Posts Tagged ‘William the Conqueror’

One summer day in 1076 in present-day Ukraine a young English Princess called Gytha was giving birth to her first child. It was a boy. His Russian name was Mstislav, but he was also given two baptismal names as well, Harold and Theodore. Gytha’s husband was a prince of the Kiev Rus’, and prince of Smolensk, called Vladimir Monomakh (or Monomachus in Greek). He would later become the ruler and Grand Prince of a united Kievan Rus’, a huge area that stretched all the way from the Baltic in the north to the Black Sea in the south.

The death of King Harold

The death of King Harold

Although the ‘Russians’ referred to Gytha’s son as Mstislav, the Scandinavian and Germanic world used his baptismal name of Harold. This was in deference to, and recognition of, the boy’s maternal grandfather (and Gytha’s father) Harold, the last Anglo-Saxon king of England, who had been slain and mutilated by William the Conqueror’s Normans at Hastings in 1066.

As I told recently (see here), it was in 1068, or possibly 1069, that many of Harold’s family had fled the tightening Norman yoke. They first went to the court of their kinsman Count Baldwin in Flanders, from where two of Harold’s sons, Edmund and Godwine, accompanied by their sister Gytha, moved on to find refuge with, and perhaps help from, their relative Swein Estrithson, the king of Denmark. Swein was King Harold’s cousin. Gytha, who was born around 1053, was named after her grandmother, who was Swein’s aunt

In The House of Godwine – the History of a Dynasty, historian Emma Mason writes:

Godwine and Edmund probably asked Sweyn for help in reinstating then in England. As an inducement they perhaps offered Sweyn their sister Gytha to use as a bargaining counter when he was negotiating some diplomatic alliance. Following the events of 1066-69, Gytha needed the help of an influential male kinsman to ensure that she made a marriage befitting a king’s daughter. Of her remaining kinsman, only Sweyn was in a position to assist.

The king was not prepared to offer his young cousins any military support. He had expended enough resources on his failed expedition of 1069 and had no wish to lose more in helping his kinsmen…. What actually became of these sons of King Harold is unknown.

Although there is no proof, Mason’s suggestion that, as well as seeking safety, the royal siblings were probably also hoping for Swein’s support in ridding England of the hated Normans, seems a reasonable one. If in fact the siblings had already arrived in Denmark by 1069, it could have been that their pleas helped prompt Swein to lead a large Danish army to England, which he did in the summer of that year. Swein certainly saw this as a chance for him to claim the crown of the Anglo-Scandinavian realm of England before William the Bastard and his Normans had too tight a grip.

A Danish Viking Ship

A Danish Viking Ship

A huge Danish fleet, numbering between 240 and 300 ships, arrived in the Humber estuary where they joined forces with their English allies led by Maerleswein, Gospatric and Edgar the aetheling (the English claimant to the throne). The writer of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle at the time was ecstatic. The leaders set out, he wrote, ‘with all the Northumbrians and all the people, riding and marching with an immense host, rejoicing exceedingly’. Historian Marc Morris writes in his excellent The Norman Conquest: ‘The days of Norman rule in England appeared to be numbered.’ Unfortunately it was not to be. The Norman yoke was to be around English necks for centuries to come.

Cutting a rather long story short, William came back with an army to confront the Anglo-Danish force, but had then to retreat south to deal once again, as Orderic Vitalis tells us, with the resistance of ‘Eadric the Wild and other untameable Englishmen’. On returning to the North the only way William could find to defeat the Anglo-Danish army was to buy off the Danish. The Danish war leader Earl Asbjorn was offered a large sum of money to stop fighting, which, ‘much to the chroniclers’ disgust’, he accepted. After the Danish army had spent a desperate winter in England awaiting the return of King Swein, they returned to Denmark in 1070.

After 1070 Swein certainly wasn’t prepared to try his luck in England again, even though over the next few years several mores embassies arrived from England to plead for his help (for example see here). It seems that William continued to pay the Danes off. All hope for the young Anglo-Saxon princes, Edmund and Godwine, had passed. But, as Emma Mason suggests:

Gytha on the other hand was a useful asset to King Sweyn. Probably around 1074 or 1075 he arranged her marriage with Vladimir Monomakh, the prince of Smolensk in western Russia. From the prince’s point of view that was an advantageous match, giving him a wife who was a king’s daughter, and an alliance with King Sweyn against the Poles. From Gytha’s perspective, too, it was a good match. Prince Vladimir was young, rich and handsome.

