‘Lament the grief and suffering of the wretched people’

The Battle of Hastings

The Battle of Hastings

At the time of the Norman Conquest in 1066 present-day Cumberland and Westmorland (‘Cumbria’) were remote and little developed regions of northwest England. The area was peopled by a mix of Cumbric-speaking Britons, Norse-Irish settlers and, mainly in the low-lying fringes, English-speaking Anglians. There were certainly local strongmen, or lords; what were called thegns in Anglo-Saxon England, but life for ordinary people was mostly peaceful and, as long as the people paid their dues to their lords, there wasn’t much violence or repression. Though the magnates themselves loved to plot and murder each other. The English didn’t have and didn’t need castles; a fact that is of extreme importance in explaining how it was that the brutal Norman-French invaders were able to maintain their grip on the resentful and hostile country they had conquered in the face of persistent resistance and rebellion.

In the years immediately following the Battle of Hastings, Norman Duke William ‘the Bastard’ and his henchmen moved swiftly to cow the native English, who they despised, and dispossess them of their lands. William declared that all the English who had fought at Hastings would forfeit their estates, which he then divvied up between his French followers, whether they had been with him at Hastings itself or had arrived in England soon after. But William’s policy of suppression and dispossession went further. With a few notable exceptions (we shall see at least one such in Cumbria) the vast bulk of England was soon wrenched from the English and passed into French control. The English Church was also robbed to pay for William’s mercenaries.

A Norman French Conqueror

A Norman French Conqueror

Although I will occasionally use the word ‘Norman’, because William was after all the duke of Normandy, I tend to avoid the misleading construction ‘Anglo-Norman’. The invaders were French and that is what they called themselves in all their documents from the time of the Conquest onwards. They spoke French and continued to do so for several hundred years. ‘Anglo-Norman’ is a euphemism which tends to obscure the brutal reality of foreign invasion, repression and exploitation.

The Norman monk Orderic Vitalis, who was born in England five years after the invasion of an English mother and Norman father, and therefore can be said to be ‘Anglo-Norman’, wrote about the consequences of the invasion during Williams’s six-month absence in Normandy in 1067:

Meanwhile. 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.

Things didn’t improve when William came back to England. The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle is terse: ‘When he came back he gave away every man’s land.’

In the early years William and his French, Breton and Flemish followers didn’t yet feel secure in England. English resistance and rebellion was rife. The remaining family of the defeated King Harold made several unsuccessful incursions in the West Country, Eadric the Wild and his Welsh allies were continuing to resist and fight back in the borderlands of England and Wales, while William’s grip on the north of England (Northumbria, Yorkshire and Durham) remained very tenuous. Northern English earls such as Morcar, Waltheof and Gospatric made accommodations with Duke (should we now call him King?) William, but were always plotting revolts to remove the French curse from England.

Eventually in 1069, with the support of the Danish king Swein, the north of England rose against the invader.

Earl Robert Cumin and his mercenaries are killed

Earl Robert Cumin and his mercenaries are killed

The initial spark for this venting of northern English resentment occurred in early 1069 when William replaced Gospatric as earl of Northumbria with a Fleming called Robert Cumin (or de Comines). Cumin arrived in the North with a band of between 500 and 900 Flemish mercenaries. The chronicler Simeon of Durham tells us, to use historian Marc Morris’s words, that ‘the new earl advanced leaving a trail of destruction, allowing his men to ravage the countryside by pillaging and killing’. People started to flee their homes. But, writes Simeon: ‘Suddenly there came a heavy fall of snow and such harsh winter weather that all possibility of flight was denied.’

‘With their backs to the wall’ the local English decided on resistance – they would ‘kill the earl or die trying.’ Robert Cumin was warned not to enter the town of Durham but he ‘spurned the advice’. Once in Durham ‘his men continued their killing and looting in their quest for quarters’. But the next day Simeon tells of the English revenge:

At first light the Northumbrians who had banded together burst in through all the gates, and rushed through the whole town killing the earl’s companions.

The streets were ‘choked with blood’. The English massacred Earl Cumin and all his mercenaries. Flushed with success the English of the North rose up. Orderic wrote: ‘The English now gained confidence in resisting the Normans, whom they saw as oppressors of their friends and allies.’ They attacked York where a Norman garrison was holed up. William heard of the revolt and, says Orderic: ‘Swift was the king’s coming’, with ‘an overwhelming army’. Norman massacres ensued and William ravaged York and its church. Many of the English magnates escaped, hopefully to fight another day.

William left a Norman called William fitz Osbern in charge at York and returned south. But knowing the precariousness of the Norman grip on England he sent his wife back to Normandy ‘away from the English tumults’.

Northern resistance was in no way over. Yet for the English the worst was still to come. English envoys had been sent to Denmark to ask King Swein to come to their aid and throw out the French. He finally agreed, seeing his main-chance in a part of England that was heavily Scandinavian. In the summer of 1069 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.

The Harrying of the North

The Harrying of the North

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 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. Yet the Danish army spent a desperate winter in England awaiting the arrival of King Swein in 1070. The latest threat to French occupation was over, but William wasn’t yet finished with these pesky and truculent north-country men. He began what has become known as The Harrying of the North, which is a pretty innocuous name for what amounted to a regional genocide. He started to seek out the rebels, ‘slaying many’, but, writes Orderic:

In his anger he commanded that all crops and herds, chattels and food of every kind 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.

William wanted to make sure there was no more northern opposition to his rule. In this he was, it has to be said, only very partially successful. Orderic continued:

As a consequence, so serious a scarcity fell on 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.

