Posts Tagged ‘Cumberland’

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

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

lyulph's tower

Lyulph’s Tower today

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

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

Gowbarrow Hall

Gowbarrow Hall

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

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

Henry the First

Henry the First

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

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

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

Oxford Castle

Oxford Castle

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Osney Abbey

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

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

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

King Stephen captured at Lincoln

King Stephen captured at Lincoln

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Greystoke Castle

Greystoke Castle

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

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

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

I’ll leave all that for another time.

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In the early tenth century there was a powerful Irish-Norse viking warlord called Óttar.[1] He was a jarl (or earl). He and his family contested with the descendants of King Ívarr ‘the Boneless’[2] – the co-founder of the most important and long-lasting Irish-Norse dynasty[3] – for the leadership of the Northmen of the diaspora after they had been temporarily expelled from Dublin by the Irish in 902. He spent time raiding in Brittany and then, rather less successfully, in England and Wales, before returning to Ireland where he established the town of Waterford.[4] Having had to accept the overlordship of Ívarr’s grandson Rögnvaldr, Óttar died fighting at Rögnvald’s [5] side against the Scots and English Northumbrians on the banks of the River Tyne in 918.[6] Here I will try to piece together Óttar’s story from the meagre sources we have. In so doing I think we can join together a few historical dots. This can tell us something of Norse Ireland and the fate of Northumbria, whilst also shedding some light on the very earliest Scandinavian settlements in the north-west of what is now England, i.e. Lancashire and Cumbria.

The dearth of records can be viewed purely as a gap in the tradition, brought about through a nadir in the writing of history, rather than due to an absence of events.[7]

When Walther Vogel,  the great historian of the Northmen in France, wrote this in 1906 he was talking about events in the Frankish kingdoms in the first decade or so of the tenth century. But the same applies to the history of north-west England at the same time. It was during this period that the first viking bases appeared on the coasts of Cheshire, Lancashire and Cumbria. Over the coming decades these Scandinavians eventually spread out, stopped raiding, and settled down to farm and fish.

As F. W. Wainwright, perhaps the greatest historian of the Scandinavian arrival in north-west England, wrote:

As a mere episode the Norse immigration must be considered outstanding. But it was not a mere episode. It was an event of permanent historical importance.[8]

Óttar’s story can tell us just a little about the nature and timing of all this.

Óttar’s return to England

The twelfth-century chronicler John of Worcester tells that in 914:[9]

The Severn Estuary

The Pagan pirates, who nearly nineteen years before had crossed over to France, returned to England from the province called Lydwiccum (Brittany), under two chiefs:[10] Ochter and Hroald, and sailing round the coast of Wessex and Cornwall at length entered the mouth of the river Severn. Without any loss of time they fell upon the country of the Northern Britons[11], and carried off almost every thing they could find on the banks of the river. Having laid hands on Cymelgeac[12], a British bishop, on a plain called Yrcenefeld,[13] they dragged him, with no little joy, to their ships. King Edward redeemed him shortly afterwards for forty pounds of silver.

Before long, the whole army landed, and made for the plain before mentioned, in search of plunder; but the men of Hereford and Gloucester, with numerous bands from the neighbouring towns, suddenly fell on them, and a battle was fought in which Hroald,[14] one of the enemy’s chiefs, and the brother of Ochter, the other chief, and great part of the army were slain. The rest fled, and were driven by the Christians into an enclosure, where they were beset until they delivered hostages for their departure as quickly as possible from king Edward’s dominions.

The king, therefore, stationed detachments of his army in suitable positions on the south side of the Severn, from Cornwall to the mouth of the river Avon, to prevent the pirates from ravaging those districts. But leaving their ships on the shore, they prowled by night about the country, plundering it to the eastward of Weced (Watchet), and another time at a place called Porlock.[15] However, on both occasions, the king’s troops slew all of them except such as made a disgraceful retreat to their ships. The latter, dispirited by their defeat, took refuge in an island called Reoric (Flat Holm),[16] where they harboured till many of them perished from hunger, and, driven by necessity, the survivors sailed first to Deomed,[17] and afterward in the autumn to Ireland.

John of Worcester took his information from the ‘Anglo-Saxon Chronicle’, all versions of which tell much the same story.[18]

Island of Flat Holm in the Britol Channel where Ottar’s vikings took temporary sanctuary

The days when vikings could raid with any success in Wessex were over. The West Saxon king, Edward the Elder,[19] who was by now king of Mercia as well, was well on the way to creating a unified and centralized England, although he and his son King Æthelstan still had more fighting to do before this end was achieved, especially in the north. But our concern here is with the Norse jarl Óttar.

View of sea from Landevennec Abbey in Brittany

We know a little about what Óttar’s vikings were doing in Brittany immediately prior to their appearance in the Severn from Breton and French sources. Northmen had been actively raiding and occasionally trying to settle along the coasts of France, Brittany and Aquitaine during the previous century. But in the late ninth century Alan the Great, the duke of Brittany, had inflicted several reverses on the vikings, after which until his death in 907 we are told that the ‘Northmen hadn’t even dared to look towards Brittany from afar’.[20] But following Alan’s death factional strife broke out and Brittany was weakened. The Northmen ‘stirred themselves again and in front of their face the ground trembled’.[21] In the ‘Chronicle of Nantes’ during the episcopate of Bishop Adelard (i.e. after 912) we read that the rage of the Northmen began to re-erupt as never before.[22] One viking target was the Breton monastery of Landevennec. In one of the abbey’s computes we find a two line note in the margin next to the year 914, it reads: ‘In this year the Northmen destroyed the monastery of Landevennec’.[23] These Northmen were probably those of Óttar and Haraldr.

Who was Óttar?

Before turning to look at what became of Óttar in Ireland, who was he and where had he originally come from? There is little doubt that jarl Óttar was Irish-Norse; that is he was a powerful leader of the Northmen who had come to Dublin in the 850s – called the ‘dark foreigners’ by the Irish – who subsequently went on to create the Scandinavian kingdom of York after 866. Some historians have equated him with a certain Ottir mac Iargni (i.e. Óttar son of Iarnkné),[24] who had killed ‘a son of Ásl’ in Ireland in 883.[25] Asl was one of the brothers of Ívarr I and Óláfr, the co-founders of the Danish Dublin dynasty in the 850s.[26] Óttar was in league with Muirgel, a daughter of the Irish king Mael Sechlainn, who was one of Ívarr’s bitterest enemies. As Clare Downham suggests in ‘Viking Kings of Britain and Ireland – The Dynasty of Ívarr to A.D. 1014’:

Óttar’s family may have briefly come to the fore as rivals of the sons of Ívarr due to the weakness of Sigfrøðr who was killed by a kinsman in 888.’[27]

This Óttar’s father was probably the Iarnkné who had been beheaded in 852 after being on the losing side of a battle in Ireland between two opposing viking groups.[28] This would mean that Óttar would have been at the very least thirty years of age in 883, and quite likely even older. When we find a jarl called Óttar in the Severn estuary in 914, if he were the same man he’d have been over sixty or yet older still. While possible, I don’t find this at all credible, particularly because, as we will see, the Óttar on the Severn in 914 went on to be one of the main Norse leaders in important events and battles in Ireland and England up until his death in 918.  Viking warlords leading their troops into battle were never seventy years old! It is more likely that ‘our’ Óttar was perhaps either a son or nephew of Óttar son of Iarnkné.

Viking Dublin

The idea that Óttar came from a family of Dublin-based viking leaders who had from time to time tried to challenge the rule of Ívarr’s sons and grandsons, gains more support from an entry in the generally reliable ‘Annals of Ulster’. Under the year 914 it reads:

A naval battle at Manu (the Isle of Man) between Barid son of Oitir and Ragnall grandson of Ímar, in which Barid and almost all his army were destroyed.[29]

Ragnall is the Gaelic name for Rögnvaldr, who was a grandson of Ívarr  ‘the Boneless’. Here, as elsewhere, Ívarr is named Ímar in Irish sources; while Barid is Norse Bárðr. Was this naval fight part of an attempt by Rögnvaldr and his brother or cousin Sigtryggr to assert or reassert their supreme leadership of the Dublin Norse of the diaspora? It looks that way.

Viking Dublin

As I have mentioned, in 902 the Northmen had been expelled from Dublin, their king at the time was probably Ívarr’s grandson Ívarr.

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.[30]

Perhaps Óttar had been one of the ‘heathens’ who ‘half dead’ had desperately fled for their lives? I believe it quite likely.

Maybe Óttar had fled with Óttar son of Iarnkné – who might conceivably have been his father? I’ll leave this conjecture aside for the moment, but will return to it later.

Different groups of exiled Scandinavians went to the Wirral, to Lancashire, to Scotland, probably to Cumbria, and to France.  Ívarr grandson of Ívarr was killed by the Scots in Pictland in 904:

Ímar grandson of Ímar, was slain by the men of Fortriu, and there was a great slaughter about him.[31]

alfred

King Alfred the Great fights the Vikings

The story told by John of Worcester I started with said that ‘the Pagan pirates, who nearly nineteen years before had crossed over to France, returned to England from… Brittany’. What does John of Worcester mean by this? Is he saying that Óttar and his warband moved from England in around 896? Or does the comment refer to events after the expulsion of the Norse from Dublin in 902? In fact I think that it refers to neither. I believe John of Worcester’s comment is not specifically concerned with Óttar’s vikings, but rather refers to the year 896, when a small remnant of an army of vikings, which had come back to England 893 after fourteen years ravaging the coasts of France and Brittany, were finally defeated by Alfred the Great after nearly four years fighting and went back to the kingdom of the Franks, where some of them would soon establish the dukedom of Normandy in 912.[32] Thus 896 was the last time the kingdom of Wessex had been troubled by vikings – nineteen years before Óttar  appeared on the River Severn.[33]

In the years between 902 and 914 there are only a few of mentions of the Dublin Norse exiles. Most extensively there is the story of Ingimundr, whose people settled on the Wirral and tried (in league with others of the diaspora) to take Chester from the Mercians in about 910.[34] There is also the death of Ívarr grandson of Ívarr in 904 in ‘Pictland’ referred to earlier.