Saxo Grammaticus

Saxo Grammaticus

Whatever the precise circumstances and details, before his death in about 1075, King Swein did arrange for his young charge Gytha to be betrothed to the Kievan Rus’ prince of Smolensk, Vladimir. The early Danish chronicler Saxo Grammaticus wrote in Book 11 of his Historia Danica:

After the death of Harold, his two sons immediately fled with their sister to Denmark, Sweyn, forgetting the deserts of their father, as a relative received them under the custom of piety and gave the daughter in marriage to the king of the Ruthenians (Rutenorum) Waldemarus (who was also called Jarizlauus by his own people). He (Harold) obtained from the daughter a grandson who after the manner of our time became his successor both by lineage and by name. Thus the British and the Eastern blood being united in our prince caused the common offspring to be an adornment to both peoples.

Early Norwegian sources don’t mention the three siblings seeking refuge with Swein, but the Fagrkinna and Morgkinskinna both mention Gytha’s marriage to Vladimir. After telling the story of the death of King Harold Godwinson and his brothers, the Fagrskinna, which is a catalogue of the kings of Norway, goes on:

After these five chieftains there were no more of Jarl Gothini’s (Earl Godwin’s) family left alive, as far as we can tell, apart from King Haraldr’s daughter Gytha…. Gytha , King Haraldr’s daughter, was married to King Valdamarr (Vladimir), son of King Jarizleifr (Jaroslav) and of Ingigerthr, daughter of King Olafr soenski.

It then goes on to tell more of what became of Gytha and Vladimir’s children. The Morkinskinna tells much the same story.

Actually Saxo Grammaticus and the two Norwegian sources are somewhat confused here. Vladimir was the son of Vsevolod and not Jaroslav (who was his grandfather, and who died in 1052).

Under the year 1076, the Russian Primary Chronicle says, ‘in this year, a son was born to Vladimir, he was Mstislav, and was a grandson of Vsevolod.’

The extent of Kievan Rus' in 1054

The extent of Kievan Rus’ in 1054

The world that Gytha had married into, that of the Kiev Rus’, was positively Byzantine in its complexity. The original Rus’ were Scandinavian Vikings, the Varangians, including a certain Rurik, who had been ‘invited’ to take control in the ninth century. Over the next two centuries the Rus’ extended their reach and control, but they were constantly fighting each other as well as their external enemies, usually the Poles. Kievan Rus’ became a series of fragmented princely territories. The continual feuding, intrigues and battles made pre-Conquest England seem somewhat stable by comparison.

Most likely Gytha and her young husband Vladimir were able to communicate in Danish. Vladimir, like his father Prince Vsevolod, is known to have spoken several languages, and Gytha, being a member of an Anglo-Danish family, the Godwins, likely spoke Danish as well as English. Emma Mason writes:

There were no problems of communication, since her husband was an accomplished linguist. His dynasty had Scandinavian origins and his grandmother was Swedish. Probably he could converse with Gytha in the Norse tongue.

While Vladimir and his father continued fighting, he and Gytha had several more children. Many of his children were later to be married into other princely families, as was the way throughout Europe. Mstislav/Harold followed his father in becoming Grand Prince of the Kiev Rus’ when Vladimir died in 1125. As both Norse and Russian sources tell us, Prince Harold married Princess Christina Ingesdottir of Sweden in 1095. Christina was the daughter of King Inge I of Sweden. Through his daughter Euphrosyne, Mstislav/Harold is an ancestor of King Edward III of England and hence of all subsequent English and British Monarchs.

But I’m concerned here neither with royal genealogy, nor with the history of Kiev and Russia, fascinating though both are. Rather this is the story of the Anglo-Saxon princess Gytha. What became of her?

Prince Vladimir Monomakh

Prince Vladimir Monomakh

Conventionally it is said that Vladimir had three wives. But did he? As mentioned, the Primary Russian Chronicle mentions the death of two of his wives, under the years 1107 and 1126. We know that Gytha was Vladimir’s first wife, but who were the others? No names are found, just two dates of death. We know that Vladimir had several more children after the birth of Vyacheslav in about 1083. These children are usually assigned to an unknown putative second wife, who Vladimir is purported to have married after the death of Gytha. But there is no evidence whatsoever for the existence of this second, of three, wives: no name, no record of a marriage and no death. So it might very well be that these later children were Gytha’s as well?

