Posts Tagged ‘Orderic Vitalis’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Norman Conquest

The Norman Conquest

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Robin Hood (Robin du Bois)

Robin Hood (Robin du Bois)

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

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

William of Malmesbury, 1135.[9]


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

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



Notes and references:

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

[2] See:

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

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

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

[6] E. Amt & S. D. Church, eds. and trans., Dialogus de Scaccario, and Constitutio Domus Regis: The Dialogue of the Exchequer, and the Disposition of the King’s Household, Oxford, 2007; Online English translation:

[7] John Hudson, ‘Richard fitz Nigel (c.1130–1198)’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, 2004 [, accessed 15 May 2014]

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

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


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

A Varangian Guard

A Varangian Guard

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Battle of Dyrrhachium

The Battle of Dyrrhachium

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Robert Guiscard and his brother Richard

Robert Guiscard and his brother Richard

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

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

The Alexiad

The Alexiad

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

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

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

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

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

The Norman Rape of England

The Norman Rape of England

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