Ímar grandson of Ímar, was slain by the men of Fortriu and there was a great slaughter of them.[35]

We also find various named Scandinavians being killed by the English West Saxons and Mercians at the Battle of Tettenhall in 910 – including confusingly a jarl called Óttar. The English

slew many thousands of them; and there was king Eowils slain and king Halfdan, and Ottar jarl, and Skurfa jarl, and Othulf hold[36], and Benesing hold, and Olaf the Black, and Thurferth hold, and Osferth Hlytte, and Guthferth hold, and Agmund hold, and Guthferth.[37]

Viking York

These Scandinavians were the Danes of Northumbrian York. They were on their way home from raiding deep into English territory when they were caught and beaten by King Edward’s army in Staffordshire.[38] Yet I think there is room to believe that at least a few in this Scandinavian army must have been from the Irish-Norse coastal bases in north-west Britain.[39] The Yorkshire/Northumbrian ‘Danes’ were relatives of those expelled from Dublin. For example, King Hálfdan, who was killed at Tettenhall, was descended from an earlier chieftain called Hálfdan who had started the Scandinavian settlement of Yorkshire following his capture of York in 866, and who was also likely the brother of the co-founders of the Dublin Norse dynasty: Ívarr and Óláfr.[40] We don’t know who the jarl Óttar killed at Tettenhall was. The name is common enough, but the fact that he was a jarl and was named in the ‘Anglo-Saxon Chronicle’ immediately after King Hálfdan and King Eowils shows he was an important man. He could well have been a jarl of York who was not in any way connected with the jarl Óttar who came back from Brittany in 914, but given his name and position he just might have been related. Perhaps he could even have been one of the vikings expelled from Dublin in 902 who had landed on the coast of north-west Britain and made his way to York to seek help or refuge with his York cousins?[41] Most historians suggest that one of the main objectives of the expelled vikings would have been to do just this, and that the huge silver-hoard found in 1840 at Cuerdale on the Ribble estuary in Lancashire, which is conventionally dated to around 905.[42] might be the war-chest of a viking leader collected both from raiding and from the Danes of York to finance an attempt to retake Dublin.[43]

The whole question of other Óttars is made even more difficult because we hear of another Óttar in the ‘Fragmentary Annals of Ireland’. In the part in which Óttar is mentioned the compiler is telling the story of Ingimund’s coming from Dublin to the Wirral and later attacking Chester, events dated between 904 and 910. He then tells:

Almost at the same time the men of Foirtriu[44] and the Norwegians fought a battle…. The men of Alba fought this battle steadfastly… this battle was fought hard and fiercely; the men of Alba won victory and triumph, and many of the Norwegians were killed after their defeat, and their king was killed there, namely Oittir son of Iarngna. For a long time after that neither the Danes nor the Norwegians attacked them, and they enjoyed peace and tranquillity… [45]

Edward - the Elder

King Edward the Elder

So here we find an Óttar son of Iarnkné (here styled king) being killed in a battle against the men of Alba (the Scots). I mentioned earlier that Óttar son of Iarnkné might well have been the father of the Óttar who was defeated and driven off by the English in 914. Was the ‘king’ Óttar son of Iarnkné reputedly killed by the Albans sometime around 910 a different person to the jarl Óttar killed by the English at Tettenhall in 910? Or were they one and the same? We will never know, although the coincidence is worthy of note.[46]

There is also the intriguing thought proposed by Sir Henry Howorth in 1911 and supported by F. W. Wainwright[47] that the death of Óttar son of Iarnkné mentioned in the ‘Fragmentary Annals’ actually referred to jarl Óttar who, as will be discussed below, died fighting the Scots and Northumbrian English at the Battle of Corbridge in 918. On the whole I tend to think that this interpolated story in the ‘Fragmentary Annals’ is probably highly confused, mixing up different Óttars and different battles – a thing that is quite easy to do – so I’ll not place much reliance on it here.[48]

One final thought regarding Óttar and his family might be added. We know the names of some of Ívarr  I’s sons: Bárðr who was Ívarr’s successor as King of Dublin after Ívarr’s death in 873 and died in 881; Sigfrøðr who then ruled Dublin until he was killed by a ‘kinsman’ in 888; and Sigtryggr who ruled till killed by other vikings in 893.[49] Does not the fact that one of Ívarr’s sons was called Bárðr coupled with the fact that a Bárðr son of Óttar was killed in a naval engagement off the Isle of Man in 914 suggest that sometime in the early history of the these Dublin vikings Óttar’s family and Ívarr’s family were related?

Óttar comes to Waterford

Here I think we can return to our story.

We left jarl Óttar departing the area of the Severn estuary in 914 and making his way, with the survivors of his defeat at the hands of the English, via South Wales to Ireland. His destination was the harbour of Waterford. The ‘Annals of Ulster’ tell us that in 914:

A great new fleet of the heathens on Loch dá Caech.[50]

Waterford Harbour

Loch dá Caech is the Gaelic name for Waterford harbour or bay. Waterford town had yet to be founded; in fact it was Óttar’s arrival that led to the creation of Waterford.[51] This notice comes immediately after the entry mentioned before which reads:

A naval battle at Manu between Barid son of Oitir and Ragnall grandson of Ímar, in which Barid and almost all his army were destroyed.[52]

‘Basilica’ of Tours on the Loire

This report is of great interest because it tells of a Bárðr, who was a son of an Óttar, being killed by Rögnvaldr in 914. It is most likely that this Bárðr was the same viking leader who was in league with another leader called Erikr and who had attacked the important town of Tours on the River Loire in 903.[53] In addition, most historians think that Bárðr and Erikr’s fleet in the Loire was most likely a contingent of the Dublin Norse expelled the year before. If all this is the case, then it suggests that Óttar and Bárðr could have been brothers and not father and son – both possibly being sons of Óttar son of Iarnkné. They had both spent time raiding in France and Brittany after 902, before returning to Britain in 914 when Bárðr was killed by Rögnvaldr while Óttar arrived on the River Severn.

As mentioned above, after Óttar had left England he and his fleet sailed via South Wales and then on to Waterford Harbour. Over the next twelve months more vikings arrived to join him at Waterford. The ‘Annals of Ulster’ for 915 continue:

A great and frequent increase in the number of heathens arriving at Loch dá Chaech, and the laity and clergy of Mumu[54] were plundered by them.[55]

In 916 ‘the foreigners of Loch dá Chaech continued to harry Mumu and Laigin’.[56]

What is clearly happening here is that Óttar’s returning forces are trying to re-establish themselves in Ireland, but they don’t yet feel strong enough to attack Dublin, held by the Irish since 902.

Ottar’s rival Rögnvaldr

But jarl Óttar was not the only viking leader wanting to return to Ireland. The other main force in the Irish Sea at the time was led by Rögnvaldr and his brother or cousin Sigtryggr, both the ‘grandsons of Ívarr’. As we have seen, Rögnvaldr had defeated and killed Bárðr son of Óttar in a naval engagement off the Isle of Man in 914, and I have already suggested that Óttar and Bárðr might have been brothers. The next we hear of Rögnvaldr is in 917, three years after Óttar’s arrival in Waterford:

Sitriuc, grandson of Ímar, landed with his fleet at Cenn Fuait on the coast of Laigin. Ragnall, grandson of Ímar, with his second fleet moved against the foreigners of Loch dá Chaech. A slaughter of the foreigners at Neimlid in Muma. The Eóganacht and the Ciarraige made another slaughter.[57]

Ívarr’s grandson Rögnvaldr came to Waterford with his fleet with the express intention of challenging Óttar’s viking force now established there. His brother, or cousin, Sigtryggr had landed at Cenn Fuait.[58] We don’t know exactly what transpired when Rögnvaldr ‘came against’ Óttar at Waterford, but I think we can imply from later events that Óttar had accepted or reaccepted Rögnvald’s supreme leadership of the Dublin Norse exiles operating in and around the Irish Sea at this time.

Under 917 the ‘Annals of Ulster’ report:

Irish and Norse fight

Niall son of Aed, king of Ireland, led an army of the southern and northern Uí Néill to Munster to make war on the heathens. He halted on the 22nd day of the month of August at Topar Glethrach in Mag Feimin. The heathens had come into the district on the same day. The Irish attacked them between the hour of tierce and midday and they fought until eventide, and about a hundred men, the majority foreigners, fell between them. Reinforcements came from the camp of the foreigners to aid their fellows. The Irish turned back to their camp in face of the last reinforcement, i.e. Ragnall, king of the dark foreigners, accompanied by a large force of foreigners. Niall son of Aed proceeded with a small number against the heathens, so that God prevented a great slaughter of the others through him. After that Niall remained twenty nights encamped against the heathens. He sent word to the Laigin that they should lay siege to the encampment from a distance. They were routed by Sitriuc grandson of Ímar in the battle of Cenn Fuait, where five hundred, or somewhat more, fell. And there fell too Ugaire son of Ailill, king of Laigin, Mael Mórda son of Muirecán, king of eastern Life, Mael Maedóc son of Diarmait, a scholar and bishop of Laigin, Ugrán son of Cennéitig, king of Laíges, and other leaders and nobles.[59]

The ‘Wars of the Gaedhil with the Gael’ reported that:

The whole of Mumhain (Munster) became filled with ships, and boats, and fleets, so that there was not a harbour, nor a landing port, nor a Dun, noir a fortress, nor a fastness, in all Mumhain, without fleets of Danes and pirates.[60]

These various battles fought in 917 against the Irish by the ‘dark foreigners’ of Rögnvaldr and Sigtryggr, with jarl Óttar’s forces now most probably forming a part of the viking army, were fought to re-establish their presence in Ireland and to try to retake Dublin. The Irish wanted to prevent this happening. The Battle of Cenn Fuait referred to in the annals (now called the Battle of Confey), which the vikings won, opened the road to retake Dublin and Sigtryggr recaptured the town in the same year:

Sitriuc grandson of Ímar entered Áth Cliath (i.e. Dublin).[61]

The ‘Wars of the Gaedhil with the Gael’ describes the taking of Dublin thus:

There came after that the immense royal fleet of Sitriuc and the family of Ímar, i.e. Sitriuc the Blind, the grandson of Ímar; and they forced a landing at Dublin of Áth Cliath, and made an encampment there.[62]

The Northmen were back as masters of Dublin after an exile of about fifteen years. They would remain contested masters there into the twelfth century.

Where had Rögnvaldr and Sigtryggr been?

Following the expulsion of 902, Óttar had been raiding in Brittany, and maybe in areas of the Frankish lands too, although for how long is not clear. But what of Ívarr’s two grandsons, Rögnvaldr and Sigtryggr? Where were they in the years between the expulsion from Dublin and their return to Ireland in 917?

