Archive for October, 2013

Men of Harlech

Posted: October 23, 2013 in History
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When I was at school we used to assemble every morning in quite a grand old hall. The ceiling was domed, the walls panelled in wood, and the windows were stained glass, depicting something of each the school’s ‘houses’. All the boys sat in rows (it was a boys’ school) until the teachers came in. Dressed in their black university gowns, they would literally process in to sit on the high stage. We then had to stand, as did the teachers, until the headmaster deigned to make his semi-imperial entrance. A whole ritual would follow: announcements if there were any, a prize or two, discipline and punishments even, but certainly a lot of hymns. The hymns were often religious but even more often martial. Perhaps the one sung the most was Men of Harlech, a choice that even then seemed odd to me. After all our school was about as English as you could get, being founded in the sixteenth century by Henry VIII’s son King Edward VI.

Oliphant's Men of Harlech

Oliphant’s Men of Harlech

Why did we sing a nationalistic Welsh song literally hundreds of times? Was it just that it was in the hymn book? Did the teachers really have no conception of history?

The hymn ‘was first published without words in 1794 as Gorhoffedd Gwŷr Harlech—March of the Men of Harlech in the second edition of The Musical and Poetical Relicks of the Welsh Bards’. Only in the nineteenth century were words added, in Welsh and in English. To the best of my memory the version we sung was the one with lyrics by Thomas Oliphant, published in 1862:

Hark! I hear the foe advancing,
Barbed steeds are proudly prancing,
Helmets in the sunbeam glancing
Glitter through the trees
Men of Harlech, lie ye dreaming?
See ye not their falchions gleaming,
While their pennons gailey streaming
Flutter in the breeze?
From the rocks rebounding,
Let the warcry sounding
Summon all At Cambria’s call,
The haughty foe surrounding,
Men of Harlech, on to Glory!
See, your banner fam’d in story
Waves these burning words before ye
“Britain scorns to yield!”

Mid the fray, see dead and dying,
Friend and foe together lying;
All around, the arrows flying,
Scatter sudden death!
Frighten’d steeds are wildly neighing,
Brazen trumpets hoarsely braying,
Wounded men for mercy praying
With their parting breath!
See! they’re in disorder!
Comrades, keep close order!
Ever they Shall rue the day
They ventured o’er the border!
Now the Saxon flies before us!
Vict’ry’s banner floateth o’er us!
Raise the loud exulting chorus
“Britain wins the field,”

Here we have the rousing “Britain scorns to yield!” and “Britain wins the field”. I sung this with the gusto required. But wait a minute! Even Scotsman Oliphant’s version makes it clear what this is all about. It’s about the Welsh, the native ‘Britons’ killing the Saxons (i.e. the English) in defence of their country.

Summon all At Cambria’s call,
The haughty foe surrounding…

They ventured o’er the border!
Now the Saxon flies before us!

At the time I guess most of us felt that ‘Britain’ and England were synonomous. Of course they are not. Another version with English lyrics by W. H. Baker (which we didn’t sing) goes as follows:

March ye men of Harlech bold, Unfurl your banners in the field,
Be brave as were your sires of old, And like them never yield!
What tho’ evry hill and dale, Echoes now with war’s alarms,
Celtic hearts can never quail, When Cambria calls to arms.

By each lofty mountain, By each crystal fountain,
By your homes where those you love Await your glad returning,
Let each thought and action prove, True glory can the Cymru move,
And as each blade gleams in the light, Pray “God defend the right!”

Clans from Mona wending, Now with Arvon blending,
Haste with rapid strides along The path that leads to glory,
From Snowdon’s hills with harp and song, And Nantlle’s vale proceeds a throng,
Whose ranks with yours shall proudly vie, “And nobly win or die!”

March ye men of Harlech go, Lov’d fatherland your duty claims,
Onward comes the Saxon foe, His footsteps mark’d in flames;
But his march breeds no dismay, Boasting taunts we meet with scorn,
Craven like their hosts shall flee Like mists before the morn.

On the foemen dashing, Swords and bucklers clashing;
Smite with will their savage band Nor think of e’er retreating:
But with a firm unflinching hand, In blood quench ev’ry burning brand,
And for each roof tree cast away A Saxon life shall pay.

Thus each bosom nerving, From no danger swerving,
Soon shall the invader feel The doom of fate rewarding;
They firmly grasp the flashing steel, And as ye strike for Cymru’s weal,
Be this your cry, till life’s last breath – “Our Liberty or Death!”

And here’s a funny thing. Whichever version of Men of Harlech you choose, they are all about Welsh resistance to the English. Why generations of English schoolchildren were made to sing this is beyond me, even though I have a Welsh name and my family from western Shropshire spoke Welsh till not so long ago.

When I researched the history of Men of Harlech I read this:

“Men of Harlech” or “The March of the Men of Harlech” (in Welsh: Rhyfelgyrch Gwŷr Harlech) is a song and military march which is traditionally said to describe events during the seven-year siege of Harlech Castle between 1461 and 1468. Commanded by Constable Dafydd ap Ieuan, the garrison held out in what is the longest known siege in the history of the British Isles. “Through Seven Years” is an alternative name for the song. The song is associated according to some people with the earlier shorter siege of Harlech Castle around 1408, which pitted the forces of Owain Glyndwr against the future Henry V of England.

I’m neither an expert in songs and hymns nor in Welsh history, but this sounds dubious to me. All the different lyrics for Men of Harlech which I have read have absolutely nothing to say about either of these two sieges, both of which were mostly to do with domestic struggles for supremacy in England. Wales suffered too but was peripheral. No, what this song is about is something much older, even going back to the ‘Saxon Advent’ in the fifth century.

Harlech Castle

Harlech Castle

All this reminded me of a quite recent incident. I’m sure some kind Welsh person will correct my ‘facts’ here. But as I remember it, the Welsh Tourist Board started a campaign using Harlech Castle as a great symbol of Wales and Welsh identity. It wasn’t long before many Welsh were appalled. Surely, they said, Harlech Castle, along with many other castles such as Conwy, was not a symbol of Welsh pride and identity, but a symbol of English domination and subjugation. They were without doubt right. Harlech was built at the instigation of the English (better said French-speaking Anglo-Norman) king Edward 1 during his invasion of Wales between 1282 and 1289. Edward drafted in English forced-labourers to build the castle with the express purpose of cowing and keeping down the Welsh. I believe the Welsh Tourist Board withdrew their adverts.

Whether we’re talking about English schools or Welsh tourism please let’s get our history right!

If I were really Welsh (which I’m not), I too would want to highlight English violence and repression. Yet actually racial or cultural nationality is in history not the most important thing, at least not in my view. The Anglo-Norman ‘English’ kings and magnates who conquered and subjugated Wales were actually the same armed thugs who conquered and subjugated the English. As I‘ve said before, power and money are the main drivers of the history that matters, not nationalism.

But I can’t finish without mentioning the Men of Harlech sung by the Welsh soldiers in the 1964 film Zulu:

Men of Harlech, stop your dreaming
Can’t you see their spearpoints gleaming
See their warrior pennants streaming
To this battle field

Men of Harlech stand ye steady
It can not be ever said ye
For the battle were not ready
Welshmen never yield

From the hills rebounding
Let this war cry sounding
Summon all at Cambria’s call
The mighty force surrounding

Men of Harlech on to glory
This will ever be your story
Keep these burning words before ye
Welshmen will not yield

‘Several mounds of human being still remained where they had fallen, crushed down and smothered. Some of these still groaning, others with staring eyes, were gasping for breath, and others would never breathe more. All was silent save those low sounds, and the occasional snorting and pawing of steeds.’

Percy Bysshe SAhelley

Percy Bysshe SAhelley

Just a few months ago the actress Maxine Peake gave what Paul Vallely in The Independent referred to as a ‘bravura performance of The Masque of Anarchy, the long poem which Percy Bysshe Shelley wrote in indignation against the Peterloo Massacre of 1819’. This was part of this year’s Manchester International Festival. Vallely continued: ‘Dressed in a plain white shift, her blonde-hair neatly bobbed as if to be free of catching in the furious looms of the mill, Maxine Peake, in a prodigious act of memory, delivered a 50-minute rendition of Shelley’s rhetorical rhapsody with such pace and passion that it felt not like a performance so much as being present at a piece of history. Yet with the beauty and ire of an avenging angel she was not recalling the past so much as speaking to a present in which her words would have echoed as aptly now in Tahrir Square.’  The Masque has been called ‘the greatest political poem ever written in English’. I wish I had been there.

The Massacre of Peterloo

The Massacre of Peterloo

I have long wanted to write about the Peterloo massacre. It was hugely influential in ordinary people winning the right to vote, led to the rise of the Chartist Movement from which grew the Trade Unions, and also resulted in the establishment of the Manchester Guardian newspaper, all good things.  According to Nick Mansfield, director of the People’s History Museum in Salford, ‘Peterloo is a critical event not only because of the number of people killed and injured, but because ultimately it changed public opinion to influence the extension of the right to vote and give us the democracy we enjoy today. It was critical to our freedoms.’

The problem was that so much has been written about the massacre, scholarly and otherwise, that what more was left to be said? Perhaps not much; so as is often the case I’ll find my way in via poetry. What was ‘The Masque of Anarchy’?