That Vladimir did take another wife after Gytha seems reasonably clear, because, as mentioned, there are two entries for the death of a wife of Vladimir, in both 1107 and 1126. The name of this later wife who died in 1126 is often said to have been Anna, a daughter of Aepa Ocenevich, Khan of the Cumans, but there seems no evidence for this. It has been suggested that this attribution for the second/third wife most likely results from a misreading of the 1107 entry in the Primary Russian Chronicle, which states, “and Volodimer (Vladimir) took the daughter of Aepa for Jurij [his son]”. It clearly says that it was Jurij (who died in 1157) who married Aepa’s daughter, and not Vladimir. It’s unlikely that father and son married two sisters.

Returning to Gytha; what became of her and where and when might she have died?

In the German Rhine city of Cologne there was, and still is, a church and monastery dedicated to the late third century Greek Christian martyr St. Pantaleon, who was revered for his healing powers.

A man sick with the palsy was brought, who could neither walk nor stand without help. The heathen priests prayed for him, but in vain. Then Pantaleon prayed, took the sick man by the hand, and said: “In the name of Jesus, the Son of God, I command thee to rise and be well.” And the palsied man rose, restored to perfect health.

The monastic church of St. Pantaleon in Cologne

The monastic church of St. Pantaleon in Cologne

The monastic church of St. Pantaleon in Cologne was founded in the tenth century.

The impressive church, in the south west of the inner city, still has extensive parts of the original building. It is one of the oldest sacral buildings in Cologne. The monumental church of St. Pantaleon originated at the middle of the 10th century with the founding of a Benedictine abbey by the Archbishop Bruno. His niece by marriage, the Byzantine Theophanu, continued building after Bruno’s death in 965. Her interest in the church most certainly had family reasons, but especially the Patrocinium of the Holy Pantaleon played a decisive role, because this saint came from Theophanu’s homeland. Following her death she was buried in St. Pantaleon. Her mortal remains rest there today in a modern marble sarcophagus.

By the eleventh and early twelfth century it had acquired a certain international renown. It had strong links with England and also lay astride the usual route from Flanders to Denmark. Given later events, this latter fact has led some to conjecture that Gytha might have visited St. Pantaleon in Cologne with her brothers on her way to Denmark.

It is here we come to an interesting story. It’s contained in a Latin sermon given by Rupert, the abbot of the nearby monastery of Deutz, to the monks of St. Pantaleon’s in Cologne in the 1120s. Given the date of the sermon, the events it describes were certainly within the living memory of both Rupert and his audience, the St. Pantaleon monks. Most of the sermon was a hagiography detailing St. Pantaleon’s various miracles, but towards the end Rupert tells a little ‘miraculous’ story concerning Gytha and her son Harold. It’s a sort of prologue to two more miracles.

I have used the French summary of this Latin story given by the Belgian church historian Maurice Coens in 1937 in his Un sermon inconnue de Rupert, Abbe de Deutz sur St. Pantaleon. Coens’ summary unfortunately misses out some interesting details contained in the original sermon, and possibly misconstrues one or two things too, but for the time being it will have to suffice. The brackets are my own:

Harald, who reigns at present over the Russians (‘rex gentis Russorum’), had been attacked by a bear. He had been separated from his companions and, unarmed, couldn’t defend himself against the beast, which gored him cruelly. When he had been extricated, he was hardly breathing. His mother (‘Gida nomine’) wanted to care for him herself. But St. Pantaleon appeared (in a vision) to the wounded man, and declared that he had come to heal him. After she had heard of the vision, the prince’s mother was reassured regarding the health of her son. She had been a great benefactor of the monastery of St. Pantaleon in Cologne and knew the power of the thaumaturge (miracle worker). Following her son’s recovery, the Queen realised her desire to go on a pilgrimage to the Holy Places.