Viking-king-Olaf-Guthfrithsson

An Irish-Norse King

As I have previously mentioned, another grandson of the first Ívarr was also called Ívarr. He was most probably the leader of the Irish-Norse when they were kicked out of Dublin in 902.[63] In 904, the same time that fellow exile Ingimundr was first settling on the Wirral near Chester, this Ívarr was killed by the Scots in ‘the land of the Picts’, while either raiding or trying to establish a base there. At the time of Ívarr’s death in 904, Rögnvaldr was probably a young man and Sigtryggr possibly still a boy.[64] So the question arises: Where were the bases of the fleets and warbands of the ‘grandsons of Ívarr’ before the naval battle in 914 and their return to Ireland in 917?[65] Although the annals and chronicles are silent on the matter, all the circumstantial evidence suggests that their base or bases were probably along the coasts of Lancashire and Cumbria. Most probably there was one on the River Ribble in Lancashire where an immense viking silver-hoard was found at Cuerdale in 1840 which is conventionally dated to around 905-910. Another may have been further north around Morecambe Bay or in the area of the later heavily Norse area of Armounderness in Lancashire.[66] It’s even possible that at this early date some vikings already had a base somewhere on the banks of the Solway Firth – the present border between Cumberland and Scotland.

Alex Woolf says:

The heathen refugees from Ireland seem to have settled along the eastern shores of the Irish sea.[67]

viking wirral

Scandinavian Wirral

One of the clearest indications that the refugees from Dublin had already made other bases along the coast and not just on the Wirral comes from the ‘Fragmentary Annals of Ireland’. Having told of Ingimund’s arrival on the Wirral in 903/4, it continues:

Ingimund came then to the chieftains of the Norwegians and Danes; he was complaining bitterly before them, and said that they were not well off unless they had good lands, and that they all ought to go and seize Chester and possess it with its wealth and lands. From that there resulted many great battles and wars. What he said was, ‘Let us entreat and implore them ourselves first, and if we do not get them good lands willingly like that, let us fight for them by force.’ All the chieftains of the Norwegians and Danes consented to that.[68]

So Ingimund brought together other ‘chieftains of the Norwegians and Danes’ for his plan to seize Chester. These other chieftains must have been in large part other groups of Dublin exiles based along the coasts north of the Wirral. When ‘Ingimund returned home after that’ he arranged for the viking ‘host’ to follow him.

Given that Rögnvaldr fought a naval engagement off the Isle of Man in 914 before he returned to Ireland, it might also be suggested (as it has been) that the ‘grandsons of Ívarr’ had a fortified base there too.[69]

First Scandinavian bases in Lancashire and Cumbria

What I am suggesting here is not just that the earliest Scandinavian bases along the coasts of north-west ‘England’ were established by the Dublin exiles in the early years of the tenth century, which is pretty much accepted by all historians, but also that in all likelihood many of these early bases and embryonic settlements were founded by the forces of ‘the grandsons of Ívarr’: Rögnvaldr and Sigtryggr.

heversham

Heversham, Westmorland

From these first bases the vikings continued their habitual habits and raided the lands of the western Northumbrian English. In this very obscure period we can catch glimpses of some of the raids they made and their consequences. The Historia de Sancto Cuthberto tells of a powerful English thegn in western Northumbria called Alfred son of Brihtwulf ‘fleeing from pirates’. He ‘came over the mountains in the west and sought the mercy of St Cuthbert and bishop Cutheard so that they might present him with some lands’. In the same source we also hear that Abbot Tilred of Heversham (in Westmorland) came to St Cuthbert’s land and purchased the abbacy of Norham on Tweed during the episcopate of Cutheard.[70] In all likelihood Tilred was fleeing from the Vikings too.

We can probably date these flights to between the expulsion of the vikings from Dublin in 902 and the death of Bishop Cutheard in 915. I prefer later in this period.[71] If these events were not caused by ‘the grandsons of Ívarr’ then who else was precipitating these Northumbrians to flee?

These early Norse bases and embryonic settlements along the north-west coast of what is now England were essentially defensive land bases for the viking fleets. No doubt some of the Norse farmed a little too, but the very extensive Scandinavian settlement of western Lancashire and much of Cumbria was a long drawn-out process that probably only really got underway after 920/930 and took many decades, indeed probably more than a hundred years, to complete.[72]

What the great historian Walther Vogel wrote about the vikings in the western and eastern Frankish kingdoms in the early years of the tenth century is most likely also true of the situation in north-west England in the same period:

The ‘army’ as such still existed… the warriors had not yet dissolved their warband and divided up the land to settle down to farm as individual colonists…

They probably obtained the necessities of life from small plundering raids in the surrounding area; they also certainly received tribute from the remaining… farmers in the countryside; finally with the help of their serfs and their slaves captured in war, they may have grown a few crops and kept a few cows. That this intermediate situation was enough for them; that the conquered land remained for so long undivided, can only be explained because the threat of Frankish attacks didn’t yet permit dissolution of the army.[73]

For the early Norse in Lancashire and Cumbria I believe the same would have been true. Not until the possibility of being completely annihilated and driven back into the sea by the English – whether Northumbrian, Mercian or West Saxon – or by the British (the Cumbrians/Strathclyde Britons) had receded, would the Norse risk dividing the land, spreading out and settling as individual colonists throughout much of Cumbria and Lancashire, as they eventually assuredly did.[74] And this dispersal, in my view, would not start in earnest for quite a number of years after the Battle of Corbridge in 918.

If all the forgoing is correct, then what we are catching a glimpse of in the records is that once Óttar returned to Ireland in 914 Ivarr’s descendants, who were most probably based along the coasts of Lancashire and Cumbria (and possibly also in the Isle of Man), decided that they too should return to Ireland. Here they soon managed to reassert their family’s former authority over Óttar and his men based at Waterford, before, after several fights with the Irish, recapturing Dublin in 917.

scandi-lancs

Scandinavian Lancashire

Óttar goes with Rögnvaldr to Northumbria

Let us now continue with Óttar’s story as best we can. Once the vikings were back in Dublin, Sigtryggr was left in charge there. His brother or cousin Rögnvaldr, together with jarl Óttar, decided to leave Waterford and return to Britain, where in the next year (918) they fought an important battle with the Scots of Alba and the Northumbrian English on the banks of the River Tyne: the Battle of Corbridge. Several English and Irish sources tell us something of what happened. The fullest account is given in the ‘Annals of Ulster’:

The foreigners of Loch dá Chaech, i.e. Ragnall, king of the dark foreigners, and the two jarls, Oitir and Gragabai,[75] forsook Ireland and proceeded afterwards against the men of Scotland. The men of Scotland, moreover, moved against them and they met on the bank of the Tyne in northern Saxonland. The heathens formed themselves into four battalions: a battalion with Gothfrith grandson of Ímar, a battalion with the two jarls, and a battalion with the young lords. There was also a battalion in ambush with Ragnall, which the men of Scotland did not see. The Scotsmen routed the three battalions which they saw, and made a very great slaughter of the heathens, including Oitir and Gragabai. Ragnall, however, then attacked in the rear of the Scotsmen, and made a slaughter of them, although none of their kings or earls was cut off. Nightfall caused the battle to be broken off.[76]

Vikings land

Vikings come ashore

The Historia de Sancto Cuthberto provides some of the background to the battle.[77] Having told of the flight of the English Northumbrian thegn Alfred son of Brihtwulf fleeing a Viking raid, which was discussed earlier and can be dated to the years prior to 915, the Historia then says that Alfred was given land by the Northumbrian Bishop Cutheard in return for services, and that:

These he performed faithfully until king Raegnald (Rögnvaldr) came with a great multitude of ships and occupied the territory of Ealdred son of Eadwulf, who was a friend of King Edward, just as his father Eadwulf had been a favourite of King Alfred. Ealdred, having been driven off, went therefore to Scotia, seeking aid from king Constantin, and brought him into battle against Raegnald at Corbridge. In this battle, I know not what sin being the cause, the pagan king vanquished Constantin, routed the Scots, put Elfred the faithful man of St Cuthbert to flight and killed all the English nobles save Ealdred and his brother Uhtred.

‘The Chronicle of the Kings of Alba’ says that the ‘battle of Tinemore’ happened in 918, and that King Constantin fought Ragnall, but adds that ‘the Scotti had the victory’.[78] However the general view is that the Battle of Corbridge was indecisive. Whichever side could rightfully claim the victory, and both did, as Alex Woolf says

The immediate result of the battle was that Ragnall, who had previously dominated the western regions of Northumbria since at least 914, became undisputed leader in the east also.[79]

viking york

Viking York

I won’t delve further here into the Battle of Corbridge, it has been, and remains, a subject of academic debate – for example was there one or more battles?[80] I would just like to make three points. First, jarl Óttar, who was by now a staunch supporter or at least a subordinate of King Rögnvaldr, is said to have died fighting the Scots and the English at Corbridge in 918. This brings to an end the very interesting Viking life. Second, after Corbridge the ‘Historia Regum Anglorum’  tells us that Rögnvaldr soon reconquered York.[81] Lastly, we might ask the question: Where had the Vikings’ ‘great multitude of ships’ landed before they defeated the Scots and the Northumbrian English at Corbridge? It could be that they left Waterford and sailed all the way round the north of Britain and then landed either near the Tyne or possibly even in the River Humber. However I believe it more probable that Rögnvald’s fleet first landed at one of their bases on the north-west coast of England and from there used one of the established direct routes across to Pennines to reach eastern Northumbria.[82]  Clare Downham writes:

The location of Corbridge can reveal something of the circumstances of the motives behind the battle. Corbridge is located by a crossing point of the River Tyne. The site also had strategic significance as a fort near to Hadrian’s Wall. It presided over the ‘Stanegate’ a Roman road which ran west to east across Britain, and the road which ran north to south from Inveresk on the Firth of Forth to York. Rögnvaldr and his troops may have travelled overland from the Solway Firth or used the Clyde-Forth route across Alba to reach Northumbria. It may be supposed that they were planning to reach York but they found themselves being intercepted and confronted by enemy-forces.[83]

Given that the undoubted aim of Rögnvald’s army was to recapture York from the Northumbrians, I think it unlikely that it would have ventured to take the more northerly route through hostile Scottish territory. The more southerly ‘Stanegate’ is more likely, or even the quicker west-east route over the Pennines starting from the River Ribble in Lancashire. We’ll probably never know for sure.[84]

eric bloodaxe

Eric Bloodaxe

Following the collapse of Northumbrian English power, the West Saxon English under King Æthelstan and his successors were set to take control of present-day Yorkshire, Durham and Northumberland. The last Norse king of York was Eric ‘Bloodaxe’, who was treacherously killed by a fellow Northman in 954 at Stainmore in Cumberland while fleeing from York across the Pennines – he was probably trying to find safety with his Norse brethren on the west coast or in Ireland.

