet? And are there more useful alternatives?

In the 18th and 19th centuries all economists were political economists – Adam Smith, David Ricardo, J S Mill, David Hume and Karl Marx. Even while they were constructing simplified models of the ‘invisible hand’ and international trade, they were profoundly aware of the negative consequences an unfettered capitalist system can and does have for great swathes of humanity and for the environment.

But economics wanted to be more scientific and ultimately that means more mathematical. Casting around to find a suitable mathematics in the physical sciences, the first neoclassical economists (Leon Walras and W S Jevons for example) adopted the best they could find: Newtonian classical mechanics. Though perhaps natural, this choice has been of crucial importance to how economics has developed since. Even as most other sciences have moved beyond a narrow mechanical view of the world, economics has stuck with it.

Many things in the physical world can be explained and predicted using classical mechanics: how far a bullet will travel or how planets move around the sun in an elliptical orbit. It still lies at the heart of much useful technology.

Billiard balls remain still, in “equilibrium”, until the player uses his cue and applies a force to a ball. The ball moves, bumps into other balls (and indeed into the edge of the table) before eventually everything settles down again in a new equilibrium. If you can specify exactly the starting positions, the masses of the balls, the forces applied and the properties of the materials then you can predict not only where everything will end up but also the routes the balls will take and how long it will all take – so space and time are not only explicitly included but also absolutely fundamental.

What neoclassical economics did was take this model and replace mass and distance with price and quantity.

Neoclassical economics adopted a stripped down version of classical mechanics it still uses to this day

A market is in equilibrium if it “clears”, this means that the quantity people want to buy at a given price equals how much people want to sell. This applies whether the market is for labour, for goods or anything else. Everything is stable until there is an impulse or shock. This is the equivalent to the cue hitting a billiard ball. These impulses might be changes in consumer tastes and preferences, suppliers using a new technology or a change in the price of labour or raw materials. Suddenly it looks as though the market might not clear and unemployment or stock shortages might appear. Of course in mechanical physics such “out-of-equilibria” are normal, the billiard balls are all moving through space and time till they settle down again in new positions.

But to make their models tractable the early neoclassical economists had to completely strip down classical mechanics and drop any concept of space and time. Where exactly is the market operating? Implicitly the answer is that it takes place at a point, but not a real geographic point, rather an abstract point. In this sense economic transactions happen on a pinhead that is both everywhere and nowhere.

It’s the same with time. In neoclassical economics if it takes time to move from one equilibrium to another, this would mean that markets may not clear, trading could take place at “false prices” and they might never settle down again. Initially this problem was overcome by the introduction of what later became known as a Walrasian auctioneer. This purely fictive being, analogous to Maxwell’s Demon in physics, “groped” his way to a solution by repeatedly calling out prices, checking the resultant demands and supplies until prices that will clear the market are found – only then can trading take place. Coupled with the later introduction of “rational expectations” – in which actors have perfect foresight and complete information – this enabled economics to ignore space and time. In a Pollyannaish way, following any disturbance or shock, the economy jumps instantly from one equilibrium to another – going through nowhere on the way – in a type of economic Quantum Leap.

Now in real markets there is no auctioneer; buying and selling is continuous, prices actually emerge from the dynamic interaction of different agents who don’t have perfect knowledge and often use rules of thumb or customs to guide their decisions.

Harold Hotelling looked at how ice cream sellers would space themselves on a beach

Even within the neoclassical tradition there have been many economists who have introduced space and time into their work. Starting with Harold Hotelling’s analysis of where how ice-cream sellers would “space” themselves along a beach, there have developed whole sub-branches of economics: spatial economics, economic geography and regional economics. Similarly with time; economists knew economic processes took time so they introduced various types of “lags” into their models – although these did tend to disappear once “rational expectations” were introduced and things happened instantaneously. Yet unfortunately it is true to say that such approaches have remained peripheral to the big issues of macroeconomics; being confined on the whole to micro, though important, issues like transport and schooling.

The absence of space and time is not the only unrealistic feature of neoclassical economics. It also tend to ignore most important aspects of scale, energy use, resource limits, how aggregate markets are not scaled up individual demand and supply curves, and how economic actors actually interact, adapt, behave and choose. There is also no concept of time’s arrow, i.e. the irreversibility of processes and how such “path dependence” is crucial for economic development. The point is that even though all these factors have been studied by some excellent economists (usually of the non neoclassical variety), they are still marginalised within academia, business and government policy making.  Stripped down classical mechanics still rules the roost.

In 1954 Milton Friedman argued that it doesn’t matter if the assumptions made by economics are unrealistic as long as the models make accurate predictions. The sad fact is, however, that these models have not only proved spectacularly unable to make predictions, and not just of periodic financial and banking crises, but much more importantly they haven’t even been able to explain such events after the fact. When something happens that shouldn’t have been able to occur according to their models, neoclassical economists rush around trying to retrofit their theories – mostly without success.

All complex adaptive systems create inequality as seen in Zipf’s Law

As economies and other social systems evolve through time and space major inequalities emerge, in income, wealth, population densities and so on – all manifestations of Zipf’s Law. Approaches to economics that start with people, firms and institutions interacting with and adapting to each other in space and time can generally “explain” this phenomenon; inequality is endogenous or, better said, an emergent property of all complex adaptive systems.

On the other hand, neoclassical economics struggles with inequalities – they are rather mysterious. Free trade, arbitrage, the invisible hand of the price system plus economic growth “trickling down” to the poor should tend to eliminate them. Obviously they never have, so the answer must lie in making the world better fit the stylised economic models rather than changing the models to better explain the world; a completely unscientific approach that has appalled natural scientists. So, for instance, the IMF and the International Trade Organisation impose “structural adjustment” and free trade with never ending alacrity. The contention is that they will bring about economic growth and ultimately lead to a reduction in poverty and inequality. Of course it never happens and millions suffer the miserable consequences.

Nicholas Georgescu-Roegen an economist who took entropy seriously

Turning to the environment, in scientific terms neoclassical economics is a “closed system”, consumers consume, firms produce and money circulates to oil the wheels. It’s a circular flow. Implicitly a boundary circle has been drawn around the system. Things outside this circle, such as finite energy or resources, the environment or even other species, either don’t exist or are treated as “externalities” and very often not even “priced”. Energy and resources can be had in limitless quantities forever, though the input price may vary. This completely misunderstands the two laws of thermodynamics – the conservation of energy and the entropy law – both of which operate in space and time. All economic wealth is created by energy and resources. These often take eons to accumulate in specific locations and are not limitless, yet they can be used up very quickly indeed in a mass entropic civilisation such as ours. The consequences are there for all but the blinkered to see.

It’s very unlikely that neoclassical economics will ever be able to make a real contribution to alleviating poverty, tackling ecological despoliation and moving us towards a more just and sustainable world. But there are many other sorts of economics in which human and planetary justice matter. It is to these that we must look.

One summer day in 1076 in present-day Ukraine a young English Princess called Gytha was giving birth to her first child. It was a boy. His Russian name was Mstislav, but he was also given two baptismal names as well, Harold and Theodore. Gytha’s husband was a prince of the Kiev Rus’, and prince of Smolensk, called Vladimir Monomakh (or Monomachus in Greek). He would later become the ruler and Grand Prince of a united Kievan Rus’, a huge area that stretched all the way from the Baltic in the north to the Black Sea in the south.

The death of King Harold

The death of King Harold

Although the ‘Russians’ referred to Gytha’s son as Mstislav, the Scandinavian and Germanic world used his baptismal name of Harold. This was in deference to, and recognition of, the boy’s maternal grandfather (and Gytha’s father) Harold, the last Anglo-Saxon king of England, who had been slain and mutilated by William the Conqueror’s Normans at Hastings in 1066.

As I told recently (see here), it was in 1068, or possibly 1069, that many of Harold’s family had fled the tightening Norman yoke. They first went to the court of their kinsman Count Baldwin in Flanders, from where two of Harold’s sons, Edmund and Godwine, accompanied by their sister Gytha, moved on to find refuge with, and perhaps help from, their relative Swein Estrithson, the king of Denmark. Swein was King Harold’s cousin. Gytha, who was born around 1053, was named after her grandmother, who was Swein’s aunt

In The House of Godwine – the History of a Dynasty, historian Emma Mason writes:

Godwine and Edmund probably asked Sweyn for help in reinstating then in England. As an inducement they perhaps offered Sweyn their sister Gytha to use as a bargaining counter when he was negotiating some diplomatic alliance. Following the events of 1066-69, Gytha needed the help of an influential male kinsman to ensure that she made a marriage befitting a king’s daughter. Of her remaining kinsman, only Sweyn was in a position to assist.

The king was not prepared to offer his young cousins any military support. He had expended enough resources on his failed expedition of 1069 and had no wish to lose more in helping his kinsmen…. What actually became of these sons of King Harold is unknown.

Although there is no proof, Mason’s suggestion that, as well as seeking safety, the royal siblings were probably also hoping for Swein’s support in ridding England of the hated Normans, seems a reasonable one. If in fact the siblings had already arrived in Denmark by 1069, it could have been that their pleas helped prompt Swein to lead a large Danish army to England, which he did in the summer of that year. Swein certainly saw this as a chance for him to claim the crown of the Anglo-Scandinavian realm of England before William the Bastard and his Normans had too tight a grip.

A Danish Viking Ship

A Danish Viking Ship

A huge Danish fleet, numbering between 240 and 300 ships, arrived in the Humber estuary where they joined forces with their English allies led by Maerleswein, Gospatric and Edgar the aetheling (the English claimant to the throne). The writer of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle at the time was ecstatic. The leaders set out, he wrote, ‘with all the Northumbrians and all the people, riding and marching with an immense host, rejoicing exceedingly’. Historian Marc Morris writes in his excellent The Norman Conquest: ‘The days of Norman rule in England appeared to be numbered.’ Unfortunately it was not to be. The Norman yoke was to be around English necks for centuries to come.

Cutting a rather long story short, William came back with an army to confront the Anglo-Danish force, but had then to retreat south to deal once again, as Orderic Vitalis tells us, with the resistance of ‘Eadric the Wild and other untameable Englishmen’. On returning to the North the only way William could find to defeat the Anglo-Danish army was to buy off the Danish. The Danish war leader Earl Asbjorn was offered a large sum of money to stop fighting, which, ‘much to the chroniclers’ disgust’, he accepted. After the Danish army had spent a desperate winter in England awaiting the return of King Swein, they returned to Denmark in 1070.

After 1070 Swein certainly wasn’t prepared to try his luck in England again, even though over the next few years several mores embassies arrived from England to plead for his help (for example see here). It seems that William continued to pay the Danes off. All hope for the young Anglo-Saxon princes, Edmund and Godwine, had passed. But, as Emma Mason suggests:

Gytha on the other hand was a useful asset to King Sweyn. Probably around 1074 or 1075 he arranged her marriage with Vladimir Monomakh, the prince of Smolensk in western Russia. From the prince’s point of view that was an advantageous match, giving him a wife who was a king’s daughter, and an alliance with King Sweyn against the Poles. From Gytha’s perspective, too, it was a good match. Prince Vladimir was young, rich and handsome.

Saxo Grammaticus

Saxo Grammaticus

Whatever the precise circumstances and details, before his death in about 1075, King Swein did arrange for his young charge Gytha to be betrothed to the Kievan Rus’ prince of Smolensk, Vladimir. The early Danish chronicler Saxo Grammaticus wrote in Book 11 of his Historia Danica:

After the death of Harold, his two sons immediately fled with their sister to Denmark, Sweyn, forgetting the deserts of their father, as a relative received them under the custom of piety and gave the daughter in marriage to the king of the Ruthenians (Rutenorum) Waldemarus (who was also called Jarizlauus by his own people). He (Harold) obtained from the daughter a grandson who after the manner of our time became his successor both by lineage and by name. Thus the British and the Eastern blood being united in our prince caused the common offspring to be an adornment to both peoples.

Early Norwegian sources don’t mention the three siblings seeking refuge with Swein, but the Fagrkinna and Morgkinskinna both mention Gytha’s marriage to Vladimir. After telling the story of the death of King Harold Godwinson and his brothers, the Fagrskinna, which is a catalogue of the kings of Norway, goes on:

After these five chieftains there were no more of Jarl Gothini’s (Earl Godwin’s) family left alive, as far as we can tell, apart from King Haraldr’s daughter Gytha…. Gytha , King Haraldr’s daughter, was married to King Valdamarr (Vladimir), son of King Jarizleifr (Jaroslav) and of Ingigerthr, daughter of King Olafr soenski.

It then goes on to tell more of what became of Gytha and Vladimir’s children. The Morkinskinna tells much the same story.

Actually Saxo Grammaticus and the two Norwegian sources are somewhat confused here. Vladimir was the son of Vsevolod and not Jaroslav (who was his grandfather, and who died in 1052).

Under the year 1076, the Russian Primary Chronicle says, ‘in this year, a son was born to Vladimir, he was Mstislav, and was a grandson of Vsevolod.’

The extent of Kievan Rus' in 1054

The extent of Kievan Rus’ in 1054

The world that Gytha had married into, that of the Kiev Rus’, was positively Byzantine in its complexity. The original Rus’ were Scandinavian Vikings, the Varangians, including a certain Rurik, who had been ‘invited’ to take control in the ninth century. Over the next two centuries the Rus’ extended their reach and control, but they were constantly fighting each other as well as their external enemies, usually the Poles. Kievan Rus’ became a series of fragmented princely territories. The continual feuding, intrigues and battles made pre-Conquest England seem somewhat stable by comparison.

Most likely Gytha and her young husband Vladimir were able to communicate in Danish. Vladimir, like his father Prince Vsevolod, is known to have spoken several languages, and Gytha, being a member of an Anglo-Danish family, the Godwins, likely spoke Danish as well as English. Emma Mason writes:

There were no problems of communication, since her husband was an accomplished linguist. His dynasty had Scandinavian origins and his grandmother was Swedish. Probably he could converse with Gytha in the Norse tongue.

While Vladimir and his father continued fighting, he and Gytha had several more children. Many of his children were later to be married into other princely families, as was the way throughout Europe. Mstislav/Harold followed his father in becoming Grand Prince of the Kiev Rus’ when Vladimir died in 1125. As both Norse and Russian sources tell us, Prince Harold married Princess Christina Ingesdottir of Sweden in 1095. Christina was the daughter of King Inge I of Sweden. Through his daughter Euphrosyne, Mstislav/Harold is an ancestor of King Edward III of England and hence of all subsequent English and British Monarchs.

But I’m concerned here neither with royal genealogy, nor with the history of Kiev and Russia, fascinating though both are. Rather this is the story of the Anglo-Saxon princess Gytha. What became of her?

Prince Vladimir Monomakh

Prince Vladimir Monomakh

Conventionally it is said that Vladimir had three wives. But did he? As mentioned, the Primary Russian Chronicle mentions the death of two of his wives, under the years 1107 and 1126. We know that Gytha was Vladimir’s first wife, but who were the others? No names are found, just two dates of death. We know that Vladimir had several more children after the birth of Vyacheslav in about 1083. These children are usually assigned to an unknown putative second wife, who Vladimir is purported to have married after the death of Gytha. But there is no evidence whatsoever for the existence of this second, of three, wives: no name, no record of a marriage and no death. So it might very well be that these later children were Gytha’s as well?

That Vladimir did take another wife after Gytha seems reasonably clear, because, as mentioned, there are two entries for the death of a wife of Vladimir, in both 1107 and 1126. The name of this later wife who died in 1126 is often said to have been Anna, a daughter of Aepa Ocenevich, Khan of the Cumans, but there seems no evidence for this. It has been suggested that this attribution for the second/third wife most likely results from a misreading of the 1107 entry in the Primary Russian Chronicle, which states, “and Volodimer (Vladimir) took the daughter of Aepa for Jurij [his son]”. It clearly says that it was Jurij (who died in 1157) who married Aepa’s daughter, and not Vladimir. It’s unlikely that father and son married two sisters.

Returning to Gytha; what became of her and where and when might she have died?

In the German Rhine city of Cologne there was, and still is, a church and monastery dedicated to the late third century Greek Christian martyr St. Pantaleon, who was revered for his healing powers.

A man sick with the palsy was brought, who could neither walk nor stand without help. The heathen priests prayed for him, but in vain. Then Pantaleon prayed, took the sick man by the hand, and said: “In the name of Jesus, the Son of God, I command thee to rise and be well.” And the palsied man rose, restored to perfect health.

The monastic church of St. Pantaleon in Cologne

The monastic church of St. Pantaleon in Cologne

The monastic church of St. Pantaleon in Cologne was founded in the tenth century.

The impressive church, in the south west of the inner city, still has extensive parts of the original building. It is one of the oldest sacral buildings in Cologne. The monumental church of St. Pantaleon originated at the middle of the 10th century with the founding of a Benedictine abbey by the Archbishop Bruno. His niece by marriage, the Byzantine Theophanu, continued building after Bruno’s death in 965. Her interest in the church most certainly had family reasons, but especially the Patrocinium of the Holy Pantaleon played a decisive role, because this saint came from Theophanu’s homeland. Following her death she was buried in St. Pantaleon. Her mortal remains rest there today in a modern marble sarcophagus.

By the eleventh and early twelfth century it had acquired a certain international renown. It had strong links with England and also lay astride the usual route from Flanders to Denmark. Given later events, this latter fact has led some to conjecture that Gytha might have visited St. Pantaleon in Cologne with her brothers on her way to Denmark.

It is here we come to an interesting story. It’s contained in a Latin sermon given by Rupert, the abbot of the nearby monastery of Deutz, to the monks of St. Pantaleon’s in Cologne in the 1120s. Given the date of the sermon, the events it describes were certainly within the living memory of both Rupert and his audience, the St. Pantaleon monks. Most of the sermon was a hagiography detailing St. Pantaleon’s various miracles, but towards the end Rupert tells a little ‘miraculous’ story concerning Gytha and her son Harold. It’s a sort of prologue to two more miracles.

I have used the French summary of this Latin story given by the Belgian church historian Maurice Coens in 1937 in his Un sermon inconnue de Rupert, Abbe de Deutz sur St. Pantaleon. Coens’ summary unfortunately misses out some interesting details contained in the original sermon, and possibly misconstrues one or two things too, but for the time being it will have to suffice. The brackets are my own:

Harald, who reigns at present over the Russians (‘rex gentis Russorum’), had been attacked by a bear. He had been separated from his companions and, unarmed, couldn’t defend himself against the beast, which gored him cruelly. When he had been extricated, he was hardly breathing. His mother (‘Gida nomine’) wanted to care for him herself. But St. Pantaleon appeared (in a vision) to the wounded man, and declared that he had come to heal him. After she had heard of the vision, the prince’s mother was reassured regarding the health of her son. She had been a great benefactor of the monastery of St. Pantaleon in Cologne and knew the power of the thaumaturge (miracle worker). Following her son’s recovery, the Queen realised her desire to go on a pilgrimage to the Holy Places.

In addition, there is also a mention of Queen Gytha (‘Gida Regina’ preceded by a cross) in St. Pantaleon’s Necrolog, under the date March 7th. This is usually taken to imply Gytha’s date of death, but this is by no means sure. No year is given because a Necrolog wasn’t only a list of those Saints and benefactors who had recently died; it was also a list of days on which the monks in the monastery were to say prayers for the eternal souls of particular saints and holy benefactors. As we know, Saints’ days aren’t necessarily death dates. Rupert’s sermon clearly tells us that ‘Queen’ Gytha was a ‘liberal benefactor’ of St. Pantaleon’s in Cologne. It was on March the 7th that the monks prayed for her, which could as well have been the date they heard of her death as her death date itself.

Vladamir's Monomakh's Instructions to his Children

Vladamir’s Monomakh’s Instructions to his Children

The sermon tells us that Russian Prince (Rex) Harold had been badly gored by a bear while out hunting. We don’t know when this may have happened, such meetings with potentially dangerous wild animals were pretty common at this time when ‘nobles’ were out hunting, a time before Europe’s forests were completely hunted out. Harold’s father Vladimir was also a big hunter. He wrote some long ‘Instructions for my children’ (“Pouchenniya Dityam”) a few years before his death in 1125, in which he related his own experiences:

I devoted much energy to hunting as long as I reigned in Chernigov and made excursions from that city. Until the present year, in fact, I without difficulty used all my strength in hunting, not to mention other hunting expeditions around Turov, since I had been accustomed to chase every sort of game while in my father’s company.

At Chernigov, I even bound wild horses with my bare hands or captured ten or twenty live horses with the lasso, and besides that, while riding along the Ros, I caught these same wild horses barehanded. Two bisons tossed me and my horse on their horns, a stag once gored me, one elk stamped upon me, while another gored me, a boar once tore my sword from my thigh, a bear on one occasion bit my kneecap, and another wild beast jumped on my flank and threw my horse with me. But God preserved me unharmed.

Godfrey de Bouillon Captures Jerusalem

Godfrey de Bouillon Captures Jerusalem

It has been suggested that Harold’s near death and vision happened in 1097, when he would have been about twenty-one, and, to make good on her promise to make a pilgrimage, his mother Gytha had then joined the First Crusade to the Holy Land, where she died in 1098. That Gytha went on the First Crusade seems highly dubious. It is pure speculation based only on the assumption that Gytha died before Vladimir’s later children were born – by a ‘second’ wife. To this is sometimes added the thought that Gytha had connections with Flanders, because of her stay there when she fled England, and that Flemish nobles, led by Godfrey of Bouillon, made up a large contingent of this crusade.

If we take Rupert of Deutz’s story at face value, as fact except for the ‘miraculous’ healing, then even if the incident took place in 1097 (for which there is no evidence), I find it unlikely in the extreme that Gytha would then have instantly rushed to Flanders to join some Flemish nobles on their crusade to a Holy Land still in the possession of the Saracens.

If Gytha did go on a pilgrimage to Jerusalem, as Rupert of Deutz says she did, I think it much more likely that she went later, after Jerusalem had fallen into Christian hands, by when it was safer to make such a hazardous journey. And if she wanted to get to Jerusalem she would likely have taken the well trodden route from the land of the Kiev Rus’ to Constantinople and from there taken ship around the coast of Anatolia (Turkey), perhaps via Cyprus, to the Holy Land.

Danylo's Book

Danylo’s Book

This was the route taken in the early 1100s by the earliest known pilgrim from Kievan Rus’, Danylo, abbot of the Rus’ monastery of Chernigov. Danylo has left us a fascinating memoir of his pilgrimage to the Holy Land.

It is not known when Danylo set out on his journey to the Holy Land. Historians are of the opinion that he could have begun his journey in the early 1100s and could have reached Constantinople at about 1104–1106 whence he proceeded to Palestine via Greece and the Greek Islands. It is not known by which route he got to Constantinople, but it is likely he took the ancient route “from the Varengians (Vikings) to the Greeks” — down the Dnipro River and then across the Black Sea.

He tells of the places he visited, the people he met (including King Baldwin of Jerusalem), and the hazards he encountered. He even mentions on more than one occasion that he was travelling with Kievan Rus’ compatriots:

In his book, Danylo mentions about 60 places, monasteries included, that he visited during his stay in Palestine. In his travels he must have always had some company in addition to guides and interpreters because he always says “we” and never “I”, and writes about “druzhyna” (a group, team, troop, or brotherhood who are united by the same purpose or sharing the same ideas and ideals) who were with him on many occasions. Describing “the descent of the blessed fire upon the Lord’s Sepulchre” he says that among the witnesses of this miracle were “all of my druzhyna, sons of Rus who were together with me on that day, good men from Novgorod and Kyiv — Izdeslav Ivankovych, Horodyslav Mykhaylovych, Kashkychi and many others…” It is quite reasonable to suppose that the people mentioned by name were Danylo’s close companions who were with him on many other occasions, or maybe accompanied him on his pilgrimage from the outset…

Danylo seems to be patriotically minded and it is particularly evident when he reiterates his being a representative of Rus rather than of a particular monastery or province. At the end of narrative, he says, “May God be a witness of … me never forgetting to mention the names of the Rus princes, and of their children, of the Rus bishops, and of the hegumens, and of the boyars (members of the aristocratic orders.), and of my spiritual children, and of all the good Christians [during the liturgy services] I recited at the holy places.” In the Holy Land he celebrated 90 liturgies — 50 for the living and 40 for the dead — of his compatriots.

There is, to be sure, no mention of Gytha here, but, for me at least, it would have made more sense had Gytha gone on her pilgrimage in the company of some of her compatriots, using the most convenient route, and when Jerusalem was already in Christian hands, than that she had rushed off to Flanders in 1097 to join the First Crusade.

It is also interesting to note that many Russian historians say that upon his return Danylo was promoted to bishop of Yuryev by ‘Grand Duke Vladimir Monomakh’, i.e. promoted by Gytha’s husband!

My contention that Gytha didn’t go on the First Crusade, and didn’t die in the Holy Land in 1098, is, I think, also supported by the thought that had she done so she would probably have had to drop in at St. Pantaleon’s monastery in Cologne on her way to Flanders, and there make a large enough, and one-off, benefaction to the monastery to ensure the reverence in which she was subsequently held by the monks there for her piety and largesse.

In addition, if Vladimir’s son Jurij was married to a daughter of Aepa Ocenevich, Khan of the Cumans, in 1107, as the Primary Russian Chronicle says, then Jurij was probably in his twenties at the time, and therefore born in the 1080s, well before Gytha’s supposed death in the Holy Land in 1098.

All the evidence seems to support the view that Gytha died in 1107.

St. Pantaleon/Panteleimon Church in Shevchenkove, Ukraine

St. Pantaleon/Panteleimon Church in Shevchenkove, Ukraine

The intercession of St. Pantaleon (St. Panteleimon) which had saved Prince Harold’s life was not forgotten by the Rus’. Churches named after the Saint began to appear all over the Ukraine. One such was built in the town of Shevchenkove in 1194 by Prince Roman Mstyslavovych in honour of his grandfather — the Kiev Prince Izyaslav (a son of English Princess Gytha born circ 1078,  whose baptismal name was Panteleimon). There are several more.

Paulinus of Pella was a fifth-century Gallo-Roman aristocrat. He is known to us purely because in his old age, having suffered much and living in penury, he wrote a long verse story of his life. It is usually called Eucharisticos (‘Thanksgiving’). Here I’d like to tell something of Paulinus’s life and times.

‘I know that among famous men there have been some who, in right of their brilliant qualities and to immortalise the eminence of their renown, have handed down to posterity a memoir of their doing compiled in their own words. Since I am of course as far removed from these in their outstanding worth as in point of time, it is certainly no similar reason and design which has induced me to put together a little work almost identical in subject…’ (Paulinus of Pella)

Early life

The ruins of Pella

The ruins of Pella

Paulinus was born in the year 377 in Pella in Macedonia, the town which was, as he says, ‘the nursery of King Alexander, near Salonika’s Wall’. His father was the deputy to the provincial Roman prefect. When Paulinus was just nine months old his father took the family with him to Carthage in North Africa, where he was to take up a new appointment as proconsul. They travelled ‘across snowy ridges and torrent-riven ranges, across the main and the waves of the Tyrrhenian flood.’ Eighteen months later the family was on the move again, this time ‘to behold the famed bulwarks of all-glorious Rome on the world’s heights’.

All this Paulinus was later told, as he had been too young to remember anything of it. Another move followed, this time to his grandfather’s house in Bordeaux in Aquitaine, in south-western Gaul. Bordeaux was, he says, ‘the land of my forefathers’. Paulinus’s grandfather was the rich poet Ausonius who had been made a consul in Bordeaux in the same year his son’s family arrived back home.

A Roman mosiac from Bordeaux

A Roman mosiac from Bordeaux

We can already see that Paulinus was the scion of a rich, powerful and educated provincial Gallo-Roman family. His was a privileged childhood. His parents were keen to educate their son. They mingled learning with enticements, and tried to instill in him ‘the means of good living’, and alongside learning to read and write to ‘shun the ten special marks of ignorance and equally to avoid vices’.

At first Latin was an ‘unknown tongue’ to Paulinus because he had grown up talking with his ‘Greek servants’. So in addition to reading Socrates and Homer he mastered the Latin works of Maro as well.

The years passed under ‘the constant care of Greek and Latin tutors’, but then fate took a hand. Young Paulinus became very ill with a fever, possibly because of his unhealthy studious life. His parents realized, he says, that his recovery was more urgent than ‘the training of my tongue in eloquence’. The doctors advised a regime of gaiety and amusement. In earlier days his father had enjoyed hunting but had recently stopped, so in order to help his son get better he started to hunt again and took Paulinus with him.

These pursuits, long continued during the slow period of my sickness, caused in me a distaste for study, thenceforward chronic, which persisting afterwards in time of health, harmed me when love of the false world made way and the too pliant fondness of my parents gave way, charmed with delight at my recovery.

Hunting and whoring

As he started to grow Paulinus ‘waywardness increased’ and he started to pursue his ‘youthful desires’:

Wherefore, as my growth, so my waywardness increased, readily settling down to the pursuit of youthful desires — as to have a fine horse bedecked with special trappings, a tall groom, a swift hound, a shapely hawk, a tinselled ball, fresh brought from Rome, to serve me in my games of pitching, to wear the height of fashion, and to have each latest novelty perfumed with sweet-smelling myrrh of Araby. Likewise when I recall how, grown robust, I ever loved to gallop riding a racing steed, and how many a headlong fall I escaped, ’tis right I should believe I was preserved by Christ’s mercy; and pity ’tis that then I knew it not by reason of the world’s thronging enticements.

A Gallo-Roman Villa in Bordeaux

A Gallo-Roman Villa in Bordeaux

Of course during all these years of study and hunting, Paulinus, living with his rich parents and grandparents, would have been surrounded by countless servants and slaves, including his ‘tall groom’ to keep his ‘fine horse bedecked with special trappings’.

His parents were mostly concerned, Paulinus says, with the ‘renewal of their line through me’. But as he reached adolescence Paulinus felt ‘new fires and… broke out into the pleasures of harmful wantonness’. In other words he discovered women and sexual desire. To try to check his wilful wantonness he made a rule for himself:

That I should never seek an unwilling victim, nor transgress another’s rights, and, heedful to keep unstained my cherished reputation, should beware of yielding to free-born loves though voluntarily offered, but be satisfied with servile amours in my own home; for I preferred to be guilty of a fault rather than of an offence, fearing to suffer loss of my good name.

If I may be permitted to put this in modern parlance, this means that Paulinus swore that he wouldn’t rape women against their will, nor have sex with other men’s wives. Not only that but he would not have sex with ‘free-born’ women even if it were ‘voluntarily offered’. Rather, he would limit himself to having sex with women slaves in his ‘own house’. Whether they had much say in the matter can be doubted.

Despite all these good intentions however Paulinus had, he admits, ‘one son I know (who) was born to me at that time’. He never saw this son, who soon died, and, he says,  he never met ‘any bastards of mine afterwards’. How many did he have with the household slaves?

Marriage, leisure and luxury

Paulinus's grandfather Decimus Magnus Ausonius

Paulinus’s grandfather Decimus Magnus Ausonius

And so this was how the privileged Paulinus’s life went on from his eighteenth year until he was thirty; hunting and whoring we might call it. But much against his will his parents pushed him to ‘mate with a wife’, which he did. It seems his wife came from a prestigious Gallo-Roman family but that much of the family’s land had been neglected and gone to seed due to the ‘lethargy’ of her grandfather. Reluctantly Paulinus and his ‘thralls’, his slaves, went to work to improve his wife’s estate; ‘inciting such as I could by the example of my own labour, he said, ‘but compelling some against their will with a master’s sternness’.  He and his slaves brought land back under tillage and renewed the vines; he even paid his taxes, a thing he was quite proud of as an old man. But the good intentions and work didn’t last too long. Paulinus was too much an aristocrat and too intent on leisure and luxury, things that were ‘much prized by me’, he says. He became:

Only concerned that my house should be equipped with spacious apartments and at all times suited to meet the varying seasons of the year, my table lavish and attractive, my servants many and those young, the furniture abundant and agreeable for various purposes, plate more preeminent in price than poundage, workmen of divers crafts trained promptly to fulfil my behests, my stables filled with well-conditioned beasts and, withal, stately carriages to convey me safe abroad. And yet I was not so much bent on increasing these same things as zealous in preserving them, neither too eager to increase my wealth nor a seeker for distinctions, but rather — I admit — a follower of luxury, though only when it could be attained at trifling cost and outlay and without loss of fair repute that the brand of prodigality should not disgrace a blameless pursuit.