A little history is perhaps in order. Here I will simply quote from The Peterloo Massacre ( It tells the basic story simply but well:

‘On the 16th of August 1819 the huge open area around what’s now St Peters Square, Manchester, played host to an outrage against over 60,000 peaceful pro-democracy and anti-poverty protesters; an event which became known as the Peterloo Massacre. An estimated 18 people, including a woman and a child, died from sabre cuts and trampling. Over 700 men, women and children received extremely serious injuries. All in the name of liberty and freedom from poverty.

The Massacre occurred during a period of immense political tension and mass protests. Fewer than 2% of the population had the vote, and hunger was rife with the disastrous Corn Laws making bread unaffordable.

The Peterloo MassacreOn the morning of 16th August the crowd began to gather, conducting themselves, according to contemporary accounts, with dignity and discipline, the majority dressed in their Sunday best. The key speaker was to be famed orator Henry Hunt, the platform consisted of a simple cart… the space was filled with banners – REFORM, UNIVERSAL SUFFRAGE, EQUAL REPRESENTATION and, touchingly, LOVE. Many of the banner poles where topped with the red cap of liberty – a powerful symbol at the time.

Local magistrates watching from a window near the field panicked at the sight of the crowd, and read the riot act, effectively ordering what little of the crowd could hear them to disperse.

As 600 Hussars, several hundred infantrymen; an artillery unit with two six-pounder guns, 400 men of the Cheshire cavalry and 400 special constables waited in reserve, the local Yeomanry were given the task of arresting the speakers. The Yeomanry, led by Captain Hugh Birley and Major Thomas Trafford, were essentially a paramilitary force drawn from the ranks of the local mill and shop owners.

On horseback, armed with cutlasses and clubs, many were familiar with, and had old scores to settle with, the leading protesters. (In one instance, spotting a reporter from the radical Manchester Observer, a Yeomanry officer called out “There’s Saxton, damn him, run him through.”)

Heading for the hustings, they charged when the crowd linked arms to try and stop the arrests, and proceeded to strike down banners and people with their swords. Rumours from the period have persistently stated the Yeomanry were drunk.

The panic was interpreted as the crowd attacking the yeomanry, and the Hussars (Led by Lieutenant Colonel Guy L’Estrange) were ordered in…

The term ‘Peterloo’, was intended to mock the soldiers who attacked unarmed civilians by echoing the term ‘Waterloo’ – the soldiers from that battle being seen by many as genuine heroes.

By 2pm the carnage was over, and the field left full of abandoned banners and dead bodies. Journalists present at the event were arrested; others who went on to report the event were subsequently jailed. The businessman John Edwards Taylor went on to help set up the Guardian newspaper as a reaction to what he’d seen. The speakers and organizers were put on trial, at first under the charge of High treason – a charge that was reluctantly dropped by the persecution. The Hussars and Magistrates received a message of congratulations from the Prince Regent, and were cleared of any wrong-doing by the official inquiry.’

Samuel Bamford.

Samuel Bamford.

There are several eye-witness accounts of the massacre. One was written by Samuel Bamford (1788 – 1872):

In about half an hour after our arrival the sounds of music and reiterated shouts proclaimed the near approach of Mr Hunt and his party; and in a minute or two they were seen coming from Deansgate, preceded by a band of music and several flags.

Their approach was hailed by one universal shout from probably 80,000 persons. They threaded their way slowly past us and through the crowd, which Hunt eyed, I thought, with almost as much of astonishment as satisfaction. This spectacle could not be otherwise in his view than solemnly impressive.

Such a mass of human beings he had not beheld till then. His responsibility must weigh on his mind. The task was great, and not without its peril. The meeting was indeed a tremendous one.

Mr Hunt, stepping towards the front of the stage, took off his white hat, and addressed the people.

We had got to nearly the outside of the crowd, when a noise and strange murmur arose towards the church. Some persons said it was the Blackburn people coming, and I stood on tiptoe and looked in the direction whence the noise proceeded, and saw a party of cavalry in blue and white uniform come trotting, sword in hand, round the corner of a garden wall, and to the front of a row of new houses, where they reined up in a line.

“The soldiers are here,” I said; “we must go back and see what this means.” “Oh,” someone made reply, “they are only come to be ready if there should be any disturbance in the meeting.” “Well, let us go back,” I said, and we forced our way towards the colours.

On the cavalry drawing up they were received with a shout of goodwill, as I understood it. They shouted again, waving their sabres over their heads; and then, slackening rein, and striking spur into their steeds, they dashed forward and began cutting the people…”

“Stand fast,” I said, “they are riding upon us; stand fast”.

The cavalry were in confusion: they evidently could not, with all the weight of man and horse, penetrate that compact mass of human beings and their sabres were plied to hew a way through naked held-up hands and defenceless heads; and then chopped limbs and wound-gaping skulls were seen; and groans and cries were mingled with the din of that horrid confusion.

Many females appeared as the crowd opened; and striplings or mere youths also were found. Their cries were piteous and heart-rending, and would, one might have supposed, have disarmed any human resentment: but here their appeals were in vain.

In ten minutes from the commencement of the havoc the field was an open and almost deserted space. The sun looked down through a sultry and motionless air. The curtains and blinds of the windows within view were all closed.

The hustings remained, with a few broken and hewed flag-staves erect, and a torn and gashed banner or two dropping; whilst over the whole field were strewed caps, bonnets, hats, shawls, and shoes, and other parts of male and female dress, trampled, torn, and bloody.

Several mounds of human being still remained where they had fallen, crushed down and smothered. Some of these still groaning, others with staring eyes, were gasping for breath, and others would never breathe more.

All was silent save those low sounds, and the occasional snorting and pawing of steeds.

Passages in the Life of a Radical, 1864

Hunt's arrest at Peterloo

Hunt’s arrest at Peterloo

As mentioned, the event was called Peterloo in mock echo of Waterloo where the hussars of the British Army had just scored a great victory over the forces of Napoleon. ‘Only this time the sabre-wielding cavalry were sent not upon a foreign foe but on 60,000 unarmed working men, women and children who had gathered on Peter’s field in Manchester to protest against wage cuts in the cotton mills which belched such smoke into the air above the city that horrified visitors reported the sky was permanently black.’

Shelley was in Italy when he heard of the massacre. It ‘so shocked the poet that he was compelled to pen his protest’. Dr Alison Morgan of Salford University has said that Peterloo was ‘important to him because he opposed repression of the people’. ‘He loathed the government and was himself under investigation before he left for the continent… Peterloo epitomised the brutality of the government but also provided some hope that a revolution or at least some form of mass protest would occur.’

As I lay asleep in Italy
There came a voice from over the Sea,
And with great power it forth led me
To walk in the visions of Poesy.

Shelley completed the 91 stanza The Masque of Anarchy in just a few days. It is a long and complex poem, I have reproduced it in full at the end, but, like all poetry, it is meant to be heard not read. I wish I had a recording of Albert Hall performance to share with you, alas I do not. However, one Manchester lady, whose name I don’t know, has made available her fine reading. It is in two parts, I would highly recommend you listen to these before reading further: here and here.

The Guardian’s critic John Mullan wrote, ‘the poem is a prophetic dream, an apocalyptic vision of Regency Britain and the shaky legitimacy of its ruling class. In the first part, the nation’s leading politicians parade like monsters, leading the figure of Anarchy around on a white horse to trample the multitudes. In this vision, the true anarchists are Britain’s rulers, who delight in fear and disorder. Anarchy’s followers, who include lawyers and priests, take possession of palace and parliament’.

This is absolutely true but we must beware an anachronistic use of the term ‘anarchy’. Today the word has so many negative connotations in everyday usage that its various earlier meanings are lost. Webster’s dictionary gives the principle meaning of anarchy as: ‘A situation of confusion and wild behaviour, in which the people in a country, group, organization, etc., are not controlled by rules or laws.’ Subsidiary definitions include that anarchy is the ‘absence of government’, ‘a state of lawlessness or political disorder due to the absence of governmental authority’, ‘a utopian society of individuals who enjoy complete freedom without government’, or even the ‘absence or denial of any authority or established order’.

In the later part of the nineteenth century ‘anarchy’ never meant this at all. It certainly never meant ‘a state of lawlessness’ or ‘freedom without government’. No, what anarchy meant was simply that any exercise of authority and power, whether by the government or otherwise, had to justify itself before the people. Even earlier, around the time Shelley wrote his poem, anarchy was pretty much synonymous with tyranny, with, if you like, the lack of any observance of ‘natural law’. In The Masque of Anarchy Shelley is quite explicit: Anarchy is the king.

Last came Anarchy : he rode
On a white horse, splashed with blood ;
He was pale even to the lips,
Like Death in the Apocalypse.

And he wore a kingly crown ;
And in his grasp a sceptre shone ;
On his brow this mark I saw—

Then all cried with one accord,
‘Thou art King, and God, and Lord ;
Anarchy, to thee we bow,
Be thy name made holy now!’

And Anarchy, the Skeleton,
Bowed and grinned to every one,
As well as if his education
Had cost ten millions to the nation.

Robert Stewart, Viscount Castelreagh, 'Murder'

Robert Stewart, Viscount Castlereagh, ‘Murder’

The king was Shelley’s last of ‘four horsemen of the apocalypse’ who were oppressing the people of Britain. The other three were Murder (Viscount Castlereagh, the British Foreign Secretary), Fraud (Baron Eldon, the Lord Chancellor) and Hypocrisy (Henry Addington, Viscount Sidmouth, Britain’s Home Secretary).