In what is now Cumberland, the Strathclyde Britons (referred to in English sources at the Cumbrians – hence the English term Cumberland) used the opportunity of the decline of Northumbria and the incursions of the Irish-Norse to try to re-establish some sort or rule south of the Solway Firth – which they seem to have done to some extent.[85] But that’s another story.

What became of King Rögnvaldr?

What became of King Rögnvaldr, the conquering descendant of Ívarr the Boneless? Although after the Battle of Corbridge he had been successful in gaining control of York, he was not immune to the raising power of the English under King Edward the Elder. In 919 and 920, King Edward built new fortresses at Thelwall and Manchester on the River Mersey and at Nottingham, thus ‘blocking off the approach over the moors from the southern portion of Northumbria around modern Sheffield’.[86] Edward forced a submission of his enemies, possibly at Bakewell. The ‘A’ manuscript of the ‘Anglo-Saxon Chronicle’ reported this event in 920:

And then the king of the Scottas and all the people of the Scottas and Raegnald, and the sons of Eadwulf, and all who live in Northumbria, both English and Danish and Northmen and others, and also the king of the Strathclyde welsh and all the Strathclyde welsh, chose him (Edward) as father and lord.[87]

And then under the year 921 the Annals of Ulster’ report the death of Ragnall h. Imair ri Finngall 7 Dubgall, i.e. of ‘Ragnall grandson of Ímar, king of the fair foreigners and the dark foreigners’.[88]

This seems to be the end of Rögnvald’s story – his death in 921. But is it? Several historians have suggested that Rögnvaldr didn’t die in northern England in 921 but actually went on the take the leadership of the Northmen of the Loire in the kingdom of the western Franks, where a certain viking leader called Ragenold is reported in French sources as being active between 921 and his death in 925. Sir Henry Howorth wrote in ‘Ragnall Ivarson and Jarl Otir’ in 1911:

As a matter of fact, he (Ragenold or Rögnvaldr) no doubt soon after this (i.e. his reported death in 921) left the British isles to resume his career in the west of France, where he was probably ambitious to rival the successful doings of Rolf the Ganger, who had founded a new state in Neustria.[89]

Rolf the Ganger means the viking (‘Normand’) the French called Rollo, who became the first Norse duke of Normandy in 912.

Rollo’s tomb in Rouen

 

References and other relevant works

ARNOLD, Thomas, ed., Symeonis Monachi Opera Omnia, Reum Britannicarum Medii Aevi Scriptores 75, 2 vols (London, 1882-85)

CAMPBELL, Alistair, ed. and trans., Chronicon Athelweardi: The Chronicle of Aethelweard, Nelson’s Medieval Texts (Edinburgh, 1962)

CLARKSON, Tim, The Men of the North: The Britons of Southern Scotland (Edinburgh, 2010)

DE LA BORDERIE, Arthur Le Moyne, Histoire de Bretagne, Vol 2, Second Edition, (Rennes, 1896-1914)

DOWNHAM, Claire, ‘The Historical Importance of Viking-Age Waterford’, Journal of Celtic Studies, 4 (2005), 71-96.

DOWNHAM, Claire, Viking Kings of Britain and Ireland. The Dynasty of Ivarr to A.D. 1014 (Edinburgh, 2007)

DUMVILLE, David N., ed. and trans., Annales Cambriae, A.D. 682-954: Texts A-C in Parallel, Basic Texts for Brittonic History 1 (Cambridge, 2002)

EKWALL, Eilert, Scandinavian and Celts in the North-West of England (Lund, 1918)

EKWALL, Eilert, The Place-Names of Lancashire (Manchester, 1922)

FERGUSON, Robert, The Northmen of Cumberland and Westmorland (London, 1856),

Forester, Thomas, ed. and trans., The Chronicle of Florence of Worcester with the two Continuations (London, 1854)

GRAHAM-CAMPBELL, James, ‘The Northern Hoards’, in Edward the Elder, 899-924, edited by N. J. Higham and D. H. Hill (London, 2011), pp. 212-29

GRAHAM-CAMPBELL, James, Viking Treasure from the North-West, the Cuerdale Hoard in its Context, National Museums and Galleries on Merseyside (Liverpool, 1992)

GRIFFITHS, David, Vikings of the Irish Sea: Conflict and Assimilation A.D. 790-1050 (Stroud, 2010)

HENNESSY, William M, ed. and trans., Chronicum Scotorum: A Chronicle of Irish Affairs, from the Earliest Times to A.D. 1135, with a Supplement containing the Events from A.D. 1114 to A.D. 1150, Rerum Brittannicarum Medii Aevi Scriptores 46 (London, 1866)

HIGHAM, Nick, ‘The Scandinavians in North Cumbria: Raids and Settlements in the Later Ninth to Mid Tenth Centuries’, in The Scandinavians in Cumbria, edited by John R. Baldwin and Ian D. Whyte, Scottish Society for Northern Studies 3 (Edinburgh, 1985), pp. 37-51

HIGHAM, Nichols, ‘The Viking-Age Settlement in the North-Western Countryside: Lifting the Veil?’ in Land, Sea and Home: proceedings of a Conference on Viking-Period Settlement, at Cardiff, July 2001, edited by John Hines et al. (Leeds, 2004), pp. 297-311

HINDE,  John Hodgson, ed., Symeonis Dunelmensis Opera et Collectanea (Durham, 1868)

HOWTON, Sir Henry H., ‘Ragnall Ivarson and Jarl Otir’, in The English Historical Review, Vol 16 (London, 1911), pp. 1-19

HUDSON, Benjamin, Viking Pirates and Christian Princes: Dynasty, Religion, and Empire in the North Atlantic (New York, 2005)

JESCH, Judith, ‘Scandinavian Wirral’, in Wirral and its Viking Heritage, edited by Paul Cavill et al (Nottingham, 2000), pp.1-10

JOHNSON-SOUTH, Ted, ed. and trans., Historia de Sancto Cuthberto. A History of Saint Cuthbert and a Record of his Patrimony, Anglo-Saxon Texts 3 (Cambridge, 2002)

LEWIS, Stephen M., The first Scandinavian settlers of England – the Frisian Connection (Bayonne, 2014)

LEWIS, Stephen M., The first Scandinavian settlers in North West England (Bayonne, 2014)

LEWIS, Stephen M., North Meols and the Scandinavian settlement of Lancashire (Bayonne, 2014)

LEWIS, Stephen M., Grisdale 1332 (Bayonne, 2014)

LIVINGSTON, Michael, ed., The Battle of Brunanburh: A Casebook (Exeter, 2011)

MAC AIRT Sean, and Gearoid MAC NIOCAILL, ed. and trans., The Annals of Ulster (to A.D. 1131), 1 (Dublin, 1983)

MURPHY, Denis, ed., The Annals of Clonmacnoise, being Annals of Ireland from the Earliest Times to A. D. 1408, Royal Society of Antiquaries of Ireland, (Dublin , 1896)

O’DONOVAN, John, ed. and trans., Annala Rioghachta Eireann, Annals of the Kingdom of Ireland by the Four Masters, from the Earliest Period to the year 1616, second edition, & vols (Dublin, 1856)

O’DONOVAN, John, ed. and trans., Annals of Ireland: three Fragments copied from Ancient sources by Dubhaltach Mac Firbisigh, Publications of the Irish Archaeological and Celtic Society 4 (Dublin, 1860)

MERLET, René, La Chronique de Nantes, (Paris, 1896)

RADNER, Joan Nelson, ed. and trans., Fragmentary Annals of Ireland, (Dublin 1978)

SALMON, André, ed. and trans., Recueil de Chroniques de Touraine. (Supplément aux Chroniques de Touraine), Published by the Société Archéologique de Touraine (Tours, 1854)

SKENE, William F., Chronicles of the Picts and Scots: And Other Memorials of Scottish History (Edinburgh, 1867

STEENSTRUP, Johannes, Normannerne, Vol 1 (Copenhagen, 1876)

STEVENSON, Joseph, trans., Church Historians of England, 8 vols: vol. 3 (part 2: The Historical Works of Simeon of Durham) (London, 1858)

STORM, Gustav, Kritiske Bidrag til Vikingetidens Historie (Oslo, 1878)

THORPE, Benjamin, ed. and trans., The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle According to the Several Original Authorities, Vol 2 (London, 1861)

TODD, James Henthorn, ed. and trans., Cogadh Gaedhel re Gallaibh: The War of the Gaedhill with the Gaill; or, The Invasions of Ireland by Danes and Other Norsemen, Reum Britannicarum Medii Aevi Scriptores 48 (London, 1867)

VOGEL, Walther, Die Normannen und das Frankische Reich bis zur Grundung der Normandie (799-911) (Heidelberg, 1906)

WAINWRIGHT, F. T., Scandinavian England: Collected Papers (Chichester, 1975)

WHITELOCK, Dorothy, ed., English Historical Documents, Vol 1, Ad 500-1042 (London, 1955)

WOOLF, Alex, From Pictland to Alba 789-1070 (Edinburgh, 2007)

NOTES:

[1] In this article I will use the Norse spelling of personal names except when quoting from an annal or other source when I will use the spellings given there.

[2] He was only called ‘the Boneless’ in much later Icelandic Sagas. In this article I will generally refer to him as Ívarr I.

[3]  See Downham, Viking Kings for the full story of this dynasty..

[4]  See Downham, The Historical Importance of Viking-Age Waterford.

[5] In Norse names such as Rögnvaldr the final r is dropped in cases other than the nominative, hence the genitive Rögnvald’s.

[6] The Battle of Corbridge. I assume with most modern historians that there was only one battle which took place in 918.

[7] Vogel, Die Normannen, p. 384.

[8] Wainwright, Scandinavian England, p. 226

[9] Forester, The Chronicle of Florence of Worcester, p. 90. John gives the date as 915 but all the other evidence points to 914.

[10] Thorpe, Anglo-Saxon Chronicle (ASC),  ‘In this year there came a great naval force over hither from the south, from the Lidwiccas.’

[11] The Welsh, as opposed to the British of Cornwall.

[12] Probably a British bishop of Llandaff called Cyfeiliog.

[13] Archenfield, historically a British area centred on the River Wye, now mostly in Herefordshire.

