Archive for May, 2014

North Meols is an ancient parish on the coast of south-west Lancashire. Much of it has now been gobbled up by the modern resort town of Southport. Like most of this stretch of coast ‘between the Mersey and the Ribble’, as it was referred to in William the Conqueror’s Domesday survey in 1086, it was heavily settled by the Scandinavians in the tenth century after their temporary expulsion from Dublin. The name Meols itself derives from the Old Norse word melr, meaning sand hills or dunes, an apt description for the area. I want to use the example of North Meols to tell just a little of the generally unrecorded and under-appreciated Scandinavian settlement of Lancashire.

North Meols Mudflats

North Meols Mudflats

There are almost no written sources mentioning Lancashire before William the Conqueror’s Domesday survey of 1086 – even then it was not called Lancashire but was still included under Yorkshire. The area of coast where North Meols lies was referred to as ‘between the Mersey and the Ribble’.[1] This stretch of coast was inhospitable and remote. For a long time it was not a very sought-after place to live. In his excellent local history of North Meols and Southport, Peter Aughton tells something about the geography of the area. It is such a fine evocative description that I will quote it in full:[2]

‘The whole of the coastal plain was dotted with shallow meres which were destined to acquire names like Gattern Mere, Barton Mere, White Otter and Black Otter Pool, but the greatest of these was Martin Mere. It measured over four miles from east to west and three miles from north to south, and at one point it came within a mile of the sea. In its time Martin mere was numbered amongst the greatest meres in England. Great flocks of wild geese flew over the waters. Pike, perch and bream swam beneath the surface and the osprey nested in the rushes of its hinterland. The waters would rise and fall with the seasons and after heavy rains the acres of bog and marshland were reclaimed by the waters, dried up creeks filled with water and became part of the mere until the next dry spell. After particularly heavy rains Martin Mere would sometimes manage to find an outlet to the coast and spill over into the great salt waters of the sea.

North of the mere was a river estuary, another habitat of geese and wild fowl, a land of mudflats, salt marshes and sea-washed – but to the south the coastal regions were of an entirely different nature. Here blown sand accumulated into a wide band of desolate sand hills with ever changing contours sculpted by the wind. Here the land was in perpetual conflict with the sea. On the slopes of the sand hills sparse clumps of marram grass struggled for a hold on the sandy inclines but in the valleys between the dunes the sand in some places gave way to carpets of local vegetation where, at the lowest points, lay dark shallow pools of water. Here grew the marsh marigold, reedmace, burr reed, water mint and bog bean. Millions of years of evolution had produced the sand lizard which scurried through the coarse grass, and in the spring could be heard the croaking, unlovely mating call of the natterjack toad.’

A better evocation of ‘place’ I have yet to read. It was the place where I was born and where I spent the early years of my life on its cold and windswept sands, although its rough natural beauty had by then been much altered by Man, not always for the better.

 

north meols map

But, as Aughton rightly says, despite the fact that ‘between the sand dunes, the mud flats, and the mere, nature had created a stretch of fertile soil with woodlands for fuel, pasture for animals, and fresh water only a few feet below the ground’, the native British of this island, and later on the Northumbrian English, had pretty much ignored it, having so many other more fertile areas to chose from. When the Scandinavians arrived here in the tenth century they would have found an almost untouched land. If there were any people living here they were without doubt few and far between.

King Athelstan

King Athelstan

Before the Scandinavians arrived what is now called Lancashire had nominally been a part of the kingdom of Northumbria, whose south-western boundary was the River Mersey. But as far as we can tell the Northumbrian English had never settled the desolate coast around North Meols, and the topographical place name evidence suggests that Celtic British settlement of the area was at most sparse.[3] Any English influence from Mercia or Wessex in ‘Lancashire’ only came later too, following the ‘submission’ of the Scots, Cumbrians and Norse to King Edward the Elder in 920 at Bakewell in Derbyshire and in 927 to King Athelstan at Eamont Bridge (or Dacre) in Cumberland.

The Scandinavians had started to raid and then settle in Ireland in the first half of the ninth century.[4] They established bases and trading centres, called longphorts, in Dublin, Waterford, Cork and elsewhere. But in the year 902 the Irish, who often fought each other as much as they did the Vikings, managed for a short time to unite enough to expel the Scandinavians from Dublin. The Annals of Ulster reported:

The heathens were driven from Ireland, that is from the longphort of Ath Cliath (Dublin), by Mael Finnia son of Flannacan with the men of Brega and by Cerball son of Muirecan with the Leinster men…  and they abandoned a good number of their ships, and escaped half dead after they had been wounded and broken.[5]

These expelled ‘Hiberno-Norse’ fled to the nearby coasts of Wales and north-west Britain. At least one group first went to Anglesey in Wales. The Annals of Wales for 902 say:[6]

Igmund came to Mona and took Maes Osfeilion.

Igmunt in insula Mon venit tenuit Maes Osmeliaun

Norse fleet

Norse fleet

The Fragmentary Annals of Ireland tell the story in more detail. It seems that the British Welsh repulsed the Northmen in Anglesey, after which the Scandinavians then settled ‘near Chester’, in what is now Cheshire, with the consent of Aethelflaed, the ‘Lady of the Mercians’.

Now the Norwegians left Ireland, as we said, and their leader was Ingimund, and they went then to the island of Britain. The son of Cadell son of Rhodri was king of the Britons at that time. The Britons assembled against them, and gave them hard and strong battle, and they were driven by force out of British territory.

After that Ingimund with his troops came to Aethelflaed, Queen of the Saxons; for her husband, Aethelred, was sick at that time. (Let no one reproach me, though I have related the death of Aethelred above, because this was prior to Aethelred’s death and it was of this very sickness that Aethelred died, but I did not wish to leave unwritten what the Norwegians did after leaving Ireland.) Now Ingimund was asking the Queen for lands in which he would settle, and on which he would build barns and dwellings, for he was tired of war at that time. Aethelflaed gave him lands near Chester, and he stayed there for a time.[7]

Viking Wirral

Viking Wirral

But the Scandinavians under Ingimund weren’t content with what the Mercian Aethelflaed had given them, they saw the ‘wealthy city’ of Chester ‘and the choice lands around it’ and Ingimund ‘yearned to possess them’. Probably in 910, he collected the ‘chieftains of the Norwegians and Danes’ who had come with him from Ireland and attacked Chester, only to be bloodily repulsed by the Mercians who had just restored the city’s walls and garrisoned the town.[8]

The Vikings then settled down peacefully on the Wirral which became thoroughly Scandinavian.[9]

It was at this time in the early tenth century that the Scandinavians from Ireland probably also first settled along the Lancashire coast. Perhaps some of them were even the ‘chieftains of the Norwegians and Danes’ referred to as combining with Ingimund to besiege the English at Chester?

Cuerdale Hoard

Cuerdale Hoard

So let us return to Lancashire. In 1840 some workmen discovered a truly immense hoard of Viking silver at Cuerdale on the River Ribble near Preston.[10] Cuerdale is of course itself a Norse name. This hoard is conventionally dated to between 905 and 910. It could well have been a Viking leader’s war chest brought to finance his attempt to recapture Dublin, possibly in league with the Scandinavians of York.[11] How and why this Viking leader left such a large amount of treasure buried on the banks of the River Ribble is not known. The dating of the burial is controversial and relies upon dating the thousands of coins it contained. Although it is not the academic consensus, it is certainly possible that the hoard was buried later than 905-910, perhaps even as late as 937 when the Northmen, in league with the Scots and Strathclyde British (the ‘Cumbrians’), were defeated by the English king Athelstan at the famous Battle of Brunanburh.[12] The River Ribble itself was certainly a place the Vikings made use of. It was a natural point of arrival and departure for them from Ireland, and the Ribble was certainly on the most direct route joining the Irish Sea with York.

Whether the Cuerdale hoard was buried in the years after 905 or a couple of decades later the evidence suggests that it was during this period that the stretch of coast between the Mersey and the Ribble was first settled by Scandinavians who gave their names to so much of the area.

wainwrightIn North Meols and along the nearby River Ribble and its tributary the River Douglas the Vikings would have found many convenient places to ground their ships. As suggested, the area was either not inhabited or only sparsely so. In the records we find not one mention of any confrontation between these Scandinavians and any resident peoples. This implies that the settlement was fairly peaceable. The great historian of English place names, Eilert Ekwall, suggested that this is ‘only a hypothesis’ because it is an argument ‘from silence’, meaning that this view comes only from the fact that there are no written records of clashes between Scandinavian settlers and native inhabitants.[13] Frederick Wainwright, by far the greatest historian of the Scandinavian settlement of north-west England, wrote that the evidence for the peaceable nature of the Scandinavian settlement of Lancashire ‘is none the less powerful… since it is almost inconceivable that an organized military conquest or a violent social upheaval, even in the remote north-west, should altogether escape the notice of both contemporary and later annalists’. Wainwright added:

To this may be added the positive if somewhat inconclusive evidence of place-names. It has been shown… that the distribution of Scandinavian place-names in south Lancashire suggests very strongly that the Norsemen were willing to occupy the poorer lands along the coast, lands which the earlier English settlers had deliberately avoided. If this is correct then the settlement can hardly have been preceded by a military conquest, for the conquerors would not choose to live in neglected marshlands… There is no reason to believe that the relations were cordial, but there is equally no reason, at least from the evidence of place-names, to suspect any violent hostility.[14]

scandi lancsAs in Cumbria further north, between the Mersey and the Ribble we find Scandinavian place names everywhere. In the immediate vicinity of North Meols itself we find Crossens, Birkdale, Ainsdale, Formby, Altcar, Crosby, Litherland and Kirkdale. Inland we find Scarisbrick, Tarlscough, Tarleton, Ormskirk, Kellamerg and Hesketh. These are all Norse names. The same is true up and down the coast.[15] If we were to add in lesser names of fields and topographical features the list would be almost endless.