In addition, there is also a mention of Queen Gytha (‘Gida Regina’ preceded by a cross) in St. Pantaleon’s Necrolog, under the date March 7th. This is usually taken to imply Gytha’s date of death, but this is by no means sure. No year is given because a Necrolog wasn’t only a list of those Saints and benefactors who had recently died; it was also a list of days on which the monks in the monastery were to say prayers for the eternal souls of particular saints and holy benefactors. As we know, Saints’ days aren’t necessarily death dates. Rupert’s sermon clearly tells us that ‘Queen’ Gytha was a ‘liberal benefactor’ of St. Pantaleon’s in Cologne. It was on March the 7th that the monks prayed for her, which could as well have been the date they heard of her death as her death date itself.

Vladamir's Monomakh's Instructions to his Children

Vladamir’s Monomakh’s Instructions to his Children

The sermon tells us that Russian Prince (Rex) Harold had been badly gored by a bear while out hunting. We don’t know when this may have happened, such meetings with potentially dangerous wild animals were pretty common at this time when ‘nobles’ were out hunting, a time before Europe’s forests were completely hunted out. Harold’s father Vladimir was also a big hunter. He wrote some long ‘Instructions for my children’ (“Pouchenniya Dityam”) a few years before his death in 1125, in which he related his own experiences:

I devoted much energy to hunting as long as I reigned in Chernigov and made excursions from that city. Until the present year, in fact, I without difficulty used all my strength in hunting, not to mention other hunting expeditions around Turov, since I had been accustomed to chase every sort of game while in my father’s company.

At Chernigov, I even bound wild horses with my bare hands or captured ten or twenty live horses with the lasso, and besides that, while riding along the Ros, I caught these same wild horses barehanded. Two bisons tossed me and my horse on their horns, a stag once gored me, one elk stamped upon me, while another gored me, a boar once tore my sword from my thigh, a bear on one occasion bit my kneecap, and another wild beast jumped on my flank and threw my horse with me. But God preserved me unharmed.

Godfrey de Bouillon Captures Jerusalem

Godfrey de Bouillon Captures Jerusalem

It has been suggested that Harold’s near death and vision happened in 1097, when he would have been about twenty-one, and, to make good on her promise to make a pilgrimage, his mother Gytha had then joined the First Crusade to the Holy Land, where she died in 1098. That Gytha went on the First Crusade seems highly dubious. It is pure speculation based only on the assumption that Gytha died before Vladimir’s later children were born – by a ‘second’ wife. To this is sometimes added the thought that Gytha had connections with Flanders, because of her stay there when she fled England, and that Flemish nobles, led by Godfrey of Bouillon, made up a large contingent of this crusade.

If we take Rupert of Deutz’s story at face value, as fact except for the ‘miraculous’ healing, then even if the incident took place in 1097 (for which there is no evidence), I find it unlikely in the extreme that Gytha would then have instantly rushed to Flanders to join some Flemish nobles on their crusade to a Holy Land still in the possession of the Saracens.

If Gytha did go on a pilgrimage to Jerusalem, as Rupert of Deutz says she did, I think it much more likely that she went later, after Jerusalem had fallen into Christian hands, by when it was safer to make such a hazardous journey. And if she wanted to get to Jerusalem she would likely have taken the well trodden route from the land of the Kiev Rus’ to Constantinople and from there taken ship around the coast of Anatolia (Turkey), perhaps via Cyprus, to the Holy Land.

Danylo's Book

Danylo’s Book

This was the route taken in the early 1100s by the earliest known pilgrim from Kievan Rus’, Danylo, abbot of the Rus’ monastery of Chernigov. Danylo has left us a fascinating memoir of his pilgrimage to the Holy Land.

It is not known when Danylo set out on his journey to the Holy Land. Historians are of the opinion that he could have begun his journey in the early 1100s and could have reached Constantinople at about 1104–1106 whence he proceeded to Palestine via Greece and the Greek Islands. It is not known by which route he got to Constantinople, but it is likely he took the ancient route “from the Varengians (Vikings) to the Greeks” — down the Dnipro River and then across the Black Sea.