[14] Here Haorld is wrongly spelt Hroald. The Norse name was probably Haraldr

[15] In Somerset.

[16] The island of Flat Holm in the Bristol Channel.

[17] Dyfed in South Wales.

[18] The ‘A’ text of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle gives a date of 918 which is clearly wrong. The other texts give dates of 914 or 915.

[19] The son of Alfred the Great.

[20] De La Borderie, Histoire de Bretagne p. 349

[21] Ibid. p. 349

[22] Merlet, Chronique de Nantes, p. 80 : ‘Postea vero ordinates est Adalardus, cujus temporibus coepit ebullire rables Normannourum’.

[23] ‘Eodem anno destr(uctu est) monasterium sci (winga) loci a Normannis.’ Referenced in Vogel, Die Normannen.

[24] Iarnkné probably means ‘Iron-Knee’ in Norse.

[25] For example Joan Radnor, Fragmentary Annals.

[26] See Lewis, The first Scandinavian settlers of England – the Frisian Connection

[27] Downham, Viking Kings, p 31. Sigfrøðr was a son of Ívarr I.

[28] The Chronicum Scotorum gives his name as Iercne and the year as 852. The Annals of Ulster call him Eircne and give the date as 851. See Hennessy, Chronicum Scotorum; Mac Airt, Annals of Ulster.

[29] Mac Airt and Mac Niocaill, Annals of Ulster, s.a. 914.

[30] Mac Airt and Mac Niocaill, Annals of Ulster, s.a. 902

[31] Mac Airt and Mac Niocaill, Annals of Ulster, s.a. 914.

[32] When they had arrived in 892 they came with 250 ships and perhaps 12,000 men. Most decided to remain in East Anglia or Northumbria and settle down to farm. Those who returned to France were said to number only 100 men, led by  Huncdeus. See Vogel, Die Normannen, p. 371 for a full discussion.

[33] Note that John of Worcester and some versions of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle date Óttar’s coming to 915, although all the evidence suggests it was 914.

[34] See Lewis, The first Scandinavian settlers in North West England. Also see Livingston, The Battle of Brunanbugh.

[35] Mac Airt and Mac Niocaill, Annals of Ulster, s.a. 904.

[36] ‘Hold’ is short for Holdr, a Scandinavian term introduced into England by the Danes and meaning something like ‘freeholder’.

[37] Hálfdan and Eowils were probably joint kings of Danish York. The Mercian Æthelweard names a third Danish king called Inguuar as being killed at Tettenhall, see Campbell, Chronicon. John of Worcester says that kings Hálfdan and Eowils were the brothers of King Hinguar, Forester, The Chronicle of Florence of Worcester. Inguuar/Hinguuar is probably Ívarr showing, if these reports hold any truth, the typical naming patterns within the family of Ívarr 1.

[38] The battle took place somewhere near Tettenhall and Wednesfield, near present day Wolverhampton.

[39] I will return to this idea at a later date.

[40] Downham, Viking Kings, p. 28.

[41] The Mercians refortified and garrisoned Chester in 907, but there was certainly some delay before Ingimundr and his Norse allies tried to take the city.

[42] Although there is a strong case to be made for a later date – perhaps even after the Battle of Brunanburh in 937.

[43] See for example Graham-Campbell, Viking Treasure.

[44] Foirtriu was the land of the Gaelic Picts.

[45] Radner, Fragmentary Annals.

[46] See discussion in Howorth, Ragnall Ivarson.

[47] Howorth, Ragnall Ivarson; Wainwright, Scandinavian England, pp. 174-176.

[48] Although I tend to the view that this interpolated story probably does refer to Corbridge and not Tettenhall.

[49] Downham, Viking Kings, pp. 26-27.

[50] Mac Airt and Mac Niocaill, Annals of Ulster, s.a. 914.

[51] See Downham, The Historical Importance of Viking Age Waterford.

[52] Mac Airt and Mac Niocaill, Annals of Ulster, s.a. 914.

[53] See Gustav Storm, Kritiske Bidrag til Vikingetidens Historie, p. 136; Vogel, Die Normannen, p. 391.

[54] Munster.

[55] Mac Airt and Mac Niocaill, Annals of Ulster, s.a. 915.

[56] Mac Airt and Mac Niocaill, Annals of Ulster, s.a. 916.

[57] Mac Airt and Mac Niocaill, Annals of Ulster, s.a. 917

[58] In Leinster. For the location of Cenn Fuait see Downham, Viking Kings, p. 31.

[59] Mac Airt and Mac Niocaill, Annals of Ulster, s.a. 917.

[60] Todd, Wars of the Gaedhil with the Gael, p. 41.

[61] Mac Airt and Mac Niocaill, Annals of Ulster, s.a. 917

[62] Todd, Wars of the Gaedhil with the Gael, p. cc.

[63] This is not stated anywhere in the sources but is likely as we know of the death of three of Ívarr the Boneless’s sons in Ireland prior to the expulsion.

[64] John of Worcester says that Sigtryggr died in 927 ‘at an immature age’. If we take this literally it implies that he was a relatively young man or possibly unmarried.

[65] Another question is who was (were) the father(s) of Rögnvaldr and Sigtryggr, and indeed of the younger Ívarr and the other grandsons of Ívarr: Óláfr and Guðdrøðr. Each could have been a  son of any of the three known sons of Ívarr ‘the Boneless’, or perhaps, as has been suggested, Rögnvaldr and Sigtryggr were the sons of one of Ívarr’s daughters. We simply don’t know. See Downham, Viking Kings, pp. 28-29.

[66] See the chapters on Armounderness in Wainwright, Scandinavian England.

[67] Woolf, From Pictland, p. 131.

[68] Radner, Fragmentary Annals, p. 169.

[69] For example see Woolf, From Pictland, p. 133.

[70] Woolf, From Pictland, p. 132; Johnson-South, Historia de Sancto Cuthberto,  paragraphs 21 and 22

[71] Alex Woolf suggests in From Pictland (pp. 143-144) that Cutheard died in 918 not 915. But even if this is so we know from the Historia that Alfred had been settled on his new lands in eastern Northumbria for some time before Rögnvald’s army arrived there in 918. Tilred succeeded as bishop after Cutheard’s death.

[72] Ferguson,  The  Northmen in  Cumberland and  Westmorland, p. 11, suggests that in Cumberland the main Norse settlements only really started after 945.  See also Wainwright, Scandinavian England, pp. 218-220. I will return to this question in a future article.

[73] Vogel, Die Normannen, p. 386.

[74] See as a start Wainwright, Scandinavian England and Ekwall, Scandinavians and Celts in the North-west of England and Place-names of Lancashire.

[75] Krakabeinn, which is usually taken to mean Crowfoot but as an epithet Bone Breaker would do just as well.

[76] Mac Airr and Mac Niocaill, Annals of Ulster, s.a. 918.

[77] See Johnson-South, ed., Historia de Sancto Cuthberto.

[78] See Skene, The Chronicle of the Kings of Alba

[79] Woolf, From Pictland, p.144.

[80] For the view that there were see F. W. Wainwright The Battles at Corbridge in Scandinavian England.

[81] Stevenson, The Church Historians, 111, pt 2, p.68; Arnold, Historia Regum Anglorum, Part 1 (Symeonis Monarchi Opera),  2, 93.

[82] We should add here that under the year 912 the Historia Regum tells of a King Ivarr and jarl Ottar plundering ‘Dunbline’. Most historians suggest the year referred to in 918. This could be Dunblane in Perthshire or Dublin in Ireland. I tend to agree with Downham that this entry most probably suggests that the ‘army of Waterford assisted in the capture of Dublin in 917 and overwintered there before proceeding to England’. See Downham, Viking Kings, p.143.

[83] Downham, Viking Kings, p. 92.

[84] This reminds me of the on-going debate regarding the location of the important Battle of Brunanburh in 937. See for example the discussions in The Battle of Brunanburh – A Casebook, ed. Livingston.

[85] Clarkson, The Men of the North; Woolf, From Pictland, pp. 152-57

[86] Woolf, From Pictland, p. 146.

[87] Arnold, The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle.

[88] Mac Airt and Mac Niocaill, Annals of Ulster, s.a. 921.

[89] Howorth, Ragnall Ivarson,

Oh, The grand old Duke of York,
He had ten thousand men;
He marched them up to the top of the hill,
And he marched them down again.

And when they were up, they were up,
And when they were down, they were down,
And when they were only half-way up,
They were neither up nor down.

Richard Plantagenet, Duke of York

Richard Plantagenet, Duke of York

I learnt this nursery rhyme as a child. Maybe you did too? I had no idea what it meant, just as I had no idea of who the heck Mother Hubbard was. The funny thing is that nobody else knows either. If the rhyme has any basis in reality it’s probably connected with the Duke of York, Prince Frederick, and his defeat by the French at the Battle of Tourcoing in Flanders in 1794. Certainly it’s got nothing to do with Richard Plantagenet, Duke of York, who contested King Henry VI’s right to the throne in the Wars of the Roses in the fifteenth century, although this has at times been claimed.

Actually it doesn’t much matter which of the many Dukes of York, if any of them, provided the historical seeds of the rhyme. If we want to be more realistic we could write:

Oh, The grand old Duke of York,
He had ten thousand men;
He marched them up to the top of the hill,
And they never came down again.

This is what nobles do. The Duke of This or the Baron of That, the King of France or the Holy Roman Emperor, they called themselves warriors but actually they were just armed and heavily armoured thugs. If they weren’t leading their men up the hill to their death, they were leading them in the slaughter of the enemy. Sometimes in these battles the nobles died too. But in the middle-ages, in the so-called Age of Chivalry, while they expected the common soldiers, their ‘men’, to be slaughtered without mercy, they expected that if they themselves were facing defeat they would be able to ‘yield’, to be taken prisoner, to be treated honourably while awaiting the collection of a huge ransom paid for their release. The ransom money of course had to be ground out of their ever-suffering tenants and serfs back at home. That is what the common people were for. They only entered the nobles’ consciousness for two reasons: As a resource to be exploited and taxed to maintain their extravagant life-styles and to supply the soldiers to help them fight their never ending squabbles and wars.

Armed Banditti - 1066

Armed Banditti – 1066

Since the development and agriculture and the rise of Civilization this has been so. In 1776 the English radical Thomas Paine, strangely still so loved by the Americans (who without a moment’s thought would call him a ‘Commie’ if he were around today), and less strangely by the French, aptly called the Norman conquerors of England ‘armed banditti’. The ‘French bastard’ William was ‘the principal ruffian of some restless gang’.