Recent DNA studies of the Scandinavian ancestry of people in Cheshire and south-west Lancashire have concluded that about half of the people bearing historically old family names there are descendants of these Vikings settlers – who without much doubt came from Ireland.

These Scandinavian settlers soon turned to fishing and farming and away from typical or stereotypical Viking raiding. Nevertheless, as the tenth century progressed, it is hard to imagine that at least some of these Lancastrian Scandinavians didn’t occasionally participate in the many battles fought between the Norse, English, British and Scots for the ultimate control of north-west England.

And so life Scandinavian continued In North Meols: farming, fishing and maybe a bit of fighting too.

And then after the Norman Conquest this simple life was shattered. The Norman French didn’t immediately arrive in Lancashire after 1066. When the French first ventured north to commit ethnic genocide in Yorkshire and other northern areas in 1069, in the rather misnamed ‘Harrying of the North’, they probably also laid waste to some parts of Lancashire and Cheshire too.[16] But they probably never set foot in North Meols.

Roger de Poitou

Roger de Poitou

In 1086, when the Domesday survey of England was ordered by William the Conqueror, North Meols, plus nearly the whole of modern Lancashire (and much else besides), had been given to Roger de Poitou (the son of William’s friend and supporter Roger de Montgomerie) as part of William’s divvying up of the whole of his conquered country among his followers.[17]

Domesday Book records that five unnamed thegns, most likely descendants of the Scandinavian settlers in the early tenth century, though no doubt by now mixed with English and, perhaps, British blood, had held Ortringmele (North Meols), Herleshala (Hasall) and Hireton (Hurleton) before the Conquest. Now these lands were part of Roger de Poitou’s huge holdings, and he had granted the liberty and ‘farm’ of them (by ‘subinfeudation’) to various of his French vassals, called Geoffrey, Roger, William, Robert, Gilbert and Warin.[18] This is another story; the story of a brutal, centuries-long Norman-French suppression and exploitation of Lancashire and of all of England. It’s not a happy history. See: Ravening Wolves – The French hostile take-over of Lancashire

A number of eminent Victorian and Edwardian historians and antiquarians had much to say about the Scandinavian settlement of Lancashire. Much is this still of interest, though much is just fantasy. Here is one of my favourite quotes from S. W. Partington’s The Danes in Lancashire:

From the Mersey to the Ribble was a long, swampy, boggy plain, and was not worth the Romans’ while to make roads or to fix stations or tenements. From the Conquest until the beginning of the 18th century this district was almost stagnant, and its surface undisturbed. The Dane kept to the shore, the sea was his farm. He dredged the coast and estuary, with his innate love of danger, till Liverpool sprang up with the magic of Eastern fable, and turned out many a rover to visit every region of the world. The race of the Viking are, many of them, the richest merchants of the earth’s surface.[19]

I wish it were still so.

ship

 

 

 

 

 

References:

[1] The Victoria History of the County of Lancaster, Vol. 1, W. Farrer and J. Brownbill, London. 1906.

[2] Peter Aughton, North Meols and Southport – A History, Lancaster, 1988, pp. 16-17.

[3] See: F. T. Wainwright, The Scandinavians in Lancashire, pp. 181- 227, in Scandinavian England, ed. H. P. R Finberg, Chichester, 1975.

[4] Clare Downham, Viking Kings of Britain and Ireland – The Dynasty of Ivarr to A. D. 1014, Edinburgh, 2007.

[5] The Annals of Ulster, ed. and trans. S, Mac Airt and G.  Niocaill, Dublin, 1983, p. 354.

[6] David Dumville, ed. and trans., Annales Cambriae, A.D. 682-954: Texts A-C in Parallel, Department of Anglo-Saxon, Norse and Celtic, University of Cambridge, 2002.

[7] Joan N. Radner, ed. and trans., Fragmentary annals of Ireland, Dublin, 1978.

[8] Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, in D. Whitelock, English Historical Documents, London, 1979.

[9] Stephen Harding, Viking Mersey: Scandinavian Wirral, West Lancashire and Chester, 2002.

[10] J. Graham-Campbell, The Cuerdale Hoard and Related Viking-age Silver and Gold from Britain and Ireland in the British Museum, London: British Museum Press, 2011.

[11] J. Graham-Campbell (ed.), Viking treasure from the North, Selected papers from The Vikings of the Irish Sea conference, Liverpool, 18–20 May 1990 (Liverpool, National Museums and Galleries on Merseyside, 1992)

[12] For the Battle of Brunanburh see: Michael Livingston (ed.), The Battle of Brunanburh, A Casebook, Exeter, 2011.

[13] E, Ekwall. The Place Names of Lancashire, Manchester, 1922; The Concise Dictionary of English Place-Names, Oxford, 1936.

[14] F. W. Wainwright, The Scandinavians in Lancashire, p. 192.

[15]  E. Ekwall, The Place Names of Lancashire; John Sephton, A Handbook of Lancashire Place Names, Liverpool, 1913; Henry Harrison, The Place Names of the Liverpool District, London, 1898; Geoffrey Leech, The unique heritage of the place-names in north-west England, Lancaster,.

[16] Marc Morris, The Norman Conquest, London, 2012; Peter Rex, 1066, A New History of the Norman Conquest, Cirencester, 2011.

[17] Ibid

[18] The Victoria History of the County of Lancaster, Vol. 1, W. Farrer and J. Brownbill, London. 1906.

[19] S. W. Partington, The Danes in Lancashire, London, 1909, pp. 7- 8.

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

Attila in Gaul, 451

Attila in Gaul, 451

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

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

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

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

Background to the emigration

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

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

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

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

British Brittany

British Brittany

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

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

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

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

Bourges and Déols

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

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

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

Deols in Berry

Deols in Berry

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

Ralph Mathisen expresses the conventional view:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The British defeat

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

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

Emperor Anthemius

Emperor Anthemius

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

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

Riothamus fights the Visigoths

Riothamus fights the Visigoths

The link up with the Romans that didn’t happen

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

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

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

Visigoths

Visigoths

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

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

Where did the British come from?

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

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

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

Treason and exile

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

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

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

Roman Senate

Roman Senate

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

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

Sidonius writes to Riothamus

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

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

Sidonius Apollinaris

Sidonius Apollinaris

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

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

Chronological résumé

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

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

What became of the British?

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

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

Gallo_Roman_and_Burgundian__late_5t

Burgundian and Gallo-Roman

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

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

Wagner's Ring Cycle

Wagner’s Ring Cycle

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

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

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

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

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

Ambrosius Aurelianus

Ambrosius Aurelianus

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

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

The location of the battle

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

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

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

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

The Auvergne neighbouring Burgundy

The Auvergne neighbouring Burgundy

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

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

Conclusion

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

 

visi funny

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Notes and references:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[9] MacGeorge, Warlords.

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

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

[12] Idem

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

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

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

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

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

[18] Dalton, The Letters of Sidonius

In the year 469 (or 470) a large Celtic British army under the leadership of a king called Riothamus was defeated in a battle in Gaul (now France) by the Visigoths under their king Euric. Who Riothamus’s Britons or Bretons were, where they had come from, what they were doing in France and where this battle was actually fought will be the subject of a forthcoming essay. Some serious historians have even suggested that Riothamus was the legendary British King Arthur, although I doubt it. What is clear is that after their defeat at the hands of the Goths the British survivors retreated to Burgundy. They were never heard of again. But why Burgundy?

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

Aetius 'Attila's Nemesis'

Aetius ‘Attila’s Nemesis’

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

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

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

The Kingdom of Burgundy in the late fifth century

The Kingdom of Burgundy in the late fifth century

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

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

Here we can introduce the description of the battle between the British and the Goths in 469/70. It comes from the History of the Goths written by the sixth-century Gothic Roman bureaucrat Jordanes:

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

As this report makes clear, Riothamus and the British survivors of the defeat at the hands of the Goths retreated to Burgundy because it was ‘confederate with the Romans’: ‘Having lost a great part of his army, he fled with all whom he could save, and came to the neighbouring nation of the Burgundians, then confederate with the Romans.’

British Brittany

British Brittany

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

The question remains: why had the defeated British fled to Burgundy? Of course Burgundy offered a safe haven because the Burgundians like the British were Roman allies opposing the threatening Goths. But geographically Burgundy only makes sense if the location of the British defeat at the hands of the Goths took place at a place from where it made more sense to retreat to Burgundy (possibly to Lyon) than it did to flee north to the comparatively safe British settlements in Armorica (now called Brittany).

I will explore these issues in a forthcoming article. Here I would just like to point out that in the mid-sixth century British Celts were intimately involved in the battle for the future of what is now France.