Crossing the Rhine, 31st December 405

Crossing the Rhine, 31st December 405

This is how Paulinus’s life would most likely have gone on, living from the work of the slaves on his wife’s estate in Bordeaux and later inheriting the large properties of his parents and grandfather, not only around Bordeaux but also elsewhere in Aquitaine, in Provence and even back in Greece, his place of birth. More lands, more slaves, more hunting, more feasts with guests and no doubt children to carry on the family line. It was a life that countless members of the provincial Roman elite enjoyed in their villas throughout Gaul, in Spain, in Britain and right across the Roman world. A good life to be sure, but one based entirely on the work of slaves.

Yet this was not to be because Paulinus had the misfortune to be born around 377 and while he was still enjoying his hunting and whoring in 406, the year before his marriage, tens of thousands of Vandals, Sueves and Alans had crossed the Rhine, brushed aside the Empire’s Frankish allies, and started blazing a trail of destruction through Gaul. This famous crossing of the Rhine took place near Mainz on the 31st December 405 (not 406 as used to be commonly believed) has been seen by many of Europe’s greatest historians as a pivotal date in the decline and fall of the Roman Empire.

Yet the Vandals and Sueves, as well as many of the Alans, soon moved on, crossing into Spain in 409, from where the Vandals went on to north Africa, capturing and devastating the Roman province of Carthage, part of Rome’s ‘bread basket’. Although Paulinus would soon have some dealings with the Alans, what was more decisive for him and for Aquitaine was the arrival of another Germanic tribe, the Goths, who first arrived at the walls of Bordeaux in 414 when Paulinus was about thirty-seven.

Roman slaves

Roman slaves

Before I tell of this I’d like to say a few words about slavery in Roman Gaul at this time. That the Roman Empire had been supported by slave labour is well known and documented. Some historians have suggested that in the late Roman period in which Paulinus lived it was much less prevalent. All the evidence suggests that this was not so. Not only did the Gallo-Roman villa owners in the early fifth century have domestic or household slaves, but as historian R. Samson has shown convincingly the terms, ancillae, servi and mancipia that are used constantly in the sources (and indeed by Paulinus), referring to those who ‘performed every imaginable task, as bakers, millers, physicians, cooks, spinners, swineherds, or porters…. and above all…. agricultural workers’, were indeed slaves. When you read Paulinus’s own story this is, I suggest, blindly clear, as we have already seen and will see again.

Here is how Paulinus tells of how his life changed:

Of this life would that the enjoyment granted by Christ’s rich bounty had continued longer for us, the former times of peace enduring likewise! In many ways could my youth have profited by frequent application of my father’s spoken counsel and by the growth in my training won from his good example! But after the third decade of my life was passed, there followed hopeless sorrow caused by a double burden — a general grief at public calamity, when foes burst into the vitals of the Roman realm, together with personal misfortune in the end and death of my father; for the last days which closed his life were almost continuous with the days when peace was broken.

Paulinus tells us that on his father’s death his ‘wilful’ brother tried to annul his father’s legal will regarding certain ‘benefits’ granted to their mother, but he doesn’t tell us of the arrival of the Goths in Bordeaux.

The Battle of Adrianople

The Battle of Adrianople

The Goths had first entered the Roman Empire in 378 after they had defeated the Roman emperor Valens at the battle of Adrianople, in present-day Bulgaria. The subsequent years saw them loyally serving the Empire in the Balkans before in 410, under their king, Alaric, they sacked Rome for reasons I will not go into here. Eventually in 412 the Emperor Honorius induced the Goths, under Alaric’s successor, his brother-in-law Athaulf, to leave Rome by granting them Roman federate status in Aquitaine in southwest Gaul. Part of the deal was that they were also expected to fight the short-lived imperial pretender Jovinus and his brother Sebastian, which they soon did and sent their heads to Honorius’ court in Ravenna. The heads were forwarded for display among other usurpers on the walls of Carthage. Partly because of this service Honorius allowed Athaulf to marry his sister Galla Placidia in Narbonne in Gaul with much pomp and ceremony on the first day of 414.

It was Narbonne from which Athaulf’s Goths then progressed along the River Garonne from Toulouse to Bordeaux. Toulouse would later become the capital of the Goths’ Gaulish kingdom, before early the next century they moved to Spain and became the ‘Visigoths’ of history.

Athaulf marries Galla Placidia

Athaulf marries Galla Placidia

At this time there were few if any effective Roman legionary forces left in Aquitaine, this was precisely the reason why the Emperor had had to have recourse to the Goths to rid him of his rivals in Gaul. And so as the Goths marched up the Garonne there was no resistance from the Gallo-Roman civil authorities who were still in place. When they got to Bordeaux the city opened its gates to them without a fight.

The Romans had started to adopt of policy of so-called hospitalitas to accommodate the various Germanic and other tribes who had come to Gaul. This involved the Gallo-Roman owners of large estates and villas were told that they must give part of their land and property to the ‘barbarians’. Usually this meant two thirds of their land and one half of their other property, but sometimes they might agree to pay the invaders the equivalent proportion of their income. This is what happened in Paulinus’s Bordeaux region.

The Goths arrive in Bordeaux

King Athaulf arrives at Bordeaux

King Athaulf arrives at Bordeaux

When the Goths came to Bordeaux or possibly before they arrived Paulinus had considered leaving and going, he says, to ‘a second country in the East — where indeed I was born and was also held to be an owner of great consequence’. No doubt somewhere in Macedonia or Greece. But he didn’t leave, firstly because, he tells us, of ‘the mere sluggish effort of my train’. But also, and this would become a recurring issue, because of ‘the conflicting wishes of my dear ones’:

Too often by the struggle of their resolves with my own wishes whenever their returning dread of an uncertain issue delayed by some perverse chance preparations already begun.

But he also admitted that he hadn’t fled because his nature ‘was enticed by my habits of ease, my wonted repose, the many special comforts of my home’. He liked his life of ease.

But for some unknown reason Paulinus avoided having a Gothic ‘guest’ imposed on him. That is he avoided having to give up two-thirds of his land to the Goths. He wrote that despite having ‘all great and pleasant luxuries and every blessing in those rough days’, he alone ‘lacked a Gothic guest’.

There was a downside to this. He wrote:

This circumstance was followed not long afterwards by a disastrous result, namely that, since no particular authority protected it, my house was given up to be pillaged by the retiring horde; for I know that certain of the Goths most generously strove to serve their hosts by protecting them.

Probably to try to legitimise the Gothic occupation of Narbonne, in the spring of 414 Athaulf had proclaimed Priscus Attalus, a Greek-born former Roman Senator ‘Emperor’. A sort of puppet imperial court was formed in Bordeaux.

But on me, besides my lot in the condition just described, a fresh cause of greater trouble was also imposed; namely that in his general groping after empty consolations, the tyrant Attalus burdened me in my absence with an empty title of distinction, making me Count of Private Largesses (procurator), although he knew that this office was sustained by no revenue, and even himself had now ceased to believe in his own royalty, dependent as he was upon the Goths alone of whom already he had had bitter experience, finding with them protection at the moment of his life but not of his authority, while of himself he was supported neither by resources of his own nor by any soldiery.

Gothic King of Toulouse

Gothic king of Toulouse

Of course Attalus didn’t last long and we’ll leave him here. Paulinus tells us that not in any way because of Attalus, ‘that tottering tyrant’, he tried to make peace with the Goths. He was trying to save his property and the lifestyle he and his family, particularly his wife, loved. It was a peace, he says, that was ‘desired by the general consent of the Goths themselves’. What Paulinus had probably done was offer the Goths hospitalitas, i.e. maybe two-thirds of his land and property. He tells us that this had been ‘granted to others’, and ‘though purchased at a price, remains unregretted, since already in our state we see full many prospering through Gothic favour, though many first endured the full range of suffering’, including, he says, ‘not least of whom was I, seeing that I was stripped of all my goods and outlived my fatherland’.

Paulinus’s entreaties to the Goths obviously didn’t have the desired result because, he says, when they were ‘about to depart from our city at the command of their king Athaulf, the Goths, though they had been received peaceably, imposed the harshest treatment on us, as though subdued by right of war, by burning the whole city’.

There finding me — then a Count of that Prince (i.e. Attalus), whose allies they did not recognise as their own — they stripped me of all my goods, and next my mother also, both of us overtaken by the same lot, for this one grace considering that they were showing us, their prisoners, mercy — that they suffered us to depart without injury; howbeit, of all the companions and handmaidens who had followed our fortunes none suffered any wrong at all done to her honour, nor was any assault offered, yet I was spared more serious anxiety by the divine goodness, to whom I owe constant thanks, because my daughter, previously wedded by me to a husband, was spared the general calamity by her absence for our country.

If we read this passage closely we can see that Paulinus saying that although he had lost all his property in and around Bordeaux, mercifully none of his kinswomen, and particularly his daughter, had been raped. But also implied is the fact that many other women had been.

Flight from Bordeaux

Now even Paulinus’s wife probably had to agree that they leave Bordeaux. Paulinus himself says that his family had been, ‘driven from our ancestral and our house burned’. They fled to the neighbouring Aquitaine city of Bazas, his forefathers’ native place.



In Bazas Paulinus discovered something he called ‘far more dangerous than the beleaguering foe’. It was a ‘conspiracy of slaves supported by the senseless frenzy of some few youths, abandoned though of free estate, and armed specially for the slaughter of the gentry.’ The withdrawal of the Roman legions and the ‘barbarian’ invasions had certainly given the countless Gallic Roman slaves an opportunity to try to throw of the Roman yoke, sometimes led, as Paulinus says, by free-born Gallo-Romans. At this time, and for some time to come, the majority of the people of Gaul still spoke a Celtic Gallic language, even members of the elite provincial aristocracy, as Sidonius Apollinaris tells us. It’s instructive that Paulinus regarded this threat of the slaves as ‘far more dangerous’ than the ‘barbarian’ Goths. The Gallo-Roman elite might have to make an accommodation with the new Germanic rulers but any threat to their privileges from below, from the bulk of the native population, freemen or slaves, was so much more worrying. Paulinus writes with feeling:

From this danger thou, O righteous God, didst shield the innocent blood, quelling it forthwith by the death of some few guilty ones, and didst ordain that the special assassin threatening me should without my knowledge perish by another’s avenging hand, even as thou hast been wont to bind me to thee with fresh gifts for which I might feel I owed thee endless thanks.

How God put down this local revolt is not known.

Besieged at Bazas

Like Paulinus, the Goths too soon arrived at Bazas.

When Rome had heard that Athaulf had proclaimed Attalus as emperor, Constantius, the consul for the year, set off with a fleet for Narbonne. When the Goths in Bordeaux heard of this they had set fire to Bordeaux and retreated to Narbonne. But Constantius blockaded Narbonne with his fleet, trying to stop supplies arriving to sustain the Goths, and because of hunger they had to abandon the city and had proceeded to Bazas which they started to besiege.

Athaulf and Gallo Placidia

Athaulf and Gallo Placidia

It is here that we can pick up Paulinus’s story once again, because it was at Bazas that Paulinus made his ‘new error of judgement’. When the Goths arrived at the walls of Bazas, Paulinus was alarmed by ‘so sudden a danger’ and thought that he might be ‘stricken down’. But his error was that he hoped that he might be able to secure the protection of the king of the ‘people who were afflicting us with the long siege’ and ‘escape from the besieged city together with the large train of my dear ones’.

Paulinus tells us that this king had been ‘long since my friend’. Trying to secure the escape of himself and his ‘dear ones’, Paulinus went to the ‘king’, who he knew was only reluctantly oppressing them because he was being forced to do so by the ‘Gothic host’. No one stopped him and with hope in his heart he addressed his first words to the ‘friend’ who he thought would help him and his family. But Paulinus was to be disappointed. The king declared, says Paulinus, that ‘he could not offer me protection if dwelling outside the city, avowing that it was no longer safe for him, having once seen me, to suffer me to return to the city on other terms than that he himself should presently be admitted with me into the city – for he knew that the Goths again meant me mischief, and he himself desired to break free of their influence’.

I was dumbfounded, I admit, with alarm at the terms proposed and with exceeding fear at the danger threatened, but by the mercy of God who always and everywhere is with them who beseech his aid, I presently regained my faculties and, albeit quaking, boldly set myself to foster in my interest the design of my still wavering friend, discouraging difficult conditions which I knew must be utterly rejected, but strongly pressing for instant attempt to secure the attainable. These the far-sighted man speedily approved and adopted. Straightway, when he had for himself conferred with the leaders of the city, he so hastened on the business in hand as to complete it in a single night through the help of God, whose bounty he now enjoyed, thereby to help us and his own people

The travels of the Alans

The travels of the Alans

Historians have spilt a lot of ink debating who this ‘king’ was; the king who was Paulinus’s friend. It might seem obvious that he was talking about King Athaulf, but given what was to happen next many tend to believe it was actually a king of the Alan forces that were with the Goths at Bazas, perhaps even, some have guessed, the well-known Alan king Goar.

The whole throng of Alan women flocks together from all their abodes in company with their warrior lords. First the king’s wife is delivered to the Romans as a hostage, the king’s favourite son also accompanying her, while I myself am restored to my friends by one of the articles of peace, as though I had been rescued from our common enemy the Goths: the city’s boundaries are fenced round with a bulwark of Alan soldiery prepared for pledges given and received to fight for us whom they, lately our enemies, had besieged. Strange was the aspect of the city, whose unmanned walls were compassed on every side with a great throng of men and women mixed who lay without; while, clinging to our walls, barbarian hosts were fenced in with wagons and armed men. But when they saw themselves thus shorn of no slight portion of their host, the encircling hordes of ravaging Goths, straightway feeling they could not safely tarry now that their bosom friends were turned to mortal enemies, ventured no further effort, but chose of their own accord to retire hurriedly.

Bazas today

Bazas today

As you can see the evidence contained in Paulinus’s story can be used to support both views on the identity of his friend the ‘king’. For what it is worth I tend to the view that Paulinus’s royal friend was the chief of the Alan army which had for long been allied to these Goths. Perhaps Paulinus and he had become friends in Bordeaux when Paulinus was acting as a ‘procurator’ for the puppet Attalus? We don’t know. Paulinus had gone to the ‘king’ to try to secure the safe escape of him and his family, but the king told him that he was being constrained by the Gothic host and  now that he had been seen talking with Paulinus he would no longer be safe if he remained outside the city walls. The king told him that the Goths meant him (Paulinus and the Gall-Romains of Bazas) mischief and that he too ‘desired to break free of their influence’. But after negotiations on terms, Paulinus and the king had agreed, and it was all to happen in a ‘single night’. It was then, perhaps during the night, that ‘the whole throng of Alan women flocks together from all their abodes in company with their warrior lords’ and enters the city. The Alans moved to defend the city, and when the besieging Goths saw that they had been ‘shorn of no slight portion of their host’, who had been their ‘bosom friends’ but who had turned to ‘mortal enemies’, they left.

Paulinus, his family and the Gallic residents of Bazas had been saved by the Alans.

Thus did a great business, rashly commenced by me, result in a happy issue through the Lord’s kindly aid, and God turned my misjudgement into fresh joys in the deliverance of many from the siege along with me..

The Alans too soon departed, ‘though prepared to maintain loyally the peace made with the Romans wherever the chance which befell might have carried them’.

Frustrated by his wife again

Paulinus was still only thirty-seven, but having been, he says, exposed to barbarous peoples for a long time, he was convinced that he should ‘linger’ in Gaul no longer, but rather should take his wife and children out of the country ‘with all possible speed’ and ‘make my way directly to that land where a large part of my mother’s property still remained intact, scattered among full many states of Greece and Epirus the Old and New’:

For there the extensive farms, well-manned by numerous serfs, though scattered, were not widely separated and even for a prodigal or careless lord might have furnished means abundant.

But rather than leave immediately, for some reason Paulinus took himself off for a few months to live alone as a hermit, but he returned to his family the following Easter. ‘Then also still unbroken were the ranks of my own family which I now found I could not leave and yet could not continually maintain, now that my foreign income was curtailed.’

Once again it was Paulinus’s wife who prevented the family’s escape:

But from seeking out my own property — whose value and position, I recall, was set forth by me in a previous passage — I was hindered by my wife who stubbornly refused to yield for our general good, refusing from undue fear to make the voyage; and I held it right for me not to tear her away anywhere against her will, and no less wrong to leave her, tearing her children from her.

Having been disappointed in his hopes of ‘enjoying repose’ on his own property, the next few years were spent still in Aquitaine ‘in perpetual exile with varying fortunes’.  His wife’s mother died, then his mother, then his wife, who’ when she lived, thwarted my natural hopes through the hindrance of her fears’. But then as his sons reached manhood they left too. They went to Bordeaux, where they thought they could find ‘freedom’, ‘albeit in company with Gothic settlers’. They had gone back to the family estates in Bordeaux which they would have to share with the Goths who had occupied them.

Although he hadn’t wanted his sons to go he hoped that while in Bordeaux they would ‘advance the interests of their absent father’ and share some of the income ‘such as it might be’ from the family estates. But in this too Paulinus was to be disappointed. One son, still a youth but already a priest was soon to meet a sudden and untimely death.  It’s possible that he had been killed because Paulinus tells us that with his son’s death ‘all such of my possessions as he held were wholly torn from me by the single act of many robbers’. His other son was also ‘ill-starred’; he ‘experienced both the king’s friendship and his enmity, and after losing all my goods came to a like end’.

A lonely life in Marseilles

Roman Marseilles

Roman Marseilles

Paulinus was left alone, his wife dead, his two sons killed, all his property in Bordeaux lost. He chose then finally to leave Aquitaine and go to Marseilles, where he had a small property, ‘part of my family estate’.

Here no fresh revenues were like to give rise to great hopes — no tilth tended by appointed labourers, no vineyards (on which alone that city relies to procure from elsewhere every necessary of life), but, as a refuge for my loneliness, only a house in the city with a garden near, and a small plot, not destitute of vines, indeed, and fruit-trees, but without land without tillage. Yet the outlay of a little toil induced me to lavish pains in tilling the vacant part — scarce four full acres — of my exhausted land, and to build a house upon the crest of the rock, lest I should seem to have reduced the extent of soil available. Further, for the outlay which the needs of life demand, I made it my hope to earn them by renting land, so long as my house remained well stocked with slaves, and while my more active years furnished me with undiminished strength. But afterwards, when my fortunes in a world ever variable changed for the worse in both these respects, by degrees, I admit, I was broken down by troubles and by age: so as a wanderer, poor, bereaved of my loved ones, I readily inclined to new designs, and, greatly wavering betwixt various purposes, thought it profitable to return to Bordeaux.

Even though Paulinus’s house in Marseilles was ‘well stocked with slaves’, he still couldn’t make this small property support him in any way near the level he expected for himself. How long he stayed in Marseilles before returning to Bordeaux in unknown but it was no doubt many years because he had been ‘broken down by troubles and by age’. It’s likely that Paulinus was in his fifties or, more likely, sixties when he decided to return to his family home in Bordeaux.

Old age in Bordeaux

Arriving back in Bordeaux, Paulinus would have found the Goths still very much in control. Having left Bazas in 414, they had briefly gone to Spain but had returned and established a Gothic kingdom in Aquitaine which they ruled from their capital of Toulouse. Bordeaux was one of their principle cities.

Paulinus returned to his grandfather’s estate where he found and occupied a house ‘in semblance still my own’, but he had to live at the ‘charge of others’. As an old man he had finally run out of any means to support himself. He had even mortgaged his property in Marseilles and then under the terms of the mortgage lost it; he was saved by one amazing incident. In his hour of desperation, he says:

Thou (God) didst raise up for me a purchaser among the Goths who desired to acquire the small farm, once wholly mine, and of his own accord sent me a sum, not indeed equitable, yet nevertheless a godsend, I admit, for me to receive, since thereby I could at once support the tottering remnants of my shattered fortune and escape fresh hurt to my cherished self-respect.

Roman Amphitheatre ruins in Bordeaux

Roman Amphitheatre ruins in Bordeaux

This unexpected payment from a Goth who now lived on one of his family farms was, as Paulinus says, a ‘godsend’. He adds: ‘Rejoicing in my enrichment with this exceeding gift, to thee, Almighty God, I owe fresh thanks, such as may almost overwhelm and bury all those preceding, whereof each page of mine holds record.’

And in his ‘decrepit age’ in Bordeaux, living on just the money received from the kind Goth, Paulinus wrote about his life, the story I have been telling. He died in his eighties around the year 460.

Whatever lot awaits me at my end let hope of beholding thee, O Christ, assuage it, and let all fearful doubts be dispelled by the sure confidence that alike while I am in this mortal body I am thine, since all is thine, and that when released from it I shall be in some part of thy body.

Sources and references:

bbWalter Goffart, Barbarians and Roman, The techniques of accommodation, 1980; John Drinkwater and Hugh Elton(eds0, Fifth-Century Gaul: A Crisis of  Identity?, ed., 1992; R. Samson, Slavery, the Roman Legacy, in Drinkwater and Elton; Herwig Wolfram, The Goths, 1979; Gregory of Tours, The History of the Franks, Trans. Lewis Thorpe, 1974;  Edward Gibbon, The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire; Georges Labouysse, Les Wisigoths, 2005; Bernhard Bachrach, A History of the Alans in Gaul, 1973; Raymund van Dam, Leadership and Community in late Antique Gaul, 1985, Guy Halsall, Barbarian Migrations and the Roman World, 376-568, 2007; Joan Hussey (ed), The Cambridge Medieval History, Vol.3.


Modern population genetics suggests that the ancestors of the majority of English people were not fifth-century Anglo-Saxon invaders but actually came from the ‘Basque’ region of southwest France and northern Spain. What is perhaps even more surprising is that they arrived on these shores thousands of years ago. This turns one prevailing view of English national identity on its head, argues Stephen Lewis.

If you ask a person in the United States what is means to be American, their first response is often couched in terms of values, perhaps freedom, human rights and democracy. The more historically aware might even make mention of the War of Independence or the articles and meaning of the American Constitution. The English language might just get a look in; but as America becomes more multilingual this seems less and less critical.

There is no doubt that numerous Americans seek their roots throughout the world, and can find a secondary identity in their national or racial origins: Italian American, Irish American, Japanese American, Native American, African American and so on. But individual, as opposed to national, identity has always been acknowledged to be a very complicated thing.

Deep down Americans know that they are all immigrants and celebrate the fact that their country is a melting pot. For sure the country has suffered more than its fair share of racism, but this doesn’t negate the fact that today its citizens don’t primarily view their American identity in racial terms.

The situation in Britain is somewhat different. While the Scots and the Welsh tend to have a clearer understanding of what it means to them to be Scottish or Welsh – quite often defined by their opposition to the English oppressor – it is sometimes said that the English are suffering a ‘crisis of identity.’

Partially true though this might be, the heart of English identity isn’t nearly so fragile. It runs deeper and goes farther back than taking pride in the fact that a small people managed to rule a quarter of the world. Now here we get into a terribly British confusion of terms. The ‘Empire’ is usually described as the ‘British Empire’, yet most English people see it as theirs. After all didn’t the English conquer the Scots, Welsh and Irish first, before venturing into the rest of the world!

The legendary King Arthur

Now national identity, like that of individuals, is also a very varied construct. It has historical, linguistic, political, cultural and racial threads. These threads, mythic and strange though many of them are, remain very real today. They were until recently taught to generations of English school children. Two very strange examples can be used as illustrations: those of King Arthur and Richard the Lion Heart. Both are often cited as having been important people for England and for what it means to be English. But Arthur was probably a British warlord who fought against the English invaders; while King Richard was just another in a long line 0f thuggish French-speaking rulers who couldn’t have cared less about the English people – except as a source of fighting men and money.

But even if all the myths and falsifications that often pass as English history are stripped away, there still remains a core of “Englishness”. One widespread view is that this core is to be found in the language and racial origins of the English. Put as succinctly as possible, the English are the descendents of Dark Age Anglo-Saxon invaders who slaughtered and replaced the indigenous British population, and brought with them their Germanic language, a language that would eventually become the English we speak today.

Vortigern meets Hengist and Horsa

Once the Roman legions had been withdrawn from Britain in the early fifth century, the British population and the small remaining Romano-British elite were faced by incursions and attacks from many sides – not least from the Picts and Irish (“Scots”). In response Gildas, the sixth century British monk, tells us “they convened a council to decide the best and soundest way to counter the brutal and repeated invasions and plunderings…” They choose to invite the Saxons in as mercenaries. Gildas continues:

Nothing more destructive, nothing more bitter has ever befallen the land. How utter the blindness of their minds! How desperate and crass the stupidity! Of their own free will they invited under the same roof a people whom they feared worse than death …

A pack of cubs burst forth from the lair of the barbarian lioness, coming in three keels, as they call warships in their language.

Later the Saxons complained that they hadn’t been paid and “swore that they would break their agreement and plunder the whole island …. they put their threats into immediate effect.” Gildas continues:

This is the ethnic ‘wipeout’ theory of English history. Although it is acknowledged that it took the Anglo-Saxons another three centuries to gain full control of most of what is now England, for many the facts seem plain.  The native Britons were either massacred and replaced or pushed back to more remote, and less fertile, mountainous areas, such as Wales, Cornwall or Cumbria. The hardy and adventurous English people settled ‘England’ – and we all speak English today as a result.

This is the English national origin story. Bloody and brutal though it is, it is what distinguishes the English from their ‘Celtic’ neighbours in Scotland, Wales and Ireland.

While once common such a telling of history has not gone unopposed. Some have argued that the extent Anglo-Saxon settlement was very modest and even (though not very convincingly) that there was no ‘invasion’ at all. These counter-arguments are generally based on different interpretations of the archaeological record. It is argued that the shifts in material culture that we can see in no way indicate that they were ‘caused’ by the arrival of a new and ethnically distinct population – whether invaders or otherwise. Cambridge archaeologist Catherine Hills points out that “people can change their names, language, currency and political allegiances without the majority of the population being replaced”.

Archaeologist Francis Pryor puts his case as follows:

If Anglo-Saxon people and culture displaced ‘native’ practices, one would expect the latter to have vanished. They did not.

The problem in holding this view is twofold: 1) Although there is a paucity of historical documents, the ones we have, whether Anglo-Saxon or British, clearly state that the Anglo-Saxons did come, did rebel and fought many battles to secure their dominance and establish their kingdoms, and 2) If there were no “wipe-out” and, even more so, if there were no invasion at all, then how did English become the language of England while, tellingly, containing almost no vestige of the native British/Celtic languages?

How we are to interpret the historical chroniclers, and to which of them we should give the most credence, will likely remain a troublesome issue for historians of England, as for all historians, for years to come.

The question of how English came to be the only language in England seems even more intractable. Why this is a difficult issue can be illustrated by two other, rather different, invasions. Invasions where the invaders’ language did not replace the native language.

The Franks were a Germanic speaking people who entered what is now France at much the same time as the Anglo-Saxons came to Britain. Yet even four hundred years later, around the year 800, when the Frankish king, Charlemagne, was crowned Holy Roman Emperor, he still spoke ‘German’, and had little grasp either of Latin or its offshoot, an early form of French. Despite the dominance of the Frankish invaders there is almost no German influence in modern French – just a few, mostly military, words and quite a number of Germanic place names. This may be due to the fact that Roman Gaul retained a functioning Roman (and Latin speaking) administrative system even after the Western Empire had started to collapse. Whatever the reason, the French don’t speak German today!

Closer to home, and possibly more instructive, is the case of the Norman conquest of England in 1066. Although descended from Germanic speaking Vikings, William the Conqueror and his henchmen spoke Norman French. Over subsequent decades and centuries, as the Normans dispossessed and suppressed the English, their numbers were never very large. During all this time they never failed to show disdain for the conquered English and their language. French remained the language of the kings, the lords and of much of the governance of the country. English, which in Anglo-Saxon times had been a great language of literature, religion and administration, was reduced to written silence. Yet despite all this English survived. It assimilated a huge swathe of French which changed the language from the ‘Old English’ of King Alfred to the ‘Middle English’ of Chaucer, but it was still a predominantly Germanic language, as it remains to this day. Yet again a powerful and far-reaching invasion failed to lead to the wholesale adoption of the language of the victors by the indigenous population.

Let’s return to the ‘Saxon Advent’.  If, as Francis Pryor and others contend, there wasn’t really any Anglo-Saxon invasion and takeover, then how did English become so sweepingly and exclusively adopted? More traditional historians will concede that the number of Anglo-Saxons who came to Britain in the fifth century, and subsequently, was never very high in comparison to the existing native British population. Perhaps at most a few hundred thousand ‘English’ compared to a couple of million Celts. Unless the wipeout or pushback theory is in large measure correct, then how is it that the Germanic language of the invaders wasn’t eventually lost, as happened in Frankish Gaul? Or combined in some way with the  native language or languages, as happened in post-Conquest England?

And here we might be stuck if it weren’t for the population genetics.

Genetics has changed historical research!

Early attempts to use science to explore the origins of peoples and their historical movements had to rely on the analysis of blood groups. This approach was pioneered by the Italian population geneticist Luigi Luca Cavalli-Sforza. He and others used it to examine, among other things, how early neolithic farmers spread from the fertile crescent into Europe. But blood group analysis has severe limitations and looking more rigorously at human origins, and the origins of specific peoples, had to wait till the science of genetics was refined enough to make a contribution. This it has certainly done. In terms of the origins of the British, or in our case the English, dozens of studies have now been conducted. These have been synthesised (and extended by his own research) by the Oxford geneticist Stephen Oppenheimer. He presented the rather startling results in his book The Origins of the British. Oppenheimer writes:

To summarize, the phylogeographic approach establishes three broad aspects of West European and British colonization in the past 16,000 years which have a bearing on the Anglo-Saxon question. First, all but a few per cent of male and female gene lines appear to have arrived in the British Isles before the historical period (i.e. before the Anglo-Saxons). Second, most British colonizers, including about two-thirds of English ancestors, came from the Iberian refuge soon after deglaciation, or at least during the Mesolithic. And third, the subsequent colonization of the British Isles during the Neolithic and the Bronze Age was complex in time and space, but mainly came from the other side of the North Sea.

Oppenheimer estimates that the ‘Anglo-Saxons’ account for “only 5.5%” of the ancestors of modern English people.  That means that about 19 out of 20 English people are not Anglo-Saxon at all! What is more, the ancestors of fully two-thirds of English people came from the “Iberian” refuge – that is an area of southern France and northern Spain centred on the present-day Basque Country.

Europe during the last Ice age

How did this come about? The answer is to be found in the climate history of Europe. Modern humans first arrived in Britain at least 25,000 years ago. But then, not much later, the Ice Age came back with a vengeance. During the so-called Last Glacial Maximum, between about 22,000 and 17,000 years ago, large tracts of northern Europe and Britain became covered with an ice sheet, while more southerly climes became freezing wind-swept polar desert or arctic tundra. In these conditions human life became impossible and we are pretty sure that Britain became depopulated. Humans retreated south and found sanctuary in a number of so-called ice age refuges. Two of the main refuges were located in the Balkans/Ukraine region and in South West France and northern Spain – today the region occupied by the Basques. Today visitors to the latter region can still marvel at the wonderful cave paintings of this population; dating from periods known to archaeologists as Gravettian, Solutrean and Magdalenian.