And with a mighty troop around
With their trampling shook the ground,
Waving each a bloody sword,
For the service of their Lord.

And with glorious triumph they
Rode through England proud and gay,
Drunk as with intoxication
Of the wine of desolation.

O’er fields and towns, from sea to sea,
Passed the Pageant swift and free,
Tearing up, and trampling down ;
Till they came to London town.

They are challenged only by a “maniac maid” called Hope, though “she looked more like Despair”.

Anarchy leads armed forces through England, scaring the population. Soon, the “seven bloodhounds” get to England, where they massacre the innocent public. They continue to butcher the innocent as they travel through the land, eventually reaching London, where the “dwellers,” who are by this time aware of the havoc these masked tyrants are running, are “panic-stricken” and attempt to run away.

Anarchy claims to be God, King, and Law, rejecting all traditional sources of authority and power. Some are duped and choose to follow him. The ‘adoring multitude’ is fooled by the disguises worn by state establishments. ‘Shelley is pointing out that the institutions in which people are encouraged to place their trust and faith are the very ones that are out to ‘trample’ them. While the people of England continue to worship their King, they are unable to see the anarchist behind the mask.’

This is the ‘Mask of Anarchy’.

As Anarchy’s forces proceed with their destruction, even Hope cries out in despair. ‘Finally, however, a mist of hope emerges, carrying thoughts. This revives Hope and kills Anarchy. The land of England seems to speak to the English, asking them to rise and retake true freedom, since they really have been oppressed and should fight back. Instead of trading ‘blood for blood’ and ‘wrong for wrong,’ the people should finally turn back to justice, wisdom, peace, and love in order to achieve liberty. They should be guided by ‘Science, Poetry, and Thought’ and quiet virtues. The true revolution should be ‘measured’ and use words instead of swords, drawing on the ‘old laws of England’ instead of the new laws of the oppressors. When the tyrants fight back, the people should let their anger show itself until the tyrants fall back in shame. The people will then ‘Rise like Lions after slumber in ‘unvanquishable number’ to reform England.’

Rise like Lions after slumber
In unvanquishable number—
Shake your chains to earth like dew
Which in sleep had fallen on you—
Ye are many—they are few.

I’ll leave the last words to Paul Fitzgerald, who chairs a campaign to have a permanent Peterloo memorial erected in Manchester. He writes that the poem’s modern relevance lies in the fact it ‘reminds us of the sacrifices that people went through to push for the vote’:

When you consider what people did and how brave they were, walking past armed soldiers knowing that they had been declared illegal and how the state had behaved before, it begs the question as to whether we are looking after our hard-won democracy?

It’s so easy to take democracy for granted and we forget what a struggle it was to obtain it in the first place.

In the age of increasing government surveillance and the erosion of civil liberties, it is a timely reminder of how governments are not averse to attacking (their) own people.

Peterloo Massacre by Richard Carlile

Peterloo Massacre by Richard Carlile

The Mask of Anarchy by Percy Bysshe Shelley:

As I lay asleep in Italy
There came a voice from over the Sea,
And with great power it forth led me
To walk in the visions of Poesy.

I met Murder on the way—
He had a mask like Castlereagh—
Very smooth he looked, yet grim;
Seven blood-hounds followed him:

All were fat; and well they might
Be in admirable plight,
For one by one, and two by two,
He tossed them human hearts to chew
Which from his wide cloak he drew.

Next came Fraud, and he had on,
Like Lord Eldon, an ermined gown ;
His big tears, for he wept well,
Turned to mill-stones as they fell.

And the little children, who
Round his feet played to and fro,
Thinking every tear a gem,
Had their brains knocked out by them.

Clothed with the Bible, as with light,
And the shadows of the night,
Like Sidmouth, next, Hypocrisy
On a crocodile rode by.

And many more Destructions played
In this ghastly masquerade,
All disguised, even to the eyes,
Like Bishops, lawyers, peers, and spies.

Last came Anarchy: he rode
On a white horse, splashed with blood;
He was pale even to the lips,
Like Death in the Apocalypse.

And he wore a kingly crown;
And in his grasp a sceptre shone;
On his brow this mark I saw—

With a pace stately and fast,
Over English land he passed,
Trampling to a mire of blood
The adoring multitude.

And with a mighty troop around
With their trampling shook the ground,
Waving each a bloody sword,
For the service of their Lord.

And with glorious triumph they
Rode through England proud and gay,
Drunk as with intoxication
Of the wine of desolation.

O’er fields and towns, from sea to sea,
Passed the Pageant swift and free,
Tearing up, and trampling down;
Till they came to London town.

And each dweller, panic-stricken,
Felt his heart with terror sicken
Hearing the tempestuous cry
Of the triumph of Anarchy.

For from pomp to meet him came,
Clothed in arms like blood and flame,
The hired murderers, who did sing
‘Thou art God, and Law, and King.

We have waited weak and lone
For thy coming, Mighty One!
Our purses are empty, our swords are cold,
Give us glory, and blood, and gold.’

Lawyers and priests a motley crowd,
To the earth their pale brows bowed ;
Like a bad prayer not over loud,
Whispering—‘Thou art Law and God.’—

Then all cried with one accord,
‘Thou art King, and God, and Lord ;
Anarchy, to thee we bow,
Be thy name made holy now!’

And Anarchy, the Skeleton,
Bowed and grinned to every one,
As well as if his education
Had cost ten millions to the nation.

For he knew the Palaces
Of our Kings were rightly his ;
His the sceptre, crown, and globe,
And the gold-inwoven robe.

So he sent his slaves before
To seize upon the Bank and Tower,
And was proceeding with intent
To meet his pensioned Parliament

When one fled past, a maniac maid,
And her name was Hope, she said:
But she looked more like Despair,
And she cried out in the air :

My father Time is weak and gray
With waiting for a better day;
See how idiot-like he stands,
Fumbling with his palsied hands!

He has had child after child,
And the dust of death is piled
Over every one but me—
Misery, oh, Misery!’

Then she lay down in the street,
Right before the horses feet,
Expecting, with a patient eye,
Murder, Fraud, and Anarchy.

When between her and her foes
A mist, a light, an image rose.
Small at first, and weak, and frail
Like the vapour of a vale :

Till as clouds grow on the blast,
Like tower-crowned giants striding fast,
And glare with lightnings as they fly,
And speak in thunder to the sky.

It grew—a Shape arrayed in mail
Brighter than the viper’s scale,
And upborne on wings whose grain
Was as the light of sunny rain.

On its helm, seen far away,
A planet, like the Morning’s, lay;
And those plumes its light rained through
Like a shower of crimson dew.

With step as soft as wind it passed
O’er the heads of men—so fast
That they knew the presence there,
And looked,—but all was empty air.

As flowers beneath May’s footstep waken,
As stars from Night’s loose hair are shaken,
As waves arise when loud winds call,
Thoughts sprung where’er that step did fall.

And the prostrate multitude
Looked—and ankle-deep in blood,
Hope, that maiden most serene,
Was walking with a quiet mien :

And Anarchy, the ghastly birth,
Lay dead earth upon the earth ;
The Horse of Death tameless as wind
Fled, and with his hoofs did grind
To dust the murderers thronged behind.

A rushing light of clouds and splendour,
A sense awakening and yet tender
Was heard and felt—and at its close
These words of joy and fear arose

As if their own indignant Earth
Which gave the sons of England birth
Had felt their blood upon her brow,
And shuddering with a mother’s throe

Had turned every drop of blood
By which her face had been bedewed
To an accent unwithstood,—
As if her heart cried out aloud:

Men of England, heirs of Glory,
Heroes of unwritten story,
Nurslings of one mighty Mother,
Hopes of her, and one another;

Rise like Lions after slumber
In unvanquishable number.
Shake your chains to earth like dew
Which in sleep had fallen on you—
Ye are many—they are few.

What is Freedom?—ye can tell
That which slavery is, too well—
For its very name has grown
To an echo of your own.

Tis to work and have such pay
As just keeps life from day to day
In your limbs, as in a cell
For the tyrants’ use to dwell,

So that ye for them are made
Loom, and plough, and sword, and spade,
With or without your own will bent
To their defence and nourishment.

‘Tis to see your children weak
With their mothers pine and peak,
When the winter winds are bleak,—
They are dying whilst I speak.

‘Tis to hunger for such diet
As the rich man in his riot
Casts to the fat dogs that lie
Surfeiting beneath his eye ;

’Tis to let the Ghost of Gold
Take from Toil a thousandfold
More than e’er its substance could
In the tyrannies of old.

Paper coin—that forgery
Of the title-deeds, which ye
Hold to something from the worth
Of the inheritance of Earth.

’Tis to be a slave in soul
And to hold no strong control
Over your own wills, but be
All that others make of ye.

And at length when ye complain
With a murmur weak and vain
’Tis to see the Tyrant’s crew
Ride over your wives and you—
Blood is on the grass like dew.

Then it is to feel revenge
Fiercely thirsting to exchange
Blood for blood—and wrong for wrong—
Do not thus when ye are strong.

Birds find rest, in narrow nest
When weary of their wingèd quest;
Beasts find fare, in woody lair
When storm and snow are in the air.