Orderic, usually a supporter of the Norman cause, though no Norman apologist like William of Poitiers, added: ‘For when I think of the helpless children, young men in the prime of life, and hoary greybeards perishing alike of hunger, I am so moved to pity that I would rather lament the grief and suffering of the wretched people then make a vain attempt to flatter the perpetrator of such infamy.’

Simeon of Durham also described the consequences of the Harrying of the North:

There was such hunger that men ate the flesh of their own kind, of horses and dogs and cats. Others sold themselves into perpetual slavery that they might be able to sustain their miserable lives. It was horrible to look into the ruined farmyards and houses and see the human corpses dissolved into corruption, for there were none to bury them for all were gone either in flight, or cut down by the sword and famine. None dwelt there and travellers passed in great fear of wild beasts and savage robbers.

Perhaps the most relevant recent historian of The Norman Conquest of the North, William E. Kapelle (1979), rightly states that William rescued himself from the results of (his) mistakes by committing genocide’.

So far I haven’t yet touched on events in Cumbria. All the forgoing happened in Yorkshire, Northumberland and Durham. The dreadful Harrying of the North, so far as I’m aware, didn’t extend to the north-western region of Cumbria.

Unlike across the Pennines, Cumbria didn’t really start to come under the Norman yoke until a quarter of a century after the Conquest. To be precise in 1092 when the Conqueror’s son King William II (Rufus) arrived with an army in Carlisle, threw out the local lord Dolfin (Gospatrick’s son), occupied the town and ordered the construction of the ubiquitous Norman castle. Prior to the Conquest Cumbria had for a long time been part of the earldom of Northumbria. Although the designations Cumberland and Westmorland had already appeared they were not yet ‘shires’ and there was no local earl. It was the earl and great magnates of Northumbria who held sway, very often owing allegiance to the king of Scotland.

Bamburgh Castle

Bamburgh Castle

As the French suppression and repression of Northumberland and Yorkshire continued (it didn’t end by any means in 1069) and while the majority of the English, thegns and otherwise, were being dispossessed of their lands and replaced by French, some northern magnates fled to Scotland and some to their estates in Cumbria. One such was the former earl of Northumbria, Gospatric, who I have already mentioned. He was a scion of the powerful Northumbrian family who had controlled Bamburgh Castle in Northumberland and held lands throughout the north of England. William had stripped him of the earldom of Northumbria (to replace him by the short-lived Robert Cumin) and he had been one of the leaders of the 1069 uprising. Yet somehow, still being in possession of Bamburgh, he had submitted himself to William and been able to make peace. William regranted him the earldom, which he held until 1072 when the king took it away for a final time. He fled to Scotland, then briefly to Flanders, before returning. It’s possible he found refuge in his Cumbrian estates, as Cumbria at the time ‘belonged’, it is generally believed, to the Scottish King Malcolm Canmore. I wouldn’t go into more detail here about this fascinating man. The important thing for this Cumbrian story is that there is an extant letter, or writ, written by Gospatric in English (Anglo-Saxon) sometime between 1072 and the capture of Carlisle in 1092 (although some think earlier). It is addressed to all his ‘dependants’. It concerns Cumbria where he seems to have been not only a great landowner but also perhaps the de facto ruler of post-Conquest Cumbria.

I will quote the letter in full using James Wilson’s translation:

Gospatric greets all my dependants and each man, free and dreng, that dwell in all the lands of the Cumbrians, and all my kindred friendlily; and I make known to you that my mind and full leave is that Thorfynn  MacThore be as free in all things that are mine in Alnerdall as any man is, whether I or any of my dependants, in wood, in heath, in enclosures, and as to all things that are existing on the earth and under it, at Shauk and at Wafyr and at Pollwathoen  and at bek Troyte and the wood at Caldebek; and I desire that the men abiding with Thorfynn at Cartheu and Combetheyfoch be as free with him as Melmor and Thore and Sygulf were in Eadread’s days, and that (there) be no man so bold that he with what I have given to him cause to break the peace such as Earl Syward and I have granted to them forever as any man living under the sky; and whosoever is there abiding, let him be geld free as I am and in like manner as Walltheof and Wygande  and Wyberth and Gamell and Kunyth and all my kindred and dependants; and I will that Thorfynn have soc and sac, toll and theam over all the lands of Cartheu and Combetheyfoch that were given to Thore in Moryn’s days free, with bode and witnessman in the same place.

James Wilson explains the meaning and significance of this rare post-conquest Anglo-Saxon writ in his article An English Letter of Gospatric published in 1904. For our purposes I think two things are important. First, that Cumbria prior to 1092 was ruled by an indigenous northern English magnate, perhaps owing allegiance to the King of Scotland, who was granting or reconfirming a border ‘fief’ to the wonderfully named Thorfynn MacThore. Wilson puts it as follows:

It may be inferred from the general tenor of the document that Gospatric held a high position in the district beyond that of a great landowner, for it is most improbable that he should have used such a style of address to the men of Cumbria had he been only the lord of Allerdale. Subsequent events, such as the position of his son Dolfin at Carlisle in 1092, and the succession of Waldeve to the paternal estates in Allerdale, appear to warrant the belief that Gospatric ruled the district of Cumbria south of the Solway as the deputy of King Malcolm.