Around 16,000 years ago, as the climate began again to warm, and the ice and snow began to recede, groups of settlers started to move north. Predominantly sticking to the coastal route of western France, and finding the ‘English channel’ was still dry, they simply walked into Britain. With so much water still stored in the ice it wasn’t just the ‘Channel’ that was dry, the same even applied to the North and Irish Seas. Britain was not yet an island, but rather a peninsular of the European continent.

At different times over the course of millennia, various ‘founder’ settler groups arrived in Britain. According to Oppenheimer these early settlers came from a number of locations in Europe, at different times and via different routes. But the single largest ‘genetic origin’ of the English was the ‘Basque’ refuge’. As we have seen these ‘Basque’ migrations account for two-thirds of the gene lines of the present-day English population.

The Basque Flag was based on the Union Flag

Now Oppenheimer’s conclusions are certainly not uncontested, although the evidence in their support is strong and compelling. But if true his analysis and results have profound implications for at least one view of English national identity – that of our Anglo-Saxon origins. It seems the vast majority of English people can trace their distant ancestry not to a group of Dark Age Germanic invaders, the Anglo-Saxons, but rather to truly prehistoric settlers who came to Britain in the millennia following the last age. In this sense the English truly are more Basque than Anglo-Saxon!

This might be disappointing news for those who think that English and Anglo-Saxon are synonymous. But for others it is surely wonderful to know that our British or English ancestors have lived on this small island for millennia.

It needs to be acknowledged that many people, while perhaps accepting that speaking English is important for a sense of Englishness, would vociferously object to the contention that being English has anything to do with ethnic or racial origins. The English people are not all immigrants, unlike the Americans, yet many feel absolutely no connection with the Anglo-Saxon or any other racial version of English identity.  They might be recent immigrants themselves, or their ancestors could have arrived as French Huguenots, Flemish merchants, Jewish refugees or, more recently, as immigrants from the Indian sub-continent, the Caribbean, Africa or Eastern Europe. What does ‘being English’ mean to them? That is another question.

Perhaps if we want to value a sense of Englishness at all, we might find it in the supposed sense of decency and fairness of the English people, in their long struggle for social and political liberty and in their genius for invention and industry. Peoples throughout the world could, and indeed do, claim to share these qualities: the Americans, the French, the Dutch and many, many others. We need, however, to distinguish very clearly between some genuinely noble qualities of peoples and the actions of their rulers. The British or American governments, for example, have not always been a force for liberty, democracy and freedom in the world, nor have they even been so at home. Yet their peoples are predominantly decent and fair. As Francis Pryor nicely puts it:

If we are looking for English origins, we should forget the ‘Anglo-Saxons’ and turn instead to the resident population, who had been there in their millions and in their various cultures and communities, all the time. I refer of course, to the real heroes….: that diverse group of people – the British.

Watt tyler leader of the Peasants’ Revolt of 1381

All peoples should know their real history; the history of vast majority rather than the myths of the powerful that have been propagated so effectively. Knowing that most of us are more Basque than Anglo-Saxon shouldn’t be a cause for regret – it just goes to show that we have a long and intimate relationship with the land we inhabit. Is it not better to have a national identity built around a feeling of empathy and respect for those of our ancestors, of whatever race, who have struggled in the face of enormous opposition to obtain some of the rights and privileges we enjoy today? This, in my view, certainly applies to England.

One final remark might be in order. Although genetic studies seem to have ‘proved’ that the Anglo-Saxon wipeout theory is wrong, genetics can tell us nothing about language. If only 5.5% of English people have Anglo-Saxon roots then why do we all speak English? This question has yet to be satisfactorily answered.


Stephen Oppenheimer. The Origins of the British.  London: Constable & Robinson, 2006; Francis Pryor. Britain AD. London: Harper Perennial, 2005; Gildas. The Ruin of Britain. (Ed. John Morris).  London:Phillimore, 1978.

As long as civilization has existed the majority has always been deprived of its liberty and its voice. It has been literally and figuratively muzzled. You can look anywhere in the world and to any period in history and you will find that this is so. I recently discovered a very strange link between two such barbarities – between press-ganged English sailors and the ‘dirt-eating masks’ many African slaves were made to wear in America.  Both sets of people had their voice removed, and although the reasons seem quite distinct they are really just separate manifestations of a more central truth.

Whitby, Yorkshire – The setting for Gaskell’s Novel and a town much plagued by press-gangs

In 1863, the English novelist Elizabeth Gaskell published Sylvia’s Lovers, set in a fictional Whitby, Yorkshire (‘Monkshaven’), at the start of the Napoleonic Wars. The novel is both a typical nineteenth century tragic love story and a strident denunciation of the evils of British naval impressment. I explained in a recent short article that by 1793 seventy-five percent of the crews of British naval vessels consisted of prisoners of war, convicts and those forced into service. Sailors, their families, their friends and whole communities tried to evade the rapacious press-gangs whenever and wherever they could. When they couldn’t, they fought back. Sometimes hundreds of people would turn out, armed as they best could, to prevent their men being hauled away ‘like slaves or criminals’, first to rot in offshore ‘tenders’ lined with metal to stop them hacking away the wood to escape, and then to serve at His Majesty’s pleasure in ships of the Royal Navy – often never to return. Throughout the eighteenth century people also tried to escape the gangs by recourse to the law and the courts. Although they occasionally had some success, the law, the judges and the politicians, the ruling elite, were usually against them. The government wanted to fight its wars on distant fields and seas and if the common people didn’t show enough alacrity by volunteering in sufficient numbers to man the growing Royal Navy, then they would have to simply be ripped from their homes, from their taverns and from merchant vessels and forced to serve.

In Sylvia’s Lovers, the eponymous heroine’s father, Daniel, who had  been impressed some years previously during the ‘American War’ (or Revolution if you like), decided to resist the press-gangs when they returned again to the town to collect fodder for the war with France. There was a major riot and the people of the town chased the gangs away. But retribution soon followed and Daniel was hanged as an example. The story was based on true events in Whitby of 1793 and Daniel’s fate was based on the hanging of a certain William Atkinson:

William Atkinson, Hannah Hobson, John Harrison late of the parish of Whitby in the North Riding committed Feb. 26th, 1793, charged on subpoena of a Felony in having with divers other persons then unknown, on Sat. 23d of the same month about nine o’clock at night riotously assembled themselves together against the peace of our Lord the King, and with force and arms, unlawfully begun to pull down and demolish the dwelling House of John Cooper of Whitby aforesaid Shoe Maker… William Atkinson, hanged 13th April, 1793.             Calendar of Felons and Malefactors tried at the Assizes at York on the 18th day of March, 1793.

William Wilberforce – The anti-slavery campaigner

Only with Napoleon’s defeat did the movement for the abolition of impressment start to gain strength. Although by the time Gaskell wrote her book she could write in it, ‘Now all this tyranny (for I can use no other word) is marvellous to us; we cannot imagine how it is that a nation submitted to it for so long, even under any warlike enthusiasm, any panic of invasion, any amount of loyal subservience to the governing powers’, impressment was never actually legally abolished and came back in different guises throughout the, misnamed, nineteenth century ‘Pax Britannica’, finally to be replaced by explicit conscription during the First World War. One of the most vociferous advocates of impressment abolition was Thomas Urquhart. Released, he tells us, from any feeling of patriotic duty once the war against the French had been won, he started a long campaign of writing to the Admiralty, to politicians and to the’ great and the good’ to try to persuade them that impressment was a crime against every Englishman’s birth right of liberty and was comparable to slavery.

In 1816, in a public letter to William Wilberforce, the leading anti-slavery campaigner, Urquhart wrote:

I have been anxiously waiting for the present period, when the foes of our country are subdued, to address you on the subject of Slavery. The great and unwearied efforts you have made to suppress the traffic of human flesh will transmit your name with honor, as a man and Christian, to the most remote posterity. You have at last received the noblest reward in the success which has crowned your labours; and the treaty just concluded with France, consecrates your exertions, whilst it shews what a single individual, impelled by an honest zeal, is capable of performing. This perseverance and this success in behalf of the negro, encourages me to claim your powerful aid, in order to redress another grievance equally glaring and where the sufferers have a much stronger title than the African, to your sympathy. The sufferers are Britons; and what is more, to their courage and intrepidity the country is principally indebted for the prosperity and security she now enjoys.

I belong myself to this class of men, whose hardships have been so long and so unaccountably neglected ; and whilst you, Sir, and other philanthropists ranged the earth, in order to break the fetters of the slave, you disregarded with singular inconsistency, the ill treatment which the British seaman, the guardian of your independence, has been obliged to endure. In his cause no bolts of eloquence were shot, no commiseration was excited ; and whilst he encountered death in every form, and raised the fame of Britain to the highest elevation that can be reached, his ill treatment, though more galling than that of the negro, because he was born and bred up with the rights and feelings of a free man, remain unnoticed and unredressed.

Despite his rather objectionable comparison of the relative ‘title’ of the slaves and the seamen, Urquhart wasn’t against the abolition of slavery:

It is not my intention to defend the principle or the practice of slavery; I am only anxious that the persons who have displayed so much fervour, zeal, and perseverance in attacking both, would look at home, and try to correct the evils to which I have called your attention in the course of this letter. To the condition of the lower classes in this and every other country, hardships are attached, which demand as much sympathy as the case of the African.

Yet he does suggest that escaped slaves were happy to return to their owners, while impressed seamen never returned to the Royal Navy willingly:

I have known a concern in one of those islands (the West Indies)  which had from twenty to thirty negroes, most of whom were sailors, and who during the late war, were captured, some once, twice, and even thrice, and were conveyed to that land of liberty and equality, Guadeloupe, all of whom voluntarily returned to their owners as soon as they could get away, except one who could not be accounted for; but this you will perhaps say was a rare instance. Sir, I could produce various of the same kind, as well attested as any other fact, and which would shew that no small share of exaggeration has prevailed on the subject ; however, it substantiates the truth of my comparison, and I might go farther, and ask, if there be one instance on record, of mercantile seamen who had been impressed into the naval service, with the same opportunity to evade it, ever voluntarily returning to it again?

He then makes this (for us) perhaps rather strange observation:

In the print-shops in London, a negro is represented with an iron mouth-piece, and this exhibition has been made with a view to make the public suppose, that this mouth-piece is put on to prevent the slave from eating sugar or cane; yet the whole of the inference intended to be drawn from this subject is false.

(When I say this, I mean as to the cause ascribed for the use of it. That it may have been put upon a negro for a criminal act, as punishment, I can believe, although I never saw it done, or heard of its being done. In this country for the game act, you perhaps would have put a rope round his neck)

There is a distemper to which negroes are subject and at which time they are in the habit, unless forcibly prevented, of eating earth; at this time their mouth is covered until a cure can be effected. This is the secret of the terrific mouth-piece, which has been the topic of so much invective against West Indians.

Slave wearing a dirt-eater mask

He was referring to what are now called ‘Dirt-Eater Masks’. These were just one of numerous barbaric punishments and humiliations inflicted on African slaves in North America, in the West Indies and in South America.

But were these masks really ‘designed’ to prevent the slaves eating dirt? The answer seems to be ‘Yes… but’. I’ll first try to explain the ‘yes’ and later the more tricky question of ‘but’.

Dirt-eating’s Latin medical name is Geophagia: ’The deliberate consumption of earth, soil or clay.’ Surprising as it may seem, this practice goes back millennia in Europe and Africa. It still exists today. In fact it is a sub-category of Pica, ‘a term that comes from the Latin for magpie, a bird with indiscriminate eating habits’. The American Psychiatric Association defines Pica as, ‘persistent eating of non-nutritional substances that is inappropriate to developmental level (sic), occurs outside culturally sanctioned practice and, if observed during the course of another mental disorder, is sufficiently severe to warrant independent attention.’ Well that seems debatable, but I’ll leave it to one side.

In the fifth century BC in Greece, the ‘founder’ of medicine, Hippocrates of Kos, wrote:

If a pregnant woman feels the desire to eat earth or charcoal and then eats them, the child will show signs of these things.

A Roman medical textbook tells us that ‘people whose colour is bad when they are not jaundiced are either sufferers from pains in the head or earth eaters’. The Roman Pliny writes that ‘Alica’, made of red clay, ‘used as a drug has a smoothing effect… as a remedy for ulcers in the humid part of body such as the mouth or anus. Used in an enema it arrests diarrhoea, and taken though the mount… it checks menstruation’. Actually the use of clay for such purposes is still prevalent today; you can buy it in any pharmacy!

Throughout the Classical period and into the Middle Ages and early modern period there are numerous references to earth or dirt eating and its various beneficial effects. Some of the references given at the end provide more detail as well as the examples I have quoted. One such, entitled Geophagia: the history of earth-eating, by two South African doctors, concludes as follows:

All the concepts of geophagia—as psychiatric disorder, culturally sanctioned practice or sequel to famine—fall short of a satisfying explanation. The causation is certainly multifactorial; and clearly the practice of earth-eating has existed since the first medical texts were written. The descriptions do not allow simple categorization as a psychiatric disease. Finally, geophagia is not confined to a particular cultural environment and is observed in the absence of hunger. Might it be an atavistic mode of behaviour, formerly invaluable when minerals and trace elements were scarce? Its re-emergence might then be triggered by events such as famine, cultural change or psychiatric disease.

In his survey of Holmes County in the 1970s, Dr. Dennis Frate of the University of Mississippi wrote:

Dirt-eating can be traced to ancient Greece, to Africa. It was a part of European culture and was observed in the American Indians. Practically every culture has had a dirt-eating phase,’ Frate said. ‘But very little is known about why people do it.

So there is ample evidence that African slaves brought the practice of earth eating with them to the colonies. In the United States there have been quite a few newspaper articles describing how the practice still persists, predominantly (though not exclusively) amongst Afro-Americans and in the southern states. Here’s just one from the New York Times in 1984, it quotes Dr. Frate again:

According to his research, Dr. Frate said it was not uncommon for slave owners to put masks over the mouths of slaves to keep them from eating dirt. The owners thought the practice was a cause of death and illness among slaves, when they were more likely dying from malnutrition.

It is difficult to say how prevalent dirt-eating is today. But in 1975, among 56 black women questioned by Dr. Frate as part of a larger study on nutrition in rural Holmes County, 32 of them said they ate dirt. The survey also showed that the ingestion of dirt tended to be more common in pregnancy.

There have been other explanations. Some have suggested that the masks were used by slave owners to prevent slaves eating earth to excess, trying to commit suicide, and although there isn’t much evidence for this it may well have happened. In Brazil, where the slaves were used to mine gold, it has also been suggested that the masks were to prevent them from eating earth containing nuggets of gold and later, no doubt, recovering the nuggets from their faeces.

Another mask

Whatever the reasons for the slaves eating ‘dirt’ – be they cultural, nutritional, medicinal, suicidal or financial – and scholarly opinion has yet to reach a consensus – the fact is that the slave owners wouldn’t allow it. Perhaps they were just trying to protect their ‘investment’ in their slaves, to stop them harming themselves, even killing themselves or (and only in Brazil) stealing gold? I don’t really know and the whole subject needs more attention. But here is the ‘but’. Slaves had already been deprived of their liberty, and often their lives, but they must also be deprived of their customs, their voice. Eating the earth, eating dirt, was just one of these.

Thus while there is still some mystery about the ‘role’ of dirt eating and the reasons for the masks, there can, perhaps, be no better graphic and literal illustration of the loss of slaves’ voices than the horrific pictures of them wearing these ‘dirt eating masks’.

English sailors didn’t go quietly, and neither did the Africans. They went kicking and screaming. But the sailors, once on board His Majesty’s Royal Navy ships, had lost their voice as well as their liberty. If they tried to escape (which they repeatedly did) they could be flogged, incarcerated or hanged, as could the African slaves.

These two examples of ‘historic’ barbarities might seem very different – and they are – but one truth connects them. Britain’s rulers – the rich and powerful – wanted to extend their wealth and were willing to fight in distant lands and on distant seas to do so. Of course, most of them didn’t want to fight themselves; they needed a constant and growing stream of common cannon-fodder to man the Royal Navy’s ships and to fight for them. When ordinary English people didn’t flock to the mast in sufficient numbers to crew the growing navy, the rulers did what they always have done, they forced them to.

Exactly the same happened with slavery in the colonies. Initially, European indentured bondsmen were used on the plantations. But more and more servile and cheap labour was needed if the planters were to enrich themselves further. So what was done? With the active encouragement and support of the British government/rulers, private entrepreneurial slave traders from Bristol and Liverpool (and from elsewhere in Europe) forcibly yanked Africans from their homes and transported them to America.

Both of these things were about power and money. The voices of the less powerful were repressed and their liberties stolen. Plus ça change plus c’est la même chose. Marie Antoinette may have suggested that the unwashed masses eat cake, but more often than not they had to eat dirt.

Some references:

Elizabeth Gaskell, Sylvia’s Lovers, 1863; Nicholas Rogers, The Press Gang, Continuum UK, 2007; Thomas Urquhart, A letter to William Wilberforce on the Subject of Impressment, 1816; Donald E. Vermeer and Dennis A. Frate,  Geophagia in rural Mississippi: environmental and cultural contexts and nutritional implications, 2001. http://www.ajcn.org/content/32/10/2129.full.pdf , William Schmidt, Southern Practice of Eating Earth shows signs of Waning, New York Times, 1984; Alan Huffman, It’s hard to quite the habit, Mississippi dirt-eaters say, Clarion-Ledger, 1983; Alexander Woywodt and Akos Kiss, Geophagia: the history of earth-eating, 2002;  Geophagy,  http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Geophagy.

Even in our scientific age we humans still tell stories, indeed it seems we need to tell stories. Stories to try to make sense of our lives and stories to try to understand our world. Rational, scientific stories will quite often suffice. Many of these are illuminating and beautiful, numinous even. We have the wonderful story of human evolution, the story of relativity and quantum physics, the stories of the diversity of life and the unfolding story of the origins of the universe. Yet sometimes we try to grasp other insights, truths even, which are not yet illuminated by science. We tell stories to ourselves and to others, in literature, in music, in art and even using legends and myths.

La Barbe Bleue – Charles Perrault

One type of story is the fairy tale. Some of these find their origin in the mists of time and some may even have been based on real events, though these are well-nye impossible to recover. At first largely orally transmitted, only later were these tales written down. In the English-speaking world we tend to think that our most famous fairy tales come from the Germanic world, from the Brothers Grimm or Hans Christian Andersen. But many of our favourite tales were first written down by a Frenchman in the seventeenth century. His name was Charles Perrault. You might be surprised to know that it was Perrault who first brought us Cinderella, Little Red Riding Hood, Sleeping Beauty and Puss in Boots. Another tale that Perrault first wrote down was Bluebeard. It’s a story that I have returned to on and off over the last twenty years; first in the Brothers Grimm version, later in Béla Bartók’s 1911 opera Duke Bluebeard’s Castle and more recently yet again in Perrault’s original. What does it mean? Of course there can never be an answer to this question; so what does it mean for me? But first Perrault’s Bluebeard itself:


 There was once a man who had fine houses, both in town and country, a deal of silver and gold plate, embroidered furniture, and coaches gilded all over with gold. But this man was so unlucky as to have a blue beard, which made him so frightfully ugly that all the women and girls ran away from him.

One of his neighbors, a lady of quality, had two daughters who were perfect beauties. He desired of her one of them in marriage, leaving to her choice which of the two she would bestow on him. Neither of them would have him, and they sent him backwards and forwards from one to the other, not being able to bear the thoughts of marrying a man who had a blue beard. Adding to their disgust and aversion was the fact that he already had been married to several wives, and nobody knew what had become of them.

Bluebeard, to engage their affection, took them, with their mother and three or four ladies of their acquaintance, with other young people of the neighborhood, to one of his country houses, where they stayed a whole week.

The time was filled with parties, hunting, fishing, dancing, mirth, and feasting. Nobody went to bed, but all passed the night in rallying and joking with each other. In short, everything succeeded so well that the youngest daughter began to think that the man’s beard was not so very blue after all, and that he was a mighty civil gentleman.

As soon as they returned home, the marriage was concluded. About a month afterwards, Bluebeard told his wife that he was obliged to take a country journey for six weeks at least, about affairs of very great consequence. He desired her to divert herself in his absence, to send for her friends and acquaintances, to take them into the country, if she pleased, and to make good cheer wherever she was.

“Here,” said he,” are the keys to the two great wardrobes, wherein I have my best furniture. These are to my silver and gold plate, which is not everyday in use. These open my strongboxes, which hold my money, both gold and silver; these my caskets of jewels. And this is the master key to all my apartments. But as for this little one here, it is the key to the closet at the end of the great hall on the ground floor. Open them all; go into each and every one of them, except that little closet, which I forbid you, and forbid it in such a manner that, if you happen to open it, you may expect my just anger and resentment.”

She promised to observe, very exactly, whatever he had ordered. Then he, after having embraced her, got into his coach and proceeded on his journey.

Her neighbors and good friends did not wait to be sent for by the newly married lady. They were impatient to see all the rich furniture of her house, and had not dared to come while her husband was there, because of his blue beard, which frightened them. They ran through all the rooms, closets, and wardrobes, which were all so fine and rich that they seemed to surpass one another.

After that, they went up into the two great rooms, which contained the best and richest furniture. They could not sufficiently admire the number and beauty of the tapestry, beds, couches, cabinets, stands, tables, and looking glasses, in which you might see yourself from head to foot; some of them were framed with glass, others with silver, plain and gilded, the finest and most magnificent that they had ever seen.

They ceased not to extol and envy the happiness of their friend, who in the meantime in no way diverted herself in looking upon all these rich things, because of the impatience she had to go and open the closet on the ground floor. She was so much pressed by her curiosity that, without considering that it was very uncivil for her to leave her company, she went down a little back staircase, and with such excessive haste that she nearly fell and broke her neck.

Having come to the closet door, she made a stop for some time, thinking about her husband’s orders, and considering what unhappiness might attend her if she was disobedient; but the temptation was so strong that she could not overcome it. She then took the little key, and opened it, trembling. At first she could not see anything plainly, because the windows were shut. After some moments she began to perceive that the floor was all covered over with clotted blood, on which lay the bodies of several dead women, ranged against the walls. (These were all the wives whom Bluebeard had married and murdered, one after another.) She thought she should have died for fear, and the key, which she, pulled out of the lock, fell out of her hand.

After having somewhat recovered her surprise, she picked up the key, locked the door, and went upstairs into her chamber to recover; but she could not, so much was she frightened. Having observed that the key to the closet was stained with blood, she tried two or three times to wipe it off; but the blood would not come out; in vain did she wash it, and even rub it with soap and sand. The blood still remained, for the key was magical and she could never make it quite clean; when the blood was gone off from one side, it came again on the other.

Bluebeard returned from his journey the same evening, saying that he had received letters upon the road, informing him that the affair he went about had concluded to his advantage. His wife did all she could to convince him that she was extremely happy about his speedy return.

The next morning he asked her for the keys, which she gave him, but with such a trembling hand that he easily guessed what had happened.

“What!” said he, “is not the key of my closet among the rest?”

“I must,” said she, “have left it upstairs upon the table.”

“Fail not,” said Bluebeard, “to bring it to me at once.”

After several goings backwards and forwards, she was forced to bring him the key. Bluebeard, having very attentively considered it, said to his wife, “Why is there blood on the key?”

“I do not know,” cried the poor woman, paler than death.

“You do not know!” replied Bluebeard. “I very well know. You went into the closet, did you not? Very well, madam; you shall go back, and take your place among the ladies you saw there.”

Upon this she threw herself at her husband’s feet, and begged his pardon with all the signs of a true repentance, vowing that she would never more be disobedient. She would have melted a rock, so beautiful and sorrowful was she; but Bluebeard had a heart harder than any rock!

“You must die, madam,” said he, “at once.”

“Since I must die,” answered she (looking upon him with her eyes all bathed in tears), “give me some little time to say my prayers.”

“I give you,” replied Bluebeard, “half a quarter of an hour, but not one moment more.”

When she was alone she called out to her sister, and said to her, “Sister Anne” (for that was her name), “go up, I beg you, to the top of the tower, and look if my brothers are not coming. They promised me that they would come today, and if you see them, give them a sign to make haste.”

Her sister Anne went up to the top of the tower, and the poor afflicted wife cried out from time to time, “Anne, sister Anne, do you see anyone coming?”

And sister Anne said, “I see nothing but a cloud of dust in the sun, and the green grass.”

In the meanwhile Bluebeard, holding a great saber in his hand, cried out as loud as he could bawl to his wife, “Come down instantly, or I shall come up to you.”

“One moment longer, if you please,” said his wife; and then she cried out very softly, “Anne, sister Anne, do you see anybody coming?”

And sister Anne answered, “I see nothing but a cloud of dust in the sun, and the green grass.”

“Come down quickly,” cried Bluebeard, “or I will come up to you.”

“I am coming,” answered his wife; and then she cried, “Anne, sister Anne, do you not see anyone coming?”

“I see,” replied sister Anne, “a great cloud of dust approaching us.”

“Are they my brothers?”

“Alas, no my dear sister, I see a flock of sheep.”

“Will you not come down?” cried Bluebeard.

“One moment longer,” said his wife, and then she cried out, “Anne, sister Anne, do you see nobody coming?”

“I see,” said she, “two horsemen, but they are still a great way off.”

“God be praised,” replied the poor wife joyfully. “They are my brothers. I will make them a sign, as well as I can for them to make haste.”

Then Bluebeard bawled out so loud that he made the whole house tremble. The distressed wife came down, and threw herself at his feet, all in tears, with her hair about her shoulders.

“This means nothing,” said Bluebeard. “You must die!” Then, taking hold of her hair with one hand, and lifting up the sword with the other, he prepared to strike off her head. The poor lady, turning about to him, and looking at him with dying eyes, desired him to afford her one little moment to recollect herself.

“No, no,” said he, “commend yourself to God,” and was just ready to strike.

At this very instant there was such a loud knocking at the gate that Bluebeard made a sudden stop. The gate was opened, and two horsemen entered. Drawing their swords, they ran directly to Bluebeard. He knew them to be his wife’s brothers, one a dragoon, the other a musketeer; so that he ran away immediately to save himself; but the two brothers pursued and overtook him before he could get to the steps of the porch. Then they ran their swords through his body and left him dead. The poor wife was almost as dead as her husband, and had not strength enough to rise and welcome her brothers.

Bluebeard had no heirs, and so his wife became mistress of all his estate. She made use of one part of it to marry her sister Anne to a young gentleman who had loved her a long while; another part to buy captains’ commissions for her brothers, and the rest to marry herself to a very worthy gentleman, who made her forget the ill time she had passed with Bluebeard.

There are myriad later versions of Bluebeard, many with a darker ending as we shall see. Interpretations abound. Perrault himself liked to add little moral tags to his tales. At the end of Bluebeard he wrote two:


Ladies, you should never pry,—
You’ll repent it by and by!
‘Tis the silliest of sins;
Trouble in a trice begins.
There are, surely—more’s the woe
Lots of things you need not know.
Come, forswear it now and here—
Joy so brief that costs so dear!

                  Another Moral

You can tell this tale is old
By the very way it’s told.
Those were days of derring-do;
Man was lord, and master too.
Then the husband ruled as king.
Now it’s quite a different thing;
Be his beard what hue it may—
Madam has a word to say!

Later Freudian and Jungian psycho-analysts couldn’t resist the tale. As you might imagine their interpretations all centred around keys and locks (read penises and vaginas) and around the blood on the closet key that couldn’t be wiped off (read defloration). But let’s not bother ourselves further with such bunkum.

In more recent times, Bluebeard has become a favourite story for feminists. Dozens of retellings have appeared – from Angela Carter and Margaret Attwood for example – and hundreds of interpretations offered. I wouldn’t dream of stepping on their turf.

Such stories can be interpreted in many ways and no one is right. In fact the word interpretation is probably not very helpful. I prefer to see them as parables or allegories which for us somehow mirror or illuminate a perhaps obscure, but nonetheless real, facet of our own life and our own world. It is in this way that I offer this short muse on Bluebeard.

Bluebeard’s new wife is not named by Perrault, so I will use the name given to her by Bartók in his opera – Judith.

Judith said to them, “Listen to me. I am about to do a thing which will go down through all generations of our descendants”. Book of Judith 8.32

What had become of Bluebeard’s wives?

Judith and her sister were at first repulsed by Bluebeard’s ugliness. ‘Adding to their disgust and aversion was the fact that he already had been married to several wives, and nobody knew what had become of them.’ They felt that something was wrong, what had become of his wives? But Bluebeard was, after all, rich and he entertained Judith, her relatives and many young people in the neighbourhood for a week in just ‘one of his country houses’. ‘The time was filled with parties, hunting, fishing, dancing, mirth, and feasting. Nobody went to bed, but all passed the night in rallying and joking with each other.’Judith was seduced by all this splendour and fun. His beard became less blue and even though she had sensed an evil she persuaded herself that ‘he was a mighty civil gentleman’.

When we are children we have an innate sense of right and wrong, it is biological. For sure our parents, our schools and our communities will ‘socialize’ us with more morality – sometimes for the good, often not. Just like Judith we can sense evil and we shy away. But then we are shown all the things we might have if we can just overcome our repulsion. All the cars, the houses, the clothes, the food and the holidays we can have. Judith must agree to marry Bluebeard, which she does despite her misgivings. We agree to join the great capitalist, consumerist frenzy despite an inkling that there’s something darker hidden just out of view. For both Judith and us, if we comply and obey then we are promised we will receive the precious keys to the cupboards in the castle, and all they contain. We can have it all so long as we submit and obey.

When Bluebeard goes away on a trip he ‘desires her to divert herself and make good cheer’. He gives her all the keys, keys to wardrobes, strongboxes and rooms where all his fortune and luxuries can be found. There is only one small catch, he forbids her to enter ‘the little closet’. If she does, he says, ‘you may expect my just anger and resentment’. Judith promises to obey. We know, of course, that hidden behind the closet door a horror lurks. Judith doesn’t know this yet.

Once Bluebeard is gone all her friends arrive to enjoy the castle. ‘They had not dared to come while her husband was there.’ They marveled at all the luxury and ‘they ceased not to extol and envy the happiness of their friend’. She really did seem to have been given the keys to happiness and everything one could desire in the world. But Judith had made a Faustian pact with Bluebeard, even if she was only dimly aware that she had. The price of the keys was to obey and not to question what lay hidden below the glittering surface.

Many of us do this in our own lives. We obey and we don’t question, and in return we (or some of us) can luxuriate in the good things of life. Yet we still feel something is not quite right, we know there is some type of knowledge, some type of insight that is being kept from us. Who really is Bluebeard? What really is the nature of the society we live in?

Judith is ‘curious’ and ‘impatient’. Although she knows she will be punished, she just must use the key to the little closet to see what’s inside. What is Bluebeard’s secret? We too are curious to find out what is hidden from our view. What are the hidden secrets of our society?

Having come to the closet door, she made a stop for some time, thinking about her husband’s orders, and considering what unhappiness might attend her if she was disobedient; but the temptation was so strong that she could not overcome it. She then took the little key, and opened it, trembling. At first she could not see anything plainly, because the windows were shut. After some moments she began to perceive that the floor was all covered over with clotted blood, on which lay the bodies of several dead women, ranged against the walls. (These were all the wives whom Bluebeard had married and murdered, one after another.) She thought she should have died for fear, and the key, which she, pulled out of the lock, fell out of her hand.

Bluebeard’s wife opens the little closet

This was the secret. Bluebeard’s Heart of Darkness. His life, her life and the castle were all built on the blood of others. As Mr. Kurtz said while dying: ‘The Horror! The Horror!’