Das Nibelungenlied

Das Nibelungenlied

‘They plunder, they slaughter, and they steal: this they falsely name Empire, and where they make a wasteland, they call it peace.’Tacitus quoting the first-century Caledonian chieftain Calgacus

After the Norman conquest of England in 1066, the English resisted and rebelled for some years, although ultimately in vain. There was the rebellion of the Northern earls and the resistance of Hereward the Wake and Eadric the Wild, to name just three. The response of the conquerors was brutal and involved regional ethnic genocide, such as was meted out during the misnamed Harrying of the North. Ultimately the Norman French kept control of England as the Romans had done in Britain and elsewhere. Tacitus, the first-century Roman senator and historian, quoted the British chieftain Calgacus: ‘They plunder, they slaughter, and they steal: this they falsely name Empire, and where they make a wasteland, they call it peace.’

Eadric 'the Wild' overcomes one of the defenders of William fitzOsbern's wooden castle at Hereford

Eadric ‘the Wild’ overcomes one of the defenders of William fitzOsbern’s wooden castle at Hereford

Both before and after all this mass resistance was finally crushed, individual Englishmen, or small groups of them, would ‘surreptitiously slaughter’ the Norman French ‘the moment their backs were turned’.[1] In the years following the Conquest, as the French expropriation of English lands intensified, large numbers of English thegns fled overseas, many eventually finding their way to the Byzantine empire where they were soon to become the main element in the Varangian Guard.[2] Other thegns plus the vast majority of common English people did not have this option, they had to stay in England. Some took to the woods. The Anglo-Norman monk Orderic Vitalis tells us that the Normans called these ‘resistance fighters’ silvatici – the men of the woods. The English, it is said, called them the same thing in their own language: green men. A tradition of resistance and rebellion against unwanted masters that lies at the heart of the later Robin Hood (‘Robin du Bois’) legend

The French conquerors had to take great care to avoid being attacked by a resentful English population. Wherever they went it had to be accompanied by armed guards. English-born men who collaborated with the invaders had to watch out too. One such was Aethelhelm, the abbot of Abingdon from 1071 to 1084. He had been a monk in the Norman monastery of Jumièges and seemed to have come to despise his own people. While abbot at Abingdon he prohibited the celebration of the feast days of the English saint Aethelwold and the ‘unofficial’ saint Edward the Confessor, referring to them as ‘rustic Englishmen’ (Anglici rustici). The Chronicle of Abingdon Abbey tells us that he:

deemed it necessary never to go about without an armed retinue, for, in the midst of the conspiracies which broke out almost daily against the king, he felt compelled to take measures for his own protection.[3]

To help protect the conquerors, Frenchmen as they called themselves, from being murdered by the English, King William introduced a ‘new law’ known as the ‘murdrum’. Marc Morris writes in The Norman Conquest:

By this law if a Norman was found murdered, the onus was placed on the lord of the murderer to produce him within five days or face a ruinous fine. If the culprit remained at large despite his lord’s financial ruin, the penalty was simply transferred to the local community as a whole, and levied until such time as the murderer was produced… The murdrum fine conjures the vivid picture of Englishmen up and down the country, continuing to vent their anger against their Norman occupiers by picking them off individually whenever the opportunity presented itself.[4]

The circumstances surrounding William’s introduction or reintroduction[5] of the murdrum fine was made clear in the late twelfth century by the Norman Richard fitz Nigel (c.1130 – 1198). Richard was an administrator, writer, and bishop of London. His most famous surviving work is the Dialogue of the Exchequer (Dialogus de Scaccario). [6]

This was composed in the late 1170s…  The work takes the form of a dialogue between a master and a student. It is divided into two parts, the first dealing primarily with the staff and structure of the exchequer, the second with the operation of one of its sessions. Also included is a variety of incidental, often historical, material.[7]

The Norman Conquest

The Norman Conquest

In chapter 10 of the Dialogue, titled ‘What murder is, and why so called?’, Fitz Nigel defined murdrum as ‘the secret death of somebody, whose slayer is not known… ‘. It was ‘hidden’ or ‘occult’. He continues:

Now in the primitive state of the kingdom after the Conquest those who were left of the Anglo-Saxon subjects secretly laid ambushes for the suspected and hated race of the Normans, and, here and there, when opportunity offered, killed them secretly in the woods and in remote places: as vengeance for whom when the kings and their ministers had for some years, with exquisite kinds of tortures, raged against the Anglo-Saxons; and they, nevertheless, had not, in consequence of these measures, altogether desisted…

He then described how ‘a plan was hit upon’ whereby when ‘a Norman was found killed’ a large fine would be imposed on the ‘hundred’ in which he was found. He then describes how this operated.

fitz 2Importantly this murdrum fine was to be imposed only for the murder of a Norman or other Frenchman; murders of Anglo-Saxons, i.e. English, were excluded. The student then asks the master: ‘Ought not the occult death of the Anglo-Saxon, like that of a Norman, to be reputed murder?’. This was obviously a question many English had and probably still were asking.[8] Fitz Nigel’s answer tells us a lot. He replies that originally the murder fine was not meant to be levied for any murder of an Englishman, adding that ‘during the time that the English and Normans have now dwelt together, and mutually married and given in marriage, the nations have become so intermingled that one can hardly tell today I speak of freemen who is of English and who of Norman race’.

He added that this intermingling didn’t of course extend to the majority of English people: ‘the bondsmen who are called villani.’ These villani still being ‘not free, if their lords object, to depart from the condition of their station’. Fitz Nigel was talking here of conditions in England in the late twelfth century when the fine was still being imposed, but by now probably as much as a simple revenue raising device as a blatant tool of a conqueror’s repression, as it had been when introduced.

Answering another question concerning the supposed ‘mercy’ of the Conqueror (i.e. William the Bastard) towards ‘the race of the English’, who were ‘subjugated and suspected by him’, Fitz Nigel answers that he will tell of what he has heard ‘on these matters from the natives themselves’. It is worth quoting this answer in full:

After the conquest of the kingdom, after the just overthrow of the rebels, when the king himself and the king’s nobles went over the new places, a diligent inquiry was made as to who there were who, contending in war against the king had saved themselves through highs. To all of these, and even to the heirs of those who had fallen in battle, all hope of the lands and estates and revenues which they had before possessed was precluded: for it was thought much for them even to enjoy the privilege of being alive under their enemies. But those who, having been called to the war, had not yet come together, or, occupied with family or any kind of necessary affairs had not been present, when, in course of time, by their devoted service they had gained the favour of their lords, they began to have possessions for themselves alone; without hope of hereditary possession, but according to the pleasure of their lords. But as time went on, when, becoming hateful to their masters, they were here and there driven from their possessions, and there was no one to restore what had been taken away, a common complaint of the natives came to the king to the effect that, thus hateful to all and despoiled of their property, they would be compelled to cross to foreign lands. Counsel at length having been taken on these matters, it was decided that what, their merits demanding, a legal pact having been entered into, they had been able to obtain from their masters, should be conceded to them by inviolable right: but that, however, they should claim nothing for themselves by right of heredity from the time of the conquest of the race. And it is manifest with what discreet consideration this provision was made, especially since they would thus be bound to consult their own advantage in every way, and to strive henceforth by devoted service to gain the favour of their lords. So, therefore, whoever, belonging to the conquered race, possesses estates or anything of the kind, he has acquired them not because they seemed to be due to him by reason of heredity, but because his merits alone demanding, or some pact intervening, he has obtained them.

As Fitz Nigel makes abundantly clear (remember these are the words of a French-speaking Norman administrator although supposedly reporting what he had been told by the ‘native’ English), the English could ‘claim nothing for themselves by right of heredity from the time of the conquest of their race’. Anyone ‘belonging to the conquered race’ could only possess ‘estates or anything of the kind’ with the agreement and forbearance of their French lord and never through any ‘heredity right’.

Robin Hood (Robin du Bois)

Robin Hood (Robin du Bois)

To repeat somewhat, the murdrum fine did not extend to any Englishman who was murdered. The law was explicitly introduced to help deter the English from murdering their Norman French conquerors and to punish the English community when they did so. If a Norman lord could prove that the person murdered was English he would avoid paying the fine. This became known as the ‘Presentment of Englishry’ and was not abolished until the late fourteenth century.

England has become a residence for foreigners and the property of strangers. At the present time there is no English earl nor bishop nor abbot; foreigners all they prey upon the riches and vitals of England.

William of Malmesbury, 1135.[9]

 

The Body of Harold Brought Before William the Conqueror, 1844-61 by Brown, Ford Madox at Manchester

The Body of Harold Brought Before William the Conqueror, 1844-61 by Brown, Ford Madox at Manchester

 

 

Notes and references:

[1] Marc Morris, The Norman Conquest, London, 2012, p. 262.

[2] See: https://thewildpeak.wordpress.com/2013/10/20/exile-rather-than-servitude-the-english-leave-for-constantinople/

[3] John Hudson, ed. Historia Ecclesie Abbendonensis: The History of the Church of Abingdon Volume 1, 2007, Oxford.

[4] Morris, Conquest, p. 262-263.

[5] It has been argued by Bruce. R. O’Brien that this murdrum fine had actually already been introduced by King Knut. See: From Mordor to Murdrum, The Preconquest Origin and Norman Revival of the Murder Fine, Speculum, Vol. 71, No. 2, 1996, pp. 321-357. But as Marc Morris rightly says: ‘Even if this is true, and the law was simply revived by William, it does not diminish its value as evidence for conditions in England after the Norman Conquest’, see: Morris, Conquest, p. 385.

[6] E. Amt & S. D. Church, eds. and trans., Dialogus de Scaccario, and Constitutio Domus Regis: The Dialogue of the Exchequer, and the Disposition of the King’s Household, Oxford, 2007; Online English translation:     http://avalon.law.yale.edu/medieval/excheq.asp#b1p10.