Second, Gospatric refers to pre-Conquest days by mentioning the  Northumbrian Earl Siward and the names of several obviously pre-Conquest (‘in Eadread’s days’) Cumbrian landholders: Melmor and Thore and Sygulf. And this Sygulf (or Sigulf) was none other than the father of Forne Sigulfson, the first Norman appointed lord of the barony of Greystoke. A man who, as I will discuss later, probably named his son Ivo after the first Norman ‘enforcer’ in Cumbria, Ivo Taillebois, and indeed also the father of Edith Forne Sigulfson who was to become a mistress of King Henry I. Unlike so many others this northern Norse family managed to hang on to its possessions after the conquest and even thrive. Forne became a trusted servant of the Norman kings in the north of England and his  ‘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 – the Dukes of Norfolk.

During these years following the conquest the native lords of Cumberland and Westmorland owed allegiance, as I have mentioned, to the Scottish crown. It is precisely because of this fact that most of modern-day Cumbria was not included in King William’s Domesday survey of 1086. Cumbria was not yet controlled by the Normans. This was soon to change.

Carlisle Castle of a later date

Carlisle Castle of a later date

When did the Normans actually ‘arrive in Cumbria’? It is possible, although there is no real evidence for it, that a Norman warrior, a so-called ‘strongman’, had already been sent to Cumbria before 1092. But much more likely it was in that year that the Norman French first made their appearance. As mentioned, the Conqueror’s son King William II (Rufus) brought an army north in 1092 and captured Carlisle. The local lord of Carlisle, Dolfin, the son of Gospatric, was expelled. The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle reported:

In this year King William with a great army went north to Carlisle and restored the town and built the castle; and drove out Dolfin, who ruled the land there before. And he garrisoned the castle with his vassals; and thereafter came south hither and sent thither a great multitude of [churlish] folk with women and cattle, there to dwell and till the land.

William Rufus had stationed a garrison in the town, ordered the repair of the Roman town walls and the building of a castle – no doubt the locals were pressed into helping with its construction. He also ordered that people be brought from Lincolnshire to help settle and defend his new conquest. Carlisle it seems had been almost abandoned for two centuries since the Norse incursions. The French occupation and seizure of Cumbria had begun.

The castle was key. As I alluded to earlier, it was the fact that the Normans built castles and knew how to use them while the English knew almost nothing about them that more than anything explains how William and his successors were able to hold on to their newly conquered lands. As Orderic Vitalis wrote:

The fortifications the Normans called castles were scarcely known in the English provinces, and so the English – in spite of their courage and love of fighting – could put up only a weak resistance to their enemies.

The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle groaned: ‘… they built castles far and wide throughout the land, oppressing the unhappy people, and things went ever from bad to worse. When God wills may the end be good!’

Historian Marc Morris in his excellent The Norman Conquest tells us what castles were for:

(They) served as bases for soldiers and knights who would ride out each day to cow the surrounding countryside into submission, indulging in acts of plunder, rape and violence.

There is little doubt that this is what the French garrison at Carlisle did in the years following the seizure of the town. The people of Cumbria started to experience the grim and brutal reality of what foreign invasion and occupation actually meant, as their compatriots elsewhere in England already had.

William Rufus

William Rufus

The first Norman strongman, or perhaps better said enforcer, we know about in Cumbria was a certain Ivo Taillebois, who was given extensive estates by William Rufus, probably shortly after Carlisle was taken in 1092. (Taillebois itself is a village in lower Normandy is an area amusingly called today Swiss Normandy). Ivo had married the Lincolnshire heiress Lucy, and it was no doubt because of this connection that William Rufus ordered  that settlers be brought from these Lincolnshire estates to colonize Carlisle. Ivo died in 1094, but, as Oxford historian Richard Sharpe comments in his Norman Rule in Cumbria, 1092 – 1136, Ivo can probably be regarded as ‘the first Norman lord of Cumbria’.

While the local people started to suffer, were probably forced to build the new castle at Carlisle and were increasingly taxed and pillaged, what became of the local English and Norse lords? Many were simply dispossessed, as had happened so often elsewhere in England. Others tried to reach an accommodation with the Normans. One who succeeded was Forn Sigulfson, the son of local lord Sigulf mentioned in Gospatric’s writ. As I have stated, he was to become the first ‘Norman’ lord of Greystoke in Cumberland. It’s likely that Forn wanted to hold onto his family estates in Cumbria as well as in Yorkshire and sought an accommodation with the conquerors. It’s also probably not a coincidence that he named his son Ivo. I would conjecture that this was to ingratiate himself with the Norman strongman Ivo Taillebois. Forn Sigulfson was of Scandinavian descent, as his name and that of his father bears witness. Ivo on the other hand was a decidedly French name. The connection seems obvious though can never be proved.

After Ivo Taillebois’s death in 1094 we know nothing more about how Norman rule in Cumbria progressed until William Rufus appointed Ranulf Meschin as a type of colonial ruler over Cumbria. This was probably in 1098 or shortly thereafter. Ranulf was neither an earl nor a sheriff (though much later he was made Earl of Chester by Henry I), but he was clearly given full power to rule Cumbria as he saw fit. During his over twenty years as Cumbria’s Norman ruler he created two new lordships for Frenchmen and it is quite likely that he, at least implicitly, confirmed some local lords such as Forn Sigulfson in their existing possessions. These were, in Forn’s case at least, later to be reconfirmed by King Henry I (William Rufus’s younger brother) during that king’s one and only visit to Carlisle in 1122.