In our own lives too we might one day find that the life we lead, the jobs we do, and the luxuries we enjoy are all based on violence and death. Violence towards other humans, violence to other living beings and violence towards the earth. Once we are aware, once we are conscious of the horror, we want to put the genie back. Yet, no matter how frightened we are, we can’t

Judith was scared. What would happen to her if Bluebeard found out she had been disobedient? She notices that the closet key she had dropped was ‘stained with blood’. Desperately she tries to put the genie back in the bottle. ‘She tried two or three times to wipe it off; but the blood would not come off.’

Out, damned spot! out, I say!…. Here’s the smell of the blood still: all the perfumes of Arabia will not sweeten this little hand.   Lady Macbeth in Macbeth by William Shakespeare

The brothers kill Bluebeard

At first we want to deny what we have seen. When Bluebeard comes back Judith returns all the keys except the one for the little closet, which she tells him she’s left upstairs. Bluebeard is not deceived, he knows she has discovered his secret and disobeyed his orders – his orders to refrain from looking into the heart of darkness. When he sees the blood on the key Judith says she doesn’t know how it got there, but Bluebeard replies: ‘I very well know. You went into the closet, did you not? Very well, madam; you shall go back, and take your place among the ladies you saw there.’ Judith knows she must pay the price for her Faustian pact with the devil. She too must join his other victims. When her pleading and her feminine wiles have no effect on Bluebeard’s determination that she ‘must die’, she begs for a little time because she knows her brothers should be arriving and may save her. They come just in the nick of time and run Bluebeard through with their swords. Perrault ends his tale:

Bluebeard had no heirs, and so his wife became mistress of all his estate. She made use of one part of it to marry her sister Anne to a young gentleman who had loved her a long while; another part to buy captains’ commissions for her brothers, and the rest to marry herself to a very worthy gentleman, who made her forget the ill time she had passed with Bluebeard.

Or in the usual phrase: they all lived happily ever after.

Judith dies in Bartok’s Duke Bluebeards Castle

Béla Bartók’s rather misogynist opera ends more darkly. Rescue doesn’t come and despite Judith’s pleas for mercy Bluebeard kills her. Bluebeard: ‘Thou art lovely, passing lovely. Thou art the queen of all my women. My best and fairest. (‘Judith goes the way of the other women’) Henceforth all shall be darkness, darkness.’

So what are we to do once we have seen into the heart of darkness? Whether this is our own personal darkness or that of the society in which we live. In Joseph Conrad’s novel, Mr. Kurtz’s dying cry of ‘The Horror!’ was both a cry for what he had become and for the society that had made him so. Is there no hope of rescue because we have sinned, as in Bartok, or if we use all our wit and guiles can we delay the end until help arrives? Or should we like an existential philosopher despair and withdraw? The answers must be personal.

Perhaps for each of us the most important question is: ‘Who is Bluebeard?’, or even, ‘What is Bluebeard’. If we don’t see the enemy as the evil it is our fate will probably be sealed… unless we have some brothers to rescue us.

The history of the British colonization of ‘Brittany’ is not well known either in Britain or in France. It is a fascinating story, although the early years of the settlement in the fifth century remain obscure. Yet not long after the British Celts had fled the invading English (Saxons) in the 450s a large British army under a king called Riothamus was defeated by the Visigoths in Gaul – what is now France. This is the story I wish to tell.

Attila in Gaul, 451

Attila in Gaul, 451

I previously told the story of a Gallo-Roman aristocrat called Paulinus of Pella (see here), about his troubles caused by the arrival of the Germanic Goths in Bordeaux and his ultimately unsuccessful attempts to maintain at least a semblance of the pampered and privileged life he had been born into. At the time of his death around 460 the Western Roman Empire was in the finals stages of disintegration. Germanic tribes were busily entrenching themselves all over Roman Gaul and extending the territories they controlled: the Goths spreading out from their kingdom of Toulouse, the Franks in the North East, the Burgundians in the East with their new capital in Lyon, and even the Alans.  The non-Germanic Huns under their leader Attila had also threatened, but they withdrew after having been defeated by the Roman general Aëtius and his Gothic allies at the famous Battle of the Catalaunian Plains, near Châlons, in 451. They never returned to Gaul.

By the time of Paulinus’s death the Romans and Gallo-Romans had already had to make uncomfortable accommodations with the new Germanic masters, yet the Empire was still capable of striking back, though by now more weakly and less frequently.

Into this caustic mix of rivalries and fights for land a new ethic group arrived in the 450s: the British. They and their descendants would settle the north-west corner of Gaul called Armorica and would ultimately give their ethnic name to this land: Brittany, or Bretagne in French.

The Britons who arrived in Gaul in the 450s are often said to have been a ‘second wave’ of refugee immigrants.[1] An earlier group of British fighters had accompanied the British imperial usurper Marcus Maximus to Gaul in 383, never to return. The eventual fate of this first wave remains unknown and is a matter of some scholarly debate. But the British of the second wave were without any doubt those who went on to ‘create’ Brittany.

Background to the emigration

The background to this emigration was the ‘Saxon Advent’, that is the arrival of the ‘Anglo-Saxons’ in Britain. This advent is conventionally dated to the year 441, but this dating is controversial.[2] The leaders of the first Saxon party were said to have been called Hengest and Horsa. Under the year 449 the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle reports:

This year Marcian and Valentinian assumed the empire, and reigned seven winters. In their days Hengest and Horsa, invited by Wurtgern (Vortigern), king of the Britons to his assistance, landed in Britain in a place that is called Ipwinesfleet; first of all to support the Britons, but they afterwards fought against them.[3]

gildasThe British monk Gildas wrote of the subsequent sufferings of the British:

Some, therefore, of the miserable remnant (of the British), being taken in the mountains, were murdered in great numbers; others, constrained by famine, came and yielded themselves to be slaves for ever to their foes, running the risk of being instantly slain, which truly was the greatest favour that could be offered them: some others passed beyond the seas with loud lamentations instead of the voice of exhortation. “Thou hast given us as sheep to be slaughtered, and among the Gentiles hast thou dispersed us.” Others, committing the safeguard of their lives, which were in continual jeopardy, to the mountains, precipices, thickly wooded forests, and to the rocks of the seas (albeit with trembling hearts), remained still in their country. But in the meanwhile, an opportunity happening, when these most cruel robbers were returned home, the poor remnants of our nation (to whom flocked from divers places round about our miserable countrymen as fast as bees to their hives, for fear of an ensuing storm), being strengthened by God, calling upon him with all their hearts, as the poet says, “With their unnumbered vows they burden heaven,” that they might not be brought to utter destruction, took arms under the conduct of Ambrosius Aurelianus, a modest man, who of all the Roman nation was then alone in the confusion of this troubled period by chance left alive. His parents, who for their merit were adorned with the purple, had been slain in these same broils, and now his progeny in these our days, although shamefully degenerated from the worthiness of their ancestors, provoke to battle their cruel conquerors, and by the goodness of our Lord obtain the victory.[4]

British Brittany

British Brittany

The others who ‘passed beyond the seas with loud lamentations’ went to Armorica in Gaul, which would later be called Brittany after them.

There is much to tell about the circumstances, timing and composition of this British emigration to Armorica, particularly whether it was a coordinated mass emigration under powerful Romano-British leaders or whether it was a more piecemeal process involving many smaller, disparate groups of frightened refugees. Whatever the case, by 461, only twenty years after the conventional date of the Saxon Advent, there were already enough Britons in Armorica to justify them sending their own bishop to the Council of Tours. T. M. Charles Edwards writes:

The first strong evidence for the emergence of a distinct British settlement in the north-west of Armorica does not come until 461, when subscriptions to the council of Tours (AD 461) included ‘Mansuetus, bishop of the Britons’.[5]

Most of what we know about these and subsequent early British refugees in Gaul comes from the many ‘lives’ of Celtic saints and is best left to the specialists in such matters. Yet in just a few generally reliable sources we soon find mention of a British king called Riothamus whose 12,000 strong army was defeated by the Visigoths of King Euric around 469/70. Before considering, but not answering, the question of who Riothamus was, I will try to explain what happened and perhaps why and where.

Bourges and Déols

Before we hear anything of Riothamus, we find a brief mention in Gregory of Tours’ History of the Franks of an event which probably took place sometime between 463 and 468. It says:

The Britanni were driven from Bourges by the Goths, and many were slain at the village of Déols.[6]

Brittani de Bitoricas a Gothis expulsi sunt, multis apud Dolensem vicum peremptis.

Deols in Berry

Deols in Berry

Following the mention of a British bishop at the Council of Tours in 461, this is the next time where explicit reference is made to any British (‘Britanni’) in Gaul. Conventionally these events at Bourges and Déols (in the county of Berry about 20 miles southwest of Bourges) where ‘many (British) were slain’ by the Goths, is dated to about 469 and equated with the defeat of  Riothamus’s British army by Euric’s Visigoths. I will discuss this battle later, but here I would just like to suggest that the conflation of events at Bourges/Déols and the battle which certainly took place in 469/70 is probably mistaken.

Ralph Mathisen expresses the conventional view:

In Gaul, Anthemius was faced by the able and ambitious Visigothic king, Euric (466-484). In 469 or shortly afterward, the Armorican Bretons commanded by Riothamus… were engaged by Anthemius to oppose the Visigoths. But when, after having occupied Bourges, the Bretons attacked the Goths on their own territory at Déols, they suffered a signal defeat.[7]

How Mathisen draws the precise implication from Gregory of Tours’ words that ‘after having occupied Bourges, the Bretons attacked the Goths on their own territory at Déols’ is beyond me. Rather the text says simply but explicitly that the British ‘were driven from Bourges by the Goths, and many were slain at the village of Déols’.

The paragraph in Gregory of Tours’ History of the Franks where we find mention of Britons being killed by Goths at Déols was in all likelihood taken from a ‘year chronicle’ and is thus probably roughly in chronological order.[8] If this is so then a close examination of the paragraph reveals that it covers events in the period between 463 and 467/8, with the events at Déols most likely taking place around 465/6. Here is the full paragraph:

Now Childeric fought at Orleans and Adovacrius came with the Saxons to Angers. At that time a great plague destroyed the people. Egidius died and left a son, Syagrius by name. On his death Adovacrius received hostages from Angers and other places. The Britanni were driven from Bourges by the Goths, and many were slain at the village of Déols. Count Paul with the Romans and Franks made war on the Goths and took booty. When Adovacrius came to Angers, king Childeric came on the following day, and slew count Paul, and took the city. In a great fire on that day the house of the bishop was burned. After this war was waged between the Saxons and the Romans; but the Saxons fled and left many of their people to be slain, the Romans pursuing. Their islands were captured and ravaged by the Franks, and many were slain. In the ninth month of that year, there was an earthquake.

GregMost of these events mentioned by Gregory can be confirmed and cross-checked from other sources. Importantly they seem to have taken place in the order mentioned by Gregory. The earliest events, such as Childeric at Orleans and a plague, can be dated to 463/4. In the middle we read that ‘Euric, the king of the Visigoths, observing the frequent changes of the Roman princes, attempted to seize the Gauls for his own’. Euric became king in 466. The last sentence concerning an earthquake can be dated to 467/8. Hydatius  wrote that ‘in the second year of the emperor Anthemius blood burst forth from the ground in the middle of Toulouse and continued to flow for an entire day’, and  Anthemius became Emperor in 467. As historian Penny MacGeorge comments about the period:

Marcellinus comes noted an earthquake in the Ravenna region and an eruption of Vesuvius; and the Fasti Vindobonenses an outbreak of cattle disease in AD 467. There was pestilence in Italy, particularly in Campania. In both East and West this was a time of disasters and unusual events including: the fire in Constantinople in AD 465; earthquakes and floods in the eastern Mediterranean; celestial phenomena in AD 467; and famines. All this may have contributed to a general feeling of insecurity, even of doom.[9]

On the basis of all this chronology it is likely that the killing of the British at Déols took place around 465/6, and was separate from the battle lost by Riothamus’s British army, which can be dated with some certainty to 469/70.

If this is correct, then the events at Déols probably had nothing to do with Riothamus or, even if he had been a British leader at Bourges and Déols, it wasn’t the great battle where he and his British army were defeated by Euric. The scanty available evidence regarding the early settlement of ‘Brittany’ suggests that it was heaviest in the north-west of Armorica peninsula but that some groups of Britons had ventured further south along the coast to the vicinity of Vannes and Nantes. Bourges is situated far inland and what the British were doing there is a bit of a mystery. It might well have been that some British refugees had established themselves in the former Roman town of Bourges and, having been driven out by the Goths, were then killed (or at least some of them) at Déols as they fled back towards the coast.

Whatever the case, we can now turn to the defeat of Riothamus and his substantial British army by Euric’s Goths in about 469/70.

The British defeat

Our information comes from Jordanes’ The Origins and Deeds of the Goths. Jordanes was a Gothic Roman bureaucrat in the mid sixth century. Writing about the years 466 – 476 he says:

Euric, the king of the Visigoths, observing the frequent changes of the Roman princes, attempted to seize the Gauls for his own. Anthemius, the Emperor, receiving intelligence of this, immediately invited the aid of the Britons, whose King Riothimus, coming with twelve thousand by way of Ocean, and disembarking from his ships, was received into the city/state of the Bituriges. Euric, king of the Visigoths, came against them leading an innumerable army, and fighting for a long time, overcame Riothimus, the king of the Britons, before the Romans had joined company with him. Having lost a great part of his army, he fled with all whom he could save, and came to the neighbouring nation of the Burgundians, then confederate with the Romans. But Euric, king of the Visigoths, seized Auvergne, a city of Gaul…. When Euric, as we have already said, beheld these great and various changes, he seized the city of Arverna, where the Roman general Ecdicius was at that time in command. He was a senator of most renowned family and the son of Avitus, a recent emperor who had usurped the reign for a few days–for Avitus held the rule for a few days before Olybrius, and then withdrew of his own accord to Placentia, where he was ordained bishop. His son Ecdicius strove for a long time with the Visigoths, but had not the power to prevail. So he left the country and (what was more important) the city of Arverna to the enemy and betook himself to safer regions.[10]

Emperor Anthemius

Emperor Anthemius

The context of this battle between Britons and Visigoths was that in early 467 a ‘Greek’ called Anthemius had been elevated to be Roman Emperor. He wasn’t very popular among the Gallo-Ronan aristocracy but he did try to protect Gaul. Anthemius had sought the help of the British, as Jordanes tells us. Most likely he offered them ‘federate’ status and the prospect of land, as the Romans of the late empire often did when dealing with ‘barbarian’ tribes. At this date the main concern of the Romans and Gallo-Romans was King Euric’s Goths. Initially these Visigoths (i.e. western Goths) had been granted their territory in 418 centred on Toulouse. For many years they acted as unruly and not always obedient allies of the Romans. But in 466 Euric had succeeded to the Gothic throne by murdering his brother Theoderic and broke with Rome. The Goths already controlled much of south-west Gaul and had started to push northwards. One of their key objectives was the region of Auvergne with its principal city of Arverna (now Clermont-Ferrand). It was to stem this Gothic advance that Anthemius had requested the assistance of the British, who, as Jordanes says, came ‘with twelve thousand by way of Ocean’ and disembarked from their ships.

Where the British ships actually arrived, as well as from where they came, is not known.  ‘Ocean’ then and now is the Atlantic seaboard of western France. It is because Jordanes says that the British were received into the city/state of ‘the Bituriges’ that conventionally Riothamus’s battle is placed at Bourges because ‘Bituriges’ is usually translated as Bourges. But this identification while possible is by no means certain. The Gallic Bituriges people were settled all over Aquitaine, although according to the Roman Strabo their territory was surrounded by that of a distinct Aquitanian people, and the Bituriges  ‘were not themselves Aquitanian and took no part in their political affairs’. The Bituriges Vivisci were settled around Bordeaux and the Bituriges Cubi around Bourges. So the British landing could well have been as far south as Bordeaux, which unlike Bourges is actually on the Ocean, Bourges itself is a very long way inland. I will leave such conjectures for now; we simply don’t know here the British disembarked.

Riothamus fights the Visigoths

Riothamus fights the Visigoths

The link up with the Romans that didn’t happen

Jordanes says the Riothamus’s British were expecting to join forces with the Romans but that ‘before the Romans had linked up with him’ he was met and defeated by the Goths. Emperor Anthemius’s promised forces can hardly have been based in Gaul because these forces didn’t amount to much by this time. It is more likely that it was a Roman army under the command of Anthemius’s son Anthemiolus who the British were hoping to meet. The Gallic Chronicle of 511 says:

Anthemiolus was sent to Arles by his father the emperor Anthemius along with Thorisarius, Everdingus, and Hermianus the Count of the Stables. King Euric encountered them on the other side of the Rhone and, after killing the generals, devastated everything.

Antimolus a patre Anthemio imperatore cum Thorisario, Everdingo et Hermiano com. stabuli Arelate directus est, quibus rex Euricus trans Rhodanum occurrit occisisque ducibus omnia vastavit.



This event falls between the succession of Euric in 466 and the war between Anthemius and Ricimer (471–472). ‘It can probably be further narrowed to the period when Anthemius is known to have been organising a concerted effort to remove the Visigoths from Gaul between 468 and 471.’[11]

So it is quite possible that ‘Anthemiolus’ army was sent to reinforce Riothamus and that Euric defeated both forces in turn, probably in either 470 or 471’.[12]. In what order it is difficult to know, although I think that most of the chronological evidence suggests that the defeat of the British came first and shortly thereafter that the Goths defeated the Romans near Arles before returning north to besiege Clermont-Ferrand.

Where did the British come from?

map (1)Before turning to the possible location of King Riothamus’s defeat, if it wasn’t at Déols, we might ask where this British army had come from. There are only two possible answers. Either they came by sea from the more northerly British/Breton settlement in Armorica (i.e. present-day Brittany) or they came direct from the island of Britain. An insular British origin was argued for by the great Breton/French historian Léon Fleuriot.[13] Not only did Fleuriot argue that Riothamus’s British had came from the island of Britain to support the Emperor Anthemius in Gaul, but he also argued that Riothamus was the  Romano-British leader Ambrosius Aurelianus. This rather astonishing claim has since been supported in more modern times by several serious historians.[14] Others have even claimed that Riothamus was King Arthur; most popularly Geoffrey Ashe.[15] The arguments put forward for these claims are long, complex and obscure but, for me at least, they ultimately fail to convince.

But even if we put King Arthur to one side, as I do, the origin of the large and coordinated British force, ten thousand strong, which arrived in Gaul under the leadership of a British king called Riothamus, could well have been Britain itself. On the other hand Riothamus’s force might have consisted of  the British/Bretons of the diaspora – as we will see the emperor Anthemius asked the British ‘north of the Loire’ for help

It is with this mention of ‘north of the Loire’ that we can now turn to the only other two mentions of Riothamus’s Britons in the sources we have.

Treason and exile

In the second half of the 460s, the post of Roman Praetorian Prefect of Gaul, the official governor, was held on two occasions by a Gallo-Roman aristocrat called Arvandus. During his second term in office (467 – 468) Arvandus committed an act of treachery against the emperor Anthemius. Probably in 468, or the year before, Arvandus dictated a letter to his secretary addressed to the Gothic king Euric in which he tried to dissuade Euric ‘from concluding peace with ‘the Greek Emperor’ (i.e. Anthemius), urging that instead he should attack the Brittones north of the Loire, and asserting that the law of nations called for a division of Gaul between Visigoth and Burgundian’.

We don’t know if Euric ever got this letter or if he did whether he took any notice of Anthemius’s urgings. We don’t even know if Arvandus’s mention of Brittones was referring to ‘Bretons’ already settled north of the Loire or to an insular British force recently arrived there. But what we do know is that not long afterwards Euric did indeed lead his Goths to fight the British.

Arvandus’s letter must be dated prior to 468, or early in that year, because in 468 he was dismissed from his prefectship of Gaul for a second time and ‘invested with guards’ he was taken as ‘a prisoner bound for Rome’.[16] The Roman Senator Cassiodorus says that Arvandus had wanted to seize the throne; he had ‘wanted to become emperor’.[17]

Roman Senate

Roman Senate

In Rome Arvandus was put on trial for treason before the Roman senate and the ‘intercepted letter’ he had written to Gothic king Euric was produced in evidence against him. He twice acknowledged that the letter was indeed his and was condemned to death for treachery. The later intervention of his friend, the influential Gallo-Roman Sidonius Appolinaris, saved his life and the sentence was commuted to exile on an island.

We know these details of Arvandus’s acts and subsequent fate from a letter Sidonius wrote to his friend Vincentius, probably in about 469/70 after he had returned from Rome where, as the letter makes clear, he had personally witnessed the start of Arvandus’s trial. I have reproduced Sidonius’s letter in full at the end of this essay as it is compelling reading.

Sidonius writes to Riothamus

Next we have a letter Sidonius wrote to the British king Riothamus himself. Sidonius was asking for Riothamus’s intervention and help for a Gallo-Roman landowner, probably living in the Auvergne, whose slaves were being enticed away by the Britannis (Britons or Bretons).

I will write once more in my usual strain, mingling compliment with grievance. Not that I at all desire to follow up the first words of greeting with disagreeable subjects, but things seem to be always happening which a man of my order and in my position can neither mention without unpleasantness, nor pass over without neglect of duty. Yet I do my best to remember the burdensome and delicate sense of honour which makes you so ready to blush for others’ faults. The bearer of this is an obscure and humble person, so harmless, insignificant, and helpless that he seems to invite his own discomfiture; his grievance is that the Brittones are secretly enticing his slaves away. Whether his indictment is a true one, I cannot say; but, if you can only confront the parties and decide the matter on its merits, I think the unfortunate man may be able to make good his charge, if indeed a stranger from the country unarmed, abject and impecunious to boot, has ever a chance of a fair or kindly hearing against adversaries with all the advantages he lacks, arms, astuteness, turbulences, and the aggressive spirit of men backed by numerous friends. Farewell.[18]

Sidonius Apollinaris

Sidonius Apollinaris

It can be implied from the letter that Riothamus must have had influence, or even a leadership position acknowledged by the Romans, over the Britons in future Brittany. Whether he was their king or not is not said. It’s also clear that Sidonius had written to Riothamus on previous occasions; he says: ‘I will write once more in my usual strain.’ Also from his mention of a ‘man of my order’ it is pretty certain that he was already Bishop of Clermont-Ferrand at the time, a position he was elevated to in either in 470 (or maybe late 469) by the emperor Anthemius after his return from Rome.

It is to this rough time i.e. around 469/470 that I would date Sidonius’s letter to Riothamus. A later dating is possible and has been argued for, but seems unlikely to me. From 471 to 474 Clermont-Ferrand (Sidonius’s Episcopal seat) was besieged by the Visigoths (certainly after their defeat of the British) and Sidonius was much concerned with its defence. In 474, when Clermont-Ferrand finally fell, Euric sent Sidonius into exile for two years to Capendu and Bordeaux, before allowing him to return again to Clermont in 476 as bishop. The implication of the letter is that it was written from Clermont-Ferrand to Riothamus who might have been situated somewhere ‘north of the Loire’, and most likely before his defeat by the Goths. As we will see, following Riothamus’s defeat by the Goths the survivors fled to Burgundy and we never hear of them again. Any late, post-battle, dating of this letter to Riothamus must rely on a completely unsubstantiated conjecture concerning a return of the British king to Brittany after he and his fighters had fled to Burgundy.

Chronological résumé

To sum up some of the dating evidence: soon after his elevation to the imperial purple in 467, the Emperor Anthemius had requested the help of the Britons against Euric’s Visigoths who had just renounced their fealty to Rome. Whether these Britons were the British of the settlement of Armorica (the ‘Bretons’) or were Britons of the island of Britain, or both, is not known. Then slightly later, in about 467/8,  Arvandus, the Roman Prefect of Gaul, wrote to the Goths treacherously suggesting they attack the British ‘north of the Loire’ rather than make common cause with the Empire. A large British army led by King Riothamus subsequently arrived in a fleet of ships somewhere along the Atlantic coast and, while seeking to join up with Roman forces, which never came, they were defeated by the Gothic army.

Most historians agree that this battle was fought in 469 or possibly 470. The evidence suggests this is right, although its equation with Déols is doubtful.

What became of the British?

Jordanes tells us that after the battle the British retreated to Burgundy:

Having lost a great part of his army, he fled with all whom he could save, and came to the neighbouring nation of the Burgundians, then confederate with the Romans…


Burgundian and Gallo-Roman

The Burgundians had crossed the Rhine into Roman Gaul along with various other Germanic tribes in 406. They settled on the Roman left bank of the Rhine, between the river Lauter and the Nahe. They seized Worms, Speyer, and Strasbourg. The Roman emperor Honorius later legitimized their land grab and made them official allies or mercenaries, called foederati. Despite this official Roman status, the Burgundians continued to make raids into the Roman province of Gallia Belgica. Exasperated, the Roman general Aëtius called upon his Hunnish mercenaries for help. Although much is still obscure, probably in two engagements in 436/7 Aëtius and the Huns nearly exterminated the Burgundians under their king Gundahar (Gunther).

The contemporary Iberian chronicler Hydatius wrote: “The Burgundians, who had rebelled, were defeated by the Romans under the general Aëtius.” Prosper of Aquitaine, another contemporary, and closer to the events, wrote: “Aëtius crushed [Gundahar], who was king of the Burgundians living in Gaul. In response to his entreaty, Aëtius gave him peace, which the king did not enjoy for long. For the Huns destroyed him and his people root and branch.”

Wagner's Ring Cycle

Wagner’s Ring Cycle

It is alleged that King Gundahar/Gunther and 20,000 Burgundians were slaughtered by the Huns. Gundahar was succeeded as king by his son Gunderic.  These events became the kernel of the great German Nibelungenlied epic which so inspired Richard Wagner’s Ring Cycle operas.

Following their defeat Aëtius allowed the surviving Burgundians to settle in Savoy, with a capital in Geneva. In 451 the Burgundians helped Aëtius and his primarily Gothic army defeat Attila the Hun at the Battle of the Catalaunian Plains, near Châlons, a decisive event in European history. Following the defeat Attila withdrew and never threatened Gaul again.

In 455 the Burgundians, under Gunderic and his brother Chilperic, accompanied Theodoric’s Visigoths to Spain to fight the Sueves on behalf of the Romans. After their return Lyon became the Burgundian capital in 461.

So by 469 the Germanic Burgundians, with their capital now in Lyon, were still Roman allies. The Visigoths however had by this time repudiated any nominal allegiance to the Roman Empire and were trying to extend their hegemony further north from their kingdom of Toulouse.

As this report makes clear, Riothamus and the British survivors of the defeat at the hands of the Goths retreated to Burgundy because it was ‘confederate with the Romans’:

Ambrosius Aurelianus

Ambrosius Aurelianus

What became of these British is not known. Some suggest they returned to Britain (if Riothamus was either King Arthur or another Romano-British chieftain such as Ambrosius Aurelianus). Others think they might have returned to Brittany. To be honest we don’t know. Maybe they were even granted lands in Burgundy and blended into the local mix of Gallo-Romans and Germanic Burgundians?

The question remains: why had the defeated British fled to Burgundy? Of course Burgundy offered a safe haven because the Burgundians like the British were Roman allies opposing the threatening Goths. But geographically Burgundy only makes sense if the British defeat at the hands of the Goths took place at a place from where it made more sense to retreat to Burgundy (possibly to Lyon) than it did to flee northwest to the comparatively safe British settlements in Armorica. Where might the battle have been if it wasn’t Déols?

The location of the battle

As well as the fact that it seems that we can date the clash between the Goths and the Britons at Bourges and Déols some years before 469, there are three additional  reasons why I think that the battle is unlikely to have taken place at Déolsand and might well have happened somewhere in the Auvergne.

469First, all historians agree that the main objective of the Goths in these years was to secure an occupation of the Auvergne, and particularly the city of Clermont-Ferrand (Arverna). This the Romans wanted to prevent. It is instructive to note that immediately after mentioning the British defeat Jordanes says: ‘But Euric, king of the Visigoths, seized Auvergne, a city of Gaul…..When Euric, as we have already said, beheld these great and various changes, he seized the city of Arverna, where the Roman general Ecdicius was at that time in command.’

From 471 the Goths besieged Clermont-Ferrand, which resisted valiantly under General Ecdicius and Sidonius himself. But the city was finally captured in 474. When the British were defeated just before this siege began, they had been waiting to join up with a Roman force which never came. In fact by this time the ‘forces’ available to the Gallo-Romans were pretty insignificant and what forces there were could likely have been holed up in cities such as Clermont in fear of a coming Gothic attack. As already suggested, it seems likely that the British were expecting to meet the army from Rome led by Emperor Anthemius’s son Anthemiolus, which never arrived and was defeated itself by the Goths near Arles.

In this context a site for the battle somewhere in the Auvergne, possibly somewhere near Clermont, seems possible.

The Auvergne neighbouring Burgundy

The Auvergne neighbouring Burgundy

The second reason for my suggestion of the Auvergne as a likely place for the battle has to do with geography. As mentioned, the Burgundian capital had been established in Lyon in 462. We can couple this fact with Jordanes’ explicit statement that Riothamus ‘having lost a great part of his army… fled with all whom he could save, and came to the neighbouring nation of the Burgundians, then confederate with the Romans’. Now Burgundy and Lyon are certainly immediate neighbours of the Auvergne and Clermont, whereas under no circumstances could Bourges/Déols be described as neighbourly. Lyon and Bourges are in fact a long way away from each other. In addition, as I have suggested already, if the battle took place at Déols why would the defeated British have marched an enormous distance from there to Burgundy, across dangerous Gothic-invested land, rather than simply return quickly northwest to the safe British settlements ‘north of the Loire’, whether by land or sea?

Finally, as also mentioned already, perhaps the major supporting evidence for the equation of the events at Bourges/Déols with Riothamus’s battle is Jordanes’ mention of the fact that: ‘King Riothimus, coming with twelve thousand by way of Ocean, and disembarking from his ships, was received into the city/state of the Bituriges.’ Conventionally this city/state of the Bituriges is identified with Bourges, which lies a long way inland in the very north of Aquitaine. But as I have shown this identification is by no means secure. Bituriges could just as well have been further south along the Aquitaine coast, even as far south as Bordeaux, as it might have been somewhere on the more northerly coast from where the British would have had to march a long way to reach Bourges. The evidence is too scanty for us to be certain where this disembarkation took place, but if the city of Clermont-Ferrand was so critical (which it was) then if you want to get there you’d be much better advised, then as now, to land somewhere in Aquitaine, and from there take the direct route to the Auvergne, than you would to land much farther north and face a very long trip indeed via Bourges to get anywhere near Clermont. All this is of course conjecture.


The British defeat at the hands of the Visigoths was not the only time that British (or Bretons as they became) were involved in the centuries-long struggle for the destiny of post-Roman Gaul, but as far as we know it was the first. Ultimately it doesn’t really matter if the battle took place at Déols or elsewhere as I am suggesting, but it’s interesting to draw a parallel between the fate of some Celtic British refugees fleeing the ‘English’ and fighting with one Roman emperor and the fate of some English fleeing the Norman conquerors six hundred years later to fight for an eastern Roman emperor (see here).


visi funny

Appendix: Sidonius’s letter to Vincentius c. 469/70

THE case of Arvandus distresses me, nor do I conceal my distress, for it is our emperor’s crowning praise that a condemned prisoner may have friends who need not hide their friendship. I was more intimate with this man than it was safe to be with one so light and so unstable, witness the odium lately kindled against me on his account, the flame of which has scorched me for this lapse from prudence. But since I had given my friendship, honour bound me fast, though he on his side has no steadfastness at all; I say this because it is the truth and not to strike him when he is down. For he despised friendly advice and made himself throughout the sport of fortune; the marvel to me is, not that he fell at last, but that he ever stood so long. How often he would boast of weathering adversity, when we, with a less superficial sense of things, deplored the sure disaster of his rashness, unable to call happy any man who only sometimes and  not always deserves the name.