[7] John Hudson, ‘Richard fitz Nigel (c.1130–1198)’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, 2004 [http://www.oxforddnb.com/view/article/9619, accessed 15 May 2014]

[8] This law was not abolished until the fourteenth century.

[9] Quoted in the excellent:  Peter Rex, The English Resistance, The underground war against the Normans, 2009,  p.7.

There are times when many of us want to get away from overweening, domineering and intrusive nation-states. But where could we go? My thoughts have recently started to turn towards Belgium and to its great gift to the world.

Before I get to Belgium, which is not a thing I usually like to do, what other possibilities could there be? There is always the dream of a sustainable, organic small-holding in some God-forsaken Welsh valley – a place where I could wear sandals, knit my own yogurt or even open yet another home-made candle shop. Yet that’s still not remote enough to avoid the reach of petty-fogging British bureaucrats and, what’s more, it never stops raining in Wales.

A beach in Thailand or in the Indian province of Kerala perhaps? Hanging out with some old, failed, rock musicians, or more successful Cockney criminals, I could watch the daily arrival of hoards of privileged Western youth trying to be hippies but really just living off daddy’s money. Better not.

So what about an enclave, a place lost in a type of no-man’s land that through some quirk of history has evaded the grasping attentions of power-hungry states? For the sake of the more linguistically challenged, an enclave is ‘an enclosed territory that is culturally distinct from the foreign territory that surrounds it’. Even today there are dozens of such enclaves around.

The Vatican City isn’t at all the type of enclave I’m looking for; after all it’s a state in its own right with its own pretty-boy Swiss army. With my political and religious views it’s also highly unlikely that the Pope would ever ask me over for a couple of beers and to listen to his extensive collection of 1970s British blues-rock. Though that’s a shame as I’m led to understand that Pope Benedict does a passable karaoke version of Deep Purple’s Smoke on the Water – John the Baptist’s water no doubt.

Well then there’s always Llivia, a miniscule parcel of Spanish territory in the Pyrenees, completely surrounded by France. Llivia was created because the French and Spanish couldn’t agree on its status when they negotiated their frontiers in 1659 – in the Treaty of the Pyrenees. But I’ve also rejected Llivia. It is indeed a true enclave but it’s still part of Spain and the Spanish are surely the noisiest people on the planet, as anyone who has had to sit next to a Spanish family on a beach or in a plane can testify.

After considering several other options I found myself, rather unexpectedly, in Belgium. There are three possibilities here. The first, and the one I think I would find most congenial, unfortunately no longer exists.  Yet I can still dream.

Neutral Moresnet

Once Napoleon had been defeated, at the Congress of Vienna in 1815 the victorious powers established a united Netherlands. They couldn’t, however, agree on who should get a tiny 350 hectare sliver of territory lying south west of Aachen. The main issue was that this land, centred on Kelmis (La Calamine), was the site of one of Europe’s richest zinc deposits. So it was designated neutral  – ‘Neutral  Moresnet’ – a true enclave lying between Germany and Holland. The other bits of Moresnet were divided between Prussia and Holland.

But following the Belgian Revolution, the artificial state of Belgium came into existence. A creation ratified by the London Conference of 1830. I like to imagine the scene in London during the negotiations between Prussia, Holland and the ‘Belgians’, all overseen by the victorious British.

First there were the Prussians, no doubt making it clear in their usual gentle and understated way, and with good reason, that it was their Marshal Blücher and his army of Germans who had saved the Duke of Wellington’s bacon at the Battle of Waterloo, enabling Napoleon to be defeated. The Dutch delegation – somewhat peeved that a large chunk of their country was being removed and given over to the tender mercies of the French-speaking Walloon aristocracy, and remembering the days when they had fought so valiantly for their liberty and had become a great maritime and colonial power – well maybe they snuck off at the end of a hard day’s talking and drowned their sorrows with a few good Dutch beers (remember the superior ‘Belgian’ beer didn’t yet exist).  And then there were the French-speaking Walloons. Even though France’s one and only big attempt at European domination had failed, I like to imagine them, like all French at all times, colourfully dressed like pompous peacocks. I’m also sure they also did an admirable imitation, avant la lettre, of Dr. Strangelove’s instinctive Nazi salute and ‘Sieg Heil’. At every opportunity they would have mentioned ‘L’honneur de la France’ – not yet knowing that they were becoming Belgian now and hence in for two hundred years of French ridicule and condescension. In their pride these Frenchmen probably felt that discussing the future of a few rustic Frankish oiks was below them; and in their national collective historical amnesia I guess they didn’t even remember that it was precisely from these German/Ripuarian Frankish areas that the ‘Franks’, who created and gave their name to France, originated. Did they even know, and do the French today know, that Charlemagne himself was a German-speaking German?

And the British, the hosts of the London Conference, what did they make of all this? As always they would likely have been slightly bemused by all the strutting and fretting of ‘Johnny Foreigner’, who didn’t even have the courtesy to speak English properly. They did, however, have the satisfaction of putting one of their own German Royal family on the Belgian throne, King Leopold of Saxe-Coburg-Gotha, (the uncle of Queen Victoria of England), who was to go on to have such great fun in the Congo.

I’m sure this is all a travesty of history. Or is it?

In any case, the London conference decided to keep ‘Neutral Moresnet’ and it became an enclave in Wallonian Belgium, even though its people spoke German, or more correctly Ripuarian Frankish. Neutral Moresnet’s northern tip met the conjunction of Germany, Holland and Belgium at a veritable four-country point at what is now called the ‘Trois Bornes’ in Vaals (Neutral Moresnet having since disappeared), which lies at the staggering height of 323 metres above sea-level in the endearingly named ‘Dutch Alps’.

Neutral Moresnet existed for a hundred years and what a place it must have been! For most of its history it was run as a kind of ‘social’ company town by Francois Mosselman and his successors, the owners of the zinc mine. Taxes and prices were low, wages high and, for much of the time, its population were able to avoid the rapacious desire of both Belgium and Germany to conscript them as cannon-fodder. Such a haven attracted many immigrants and Neutral Moresnet’s population grew ten-fold from just 256 in 1816 to 2,572 in 1858. And why not? People were allowed to have their own breweries and distilleries, although supposedly only for their own use. Eventually there were 60-70 bars and cafes in the main street alone. Truly I think I’ve ‘found my bliss’. But even they couldn’t drink all the alcohol they produced and much of the population turned to smuggling booze to Holland, a good case we might think of taking coals to Newcastle.

Dr. Wilhelm Molly

The enclave printed its own stamps and wrote its own national anthem. In the early twentieth century, under the leadership of a local doctor, Wilhelm Molly, it even tried to make Esperanto the official language of what Dr. Molly proposed to call ‘Amikejo’. The fourth Esperantist Congress decided to make Neutral Moresnet the new seat of its global organization instead of The Hague.

Regrettably, this bucolic, and probably inebriated, existence all came tumbling down when the Germans capitulated in 1918. The Treaty of Versailles granted the enclave to Belgium. So I can’t move there. Yet there’s no need for despair, Belgium, in its genius, has another couple of enclaves to offer.

The Vennbahn Corridor and The German Enclaves in Belgium

I could go and live on a railway line. Starting in 1885 the Germans built the Vennbahn (‘Fenn Rail’) from Aachen to Trois Ponts in the province of Liège. Over the course of the next decades, and after two German invasions of Belgium, the ownership and property of the Vennbahn was granted to Belgium. The only problem is that this separated five German areas from Germany proper. Strictly speaking it’s these German communes that are the enclaves. The present Belgian territory, often no wider than the railway line itself, is not really cut off from the rest of the country; so it doesn’t really match my criteria. Not only this, but I don’t think I could live there. Stretches of the former railway line have been converted into cycle tracks and the mere thought of waking up every morning to the sight of groups of fat, lycra-clad, German cyclists passing my front window is enough to bring on waves of nausea.

Yet Belgium has one last trick up its sleeve – Baarle.

The Baarle Enclaves

Believe it or not just north of the Belgium town of Breda but in the present-day Netherlands there are twenty-two tiny Belgian enclaves in and around the town of Baarle. It gets better. Lying within these Belgian enclaves in Dutch territory (called Baarle-Hertog) there are also seven Dutch sub-enclaves (called Baarle-Nassau), plus another one in Belgium proper. The total surface area is only 2.34 square kilometers with a population of roughly 2,200. The history of these enclaves goes back to 1203, but the important thing for me is that despite lots of changes these wonderful enclaves still exist and I could go and live there. What joy it must have been, and hopefully still is, for the inhabitants of Baarle to drive the functionaries to distraction. I’ll mention just a few of the pleasures I have discovered.

The Baarle frontiers run through houses and shops

The frontiers sometimes run straight through houses and shops, offering great opportunities to irritate the bureaucrats. Dutch and Belgian taxes and child benefits often vary in their generosity. This affords the chance to change your residence as you deem best for you. Residence is defined by in which country your main entrance is located, so if you want to change your residency, and hence your fiscal regime, you can change your front door. People do this. There are houses in Baarle with an inward-opening front entrance in one country and an outward-opening door in the other. If the relative tax merits of Holland and Belgium change you can always reverse the hinges. How the Dutch and Belgian petty bureaucrats must hate this!