All that's left of Wetheral Priory

All that’s left of Wetheral Priory

Ranulf Meschin remained the effective French ruler of Cumbria until about 1122 when Henry I made him Earl of Chester, probably during his fleeting visit to Carlisle. He relinquished his duties in Cumberland and Westmorland. During his time ‘in office’ the castle at Carlisle had been fortified more and other castles were built at, for instance, Appleby. The priory of Wetheral was founded before 1112 and the machinery put in place to start to ‘farm’, or better put, to milk the surrounding countryside and the newly discovered silver mine near Carlisle. Increasing numbers of French, Flemish and English settlers were enticed to the area and their settlements can still be pinpointed by their settlements names – for instance Johnby, to take just one example among many.

And there, rather abruptly, I shall end. The Norman French subjugation of Cumbria, as in much of the rest of northern England, took many years to complete. In fact in 1136, under King Stephen, it reverted to the Scottish crown where in was to remain until 1157.

Cumbria never was, and still isn’t, an economically very important part of England. Events there never much impinged on subsequent English history, except as the setting for the interminable border wars between England and Scotland. Perhaps it is precisely because of its remoteness and unimportance that Cumbria to this day remains, to my mind, one of England’s most authentic regions. Brutally exploited over the centuries to be sure, but still retaining a wonderfully strong streak of Norse, Celtic and English belligerence and cussedness.

  1. […] I discussed in my article The Normans come to Cumbria, Sigulf is mentioned in ‘earl’ Gospatric’s famous writ, written in English, which granted, or […]

  2. […] Gospatric as earl by a Fleming called Robert Cumin (or de Comines). As I described in my article The Normans Come to Cumbria, this was to lead to another rising of the North of England, with the support of the Danish king […]

  3. The exception proves the rule: not all English who fought at Hastings lost their lands. Almer of Bennington, which the historians at PASE (Prosopography of Anglo-Saxon England) consider was most likely the royal thane of that name serving both Gyrth and Leofwine, would surely have been present at the great battle, yet he retained a large number of estates post-Conquest, under Peter of Valognes whom I have reason to believe was one of Count Alan’s men. Another (or perhaps the same) man, Almer of Bourn, was a favourite of Alan, who granted him additional manors after 1066.

    Illustrating the nuances of Norman-English relations, Ivo Taillebois’s second wife Lucy was the daughter of the Englishman Turold, Ivo’s predecessor as sheriff of Lincolnshire. Lucy’s mother was a daughter of William Malet. Ivo Taillebois’s elder daughter Beatrix married Ribald, first Lord of Middleham, who was a brother of Count Alan.

    Another of William Malet’s daughters married a Breton named Alfred of Lincoln; their son was Alan of Lincoln. Why “Alfred”? King Alfred’s son Edward the Elder was the godfather of Duke Alan II of Brittany and hosted the Breton court during the Loire Vikings’ destructive occupation of Brittany in the early 10th century.

    A number of Bretons held high positions under Edward the Confessor and married English wives but were deposed by King Harold in 1066, so their dispute was with Harold’s policies, not with the English per se. The retention by Count Alan of Anglo-Danish lords in North Yorkshire while excluding Normans, would seem to support this.

    • Stephen Lewis says:

      Dear Geoffrey (Is that your name?)

      I’m looking forward to reading more from you about the various Bretons around William the Bastard. First, of course there were various English thegns, who either fought at Hastings or not, and who initially kept their lands. The example of the Lords of Greystoke is one. However, a great majority of them were eventually replaced by Normans and some Bretons. Second, it’s interesting to note that most of William’s close Norman followers didn’t want to be sent up North and thus Bretons or more marginal Normans were used, and they often pleaded to be given other fiefs in more southerly locations because they couldn’t farm enough money from the devastated north and couldn’t abide the food it was possible to grow there. Third, not only were there Bretons with Edward the Confessor but quite a few Normans as well. But after the Conquest the Normans did despise the English and their language, even though they had perforce to marry English wives. The Normans despised the Bretons as well and never really trusted them. Glad you found the time to read some of the things I have written.


  4. Dear Stephen,

    In full, my name is Geoffrey Richard Driscoll Tobin. Geoffrey was widely chosen by my mother as it’s difficult for school-children to mangle. Her father’s family, the Kitchens (Kegin), derive from Cornwall and her mother’s, the Tweeds, are from Cambridgeshire where they can be traced to the 1400s. Driscoll, my father’s line, are Eireann (pre-Gaelic Irish); their tribe, the Dairine, are mentioned in Ptolemy’s Geography as the Darini; this means the descendants of Daire (Darius). Tobin is my step-great-grandfather’s surname; it’s from St Aubin, a Breton saint commemorated in placenames across Europe, but especially in Normandy and Brittany.

    Coincidentally, Duke Geoffrey of Brittany and Duke Richard II of Normandy married into each other’s families, and that’s how Count Eudes of Penthievre and Duke Robert of Normandy, the fathers of King William and Count Alan Rufus, came to be born.

    The Tweeds might be Bretons, because their surname is Brythonic, though of uncertain meaning: I suggest it is Welsh Twyd, Cornish Tud, meaning family/kin/clan/people; they still identify with Welsh and Cornish culture. Lending some support to a Breton identity is that after the Norman Conquest, various English placenames were changed to reflect Breton sensibilities: the Granta River became Cam; the old Roman London-to-York way, Earningas Street, became Ermine Street (for the emblem of Brittany); and, perhaps significantly in this context, the Barwell River (in Leicestershire) became Tweed. (Barwell has Simon de Montfort Football Park, named after the 13th century Earl of Leicester who was a militant proponent of a sovereign, popularly elected parliament.)

    As to the fraught relationships between the Normans and those they had to work with, whether Breton or English, it has to be said that the Norman kings got every bit as much strife from fellow Normans.