But now for your question as to his government; I will tell you in few words, and with all the loyalty due to a friend however far brought low. During his first term as prefect his rule was very popular; the second was disastrous. Crushed by debt, and living in dread of creditors, he was jealous of the nobles from among whom his successor must needs be chosen. He would make fun of all his visitors, profess astonishment at advice, and spurn good offices; if people called on him too rarely, he showed suspicion; if too regularly, contempt. At last the general hate encompassed him like a rampart; before he was well divested of his authority, he was invested with guards, and a prisoner bound for Rome. Hardly had he set foot in the city when he was all exultation over his fair passage along the stormy Tuscan coast, as if convinced that the very elements were somehow at his bidding.

At the Capitol, the Count of the Imperial Largess, his friend Flavius Asellus, acted as his host and jailer, showing him deference for his prefectship, which seemed, as it were, yet warm, so newly was it stripped from him. Meanwhile, the three envoys from Gaul arrived upon his heels with the provincial decrees2 empowering them to impeach in the public name. They were Tonantius Ferreolus, the ex-prefect, and grandson, on the mother’s side, of the Consul Afranius Syagrius, Thaumastus, and Petronius, all men practised in affairs and eloquent, all conspicuous ornaments of our country. They brought, with other matters entrusted to them by the province, an intercepted letter, which Arvandus’ secretary, now also under arrest, declared to have been  dictated by his master. It was evidently addressed to the King of the Goths, whom it dissuaded from concluding peace with ‘the Greek Emperor’, urging that instead he should attack the Bretons north of the Loire, and asserting that the law of nations called for a division of Gaul between Visigoth and Burgundian.

There was more in the same mad vein, calculated to inflame a choleric king, or shame a quiet one into action. Of course the lawyers found here a flagrant case of treason. These tactics did not escape the excellent Auxanius and myself; in whatever way we might have incurred the impeached man’s friendship, we both felt that to evade the consequences at this crisis of his fate would be to brand us as traitors, barbarians, and poltroons. We at once exposed to the unsuspecting victim the whole scheme which a prosecution, no less astute than alert and ardent, intended to keep dark until the trial; their scheme was to noose in some unguarded reply an adversary rash enough to repudiate the advice of all his friends and rely wholly on his own unaided wits. We told him what to us and to more secret friends seemed the one safe course; we begged him not to give the slightest point away which they might try to extract from him on pretence of its insignificance; their dissimulation would be ruinous to him if it drew incautious admissions in answer to their questions.  When he grasped our point, he was beside himself; he suddenly broke out into abuse, and cried: ‘Begone, you and your nonsensical fears, degenerate sons of prefectorian fathers; leave this part of the affair to  me; it is beyond an intelligence like yours. Arvandus trusts in a clear conscience; the employment of advocates to defend him on the charge of bribery shall be his one concession.’

We came away in low spirits, disturbed less by the insult to ourselves than by a real concern; what right has the doctor to take offence when a man past cure gives way to passion?  Meanwhile, our defendant goes off to parade the Capitol square, and in white raiment too; he finds sustenance in the sly greetings which he receives; he listens with a gratified air as the bubbles of flattery burst about him. He casts curious eyes on the gems and silks and precious fabrics of the dealers, inspects, picks up, unrolls, beats down the prices as if he were a likely purchaser, moaning and groaning the whole time over the laws, the age, the senate, the emperor, and all because they would not right him then and there without investigation.

A few days passed, and, as I learned afterwards (I had left Rome in the interim), there was a full house in the senate-hall. Arvandus proceeded thither freshly groomed and barbered, while the accusers waited the decemvirs’1 summons unkempt and in half-mourning, snatching from him thus the defendant’s usual right, and securing the advantage of suggestion which the suppliant garb confers. The parties were admitted and, as the custom is, took up positions opposite each other. Before the proceedings began, all of prefectorian rank were allowed to sit; instantly Arvandus, with that unhappy impudence of his, rushed forward and forced himself almost into the very bosoms of the judges, while the ex-prefect* gained subsequent credit  and respect by placing himself quietly and modestly amidst his colleagues at the lowest end of the benches, to show that his quality of envoy was his first thought, and not his rank as senator.

While this was going on, absent members of the house came in; the parties stood up and the envoys set forth their charge. They first produced their mandate from the province, then the already-mentioned letter; this was being read sentence by sentence, when Arvandus admitted the authorship without even waiting to be asked. The envoys rejoined, rather cruelly, that the fact of his dictation was obvious. And when the madman, blind to the depth of his fall, dealt himself a deadly blow by repeating the avowal not once, but twice, the accusers raised a shout, and the judges cried as one man that he stood convicted of treason out of his own mouth. Scores of legal precedents were on record to achieve his ruin.

Only at this point, and then not at once, is the wretched man said to have turned white in tardy repentance of his loquacity, recognizing all too late that it is possible to be convicted of high treason for other offences than aspiring to the purple. He was stripped on the spot of all the privileges pertaining to his prefecture, an office which by re-election he had held five years, and consigned to the common jail as one not now first degraded to plebeian rank, but restored to it as his own.

Eye-witnesses report, as the most pathetic feature of all, that as a result of his intrusion upon his judges in all that bravery and smartness while his accusers dressed in black, his pitiable plight won him no pity when he was led off to prison a little later. How, indeed, could anyone be much moved at his fate, seeing him haled to the quarries or hard labour still all trimmed and pomaded like a fop?  Judgement was deferred a bare fortnight. He was then condemned to death, and flung into the island of the Serpent of Epidaurus. There, an object of compassion even to his enemies, his elegance gone, spewed, as it were, by Fortune out of the land of the living, he now drags out by benefit of Tiberius’ law his respite of thirty days after sentence, shuddering through the long hours at the thought of hook and Gemonian stairs, and the noose of the brutal executioner.

We, of course, whether in Rome or out of it, are doing all we can; we make daily vows, we redouble prayers and supplications that the imperial clemency may suspend the stroke of the drawn sword, and rather visit a man already half dead with confiscation of property, and exile. But whether Arvandus has only to expect the worst, or must actually undergo it, he is surely the most miserable soul alive if, branded with such marks of shame; he has any other desire than to die.

Notes and references:

[1] Léon Fleuriot,  Les origines de la Bretagne: l’émigration. Paris 1980.

[2] For the date 441 see: R. Burgess, The Gallic Chronicle of 511: A New Critical Edition with a Brief Introduction, in Society and Culture in Late Antique Gaul: Revisiting the Sources. ed. R. W. Mathisen and D. Shantzer. Aldershot  2001.

[3] James Ingram, The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, London 1823 and 1912: http://avalon.law.yale.edu/medieval/ang05.asp

[4] M. Winterbottom, Gildas, De Excidio britanniae, Chichester 1978.

[5] T. M. Charles-Edwards, Wales and the Britons 300-1064, Oxford 2014, p. 58.

[6] Gregory of Tours, History of the Franks, ed. and trans. Lewis Thorpe, 1974.

[7] R. Mathisen,  Anthemius (12 April 467 – 11 July 472 A.D.), De Imperatoribus Romanis.

[8] Penny MacGeorge, Late Roman Warlords, Oxford  2002, pp.102-103.

[9] MacGeorge, Warlords.

[10] Jordanes, The Origin and Deeds of the Goths, ed. and trans. Charles Christopher Mierow, The Gothic History of Jordanes, 1915.

[11] The Gallic Chronicle of 511: A New Critical Edition with a Brief Introduction, in Society and Culture in Late Antique Gaul: Revisiting the Sources. ed. R. W. Mathisen and D. Shantzer. Aldershot  2001.

[12] Idem

[13] Léon Fleuriot,  Les origines de la Bretagne: l’émigration. Paris 1980.

[14]For example: John Morris, The Age of Arthur, a History of the British Isles from 350 to 650, London 1973.

[15]Geoffrey  Ashe,  The Discovery of King Arthur. New York 1985.

[16]  O. M. Dalton, ed. and trans., The Letters of Sidonius, Oxford 1915..

[17] James J. O’Donnell, Cassiodorus, Berkeley 1979.

[18] Dalton, The Letters of Sidonius

Visitors to Ullswater in Cumberland today might take a walk to the waterfall called Aira Force and nearby Lyulph’s Tower, both situated in lovely Gowbarrow Park on the lake’s shore. It’s a place that William Wordsworth visited often. It is believed that he was so taken with the beauty of Gowbarrow that it inspired him to write his most famous poem, The Daffodils:

I wandered lonely as a cloud
That floats on high o’er vales and hills,
When all at once I saw a crowd,
A host, of golden daffodils;
Beside the lake, beneath the trees,
Fluttering and dancing in the breeze.

lyulph's tower

Lyulph’s Tower today

The present Lyulph’s Tower was built  in the 1780s by Charles Howard, the 11th Duke of Norfolk, as a hunting lodge on top of the original Pele Tower. It was a good site for hunting. One visitor a century before commented that it ‘contained more deer than trees’.

From that dim period when ‘ the whole of Britain was a land of uncleared forest, and only the downs and hill-tops rose above the perpetual tracts of wood,’  down to nearly the end of the eighteenth century, red deer roamed wild over Cumberland.

Gowbarrow Hall

Gowbarrow Hall

Here however I want to go back a little further in time, to the late eleventh and early twelfth-century, to the years following the Norman Conquest. It’s the story of the barony and manor of Greystoke, in which both Matterdale and Watermillock lie, as well as being a story of one family’s accommodation with the Norman invaders. This family became the future lords of Greystoke. I will return to the question of the roots of this family in a subsequent article – were they already ‘magnates’ before the Conquest or were their origins more humble? But first, who was the ‘Cumbrian’ woman who became a king’s mistress? And which king?

Her name was Edith Forne Sigulfson, the daughter of Forne, the son of Sigulf. The king with whom she consorted was Henry I, the son of William the Bastard, better known as William the Conqueror. Henry succeeded to the English throne in 1100 on the death of his brother William II (Rufus).

Henry the First

Henry the First

All kings have taken mistresses, some even have had harems of them. It was, and is, one of the privileges and prerogatives of power. In England the king who took most advantage of this opportunity was the French-speaking Henry I. As well as having two wives, Henry had at least 10 mistresses, by whom he had countless children. How and when Edith and Henry met we will never know. What we do know is that they had at least two children: Adeliza Fitz-Edith, about whom nothing is known, and Robert Fitz-Edith (son of Edith), sometimes called Robert Fitz-Roy (son of the king), who the king married off with Matilda d’Avranches, the heiress of the barony of Oakhampton in Devon.

King Henry seems to have treated his mistresses or concubines better than some of the later English kings (think for instance of his name-sake Henry VIII ). When Henry tired of Edith he married her to Robert D’Oyly (or D’Oiley), the nephew of Robert d’Oyly,  a henchman of William the Conqueror who had been with William at Hastings and who built Oxford Castle in 1071.

When Oxford closed its gates against the Conqueror, and he had stormed and taken the city, it followed that he should take measures to keep the people of the place in subjection. Accordingly, having bestowed the town on his faithful follower, Robert d’Oilgi, or D’Oiley or D’Oyly, he directed him to build and fortify a strong castle here, which the Chronicles of Osney Abbey tell us he did between the years 1071 and 1073, “digging deep trenches to make the river flow round about it, and made high mounds with lofty towers and walls thereon, to overtop the town and country about it.” But, as was usual with the Norman castles, the site chosen by D’Oyly was no new one, but the same that had been long before adopted by the kings of Mercia for their residence; the mound, or burh, which was now seized for the Norman keep had sustained the royal house of timber in which had dwelt Offa, and Alfred and his sons, and Harold Harefoot. (Castles Of England, Sir James D. Mackenzie, 1896)

Oxford Castle

Oxford Castle

Henry also gave Edith the manor of Steeple Claydon in Buckinghamshire as a dower in her own name. After the original Robert D’Oyly had died in 1090, his younger brother Nigel succeeded him as Constable of Oxford and baron of Hook Norton (i.e. Oxford). Despite the fact that the sixteenth-century chronicler John Leland commented: ‘Of Nigel be no verye famose things written’, in fact he ‘flourished during the reign of William Rufus and officiated as constable of all England under that King’. On Nigel’s death in 1112, his son Robert became the third baron of Hook Norton, the constable of Oxford Castle and, at some point, King’s Henry’s constable.

Several children were soon born to Edith and Robert, including two sons, Gilbert and Henry. It seems Edith was both a ‘very beautiful’ and a very pious woman. Some historians believe that she was remorseful and penitent because of her previous life as King Henry’s concubine. Whatever the truth of this, in 1129 she persuaded her husband Robert to found  and endow the Church of St. Mary, in the Isle of Osney, near Oxford Castle. The church would become an abbey in 1149. The story is interesting. Sir John Peshall in The History of Oxford University in 1773 wrote:

Edith, wife of Robert D’Oiley, the second of this name, son of Nigel, used to please herself living with her husband at the castle, with walking here by the river side, and under these shady trees; and frequently observing the magpies gathered together on a tree by the river, making a great chattering, as it were, at her, was induced to ask Radilphus, a Canon of St. Frid, her confessor, whom she had sent to confer upon this matter, the meaning of it.

“Madame”, says he, “these are not pyes; they are so many poor souls in purgatory, uttering in this way their complaints aloud to you, as knowing your extensive goodness of disposition and charity”; and humbly hoped, for the love of God, and the sake of her’s and her posterity’s souls, she would do them some public good, as her husband’s uncle had done, by building the Church and College of St. George.

“Is it so indeed”, said she, “de pardieux. I will do my best endeavours to bring these poor souls to rest”; and relating the matter to her husband, did, by her importunities, with the approbation of Theobald, Archbishop of Canterbury, and Alexander, Bishop of Lincoln, and consent of her sons Henry and Gilbert, prevail on him to begin this building there, where the pyes had sat delivering their complaint.

John Leland, the ‘father of English local history and bibliography’, had told much the same tale in the first half of the sixteenth-century:

Sum write that this was the occasion of making of it. Edith usid to walk out of Oxford Castelle with her Gentilwomen to solace, and that often tymes, wher yn a certan place in a tre as often as she cam a certan pyes usid to gether to it, and ther to chattre, and as it wer to speke unto her. Edithe much marveling at this matier, and was sumtyme sore ferid as by a wonder. Whereupon she sent for one Radulph, a Chanon of S. Frediswide’s, a Man of a vertuus Life and her Confessor, asking hym Counsel: to whom he answerid, after that he had seen the fascion of the Pies Chattering only at her Cumming, that she should builde sum Chirch or Monasterie in that Place. Then she entreatid her Husband to build a Priorie, and so he did, making Radulph the first Prior of it.

Osney Abbey

One historian commented: ‘This is a curiously characteristic story. Edith, whose antecedents may have made her suspicious of reproach, was evidently possessed with the idea that the clamour of the magpies was a malicious mockery designed to humiliate and reprove her, and to convey a supernatural warning that she must make speedy atonement for her sins.’ This is, of course, pure conjecture.

Edith even got her son by the king, Robert Fitz-Roy, “Robertus Henrici regis filius”, to contribute to Osney Abbey,  with the consent of his half brother “Henrici de Oleio fratris mei”.

Maybe Edith had found peace in the Abbey she helped create. But England was to soon experience another bout of armed thugs fighting armed thugs, fighting that would come very close to Edith. When Henry 1 died in 1135 without a legitimate son he bequeathed his kingdom to his daughter the Empress Matilda (or Maude), the widow of Holy Roman Emperor Henry V, who had since married Geoffrey of Anjou. Aware of the problems with a woman becoming Queen, in 1127 and 1128 Henry had made his court swear allegiance to Matilda; this included Stephen of Blois, a grandson of William the Conqueror. But when Henry died Matilda was in Rouen. ‘Stephen of Blois rushed to England upon learning of Henry’s death and moved quickly to seize the crown from the appointed heir.’ Remember, this was a French not an English family! A war followed between King Stephen and the Empress Matilda.

King Stephen captured at Lincoln

King Stephen captured at Lincoln

But what about Edith and her husband Robert in Oxford? King Stephen tried various inducements to get Robert D’Oyly on his side, but Robert remained loyal to Matilda.  Sir James D. Mackenzie wrote:

The second Robert D’Oyly, son to Nigel, the brother of the founder, who succeeded his uncle, and founded the monastery of Osney, nearby, took part against Stephen, and delivered up his castle of Oxford to the Empress Maud for her residence. She accordingly came here with great state in 1141, with a company of barons who had promised to protect her during the absence of her brother, the Earl of Gloucester, in France, whither he had gone to bring back Prince Henry. Gloucester and Stephen had only recently been exchanged against each other, the Earl from Rochester and Stephen from Bristol, and the latter lost no time in opening afresh the civil war, by at once marching rapidly and unexpectedly to Oxford. Here he set fire to the-town and captured it. He then proceeded to shut up closely and to besiege Maud in the castle, from Michaelmas to Christmas, trying to starve out her garrison, whilst from two high mounds which lie raised against the keep, the one called Mount Pelham, and the other Jew’s Mount, he constantly battered the walls and defences with his engines of war, which threw stones and bolts.

Maud, who was a mistress of stratagems and resources—she had escaped from Winchester Castle on a swift horse, by taking advantage of a pretended truce on account of the ceremonies of Holy Cross, and had at Devizes been carried through the enemies lines dressed out as a corpse in a funeral procession—was equal to the occasion when provisions failed. Taking advantage of a keen frost which had frozen over the Isis, she issued one night from a postern, and crossed the river on the ice, accompanied only by three faithful followers. The country being covered with deep snow, they wore white garments over their clothes, and succeeded in eluding their enemies, walking through the snow six long miles to Abingdon. Here a horse was obtained for the Empress, and the party got safely next morning to Wallingford Castle. After her escape, Oxford Castle was yielded to Stephen the next day.

It seems that Robert D’Oyly didn’t long survive these events, but it is still unclear whether he died at King Stephen’s instigation or not. Edith survived him and lived on until 1152. ‘Cumbrian’ Edith Forne Sigulfson, concubine of a king, married to a Norman nobleman, was buried in Osney Abbey. When John Leland visited in the early sixteenth-century, on the eve of its dissolution, he saw her tomb:

‘Ther lyeth an image of Edith, of stone, in th’ abbite of a vowess, holding a hart in her right hand, on the north side of the high altaire’.

The dream of magpies was painted near the tomb. ‘Above the arch over her tomb there was painted on the wall a picture representing the foundation legend of the Abbey, viz. The magpies chattering on her advent to Oseney; the tree; and Radulphe her confessor; which painting, according to Holinshed, was in perfect preservation at the suppression of religious houses (in the time of ) Henry VIII.’

We’ve come a long way from the shores of distant Ullswater. So let’s return there briefly. It is certain that Edith was the daughter of Forne Sigulfson. Forne was the holder of lands in Yorkshire (for example in Nunburnholme) in 1086 when the Domesday survey was taken. Whether he was also already a landowner in Cumberland at that time is unknown because Cumbria was not included in Domesday Book, for the very simple reason that (probably) at the time it was under the Scottish crown.

But Forne certainly became the first ‘Norman’ baron of Greystoke in Henry I’s time. The Testa de Nevill in 1212 reads:

Robert de Veteri Ponte holds in custody from the King the land which was of William son of Ranulf, together with the heir of the aforesaid William, and renders annually of cornage £4. King Henry, grandfather of the King’s father, gave that land to Forne son of Siolf, predecessor of the aforesaid William, by the aforesaid service.

Greystoke Castle

Greystoke Castle

Some historians have suggested that this was actually a reconfirmation of Forne’s existing holdings and rights – whether or not originally granted by Ranulf Meschin, who had been given titular control of Cumbria sometime around 1100. But possibly his rights went back to his father Sigulf in pre-conquest days. This is a subject to which I will return. What is clear is that Forne’s son Ivo was the founder of Greystoke Castle. He built the first defensive tower there in 1129. The family received permission to castellate the tower in 1338. Forne’s ‘Greystoke’ family, as it became known, continued to be Lords of Greystoke in a direct male line until 1306, when more distant relatives succeeded to the title: first the Grimesthorps, then the Dacres and then, in 1571, the Howards.

Was Edith even Cumbrian? We don’t know. Quite possibly she could have been born in Yorkshire on her father’s lands there. In any case, Edith was a northern Anglo-Saxon. We don’t even know when she was born, although I think that the evidence points to her being  born in the 1090s or at the latest in the first couple of years of the 1100s. I think she became Henry’s mistress in 1122 following Henry’s one and only visit to York and Carlisle in that year.

What of Lyulph’s Tower and Lake Ullswater? It is generally thought, at least in later times, that Lyulph refers to Sigulf, (often spelt Sygoolf, Llyuph,Ligulf, Lygulf etc), Forne’s father and Edith’s grandfather. It is even suggested that Ullswater is also named after him: ‘Ulf’s Water’.

I’ll leave all that for another time.

‘And in the same yere an heretyke called with the longe berd was drawen and hanged for heresye and cursed doctrine that he had taught.’  Chronicle of London, 1196

‘He (King Richard) used England as a bank on which to draw and overdraw in order to finance his ambitious exploits abroad.’ A. L. Poole in the Oxford History of England

One spring night in the year 1190, a group of ten military transport ships en route for Lisbon was caught in a tremendous storm off the coast of Spain. The ships were part of a flotilla of over a hundred transports taking thousands of English and French soldiers to join Richard Coeur de Lion, the French king of England, in Marseilles. Richard had decided to join the third crusade to the Holy Land, there to join his Frankish cousins in their attempt to expel Saladin’s Muslim Saracens and retake Jerusalem. On one of the ships caught in the storm were over a hundred Londoners. One was William Fitz Osbert, who would later be called Longbeard because, wrote the greatest of England’s early medieval historians, Matthew Paris, he and his kinsmen had ‘adhered to this ancient English fashion of being bearded as a testimony of their hatred against their Norman masters’. William’s story can tell us much about life in England, and particularly in London, at the end of the twelfth century. Over a hundred years after the Norman Conquest the English were still suffering at the hands of their French conquerors.

A Child's History of England by Charles Dickens

A Child’s History of England by Charles Dickens

This is not a mystery tale, so here I’ll let the inimitable Charles Dickens summarize what happened to William.

There was fresh trouble at home about this time, arising out of the discontents of the poor people, who complained that they were far more heavily taxed than the rich, and who found a spirited champion in William Fitz-Osbert, called Longbeard. He became the leader of a secret society, comprising fifty thousand men; he was seized by surprise; he stabbed the citizen who first laid hands upon him; and retreated, bravely fighting, to a church, which he maintained four days, until he was dislodged by fire, and run through the body as he came out. He was not killed, though; for he was dragged, half dead, at the tail of a horse to Smithfield, and there hanged. Death was long a favourite remedy for silencing the people’s advocates; but as we go on with this history, I fancy we shall find them difficult to make an end of, for all that. Charles Dickens. A Child’s History England. 1852.

The Sources for William’s life

Matthew Paris

Matthew Paris

We are lucky because four contemporary chroniclers wrote about William’s life and death: William de Newburgh, Roger of Hoveden, Gervase of Canterbury and Ralph de Diceto. Hostile as most of them were, they are our primary sources for the story I will tell. Their testimony, and some of them witnessed some of the events, is supplemented by the slightly later narratives of Roger of Wendover and Matthew Paris, as well as by evidence from contemporary legal reports and two short entries in chronicles of London, one of which was quoted at the start of this article.

Who was William Longbeard?

It is believed that William was a Londoner, the son of ‘Osbert the Clerk’. The family wasn’t rich but was certainly well-to-do. William had been able to study law at university, supported partly by his brother Richard. In order to raise the money needed to go on crusade William had leased or mortgaged his London house to his brother Richard. Richard will reappear later in our story in not very fraternal circumstances.

In Portugal

Angevin Ship

Angevin Ship

The story of the storm and what happened to William and his fellow Londoners in Portugal is told by Roger of Hoveden (Howden). Hoveden had also joined the king’s crusade and was in all likelihood aboard one of the English ships in the flotilla that left England around Easter 1190. Indeed, because of the tremendous detail included in his story we can conjecture that Hoveden was on board one of the ten ships caught in the storm off the coast of Spain.

Having left Dartmouth these ten ships set sail for Lisbon. I will let Roger Hoveden tell what happened then:

When they had now passed through the British Sea and the Sea of Poitou, and had come into the Spanish sea, on the holy Day of the Ascension of our Lord, at the third hour of the day, a mighty and dreadful tempest overtook them, and in the twinkling of an eye they were separated from each other.

While the storm was raging, and all in their afflictions were calling upon the Lord, the blessed Thomas, the archbishop of Canterbury and Martyr, appeared at three different times to three different persons, who were on board a London ship, in which was William Fitz Osbert, and Geoffrey, the goldsmith, saying to them, “ Be not afraid, for I, Thomas the archbishop of Canterbury, and the blessed Edmund the Martyr, and the blessed Nicholas the confessor, have been appointed by the Lord guardians of this fleet of the king of England; and if the men of this fleet will guard themselves against sin, and repent of their former offense, the Lord will grant them a prosperous voyage, and will diet their footsteps in His paths.”

After having thrice repeated these words, the blessed Thomas vanished from before their eyes, and immediately the tempest eased, and there was a great calm on the sea.

The murder of Thomas a Becket

The murder of Thomas a Becket

The divine intervention of St. Thomas a Becket and the other saints had put an end to the storm. The Londoners’ ship had been swept past Lisbon and eventually came to anchor off the Portuguese town of Silves. Silves, Hoveden wrote, was which in those days was ‘the most remote of all the cities of Christendom, and the Christian faith was as yet but in its infancy there’, it having only been captured from the Moors by King Sancho I of Portugal the year before. The Londoners, including William, came ashore in a boat and were warmly welcomed by the bishop, clergy and Christian townspeople of the town because they knew that the Moorish ‘Emir’ might soon be coming to reclaim the town and thus they needed these ‘hundred young men of prowess’ who were very ‘well armed’ to help them fight off the Moors.

Fearing that these warriors might depart without helping them, the townspeople broke up their ship and ‘with the timbers of it made bulwarks for the city’, promising recompense later. With the help of the London crusaders the town prepared to defend itself.

In the meantime Botac El Emir Amimoli, emperor of Africa and of Saracenic Spain, levying a large army, marched into the territories of Sancho, king of Portugal, to take vengeance for the emperor of Africa, his father, who had died six years before while besieging Santa Erena, a castle of king Alphonso, father of the said Sancho, king of Portugal.

The ‘Botac El Emir Amimoli, emperor of Africa and of Saracenic Spain’, to whom Hoveden refers, was actually the Almohad Caliph Abu Yusuf Ya’qub al-Mansur also known as Moulay Yacoub.

Succeeding his father, al-Mansur reigned from 1184 to 1199. His reign was distinguished by the flourishing of trade, architecture, philosophy and the sciences, as well as by victorious military campaigns in which he was able to temporarily stem the tide of Christian Reconquista in the Iberian Peninsula

Silves in Portugal today

Silves in Portugal today

While all this was going on, the other nine ships that had been caught in the storm had made it to Lisbon. King Sancho sent envoys to them and ‘asked succours of them against the Saracens’. Cutting a long story short, the Portuguese king was ‘utterly destitute of resources and counsel,’ and as he had ‘but few soldiers… mostly without arms,’ was emboldened by the arrival of five hundred well-armed French and English and rebuffed the ‘emir’s’ offer to leave Portugal if he were given back the town of Silves.

On hearing of the arrival of the foreigners, the emperor was greatly alarmed, and, sending ambassadors to the king of Portugal, demanded of him Silva, on obtaining which, he would depart with his army, and restore to him the castle which he had taken, and would keep peace with him for seven years; but when the king of Portugal refused to do this, he sent him word that on the following day he would come to lay siege to Santa Erena. (Hoveden)

The Portuguese and their temporary French and English allies prepared to defend the town of Santa Erena, but suddenly news came that the Emir was dead and his army in flight. Actually Abu Yusuf Ya’qub al-Mansur didn’t die until 1199, but in any case Sancho was safe for the time being.

King Sancho I

King Sancho I

Sancho thanked ‘the strangers’ and promised he would reward them handsomely. However, before they got back to their ships to continue on their journey to join Richard at Marseilles, sixty-three more transport ships of the king of England arrived in Lisbon, led by the Norman knights Robert de Sablé and Richard de Canville and comprising Richard’s Norman, Angevin and Breton fighters. Some of these new arrivals then proceeded to commit atrocities, as was the wont of most Frankish crusaders. Hoveden tells us that having disembarked ‘some evil doers and vicious persons… then committed violence upon the wives and daughters of the citizens (of Lisbon)’. ‘They also drove away the pagans and Jews, servants of the king, who dwelt in the city, and plundered their property and possessions, and burned their houses; and they then stripped their vineyards, not leaving them so much as a grape or a cluster.’

John Gillingham, a modern biographer of Richard I, wrote simply: ‘In an excess of religious zeal they attacked the city’s Muslim and Jewish population, burned down their houses and plundered their property. There was, however, no element of religious discrimination in the freedom with which they raped women and stripped vineyards bare of fruit. Eventually the exasperated king of Portugal shut the gates of Lisbon trapping several hundred drunken men inside the city and throwing them into goal.’

Before Sancho had trapped the crusaders in Lisbon, they had already killed more of the city’s citizens. Finally the Portuguese king, in fear of such a vicious army of crusaders, agreed with them that ‘past injuries should be mutually overlooked’ and the crusaders were thus free to continue their voyage to Marseilles; which after a long and eventful journey they reached in August.

Did William go to the Holy Land?

Where William had been during the time all this was happening in Lisbon is not known. His ship had been dismantled in Silves, but had he and his fellow Londoners rejoined the rest on the fleet bound for Marseilles and from there proceeded to the Holy Land? The records are silent. Yet the circumstantial evidence strongly suggests that Portugal was not the end of the crusading journey for William and the other one hundred Londoners caught in the storm. Most, though not all, historians agree.

Richard the Lionheart arriving at Acre

Richard the Lionheart arriving at Acre

As mentioned previously, Roger of Hoveden’s history provides an immense amount of detail on the events William and his colleagues had been involved in at Silves. He even mentions William by name. Where had Roger heard all this? It seems to be that there are really only two realistic options: either Roger had been with the Londoners at Silves and therefore witnessed events himself, or he had been aboard one of the other nine ships in the flotilla caught in the storm but which had made it safely to Lisbon, and there heard the story of the deliverance of the Londoners when they rejoined the main part of the English fleet.

The English crusader fleet, which certainly included Roger of Hoveden, arrived in Marseilles in August 1190. We hear nothing from him, or from anyone else, about the hundred Londoners returning to England. The most likely scenario is that after their stay in Silves the Londoners had rejoined the fleet in Lisbon or had been picked up in Silves when it passed the town on its way to Marseilles; which Hoveden tells us it did: ‘After this, they passed the port of Silva, which at that time was the most remote city of the Christians in those parts of Spain.’

Richard Massacres the Saracens

Richard Massacres the Saracens

I will pass over the deeds and misdeeds of King Richard and his multinational army of crusaders in the Holy Land. Suffice it to say that when the English fleet arrived in Marseilles, Richard had already left with his French army for Sicily. The fleet soon caught up with him, and after much violence there and after capturing Cyprus the crusaders finally made it to the Holy Land at the end of 1190. There they helped their Frankish cousins to capture Acre from Saladin after a long horrific siege. Richard took several thousand Muslim prisoners at Acre, but frustrated when Saladin had stalled the negotiations for their release he promptly massacred nearly 3,000 of them, decapitating them in full view of Saladin’s army.