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”, where it would remain for centuries.

In the fifteenth century there was a lord in Cumberland called Lancelot Threlkeld who was pretty honest about what the common English people were for.

The principal residence of the Threlkeld family was at Threlkeld in Cumberland; but they had large possessions at Crosby long previous to this time, for in 1304 and 1320 Henry Threlkeld had a grant of free warren in Yanwath, Crosby, Tibbay, &c., and in 1404 occurs the name of William Threlkeld, Knight, of Crosby. Sir Lancelot Threlkeld, Knight, was the son of Sir Lancelot Threlkeld, by Margaret, daughter and heiress of Henry Bromflatt, Lord Vescy, and widow of John de Clifford. He was wont to say he had three noble houses; one at Crosby Ravensworth for pleasure, where he had a park full of deer; one at Yanwath for comfort and warmth, wherein to reside in winter; and one at Threlkeld, well stocked with tenants, to go with him to the wars.

The Battle of Wakefield, 1460

The Battle of Wakefield, 1460

This Lancelot Threlkeld, who ‘stocked’ tenants ‘to go with him to the wars’, was the son of another Lancelot who had married Margaret Clifford, the widow of Sir John Clifford, known variously as ‘the Butcher’, ‘Bloody Clifford’ and ‘Black-faced Clifford’. In  Henry VI, Shakespeare has him killing Richard, the third Duke of York, and his son Edmund, Earl of Rutland, at the Battle of Wakefield in December 1460, during the Wars of the Roses.  John Clifford was soon killed by the Yorkists on 28 March 1461 at Ferrybridge in Yorkshire, on the eve of the Battle of Towton, a brutal affair which brought Edward IV (Richard of York’s son) to the throne. He left a son called Henry who went into hiding and lived as a ‘shepherd’ for 28 years. I wrote about Henry ‘the Shepherd lord’ recently.

It is some of these fifteenth-century goings-on that will be the subject of my next article. For now I’d like to end on a lighter note. Did you ever learn the mnemonic ROYGBIV for the colours of the rainbow? I was also once taught a rhyme to help remember this: ‘Richard Of York Gave Battle In Vain’. The Richard here being the one Shakespeare has killed by John Clifford ‘the Butcher’ at Wakefield.

Rainbow- - ROYGBIV

Oh, The grand old Duke of York,
He had ten thousand men;
He marched them up to the top of the hill,
And he marched them down again.

And when they were up, they were up,
And when they were down, they were down,
And when they were only half-way up,
They were neither up nor down.

Richard Plantagenet, Duke of York

Richard Plantagenet, Duke of York

I learnt this nursery rhyme as a child. Maybe you did too? I had no idea what it meant, just as I had no idea of who the heck was Mother Hubbard. The funny thing is that nobody else knows either. If the rhyme has any basis in reality it’s probably connected with the Duke of York, Prince Frederick, and his defeat by the French at the Battle of Tourcoing in Flanders in 1794. Certainly it’s got nothing to do with Richard Plantagenet, Duke of York, who contested King Henry VI’s right to the throne in the Wars of the Roses in the fifteenth century, although this has at times been claimed.

Actually it doesn’t much matter which of the many Dukes of York, if any of them, provided the historical seeds of the rhyme. If we want to be more realistic we could write:

Oh, The grand old Duke of York,
He had ten thousand men;
He marched them up to the top of the hill,
And they never came down again.

This is what nobles do. The Duke of This or the Baron of That, the King of France or the Holy Roman Emperor, they called themselves warriors but actually they were just armed and heavily armoured thugs. If they weren’t leading their men up the hill to their death, they were leading them in the slaughter of the enemy. Sometimes in these battles the nobles died too. But in the middle-ages, in the so-called Age of Chivalry, while they expected the common soldiers, their ‘men’, to be slaughtered without mercy, they expected that if they themselves were facing defeat they would be able to ‘yield’, to be taken prisoner, to be treated honourably while awaiting the collection of a huge ransom paid for their release. The ransom money of course had to be ground out of their ever-suffering tenants and serfs back at home. That is what the common people were for. They only entered the nobles’ consciousness for two reasons: As a resource to be exploited and taxed to maintain their extravagant life-styles and to supply the soldiers to help them fight their never ending squabbles and wars.

Armed Banditti - 1066

Armed Banditti – 1066

Since the development and agriculture and the rise of Civilization this has been so. In 1776 the English radical Thomas Paine, strangely still so loved by the Americans (who without a moment’s thought would call him a ‘Commie’ if he were around today), and less strangely by the French, aptly called the Norman conquerors of England ‘armed banditti’. The ‘French bastard’ William was ‘the principal ruffian of some restless gang’.

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”, where it would remain for centuries.

In the fifteenth century there was a lord in Cumberland called Lancelot Threlkeld who was pretty honest about what the common English people were for.

The principal residence of the Threlkeld family was at Threlkeld in Cumberland; but they had large possessions at Crosby long previous to this time, for in 1304 and 1320 Henry Threlkeld had a grant of free warren in Yanwath, Crosby, Tibbay, &c., and in 1404 occurs the name of William Threlkeld, Knight, of Crosby. Sir Lancelot Threlkeld, Knight, was the son of Sir Lancelot Threlkeld, by Margaret, daughter and heiress of Henry Bromflatt, Lord Vescy, and widow of John de Clifford. He was wont to say he had three noble houses; one at Crosby Ravensworth for pleasure, where he had a park full of deer; one at Yanwath for comfort and warmth, wherein to reside in winter; and one at Threlkeld, well stocked with tenants, to go with him to the wars.

The Battle of Wakefield, 1460

The Battle of Wakefield, 1460

This Lancelot Threlkeld, who ‘stocked’ tenants ‘to go with him to the wars’, was the son of another Lancelot who had married Margaret Clifford, the widow of Sir John Clifford, known variously as ‘the Butcher’, ‘Bloody Clifford’ and ‘Black-faced Clifford’. In  Henry VI, Shakespeare has him killing Richard, the third Duke of York, and his son Edmund, Earl of Rutland, at the Battle of Wakefield in December 1460, during the Wars of the Roses.  John Clifford was soon killed by the Yorkists on 28 March 1461 at Ferrybridge in Yorkshire, on the eve of the Battle of Towton, a brutal affair which brought Edward IV (Richard of York’s son) to the throne. He left a son called Henry who went into hiding and lived as a ‘shepherd’ for 28 years. I wrote about Henry ‘the Shepherd lord’ recently.

It is some of these fifteenth-century goings-on that will be the subject of my next article. For now I’d like to end on a lighter note. Did you ever learn the mnemonic ROYGBIV for the colours of the rainbow? I was also once taught a rhyme to help remember this: ‘Richard Of York Gave Battle In Vain’. The Richard here being the one Shakespeare has killed by John Clifford ‘the Butcher’ at Wakefield.

Rainbow- - ROYGBIV

‘Et Strat Clut vastata est a Saxonibus’ (And Strathclyde was devastated by the Saxons) – Welsh  Annales AD 946.

‘This year King Edmund ravaged all Cumberland, and granted it to Malcolm, king of the Scots, on the condition that he should be his fellow-worker as well by sea as by land.’ – Anglo-Saxon Chronicle for AD 945.

‘How king Eadmund gave Cumberland to the king of the Scots.’ – A.D. 946. ‘Agapetus sat in the Roman chair ten years, six months, and ten days. In the same year king Eadmund, with the aid of Leoling, king of South Wales, ravaged the whole of Cumberland, and put out the eyes of the two sons of Dummail, king of that province. He then granted that kingdom to Malcolm, king of the Scots, to hold of himself, with a view to defend the northern parts of England from hostile incursions by sea and land.’   Roger of Wendover, Flowers of History, circa 1235.

King Edmund

King Edmund

In the year 945/6 a British king of Cumbria (the kingdom of the Strathclyde Britons) called ‘Dunmail’ was probably defeated in battle by the West-Saxon English king Edmund. The event has become legendary. A small kernel of historical truth has been embellished over the centuries to make of King Dunmail a veritable King Arthur or an Emperor Frederick Barbarossa, an heroic figure who lies sleeping, to be called upon one day to return and save his people in their hour of need. I will discuss the historical facts and setting in a forthcoming article. Dunmail was probably Cumbrian King Dyfnmal ap Owain (Donald son of Owen), and he certainly wasn’t the ‘last king’ of the Cumbrians. But here I’d simply like to draw together just a few of the myriad versions of the legend.

Let’s begin with William Wordsworth. In his 1805 poem The Waggoner he wrote:

Meanwhile, uncertain what to do,
And oftentimes compelled to halt,
The horses cautiously pursue
Their way, without mishap or fault;
And now have reached that pile of stones,
Heaped over brave King Dunmail’s bones;
His who had once supreme command,
Last king of rocky Cumberland;
His bones, and those of all his Power
Slain here in a disastrous hour!

Dunmail Stones

Dunmail Stones

Countless generations of tourists to the Lake District have been told that this ‘pile of stones’, which can still be seen on Dunmail Raise as it rises south from Thirlmere, marks the spot of the battle and even, in many versions, Dunmail’s burial place.

Although the seeds of the legend of Dunmail find their origins in the comments of Roger of Wendover in the early thirteenth century quoted above, for a long time antiquaries and travel writers stuck to the basic facts and stated the uncertainty of matters. King Charles 1’s surveyor John Ogilby in his The Traveller’s Guide: Or, A Most Exact Description Of The Roads Of England (1699) only said that there was “a great heap of stones called Dunmail-Raise-Stones, supposed to have been cast up by Dunmail K(ing) of Cumberland for the bounds of his kingdom”.

In 1774, in A Tour of Scotland and the Hebrides, Thomas Pennant wrote:

On a high pass between the hills, observe a large Carnedd called Dunmail Wrays stones, collect6ed in memory of a defeat, A.D. 946. given to a petty king of Cumberland, of that name, by Edmund 1. Who with the usual barbarity of the times, put out the eyes of his two sons, and gave the country to Malcolm, king of Scotland, on condition he preserved in peace the northern parts of England.