Horses, oxen, have a home,
When from daily toil they come;
Household dogs, when the wind roars,
Find a home within warm doors.

Asses, swine, have litter spread
And with fitting food are fed;
All things have a home but one—
Thou, Oh, Englishman, hast none !

This is Slavery—savage men,
Or wild beasts within a den
Would endure not as ye do—
But such ills they never knew.

What art thou, Freedom? O! could slaves
Answer from their living graves
This demand—tyrants would flee
Like a dream’s imagery:

Thou are not, as impostors say,
A shadow soon to pass away,
A superstition, and a name
Echoing from the cave of Fame.

For the labourer thou art bread,
And a comely table spread
From his daily labour come
In a neat and happy home.

Thou art clothes, and fire, and food
For the trampled multitude—
No—in countries that are free
Such starvation cannot be
As in England now we see.

To the rich thou art a check,
When his foot is on the neck
Of his victim, thou dost make
That he treads upon a snake.

Thou art Justice—ne’er for gold
May thy righteous laws be sold
As laws are in England—thou
Shield’st alike both high and low.

Thou art Wisdom—Freemen never
Dream that God will damn for ever
All who think those things untrue
Of which Priests make such ado.

Thou art Peace—never by thee
Would blood and treasure wasted be
As tyrants wasted them, when all
Leagued to quench thy flame in Gaul.

What if English toil and blood
Was poured forth, even as a flood ?
It availed, Oh, Liberty.
To dim, but not extinguish thee.

Thou art Love—the rich have kissed
Thy feet, and like him following Christ,
Give their substance to the free
And through the rough world follow thee,

Or turn their wealth to arms, and make
War for thy belovèd sake
On wealth, and war, and fraud—whence they
Drew the power which is their prey.

Science, Poetry, and Thought
Are thy lamps ; they make the lot
Of the dwellers in a cot
So serene, they curse it not.

Spirit, Patience, Gentleness,
All that can adorn and bless
Art thou—let deeds, not words, express
Thine exceeding loveliness.

Let a great Assembly be
Of the fearless and the free
On some spot of English ground
Where the plains stretch wide around.

Let the blue sky overhead,
The green earth on which ye tread,
All that must eternal be
Witness the solemnity.

From the corners uttermost
Of the bounds of English coast ;
From every hut, village, and town
Where those who live and suffer moan
For others’ misery or their own,

From the workhouse and the prison
Where pale as corpses newly risen,
Women, children, young and old
Groan for pain, and weep for cold—

From the haunts of daily life
Where is waged the daily strife
With common wants and common cares
Which sows the human heart with tares—

Lastly from the palaces
Where the murmur of distress
Echoes, like the distant sound
Of a wind alive around

Those prison halls of wealth and fashion.
Where some few feel such compassion
For those who groan, and toil, and wail
As must make their brethren pale—

Ye who suffer woes untold,
Or to feel, or to behold
Your lost country bought and sold
With a price of blood and gold—

Let a vast assembly be,
And with great solemnity
Declare with measured words that ye
Are, as God has made ye, free—

Be your strong and simple words
Keen to wound as sharpened swords,
And wide as targes let them be,
With their shade to cover ye.

Let the tyrants pour around
With a quick and startling sound,
Like the loosening of a sea,
Troops of armed emblazonry.

Let the charged artillery drive
Till the dead air seems alive
With the clash of clanging wheels,
And the tramp of horses’ heels.

Let the fixèd bayonet
Gleam with sharp desire to wet
Its bright point in English blood
Looking keen as one for food.

Let the horsemen’s scimitars
Wheel and flash, like sphereless stars
Thirsting to eclipse their burning
In a sea of death and mourning.

Stand ye calm and resolute,
Like a forest close and mute,
With folded arms and looks which are
Weapons of unvanquished war,

And let Panic, who outspeeds
The career of armèd steeds
Pass, a disregarded shade
Through your phalanx undismayed.

Let the laws of your own land,
Good or ill, between ye stand
Hand to hand, and foot to foot,
Arbiters of the dispute,

The old laws of England—they
Whose reverend heads with age are gray,
Children of a wiser day;
And whose solemn voice must be
Thine own echo—Liberty !

On those who first should violate
Such sacred heralds in their state
Rest the blood that must ensue,
And it will not rest on you.

And if then the tyrants dare
Let them ride among you there,
Slash, and stab, and maim, and hew, —
What they like, that let them do.

With folded arms and steady eyes,
And little fear, and less surprise,
Look upon them as they slay
Till their rage has died away.’

Then they will return with shame
To the place from which they came,
And the blood thus shed will speak
In hot blushes on their cheek.

Every woman in the land
Will point at them as they stand—
They will hardly dare to greet
Their acquaintance in the street.

And the bold, true warriors
Who have hugged Danger in wars
Will turn to those who would be free,
Ashamed of such base company.

And that slaughter to the Nation
Shall steam up like inspiration,
Eloquent, oracular ;
A volcano heard afar.

And these words shall then become
Like Oppression’s thundered doom
Ringing through each heart and brain.
Heard again—again—again—

Rise like Lions after slumber
In unvanquishable number—
Shake your chains to earth like dew
Which in sleep had fallen on you—
Ye are many—they are few.’

In a previous article I discussed the fate of the English Varangian Guard at the Battle of Dyrrhachium in October 1081. I mentioned that most of the evidence we have suggests that the first (though unlikely only) major wave of English exiles fleeing Norman repression left England in about 1072, possibly after the suppression of the resistance of Hereward the Wake in Ely. They most probably arrived in Constantinople in 1074. Do we know anything more about the roots of this sad exile? Who was involved? How many English left?

Játvarðar Saga

Játvarðar Saga

There are two principal sources regarding what happened, neither very accessible, one being in Latin and the other in Icelandic. The first and most important is a section of the early 13th-century French chronicle known as the Chronicon universale anonymi Laudunensis (‘the universal chronicle of Laon’). I’ll call this the ‘Latin text’. The second is a 14th century Icelandic text, the Játvarðar Saga, a short saga devoted to the life of Edward the Confessor. I’ll call this the ‘Icelandic Saga’ or the ‘Saga of King Edward the Confessor’. There are great similarities between the two texts. It’s likely that they both drew on similar source material.

I’ll start with the Latin text. French scholar Krijnie Ciggaar provided a résumé of the story of the English exiles. I’ve translated this into English:

While in 1066 William the Conqueror had conquered England, a certain number of nobles went into exile. First, they went in the direction of Spain, ravaged the town of Septa (in North Africa, just opposite Gibraltar), then the Balearic islands and landed finally in Sardinia. There they learnt that Constantinople was being besieged by the pagans. With the help of the chiefs of Sardinia they went to Constantinople, where they forced the pagans to lift the siege. The Byzantine emperor received them with much honour and gifts. They even obtained a place of residence within the Imperial town. However some among them were not content with this state of things. To give free reign to their activities, the Byzantine emperor suggested to them to go to the north where there was to be found a region that had once belonged to the Byzantine empire, but which, at this time, was in the hands of the pagans. Following the advice of the emperor, they set out to conquer this region, and they succeeded. The English gave to the towns of this region and to those that they themselves founded, the names of towns in England. But they kept their spirit of independence, because their clergy were consecrated in Hungary so as not to be dependent on the patriarch of Constantinople. An envoy of the Byzantine emperor was killed because he had demanded taxes. One Englishman, called Hardigt, made a career in Byzantium, first as leader of the emperor’s body guard, then as a commander of the navy.

This it seems is the story of how the English exiles arrived in Constantinople. But the Latin text tells us a lot more about what happened. As there is no accessible English translation of the Latin text what follows is based on my own rather inadequate translation, I apologise if there are any heinous errors.

The text starts by telling how William had made himself king of England and ordered that all the English who had survived the ‘disaster’ could maintain their freedom and honour. Of course this is pure Norman propaganda. A very short time after 1066, William and his henchmen had systematically and ruthlessly dispossessed most of the English, reduced them to the status of serfs and committed genocide over large parts of the north of England – the misnamed Harrying of the North.

The text continues by telling us that many of the English submitted themselves to the king, who ‘respectfully received’ them, ordering them to keep the peace. But, it continues, ‘in the western parts’ of the country, which the English called ‘West’, ‘circa Sabrinum’ (i.e. around the River Severn), there were ‘some nobles’ whose pain and grief at ‘the misfortune that had overcome them’, and who were ‘so affected by the loss of freedom in their country’, led them to swear oaths to the effect that they ‘preferred death or perpetual exile’ to seeing ‘strangers dominating their people’.

An English Huscar

An English Huscarl

We even learn some of these nobles’ names. The three most important were: Standardus, Brithniathus and Frebern. ‘These three were heroes whom the English in their corrupt language call herles, in Latin we call them consuls or counts.’ The first named came from Gloucester, the second from Lichfield, the third from Warwick. Then there were ‘other dignitaries called drengs, who ranked just after the heroes’. ‘These’, wrote the Laon monk, ‘we can’t call English barons’, probably because they were Danes. There was also a certain Heeillock ‘who was a senator of the realm’ and a Coleman ‘a saint of Constantinople’ where he ‘has a temple’. I’ll return to this Coleman at a later date. Finally, the text lists a number of other prominent English who refused to submit to William the Bastard. They all bear clear Anglo-Saxon names, though much Latinized: Wicredus, Leetchetel, Seman, Segrim, Alfem, Dunnigt, Wlston, Vlfchetel, Aleuui and Leuuine. The chronicler tells us that all these English took the same oath, ‘seeing Norman domination as an abomination’ which lay the hand of death on their lands and ‘destroyed it with rape and flames’.