Saladin stalled for time in the hope that an approaching Muslim army would allow him to retake control of the city. When Saladin refused a request from Richard to provide a list of names of important Christians held by the Saracens, Richard Coeur de Lion took this as the delaying tactic that it probably was, and insisted that the ransom payment and prisoner exchange should occur within one month. When the deadline was not met Richard became infuriated and decided on a savage punishment of Saladin for his perceived intransigence. Richard personally oversaw and planned the massacre which took place on a small hill called Ayyadieh, a few miles from Acre. The killings were carried out in full view of the Muslim army and Saladin’s own field headquarters. Over 3,000 men, women and children, were beaten to death, axed or killed with swords and lances.

If William Longbeard had gone with Richard to the Holy Land, as I think he did, he would have witnessed all this. One historian, Alan Cooper, believes that the horrors William witnessed at Acre had traumatised him and had made him more caring towards the poor and oppressed, and suggests that this might help to explain his subsequent actions back in London. This might well be true but there is no evidence for it.

Return to London

An engraving showing Richard  in prison

An engraving showing Richard in prison

King Richard and his French and English crusaders left the Holy Land in mid 1192, having failed to capture Jerusalem. The English contingent took ship and returned to England, but Richard, being a French-speaking Frenchman, wanted to get back to his French territories as soon as possible to continue his wars with the French king Philip Augustus. After being forced by bad weather to put in at Corfu, Richard was then shipwrecked at Aquileia and therefore set out overland with only a few guards. This was a mistake as shortly before Christmas 1192 he was captured near Vienna by his enemy Leopold V, Duke of Austria, who accused Richard of arranging the murder of his cousin Conrad of Montferrat. Richard was to remain a prisoner for until February 1194. A huge ransom was raised from his ever-suffering English subjects to secure his release.

One way or another William Fitz Osbert also made his way home to London, whether he was already long-bearded or not we don’t know. And here we finally come to the heart of William’s story. It’s all about money and tax. One of my favourite historians, Joseph Clayton, wrote in his Leaders of the People; Studies in Democracy:

Richard Coeur de Lion, occupied with the crusades, had no mind for the personal government of England. He depended on his ministers for money to pay for his military expeditions to Palestine. England was to him nothing more than a subject province to be bled by taxation.

This is undoubtedly true, although we might add that the French king of England also used his English realm as an abundant source of soldiers to fight in his wars; as he did his continental possessions too. But it was the English who had to pay for it all, and London, being the largest and most important city, had to bear the largest share, including for King Richard’s massive ransom.

Taxing London

Errol Flynn as Robin Hood

Errol Flynn as Robin Hood

This was an intolerable burden on the English, a memory that was later to find its way into English folklore in the form of Robin Hood, Richard’s evil brother John and the Sheriff of Nottingham.

But as always the rich and powerful tried, and often succeeded, in getting out of their duty to pay their share of these intolerable taxes. The burden fell on the poor.

When William Fitz Osbert returned to London from the Holy Land, probably in 1193, the people of London were once again being asked to raise a huge sum to pay the ransom needed to ensure King Richard’s release from captivity. Historian John McEwan puts it as follows:

In the 1190s, taxation was the immediate cause of the tensions between the rich and poor people of London. King Richard 1 needed funds to support his wars and crusading ambitions, and he placed a severe burden on the entire kingdom. In 1188 there had been a levy for the aid of Jerusalem, known as the ‘Saladin Tithe’. In 1193 the people had been called upon to contribute to the king’s ransom and then, just a year later in 1194, there had been another tax. These levies came over and above the regular sums extracted from the city, such as the farm, which was paid once a year. The crown’s exceptional demand on the city brought taxation to the forefront of the civic political agenda.

An Anglo-Saxon Folkmoot

An Anglo-Saxon Folkmoot

We know that at this time collecting such taxes and levies was ‘left to Londoners themselves’. The aldermen of each city ward met at the ‘wardmoot’, an institution that went back to Anglo-Saxon times. Consent needed to be obtained and then each citizen was meant to contribute according to his wealth, although normally wealthier citizens were expected to pay at a higher rate than poorer people. If anyone possessed a ‘stone house’ they were deemed to be wealthy and ‘singled out and required to contribute at a higher rate’.

But this excellent Anglo-Saxon custom was being increasingly bypassed and ignored by the wealthier citizens of London, many of whom were the French-speaking descendants of the Norman conquerors; the poor being mostly the English.

The great early nineteenth century historian Sir Francis Palgrave put it thus:

Great and frequent were the talliages imposed upon the City of London, for Richard’s ransom: and the burthen, according to the popular opinion, was increased, by the inequality of its apportionment or repartition. London at this period, contained two distinct orders of citizens: the Aldermen, the “Majores” or “Nobiles”, as they are termed in the ancient Year Books of the City, the Patricians or higher order, constituting (as they asserted) the municipal Communia, and constantly exercising the powers of government. To these, were opposed the lower order, who — perhaps being subdivided amongst themselves into two tribes of plebeians — maintained that they were the true Communia, to which, as of right, the municipal authority ought to belong. And in these conflicting ranks, an historical theorist may suppose that he discovers the vestiges of the remote period, when London was inhabited by distinct races or nations, each dwelling in their own peculiar town — the Ealdormannabyrigy still known as the Aldermanbury — inhabited by the nobles or conquering caste: whilst the rest of the city was peopled by the tributary or subject community. All contemporary chroniclers tell the same story: there was massive discontent because the wealthy and powerful were trying to avoid their share of the levy being raised to pay the king’s ransom.


ralphRalph de Diceto, the French-born Dean of St. Paul’s, wrote that he had noticed tension building ‘between the rich and poor concerning the apportioning of the taxes payable to the treasury according to everyone’s means’. Roger of Hoveden said that ‘strife originated amongst the citizens of London, for not inconsiderable aids were imposed more often than usual because of the king’s imprisonment and other incidents, and in order to spare their own purses the rich wanted the poor to pay everything’. William of Newburgh wrote that Fitz Osbert claimed that ‘on the occasion of every royal edict the rich spared their own fortunes and because of their power placed the whole weight on the poor and defrauded the royal treasury of a large sum’.

London’s poor resented rich Londoners for not paying their fair share as much as they resented the exorbitant taxes themselves. This was certainly the view of William Fitz Osbert, who felt that it was unjust.

By 1194 King Richard’s ransom had been collected from the citizens of London and from the rest of the country, and early that year Richard returned to England for a brief visit. In fact Richard only every spent two very brief periods in England in his whole life, amounting in total to less than six months. When he wasn’t on crusade or being held captive, he was otherwise constantly hacking his way through France, defending his vast territories there, and battling his countryman, the king of France, Philip Augustus.

Richard 1

Richard 1

The 1902 Encyclopaedia Britannica had this to say about Richard:

Personally Richard, though born on English ground, was the least English of all our kings. Invested from his earliest years with his mother’s Southern dominions, Richard of Poitou had little in him either of England or of Normandy: he was essentially the man of Southern Gaul. Twice in his reign be visited England; to be crowned on his first accession, to be crowned again after his German captivity. The rest of his time was spent in his crusade, and in various continental disputes which concerned England not at all, except so far as she had to pay for them. The mirror of chivalry was the meanest and most insatiable of all the spoilers of her wealth. For England, as a kingdom, all that he did was to betray her independence by a homage to the emperor, which formed a precedent for a more famous homage in the next reign.

Though born in Oxford, Richard spoke no English. The English constitutional historian William Stubbs wrote:

He was a bad king: his great exploits, his military skill, his splendour and extravagance, his poetical tastes, his adventurous spirit, do not serve to cloak his entire want of sympathy, or even consideration, for his people. He was no Englishman, but it does not follow that he gave to Normandy, Anjou, or Aquitaine the love or care that he denied to his kingdom. His ambition was that of a mere warrior: he would fight for anything whatever, but he would sell everything that was worth fighting for. The glory that he sought was that of victory rather than conquest.

William accuses his brother of treachery

During Richard’s few months on this his second, and last, visit to England in 1194, William Fitz Osbert, who, as has been mentioned, had probably met Richard while they were together on crusade, took the unusual step of denouncing his own brother, Richard Fitz Osbert, and two other wealthy Londoners to the king. He claimed they were not only avoiding paying their fair share of the taxes that were still being raising for Richard’s campaign plans in France, but that they were traitors as well.

William of Newburgh wrote:

At last, a cruel and impudent act of his against his own brother served as a signal for his fury and wickedness against others; for he had an elder brother in London from whom, during the period, when he was at school, he had been accustomed to solicit and receive assistance in his necessary expenses: but when he grew bigger and more lavish in his outlay, he complained that this relief was too tardily supplied to him, and endeavoured by the terror of his threats to extort that which he was unable to procure by his entreaties. Having employed this means in vain, his brother being but little able to satisfy him (owing to his being busied with the care of his own household) — and raging, as it were, for revenge, he burst out into crime; and thirsting for his brother’s blood after the many benefits which he had received from him, he accused him of the crime of high treason. Having come to the king, to whom he had previously recommended himself by his skill and obsequiousness, he informed him that his brother had conspired against his life — thus attempting to evince his devotion for his sovereign, as one who, in his service, would not spare even his own brother; but this conduct met with derision from the king, who probably looked with horror on the malice of this most inhuman man, and would not suffer the laws to be polluted by so great an outrage against nature.

Ralph de Diceto, the Dean of St. Paul’s, was even more damning. He said that William ‘in his meetings pursued to the death his carnal brother and two other men of good repute as if they were guilty of betraying the king’.

palgraveSummarizing the evidence of these two chroniclers, Sir Francis Palgrave wrote:

William with the long beard had an elder brother, Richard Fitz Osbert. To this relative he had been indebted for support when young, and whilst pursuing his studies. Extravagant and profuse in more advanced age, William attempted to encroach upon Richard’s bounty, and strove to obtain by threats, the relief which had been denied to his solicitations. He now sought the blood of this near kinsman, persecuting him to the death with the utmost virulent hostility.

William went personally to see the king, who was still in England, and ‘availing himself of the intimacy which he had acquired he denounced Richard Fitz-Osbert as a traitor, a conspirator against the life of the king’.

Longbeard repaired to Coeur de Lion; and, availing himself of the intimacy which he had acquired, he denounced Richard Fitz-Osbert as a traitor, a conspirator against the life of the King. Such was his devotion towards his Sovereign, he declared, that he would not spare his brother at the expense of his allegiance. (Palgrave)

The intimacy to which Palgrave refers was, he suggested, due to the fact that William had got to know the king during their time together on the third crusade. There seems to be no other explanation, and most historians concur.

William of Newburgh said that the accusation was spurned by the king because of his horror at such natural cruelty. Even a conservative like Palgrave had to demur; he asked whether ‘Richard, who was himself so devoid of natural affection, could be actuated by such a motive’.

English Pipe Roll

English Pipe Roll

We are fortunate that there is in the English Pipe Rolls an account of the proceedings in the case. Palgrave, the editor of the Pipe Rolls, summarizes what happened in November 1194:

It appears, then, by the entries upon the Roll, that on the Morrow of St. Edmund, in the sixth year of Richard I., William Fitz Osbert preferred his appeal before the Justices at Westminster against Richard Fitz Osbert, his brother. Speaking as a witness — for every Appellant supported his complaint by his own positive testimony — he affirmed that a meeting was held in the “stone house” of the said Richard, when a discussion arose concerning the aids granted to the King for his ransom. Richard Fitz Osbert exclaimed, “In recompense for the money taken from me by the Chancellor within the Tower of London, I would lay out forty marks to purchase a chain in which the King and his Chancellor might be hanged.”

There were others present who heard this speech, Jordan the Tanner and Robert Brand, without doubt the two true men noticed, but not named, by Ralph de Diceto, whose brief account of the transaction agrees, so far as it extends, with the record. And they also vied with Richard Fitz Osbert in his disloyalty. “Would that the King might always remain where he now is,” quoth Jordan. In this wish Robert Brand cordially agreed. And, “Come what will,” they all exclaimed, “in London we never will have any other King except our Mayor; Henry Fitz Ailwin of London Stone”.

As was mentioned earlier, one of the signs that a Londoner was wealthy was if he possessed a stone house; and here is an explicit mention that Richard Fitz Osbert’s meeting took place in his ‘stone house’.

We know from elsewhere that both Jordan the Tanner and Robert Brand were both quite well-to-do London merchants. In later years they would often appear as witnesses on documents drawn up by the Mayor of London Henry Fitz Ailwin, who is referred to in William’s testimony.

It’s also important to notice that the Pipe Rolls tell us there were several others witnesses who agreed with the testimony William gave against his brother and the two other wealthy London merchants. In many ways the evidence suggests that it was actually William Fitz Osbert, the Longbeard, who was being most loyal to the king here. His brother had, after all, declared that he ‘would lay out forty marks to purchase a chain in which the King and his Chancellor might be hanged’. All three defendants had also agreed that ‘the King might always remain where he now is’, i.e. by now back home in France. In many ways the three defendants were being much more revolutionary than was William, who remained loyal to Richard and only wanted that the tax burden was shared fairly. The key difference being, as we will see, that Richard and his friends had gone in for a bit of revolutionary pub-talk, which they soon retracted, while William was to take his message to the common people, a much more dangerous thing.



Following the procedure at the time (and now) the defendants, or ‘appellees’, were then given their chance to reply. They denied the whole accusation ‘de verbo in verbum’ i.e. word for word. They asked that they be acquitted and demanded their right as citizens to defend themselves ‘by compurgation, according to the old Anglo-Saxon laws of their ancestors’.

In pre-Conquest Anglo-Saxon times, a defendant ‘could establish his innocence by taking an oath and by getting a required number of persons, typically twelve, to swear they believed the defendant’s oath’. Now this system had always been open to abuse by the rich and powerful. Not only could rich defendants simply bribe witnesses to corroborate their oaths, but the oaths of rich or propertied people also counted for more than those of the poor. Nevertheless, the twelve people were the basis of the jury system in the present-day ‘Anglo-Saxon’ world.

Proceedings were then adjoined and ‘the Sunday next after the feast of St. Katherine’ (i.e. in three weeks time), was fixed as the date for the hearing to continue. The three defendants, Richard Fitz Osbert, Jordan the Tanner and Robert Brand (who remember were on trial for the capital offense of treason), had to find persons who would pledge that they would reappear – i.e. people who in modern parlance would post a bail bond. The names of these pledge givers were recorded and included ‘many well-known names of citizens and civic families’. Palgrave commented: ‘The case of the appellees was therefore defended by the Magnates, to whom William with the long bearde was so much opposed.’

The date when the hearing was to reconvene at Westminster was then shifted to 21 December 1194, ‘on Sunday before Christmas next – to wit on the octaves of St. Hilary’. The text of the Pipe Roll then becomes unreadable, but, as Palgrave commented: ‘We can ascertain that the facts have been mistold by Neubrigensis (William of Newburgh).’ He added:

The accusation was followed up in due form of law before the Justices at Westminster, and without any reference to the King.

We don’t have the eventual verdict, but it seems reasonably clear that either the defendants were acquitted of treason or the suit against them was dropped, because they continued to be prominent citizens of London for some years to come.

Before we take the story further, it might be pertinent to ask if William was really motivated solely by spite and envy as some of the chroniclers say. When William had left on crusade, he had leased or mortgaged his house in London to his brother Richard. Perhaps Richard hadn’t paid all he owed? The earliest known reference to William Fitz Osbert is in the 1189 Pipe Roll, before he went on the Crusade, when he is mentioned as owing £40 for a writ he has taken out against another Londoner.

We must admit we don’t really know William’s motives for accusing his brother of treason. William was certainly very loyal to King Richard and it’s possible that when he had heard his brother promising not to pay anymore to the King, and indeed wishing him gone or dead, it was all too much for him when his rich brother either wouldn’t lend him any more money or, possibly, wouldn’t pay him the money he owed him. As we know family feuds can escalate, but still it is difficult to believe that William accused his brother of treason, for which he could be hanged, just because he wouldn’t lend him any more money.

The King departed one more for his French wars later in 1194, never to return.

William as a spokesman and leaders of the London poor

It was now, in 1195, that William Fitz Osbert, called Longbeard, started on his short career as a leader of and spokesperson for the ordinary citizens of London. Sometimes he has been called a popular agitator and often, by those hostile to him at the time and later, a dangerous demagogue. Palgrave wrote:

Fitz Osbert now re-appears in the City as a patriot. Those chroniclers who espouse his cause — and the coeval authorities display, most instructively, all the violent party feelings of the age — maintain, that, moved by an ardent zeal for justice and equity, he acted with specious fidelity as the advocate of the poor. Face to face he opposed the Aldermen, on all occasions: asserting that by the corruption of the “Nobiles” the King’s Exchequer was shamefully defrauded; and labouring to effect an equal and impartial assessment of the citizens according to their means.

I’ll return to this question at the end. For now let’s limit ourselves to the facts of what he actually did.

Rerum Angliarum - William of Newburgh

Rerum Angliarum – William of Newburgh

The contemporary chronicler William of Newburgh was only slightly less condemnatory of William Longbeard than some of the other chroniclers when he tells us:

Afterwards, by favour of certain persons, he obtained a place in the city among the magistrates, and began by degrees to conceive sorrow and to bring forth iniquity. Urged onward by two great vices, pride and envy, (whereof the former is a desire for selfish advancement, and the latter a hatred of another’s happiness) and unable to endure the prosperity and glory of certain citizens, whose inferior he perceived himself to be, in his aspiration after greatness he plotted impious undertakings in the name of justice and piety. At length, by his secret labours and poisoned whispers, he revealed, in its blackest colours to the common people, the insolence of the rich men and nobles by whom they were unworthily treated; for he inflamed the needy and moderately wealthy with a desire for unbounded liberty and happiness, and allured the many, and held them fascinated, as it were, by certain delusions, so closely bound to his cause, that they depended in all things upon his will, and were prepared unhesitatingly to obey him as their director in all things whatsoever he should command.

A powerful conspiracy was therefore organized in London, by the envy of the poor against the insolence of the powerful, The number of citizens engaged in this plot is reported to have been fifty-two thousand — the names of each being, as it afterwards appeared, written down and in the possession of the originator of this nefarious scheme. A large number of iron tools, for the purpose of breaking the more strongly defended houses, lay stored up in his possession, which being afterwards discovered, furnished proofs of a most malignant conspiracy. Relying on the large number who were implicated by zeal for the poorer classes of the people, while he still kept up the plea of studying the king’s profit, he began to beard the nobles in every public assembly, alleging with powerful eloquence that much loss was occasioned to the revenue through their dishonest practices; and when they rose up in indignation against him in consequence, he adopted the plan of sailing across the sea, for the purpose of lamenting to the king that he should have incurred their enmity and calumny in the execution of his service.

Roger of Hoveden wrote:

In the same year, a disturbance arose between the citizens of London. For, more frequently than usual, in consequence of the king’s captivity and other accidents, aids to no small amount were imposed upon them, and the rich men, sparing their own purses, wanted the poor to pay everything. On a certain lawyer, William Fitz-Osbert by name, or Longbeard, becoming sensible of this, being inflamed by zeal for justice and equity, he became the champion of the poor, it being his wish that every person, both rich as well as poor, should give according to his property and means, for all the necessities of the state …

gervaseWilliam was a very charismatic speaker. Even his most rabid critic, Gervase, a monk of Canterbury, had to admit that though William was ‘poor in degree, evil favoured in shape’, he was ‘most eloquent’ and ‘moved the common people to seek liberties and freedom, and not to be subject to the rich and mighty; by which means he drew to him many great companies, and with all his power defended the poor men’s cause against the rich’. William of Newburgh said, ‘he was of ready wit, moderately skilled in literature, and eloquent beyond measure,’ but added that ‘wishing, from a certain innate insolence of disposition and manner to make himself a great name, he began to scheme new enterprises, and to venture upon the achievement of mighty plans’.

William’s long beard was obviously something of a wonder to some of the chroniclers. Newburgh commented: ‘William, having a surname derived from his Long Beard, which he had thus cherished in order that he might by this token, as by a distinguishing symbol, appear conspicuous in meetings and public assemblies.’ A little later the great English historian Matthew Paris gave a different interpretation of William’s beard which rings slightly truer. Paris said that William and his kinsmen had adhered to this ancient English fashion of being bearded as a testimony of their hatred against their Norman masters.

From Anglo-Saxon times the citizens of London (as elsewhere in England) had come together in assemblies called folk moots. While not fully democratic in the modern sense, these folk moots were a type of English proto-democracy and even in the late twelfth century, after more than a hundred years under the Norman yoke ordinary Londoners still cherished their lost freedoms and held folk moots, which a recent charter of King Richard had endorsed. In London these folk moots were usually held in St. Paul’s Churchyard. William addressed London’s citizens there. He told them that the taxes imposed to pay for the king’s overseas wars were being levied unfairly and unjustly, and that the poor were being made to pay all, while rich citizens were evading their duty. With his followers William also broke up meeting of the ‘full hustings’, which was the name given to the assemblies of City aldermen who met to agree on taxes and who was to pay what. The rulers in these hustings, we are told, ‘endeavoured to spare their own purses and to levy the whole from the poor’. Matthew Paris said that ‘owing to the craft of the richer citizens the main part of the burden fell on the poor’

William’s following continued to grow and the demands of the Londoners were starting to unsettle the rulers. According to Ralph de Diceto, the Dean of St. Paul’s, William asked the Londoners to make oaths that they would stick by him and each other. He also says that William’s ‘rhetoric was responsible for a riot in St. Paul’s’. As historian John McEwan says, ‘In disrupting official meetings, and by binding the citizens with oaths, Fitz Osbert threatened the established political order.’

Eventually it was said that William’s followers totalled 52,000; others put the figure at 15,000.

William goes to France to plead with the king

Tensions in the capital started to mount, and William decided to go to France to try to enlist the support of King Richard. William of Newburgh wrote that he ‘deemed it necessary to go overseas to complain to the prince that he suffered the enmity of the powerful’. Roger of Hoveden said that he travelled ‘to the King overseas (and) he obtained his peace for himself and the people’.

Statue of Hubert Walter at canterbury cathedral

Statue of Hubert Walter at canterbury cathedral

Whilst we only have Roger of Hoveden’s evidence regarding the reception William got when he met Richard in France, it does seem that it was at least mildly positive. Joseph Clayton wrote: Richard heard the appeal sympathetically enough, for after all, as long as the money was forthcoming, he had no particular desire that the pockets of the rich burghers should be spared at the expense of the poor, but left matters in the hands of Archbishop Hubert the Justiciar.’

The Archbishop of Canterbury, Hubert Walter, was to be Longbeard’s nemesis. Whilst still bishop of Salisbury Walter had accompanied the king on the third crusade. He was the only English prelate to stay the full course of the king’s involvement. He was decidedly a ‘king’s man’ and upon his return to England in April 1193, while Richard was still being held captive, the king wrote to his mother, Queen Eleanor of Aquitaine, telling her that Walter should be chosen for the see of Canterbury, which he duly was, though without consultation with the bishops. On 25 December 1193 he was made Chief Justiciar of England, the effective ruler of the country in the king’s absence. After Richard’s fleeting visit to England in 1194, Walter remained justiciar as well as archbishop of Canterbury. Walter was ‘certainly no champion of the poor’. Gerald of Wales said that ‘he was neither gifted with knowledge of letters nor endowed with the grace of lively religion, so in his days the Church of England was stifled under the yoke of bondage’.

If, as seems likely, Richard had received William Longbeard warmly (he was intensely loyal to people who had been with him on his bloody crusade), this apparently annoyed Archbishop Walter enormously.

Hubert Fitz-Walter, archbishop of Canterbury and the king’s justiciary, being greatly vexed at this, issued orders that wherever any of the common people should be found outside the city, they should be arrested as enemies to the king and his realm. Accordingly, it so happened, that at Mid-Lent some of the merchants of the number of the common people of London were arrested at the fair at Stamford, by command of the king’s justiciary. (Hoveden)

William returns to London

Walter wanted to intimidate William’s supporters. Londoners still clung onto certain rights, one of which was the right not to be arbitrarily arrested within the city limits. But when outside London they were fair game for the Archbishop, hence the arrest of some London merchants in Stamford.

Upon his return, the Chief Justiciar or Regent, Archbishop Hubert, was moved to exceeding wrath, we may conjecture that the authority of the latter was restricted, or his discretion impugned. Hubert at once declared himself as the open adversary of William Fitz Osbert in particular, and of the citizens at large. Orders were issued by the Justiciar, that any one of the commonalty found without the walls of the City should be arrested as an enemy to King and Kingdom. Either the franchises of the citizens, or their strength, or perhaps both causes combined, restrained or deterred the Justiciar from attacking them within their own municipal territory. Beyond the city liberties, he did his worst; and, about Mid Lent, several London merchants, attending Stamford Fair, were seized pursuant to his commands. (Palgrave)

The coronation of Philippe II Auguste in the presence of Henry II of England

The coronation of Philippe II Auguste in the presence of Henry II of England

But the king trusted and needed the archbishop to extract the huge sums he needed for his never-ending French wars against the French king, Philip Augustus. As already mentioned, Richard really had no interest at all in how the monies to pay his multi-national army were raised, as long as the money arrived.

When William had returned to London from France he had soon discovered that any hope he had had regarding the equity of the new taxes being raised were in vain, so he starting addressing the citizens again.

William of Newburgh tells us:

On his return to his own home again he began afresh, with his accustomed craftiness, to act with confidence, as if under the countenance of the royal favour and to animate strongly the minds of his accomplices. As soon, however, as the suspicion and rumour of the existence of this plot grew more and more confirmed, the lord archbishop of Canterbury, to whom the chief custody of the realm had been committed, thinking disguise no longer expedient, addressed a congregation of the people in mild accents, refuted the rumours which had arisen, and, with a view to remove all sinister doubts on the subject, advised the appointment of hostages for the preservation of the king’s peace and fealty. The people, soothed by his bland address, agreed to his proposal, and hostages were given. Nevertheless, this man, bent upon his object, and surrounded by his rabble, pompously held on his way, convoking public meetings by his own authority, in which he arrogantly proclaimed himself the king or saviour of the poor, and in lofty phrase thundered out his intention of speedily curbing the perfidy of the traitors.

Giving a perhaps more accurate translation of William of Newburgh’s words, Archbishop Walter had ‘convoked the common people, spoke to them squarely… and admonished them to give hostages for being loyal to the king’. Intimidated by Walter’s power the London citizens gave over the demanded hostages, who, as was normal practice, would be killed if the Londoners didn’t remain loyal.

This didn’t stop William Longbeard however. His most rabid critic, Gervase, who was Archbishop Walter’s sacristan at Canterbury, tells us that still ‘supported by the crowd (he) proceeded with a show of pomp and organised public meetings on his own authority.

Palgrave says that William, who was ‘safe within the walls of London, defied the Justiciar and the Royal authority’. His thousands of followers were ‘all arrayed against the rich and noble of the City, who were compelled to watch in arms, day and night, for the purpose of protecting their wealth, their honour, and their lives against this confederacy’.

Old St. Paul's

Old St. Paul’s

William had had no part in the proceedings when the archbishop and justiciar had demanded, and got, hostages from the Londoners. So once again he arranged a folk moot in St. Paul’s Churchyard. ‘He addressed a forcible and energetic discourse to the assembled people, inviting them to defend their case by rallying round him as the Protector of the poor,’

We even know some of the words William was wont to use when addressing the citizens of London at St. Paul’s, and perhaps elsewhere. ‘Having taken his text or theme from the Holy Scriptures, he thus began’:

With joy shall ye draw water out of the wells of salvation [Isaiah 12:3]

And ‘applying this to himself’, he continued:

I am the saviour of the poor. Do ye, oh, poor! who have experienced the heaviness of rich men’s hands, drink from my wells the waters of the doctrine of salvation, and ye may do this joyfully; for the time of your visitation is at hand. For I will divide the waters from the waters. The people are the waters. I will divide the humble from the haughty and treacherous. I will separate the elect from the reprobate, as light from darkness.

The Archbishop seeks William’s arrest

William was by now thoroughly hated by London’s powerful and particularly by Archbishop Walter, who decided that he was a dangerous demagogue and must be stopped. As intimidating his supporters hadn’t worked as much as he had wanted, though it did reduce William’s following and the scale of the protests somewhat, Walter took advice from the nobles and ‘summoned Fitz Osbert to appear and answer the accusations now preferred against him’.

As he possessed a mouth speaking great things, and had horns like a lamb, he spoke like a dragon; and the aforesaid ruler of the realm, by advice of the nobles, summoned him to answer the charges preferred against him. (Newburgh)

But when the time was come for William to appear, he ‘presented himself so surrounded by the populace, that his summoner being terrified, could only act with gentleness, and cautiously defer judgment for the purpose of averting danger’.

The archbishop decided he would have to use stealth to get his hands on William, who by now was deemed a real threat to the rulers of the country. He found two spies, ‘noble citizens’, who were to ‘act as intelligencers’.

Espying out the ways of the declining demagogue, they ascertained how and in what manner he could be safely and surely apprehended. (Palgrave)

Newburgh wrote: ‘The period, therefore, at which it was possible to find him (Longbeard) unattended by his mob being discovered by two noble citizens, especially now that the people, out of fear for the hostages, had become more quiet, he (Walter) sent out an armed force with the said citizens for his apprehension. As one of them was pressing him hard, he slew him with his own axe which he had wrested from his hand, and the other was killed by someone among those who had come to his assistance.’

William seeks sanctuary in St. Mary le Bow

Immediately upon this, he retreated with a few of his adherents and his concubine, who clave to him with inseparable constancy, into the neighbourhood of St. Mary, which is called Le-Bow, with the intention of employing it, not as a sanctuary, but as a fortress, vainly hoping that the people would speedily come to his aid; but they, although grieving at his dangerous position, yet, out of regard for the hostages or dread of the men-at-arms, did not hasten to his rescue. Hearing that he had seized upon the church, the administrator of the kingdom despatched thither the troops recently summoned from the neighbouring provinces. Being commanded to come forth and abide justice — lest the house of prayer should be made a den of thieves — he chose rather to tarry in the vain expectation of the arrival of the conspirators, until the church being attacked with fire and smoke, he was compelled to sally out with his followers: but a son of the citizen whom he had slain in the first onset, in revenge for his father’s death, cut open his belly with his knife. (Newburgh)

St. Mary le Bow

St. Mary le Bow

Hoveden tells a similar tale:

The…  justiciary then gave orders that… William Longbeard should be brought before him, whether he would or no; but when one of the citizens, Geoffrey by name, came to take him, the said Longbeard slew him; and on others attempting to seize him, he took to flight with some of his party, and they shut themselves in a church, the name of which is the church of Saint Mary at Arches, and, on their refusing to come forth, an attack was made upon them. When even then they would not surrender, by command of the archbishop of Canterbury, the king’s justiciary, fire was applied, in order that, being forced by the smoke and vapour, they might come forth. At length, when the said William came forth, one of them, drawing a knife, plunged it into his entrails, and he was led to the Tower of London…

Gervase of Canterbury simply tells us that William was promised his life if he would quietly surrender; but that he refused ‘to come forth; whereby the Archbishop called together a great number of armed men, lest any stir should be made. The Saturday, therefore, being the Passion Sunday even, the steeple and church of Bowe were assaulted, and William and his accomplices taken, but not without bloodshed for he was forced by fire and smoke to forsake the church, and he was brought to the Archbishop in the Tower…

We are also told that captured with William was his concubine ‘who never left him for any danger that might betide him’. And so, already having been knifed in his entrails, William was ‘secured, bound with fetters and manacles, and carried to the Tower of London’.