He tells of the places he visited, the people he met (including King Baldwin of Jerusalem), and the hazards he encountered. He even mentions on more than one occasion that he was travelling with Kievan Rus’ compatriots:

In his book, Danylo mentions about 60 places, monasteries included, that he visited during his stay in Palestine. In his travels he must have always had some company in addition to guides and interpreters because he always says “we” and never “I”, and writes about “druzhyna” (a group, team, troop, or brotherhood who are united by the same purpose or sharing the same ideas and ideals) who were with him on many occasions. Describing “the descent of the blessed fire upon the Lord’s Sepulchre” he says that among the witnesses of this miracle were “all of my druzhyna, sons of Rus who were together with me on that day, good men from Novgorod and Kyiv — Izdeslav Ivankovych, Horodyslav Mykhaylovych, Kashkychi and many others…” It is quite reasonable to suppose that the people mentioned by name were Danylo’s close companions who were with him on many other occasions, or maybe accompanied him on his pilgrimage from the outset…

Danylo seems to be patriotically minded and it is particularly evident when he reiterates his being a representative of Rus rather than of a particular monastery or province. At the end of narrative, he says, “May God be a witness of … me never forgetting to mention the names of the Rus princes, and of their children, of the Rus bishops, and of the hegumens, and of the boyars (members of the aristocratic orders.), and of my spiritual children, and of all the good Christians [during the liturgy services] I recited at the holy places.” In the Holy Land he celebrated 90 liturgies — 50 for the living and 40 for the dead — of his compatriots.

There is, to be sure, no mention of Gytha here, but, for me at least, it would have made more sense had Gytha gone on her pilgrimage in the company of some of her compatriots, using the most convenient route, and when Jerusalem was already in Christian hands, than that she had rushed off to Flanders in 1097 to join the First Crusade.

It is also interesting to note that many Russian historians say that upon his return Danylo was promoted to bishop of Yuryev by ‘Grand Duke Vladimir Monomakh’, i.e. promoted by Gytha’s husband!

My contention that Gytha didn’t go on the First Crusade, and didn’t die in the Holy Land in 1098, is, I think, also supported by the thought that had she done so she would probably have had to drop in at St. Pantaleon’s monastery in Cologne on her way to Flanders, and there make a large enough, and one-off, benefaction to the monastery to ensure the reverence in which she was subsequently held by the monks there for her piety and largesse.

In addition, if Vladimir’s son Jurij was married to a daughter of Aepa Ocenevich, Khan of the Cumans, in 1107, as the Primary Russian Chronicle says, then Jurij was probably in his twenties at the time, and therefore born in the 1080s, well before Gytha’s supposed death in the Holy Land in 1098.

All the evidence seems to support the view that Gytha died in 1107.

St. Pantaleon/Panteleimon Church in Shevchenkove, Ukraine

St. Pantaleon/Panteleimon Church in Shevchenkove, Ukraine

The intercession of St. Pantaleon (St. Panteleimon) which had saved Prince Harold’s life was not forgotten by the Rus’. Churches named after the Saint began to appear all over the Ukraine. One such was built in the town of Shevchenkove in 1194 by Prince Roman Mstyslavovych in honour of his grandfather — the Kiev Prince Izyaslav (a son of English Princess Gytha born circ 1078,  whose baptismal name was Panteleimon). There are several more.

‘The Bastard, the base, lives Victor now,
Fall’n is the Righteous-Brave;
Bands of armed robbers divide the land
And make of the Freeman a slave.’

For my taste there is only one thing that can match, and sometimes surpass, English poetry, and that is German poetry. In the best hands the way the German language can combine sensitivity with earthly power and grittiness is unrivalled. My own favourite German poet is the ‘Romantic’ Heinrich Heine. While rereading some of his poems, a thing I haven’t done for many a long year, I was delighted to find his 1851 poem Schlachtfeld bei Hastings – Battlefield at Hastings. The sad conquest of England in 1066 is a subject close to my heart, and Heine’s poem is the most evocative poetic telling of that sad day I have ever read.

I wanted to share this poem, but how best could I do so for those who don’t understand German? All literature loses something in translation, with poetry this is even more so. I first found an English translation by Margaret Armour, but although it was a valiant effort it did quite often miss the punch of the original, becoming at times anodyne. Armour, for example, translates Heine’s “Der lausigste Lump aus der Normandie” as “The veriest rascals from Normandy”, which not only misses the singular nature of Heine’s original – he was referring to William himself – but makes the Normans sound like naughty children at a birthday party rather than the bunch of brutal thugs they were. As the great Thomas Paine wrote in Common Sense in 1776, “The French bastard” was “the principal ruffian of some restless gang”.