William Gilpin said in his Observations, relative chiefly to Pictureseque Beauty, Made in the Year 1772, On several Parts of England; particularly the Mountains and Lakes of Cumberland, and Westmoreland (1786):

 … we came to the celebrated pass, known by the name Dunmail-Raise, which divides the counties of Cumberland and Westmoreland. The history of this rude monument, which consists of a monstrous pile of stones, heaped on each side of an earthen mound, is little known. It was probably intended to mark a division, not between these two northern counties; but rather between the two kingdoms of Scotland and England, in elder times, when the Scottish border extended beyond its present bounds. And indeed this chain of mountains seem to be a much more natural division of the two kingdoms, in this part, than a little river in champaign country, like the Esk, which now divides them. It is said, this division, was made by a Saxon prince, on the death of Dunmail the last king of Cumberland, who was here slain in battle…

Dunmail Raise

Dunmail Raise

Around the same time, 1784, Thomas West wrote in A guide to the lakes of Cumberland, Westmorland and Lancashire:

… the road ascends to Dunmail-raise, where lie the historical stones, that perpetuate the name and fall of the last king of Cumberland, defeated there by the Saxon monarch Edmund, who put out the eyes of the two sons of his adversary, and; for his confederating with Leolin, King of Wales, against him wasted his Kingdom, and then gave it to Malcolm, King of Scots, who held it in fee of Edmund A.D. 944 or 945. The stones are a heap and have the appearance of a karn, or barrow. The wall that divides the counties is built over them, which proves their priority of time in that form.

It’s only when we get to the Romantic era of Wordsworth and later into the Victorian and Edwardian periods that the legend really starts to take shape. I particularly like John Pagan White’s 1873 poetic rendition in his Country Lays and Legends of the English Lake Country:

KING DUNMAIL.

They buried on the mountain’s side
King Dunmail, where he fought and died.
But mount, and mere, and moor again
Shall see King Dunmail come to reign.

Mantled and mailed repose his bones
Twelve cubits deep beneath the stones ;
But many a fathom deeper down
In Grisedale Mere lies Dunmail’s crown.

Climb thou the rugged pass, and see
High midst those mighty mountains three,
How in their joint embrace they hold
The Mere that hides his crown of gold.

There in that lone and lofty dell
Keeps silent watch the sentinel.
A thousand years his lonely rounds
Have traced unseen that water’s bounds

His challenge shocks the startled waste,
Still answered from the hills with haste,
As passing pilgrims come and go
From heights above or vales below.

When waning moons have filled their year,
A stone from out that lonely Mere
Down to the rocky Raise is borne,
By martial shades with spear and horn.

As crashes on the pile the stone,
The echoes to the King make known
How still their faithful watch they hold
In Grisedale o’er his crown of gold.

And when the Raise has reached its sum,
Again will brave King Dunmail come ;
And all his Warriors marching down
The dell, bear back his golden crown.

And Dunmail, mantled, crowned, and mailed,
Again shall Cumbria’s King be hailed ;
And o’er his hills and valleys reign
When Eildon’s heights are field and plain.

Grisedale Tarn

Grisedale Tarn

W. T. Palmer’s version of 1908 in The English Lakes is more elaborate, literally more inventive and certainly historically incorrect regarding the English king involved and the identity of the Cumbrians themselves:

The cairn of Dunmail, last king of Pictish (sic) Cumbria slain in battle with Edgar (sic) the Saxon, is here, a formless pile of stones. There is a legend concerning this spot.

The crown of Dunmail was charmed, giving to its wearer a succession in his kingdom. Therefore King Edgar (sic) of the Saxons coveted it above all things. When Dunmail came to the throne of the mountainlands a wizard in Gilsland Forest held a master-charm to defeat the purpose of his crown. He Dunmail slew. The magician was able to make himself invisible save at cock crow, and to destroy him the hero braved a cordon of wild wolves at night. At the first peep of dawn he entered the cave where the wizard was lying. Leaping to his feet the magician called out, “Where river runs north or south with the storm” ere Dunmail’s sword silenced him forever. The story came to the ear of the Saxon, who after much inquiry of his priests found that an incomplete curse, though powerful against Dunmail, could scarcely harm another holder of the crown. Spies were accordingly sent into Cumbria to find where a battle could be fought on land favourable to the magician’s words. On Dunmail raise, in times of storm even in unromantic to-day, the torrent sets north or south in capricious fashion. The spies found the place, found also fell-land chiefs who were persuaded to become secret allies of the Saxon. The campaign began. Dunmail moved his army south to meet the invader, and they joined battle on this pass. For long hours the fight was with the Cumbrians; the Saxons were driven down the hill again and again. As his foremost tribes became exhausted, Dunmail retired and called on his reserves—they were mainly the ones favouring the Southern king. On they came, spreading in well-armed lines from side to side of the hollow way, but instead of opening to let the weary warriors through they delivered an attack on them. Surprised, the army reeled back, and their rear was attacked with redoubled violence by the Saxons. The loyal ranks were forced to stand back-to- back round their king; assailed by superior masses they fell rapidly, and ere long the brave chief was shot down by a traitor of his own bodyguard.

“My crown,” cried he, “bear it away; never let the Saxon flaunt it.”

A few stalwarts took the charmed treasure from his hands, and with a furious onslaught made the attackers give way. Step by step they fought their way up the ghyll of Dunmail’s beck—broke through all resistance on the open fell, and aided by a dense cloud evaded their pursuers. Two hours later the faithful few met by Grisedale tarn, and consigned the crown to its depths — “till Dunmail come again to lead us.”

And every year the warriors come back, draw up the charmed circlet from the depths of the wild mountain tarn, and carry it with them over Seat Sandal to where their king is sleeping his age-long sleep. They knock with his spear on the topmost stone of the cairn, and

from its heart comes a voice, “Not yet; not yet; wait awhile, my warriors.”

In 1937 Arthur Mee wrote in The Lake Counties:

A little south of Wythburn the high road crosses over into Westmorland. Beside it at the top of the pass is a great heap of stones known as Dunmail Raise, with its own little tradition of something that happened on this boundary 1000 years ago. Here, it is thought, the battle took place in which the Saxon king Edmund defeated Dunmail, the last king of Cumbria, whose territory was then handed over to King Malcolm of Scotland.

More recently another writer put it thus:

Dunmail Raise marked the boundary between Cumberland and Westmorland, the name coming from a heap of stones which in folklore marks the burial place of the last King of Cumberland, King Dunmail or, as sometimes spelt, Domhnall. In 945, King Edmund, who ruled almost undisputed over the remainder of England, joined forces with King Malcolm of Scotland in order to defeat the last bastion of Celtic resistance in his kingdom. In his last battle, King Dunmail was killed by Edmund himself. His body was carried away by faithful warriors, and buried under a great pile of stones.

King Edmund is reputed to have captured Dunmail’s two sons and had their eyes put out. The Crown of King Dunmail was thrown into Grisedale Tarn on the Helvellyn range. Legend has it that the crown was enchanted, giving its wearer a magic right to the Kingdom, thus it was important to prevent it from falling into Saxon hands. On victory, Edmund gave Cumberland to King Malcolm of Scotland, and it was only when Canute came to the throne that Cumberland came back under English rule in exchange, 87 years later, for Lothian.

The Kingdom of Cumbria -  Strathclyde

The Kingdom of Cumbria – Strathclyde

In their Ghoulish Horrible Hair raising Cumbrian Tales (1981), Herbert and Mary Jackson add yet more details:

In the aftermath of a ferociously fought battle near Dunmail Raise, just south of Thirlmere reservoir, between King Dunmail of Cumberland and the Saxon army, in the year circa 940 AD, the following legend is written:

After the battle, as King Dunmail lay dying, his last words were. “My crown, bear it away, never let the Saxon flaunt it.”

For it was known that whoever wore the crown of Dunmail would succeed to the Kingdom of Cumbria. The King’s personal body guard removed the crown from the head of their dying monarch and with unprecedented gallantry fought their way through the Saxon lines.

Eventually they reached Grisdale tarn, where with all due ceremony and reverence, the crown was consigned to its deepest waters, with these words, “Till Dunmail come again to lead us.”

Each year, on the anniversary of the King’s death, his warriors return to the tarn. The crown is retrieved and carried back to the cairn of stones under which their beloved Dunmail lies. In turn, the warriors knock with their spears on the topmost stones of the cairn.

From that grave a voice cries out. “Not yet; not yet – wait a while my warriors.” The day is yet to come when the spirit of Dunmail will re-join his warriors and crown a new King of Cumbria.

King Owain, Dunmail’s father, came to the throne in circa 920. A battle took place on the flat of a mountain top at Ecclfechan. What happened to Owain after the battle against the English in which he lost in 938 is not known. But his son went on to succeed him.

Shortly after this, another battle took place as they fought step by step up the Ghyll of Dunmail’s beck – broke through all resistance on the open fell, and, aided by a dense cloud, evaded their pursuers. Two hours later the faithful few met by Grisdale Tarn, and consigned the crown to its depths – “till Dunmail come again to lead us.” And every year the warriors come back, draw up the magic circlet from the depths of the wild mountain tarn, and carry it with them over the Seat Sandal to where the king is sleeping his age long sleep. They knock with his spear on the topmost stone of the cairn and from its heart comes a voice. “Not yet; not yet – wait a while my warriors.”

Cumbrian Flag

Cumbrian Flag

It’s all wonderful stuff but there is not a shred of historical evidence for any of it. That a battle was fought in 945/6 between a Cumbrian (Strathclyde British) king and the English king Edmund is quite likely and it’s also quite possible that Edmund was in league at this time with King Malcolm of Alba (Scotland). It’s even possible that the king was the historically attested Cumbrian, King Dyfnwal ap Owain, and even that his two sons had their eyes put out by Edmund – although the earliest mention of this blinding was by the thirteenth-century Roger of Wendover. All the rest is legend, if not purely literary myth, but is a great yarn.

I will show in my forthcoming article that Dunmail/Dyfnwal certainly wasn’t the last king of Cumbria and probably didn’t die in the battle against the English either; facts that haven’t stopped local sub-aqua clubs searching for Dunmail’s crown in Grisedale tarn! I hope they find it.

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

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

lyulph's tower

Lyulph’s Tower today

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

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

Gowbarrow Hall

Gowbarrow Hall

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

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

Henry the First

Henry the First

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

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

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

Oxford Castle

Oxford Castle

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Osney Abbey

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

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

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

King Stephen captured at Lincoln

King Stephen captured at Lincoln

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Greystoke Castle

Greystoke Castle

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

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

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

I’ll leave all that for another time.

‘Twas strange, ‘twas passing strange; ‘Twas pitiful, ‘twas wondrous pitiful. Othello; William Shakespeare.