The ‘Majores’ of the City and the King’s officers, all joined in urging the Justiciar to inflict a condign punishment upon the offender. Fitz Osbert, by advice of the ‘Proceres’ assembled at the Tower, was condemned to die. (Palgrave)

Hanged in chains at Tyburn

A shameful death for upholding the cause of truth and of the poor.  Matthew Paris

The sentence was executed with the usual barbarity. Palgrave writes: ‘Stripped naked, and tied by a rope to the horse’s tail, William was dragged over the rough and flinty roads to Tyburn, where his lacerated and almost lifeless carcass was hanged in chains on the fatal elm’; together with nine of his accomplices.

William Longbeard being dragged to his death at Tyburn

William Longbeard being dragged to his death at Tyburn

The Dean of St. Paul’s, Ralph de Diceto, probably witnessed William’s journey from the Tower of London to the gibbet at Tyburn, near present-day Marble Arch. He tells us that William ‘his hands tied behind him, his feet tied with long cords, was drawn by means of a horse through the midst of the city to the gallows near the Tyburn. He was hanged.’ The Canterbury monk Gervase almost gleefully wrote that William was ‘dragged, with his feet attached to the collar of a horse, from the aforesaid Tower through the centre of the city to the Elms (at Tyburn), his flesh was demolished and spread all over the pavement and, fettered with a chain, he was hanged that same day on the Elms with his associates and died’. Newburgh said: ‘Being, therefore, captured and delivered into the hands of the law, he was, by judgment of the king’s court, first drawn asunder by horses, and then hanged on a gibbet with nine of his accomplices who refused to desert him’

Slightly later Roger of Wendover wrote in Flowers of History:

In order that the punishment of one might strike terror into the many, he was deprived of his long garments, and, with his hands tied behind his back, and his feet fastened together, was drawn through the midst of the city by horses to the gallows at Tyburn; he was there hung in chains, and nine of his fellow conspirators with him, in order to show that a similar punishment would await those who were guilty of a similar offence.

All the chroniclers who wrote about William’s life and death wrote in Latin. There are however two short entries under the year 1196 in English. The first is found in the Chronicle of London:

In this yere the kyng come in to Engelond, and tok the castell of Notynghame, and disherited John his brother. And the same yere kyng Richarde was crowned ayeyne at Westm’. And in the same yere an heretyke called with the longe berd was drawen and hanged for heresye and cursed doctrine that he had taughte.

Hanging in chains

Hanging in chains

second is in the Chronicle of the Grey Friars of London under the date of the 8th of April:

In this yere was one William with the long berde taken out of Bowe churche and put to dethe for herysey.

The Elms near Tyburn were called “the King’s Gallows” and were probably first erected around 1110. Tyburn from the beginning was clearly the King’s gallows for London and Middlesex criminals. That it was placed outside the boundary of the city indicates the administration of the criminal law by the King’s courts instead of by the local or manorial courts. The first recorded execution there is actually that of William Longbeard. It was to remain the main place of execution for London and Middlesex until 1783.

In Alfred Marks’ Tyburn Tree, Its History and Annals it is said:

The manner of execution at Tyburn seen in William Fitz Osbert’s execution was to become the norm later. That is, the condemned criminal, after being drawn to Tyburn on a hurdle or rough sledge by a horse, at Tyburn was first hanged on the gallows, then drawn or disembowelled, and finally quartered, his quarters being placed high in public places as a warning to others. Thus, because Tyburn was the King’s Gallows, those who were guilty of Treason were Hanged, Drawn and Quartered on this spot.



Actually the evidence tends more towards the view that after being ‘dragged over the rough and flinty roads to Tyburn’ William was then hanged in chains (see here for what this involved). Whether he was subsequently disembowelled (drawn) and quartered is not at all clear. Joseph Clayton sums up William’s sad death:

Just before Easter — the wounded man was stripped naked, tried to the tail of a horse and dragged over the rough stones of the streets of London. He was dead before Tyburn was reached, but the poor broken body, on whom the full vengeance of the rich and mighty had been wreaked, was strung up in chains beneath the gallows elm all the same. Bravely had Longbeard withstood the rulers of the land in the day of his strength; now, when life had passed from him, his body was swinging in common contempt. And with him were nine of his followers hanged. So died William, called Longbeard, son of Osbert, “for asserting the truth and maintaining the cause of the poor”.

Still a threat after death

But William remained a threat to the rulers after his death.

And since it is held that to be faithful to such a cause makes a man a martyr, people thought he deserved to be ranked with the martyrs. For a time multitudes — the very folk who had fallen away from their champion in the hour of battle and need — flocked to pay reverence to the ghastly, bloodstained corpse that hung at Tyburn, and pieces of the gibbet and of the bloodstained earth beneath were carried off and counted as sacred relics. All the great, heroic qualities of the man were recalled. He was accounted a saint. Miracles were alleged to take place when his relics were touched. (Joseph Clayton)

William of Newburgh, though pleased with William death, still admitted that his followers bewailed him bitterly as a martyr. ‘Miracles were wrought with the chain that hanged him. The gibbet was carried off as a relic, and the very earth where it stood scooped away. Crowds were attracted to the scene of his death, and the primate had to station on the spot an armed guard to disperse them.’

He that diggeth a pit shall fall into it; and whoso breaketh down an hedge, a serpent shall bite him” [Eccl. 10:8], the contriver and fomenter of so much evil perished at the command of justice, and the madness of this wicked conspiracy expired with its author: and those persons, indeed, who were of a more healthful and cautious dispositions rejoiced when they beheld or heard of his punishment, washing their hands in the blood of the sinner. The conspirators, however, and seekers after novelty, vehemently deplored his death, taking exception at the rigor of public discipline in his case, and reviling the guardian of the realm as a murderer, in consequence of the punishment which he had inflicted on the mischief-maker and assassin. (Newburgh)

William didn't become a mike these later English Catholic martyrs, hanged, drawn and quartered

William didn’t become a mike these later English Catholic martyrs, hanged, drawn and quartered

So the citizens of London reviled ‘the guardian of the realm as a murderer’; that is Archbishop Walter. Walter’s own sacristan at Canterbury, Gervase, relates that ‘a sudden rumour spread through the city that William was a new martyr and shone through miracles’. Newburgh’s second chapter concerning William is titled ‘How the common people desired to honour this man as a martyr, and how this error of theirs was extinguished’. I think it worth quoting in full:

The extent to which this man had by his daring and mighty projects attached the minds of the wicked to himself, and how straitly he had bound the people to his interests as the pious and watchful champion of their cause, appeared even after his demise. For whereas they should have wiped out the disgrace of the conspiracy by the legal punishment of the conspirator, whom they stigmatized as impious and approved of his condemners, they sought by art to obtain for him the name and glory of a martyr. It is reported that a certain priest, his relative, had laid the chain by which be had been bound upon the person of one sick of a fever, and feigned with impudent vanity that a cure was the immediate result. This being spread abroad, the witless multitude believed that the man who had deservedly suffered had in reality died for the cause of justice and piety, and began to reverence him as a martyr: the gibbet upon which he had been hung was furtively removed by night from the place of punishment, in order that it might be honoured in secret while the earth beneath it, as if consecrated by the blood of the executed man, was scraped away in handfuls by these infatuated creatures, as something consecrated to healing purposes, to the extent of a tolerably large ditch. And now the fame of this being circulated far and wide, large bands of fools, “whose number,” says Solomon, “is infinite,” [see Eccles 1:15, Vulgate] and curious persons flocked to the place, to whom, doubtless, were added those who had come up out of the various provinces of England on their own proper business to London.

The idiot rabble, therefore, kept constant watch and ward over the spot; and the more honour they paid to the dead man, so much the greater crime did they impute to him by whom he had been put to death. To such an extent did this most foolish error prevail as even to have ensnared, by the fascination of its rumours, the more prudent, had they not used great caution in giving a place in their memory to the stories they heard concerning him. For, in addition to the fact of his having (as we have before narrated) committed murder shortly before his execution, which alone should have sufficed to every judicious understanding as a reason against the punishment being considered a martyrdom, his own confession before death must redden with a blush the countenances of those who would fain make unto themselves a martyr out of such a man, if any blood exist in their bodies. Since, as we have heard from trustworthy lips, he confessed, while awaiting that punishment by which he was removed — in answer to the admonitions of certain persons that he should glorify God by a humble though tardy confession of his sins — that he had polluted with carnal intercourse with his concubine that church in which had sought refuge from the fury of his pursuers, during the stay he had made there in the vain expectation of rescue; and what is far more horrible even to mention, that when his enemies had broken in upon him, and no help was at hand, he abjured the Son of Mary, because he would render him no assistance, and invoked the devil that he at least would save him. His justifiers deny these tales, and assert that they were maliciously forged in prejudice to the martyr. The speedy fall of this fabric of vanity, however, put an end to the dispute: for truth is solid and waxes strong by time; but the device of falsehood has nothing solid, and in a short time fades away.

The administrator of the kingdom, therefore, carrying out the condign punishment of ecclesiastical discipline, sent out a troop of armed men against the priest who had been the head of this superstition, who put the rustic multitude to flight, and capturing those who endeavoured to maintain their ground there by force, consigned them to the royal prison. He also commanded an armed guard to be constantly kept upon that place, who were not only to keep off the senseless people, who came to pray, but also to forbid the approach of the curious, whose only object was amusement. After this had lasted for a few days, the entire fabric of this figment of superstition was utterly prostrated, and popular feeling subsided.

Gervase of Canterbury recorded that ‘an ambush was laid and those who came at night-time to pray were whipped’.

Popular Agitator or Dangerous Demagogue?

The violence ordered by Archbishop Walter had crushed the incipient cult of William Longbeard ‘the Martyr’. As Sir Francis Palgrave said: ‘Hubert the Justiciar was able to chase away the votaries of Fitz Osbert, and to reduce the citizens to obedience’.

In addition, William of Newburgh spread the rumour that while seeking safety in the church of St. Mary le Bow, William ‘had polluted with carnal intercourse with his concubine that church in which had sought refuge from the fury of his pursuers’, that he had confessed to this, and that ‘what is far more horrible even to mention, that when his enemies had broken in upon him, and no help was at hand, he abjured the Son of Mary, because he would render him no assistance, and invoked the devil that he at least would save him’. As if William’s brutal death wasn’t enough, here was an attempt to besmirch William’s name forever; although Newburgh does have the grace to add: ‘His justifiers deny these tales, and assert that they were maliciously forged in prejudice to the martyr.’

So was William Longbeard a popular agitator for the poor of London or, as contemporary chroniclers and many later generations of historians, such as William Stubbs have called him, a dangerous ‘demagogue’? He was clearly both; it all depends whose side you are on.

Joseph layton

Joseph Clayton

Whatever his initial motives, it remains a fact that William Fitz Osbert was passionately concerned about the injustice in the way the people of London were being taxed to pay for the adventures of a absent foreign king, a king to whom William always regarded himself as loyal. He spoke for the ordinary citizens and they followed and venerated him. I can’t help but agree with Joseph Clayton:

Longbeard had roused the common working people to make a stand against obvious oppression and injustice — there was the head and front of his offending, there was his crime; earning for him not only a felon’s death, but the loss of character, and the branding for all time with the contemptuous title ” Demagogue.”

Yet in the slow building up of English liberties William Fitz Osbert played his part, and laid down his life in the age-long struggle for freedom, as many a better has done.

But it is equally well true that William had become dangerous for the French-speaking lords and priests and for the wealthier citizens of London. They couldn’t accept the challenge of William and his supporters to their rule and privileges; he had to be silenced. He was certainly a ‘dangerous demagogue’ to them.

Perhaps Alfred Marks, the historian of Tyburn, best sums it up:

What was he, unscrupulous demagogue or martyr in the cause of the poor? Each view was held by his contemporaries. He seems to have behaved very badly to his elder brother, whose care for him during his youth he repaid by bringing against him a charge of treason. On the other hand, it is clear that Longbeard’s enemies had against him a case which it was necessary to strengthen by baseless accusations. He was charged with blaspheming the Virgin Mary, and with taking his concubine into Bow Church. The last charge seems disproved by the circumstances in which Longbeard fled to the church for refuge. It was also set about that he was put to death for “heresy and cursed doctrine,” whereas it is obvious that his offence was political.

Postscript: What became of Archbishop Walter?

Although archbishop Walter had been able, to use Palgrave’s words, to ‘chase away the votaries of Fitz Osbert, and to reduce the citizens to obedience,’ the monks of Holy Trinity at Canterbury, to which the church at St. Mary le Bow belonged, were appalled that their archbishop had ‘had committed against the privileges of the sanctuary’ and subjected it to violence. They were, says Hoveden, therefore ‘unable to hold communication with him on any matter in a peaceable manner’, which ‘ultimately occasioned the loss of the great secular office which he held’.

As Joseph Clayton tells it:

In 1198, two years after the death of Longbeard, Hubert was compelled to resign the justiciarship. His monks at Canterbury, to whom the Church of St. Mary, in Cheapside, belonged, and who had no love for their archbishop, indignant at the violation of sanctuary and the burning of their church, appealed to the king and to the pope, Innocent III, to make Hubert give up his political activities and confine himself to the work of an archbishop. In the same year, a great council of the nation, led by St. Hugh of Lincoln, flatly refused a royal demand for money made by Hubert.

Innocent III was against him, the great barons were against him, and Hubert resigned. But he held the archbishopric till 1205.


Roger of Wendover’s Flowers of history, Comprising the history of England from the descent of the Saxons to A.D. 1235; formerly ascribed to Matthew Paris. ed., J. A Giles (1849); Matthew Paris, Latin Chroniclers from the Eleventh to the Thirteenth Centuries, The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21); F. Palgrave, ed., Rotuli curiae regis: rolls and records of the court held before the king’s justiciars or justices, (1835); Alfred Marks, Tyburn Tree, Its History and Annals (1908); Derek Keene, William fitz Osbert (d. 1196), populist leader, Oxford Oxford Dictionary of National Biography; J. H. Round, William Fitzosbert, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (1889);. William Stubbs, Constitutional History of England (1874–78); Alan Cooper, William Longbeard and the Crisis of Angevin England (2013); Charles Dickens, A Child’s History of England (1852); John McEwan, William FitzOsbert and the crisis of 1196 in London (2004); Joseph Clayton, Leaders of the people; studies in democracy (1910); John Gillingham, Roger of Howden on Crusade, in Richard Cœur de Lion: Kingship, Chivalry and War in the Twelfth Century (1994); John Gillingham, Richard 1 (1999); Thomas Allen, History and Antiquities of London (1827); G. W. S. Barrow, The bearded revolutionary, History Today (1969); Alan V. Murray, Participants in the third crusade, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, OUP; Robert Fabyan, The New Chronicle of England and France (1516), ed., Henry Ellis (1811); R. Holinshed, Of a conspiracy made in London by one William, and how he paid the penalty of his audacity, In Chronicles of England, Scotland and Ireland (1577); R. Howlett, ed., Chronicles of the reigns of Stephen, Henry II, and Richard I, 2, Rolls Series, 82 (1885); Chronica magistri Rogeri de Hovedene, ed. W. Stubbs, 4 vols., Rolls Series, 51 (1868–71); Radulfi de Diceto … opera historica, ed. W. Stubbs, 2: 1180–1202, Rolls Series, 68 (1876); The historical works of Gervase of Canterbury, ed. W. Stubbs;  The chronicle of the reigns of Stephen, Henry II, and Richard I, Rolls Series, 73 (1879); W. Stubbs, ed., Gesta regis Henrici secundi Benedicti abbatis: the chronicle of the reigns of Henry II and Richard I, AD 1169–1192, Rolls Series, (1867).

Court-centered history is not an adequate medium for recovering the past, even in England – William Kapelle[1]

So foreigners grew wealthy with the spoils of England, whilst her own sons were either shamefully slain or driven as exiles to wander hopelessly through foreign kingdom – Orderic Vitalis [2]

In King William’s twenty-first year (1087) there was scarcely a noble of English descent in England, but all had been reduced to servitude and lamentation – Henry of Huntingdon [3]

If the succession runs in the line of the conqueror the nation runs in the line of being conquered and ought to rescue itself – Thomas Paine ‘The Rights of Man’

After the Normans and other Frenchmen arrived in England in 1066, the chronicler of Evesham Abbey called them ‘ravening wolves’.[4] The near contemporary Shropshire-born Anglo-Norman monk and historian Orderic Vitalis said that they ‘mercilessly slaughtered the native people, like the scourge of God smiting them for their sin’.[5] In 1776 Thomas Paine wrote in ‘Common Sense’ that the invaders were a group of ‘armed banditti’ and that the ‘French bastard’ William was ‘the principal ruffian of some restless gang’. The Norman-French were and did all of these things. In this article I want to examine how and when these French ravening wolves arrived in what is now Lancashire, but was called then the ‘land between Ribble and Mersey’. It wasn’t until some years after the invasion of 1066, but still earlier than their arrival further north in Cumbria, which only happened in 1092.[6] Later I will provide a numeric analysis of south-west Lancashire, both before and after the Conquest, using the data and other evidence in Domesday Book. But to start with I’ll recap a little about the Norman Conquest and say something about Lancashire in the century or so before the French came to the area, and took it.


West Derby Hundred

You will notice that the title of this essay is ‘The French hostile take-over of Lancashire’ and not ‘The Norman hostile take-over of Lancashire’. At the time of the invasion and for centuries afterwards the new masters of the country always described themselves as French and saw themselves as being almost a separate species to the English, who they despised. Marc Morris tells us that in 1194 Richard the Lion Heart (Coeur de Lion) chastised some of his English troops saying: ‘You English are too timid’. Implying, says Morris, that ‘he himself was neither’.[7]

richard the lionheart

The Frenchman King Richard the Lionheart

In reading popular versions of English history, and even quite regularly more scholarly and learned works too, it is all too easy to forget a very significant fact: The armed Norman banditti who invaded England were French and they spoke French. Of course the Normans were originally North-men (Normands), they were Norse Vikings, but by the time of the conquest, while still retaining the brutal martial qualities of their Viking ancestors, they were thoroughly French and spoke one version of the many regional varieties of French in use at that time: Norman French. As more and more French men and women from other parts of France arrived in England throughout the late Middle Ages, the language spoken by the royal  court, by the barons, by the local knights and in the courts of law slowly evolved and morphed – away from ‘Anglo-Norman’ and towards a more Parisian French. But let’s be quite clear: the conquerors continued to speak French as their primary language for a long time to come.

The English and their language were much despised, as indeed later on would be the Welsh, Irish and Scots as well. At the end of the thirteenth century, Robert of Gloucester could write:

And the Normans could not then speak any speech but their own; and they spoke French as they did at home, and had their children taught the same. So that the high men of this land, that came of their blood, all retain the same speech which they brought from their home. For unless a man know French, people regard him little; but the low men hold to English, and to their own speech still. I ween there be no countries in all the world that do not hold to their own speech, except England only. But undoubtedly it is well to know both; for the more a man knows, the more worth he is.

complete-canterbury-tales-geoffrey-chaucer-john-h-fisherOf course there was a need for some sort of communication between the conquerors and the conquered. The native English needed to know some French if they had to serve and appease their new lords in their manors, work on the lords’ home farms or understand the lawyers and judges in the courts. Slowly but surely Old English or Anglo-Saxon evolved and morphed into Middle English, the language of Chaucer. Although French remained the principal language of the rulers, one by one, and at first very reluctantly, they started to be able to understand and then speak Middle English as well.

In 1362, Edward III became the first king to address Parliament in English and the Statute of Pleading was adopted, which made English the language of the courts, though this statute was still written in French! French was still the mother tongue of Henry IV (1399-1413), but he was the first to take the oath in English. That most ‘English’ of Kings Henry V (1413–1422) was the first to write in English but he still preferred to use French.

It is interesting to note that it was not until the days of Henry VII in the late fifteenth century that an English king married a woman born in England (Elizabeth of York), as well as the fact that Law French was not banished from the common law courts until as late as 1731.

When we read history books or watch television programmes about the exploits of ‘English’ kings such as Henry II, his sons Richard ‘Coeur de Lion’ and King John, or later about Edward I ‘Hammer of the Scots’ or indeed about the countless English barons and knights fighting each other as well as fighting the kings of England and France, it is advisable to remember that these people weren’t yet English in any real sense of the word and didn’t yet see themselves as such. Whether we call them ‘Anglo-Norman’ or something else, and whether or not they were born in England, these were all French aristocratic thugs.

I want to stress this linguistic and cultural point not because I have anything against the French, nor because there were only French thugs. Thugs in fact appear everywhere and their arrival on the historical stage is, rather sadly, one of the defining characteristics of our civilization itself. Rather, knowing what type of people these really were can help clear some of the mist from popular English history as it is too often presented, particularly about the ‘Norman Conquest’.

The Conquest

In the years immediately after the arrival in England of William the Bastard and his band of armed banditti, the part of north-west England that is today called Lancashire was of little concern to the invaders. It was quite literally beyond the edge of their known world. During the first five years of the occupation and colonization of England, William and his followers were fully occupied with dispossessing the English ealdormen and thanes of their land and divvying up the spoils between themselves.[8] They also had their hands full mercilessly putting down various English rebellions against their still shaky rule.[9] Some years later over in the Norman monastery of Saint-Evroult  Orderic Vitalis wrote:

The English were groaning under the Norman yoke, and suffering oppressions from the proud lords who ignored the king’s injunctions. The petty lords who were guarding the castles oppressed all the native inhabitants of high and low degree, and heaped shameful burdens on them. For Bishop Odo and William fitz Osbern, the king’s vice-regents, were so swollen with pride that they would not deign to hear the reasonable pleas of the English or give them impartial judgement. When their men-at-arms were guilty of plunder and rape they protected them by force, and wreaked their wrath all the more violently upon those who complained of the cruel wrongs they suffered.


The Battle of Hastings

The dispossession of the English was, in the words of historian Robin Fleming in her magisterial and authoritative ‘Kings and Lords in Conquest England’, ‘a terrible slide towards annihilation’.[10] The whole process took many years and happened in a variety of ways. In a minority of cases Frenchmen were granted the estates of individual pre-Conquest English thanes, called antecessors. In many cases the king doled out whole tracts of territory bearing no relationship whatsoever to the holdings of particular pre-Conquest English ealdormen or thegns. In other cases the French just grabbed what they wanted without any authority from the king – they were exercising the rights of the conqueror, even if they were only among the ‘legions…. who were rushing across the channel to join in the scramble for worldly goods and riches’.[11]

Referring to England, Fleming comments:

The fields and copses, the livestock and peasants had all, before the Conquest, been controlled by an extensive aristocracy composed of perhaps four or five thousand thegns. The almost complete transference of all these lands, men and beasts in less than twenty years is astonishing… within twenty years of Hastings the overwhelming majority of land, with its vineyards, beekeepers and swine pastures, had been transferred from one lord to another.[12]

thegn's house

By the time the Domesday survey was taken in 1086, almost all of England was in French hands. The king had ordered the survey more to find out what his vassals actually held than for tax purposes, but it was certainly of use for that too.[13] The English aristocracy and most of the class of thegns had been completely destroyed. Some had died at Hastings in 1066, others during the rebellions in the north,[14] on the Welsh border or in the eastern fenlands,[15] while thousands more eventually despaired and left for Constantinople to join the Byzantine Emperor’s Varangian Guard.[16] Orderic wrote:

And so the English groaned aloud for their lost liberty and plotted ceaselessly to find some way of shaking off a yoke that was so intolerable and unaccustomed. Some sent to Swegn, King of Denmark, and urged him to lay claim to the kingdom of England which his ancestors Swegn and Cnut had won by the sword. Others fled into voluntary exile so they might either find in banishment freedom from the Normans or secure foreign help and come back to fight a war of vengeance. Some of them who were still in the flower of youth travelled into remote lands and bravely offered their arms to Alexius, Emperor of Constantinople, a man of great wisdom and nobility.

morrisIn ‘The Norman Conquest’, which I believe is the most balanced and thorough recent work on the Conquest, Marc Morris summed up the extent of the dispossession:

Of Domesday’s 1,000 tenants-in-chief, a mere thirteen are English… Whereas in 1066 there had been several thousand middling English thegns, by 1086 half of the land in England was held by just 200 Norman barons…  but half of that half – i.e. a quarter of all the land in England – was held by just ten magnates.[17]

There were a few exceptions. Some thegns managed to hold on to bits of their former land for a while; although by now they were invariably mere tenants of new French barons and knights. We find examples all over the country in Domesday Book (DB). But when we catch sad glimpses of these pre-Conquest English landowners, still precariously hanging on as debased tenants, they are the exceptions to the rule. In the years following Domesday most of these survivors also lost what little land they had still clung on to in 1086. When we do find a case where a local pre-Conquest lord or thegn who actually prospered, as for example with the Norse named Forne Sigulfson in Cumbria – we are interested precisely because such things were so rare.[18]

The Norman Conquest had certainly brought about a ‘tenurial revolution’, in that the post-Conquest pattern of land ownership didn’t match that seen pre-Conquest. But much more importantly it had brought about a complete foreign occupation and colonization of the country, whose effects, it can be argued, are still to be felt today.

Tenth-century Lancashire

Our concern here is with Lancashire, which was called at the time ‘the Land between Ribble and Mersey’ – referring to the two rivers of that name.

The boundaries of this interesting and unique region were clearly defined by physical objects, the Mersey on the south, the Ribble on the north, and the Pennine range on the east, a western spur of this range which divides the watershed of the river Aire from the western Calder constituting a natural boundary on the north-east.[19]

The first time we find use of the term between Ribble and Mersey was in 1002 in the will of a powerful Mercian English thegn (or perhaps he was an ealdorman) called Wulfric Spot. Wulfric held extensive estates throughout Mercia. His mother was Lady Wulfrun, who gave her name to Wolverhampton. In Wulfic’s will in 1002 he gave his lands betwux Ribbel & Maerse and on Wirhalum (Wirral) to Aelfhelm and Wulfheah. It has been suggested that Wulfric’s mother Wulfrun was the daughter of Wulfsige the Black, to whom King Edmund granted lands in Mercia in the early 940s.[20] It’s possible that Wulfsige the Black had also been given lands on the Wirral and across the Mersey by King Æthelstan after the pivotal Battle of Brunanburh, on or near the Wirral, in 937, or slightly later by his son King Edmund, who was reconquering the north in the early 940s. Perhaps these land grants north of the Mersey to Wulfric’s ancestor were part of the English kings’ attempts to take firmer control of these former Northumbrian lands now so heavily settled by Irish-Norse? It’s a subject worthy of more investigation.

statue wulfrun

Statue of Wolverhampton’s founder Lady Wulfrun

What type of land and society was the land between Ribble and Mersey in the tenth and eleventh centuries, before the Conquest and the French ravening wolves arrived in Lancashire? Unfortunately the whole history of north-west England during this period is obscure in the extreme. Yet we can say something.

From the seventh century, Lancashire and Cumbria had been under the rule of the Northumbrian English.[21] In the eleventh century the population was still very sparse, but consisted of a considerable remnant of the Celtic British (the ‘Cumbrians’), many Northumbrian English settlers, plus, as Northumbrian power dwindled in the face of viking raids and Scots incursions in the late ninth and early tenth centuries, a heavy settlement of Irish-Norse.[22] In the early tenth century it is also likely that the Strathclyde Britons (called ‘the Cumbrians’ in English sources) started to reassert some of their former power south of the Solway Firth into northern Cumberland.[23]


A few Norse place-names in West Derby Hundred, Lancashire

To restrict ourselves to Lancashire, the evidence clearly shows that sometime in the tenth century the whole of the Lancashire coast from the Wirral and the River Mersey in the south all the way up to Morecambe Bay in the north, was very heavily settled by Scandinavians who had originally come from Ireland following their temporary expulsion from Dublin in 902.[24] As the decades progressed, what were at first just a few coastal defensive bases for Viking fleets and warbands became permanent settlements and the Norsemen started to venture further inland – leaving their names in the landscape everywhere. Most, though by no means all, of our evidence for the Scandinavian settlement of north-west England, including Lancashire, comes from place-names, toponyms and other minor and field names. These have been extensively studied by generations of scholars, including Robert Ferguson, J. Worsaae, Eilert Ekwall and Frederick T. Wainwright, to name just four.[25] Wainwright wrote:

Finally it should be remembered that the influence of the Norsemen was not limited to conditions and events in the tenth century. We have seen how the new settlers left their mark on the racial complex, the social structure, the place-names, the personal names, the language, and the art-forms of Lancashire and the north-west. Their influence long outlasted the tenth century. It was a dominant factor in the history of Lancashire throughout the Middle Ages and it persists even today. As a mere episode the Norse immigration must be considered outstanding. But it was not a mere episode. It was an event of permanent historical importance.[26]

This much is beyond any doubt. The timing of the settlement and whether it was peaceful or not are other matters.[27] The Norsemen in north-west England still spoke a Norse language well into the eleventh and even into the twelfth and maybe thirteenth centuries, although as time went on their language merged with the English of their neighbours in specific locals.

Just because a particular clearing in the woods (a ‘thwaite’ in Norse, hence Thornythwaite, Dowthwaite, Crosthwaite etc) was clearly the work of Norsemen it doesn’t mean it was cut in the tenth century. It could have happened even centuries later. Nevertheless, even if a place or field name was coined later (particularly if it still shows correct Norse case endings, as for example in Litherland which preserves the Scandinavian genitive in ar) it still shows that the people of the area were speaking a form of Old Norse at the time.[28]

Putting these questions to one side, in my view the turning of the Scandinavians from raiding to settlement, farming and fishing probably really only got underway after the Battle of Corbridge on the River Tyne in 918 and after 920 when the Northumbrians, Danes, Norse and Welsh had recognized the authority of King Edward the Elder, possibly in Bakewell.[29]


The Battle of Brunanburh in 937

The grant of the whole of the northern Lancastrian district of Amounderness to the diocese of York by King Athelstan in 930, which we know he bought at a ‘high price’ (from the ‘pagans’ in one source), might suggest that the Scandinavians had already heavily settled this region by this time.[30] Even so, Edward’s son King Æthelstan still had to reassert his authority or supremacy over the various peoples of the north of Britain at Eamont Bridge in Cumbria in 927 and on the Wirral at the important Battle of Brunanburh in 937.[31]

Northumbrian power had by now completely vanished in the north-west and the Lancashire region was drawn more and more into the orbit and influence of the southern English kings. The possible history of Wulfric Spot’s holdings between the Ribble and Mersey might be one indication of this power shift – as undoubtedly is King Æthelstan’s grant of the whole of Amounderness in northern Lancashire to the diocese of York just mentioned.

Throughout the rest of the tenth century, and into the eleventh century, the racially mixed population of Lancashire settled down to eke out an existence from the soil and the sea, interrupted only rarely by larger events happening elsewhere.

The return of the Danes

King Canute Defies the Waves

King Cnut

The turn of the new millennium brought great new upheavals to England. These were precipitated by the return of the Danes late in the tenth century and, after much early rape and pillage reminiscent of earlier days, the eventual coming to the English throne of Danish king Cnut in 1028. I won’t retell the long and sordid history of this period.[32] Rather I would just like to highlight one upshot of the years leading up to the unexpected coronation of King Edward the Confessor in 1043. Robin Fleming, in ‘Kings and Lords in Conquest England’, has shown, among many other things, that during the later years of King Æthelred (‘the ‘Ill-counselled’ not the ‘Unready’), during the reign of King Cnut and during all the subsequent complicated and bloody fights between their sons and the Godwines, English aristocratic society was decimated to almost the same extent as was to happen again after the Norman Conquest. Vast numbers of English ealdormen and powerful thegns were slain; more were debased to become vassals of Godwine and the two other new Cnut-appointed earls, Leofric and Siward, and later the vassals of their sons and successors. During the reign of King Edward the Confessor the Godwinesons held more land than the king and far more than Leofric’s sons in the Midlands and the Siwardsons in the north.[33]

The original English aristocracy had been decapitated, a thing that without much doubt contributed to William the Bastard’s ability to subdue and colonize England so swiftly and so successfully after winning just one major battle.