Heinrich Heine

Heinrich Heine

And then I found a translation which appeared in Vienna in 1854, only slightly after the original. It was the work of Julian Fane. Whoever Julian was his translation is sublime. I reproduce Fane’s translation below, followed, for those who understand German, by Heine’s even more sublime original.

Just a couple of words by way of context. In 1066 King Harold and his English army of housecarls and warriors had just defeated another Norwegian invasion at Stamford Bridge in the north of England, when they heard that Norman duke William had landed with his army on the south coast, intent on seizing the country. Harold’s army, mauled, weakened and tired, immediately marched two hundred miles south. When they arrived, probably unwisely, Harold decided to immediately fight again, near to Hastings. We all know the outcome: after much mutual slaughter the English lost and Harold was killed – though not in all likelihood by an arrow in the eye.

The Normans had horribly mutilated Harold’s body along with the bodies of many other English dead. Harold’s mother, so the story goes, pleaded with William to surrender her son’s body for burial. William refused, even though Harold’s mother had offered her son’s weight in gold. The local monks of Waltham Abbey wanted to bury Harold in a decent Christian way, but given the piles of dead and mutilated fallen on the battlefield, they couldn’t identify Harold’s body. They went to find Harold’s long-term mistress, the mother of most of his children, Edith the Fair, also known as Edith Swan-neck. Edith walked through the carnage of the battle so that she might identify Harold by the markings on his body known only to her. It was because of Edith the Fair’s identification of Harold’s body that he was finally given a Christian burial.

This is the story that Heinrich Heine tells in his poem.

The battle-field at Hastings

Translated by Julian Fane, 1854, Vienna

Deep sighed the Abbot when the news
Reached Waltham’s courts that day,
That piteously on Hastings’ field
King Harold lifeless lay.

Two Monks, Asgod and Ailric named,
Dispatched he to the plain,
That they might seek king Harold’s corpse,
At Hastings ‘mongst the slain.

The Monks they issued sadly forth ,
And sad their steps retrace:
„Father, loathesome to us is the World,”
„Fortune forsakes our race.”

„The Bastard, the base, lives Victor now,”
„Fall’n is the Righteous-Brave;”
„Bands of armed robbers divide the land”
„And make of the Freeman a slave.”

„The raggedest Boor from Normandy”
„Now lords it o’er Britain’s Isle;”
„A tailor from Bayeux, gold bespurred,”
„I saw one ride and smile.”

„Woe now to every Saxon born!”
„Ye Saxon Saints beware,”
„Lest, Heaven itself unsafe, the scourge”
„Pursue and spurn you there.”

„Now know we what disastrous doom”
„That comet should forebode,”
„Which erst, blood-red, through blackest Heaven”
„On fiery besom rode.”

„At Hastings hath that evil star”
„Its evil portent wrought!”
„Thither we went, to the battle-field,”
„And ‘mongst the slain we sought.”

„We sought to left, we sought to right,”
„Till, every hope resigned,”
„We left the field, and Harold the king,”
„His corpse we did not find.”

Asgdd and Ailric so they spake;
His hands the Abbot clasped,
Down sat, despairing, sunk in thought,
Then sighed and said at last:

„At Grendelfield, near Bardenstone,”
„In the wood’s deepest dell,”
„Lone in a lonely pauper-cot”
„Doth swan-necked Edith dwell.”

„ ‘Swan-necked’, men named her — for that erst”
„Her neck, of smoothest pearl,”
„Was swan-like arched — and Harold the king”
„He loved the comely girl.”

„Her hath he loved and cherished and kissed,”
„And, lastly, abandoned, forgot;”
„The years roll by — full sixteen years”
„Have watched her widowed lot.”

„Brothers, to her betake yourselves,”
„And with her back return”
„To Hasting’s field; this woman’s glance”
„Will there the king discern.”

„Hither then to the Abbey-church”
„Do ye the body bring,”
„That we may yield it Christian rite,”
„And for the soul may sing.”

The Monks at midnight reached the cot
Deep in the dark wood’s hollow;
„Wake, swan-necked Edith, and forthwith”
„Prepare our steps to follow!”

„Fate willed the Duke of Normandy”
„The fatal day should gain,”
„And on the field at Hastings lies”
„King Harold ‘mongst the slain.”