Realising that they could not stand against William’s Normans alone, in 1072 the English sent envoys to the king of Denmark to ask for his aid. Although the name of this Danish king is not given in the Latin text, the mention of the year plus explicit references by Orderic Vitalis and in the Icelandic Saga, make it certain that it was English-born King Sven Estridson, who ruled Denmark from 1047 to 1076.

After Harald Hardrada was defeated and killed at the Battle of Stamford Bridge and William the Conqueror had conquered England, Sweyn turned his attention to England, once ruled by his uncle Canute the Great. He joined forces with Edgar Atheling, the last remaining heir of the Anglo-Saxon royal house, and sent a force to attack king William in 1069. However, after capturing York, Sweyn accepted a payment from William to desert Edgar, who then returned into exile in Scotland.

The Icelandic Saga says:

William the Bastard laid under him all England, and made himself be taken to be king and consecrated under the crown; so he became the greatest prince. But for all that his rule was very hateful to many men and chiefs in England; and then the English chiefs who would not serve William sent messages to Swegn Wolf’s son, the Dane-king, that he should come to England with a host of Danes, and they would fight against William, and come under King Sweyn. But when William heard of those messages, then he sent south (?) to Denmark Godwin the young, Godwin’s son, and along with him a famous bishop.

The ‘famous bishop’ was in fact called Helsin, and was the Abbot of Ramsey.

The Latin text tells us that King Sven offered the English envoys his ‘condolences’ for the death of King Harold, who had ‘recently been killed by the Normans’. Sven promised he would come to their aid ‘quickly’. But this was not to reckon with what King William had to offer. The Icelandic Saga says that William’s envoys, ‘fared with great gifts to the Dane-king, and begged him off, and that he should not harry in his realm. And for that King Sweyn was turned back from faring with a host to England. And so it went on for some years that William sent the Dane-king gifts, and so saved his kingdom’.

This wasn’t the first time the Danish king had been bought off by William the Bastard. In 1069 when English rebellion was rife, King Sven had arrived in England with a great army. But having overwintered the army they were bought off by William in 1070 and returned home, losing much of their fleet in a great storm in the North Sea.

An Anglo-Saxon Ship

An Anglo-Saxon Ship

The Icelandic Saga continues:

When the English chiefs were sure that the Danes would not help them against William – but they had made up their minds that they would not abide under his rule – then they left their estates and fled away from the land with a great host.

The Latin text says that the English leaders ‘who would not be subject to King William’ equipped themselves with ‘ships and all that they needed for a journey… and entrusted themselves to God’. They set off with 235 ‘sea-going ships’. The Icelandic Saga of King Edward the Confessor puts the number of ships at 350.

There are a number of things in both texts that are troubling to historians:

Emperor Alexis 1 Comnenus

Emperor Alexis 1 Comnenus

First, the Latin text explicitly names the Byzantine emperor as Alexis. We are told that the English were in Constantinople by 1075, but Alexis didn’t become emperor until April 1081. As I stated in the previous article, it is possible, likely even, that another force of English warrior exiles arrived in Constantinople in about 1080/81, but the mention of Alexis is still a puzzle. The answer might have to do with how and when the story of the first English exile mercenaries in Byzantium reached England. I’ll discuss that another time.

Second, it was said that a great ‘host’ left England shortly after 1072 and that there were certainly enough of them to capture various places on their voyage. Once they arrived in Constantinople it is said by some that they were also strong enough to raise a Pecheneg siege of Constantinople, but this seems to be confusing events which happened in 1091. But they were of sufficient number both for a part of them to establish settlements across the Black Sea and for the rest to join the Varangian Guard. There would thus, it seems to me, have had to have been several thousand of them, which would indeed have needed either 235 or 350 ships as our sources tell us. But did the defeated English have the use of such a number of ships six or seven years after the Conquest? And even if they did, how was it that William’s Normans let them go? It has been suggested that William let them leave, seeing it as a way to get rid of a lot of rebellious and armed Englishmen who if they had stayed could still yet threaten his rule. It’s a view worth exploring more, though the paucity of sources makes the likelihood of a definitive answer slight.

The Pechenegs

The Pechenegs

On the 18th of October 1081, a ‘great multitude’ of English warriors found themselves approaching the Byzantine town of Dyrrhachium (often called Durazzo) in present-day Albania. They were mercenaries and constituted the main part of the elite personal bodyguard of the Byzantine emperor Alexis 1 Comnenus. They were the famous Varangian Guard. This was a day when they were fired up to wreak some vengeance on the hated Normans who had conquered, decimated and raped their country and dispossessed the majority of their kinsmen. The Normans they were about to fight weren’t those of William the Bastard but those of another Norman, Robert Guiscard.

A Varangian Guard

A Varangian Guard

As the Anglo-Norman monk Orderic Vitalis wrote in the early twelfth century:

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.

In fact most historical sources and most historians suggest that the first wave of English refugees from the Norman yoke left England after the defeat of Hereward’s resistance in Ely in 1072, and arrived in Byzantium in about 1074 in time to help a previous emperor, Michael Doukas, repel a barbarian siege. The earliest Byzantine mention of their presence in the Varangian Guard (which hitherto had comprised Scandinavians and Kiev Rus) is in 1080 when ‘Angli’ were listed as forming a part of the Guard. It is quite possible that in 1080/1 English ‘reinforcements’ had joined the earlier refugees.

Following the Norman conquest of Byzantine Italy and Saracen Sicily, the Byzantine emperor, Michael Doukas (r. 1071–1078), betrothed his son to Robert Guiscard’s daughter. When Michael was deposed, Robert took this as an excuse to invade the Byzantine Empire in 1081. His army laid siege to Dyrrhachium….

The emperor Alexis had come with his army to raise the siege. Vitalis continued:

Robert Guiscard, the duke of Apulia, had taken up arms against him (Alexis) in support of Michael, whom the Greeks, resenting the power of the senate, had driven from the imperial throne. Consequently the English exiles were warmly welcomed by the Greeks and were sent into battle against the Norman forces, which were too powerful for the Greeks alone… This is the reason for the English exodus to Ionia; the emigrants and their heirs faithfully served the holy empire, and are still honoured among the Greeks by Emperor, nobility and people alike.

When Alexis arrived at the besieged town he asked his commanders ‘whether it would be well for him to venture on a battle with Robert’.  This information like much else about the battle to come we know from the Alexiad, written by Alexis’ own daughter Anna Comnena.

Palaeologus disagreed with this proposal. And others too who had gained military experience by long service opposed it strongly. They counselled endurance and embarrassing Robert by skirmishes and not allowing any of his men to come out from their quarters to forage; they suggested he should send orders to Bodinus and the Dalmatians and the other chiefs of the adjacent provinces to do the same, and assured him that in this way Robert could easily be worsted.

The Battle of Dyrrhachium

The Battle of Dyrrhachium

But, Anna tells us, ‘the majority of the younger officers preferred a battle, and most vehement among them were Constantine Porphyrogenitus, Nicephorus Synadenus, Nabites, leader of the Varangians, and even the two sons of the late Emperor Romanus Diogenes, Leo and Nicephorus.

The English Varangians under their leader Nabites were keen to fight the Normans.

It is not my intention to retell the story of the Battle of Dyrrhachium; there are many accessible accounts which readers can easily consult if they have a mind to. But some of Anna Comnena’s report is, I think, of great interest, if only for the fact that it is not easily available to the non specialist. Anna writes:

At this moment the envoys sent to Robert returned and brought the latter’s verbal message to the Emperor which ran, “It was certainly not against Your Majesty that I took the field, but simply in order to avenge the injustice done to my kinsman by marriage. But if you desire peace with me, I too shall gladly welcome it, though only on condition that you are ready to fulfil the conditions signified to you by my ambassadors.” However his requests were absolutely impossible and injurious, moreover, to the Roman Empire, although he promised that if the Emperor granted him his requests, he would consider that he held Lombardy too from his hand, and that he would give military assistance, whenever required. But his real plan was clear from the fact that he made requests as if he himself desired peace, but by making impossible ones and not obtaining them he would have recourse to arms, and thus attribute the blame for the war to the Roman Emperor.

Then after ineffectually making impossible demands, Robert convoked all the counts and addressed them in these words, “You all know the injustice done to my kinsman by marriage by the Emperor Nicephorus Botaniates, and the dishonour put upon my daughter Helen by her being expelled from the Empire with him. As we could not put up with such things we marched out against Botaniates’ country to avenge these wrongs. He however has been moved from the throne, and we now have to do with a young Emperor, who is a brave soldier and gifted with strategic knowledge far beyond his years, and with such a man we cannot go to war lightly. Now wherever there is division of command, confusion results from the diversity of opinions. Hence it is necessary that all the rest of us should obey one single commander who must consult us all and not act on his own judgment heedlessly and casually; the rest of us should openly express our views, but at the same time be ready to follow the advice of the elected commander. And here am I, one of you all, ready to obey whomsoever ye agree to elect.” All approved of this proposition and declared that Robert had spoken well, and then unanimously awarded him the first place. But he simulated indifference and for some time refused the honour, whereupon they insisted all the more. And finally he yielded, as if overcome by their persuasions, though in reality he had been aching for this all the time; but by piling one argument upon another and skilfully weaving a tissue of excuses, he made it appear to those who did not penetrate his intention, that he had been exalted against his will to the position which really he had coveted. Then he said to them “Listen to me, Counts and all the rest of you. We have left our own countries and are here in a foreign land, and we shall shortly have to fight against an Emperor who is very brave; although he has only recently assumed the reins of government, yet under the previous Emperors he came out conqueror in many wars and brought back to them the fiercest rebels as captives of his spear, therefore we must enter upon this war with our whole heart and soul. And if God should allot us the victory, we shall no longer be in need of money. Consequently we ought to set fire to all our baggage and equipment, scuttle our ships, and then enter into battle with him, as if we had been born in this place and intended to die here.” To this all assented.