And then there is no better way to savour the ludicrous, capricious nature of state borders than to post a letter.  If you post a letter in a Dutch enclave within the Belgian enclave in Holland, to a person down the street in the Belgian enclave itself, your letter will first go to Brussels then by air to Amsterdam before eventually making its way back to Baarle. If, on the other hand, you were to walk a few metres down the street and post your letter in the Belgian enclave it would never leave the town at all.

Back to alcohol. One report I have read tells us that ‘several years ago Belgium and Holland had different licensing hours which the landlord of one of Baarle’s pubs, bisected by the frontier, blatantly exploited by installing a set of doors on each side of the border. When they stopped selling alcohol in Belgium, the patrons hastily left through the Belgian door, only to re-enter immediately through the Dutch one and to carry on boozing.’ It irritated the authorities so much they had to harmonize the licensing laws to do away with this simple pleasure.

What about fireworks and sex? The truly important things in life. Anyone who knows Holland a little will know that you’re only allowed to buy fireworks on Christmas Eve (please tell me if I am wrong); but then the Dutch go absolutely crazy with them. In Belgium you can buy them all year round, so the firework trade in Baarle thrives. ‘The Dutch bits of the town respond with numerous sex shops – not allowed near public buildings in Belgium, but thriving on the Dutch territory, next door to the Belgian town council in Baarle.’

Finally, I love the fact that in the town there are ‘two mayors (Belgian and Dutch), two sets of political parties, two town councils, two fire brigades trying to beat each other to the fire, two post offices, two refuse collection services. It is the only town in the world where police forces of two different countries share not only the same police station but also the same offices, with filing cabinets painted in the colours of Dutch or Belgian national flags.’

Belgium and its Languages

Belgium is, of course, an artificial creation, a place where the French-speaking Walloons, the Flemish, and the oft forgotten Germans in the east of the country, have been living unhappily together for nearly two hundred years. But the Belgian enclaves have been a real and great gift that Belgium has given to the world; along with… well I can’t think of anything else at the moment.

So the Belgian enclaves of Baarle in Holland are the places for me. Now I only need to persuade my family of their merits.

There is no doubt that the Normans who arrived in England in 1066 with William the Conqueror, and those who followed in subsequent years, were, as Thomas Paine  so aptly put it in Common Sense in 1776, a group of “armed banditti”. The “French bastard” William was “the principal ruffian of some restless gang”.

The Norman Conquest was a disaster for the English people

These thugs quickly ejected the vast bulk of English aldermen and thegns from their land and divvied up the spoils between themselves. They built castles to protect themselves from a cowed, though still resentful and seething, English population. More importantly the castles also served to ratchet up the level of fear and intimidation. In the long years and centuries that followed they systematically set about reducing the English to de facto or de jure serfdom. All this required periodic doses of repression and violence, a thing these brutal, (though when they really had to fight, not very chivalrous), armed and armoured knights on their huge war-horses loved to do.

England was a conquered and occupied country. To use the language of the seventeenth century Levellers, it had fallen under the “Norman Yoke”. For sure there was resistance but it would be many centuries before any amount of ordinary English people would  be able to make serious attempts to crawl out from under this cruel oppression – some might argue that they have yet to succeed.

Honi soit qui mal y pense

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

The English and their language were much despised, as indeed later on would be the Welsh, Irish and Scots as well.

At the end of the thirteenth century, Robert of Gloucester could write:

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

The British Coat of Arms makes it clear who is in command

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

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

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

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

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

Thugs fighting thugs

Simon de Montfort – a very big French thug indeed

On the political level one could, I think with some justification, regard the whole of the thirteenth century as being a period of thugs fighting thugs. Once these Normans and French had divvied up the spoils, and when they weren’t preoccupied with trying to squeeze more and more surplus out of the enserfed native population, they were fighting each other, both in England and abroad. At home from the barons forcing King John to sign the Magna Carta in 1215, through the Second Barons’ War between 1264 and 1267 and even including Edward I  seeking dominance in Britain at the turn of the century by fighting the Welsh and the Scots. Abroad the various wars fought by the “English” Plantagenet and Angevin kings and barons on French soil from the time of the Conquest right up at least to the Battle of Agincourt in 1415 (and arguably until the final loss of Calais in 1558), were also essentially dynastic fights between groups of “strenuous” French-speaking Frenchmen.

Regarding the Magna Carta and all that, the British human rights barrister Geoffrey Robinson once accurately commented:

The appearance of ‘rights’ as a set of popular propositions limiting the sovereign is usually traced to Magna Carta in 1215, although the document had nothing to do with the liberty of individual citizens: it was signed by a feudal king who was feuding with thuggish barons and was forced to accede to their demands.

Very true. But it needs to be added that with the help of the Pope he soon got out of even his limited commitments to the barons.

At the local level in England, the kings, barons and knights fought each other to get more land (the basis of medieval power) and to be allowed more “liberty” to extract the maximum surplus from their feudal dependants with the minimum possible truck or hindrance from either the king or from other lords. In fact “Liberty” originally and literally meant the freedom to exploit properties and people. They fought each other with swords and axes in the fields and, with inexhaustible alacrity, with words in the courts, the words of course being French; although court proceedings were usually recorded in Latin.

A Shropshire tale

My concern in this essay is just one such local event. The setting is the thirteenth century in the Welsh borderland (March) county of Shropshire. It is a story of local thugs fighting each other and fighting King John. It concerns two pretty representative thuggish French families: the FitzWarins and the Corbets, one thuggish Welsh family – that of Gruffydd ap Gwenwynwyn, Prince of Powys – as well as the King himself.

Let’s allow Winston Churchill to eloquently summarize the story:

Fulk Fitz Warin, the third of that name, was a Shropshire knight, arbitrarily deprived or ‘Disseissed’ of his land by King John (1199-1216) in the first decade of the 13th century. His exploits during the years of rebellion and ultimately successful struggle to regain his estates was recounted in a popular French Romance, probably written to sustain the morale of the family when the Fitz Warin patrimony was again in danger in the 1250’s. At that time Fulk Fitz Warin IV purchased from the Royal Chancery a writ of ‘novel disseissen’ by order of which, in January 1256, the Sheriff of Shropshire brought before a party of royal justices on circuit at Shrewsbury, a leading Shropshire baron names Thomas Corbet, together with a jury who were required to say whether Thomas had dispossessed Fulk in the recent past of 120 acres of arable land in Alberbury. The jury told the justices that the case had risen from a ‘love-day’ held on the borders of Wales to settle a minor war between Thomas Corbet and the Prince of Powys, at which Fulk, as a tenant of Thomas, had been present with the rest of the local gentry. In the heat of argument, Thomas had called Fulk ‘a traitor as his father was to king John’ and Fulk had replied that, after such an insult, he would renounce his homage to Thomas and ‘never hold land from him again’. Thomas had taken Fulk at his word and occupied his land but the jury replied to questions from the justices that Fulk had not renounced his land in due legal form: it had all been mere feudal histrionics. So damages of 40 shillings were awarded against Thomas and Fulk recovered his land.

What a great story! I’ll discuss the “French Romance” later; but first a little background on the three border families involved.

Hugh Le Corbeau. Founder of the English Corbets

The Corbets were one of the leading marcher families in Shropshire.  Hugh “Le Courbeau” (The Raven) came from Caux in Normandy, he had perhaps been with William the Conqueror at Hastings. He was rewarded with extensive lands in Shropshire that had previously belonged to King Edward ‘the Confessor’, as it says in Domesday Book. He built his castle near Westbury in Shropshire and called it Caus after his Norman home. At first he held his fees from Roger de Montgomerie, who William had created first Earl of Shrewbury in 1074. But when Roger’s grandson Robert, the third Earl, rebelled against Henry I he forfeited his title in 1102. Hugh  le Corbeau’s descendants then held directly from the Crown and much of the history of Shropshire for a long time thereafter can be characterized as various baronial and knightly families alternately fighting each other and marrying each other, trying to grab as much land for themselves as they could following Robert de Montgomerie’s removal from the scene. One of these fractious, war-like families was the Corbets, who by the mid thirteenth century had consolidated large feudal holdings in Shropshire and elsewhere. The head of the senior branch was the Thomas Corbet mentioned by Winston Churchill.

The next person we need to consider must I guess for reasons of ethnic even-handedness be called a Welsh thug: Gruffydd ap Gwenwynwyn.  He was a Welsh prince who was lord of part of southern Powys. Powys being that portion of central Wales adjoining Shropshire. Gruffydd was the son of Gwenwynwyn ap Owain but his mother was Thomas Corbet’s sister Margaret. Hence he was Thomas Corbet’s nephew. Under pressure from the rise of the Prince of Gwynedd, Llywelyn the Great, Gruffydd, although originally a Welsh “nationalist”, increasingly allied himself with the English kings. He eventually even adopted the Norman family name of De la Pole – after the family’s main English manor of Pool (present day Welshpool in Shropshire).

Whittington Castle as it probably was. The cause of Fulk’s dispute with King John

Finally, there is the FitzWarin family, who probably arrived in both England and Shropshire only in the twelfth century. Not initially as powerful as the Corbets, they nevertheless soon became involved in the usual and never-ending power battles the border barons fought among themselves. The family traced its descent from the eponymous Warin de Metz. Either Warin, or just possibly some of his ancestors, came to England from Lorraine in eastern France. Warin, so the story goes, was victorious in a tournament, and he thereby won the right to marry Mellet Peverell, the heiress to the Whittington manor near Oswestry in Shrophire.