    There were several groups of Bretons in England after 1066. Those whose families were already settled there by the time of King Canute prospered under his rule and Edward the Confessor’s: prominent examples include Alfred of Lincoln and Ralph the Staller. They often crossed the Channel. In 1034, during Canute’s reign, Ralph attested a charter of Duke Alan III of Brittany. Wyken in Suffolk was held by “Alan”. Perhaps this was Alan Rufus’s first, pre-Conquest, toehold in England, because although he didn’t own it in 1086, Peter of Valognes did: this is significant because Peter had a sister with the Breton name of Muriel, Valognes though in Lower Normandy was (like much of LN) a traditional Breton area, and Peter’s English properties formed a north-south band fringing Alan’s.

    Of the Bretons (and Normans) who arrived with the Conqueror, many settled firstly in the south-east. (It seemed almost all magnates had extensive properties in Suffolk and/or Norfolk.) These included Alan’s men Aubrey de Vere (ancestor of the Earls of Oxford) and Harduin de Scales.

    Others settled in the south-west, where they felt at home in the Bretons’ ancestry homeland. Alan’s brother Brian fought here in 1068-1069 against raids from Ireland by Harold’s sons. Injured in battle, he retired to Brittany to stay in his wife’s care, many of his English properties (including over 200 manors in Cornwall) and their Breton tenants going to Robert of Mortain. Either Brian or Robert built Launceston castle.

    The Domesday Book records a few properties in East London as belonging to “Brian’s wife” and “Brian’s sons”. Although London was scarcely surveyed in 1086, in the following centuries many of the early Mayors of London had names that suggest heavy Breton settlement. Further, when Abbot Stephen sought Alan’s help against Archbishop Thomas of York, he journeyed down to London to see him, rather than wait for Alan to conclude his business there and return north. So it may be true that Alan was heavily involved in the development of the City and Port of London.

    Katherine Keats-Rohan has calculated that less than five percent of the families who settled in England during the Conquest were born in Brittany and had distinctly Breton names. That’s rather few, but it surely underestimates the real numbers, because Alan had brothers named Richard, William and Robert, who would not be thought Breton had the charters that identify them not survived. Moreover, the genealogy of the Dukes of Normandy, presumably the most proudly Norman of the Normans, is replete with Breton wives and mothers, Gunnora being the exception, but even she came from near the Breton border, so who knows?

    I suspect William’s mother Herleva, may have been ethnically Breton, because her other sons, Count Robert of Mortain and Bishop Odo of Bayeux worked closely with Bretons, Odo serving on the Breton wing at Hastings, and Robert employing many Breton assistants both in Normandy and in England. A factor is that Bayeux and Mortain are quite close to Brittany, and used to be in Brittany. Earl Hugh of Chester was from Avranches, which is snugly adjacent to the Breton border on two sides.

    William of Poitiers makes several negative comments about Bretons, which many readers have happily accepted, but his bigotry is such that he can’t help jibing at relations between men and women in Brittany and disparaging their agricultural economy for dedicating so much land to the dairy industry – a love for milk and cheese which the Normans soon adopted. His remarks are suspect for other reasons also. He claimed to know that the Bretons panicked and fled from the English at Hastings, and that it was the Duke William’s brilliant mind that deduced the tactic of feigned retreat. Two things wrong here: firstly, Poitiers wasn’t at the battle, he’d been left behind in Normandy, so he wasn’t a witness. Secondly, feigned retreats had been standard Norman practice for decades, and standard Breton practice for centuries.

    The various accounts of the battle reveal such details as that the Breton archers had a much greater rate of fire: they’d emptied their quivers and required resupply while the other archers were still taking their second shot. Harold moved his command post eastward as the battle progressed, which suggests that the west side of his shield wall had crumbled and the Bretons were now on top of the hill, pressing hard in his direction. One manuscript by Gaimar said that “Alan and his men struck well”, while Wace wrote that they did the English “great damage”. The details are lacking, and must have been complicated in the heat of the fray, but I read somewhere that Alan commanded the Norman rearguard, while his brother Brian commanded the Bretons on the left (west) wing which also held the Poitevins led by Aimery of Thouars as well as the men of Maine.

    One reason why Normans didn’t like to be posted at York, was that their first few attempts ended in abject failure, and their castle commanders’ deaths at the hands of the local population.

    The Bretons, however, would have got along famously with the Brythonic-speaking Cumbrians. Since they had accommodated the Seine Vikings, extending a hand to the Anglo-Danes wouldn’t have been a stretch.

    The Bretons of course identified as British, not French (though many were fluent in Gallo, the pre-Frankish language of northern Gaul of which “Norman French” is a variant). The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle recognises this distinction when its states that, in response to the Danish threat of 1085, a greater number of soldiers than had ever been seen in England were recruited “from France and Brittany”. It bears remembering that even after King Charles VIII of France acquired Brittany by marriage to Duchess Anne in 1491, it was administered as a separate country until the French Revolution. (Similar to the Dual Monarchy of Austria and Hungary.) Indeed, under the Bourbons, the senior aristocrats of Brittany had the status of “Foreign Princes” in the French Court.

    William of Poitiers had observed with horror that the number of armed fighting men in Brittany beggared belief. Brittany continued to be a major source of soldiers and sailors; indeed, France’s premier army and naval academies are both in Brittany.

    Alan was active in defeating Edwin and Morcar, but whether he had any part in the subsequent Harrying, I don’t know.

    The Domesday rental figures for Gilling, the extensive manor that occupied much of Richmondshire and that had been Earl Edwin’s, suggest that it was almost totally waste.