Such, you see, were Robert’s plans and intentions. The Emperor’s on the other hand were different, more subtle and more clever. Both the leaders, however, kept their troops in camp whilst meditating upon their strategy and tactics so that they might use their powers scientifically…

(the) Emperor was planning a sudden night-attack from both sides upon Robert’s entrenchments. He commanded the whole native army to march by way of the salt-pits and attack from the rear, and he did not object to their undertaking this longer march as it would add to the unexpectedness of their attack. He himself intended to attack Robert from the front directly he ascertained that his other troops had arrived. Robert, however, left his tents standing empty, and crossing the bridge by night… took possession with his whole army of the chapel built long ago to the Martyr Theodore. And there throughout the night they sought to propitiate the Deity, and also partook of the Immaculate Sacred Mysteries. In the morning he drew up his troops in order of battle and stationed himself in the centre of the line; the wing near the sea he entrusted to Amicetas (one of the illustrious Counts, brave in thought and deed), and the other to his son Bohemund, nicknamed Saniscus.

Robert Guiscard and his brother Richard

Robert Guiscard and his brother Richard

And so battle commenced. Let us concern ourselves only with the English Varangian Guard.  A contemporary Norman monk called Gaufredus (Geoffrey) Malaterra  was charged by Robert Guiscard’s brother Roger to write a chronicle of the Norman exploits in Italy in the late eleventh century, it is titled The Deeds of Count Roger of Calabria and Sicily and of Duke Robert Guiscard his brother. It is, like all Norman chronicles, extremely laudatory regarding the Normans. About the battle and the English involvement, Geoffrey Malaterra wrote:

The English (‘Angli’) whom they call Varangians had requested the emperor that they form the vanguard, for these men enjoy being in the forefront. They started the battle by making a fierce attack in two columns, and at first the situation was very unfavourable to our men. But one of our squadrons attacked them on their unprotected flanks and this gallant attack forced them, wounded and terrified by the assault, to flee towards the church of St. Nicholas which was nearby. Looking to save their lives, some of them, indeed as many as could fit in, entered the church, while others from this great multitude clambered onto the roof which collapsed under their weight, thus hurling them on top of those below. In the crush both groups were suffocated. Seeing the Varangians, in who his chief hope of victory lay, totally defeated and our pursuing forces resolutely advancing against him, the emperor was terrified and chose flight rather than battle.

The Alexiad

The Alexiad

While Malaterra is unusually honourable regarding the bravery of the ‘Angli’, his story about their fate in a collapsing church does rather raise a suspicion of a sort of whitewash. The description given by Anna Comnena rings truer:

After dividing his forces, he (Alexis) did not interfere with the barbarians who were starting to make their attack upon Robert’s camp, but detained those of them who carried double-edged axes on their shoulders, and ordered them to discard their horses and with their leader, Nabites, to march in rows at a short distance in front of the regular army; this tribe all carried shields. The rest of the army he divided into phalanxes and himself took the centre of the line, on his right and left he placed respectively the Caesar Nicephorus Melissenus and Pacurianus, called the “Great Domestic.” The space between himself and the barbarians who were walking he filled with a fairly large number of soldiers skilled in archery whom he planned to send on ahead against Robert, and so he told Nabites that when these archers wanted to ride out suddenly against the Franks and retreat again, he must immediately give them passage by withdrawing his men to either side, and then afterwards close up again and march on in close order. Having re-arranged the whole army in this manner, he himself started along the seacoast in order to attack the Frankish army from the front.

The barbarians appointed for the rear attack, after passing through the salt-pits, made an assault upon the Frankish camp in conjunction with the garrison of Dyrrachium, who by the Emperor’s command had opened their gates. As the two leaders were marching against each other, Robert ordered groups of cavalry to harass the Roman troops and thus perhaps draw away some of them. But even in this detail the Emperor did not fail, for he kept on sending large numbers of light-armed troops to oppose them. Then after a little preliminary skirmishing on either side, as Robert was leisurely following his men, and the distance between the armies was by now fairly short, some infantry and cavalry belonging to Amicetas’ phalanx dashed out and attacked the extremities of Nabites’ line. These however, resisted the attack very stoutly, so the others turned their backs (since they were not all picked men), threw themselves into the sea, and up to their necks in water, made their way to the Roman and Venetian ships and begged them for protection, which they did not receive.

And now, as rumour relates, directly Gaïta, Robert’s wife (who was riding at his side and was a second Pallas, if not an Athene) saw these soldiers running away, she looked after them fiercely and in a very powerful voice called out to them in her own language an equivalent to Homer’s words, ” How far will ye flee ? Stand, and quit you like men! “And when she saw they continued to run, she grasped a long spear and at full gallop rushed after the fugitives; and on seeing this they recovered themselves and returned to the fight.

Meanwhile the axe-bearing barbarians and their leader Nabites had in their ignorance and in their ardour of battle advanced too quickly and were now a long way from the Roman lines, burning to engage battle with the equally brave Franks, for of a truth these barbarians are no less mad in battle than the Franks, and not a bit inferior to them. But they were already tired out and breathless, Robert noticed, and naturally so he thought, considering their rapid advance, their distance from their own lines and the weight of their weapons, and he ordered some of the foot to make a sudden attack on them. The barbarians having been previously wearied out, proved themselves inferior to the Franks, and thus the whole corps fell; a few escaped and took refuge in the chapel of Michael, the ‘Captain of the Host,’ as many as could crowded into the chapel itself, and the rest climbed on to the roof, being likely in this way, they imagined, to ensure their safety. But the Latins started a fire and burnt them down, chapel and all.

The Norman Rape of England

The Norman Rape of England

This it seems was the fate of these English who had fled William the Conqueror’s repression in the ‘flower of youth’, had seen a chance to avenge the slaughter of their countrymen here in the far-distant Balkans, but through over-enthusiasm, and despite much valour and heroism, had finally, yet again, been defeated and burnt alive by the Normans.

When Winston Churchill was in the political wilderness he wrote. One of his first major works was a multi-volume biography of his ancestor John Churchill, the Duke of Marlborough. In ruling circles John Churchill was a national hero. He, allied with the Austrians, had led the English army to a great victory over the French of King Louis XIV at the Battle of Blenheim in Germany in 1704. I won’t go into the details of the pointless War of the Austrian Succession, suffice it to say that John Churchill was amply rewarded with enough wealth not only to build Blenheim Palace but also to keep his family in luxury for the next three centuries. Winston Churchill grew up in Blenheim Palace and his inherited wealth enabled him to spend years researching and writing his histories as well as plotting his political comeback.


Man and Children from the Battle of Blenheim poem

Fascinating though both Churchills were, here I’d simply like to discuss one of my favourite poems written by the Lakeland poet Robert Southey in 1796. It is called After Blenheim or sometimes The Battle of Blenheim. (You can hear it read here by Derek Jacobi.)

It was a summer evening,
Old Kaspar’s work was done,
And he before his cottage door
Was sitting in the sun,
And by him sported on the green
His little grandchild Wilhelmine.

She saw her brother Peterkin
Roll something large and round,
Which he beside the rivulet
In playing there had found;
He came to ask what he had found,
That was so large, and smooth, and round.

Old Kaspar took it from the boy,
Who stood expectant by;
And then the old man shook his head,
And, with a natural sigh,
“‘Tis some poor fellow’s skull,” said he,
“Who fell in the great victory.

“I find them in the garden,
For there’s many here about;
And often when I go to plough,
The ploughshare turns them out!
For many thousand men,” said he,
“Were slain in that great victory.”

“Now tell us what ’twas all about,”
Young Peterkin, he cries;
And little Wilhelmine looks up
With wonder-waiting eyes;
“Now tell us all about the war,
And what they fought each other for.”

“It was the English,” Kaspar cried,
“Who put the French to rout;
But what they fought each other for,
I could not well make out;
But everybody said,” quoth he,
“That ’twas a famous victory.

“My father lived at Blenheim then,
Yon little stream hard by;
They burnt his dwelling to the ground,
And he was forced to fly;
So with his wife and child he fled,
Nor had he where to rest his head.

“With fire and sword the country round
Was wasted far and wide,
And many a childing mother then,
And new-born baby died;
But things like that, you know, must be
At every famous victory.

“They say it was a shocking sight
After the field was won;
For many thousand bodies here
Lay rotting in the sun;
But things like that, you know, must be
After a famous victory.