Yet below these three powerful families and the king himself, there were still thousands of smaller English thegns occupying and working their lands with their ox-teams, villeins, bordars and slaves.

Pre-Conquest Lancashire

In Lancashire the families of Godwine, Leofric and Siward held no lands at all just before the conquest. In the ‘time of King Edward’ (TRE) i.e. in the years leading up to 1066, Domesday tells us quite a lot about what it lists as the ‘land between Ribble and Mersey’ (Inter Ripam et Mersam). There were six hundreds included in this region: West Derby, Warrington, Newton in Makerfield, Salford, Blackburn and Leyland.  I’ll concentrate of the most south-western of the six hundreds lying between Ribble and Mersey: that is the hundred of West Derby. This is an area stretching up the coast from present-day Liverpool on the Mersey to Penwortham, just south of Preston on the River Ribble, and some way inland too. The caput, or capital manor, of the hundred was situated at West Derby itself. The reason I choose to highlight West Derby is in the first instance because it is both the best documented hundred in Domesday Book as well as being the most heavily populated hundred in Lancashire. In addition, one of my concerns here, as elsewhere, is to explore the history of the Norse settlement of north-west England. It is in West Derby Hundred that the Irish-Norse settled in the greatest numbers.[34]



Let me draw attention to one peculiarity of the Domesday entries for Lancashire (which are included under Cheshire). In 1899 William Farrer wrote in ‘Notes on the Domesday Survey of the land between Ribble and Mersey’:[35]

One feature to be here noticed is that the six hundreds into which this district was divided were treated as manors, having their respective mansiones or manor-houses at West Derby, Warrington, Newton, Salford, Blackburn, and Leyland… The explanation is to be found in the fact that this district fell into the hands of the Crown by conquest, and was populated by a class of half-free tenants, called thanes and drenghs, whose status was, with few exceptions, little above that of the villeins. Now the collectors of Danegeld did not care to deal with many half-free taxpayers, especially when the taxpayers owed suit and service to some lord of high estate. In this district in Saxon times that lord was the king, and so the geld was charged against his great manor-houses of West Derby, Warrington, Newton, Salford, Blackburn, and Leyland, and the men whose berewicks or sub-manors lay in  their lord’s greater or capital manor had to bring thither their rent, to resort thither for legal redress, and also to bring thither their contribution to the Danegeld, and the lord was held responsible to the collectors for the whole… [36]

Now the dependency of the berewicks and sub-manors between Ribble and Mersey upon six great manors, and the obligations of suit and service to be performed by the tenants at the six capital manor-houses, explains the scantiness and bareness of the details collected by the Domesday commissioners within this district. The king himself being lord of the whole, no more details than those recorded were required.

Actually there was another reason for the scantiness of the information collected. Elsewhere Farrer suggested that the Domesday commissioners had never visited the areas of northern Lancashire and the Pennines, included under Yorkshire. I would strongly concur. When we look at the Domesday entries for between Ribble and Mersey it looks to me that the commissioners had possibly only visited the capital manor of West Derby, it being only a short ride from the Norman earldom of Cheshire. I tend to agree with Andrew Gray, who in ‘The Domesday Record of the Land Between Ribble and Mersey’ wrote:[37]

Judging from the scantiness of the information, it would certainly seem as if the Domesday Commissioners had contented themselves with crossing over from Chester to the king’s manor of Derby, and there had gathered sworn information about that Hundred, and gleaned further pieces of knowledge about the five other Hundreds (especially about the king’s land in them), without troubling themselves to penetrate into a part of the country so wild and desolate, and inhabited by people full of a sturdy independence.

I would like to draw attention to one other feature of the Lancashire Domesday. Unlike in the rest of Cheshire and much of the rest of the country, in the entries for between the Ribble and the Mersey, and most noticeably in West Derby Hundred, more detail is given about the ownership of the various manors before the Conquest than about the situation in 1086. Just by way of example, we might compare the entry for Halsall in Lancashire with Newton in Cheshire. The entry for Halsall reads:

Ketil held Halsall. There are 2 carucates of land. It was worth 8s.[38]

In Cheshire the entry for Newton (in Middlewich Hundred) reads:

Joscelin holds of Earl Hugh Newton. Gruffydd held it and was a free man. There is 1 hide paying geld. There is land for 3 ploughs. In demesne is 1 (plough) and a oxman. A priest with 1 bordar has 1 plough. There is an acre of meadow. TRE it was worth 4s, now 10s.

In West Derby Hundred we know that in 1086 Roger de Poitou had until recently held everything (as he did the rest of Lancashire), and we find the names of some of his French henchmen holding of him. But which lands his French vassals held is nowhere stated – although attempts can be and are made to find out.

Pre-Conquest land and manors in West Derby Hundred

I will try to summarize the situation in the hundred of West Derby in the run up to the Conquest. As we have seen, the region was settled by a mixture of Norse and English. There were no doubt some genetic descendants of the original British still there too, but by this time they would be culturally and linguistically indistinguishable from their Germanic neighbours. The area was, as we will see, very sparsely populated, but following the upheavals and settlements of the tenth century, West Derby was by 1066 a rather peaceful, though poor, backwater.

Anglo-Saxon hoard found in Staffordshire

An ‘Anglo-Saxon’ village

In an ‘Introduction to the Lancashire Domesday’ in the ‘Victoria County History of Lancashire’,[39] and also in the earlier article I referred to before, William Farrer undertook some numerical analysis based on the Domesday entries. Rather than use these I decided to do my own statistical analysis, and thus unless otherwise stated all the numbers I use below are my own. They differ only slightly from Farrer’s but address different questions.

According to my calculations there were 113 ploughlands (carucates) in West Derby Hundred in the time of King Edward. They were spread over 60 manors – if we include the capital manor of West Derby itself, held by the king. On average about two ploughlands per manor. In Lancashire an ‘oxgang’ (1/8th of a ploughland) averaged fifteen statute acres, and thus the pre-Conquest hundred of West Derby comprised 13,560 statute acres of arable land. This equates to 21.18 square miles or 54.64 square kilometres. To put his in perspective this total is only about one half of the present surface area of the city of Liverpool (112 square kilometres). Of course not all the land being cultivated would have made it into Domesday, particularly many smaller or remote plots falling ‘below the radar’. There was, no doubt, some unrecorded upland sheep farming as well. Other economic activity would have included fishing in the Irish Sea and in the rivers and meres of the area. Nevertheless, West Derby Hundred wasn’t very heavily farmed in the times around the Conquest.

Distribution of land ownership

Although the average arable land per manor was around two, the distribution was highly skewed.

The king’s caput manor of West Derby and its six satellite berewicks[40] totalled 24 ploughlands i.e. 21% of the total in the hundred. He had woodland and hawk eyries as well, if he ever wanted to go hunting – although it is doubtful that the king ever visited. There is only one other major local landowner called Uhtraed (Uchtred in DB). Uhtraed held 17 of the 60 manors in the hundred, with 30.25 ploughlands – more than the King’s capital manor and 26% of the total in the hundred. So the King and Uhtraed combined held nearly one half of all the land in West Derby Hundred before the Conquest.

No pre-Conquest names are given for thegns in 28 of the 60 manors in the hundred. For example for Allerton we read: ‘Three thegns held Allerton as 3 manors…’ After the King and Uhtraed only 13 other thegns are named: Beornwulf, Stenulf, Dot, Æthelmund, Wynstan, Almaer, Aski, Wulfbert, Lyfing, Wigbeort, Godgifu, Teos and Ketil.

These 13 named minor thegns held 14 (23%) of the 60 manors (only Stenulf held 2), with 1, 2 or 3 ploughlands each. Dot exceptionally holding 6 in Huyton and Tarbock. They held 30.4 of the total 113 ploughlands in the hundred, or 26%, with an average of 2.33 ploughlands each. These men were still quite minor thegns, but they were at least significant enough to be recalled by the jurors twenty years after the Conquest. Some of them might even have been jurors.

Finally, we come to the 37 unnamed thegns (including 4 radmen). If we assume that they were all separate people (which might not be so unreasonable a suggestion given their geographic distribution), then these 37 unnamed small thegns held 28 manors. As we see in Domesday many single manors were farmed by several thegns. They held 28 ploughlands between them, i.e. on average one ploughland each and 25% of the total farmed arable land in West Derby Hundred.

While it is clear that pre-Conquest landholding in this part of Lancashire was highly concentrated in the hands of King Edward and one powerful local English lord called Uhtraed, we might make a couple of additional observations. Over one half of the land was still farmed by small independent Anglo-Norse farmers; 79% if we include Uhtraed. The King was, of course, an absentee landowner and his important desmesne of West Derby with its six berewicks would also have been farmed by some people who would have amounted to small local thegns in their own right.

As we will see later this situation would change radically after the Conquest.

Geographic spread of the manors

The next thing worthy of comment is that the vast bulk of the manors in West Derby, both before and after the Conquest, were in or extremely close to the modern city of Liverpool. These manors included not only King Edward’s capital manor of West Derby and its six berewicks[41] but also the majority of Uhtraed’s manors too, as well as the holdings of most of the lesser thegns. There were just a few manors lying to the north along the coast towards the Ribble and some slightly inland: in places in and around Ainsdale, Formby, North Meols, Skelmerdale, Halsall, Lathom and Scarisbrick.


Norse settlement was particularly dense around North Meols (Southport)

Identity and ethnicity of the pre-Conquest thegns

It has already been notes that if we exclude the king there were 51 thegns in pre-Conquest West Derby Hundred, but only fourteen of these are named: Uhtraed, Dot, Stenulf, Beornwulf, Wynstan, Almaer, Aski, Æthelmund, Wulfbert, Lyfing, Godgifu, Teos, Ketil and Wigbeorht.

They were obviously a mixed bunch with both English and Norse heritage. William Farrer wrote:

The combination in this county of Northumbrian, Mercian, and Danish place names, to which so long ago as 1801 the historian, Dr. Whitaker, called attention, bears witness to the intermixture of languages; of the confusion of customs and tenure, such features as the overlapping of the hide and the carucate, the simultaneous use of such terms as wapentake, shire, and hundred, and the incidence of thegnage, drengage, and cornage tenure side by side, are eloquent.[42]

The greatest landowner was Uhtraed, Uchtred in Domeday Book, whose name is clearly reminiscent of the Northumbrian lords of Bamburgh. In 1887, Andrew Gray in a highly entertaining essay called ‘The Domesday Record of the Land Between Ribble and Mersey’ wrote:

We would gladly identify him, if we could, with one of the Uhtreds of the great House of Eadwulf…. such identification, however, would be mere guesswork.[43]

a-norse-dublin-shipNevertheless, Uhtraed or Uchtred does look like a Northumbrian English name. Other clearly English names, whether Mercian or Northumbrian, are Æthelmund, Almaer, Wulfbert, Wynstan and Godgifu (the only named woman). We also find the Scandinavian names Beornwulf, Stenulf, Aski and Ketil. The ethnicity of the remaining names Dot, Lyfing and Teos is less clear. But we find a Dot holding large estates in Cheshire, so he might have been Mercian English too.

Of course all these people might be called ‘English’ by the time of the Conquest, although the general scholarly consensus is that in the eleventh century the descendants of the Irish-Norse settlers in north-west England still spoke a version of Old Norse, which would, however, have already started to merge with Northumbrian and Mercian English  by this time.[44]  An older man at the time of the Conquest could easily have had a great great grandfather who had been one of the very first Irish-Norse settlers in Lancashire about a century and a half before.

The Normans arrive in Lancashire

In the five years immediately following the Conquest the new Norman-French king and his newly enriched barons didn’t seem to have given much attention to the region that would become Lancashire. During the winter of 1069 – 1070, when William and his men were committing regional genocide in the so-called the Harrying of the North, it’s quite possible, likely even, that some parts of the Lancashire Pennines and the region north of the River Ribble called Amounderness (including Preston) were wasted too. In Domesday, of the 59 vills listed under Preston only 19 were said to been ‘inhabited by a few people.., the rest is waste’. But there is no evidence that the ‘ravening wolves’ ever wasted the land between the Ribble and Mersey, and certainly not West Derby Hundred. It had, as Farrer said, escaped ‘the fire and sword of the Conqueror, laying waste the neighbouring shires’.[45]

I have discussed the Harrying of the North elsewhere.[46] William’s men ‘spread out… over more than a hundred miles of territory, slaying many men and destroying the liars of others’.[47] Suffice it to add here, to use just a few more words of the Anglo-Norman historian Orderic Vitalis:

In his (William’s) anger, he commanded that all crops and herds, chattels and food of every kind should be brought together and burned to ashes with consuming fire so that the whole region north of the Humber might be stripped of all means of sustenance…. As a consequence, so serious a scarcity was felt in England, and so terrible a famine fell upon the humble and defenceless people, that more than 100,000 Christian folk of both sexes, young and old alike, perished of hunger.

The harrying of the north

The Harrying of the North

Following the Harrying of the North and the rebellion of Eadric the Wild in the Welsh borderlands, and the defeat of earl Eadwin, William granted a huge marcher territory and earldom to Hugh d’Avranches, based on Chester – Cheshire. After cowing and dispossessing the local English population and granting most of the county to his men, Earl Hugh spent much of his time slaughtering the Welsh. Orderic wrote: ‘He went about surrounded by an army instead of a household … and ‘wrought great slaughter among the Welsh.’[48]

Majorie Chibnall said in ‘The World of Orderic Vitalis’:[49]

Ruthlessness and insensitivity were qualities necessary for beating down the resolute defence of the princes of North Wales, and Earl Hugh had them in abundance. His huge household had the character of an army, only half held in control. He himself was a great mountain of a man, given over to feasting, hunting, and sexual lust; always in the forefront in battle, and lavish to the point of prodigality.

Slightly further south William granted the earldom of Shrewsbury (Shropshire) to Roger de Montgomerie in about 1071.[50] Like Earl Hugh in Cheshire, Roger quickly divided up the county between his armed knights and household and created powerful border warlords such as Corbet (followed by his sons Roger and Robert), Reinaud de Bailleul-en-Gouffern (who had succeeded Warin ‘the Bald’) and Picot de Sai. As Roger’s biographer John Mason has said, by 1086 ‘of 230 hides held by the earl in the Shropshire border hundreds, 196 were held by these three vassals, whose descendants or representatives were dominant in western Shropshire for some centuries’.[51]


The Norman homeland of Roger de Montgomerie and his son Roger de Poitou

When Roger had first come to England the year after the Battle of Hastings he had left behind his wife Mabel de Bellême (William the Conqueror’s daughter), a woman who, evidently, was ‘violent and aggressive’ and certainly brutally vindictive.[52] He left various sons and daughters behind too, including his eldest son, the ‘notoriously savage’ Robert de Bellême, who would inherit his mothers vast Bellême estates and took the side of William the Conqueror’s oldest son Robert ‘Curthose’ in his revolt against the king in 1077. Second son Hugues (Hugh) de Montgomerie would follow his father as the second earl of Shrewsbury on his father’s death in 1094. But, as we will see, probably sometime in the early 1080s Roger’s third son, also called Roger, who I will refer by his later name of Roger de Poitou (after he married Almodis, daughter of count Aldebert II of La Marche in Poitou, sometime before 1086 ), probably persuaded his father to ask the king to grant him his own territories. King William certainly agreed and gave Roger all the land between the Ribble and Mersey, as well as the wasted lands north of the Ribble called Amounderness, i.e. all of Lancashire, plus vast estates elsewhere in Hampshire, Nottinghamshire, Lincolnshire, Essex, and Suffolk. According to Orderic:

The prudent old earl obtained earldoms for his two remaining sons, Roger and Arnulph, who, after his death, lost them both for their treasonable practices in the reign of King Henry.

(c) Walker Art Gallery; Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation

Painting of Roger de Poitou as he might have looked when older back in France

Domesday Book of 1086 is the first time we here about him and Lancashire. It is said that he used to hold it all. But by 1086 Roger had already been stripped of Lancashire and his other holdings. Before I discuss what had possibly happened, let’s ask when Roger had first come to Lancashire? Nothing is certain but let’s start with his likely date of birth. Roger’s father, Roger de Montgomerie, had married Duke William’s daughter Mabel de Bellême in about 1050.[53] They had five surviving sons, Roger de Poitou was the third -a first Roger died young before about 1060-1062. They also had four daughters. John Mason writes:

Orderic’s list of four daughters of Roger and Mabel follows that of their brothers, in an order which is probably that of their birth: Emma (d. 1113), a nun at and later (perhaps as early as c.1074, when she was probably in her early twenties) abbess of her father’s foundation at Alménêches; Matilda (d. 1082×4), who married before 1066 the Conqueror’s half-brother Robert de Mortain; Mabel, who married Hugues de Châteauneuf-en-Thymerais; and Sybil, who married Robert fitz Hamon from south Wales.[54]

Given that at least Emma and Matilda were probably born in the 1050s, this led Mason, among others, to suggest that Roger was born in the mid 1060s. Others, less convincingly, give his date of birth as 1058. The point of this is that if Mason is at all right about Roger’s date of birth then he would have been only about 21 or 22 in 1086, by which time he had been granted all of Lancashire by King William, established his men-at-arms in the manors there, started to build Penwortham castle on the River Ribble and then forfeited his lands for some reason. I can’t help but concurring entirely with John Mason:

The Domesday entries for his (Roger’s) large honour present problems. In five counties (Hampshire, Nottinghamshire, Lincolnshire, Essex, and Suffolk) he is entered as a normal tenant-in-chief; but in four others (the land between the Ribble and the Mersey, Derbyshire, Yorkshire, and Norfolk) his tenure is entered as a thing of the past: thus at the end of his Derbyshire fee is a note that Roger used to hold the lands, but they are now in the hand of the king. This and other entries suggest that Roger’s lands were all ordered to be taken into the king’s hand late in 1086, but that in some cases the order was not known locally in time to be recorded in Domesday, or recorded in full. In view of his age, Roger cannot have held this honour for long; why he should so soon have lost it, at a time when as far as is known he and his father were loyal to the Conqueror, is not stated.[55]

I would particularly stress the view that Roger ‘cannot have held this honour for long’ and that he had probably only recently forfeited his estates when Domesday was taken in 1086. Roger would be regranted these lands in 1088 by William’s son William Rufus, only to lose them finally again in 1102 after he had joined his eldest brother’s rebellion against King Henry. ‘In consequence he was expelled from England, which he visited again only in 1109. The rest of his life was spent in the politics of La Marche.’[56] But these later French family feuds will not concern us here.

So when Roger arrived in Lancashire in the early 1080s with his men-at-arms and household, no doubt given to him by his father, he would have still been a youth. Knowing how the Norman-French tended to move around in heavily armed, armoured and mounted groups – to protect themselves from attacks by the resentful English and to engage in a little rape and pillage[57] – we can perhaps imagine the scene as they arrived in West Derby, previously the caput of King Edward.

n cavalry (1)

Norman knights

Leading his mounted troops and armed household into the manor of West Derby, Roger was probably full of youthful swagger and scorn for these strange Englishmen with their even stranger language. Ensconcing themselves in the best houses that West Derby had to offer, having no doubt summarily ejected whatever English thegns or other English tenants they found there. And, if they were true Norman warriors, after having first feasted, drunk and maybe whored a bit, Roger and his men would have started to set about finding out what spoils they had been given by right of the conquerors.

Roger was probably helped in this by all his more important men-at-arms. As mentioned, in West Derby Hundred most of the farms (or manors as the French now called them) were in and around present Liverpool, with just a few more up the coast to the north, in places such as Ainsdale, Formby, North Meols, Scarisbrick, Halsall and Skelmersdale. It wouldn’t have taken Roger and his men long to survey the hundred and even to travel to the other five more sparsely settled hundreds in the land between the Ribble and Mersey, or even across the Ribble to Amounderness. When they arrived at each farmstead they would have been met by the fearful pre-Conquest English thegns and some of the farm workers, probably including the formerly powerful Uhtraed if he were still alive. In short order Roger would have doled out (or sub-infeudated to use the legal French term) manor after manor to his men-at-arms and other members of his personal household, telling the resident English in no uncertain terms that they were their new masters and that they had better put up or shut up. By this time the English knew that there was no point in resistance. All they could expect from that was death. Either they would have to accept becoming the Frenchmen’s serfs or they would have to flee and find exile abroad.

Although this is just imagination, from all we know of the Norman colonization of England it probably gets pretty near the truth. Chris Lewis of King College put it this way:

We should probably imagine the point of transition on the ground as the hour when the new landowner turned up at a house and declared, ‘This is mine now, the king has given it to me and the shire court has acknowledged it. I’m going to live here now, Bring me my dinner.’Or,perhaps, ‘The king has given me your land. I’ll be living somewhere else, and you can still live here, but you’ll have to pay me rent from today.’ [57b]

Roger of Poitou’s men

Domesday Book tells us this about what Roger’s men got in West Derby:

These men now hold land of this manor (i.e. West Derby Hundred) by gift of Roger de Poitou: Geoffrey 2 hides and a half carucate, Roger 1 ½ hides, William 1 ½ hides, Warin half a hide, Geoffrey 1 hide, Theobald 1 ½ hides, Robert 2 carucates of land, Gilbert 1 carucate of land.

Their woodland (is) 3 ½ leagues long and 1 ½ leagues and 40 perches broad, and there are 3 eyries of hawks. The whole is worth £8 12s. In each hide are 6 carucates of land.

The desmesne of this manor which Roger held is worth £8. There are in desmesne 3 ploughs and six oxmen, and 1 radman and 7 villans.

Some of these men were given land in the other five hundreds as well, where there are also a few other Frenchmen named.

norman manor

A Norman manor house

From all the entries in West Derby and the other Lancashire hundreds we can, if we try, get a reasonably good idea of which manors these eight Frenchmen got. We can also try to identify some of them. But these matters would lead us outside the scope of this article. For those interested in these things I would suggest consulting William Farrer’s work and deductions in the ‘Victoria County History of Lancashire’.

But how much land had these eight been given in West Derby? In total they held 48 hides and 3½ carucates. As stated in Domesday Book, one hide in Lancashire was equal to six ploughlands (carucates), so all told these seven men received 51.5 ploughlands, which equates to 57% of the 89 ploughlands (excluding the caput of West Derby held pre-Conquest by King Edward, then by Roger de Poitou and by 1086 by King William) listed for before the Conquest. All the rest of the land in West Derby Hundred had been held by Roger of Poitou and was now held by King William. Very soon most of this royal land would revert to Roger of Poitou and then into the hands of more Frenchmen.

Regarding the other five hundreds in Lancashire south of the Ribble, I won’t here present any statistical analysis, but Domesday says that in all six hundreds in 1086 there were in 188 manors ‘less one’ in which there are 80 hides (480 ploughlands) of arable land. If we subtract the manors and hides in West Derby (60 and 18.8) we get 127 manors and 61.2 hides for the other five hundreds. But I think without a full analysis I won’t look further at these ‘remote’ districts, interesting though they are. But we can say that although in these unattractive areas there were more English left on their barren land than in West Derby, the most attractive land everywhere had already be given to Roger’s followers.

Roger’s first forfeiture

We don’t know how long all this land-grab took, and there was certainly still much more to do by 1086. But given that Roger had for some reason been stripped of his land not long before 1086, and that he had probably arrived in Lancashire only in the first years of the 1080s, it can’t have taken very long. For what reason had Roger’s lands been taken from him prior to 1086?

Earlier historians tended to date Roger forfeiture to 1077 and link it with the first quarrels of William the Conqueror with his son Robert Curthose, but given Roger’s probable age this can’t have been the case. Others have suggested that Roger had made a ‘voluntary surrender or exchange of these estates’.[58] I find this unlikely, but, as John Mason said, why Roger should have lost his rich spoils ‘at a time when as far as is known he and his father were loyal to the Conqueror, is not stated’, and ultimately unknown.


Robert Curthose, rebellious son of William the Conqueror

Lancashire after 1086

It is outside the scope of this essay to look further into the history of the Norman-French take-over and colonization of Lancashire after the Domesday survey. I have restricted our view to events leading up to 1086 and particularly to events in the important hundred of West Derby. Domesday also tells us much about tax and the customary dues of the tenants of the new lords. But this too I will leave to one side for the time being.

Although, evidently, the people of the land between the Ribble and the Mersey hadn’t suffered the slaughter and starvation meted out elsewhere in northern England, they certainly were invaded and colonized, and were set to suffer the ‘oppressions from the proud lords’ and ‘groan under the Norman yoke’  for centuries to come. While I admire the work of William Farrer, I think he erred when he wrote about Lancashire: ‘Very many of the descendants of the Saxon and Danish thanes living at the Conquest possessed their ancestral estates for generations after the Conquest, and if others fell to the position of villeins, they really underwent no great change of status.’[59] In fact there is hardly any evidence at all that the pre-Conquest ‘Saxon and Danish’ thegns ‘possessed their ancestral estates for generations after the Conquest’.

‘Normanist’ historians such as R. Allen Brown could still suggest in recent times say that the Norman take-over of England was not only relatively restrained and civilized but also beneficial to England, as it gave ‘a new lease of life in focusing its attention on Continental Europe’. This I’m afraid is blatant nonsense and flies in the face of all the available evidence, including the evidence presented by Brown himself. But that’s a matter for another time.

The words of the twelfth-century English historian Henry of Huntingdon are certainly applicable to Lancashire:

In King William’s twenty-first year (1087) there was scarcely a noble of English descent in England, but all had been reduced to servitude and lamentation.[60]

ordericPerhaps we should leave the last word with Orderic. Remember this was a man born in Shropshire whose father was a loyal clerical servant of Roger de Montgomery, one of Duke William’s most powerful followers and one of the most powerful men in post-Conquest England. He was also a man who went to Normandy in 1085 to become a monk at the Norman monastery of St. Evroult, and knew many of the Normans involved in the Conquest and their sons.

They (the Normans) arrogantly abused their authority and mercilessly slaughtered the native people, like the scourge of God smiting them for their sin… Noble maidens were exposed to the insults of the low-born soldiers and lamented their dishonouring (i.e. rape) by the scum of the earth… Ignorant parasites, made almost mad with pride, they were astonished that such great power had come to them and imagined that they were a law unto themselves. Oh fools and sinners! Why did they not ponder contritely in their hearts that they had conquered not by their own strength but by the will of almighty God, and had subdued a people that was greater and more wealthy than they were, with a longer history?

It is rather ironic that the descendants of a group of Scandinavian Vikings, a people whose leader Rollo had once reputedly told the French king that they were Norsemen and would bend their knee to no man,[61] who would now (though by now thoroughly drenched in French culture and feudal attitudes) make a whole nation bend their knees to them for centuries to come.

In ‘The Rights of Man’ the great English and American radical Thomas Paine said:

If the succession runs in the line of the conqueror the nation runs in the line of being conquered and ought to rescue itself.

And here’s a nice rhyme:

When all England is alofte

Hale are they that are in Christis Crofte;

And where should Christis Crofte be

But between Ribble and Mersey.[62]


The Norseman ‘Rollo’, founder of Normandy and direct ancestor of William the Conqueror


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[1] Kapelle, The Norman Conquest of the North, p. 231

[2] Orderic Vitalis, quoted in Fleming, Kings and Lords, p. 107

[3]  Greenway, Henry of Huntingdon, p. 31

[4] See Fleming, Kings and Lords, p. 205

[5] All quotes from the works of Orderic Vitalis can be found either in Chibnall, The Ecclesiastical History of Orderic Vitalis , or Forester, The Ecclesiastical History of England and Normandy by Orderic Vitalis

[6] See Lewis, The Normans come to Cumbria and  Kapelle, The Norman Conquest of the North

[7] Morris, The Norman Conquest, p. 352

[8] See Fleming, Kings and Lords for a full analysis of this divvying up.

[9] See Morris, The Norman Conquest and Rex, The English Resistance

[10] Fleming, Kings and Lords,

[11] Morris,  The Norman Conquest, p. 287

[12] Fleming, Kings and Lords, pp. 108-109

[13] See Morris The Norman Conquest for a discussion on the reasons for Domesday survey

[14] See Kapelle The Norman Conquest of the North, Morris, The Norman Conquest

[15] See Rex, The English Resistance, Morris, The Norman Conquest

[16] See Lewis, Exile rather than servitude

[17] Morris, The Norman Conquest, pp.320-321

[18] Lewis, Forne Sigulfson- the ‘first’ lord of Greystoke in Cumbria

[19] Farrer, Introduction to the Lancashire Domesday

[20] Sawyer, Wulfic Spot

[21] See Higham, The Kingdom of Northumbria ; Kapelle, The Norman Conquest of the North; Clarkson, The Men of the North

[22] For example see articles in Wainwright, Scandinavian England

[23] See Clarkson, The Men of the North

[24] Downham, Viking Kings of Britain and Ireland; Woolf, From Pictland to Alba; Livingston, The Battle of Brunaburh,  Wainwright, Scandinavian England

[25] See references to their work in the Bibliography

[26] Wainwright, ‘The Scandinavians in Lancashire’ in Scandinavian England, p. 226

[27] See discussions in Wainwright, ‘The Scandinavians in Lancashire’ in Scandinavian England

[28] Wainwright, ‘The Scandinavians in Lancashire’ in Scandinavian England, p. 184, gives other examples

[29] Anglo-Saxon Chronicle (ASC) in Whitelock, English Historical Documents; Clarkson, The Men of the North; Higham, Edward the Elder; Downham,  Viking Kings of Britain and Ireland

[30] See articles on Amounderness in Wainwright, Scandinavian England and Farrer, The Victoria County History of Lancashire, vol. 3

[31] See Foot, Æthelstan: the first king of England; Livingston, The Battle of Brunanburh: A Casebook

[32] See Morris, The Norman Conquest; Fleming, Kings and Lords; Stenton, Anglo-Saxon England

[33] Fleming, Kings and Lords, pp. 22-103

[34] See Wainwright, ‘The Scandinavians in Lancashire’ in Scandinavian England

[35] Farrer, Notes on the Domesday Survey

[36] Some of this interpretation is debatable.

[37] Gray, The Domesday Record

[38] Throughout I will use Ann Morris’s edition of Domesday Book – A Complete Translation, second edition 2002, including her ‘translated’ spellings of names. Unless otherwise stated any reference to an entry in DB will be to this edition.

[39] Farrer, Introduction to the Lancashire Domesday

[40] Probably Hale, Garston, Liverpool, Everton, Crosby and perhaps Thingwall and Aintree.

[41] These are not stated but likely were:

[42] Farrer, Notes on the Domesday Survey

[43] Gray, The Domesday Record

[44] See discussion and references in Wainwright, Scandinavian England.

[45] Farrer, Notes on the Domesday Survey

[46] See Lewis, The Normans Come to Cumbria.

[47] Morris, The Norman Conquest , p. 229

[48] Quotede in Morris, The Norman Conquest, p. 292

[49] Chibnall, The World of Orderic Vitalis, p. 15

[50] Other dates have been suggested, see C. P. Lewis, the king and Eye for example

[51] Mason, Montgomery, Roger de, first earl of Shrewsbury

[52] Thompson, Bellême

[53] Mason, Montgomery, Roger de, first earl of Shrewsbury

[54] Mason, Montgomery, Roger de, first earl of Shrewsbury

[55] Mason, Montgomery, Roger de, first earl of Shrewsbury

[56] Mason, Montgomery, Roger de, first earl of Shrewsbury

[57] There is ample evidence in Orderic Vitalis and elsewhere that the Normans were wont to rape and pillage

[57b] Lewis, ‘The Invention of the Manor’, p. 147

[58] Farrer, Introduction to the Lancashire Domesday

[59] Farrer, Notes on the Domesday Survey

[60] Greenway, Henry of Huntingdon, p.31

[61] See Vogel, Die Normannen und das Frankische Reich

[62] Harland & Wilkinson, Lancashire Legends, p.184