But throughout the second half of the twelfth century Whittington was being occupied by the Welshman Roger de Powys and later by his son Meurig (Morys) FitzRoger, so the FitzWarin family weren’t able to take possession. Fulk FitzWarin III, the great grandson of Warin, continued his family’s quest for Whittington. He paid a fine of £100 for the manor to King John but John refused to reverse his support for Meurig of Powys. “Exasperated” Fulk III “waged a guerrilla rebellion against the king between 1200 and 1203. His fifty-two adherents included his brothers William, Philip, and John, some Fitzwarine family tenants, and many younger sons of prominent Shropshire families. The king sent Hubert de Burgh with 100 knights to respond to this threat, but finally pardoned Fulk and his followers on 11 November 1203. Fulk paid 200 marks and finally received Whittington Castle in October 1204.”

A Minor War

The arguments and “minor war” between Gruffydd and Thomas Corbet mentioned by Churchill started in 1241 and initially concerned the question of the entitlement to Margaret Corbet’s dowry, which included a “tenement” at Caus, but eventually escalated to other matters in several different parts of the country.

Janet Meisel, the historian of these border barons tells us:

The longest and most complex of all Thomas’s legal battles began in 1241 with a suit between him and his sister, Margaret, who by then was the widow of Gwenwynwyn, prince of Powis, and mother of Griffin (sic) ap Gwenwynwyn. At first the only issue was Margaret’s dower, but by 1247 Griffin became involved in the dispute and the quarrel quickly grew to include such matters as alleged breaches of the peace by both men in several counties and a variety of land disputes ranging from Derbyshire in the east to Wales in the West. By 1255 the dispute had grown so large that the king appointed a special commission to investigate the various contentions of Thomas and Griffin, but this commission… appears to have met with little success.

In The Antiquities of Shropshire Robert W Eyton tells us:

On May 9, 1255, Justices are appointed to try an action of novel disseizin preferred by Thomas Corbet against Griffin Wenunwin (sic) for a tenement in Caus.

Novel disseizin just means someone has recently seized the land. Evidently Gruffydd had seized the tenement in Caus from Thomas, no doubt claiming it was part of his mother’s dowry. Further we read:

On July 5th, 1255, another Patent appoints three Justices to set to rights the wrongs and strifes which subsisted between these same persons…

Love-days

But obviously at least once Thomas Corbet and Gruffydd had tried to settle their disagreements without resort to violence or the courts of law. They had called a Jour d’Amour – a Love-Day – as Churchill rightly said. Finding their origins in Anglo-Saxon times, these days weren’t always, or even mostly, meetings of reconciliation freely decided upon by the antagonists, they usually had a certain form or process and were generally agreed upon in a court. It is quite possible that the Justices mentioned above had agreed to this love-day.

It worked as follows (I take this from John of Oxford’s La Court Baron; Les Encoupemenz en Court de Baron of 1265): The defendant (in this case that would be Gruffydd) would ask the court steward or justice for a jour d’amour with the plaintiff (Thomas Corbet). “We grant it you”, replies steward, “so that you be at one between now and the next court”. As Michael Clanchy writes:

A ‘loveday’ … is therefore a day of reconciliation between disputants. The court does not adjudicate this reconciliation, nor does it inquire what its terms are; the court’s only function is to fix a time limit within which agreement is reached.

The court’s lack of responsibility is explained by the principle that ‘pactum legem vincit et amor judicium’ . The request of the steward for a day of reconciliation superceeds the law and the subsequent ‘bond of love’ between (the disputants) eliminates further action by the court.

When the court reconvenes the steward would ask the parties: “How then has business gone between you? Are you at one?” Which Michael Clanchy explains can be “ literally translated as ‘Are you one people or kindred? (une gent or une genz)’” If the plaintiff answers “Yes, sir” then that’s an end to it, except for the court’s fee.

The loveday makes the contending parties into une genz just as the marriage ceremony does. Like marriage, a loveday should be sealed with a kiss (the kiss of peace), blessed by a priest, and witnessed by mutual friends and kinsmen.

If there is no agreement, as apparently there wasn’t between Thomas and Gruffydd, the parties could go back to the courts. We know that this particular petty, though representative, dispute dragged on till Thomas’s death. But what is of importance to our little story here is that such love-days had to be witnessed “by mutual friends and kinsmen”. Fulk FitzWarin was one of these and following the love-day Thomas Corbet had seized Alberbury manor from him. Why?

Corbet’s insult and Fulk’s day in court

The Assize-Roll of the January 1256 Shrewbury Eyre Court tells us what had happened and why, I’ll quote this at some length:

An Assize comes on, to make recognition whether Thomas corbet hath disseized Fulk Fitz Warin, junior, of his free tenement in Alberbyr, viz. of about 120 acres.

Thomas says that the land is of his Fief, and that the Plaintiff, before many Magnates and Lieges of the King, rendered back his homage and the said land to the Defendant, and positively declared that he never would have either that land or any other land of the Defendant. For this reason the Defendant put himself in seizing of the said land, as it was lawful for him to do, the moment that Fulk abandoned it to him

Fulk says (in reply) that he never rendered back land nor homage, and asks judgement on the special point, – whether, even if it were true that under anger and excitement he had verbally rendered back his homage, yet had not subsequently changed his state, but had continuously remained in seizing, – whether it was competent to the Defendant to disseize him on the ground of a mere word. As to his never having, spontaneously, and of goodwill, surrendered the land, he put himself on the Assize. (ie appeals to the Jury).

The Jury declares that a certain day of reconciliation ( a love-day or dies amoris) was fixed upon between Thomas Corbet and Griffin ap Wennonwyn, touching several matters of contention; – that many Magnates met together on the occasion, and that Fulk, the present plaintiff, was of their number; – that Fulk and Thomas Corbet quarrelled together; – that Corbet called Fulk, Fulk’s father, a Traitor; – that Fulk announced to Corbet, that, seeing he charged his father with such a crime, he (Fulk Junior) would render back his homage to Corbet and would never hold land of him again.

The Jury, being asked (by the Court) whether Fulk, in his own person, made the said surrender, say that he did not; indeed that he made the surrender through Hamo le Strange.

The Jurors, being further asked whether Fulk, after he sent the message, returned to his seizin, say ‘Yes’, – and that Fulk is still in seizin of the Castle of Alberbyr, which is the capital Manor pertaining to the said land; and that Fulk caused eight days’ of ploughing to be done on the land, in the interval before Corbet ejected him.

The court decides that Fulk do recover his seizin.

Similar to all such martial societies who viewed themselves as heroic, going back at least to Homer’s Myceneans, these Norman Frenchmen were extremely concerned, touchy and tetchy about their honour and that of their family – however fictive this honour might had been in reality. Hence, in Churchill’s words, Fulk’s “feudal histrionics” following the insult to his father..

A view of Alberbury Church and Castle in the eighteenth century

But Fulk wasn’t stupid, he knew that he held his fee at Alberbury (I will use the modern spelling) not direct from the king but from Thomas Corbet. He had its use only so long as he did homage to Thomas and if he withdrew his homage Thomas could repossess or seize the property. And this he had done. Fulk claimed that it was all done in “anger and excitement” and was at pains to stress that after the love-day he had gone back to Alberbury and “caused eight days’ of ploughing to be done on the land”.

Such feudal fees were slowly but surely changing into hereditary possessions (what we now call cases of freehold or legally more accurately  “fee simple absolute in possession”). Fulk won the case. This was a pivotal period in the evolution of the law of property in England as it moved away from purely feudal holdings to a more modern form of absolute and inheritable private property.  As the historian of the thirteenth century Alan Harding noted:

The real meaning of the case is that even in the marches, where military feudalism lasted longer than elsewhere, the common law had deprived lords of the freedom to decide, in the company of their vassals in their honour courts and love-days, who should and should not hold lands from them.

Even though the 1256 court found in Fulk’s favour, Thomas Corbet refused to accept the verdict and continued to try to hold on to Alberbury. The case continued for years. It was probably to strengthen his case that Fulk commissioned a Norman French Trouvère at Ludlow to write the “French Romance” of his family and its long connections with Alberbury to which Winston Churchill referred. It is usually simply called Fouke le Fitzwarin  or The History of Fulk FitzWarine. The Fulk of the tale is our Fulk’s father generally referred to as Fulk FitzWarin III while his son of the 1256 Assizes is known as Fulk FitzWarin  IV. I will simply call them from now on senior and junior respectively.

The History of Fulk FitzWarine starts with a long history of the FitzWarin family,  its deeds and exemplary exploits from the time of the eponymous Warin de Metz up to the times of Fulk FitzWarin senior and then it tells us why King John had such an enmity towards him and the background to Thomas Corbet’s insulting Fulk junior during his love-day with Gruffydd by suggesting that he was a “traitor”. While obviously somewhat self-serving this part of the romance story is worthy of retelling.

Honour and feuds

As a boy Fulk senior was brought up in Henry the second’s Royal household at Windsor Castle, where he and the future King John were playmates. The two supposedly had a falling out at a young age while playing chess. Let me let the romance speak for itself. First I will quote it in the original Norman French; once again just to illustrate the point about the French culture and language of all England’s ruling class at the time:

Fouke le jeouene fust norry ou les iiij. fitz Henré le roy, e mout amé de tous, estre de Johan; quar yl soleit sovent medler ou Johan. Avint qe Johan e Fouke tut souls sistrent en une chambre, juauntz a eschekes. Johan prist le eschelker, si fery Fouke grant coupe. Fouke se senti blescé, leva le piée, si fery Johan en my le pys, qe sa teste vola contre la pareye, qu’il devynt tut mat e se palmea. Fouke fust esbay ; mès lée fust qe nul fust en la chambre, si eux deus noun, si frota les oryles Johan, e revynt de palmesoun, e s’en ala al roy, son piere, e fist une grant pleynte. ” Tès-tey, maveys,” fet le roy ; ” tous jours estes conteckaunt. Si Fouke nulle chose si bien noun vus fist, ce fust par vostre desert demeyne.” E apela son mestre, e ly fist batre fynement e bien pur sa pleynte. Johan fust molt corocée à Fouke; quarunqe pus ne le poeitamer de cuer.