One cold night in 1766, a 50 year old butcher called Thomas Parker was treating his friends to a few drinks at the Cross Keys Inn in Carleton, near Penrith in Cumberland. He was on his way to his home in nearby Langwathby after a successful day at Penrith market. He had decided, like countless Englishmen before and since, to drop into the local pub for a bit of refreshment. It seems that in his high spirits he flashed his money around a bit. ‘Being somewhat the worse for drink,’ the landlord stopped serving him. He urged Thomas to stay overnight in the inn. Declining the offer, ‘the shaggy sot pressed on his way’. Not far from the inn ‘this poor muddled man’ was ‘beaten to death… after a violent struggle with the assassin’. When his body was found the next day, it appeared that the attack had been brutal and his purse had been stolen.

Three days later Thomas was buried in Saint Cuthbert’s Church in Edenhall. The parish register states:

Thomas Parker, householder, November 21st. This man was found murdered on the road from Penrith to Edenhall, near the place called Nancy Dobson’s Stone, on Tuesday night, the 18th of this instant….

The Cross Keys Inn, Carleton, Penrith

The Cross Keys Inn, Carleton, Penrith

Who had murdered Thomas Parker? Suspicion soon fell on two men who had been drinking with him: a certain ‘Lee’, who had disappeared, and Parker’s 27 year old godson, Thomas Nicholson. Nicholson was arrested on ‘suspicion’ and sent for trial at the next Carlisle Assizes. He sat in jail for ten months until his case came before the court on 22 August 1787. The evidence against him was, it seems, compelling, but it was all circumstantial. A jury today would probably have found a ‘reasonable doubt’, but not the one in 1767. Thomas Nicholson was found guilty of murdering his godfather.

English justice had often been arbitrary and was more often than not a form of social repression and control. It is true that murderers, even traitors, were no longer hung, drawn and quartered, but simple hanging was no longer deemed enough. In the early eighteenth century, there had started to be a sort of punishment inflation. People were being hanged for such crimes as simple larceny i.e. theft. Parliament decided it needed a new law ‘for better preventing the horrid crime of murder’. It felt that ‘some form of further terror and peculiar mark of infamy be added to the punishment’. In 1751 it introduced and passed The Murder Act, saying that, ‘in no case whatsoever shall the body of a murderer be suffered to be buried.’ The Act mandated either public dissection or the ‘hanging in chains’ of the cadaver. Not infrequently both.

L0016844 'Museum... in Windmill Street, on the last Day'.Remember this was the Age of the Enlightenment. An age which in the previous century had seen that ‘great’ French Enlightenment thinker Rene Descartes cutting up live animals. When they screamed in agony he told his colleagues not to be concerned because animals couldn’t feel pain as that were only ‘machines’. In England, our Enlightenment thinkers wanted to get a better understanding of human anatomy. But human cadavers on which to experiment were in short-supply. People wanted to bury their dead for simple compassionate and familial reasons and because many still believed that the resurrection of the dead on judgement day ‘required that the body be buried whole facing east so that the body could rise facing God’. The 1751 Murder Act was a welcome bonanza for the early anatomists.

The dissections performed on hanged felons were public, indeed part of the punishment was the delivery from hangman to surgeons at the gallows following public execution and the later public exhibition of the open body itself.

Hanging in Chains

Hanging in Chains

If the court decided instead to sentence the convicted murderer to ‘hanging by chains’, often called ‘gibbeting’, rather than dissection, the procedure was equally gruesome. A contemporary French visitor to England, Cesar de Saussure, wrote:

There is no other form of execution but hanging; it is thought that the taking of life is sufficient punishment for any crime without worse torture. After hanging murderers are, however, punished in a particular fashion. They are first hung on the common gibbet, their bodies are then covered with tallow and fat substances, over this is placed a tarred shirt fastened down with iron bands, and the bodies are hung with chains to the gibbet, which is erected on the spot, or as near as possible to the place, where the crime was committed, and there it hangs till it falls to dust. This is what is called in this country to ‘hang in chains’.

The chains or iron straps were designed to ensure that the body stayed upright and didn’t fall apart while it decayed and putrefied. The stinking body would often be ‘left hanging, sometimes for years, as a gruesome warning. ‘

'Chains'

‘Chains’

This was the fate to which the Carlisle judge sentenced Thomas Nicholson. He was, says the record, to be ‘hanged by chains’.

It wasn’t that hanging by chains was a new punishment only introduced by the 1751 Act. Not at all, it had gone on for centuries. All the Act did was regularise it. In fact, in the late 1600s: ‘So much highway robbery and other violent crimes were going on – and being prosecuted – that foreign travellers remarked on the great number of gibbets that lined the road from Portsmouth to London. Highwaymen and violent offenders were hanged, their corpses often dipped in tar and then suspended in irons from a post and cross-beam placed near the scene of their crimes. If they weren’t cut down by relatives stealthily in the night and secretly buried, they dangled preserved literally for years along the roadside as a gruesome warning against crime.’

Until the seventeenth century people could be gibbeted in this way while still alive. They might even be placed instead in an iron cage and left to starve. The last case of live gibbeting in Derbyshire’s Peak District happened in the 17th century on the aptly named Gibbet Moor, behind Chatsworth House:

The condemned man was a tramp. He had murdered a woman by pouring boiling fat down her throat when she refused him food. Left to die slowly in his gibbet, the tramp’s torture was drawn out when a well-meaning traveller gave him food. It is said that screams from the moors so distressed the Duke of Devonshire that he personally acted to end live gibbeting in Derbyshire.

The Murder Act had stipulated that convicted murderers were to be executed (by hanging) and then gibbeted or dissected two days after their conviction unless that day were a Sunday and then the gap should be three days. This was the case with Thomas Nicholson, who was, says the Edenhall Parish record, ‘executed and hung in chains near the same place (where the murder had occurred) on August 31st 1767’.

Beacon Hill, Penrith

Beacon Hill, Penrith

The precise place of Thomas’s execution was on the eastern spur of Beacon Hill, near ‘Cowdraik Quarry’, a place chosen so that it could be clearly seen from both the Cross Keys Inn and the town of Penrith itself. It is said there was a large crowd.

For seven months, Nicholson’s body hung in the gibbet, crawling with maggots and picked over by carrion birds, until it blew down. The people of Edenhall, perhaps feeling compassion for the man’s local relatives, gathered Nicholson’s bones into a winding sheet and buried them nearby.

Was Thomas guilty? Well it seems he likely was. His accomplice in the crime, Lee, was hung in York sometime later for other crimes. Before he died, Lee confessed to his part in Thomas Parker’s murder, saying that he was ‘the instigator and Nicholson the perpetrator’.

A spot near where the gibbeting took place was ‘long after distinguished by the letters, large and legible, ‘T. P. M.,’ signifying ‘here Thomas Parker was murdered’. It is said that here on winter nights Nicholson’s unhappy spirit appears again.

William Jobling

William Jobling

Hanging by chains wasn’t abolished in England until 1834. Poor miner William Jobling was gibbeted after his execution at Durham on the 3rd of August 1832 for the murder of a colliery owner. ‘His gibbet was erected at the place of the crime at Jarrow Slake and is described as being formed from a square piece of oak, 21 feet long and about 3 feet in diameter with strong bars of iron up each side. The post was fixed into a 1-1/2 ton stone base, sunk into the slake. Jobling’s body was hoisted up to the top of the post and left as a warning to the populace.’

The body was encased in flat bars of iron of two and a half inches in breadth, the feet were placed in stirrups, from which a bar of iron went up each side of the head, and ended in a ring by which he was suspended; a bar from the collar went down the breast, and another down the back, there were also bars in the inside of the legs which communicated with the above; and crossbars at the ankles, the knees, the thighs, the bowels the breast and the shoulders; the hands were hung by the side and covered with pitch, the face was pitched and covered with a piece of white cloth.

Twenty-one year old bookbinder James Cook became the last man in England to suffer being hanged in chains, for the murder of  creditor John Paas, at Leicester on the 10th of August 1832. ‘His head was shaved and tarred, to preserve it from the action of the weather; and the cap in which he had suffered was drawn over his face. On Saturday afternoon his body, attired as at the time of his execution, having been firmly fixed in the irons necessary to keep the limbs together, was carried to the place of its intended suspension.’ According to The Newgate Calendar: ‘Thousands of persons were attracted to the spot, to view this novel but most barbarous exhibition; and considerable annoyance was felt by persons resident in the neighbourhood of the dreadful scene. Representations were in consequence made to the authorities, and on the following Tuesday morning instructions were received from the Home Office directing the removal of the gibbet.’

In Book Twelve of The Prelude William Wordsworth wrote:

 We had not travelled long, ere some mischance
Disjoined me from my comrade; and, through fear
Dismounting, down the rough and stony moor
I led my horse, and, stumbling on, at length
Came to a bottom, where in former times
A murderer had been hung in iron chains.
The gibbet-mast had mouldered down, the bones
And iron case were gone; but on the turf,
Hard by, soon after that fell deed was wrought,
Some unknown hand had carved the murderer’s name.
The monumental letters were inscribed
In times long past; but still, from year to year
By superstition of the neighbourhood,
The grass is cleared away, and to this hour
The characters are fresh and visible:
A casual glance had shown them, and I fled..

The gibbet-mast that Wordsworth saw ‘mouldered down’ wasn’t actually that of Thomas Nicholson, although the poem refers to the place, but that’s beside the point.

Once again I would like to leave the last word to A. E. Housman, from the ninth verse of his poem 1887 in A Shropshire Lad. Note that hanging in chains was also called ‘keeping sheep by moonlight’:

 On moonlit heath and lonesome bank
The sheep beside me graze;
And yon the gallows used to clank
Fast by the four cross ways.

A careless shepherd once would keep
The flocks by moonlight there,        *
And high amongst the glimmering sheep
The dead man stood on air.

They hang us now in Shrewsbury jail:
The whistles blow forlorn,
And trains all night groan on the rail
To men that die at morn.

There sleeps in Shrewsbury jail to-night,
Or wakes, as may betide,
A better lad, if things went right,
Than most that sleep outside.

And naked to the hangman’s noose
The morning clocks will ring
A neck God made for other use
Than strangling in a string.

And sharp the link of life will snap,
And dead on air will stand
Heels that held up as straight a chap
As treads upon the land.

So here I’ll watch the night and wait
To see the morning shine,
When he will hear the stroke of eight
And not the stroke of nine;

And wish my friend as sound a sleep
As lads’ I did not know,
That shepherded the moonlit sheep
A hundred years ago.