    There are however anomalies in the data for many of Alan’s properties across England, including those in Yorkshire, where his rentals scarcely tally with the royal tax revenues. In some manors, he’s receiving good rentals but paying almost no tax, whereas in others the king’s revenues are excellent but the entry for Alan’s rental income is blank. Either Alan’s income was significantly understated (making him even richer than we thought), or he was deliberately forgoing income to help the overtaxed local residents make ends meet.

    We know that in Yorkshire, Alan abolished the (dane)geld, which was an impost often raised to obscene heights to fund the expansion of royal armies in a crisis. Instead he became an early adopter of the sheriff’s fee, which was an annual fixed charge to pay for the civil and criminal courts. Given that Alan paid out of his own pocket for the royal army’s expenses during the three-year siege of Sainte-Suzanne, it’s plausible that he was likewise directly paying the salaries of his soldiers in England.

    In Lincolnshire, Alan funded the trade fair on his own land at Boston to promote products such as wool, salt and lead. By 1200, Boston was England’s second port, just behind London; indeed, the combined customs revenue of the Lincolnshire ports was much larger than that of the Port of London.

    Of course, the Normans are best known for their extortionate behaviour. Count Robert of Mortain was bad enough in trying to drive the merchants in his own towns out of business so he could reap all the commercial benefits himself. His brother Bishop Odo of Bayeux was infamous for plundering whatever he could lay his hands on, even raiding churches to strip them of everything valuable. It’s known that Odo led the Harrying of the North with gusto in 1069-70 and again in 1080.

    There are hints in later events that Alan and Odo led opposing parties in the Royal Court. On the eve of a trip to Rome in 1082, Odo was imprisoned for reasons that are unclear. (If he was angling to become Pope, as one rumour has it, then he’d have had to depose the well-entrenched reigning Pope first, so that seems unlikely.) Alan took the opportunity of Odo’s absence from court to persuade the Conqueror to make a public apology to the City of York for the damage he’d repeatedly caused.

    (Compare the royal charter “granting and conceding” Richmondshire to Alan Rufus at the Siege of York in 1068/1069. This commences with robust language, getting William to call himself “the Bastard, King of England”. The spelling “bastard” is Breton, by the way. It’s said that William was okay with that epithet, but I imagine it provoked a few suppressed laughs. The two manuscript depictions of the event show the king looking disconcerted as he reads it aloud in the presence of an array of Norman knights backed by a much greater mass of Breton knights. That’s how the event is viewed in the Registry of the Honour of Richmond, so I suppose it’s an accurate expression of how the Bretons viewed their Norman cousins and of how boldly they expressed their views.)

    On royal charters, if Alan was present he signed among the first three lay tenants-in-chief; the other two were Count Robert of Mortain and Earl Roger Montgomery of Shrewsbury. The order among the three varied, which reveals their status as equals.

    When the Domesday Survey was being planned at the Christmas 1085 session of the royal court, Alan was involved. It’s interesting to note that several of the Domesday Commissioners were linked to Alan. William de St-Calais, often thought to be the mastermind behind the project was a tenant of Alan’s at several properties. Samson of Worcester was named after a Breton saint. Speaking of Bayeux, Alan’s brother Richard was a Canon there with Samson and his brother Thomas (later Archbishop of York). So, Alan had access to an insider’s view of Bishop Odo’s administration.

    During the survey, Alan accompanyied King William across England: they were near Exeter during the survey of the south-west counties, far from Alan’s usual areas of interest in the north and east.

    Odo was released in the general amnesty by the mortally wounded Conqueror in 1087. In early 1088, he had to watch on the sidelines as King William II laid the foundation for Alan’s St Mary’s Abbey in York. By Easter 1088, it was gloves off between the two magnates, a factor that tends to be overlooked in the general melee of the magnates’ rebellion led by Odo against William II in the hope of bringing a more easily manipulated Robert Curthose to the throne.

    Unattributed advice reported from this period, when Alan was the king’s most senior adviser and general, gives a sense of Alan’s thinking: lower taxes on the English, and enact and implement fairer laws, to encourage the locals to fight for you instead of against you, get and keep the English bishops onside, then win, forgive, and move on. The major exception was that the notoriously rapacious Odo, who’d proved his disloyalty time and again, was exiled for life.

    William of St-Calais, the Bishop of Durham, had deserted the royal army during the rebellion, and holed up in Durham castle until Alan besieged him then negotiated safe escort to court at Salisbury Castle. In the packed courtroom, Alan confronted the King to defend St-Calais’s legal rights, the primacy of truth, and the principle of freedom of conscience. As a temporary measure, St-Calais was held under house arrest at nearby Wilton Abbey. After three months of fuming, the king gave in, and Alan escorted St-Calais to Southampton for exile in Normandy. In 1091 William II invaded Normandy, and St-Calais was forgiven, brought back to England and reinstated.

    Alan died probably on 4 August 1093. His epitaph comprised seven pairs of rhyming couplets in which he’s described as “Brito flos regum” (the flower of the kings of Brittany), as “satraparum flos” (the finest of the viceroys/tenants-in-chief), as “praecepto legum” (teacher of the law), as “sanguine regum” (of royal blood), and “rutilans a rege secundus” (shining second only to the king). England is called upon to weep for its loss.

    There are some nice allusions in that poem. “Satrap” hints at the Iranian origin of the Alans. The term “a rege secundus” also indicates a designated heir to the throne. Had the Conqueror’s line died out, Alan may indeed have become king: when, at the granting to Alan of Edwin’s forfeited Yorkshire lands, King William called Alan “my nephew”, he was naming him an heir.