In modern English:

Young Fulk was brought up with the four sons of King Henry, and much beloved was he of them all save John, for oft did he quarrel with John. And it chanced on a day that John and Fulk were alone in a chamber playing at the chess. And John seized the chessboard, and gave Fulk a heavy blow. And Fulk felt himself hurt, and he raised his foot, and kicked John in the chest, so that his head struck against the wall, and he became all powerless, and fell down senseless. And Fulk was sore afraid, but glad was he that no one was in the chamber save themselves alone, and he rubbed the ears of John, and he recovered from his faintness, and went to the King, his father, and made sore plaint. And the King said, “Silence, fellow, you are ever quarrelling. If Fulk has done by you aught but what is good, it must needs have been by your own desert.” And he called his master, and caused him to beat him soundly and well, because of his plaint. And John was sore angered against Fulk, so that never after could he bear good will toward him.

Henry 2 and Eleanor of Aquitaine – Fulk was brought up in Henry’s court with Henry’s four sons, including the future King John

The veracity or otherwise of this retrospectively amusing vignette is probably beyond recovery; the romance is after all an “official” family hagiography. But as it was probably written sometime between 1256 and 1264 and its content most likely derived from the telling of Fulk senior’s son Fulk FitzWarin junior himself, and was thus just still within living memory, I don’t see any reason to discount it. It’s also possible that Fulk senior was still alive at the time of writing, though we are told he was by now blind. Regardless of its truth, the episode does I think illustrate the very personal and vindictive preoccupations of these people, from the king on down. Insults or damage to honour were not forgotten and quite often led to long and bloody feuds.

According to the History of Fulk FitzWarine this slight denting of his honour is the reason why King John, when he became King in 1199 on the death of his brother Richard “Coeur de Lion”, reconfirmed the grant of the manor of Whittington to the FitzWarin family’s old enemy Meurig FitzRoger of Powys and thus provoked Fulk senior to renounce his feudal homage. We are told that Fulk senior said this to King John:

Sir King, you are my liege lord, and I am bound by fealty to you the whiles I am in your service, and as long as I hold lands of you, and you ought to maintain my rights, but you fail me in my rights and the common law. Never was he a good king who, in his courts, denied the law unto his free tenants. Wherefore I relinquish my homage to you.

An outlaw but no Robin Hood 

Fulk became an outlaw, killed Meurig (Morys) and spent the next three years on the run, trying to evade, and periodically killing, all the forces the furious and vengeful John sent to capture and kill him. He went to Brittany, France, Scandinavia, Spain and the Saracen Barbary coast; just like Odysseus he slew a dragon, fought enemies and won renown and ladies’ hearts. On one of his visits back to England he captured John and, under duress, extorted pardons and restitutions from him, only to see John renege on his promises. He even held a love-day with the king. I can only recommend you read the whole ripping yarn.

As I have mentioned, in 1203 Fulk was finally reconciled with John and able to take possession of Whittington. He remained in the king’s peace for some years. In fact he “accompanied the king to Ireland in 1210 and was frequently with him during the next few years, including the king’s interlude in France during the summer of 1214. However, in 1215 Fulk joined the barons who were rebelling against the king, and although by February 1216 he was reconciled to the crown, mistrust of him lingered”.

The History of Fulk Fitz-Warine

There have been attempts to present Fulk senior as a type of Robin Hood; taking from the rich and giving to the poor, while fighting the tyranny of an evil king.

At the literary level they are many similarities between the early stories of Robin Hood and the romance of Fulk, they seem to have arisen in the same cultural milieu. But Fulk was no Robin Hood. He was just another Norman French thug fighting for local dominance and more land, not only with his local adversaries but also with the arch-thug- in-chief – in the person of the (French-speaking) King John. Even in the romance itself, which does of course try to cast its hero in the best possible light, there is nothing that implies that Fulk had any benevolent aspirations towards the poor and oppressed, or wanted to change an inequitable and repressive system nor indeed had any other motive than to get back his estates. What else should we expect? It would be completely anachronistic to suggest any of this for a Norman marcher baron such as Fulk.

Kisses of Peace and Monty Python

That was and is in some partial way the real history of England, and not just the history of the thirteenth century! The rulers of England might occasionally meet for a love-day in a field in England’s green and pleasant land and exchange a thuggish kiss of peace, but they never have been concerned with the bulk of the English people except insofar as they can squeeze them just a little more.

I leave the last words to the inimitable Monty Python. A scene from the film Monty Python and the Holy Grail:

Arthur: I am your king.

Woman: I didn’t know we had a king. I didn’t vote for you.

Arthur: People don’t vote for king.

Woman: How did you become king?

Arthur: The Lady of the Lake. Her arms clad in the purest shimmering samite held aloft Excalibur from the bosom of the water signifying by divine authority that I, Arthur, was to carry Excalibur. That is why I am your king.

Man: Listen. Strange women lying in ponds distributing swords is no basis for a system of government. Supreme executive power derives from a mandate from the masses, not from a farcial aquatic ceremony.

Arthur: Be quiet.

Man: You can’t expect to wield supreme executive power just because some watery tart threw a sword at you.

Arthur: Shut up.

The English didn’t shut up, but it didn’t seem to make much difference for many hundreds of years. A E Housman concluded one of his poems in The Shropshire Lad as follows:

And God will save the Queen.

Indeed.

Sources and References

Alan Harding, England in the Thirteenth Century, Cambridge, 1993; Robert William Eyton, Antiquities of Shropshire, J.R. Smith, 1858; Janet Meisel,  Barons of the Welsh Frontier: the Corbet, Pantulf and FitzWarin Families, 1066–1272, 1980; Winston Churchill, A History Of The English Speaking PeoplesVolume I, 1956;  John of Oxford, La Court Baron; Les Encoupemenz en Court de Baron, 1265; Michael Clanchy, Law and Love in the Middle Ages, in Disputes and Settlements: Law and Human Relations in the West edited John Bossy,Cambridge UP, 1983; The History of Fulk Fitz-Warine, Translation by Alice Kemp-Welch, Cambridge, Ontario, 2001; The History of Fulk Fitz-Warine, Thomas Wright, London, 1855;

‘Her Aethelstan cyning laedde fyrde to Brunanbyrig’ – 937 Anglo Saxon Chronicle ‘E’

Most historians of England maintain that the Battle of Brunanburh in 937 was a decisive event in the creation of England. The battle pitted Æthelstan, the English king of Wessex and Mercia, supported by some Norse mercenaries, against a temporary coalition of Scandinavians, Cumbrians (the Strathclyde British) and Scots. The victory that the English achieved ‘led to‘ the  England we know today, at least geographically, and hence Æthelstan is often called the first ‘King of England’.

Brunburgh Bromborough on the Wirral

Brunburgh Bromborough on the Wirral

I don’t want to go into the context of the battle, its course or its location here. Suffice it to say that most of the evidence, place names, topography and the political and military context, points to it being fought near to Bromborough on the Wirral peninsula, in what is now Cheshire.

Embedded within the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle under the year 937 is an Old English poem usually known not surprisingly as ‘The Battle of Brunanburh’. I reproduce this wonderful poem below, followed by two modern translations: one by Alfred Lord Tennyson (he of ‘into the valley of death… ‘), plus another rather free (but good) rendition of more recent date.

But first like all poems it should be heard. Click here (or see below) to hear the original Old English poem, with Alfred Lord Tennyson’s words as subtitles. Please note this is only part of the poem. Please note too that the commentary of the inimitable Brian Blessed hosts an horrendous hoard of heinous historical howlers.

Or try this version: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zfaEGU45lKA

Even though it helps that I understand German as well as English, if any native English speaker listens to this poem a few times I think they will find much of it becomes clear.

Much as I love our modern English language – its wonderful variety, its mixture of Germanic roots, Norse words, French imports and much more – when I listen to this poem I can’t help wishing we English still spoke like this. No highfalutin French frippery, no repressive legal mumbo jumbo, just earthy, no-nonsense speech and poetry.

Battle of Brunanburh by Skworus

Battle of Brunanburh by Skworus

If the Battle of Brunanburh in some way helped to ‘make England’, it was unmade little more than a hundred years later at another battle: Hastings in 1066. Some rather benighted historians used to portray the Norman conquest of England as an ultimately positive event for England and even the rest of Britain once the ‘initial’ horrors were over. It was of course nothing of the sort. The Norman French destroyed much of what was England, its language, its culture, and replaced it with a brutal centuries-long feudalism under which the people of England became serfs in the service of French masters. It’s a heritage we still live with today.

If King Harold Godwinson hadn’t rather rashly immediately engaged the Norman duke William the Bastard when tired and depleted after seeing off the Norse of Harold Hardrada at Stamford Bridge, or if the English had won at Hastings (it was a close-run thing), then just maybe we’d still talk like the poem.