“Great praise the Duke of Marlbro’ won,
And our good Prince Eugene.”
“Why, ’twas a very wicked thing!”
Said little Wilhelmine.
“Nay… nay… my little girl,” quoth he,
“It was a famous victory.

“And everybody praised the Duke
Who this great fight did win.”
“But what good came of it at last?”
Quoth little Peterkin.
“Why that I cannot tell,” said he,
“But ’twas a famous victory.”

The Duke of Marlborough at the Battle of Blenheim

The Duke of Marlborough at the Battle of Blenheim

It has sometimes been said that this is the first English anti-war poem, it isn’t but it is a wonderfully poignant piece. Its meaning is I think clear, it can’t be better expressed than it was by Rupert S. Holland in his Historic Poems and Ballard, published in 1912 in Philadelphia:

This battle was fought near the village of Blenheim, in Bavaria, on the left bank of the river Danube, on August 13, 1704. The French and Bavarians, under Marshall Tallard and Marsin, were defeated by the English and Austrians, under the Duke of Marlborough and Prince Eugene.

The French and Bavarians were taken by surprise in the village, and their armies were badly handled. On the opposite side Marlborough and Prince Eugene showed themselves splendid cavalry leaders and led an attack that proved successful through its very recklessness. The French and Bavarians lost 30,000 in killed, wounded, and prisoners, while Marlborough’s loss was only 11,000. The battle broke the prestige of the French king, Louis XIV; and when Marlborough returned to England his nation built a magnificent mansion for him and named it Blenheim Palace after this battle.

Southey’s poem tells how a little girl found a skull near the battle-field many years afterward, and asked her grandfather how it came there. He told her that a great battle had been fought there, and many of the leaders had won great renown. But he could not tell her why it was fought or what good came of it. He only knew that it was a “great victory.” That was the moral of so many of the wars that devastated Europe for centuries. The kings fought for more power and glory; and the peasants fled from burning homes, and the soldiers fell on the fields. The poem gives an idea of the real value to men of such famous victories as that of Blenheim.

In this early period of his life Southey was a radical republican influenced by the great Thomas Paine and by the early optimistic years of the French Revolution. In 1794, even before he had written After Blenheim, Southey had written a ‘dramatic poem’ in three acts called Wat Tyler. As its name gives away, this was a play about the Peasants’ Revolt of 1381. At the start of the play Wat Tyler and his friend Hob Carter are found in Tyler’s blacksmith’s shop in Deptford indignantly discussing the new ‘poll’ tax being  imposed by the Crown to pay for its wars in France:


Curse on these taxes – one succeeds another –

Our ministers – panders of a king’s will –

Drain all our wealth away – waste it in revels –

And lure,or force away our boys, who should be

The props of our old age! – to fill their armies

And feed the crows of France! Year follows year,

And still we madly prosecute the war; –

Draining our wealth – distressing our poor peasants –

Slaughtering our youths – and all to crown our chiefs

With Glory! – I detest the hell-sprung name.


What matters who wears the crown of France?

Whether a Richard or a Charles possess it?

They reap the glory – they enjoy the spoil –

We pay – we bleed! – The sun would shine as cheerly,

The rains of heaven as seasonally fall,

Tho’ neither of these royal pests existed.


Nay – as for that, we poor men should fare better!

No legal robbers then should force away

The hard-earn’d wages of our honest toil.

The Parliament for ever cries more money,

The service of the state demands more money.

Just heaven! Of what service is the state?


Oh! ‘tis of vast importance! Who should p[ay for

The luxuries and riots of the court?

Who should support the flaunting courtier’s pride,

Pay for their midnight revels, their rich garments,

Did not the state enforce? – Think ye, my friend,

That I – a humble blacksmith, here in Deptford,

Would part with these six groats – earn’d by hard toil,

And that I have! To massacre the Frenchmen,

Murder as enemies men I never saw!

Didn’t the state compel me?

Watt Tyler leader of the Peasants' Revolt of 1381

Watt Tyler leader of the Peasants’ Revolt of 1381

When Southey wrote this in 1794 not much had changed in four hundred years: taxes were yet again being hiked to pay for another meaningless military escapade on the continent and ordinary young men in their thousands were literally being ‘pressed’ to serve in the army and in the Royal Navy. Wat Tyler wasn’t published until 1817 and then against Southey’s will. Unfortunately Southey had become a conservative reactionary and was appointed Poet Laureate in the same year as Wat Tyler appeared. He called the publisher ‘a skulking scoundrel’. As one contemporary critic put it, Southey was a poet until he became Poet Laureate! He wrote eulogies to the king and in 1820 referred to the Battle of Blenheim as ‘the greatest victory which had ever done honour to British arms’. Referring to Wat Tyler, Southey wrote:

The piece was written under the influence of opinions which I have long since outgrown, and repeatedly disclaimed, but for which I have never felt either shame or contrition. They were taken up conscientiously in early youth, they were acted upon in disregard of all worldly considerations, and they were left behind in the same strait-forward course, as I advanced in years.

Southey had it fact sold out his youthful compassion and outrage. In his portrait of Southey in The Spirit of the Age William Hazlitt wrote: “He wooed Liberty as a youthful lover, but it was perhaps more as a mistress than a bride; and he has since wedded with an elderly and not very reputable lady, called Legitimacy.”

A young Robert Southey

A young Robert Southey

Much has been written about Southey’s apostasy, my favourite is that of William Howitt in his Homes and Haunts of the Most Eminent English Poets, which he wrote in 1847, the year of Southey’s death:

With all our admiration of the genius and varied powers of Southey, and with all our esteem for his many virtues, and the peculiar amiability of his domestic life, we cannot, however, read him without a feeling of deep melancholy. The contrast between the beginning and the end of his career, the glorious and high path entered upon, and so soon and suddenly quitted for the pay of the placeman and the bitterness of the bigot, cling to his memory with a lamentable effect. Without doing as many hastily do, regarding him as a dishonest renegade; allowing him, on the contrary, all the credence possible for an earnest and entire change in his views; we cannot the less mourn over that change, or the less elude the consciousness that there was a moment when this change must have been a matter of calculation. They who have held the same high and noble views of human life and social interests, and still hold them, find it impossible to realize to themselves the process by which such a change in a clear-headed and conscientious man can be carried through. For a man whose heart and intellect were full of the inspiration of great sentiments, on the freedom of man in all his relations, as a subject and a citizen as well as a man, on peace, on religion, and on the oppressions of the poor, to go round at once to the system and the doctrines of the opposite character, and to resolve to support that machinery of violence and oppression which originates all these evils, is so unaccountable as to tempt the most charitable to hard thoughts. Nothing is so easy of vindication as a man’s honesty, when he changes to his own worldly disadvantage, and to a more free mode of thinking; but when the contrary happens, suspicion will lie in spite of all argument. We can well conceive, for instance, the uncle of the young poet, with whom he went out to Portugal, a clergyman of the Church of England, saying to him, “Robert, my dear fellow, these notions and these terrible democratic poems, — this Wat Tyler, these Botany Bay Eclogues, and the like, are not the way to flourish in the world. No doubt you want to live comfortably; then just look about you, and see how you are to live. Here are church and state, and there are Wat Tyler and the Botany Bay Eclogues. Here are promotion and comfort, there are poverty and contempt. Take which you will.” We can well conceive the effect of such representations on a young man who, with all his poetic and patriotic devotion, did not like poverty and contempt, and did hope to live comfortably. This idea once taking the smallest root in a young man having a spice of worldly prudence as well as a great deal of ambition, we can imagine the youth nodding to himself and saying, — “True, there is great wisdom in what my uncle says. I must live, and so no more Wat Tylers, nor Botany Bay Eclogues. I will adhere to the powers that be, but I will still endeavour to infuse liberal and generous views into these powers.” Very good; but then comes the transplanting to a new soil, and into new influences. Then come the hearing of nothing but a new set of opinions, and the feeling of a very different tone in all around him. Then comes the “facilis descensus Averni,” and the “sed revocare gradum hoc opus, hic labor est.” The metamorphosis goes on insensibly — “Nemo repent fuit turpissimus;” but the end is not the less such as, if it could have been seen from the beginning, would have made the startled subject of it exclaim, “Is thy servant a dog, that he should do this thing?”

Blenheim Palace

Blenheim Palace

A slightly modified version of this article appeared in Family Tree magazine in June 2013 (See after the text)

Testing our ties – Genealogical and genetic ancestry – What’s the difference?

Economist and historian Stephen Lewis puts our roots under the microscope to discover a little more about how we inherit some genes and not others.

Identity is a multi-faceted thing. We humans tend to construct our own view of who we are and pick those aspects of ourselves which we regard as most telling. These identities might be any mixture of sex, place of birth, job, friends, philosophical or political beliefs or character traits. Parents and sibling usually get a look in too. Many readers of this magazine will probably be of the opinion that their family tree – their genealogical ancestry – is not only fascinating in itself but can also provide meaningful information about ‘who we are’. Some will want to go further and delve, as far as science and pockets will allow, into their genetic ancestry. But what is the relationship between genealogical and genetic inheritance?