    Today we may think of Brittany as a remote corner of France, but among royalty a proven descent from the Breton sovereign house, the oldest noble family of western Europe, is highly prized as it entitles kings and queens to wear ermine, a symbol of enduring integrity. Associated with ermine is Brittany’s motto, “Kentoc’h mervel eget bezañ saotret” (“rather death than dishonour”).

    Speaking of “death before dishonour”, Brittany presumably had strong marines, as in 937 they were able to best the vikings at sea prior to landing near Dol to recover their country. In 1088, Robert Curthose, Duke of Normandy, had intended to invade England in support of his uncle Odo’s rebellion, but he couldn’t, allegedly because of “bad weather”. The more important truth is that the English navy had intercepted all of his advance forces in the Channel and sunk them. Given the nautical history of Brittany and the fact that Alan was active in the ports of Boston, London and Southampton (among others), I expect that there were quite a few Bretons in that navy: if only one knew their names.

    In their long heyday, the Bretons (especially the traders) were fabulously rich: King Henry IV of France when passing through a Breton border town was deeply impressed, saying that were he not King, he would wish to be a bourgeois in Vitre.

    Bretons were also learned. Despite the extensive destruction by the vikings, the oldest surviving manuscript in Breton is considerably older than any in French, and it is a treatise on botany. Anselm of Bec, the founder of scholasticism, was born in Italy, but his family had originally come from Anjou near the Breton border. Peter Abelard, another major contributor to new ways of thinking around the year 1100, was from Nantes. The Caxton press was funded by an English brother and sister who identified as Breton; they also edited the first books that Caxton printed. If I recall correctly, the brother died while serving in the Duke of Brittany’s army.

    Keats-Rohan is a keen exponent of prosopography, which involves forming reasonable historical hypotheses based on detailed studies of how people’s careers interacted; a clearer picture may emerge of an individual. Even a little data may suggest a notion.

    Knowing, for example, that before 1066 Alan owned Richemont in Upper Normandy, explains why he chose “Richmond” as the name of his greatest castle in North Yorkshire. That Richemont is close to Aumale where William I’s sister Adelaide was Countess, and that her property in England was adjacent to his, suggest that they may have been personally close. In fact, they were cousins (to be precise, double-second cousins), and evidently friends.

    Family ties are further emphasised in the team that King William II sent to deal with William of St-Calais: its leaders were Alan Rufus (the king’s cousin-uncle), Odo of Champagne (the king’s aunt Adelaide’s third husband), Roger of Poitou (whose father was Roger of Montgomery, a long-time associate and distant blood relation of the Conqueror), and Walter d’Aincourt who – aside from being a commercial partner of Alan’s and a pre-1066 landholder (in Derby) – had a son named William who was described as of royal descent (so Walter’s wife Matilda may have been the King’s sister Princess Matilda, born in Normandy circa 1061).

    When one reads that Matilda of Flanders, William’s Queen, pushed for Alan to be given Edwin’s lands, it begins to seem that Alan favourably impressed the ladies. Archbishop Anselm’s letters from circa 1093-1094 assert that Harold Godwinson’s daughter Gunnhild loved Alan and he loved her: this is evidence not only that love is an eternal verity that may spring in the most unlikely places, but also that Alan’s charms were extraordinary.

    Some decades after Alan’s death, Stephen of Whitby, writing a memoir of the history of St Mary’s Abbey, said that when he and his fellow monks were in their hour of most dire need, he was fortunate to make the acquaintance of an Earl named Alan, whom he recalls as a “friend” and describes as exceptional in both wealth and propriety.

    What was Alan’s relationshjip with Gunnhild? Anselm removed his letters to Gunnhild from his archive (they survived in copies held elsewhere), so perhaps he had made a mistake. Someone said that Alan was a widower. Maybe he was a friend (or a young husband?) to the widowed Eadgifu Swannesha (the Domesday Book’s Edeva the Fair and Edeva the Rich), Harold’s common-law wife and Gunnhild’s mother. Is that why Alan was very early given all but one of her manors in Cambridgeshire? A cavalry contingent rushed there in late 1066, which is interesting.

    A very curious coincidence occurs when one examines where the Tweed family lived in England up until the industrial revolution moved people around more rapidly. Their most beloved residence in East Anglia is Cheveley, the centre of the English horse-breeding industry, in Cambridgeshire. They were also concentrated in a variety of other counties such as Middlesex, Essex, Suffolk, Norfolk, Yorkshire, and Ayrshire in Scotland (far from Scotland’s Tweed River valley). All of these counties contained heavy concentrations of properties owned by Alan Rufus, except Ayrshire which was settled by Bretons in the early 1100s. The Stewarts were among the Ayrshire settlers; they used to be the hereditary stewards of Dol in Brittany.

    A close look at the towns and villages where the Tweeds dwelt shows an even stronger association: all had belonged to Alan and many to Edeva. An example is Duxford, where the British War Museum is situated. Cheveley used to belong to Edeva, and Alan gave it to his sister’s husband Enisant Musard of Pleveno in Brittany, to whom he subsequently gave some twenty manors in Yorkshire and the charge of Richmond Castle. The Cambridgeshire Tweeds tend to own modest properties, whereas the Suffolk Tweeds are “the rich ones”. In Victorian London, several Tweeds were recorded as Harley Street surgeons.

    In the early 20th century, Lloyd George’s most successful campaign manager was Lt-Col Thomas Frederic Tweed, a hero of WW1 – but he was from Manchester. My great-uncle (Temporary Corporal) Darcy Tweed played his part in the famous Australian victory against the Germans in the Battle of Mont St. Quentin during the Second Battle of the Somme: according to the report by the General who commended him for a Military Medal, he and a few men rushed forward to fill a gap in the allied lines and in the process captured two machine guns and “many” (very surprised) German troops, “saving many lives”, without casualty.