I am of Welsh, English and Norse ancestry, but one can but dream. It’s enough to make me want to go and live in Scandinavia.

bruneburg 

The Battle of Brunanburh – in Old English/Anglo-Saxon

Her Aethelstan cyning, eorla dryhten,

beorna beag-giefa, and his brothor eac,

Eadmund aetheling, ealdor-langetir

geslogon aet saecce sweorda ecgum

ymbe Brunanburh. Bord-weall clufon,

heowon heathu-linde hamora lafum

eaforan Eadweardes, swa him ge-aethele waes

fram cneo-magum thaet hie aet campe oft

with lathra gehwone land ealgodon,

hord and hamas. Hettend crungon,

Scotta leode and scip-flotan,

faege feollon. Feld dennode

secga swate siththan sunne upp

on morgen-tid, maere tungol,

glad ofer grundas, Godes candel beorht,

eces Dryhtnes, oth seo aethele gesceaft

sag to setle. Thaer laeg secg manig

garum agieted, guma Northerna

ofer scield scoten, swelce Scyttisc eac,

werig, wiges saed.

 

West-Seaxe forth

andlange daeg eorod-cystum

on last legdon lathum theodum,

heowon here-flieman hindan thearle

mecum mylen-scearpum. Mierce ne wierndon

heardes hand-plegan haeletha nanum

thara-the mid Anlafe ofer ear-gebland

on lides bosme land gesohton,

faege to gefeohte. Fife lagon

on tham camp-stede cyningas geonge,

sweordum answefede, swelce seofone eac

eorlas Anlafes, unrim herges,

flotena and Scotta. Thaere gefliemed wearth

North-manna brego, niede gebaeded,

to lides stefne lytle weorode;

cread cnear on flot, cyning ut gewat

on fealone flod, feorh generede.

Swelce thaere eac se froda mid fleame com

on his cyththe north, Constantinus,

har hilde-rinc. Hreman ne thorfte

meca gemanan; he waes his maga sceard,

freonda gefielled on folc-stede,

beslaegen aet saecce, and his sunu forlet

on wael-stowe wundum forgrunden,

geongne aet guthe. Gielpan ne thorfte

beorn blanden-feax bill-gesliehtes,

eald inwitta, ne Anlaf thy ma;

mid hira here-lafum hliehhan ne thorfton

thaet hie beadu-weorca beteran wurdon

on camp-stede cumbol-gehnastes,

gar-mittunge, gumena gemotes,

waepen-gewrixles, thaes hie on wael-felda

with Eadweardes eaforan plegodon.

 

Gewiton him tha North-menn naegled-cnearrum,

dreorig darotha laf, on Dinges mere

ofer deop waeter Dyflin secan,

eft Ira lang aewisc-mode.

Swelce tha gebrothor begen aetsamne,

cyning and aetheling, cyththe sohton,

West Seaxna lang, wiges hremge.

Leton him behindan hraew bryttian

sealwig-padan, thone sweartan hraefn

hyrned-nebban, and thone hasu-padan,

earn aeftan hwit, aeses brucan,–

graedigne guth-hafoc, and thaet graege deor,

wulf on wealda.

 

Ne wearth wael mare

on thys ig-lande aefre gieta

folces gefielled beforan thissum

sweordes ecgum, thaes-the us secgath bec,

eald uthwitan, siththan eastan hider

Engle and Seaxe upp becomon,

ofer brad brimu Britene sohton,

wlance wig-smithas, Wealas ofercomon,

eorlas ar-hwaete eard begeaton.

 

Alfred Lord Tennyson’s The Battle of Brunanburh

ATHELSTAN King,
Lord among Earls,
Bracelet-bestower and
Baron of Barons,
He with his brother,
Edmund Atheling,
Gaining a lifelong
Glory in battle,
Slew with the sword-edge
There by Brunanburh,
Brake the shield-wall,
Hew’d the lindenwood,
Hack’d the battleshield,
Sons of Edward with hammer’d brands.

Theirs was a greatness
Got from their Grandsires—
Theirs that so often in
Strife with their enemies
Struck for their hoards and their hearths and their homes.

Bow’d the spoiler,
Bent the Scotsman,
Fell the shipcrews
Doom’d to the death.
All the field with blood of the fighters
Flow’d, from when first the great
Sun-star of morningtide,
Lamp of the Lord God
Lord everlasting,
Glode over earth till the glorious creature
Sank to his setting.

There lay many a man
Marr’d by the javelin,
Men of the Northland
Shot over shield.
There was the Scotsman
Weary of war.

We the West-Saxons,
Long as the daylight
Lasted, in companies
Troubled the track of the host that we hated,
Grimly with swords that were sharp from the grindstone,
Fiercely we hack’d at the flyers before us.

Mighty the Mercian,
Hard was his hand-play,
Sparing not any of
Those that with Anlaf,
Warriors over the
Weltering waters
Borne in the bark’s-bosom,
Drew to this island:
Doom’d to the death.

Five young kings put asleep by the sword-stroke,
Seven strong Earls of the army of Anlaf
Fell on the war-field, numberless numbers,
Shipmen and Scotsmen.

Then the Norse leader.
Dire was his need of it,
Few were his following,
Fled to his warship
Fleeted his vessel to sea with the king in it.
Saving his life on the fallow flood.

Also the crafty one,
Constantinus,
Crept to his North again,
Hoar-headed hero!

Slender warrant had
He to be proud of
The welcome of war-knives—
He that was reft of his
Folk and his friends that had
Fallen in conflict,
Leaving his son too
Lost in the carnage,
Mangled to morsels,
A youngster in war!

Slender reason had
He to be glad of
The clash of the war-glaive—
Traitor and trickster
And spurner of treaties—
He nor had Anlaf
With armies so broken
A reason for bragging
That they had the better
In perils of battle
On places of slaughter—
The struggle of standards,
The rush of the javelins,
The crash of the charges,
The wielding of weapons—
The play that they play’d with
The children of Edward.

Then with their nail’d prows
Parted the Norsemen, a
Blood-redden’d relic of
Javelins over
The jarring breaker, the deep-sea billow,
Shaping their way toward Dyflen again,
Shamed in their souls.

Also the brethren,
King and Atheling,
Each in his glory,
Went to his own in his own West-Saxonland,
Glad of the war.

Many a carcase they left to be carrion,
Many a livid one, many a sallow-skin—
Left for the white-tail’d eagle to tear it, and
Left for the horny-nibb’d raven to rend it, and
Gave to the garbaging war-hawk to gorge it, and
That gray beast, the wolf of the weald.

Never had huger
Slaughter of heroes
Slain by the sword-edge—
Such as old writers
Have writ of in histories—
Hapt in this isle, since
Up from the East hither
Saxon and Angle from
Over the broad billow
Broke into Britain with
Haughty war-workers who
Harried the Welshman, when
Earls that were lured by the
Hunger of glory gat
Hold of the land.

 

The Battle of Brunanburh – translated by John Osbourne

Then Aethelstan, king, Thane of eorls,

ring-bestower to men, and his brother also,

the atheling Edmund, lifelong honour

struck in battle with sword’s edge

at Brunanburh. Broke the shieldwall,

split shields with swords.

Edward’s sons, the issue of princes

from kingly kin, oft on campaign

their fatherland from foes defended,

hoard and home. Crushed the hated ones,

Scots-folk and ship-men

fated fell. The field flowed with blood,

I have heard said, from sun-rise

in morningtime, as mighty star

glided up overground, God’s bright candle,

– the eternal Lord’s – till that noble work

sank to its setting. There lay scores of men

destroyed by darts, Danish warrior

shot over shield. So Scots also

wearied of war. West-Saxons went forth

from morn till night the mounted warriors

pursued enemy people,

the fleeing forces were felled from behind

with swords new-sharpened. The Mercians spurned not

hard hand-play with heroes

that accompanied Anlaf over sea’s surge,

in ship’s shelter sought land,

came fated to fight. Five lay dead

on the killing field, young kings

put to sleep with the sword; so also seven

of Anlaf’s eorls, and unnumbered slain

among sea-men and Scots. So was routed

the Northmen’s lord, by need forced

to take ship with few troops.

compelled to sea , the king set out

on fallow flood, saved his life.

So also the wise one fled away

to his northern country, Constantine,

hoary battle-man; he need not boast

of that meeting of swords. He was severed from kin,

forfeiting friends on that field,

slain at war, and his son left

on the death-ground, destroyed by his wounds,

young warrior. He need not brag,

the white-haired warrior, about sword-wielding,

the artful one, nor Anlaf either;

With their army smashed they need not sneer

that their battle-work was better

on the battlefield where banners crashed

and spears clashed in that meeting of men,

that weapon-wrestle, when on the death-field

they played with Edward’s offspring.

The Northmen went off in nail-bound ships,

sad survivors of spears, on Ding’s mere,

over deep water seeking Dublin,

Ireland again, ashamed in their hearts.

So both brothers together,

king and atheling, their country sought,

the land of Wessex, in war exulting.

They left behind them sharing the lifeless

the dusk-dressed one, the dark raven,

with hard beak of horn, and the hoar-coated one,

white-tailed eagle, enjoying the carrion,

greedy war-hawk, and that grey beast,

the wolf of the wood. Nor was more slaughter

on this isle ever yet,

so many folk felled, before this

sword battle, as say the books,

the old wise men, since from the east

Angle and Saxon arrived together

over broad briny seeking Britain,

proud warriors who worsted the Welsh,

eager for glory, and gained a land.