Genealogical identity

As I explained in a recent article in Family Tree, once you are conceived genealogical ancestry is a completely deterministic thing. In genealogical terms you are without any doubt descended from or related to your ancestors in a definite way.  I explained why the number of your direct ancestors (parents, grandparents etc) doesn’t simply double in each generation: it’s because of inbreeding and the resultant ‘Pedigree Collapse’. But if we put this to one side here, you are descended one half from each of your parents and one quarter from each of your grandparents and so on. If you could accurately identify all your ancestors you could calculate the precise mathematical genealogical relationship between you and any one of them. One measure of relationship is called the Coefficient of Relationship. This would be 50 per cent between parents and children, 25 percent between half siblings and only 3.13 per cent between second cousins. However this measure can be unrealistic because it assumes zero relatedness on other lineages, which, as I discussed in my previous article, is not the case.

In terms of identity, if you had four Scottish great grandparents, two Russian great grandparents, one French great grandparent and one Japanese great grandparent, then you could perfectly validly say you were genealogically, and maybe culturally and linguistically too, one half Scottish, one quarter Russian, one eight French and one eighth Japanese. But does the same hold true for your genetic inheritance? The answer is ‘not quite’. To understand why we need to understand a little about human reproduction and how genes are passed from generation to generation.

Genes and reproduction

Humans have 23 pairs of chromosomes, making 46 in total. These contain all our genetic information. Two chromosomes determine sex – you get and X or a Y from your father and an X from your mother. That leaves 22 other pairs of non-sex (‘autosomal’) homologous chromosomes. Homologous simply means that while each half of the pair has the same length, basically the same functions and indeed the same genes, the pairs of genes can appear in different versions – called alleles. A well known example of this is found on chromosome 15, where one gene (allele) can either code for the expression of brown or blue eyes. (Note: non-sex chromosomes are simply numbered from 1 to 22: 1 being the longest, 2 the second longest and so on.) Having 46 chromosomes (or 23 pairs of homologous chromosomes if you prefer) is one of the defining characteristics of being human. Chimps have 48 and dogs 78. If by chance you get more or less than 46, severe health problems can arise. An extra number 21 chromosome for example, i.e. a triple rather than a pair, gives 47 chromosomes and results in Down’s syndrome.

I hope it’s clear that if each parent has 46 chromosomes any child must also have 46. Thus during the process of reproduction the combined number must be halved – and indeed it is.

Let us consider any one of the 22 non-sex chromosomes, for example number 15, which as I mentioned codes for eye colour among other things. See the image which represents the pairs of ‘number 15’ homologous chromosomes for one individual and his/her parents and his/her grandparents. I’ve given each part of the chromosome pairs a different colour and just for illustrative purposes assume that they are passed down unchanged (which they aren’t). In this example the individual is red & blue. He/she has inherited the red part of his/her paired chromosome 15 from the father and the blue part from the mother: 50 per cent from each of the parents as we might expect and with the required reduction. The father has, here, the red plus green combination and there was an independent 50/50 chance of the child getting either red or green from him. The same applies to the mother with blue and yellow. Thus the red & blue combination is only one out of four possible combinations which could be inherited from the parents. And so it is with all the other 21 non-sex chromosomes, although graphically we’d want different colours for each to differentiate them all. Thus in total we’d get 50 per cent of our total genetic inheritance from each parent.

genetics dia 2

But consider just the paternal line for a moment. You can see that the father could equally as easily have inherited any one of four different colour combinations from his parents: green & red, green & orange, pink & red and pink & orange. There are also four combinations on the maternal side. This means that given the number 15 chromosome combinations the grandparents had there was only a 1/16th chance of this individual having got the red & blue combination – 1/4×1/4 – and a 15/16ths chance of any other combination. It might also be of interest to note that taking all the chromosomes into account there are over 8 million possible combinations of chromosomes (2 to the power 23) from either your father or your mother!

If humans reproduced in this way (they don’t) you can see that you would have inherited genes on chromosome 15 from only one of your two paternal grandparents and only one of your two maternal grandparents, and none whatsoever from the others. Perhaps surprisingly you would also have inherited genes on this chromosome, once again, from only two of your eight great grandparents. In fact you would have chromosome 15 genes from only 2 ancestors in any generation. Of course, because there are 22 non-sex chromosomes, the particular pair of ancestors you might have inherited genes from, on each chromosome in each generation, will likely be different. An interesting thought is that if humans reproduced like this we would all have a maximum of 46 distinct genetic ancestors however far you go back (2×23). The vast bulk of your genealogical ancestors wouldn’t be genetic ancestors at all!

Shuffling the pack

Luckily for biological diversity, natural selection and human health, something else happens when we reproduce. Not only are chromosomes independently assorted and their number reduced by half, as in the hypothetical example above, but, in addition, before your mother and father each pass on half of a chromosome pair to their sex-cells – called gametes: eggs in females and sperm in males – some genes on each chromosome are shuffled. Individual genes (alleles) on ‘opposite sides’ of the chromosome cross-over or recombine. This occurs when sex cells are being formed in a complicated multi-stage process. The homologous chromosome pairs first double and then, in a two-step process known as meiosis, chromosomes join, some genes then ‘cross over’ or ‘recombine’, then the chromosomes segregate again. See the second illustration. In males we end up with four separate sperm cells each containing 22 different ‘haploid daughter chromatids’ – this just means one half of a pair – plus the sex chromosome. For females it’s a little different. They end up with just one fertilizable egg, again containing 22 haploid daughter chromatids plus the sex chromosome. Three other potential eggs, called polar bodies, become redundant. One sperm will fertilise one egg to create a new person and we’re back to 46 chromosomes again, but very different ones.

genetics dia 1

How likely two genes are to cross-over is a probabilistic process and depends in large part on how far apart they are on the chromosome; the nearer they are (the more ‘linked’) the lower the probability of crossing over. Actually in humans the amount of gene shuffling is minimal, quite often being as low as one gene cross-over per chromosome; other times only two or three. Even with such genetic shuffling, it still means that any individual will still get exactly 50 per cent of their genes from each of their parents (both on each chromosome and in total), but they need not, and probably will not, inherit 25 per cent of their genes from each of their four grandparents – again on each chromosome or in total. While our best guess will be 25 per cent, 25 per cent, 25 per cent, 25 per cent, like all averages based on probability there is a wide range of possible results. Imagine tossing a coin four times. Before you start the best guess would be that you will get two heads and two tails. But you could also quite conceivably get three or even four heads. If you have a few goes it won’t be too long before you actually witness this. What is more, if after three tosses you have got three heads, while the probability of getting a fourth head is still 50 per cent – because it’s independent of anything that went before – having got three heads first, after the fourth toss the only two possible final results are 3 heads and a tail or four heads! The cumulative outcome is dependent on what went before – as it is in genetics.

What’s the answer?

To put the outcome in a nutshell: while in any large population the average percentage of genes inherited from each and every grandparental generation will likely be very close indeed to 25 per cent (or 12.5 per cent for great grandparents), for any single individual the probability of them having exactly 25 per cent from each of their own four grandparents is far less than them not having 25 per cent – i.e. having any other proportion at all that is more or less than 25 per cent. On any particular chromosome, which might contain genetic ‘codes’ for  particular physical or behavioural traits, I hope you can see that it is quite possible, even quite frequent, that you have inherited very, very little genetic information, maybe even none, from a grandparent or great grandparent. On the other hand it’s highly unlikely, though still remotely possible, that in total you will get almost or exactly no genes from any one of these relatively recent ancestors. But as you go further back in your ancestry the likelihood of having inherited no genes from a remote genealogical ancestor becomes more significant.

Finding your genetic ancestry

Moving away from theory and towards what we find in the real world. Some companies now offer genetic inheritance tests. There is a whole new industry called ‘Genetic Genealogy’. Most well known are tests using mitochondrial DNA. This is DNA situated outside the nucleus of a woman’s egg and is passed unchanged from mother to daughter except for random mutations. Males also get mitochondrial DNA but can’t pass it on. Another popular test follows the male Y chromosome, passed more or less unchanged, except for mutations, from father to son. The results of such tests are interesting but they only tell us something about two single genetic lines out of our hundreds of such lines: those of our mother’s mother’s mother etc and our father’s father’s father etc. More recently tests of our non-sex genetic inheritance have become available. These are more complicated than with the Y chromosome and mitochondrial DNA because these genes are constantly being shuffled. As genetic science progresses such ‘autosomal’ DNA tests are becoming more and more informative. Remember, with the exception of some non-sex inheritance on the X chromosome (like colour blindness), everything else, according to conventional biology and genetics – ignoring ‘epigenetics’ – comes from these non-sex chromosomes: physical, mental and behavioural characteristics for example.

There are various studies of such autosomal genetic tests and, although the numbers differ, they all clearly show that there is a significant range in terms of genetic inheritance. One example being what percentage of our genes we get from each of our grandparents or great grandparents. The highest percentage of genes received by a person from a grandparent that I’ve so far seen reported is 31.5 per cent, which of course means the other grandparent contributed only 18.5 per cent.

Genetic and genealogical ancestries are not the same. You or I will most likely have at least some genes from most of our ancestors, but how much will vary quite a lot, as will which mix of genes and traits we inherited. Returning to the example of Scottish, Russian, French and Japanese ancestry I started with. It is in fact highly unlikely that the genetic ancestry ratios will match the genealogical ones. Some of the proportions or percentages could be significantly higher and some much lower – as long as they add up to 100% of course. You might genealogically be one eighth Japanese but genetically you’ll most probably not be. And, what is more, whether you did or didn’t get any particular genetically carried trait, or even talent, from your Japanese ancestor is basically just pot luck.

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