    In the USA,.some Tweeds intermarried with senior judges and politicians, twice with the family of Theodore Roosevelt (the Roosevelt family historian is Tweed Roosevelt) and one of those was the lawyer for the Rockefeller family trusts. So, what is the link from there to England? The Tweeds settled in New York from Boston in Massachusetts, a town founded from Alan’s Boston in Lincolnshire. The counties around Boston are Essex, Suffolk, Norfolk and Middlesex, and of course Harvard University is in Cambridge, founded by academics from the University of Cambridge, which was then a hotbed of Puritan thought: Oliver Cromwell (who is related to the Tweedies who owned Oliver castle, and whose distribution in southern Scotland is complementary to the Tweeds), represented Cambridge in Parliament. Cambridge University’s coat-of-arms bears a cross ermine, for Brittany. I don’t know the official explanation, but a Breton named the river Cam, and Alan was a landowner in Cambridge. Many moons ago I read that Alan founded a seminary in Cambridge, so maybe the university is on its site?

  5. Monica Watkins says:

    It is really ridiculous to call the Normans ‘French’. The fact is that 50% of William the Conquerer’s army were returning Britons from Brittany. They had been driven out of Briton by the Angles and Saxons from Germany and the people from Brittany had more right to Britain than the Germanic settlers. To this day the purest ‘British’ DNA is in Brittany.

    • Stephen Lewis says:


      It is a cultural point I am making, not genetic. The Normans were French, called themselves French and spoke French – and the conquerors and their descendants spoke French for hundreds of years. Of course Rollo and his men were vikings but after a few generations we are all a genetic mish mash. See my articles on Genetetic ancestry etc and How many ancestors do you have. BTW it is not true what you say about the number of Bretons in William’s force. There were a few and some more came over later but they too were not British-speaking Bretons, they were Frankish and Norman placemen and they too were culturally French. I’m afraid your view of the Conquest as some sort of ‘Return of the Britons’ is simply not true and talk of ‘pure’ British DNA is rather silly. But thanks for your views.

      • grdtobin says:

        In defence of several of Monica’s statements, it’s my understanding, consistent with a variety of available figures, that Count Eudon sent about 5000 Bretons in 100 ships for the initial invasion. The Bretons were estimated as significantly over one third of William’s army, making the total army size about 12,000 to 13,000. If this seems large, perhaps Harold also had more men than usually estimated, and/or the numbers include non-combat personnel.

        Documents from the period 1066-1090 sometimes refer to English and French, at other times to English, French and Bretons, so the term “French” was being used flexibly.

        Of course the Breton commanders were fluent in “French”, but the correct term for the language they shared with the Normans, Angevins, men of Maine, and surrounding counties, is “Gallo” (short for “Gallo-Roman”). Their earlier ancestors included some Frankish monarchs, but were overwhelmingly either Gauls or Britons. (Even the Counts of Blois and Ponthieu had significant British descents, but that’s would take us way back; the early Angevins originated in Roman-occupied Lower Brittany, to be slightly anachronistic.)

        But the gist of your argument is that the Bretons had been out of Britain a long time and therefore are to be considered foreigners. Not quite. We know from both English and Breton accounts that many Bretons, including the royal court, had settled in Great Britain during the Loire Viking occupation of circa 917-936. There were intermarriages with the English. Both Cnut and Edward employed Bretons in their governments. Ralph the Staller is a classic example: in Brittany where he had extensive estates, he witnessed charters as “Ralph Anglicus” (Ralph the Englishman).

        Alfred of Marlborough and Alfred of Lincoln identified as both English and Breton. Walter d’Aincourt was a landholder in Derby during Edward’s reign. Robert fitz Wymarc was a high official in Edward’s government and a kinsman of both Edward and William.

        “Alan” held Wyken Farm in Suffolk. Professor David Roffe accounts him as a royal thegn (“comes” in Latin). This Alanus Comes is almost certainly Count Alan (Rufus), as the latter was interred within the same parish some 28 years later. This appointment is unsurprising once one recalls that his father Eudon was an elder maternal first cousin of Edward’s.

        So the most prominent Bretons in the invasion were former English government officials who had, once can only presume, been ethnically cleansed by King Harold. Of all Harold’s miscalculations this was the source of his gravest misfortune.

        William almost lost his life at Hastings: when his horse was felled, he was hurled headlong into the mud. Earl Gyrth and his royal thegns, husceorls and fyrdmen were almost upon him when they were dramatically stopped and Gyrth himself was slain (an event briefly depicted in the Bayeux Tapestry). We can hazard a fair guess at what happened from the distribution of Gyrth’s manors according to Domesday: Alan Rufus (whom some historians think had been appointed to lead the Norman Rearguard) intervened to defend Duke William, and William de Braose slew the Earl.

        With the loss of Gyrth and then Leofwine, the English lost the initiative.

        Alan was rewarded not only with some 28 of Gyrth’s manors, but also with the majority of Countess Eadgifu the Fair’s. This lady was the seventh wealthiest landholder (after King Edward) in 1065, markedly wealthier than Gyrth: a curious fact since he was Earl (“Dux”) of East Anglia and most of her properties were there or in Cambridgeshire. An even more salient question is: of what was she Countess? Was she the daughter or the wife of a “Comes” (royal thegn), and in either case, he must have been very important, so who was he?

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