„Come with us now to Hastings — there”
„We’ll seek the corpse of the king,”
„And bring it back to the Abbey-church,”
„As the Abbot bade us bring.”

No word the swan-necked Edith spake;
Her cloak about her cast,
She followed the Monks; her grizzly hair
It fluttered wild in the blast.

Barefooted, poor wretch, she followed o’er marsh,
Through brushwood and briar she flew:
Hastings at day-break already they reached,
With its white chalk-cliff’s in view.

The fog that folded the battle-field,
As t’were in a snow-white shroud,
Rose slowly, the ravens flapped their wings
And horribly croaked and loud.

Some thousand corpses there lay strewn.
In heaps on the red earth grounded,
Stripped-stark, beplundered, mangled and maimed,
With carrion-horse confounded.

The swan-necked Edith waded on
Through blood with unsandalled foot;
Meanwhile like darts from her staring eye
The searchful glances shoot.

She searched to left, she searched to right,
And oft she turned undaunted
To scare the famished ravens off;
The monks behind her panted.

The whole drear Day had watched her search,
The stars still see her seek;
Suddenly from the woman’s lips
Breaks shrill a terrible shriek:

Discovered hath Edith the corpse of the king!
No longer need she seek;
No word she spake, she wept no tear,
She kissed the pale, pale cheek.

She kissed the brow, she kissed the lips,
Her arms about him pressed,
She kissed the deep wound blood-besmeared
Upon her monarch’s breast.

And at the shoulder looked she too —
And them she kissed contented —
Three little scars, joy-wounds her love In
Passion’s hour indented.

Meanwhile the Monks from out the wood
Some twisted branches bring;
This was the leafy bier whereon
They laid their slaughtered king.

They bore him towards the Abbey-church
Whose aisles his bones should cover;
The swan-necked Edith followed close
The pale corpse of her lover.

She sang the Burial-psalm in notes
Of meek and childlike woe;
Dismal it sounded through the night —
The muttering monks prayed low

Schlachtfeld bei Hastings

Der Abt von Waltham seufzte tief,
Als er die Kunde vernommen,
Daß König Harold elendiglich
Bei Hastings umgekommen.

Zwei Mönche, Asgod und Ailrik genannt,
Die schickt’ er aus als Boten,
Sie sollten suchen die Leiche Harolds
Bei Hastings unter den Toten.

Die Mönche gingen traurig fort
Und kehrten traurig zurücke:
»Hochwürdiger Vater, die Welt ist uns gram,
Wir sind verlassen vom Glücke.

Gefallen ist der beßre Mann,
Es siegte der Bankert, der schlechte,
Gewappnete Diebe verteilen das Land
Und machen den Freiling zum Knechte.

Der lausigste Lump aus der Normandie
Wird Lord auf der Insel der Briten;
Ich sah einen Schneider aus Bayeux, er kam
Mit goldnen Sporen geritten.

Weh dem, der jetzt ein Sachse ist!
Ihr Sachsenheilige droben
Im Himmelreich, nehmt euch in acht,
Ihr seid der Schmach nicht enthoben.

Jetzt wissen wir, was bedeutet hat
Der große Komet, der heuer
Blutrot am nächtlichen Himmel ritt
Auf einem Besen von Feuer.

Bei Hastings in Erfüllung ging
Des Unsterns böses Zeichen,
Wir waren auf dem Schlachtfeld dort
Und suchten unter den Leichen.

Wir suchten hin, wir suchten her,
Bis alle Hoffnung verschwunden –
Den Leichnam des toten Königs Harold,
Wir haben ihn nicht gefunden.«

Asgod und Ailrik sprachen also;
Der Abt rang jammernd die Hände,
Versank in tiefe Nachdenklichkeit
Und sprach mit Seufzen am Ende:

»Zu Grendelfield am Bardenstein,
Just in des Waldes Mitte,
Da wohnet Edith Schwanenhals
In einer dürft’gen Hütte.

Man hieß sie Edith Schwanenhals,
Weil wie der Hals der Schwäne
Ihr Nacken war; der König Harold,
Er liebte die junge Schöne.

Er hat sie geliebt, geküßt und geherzt,
Und endlich verlassen, vergessen.
Die Zeit verfließt; wohl sechzehn Jahr’
Verflossen unterdessen.

Begebt euch, Brüder, zu diesem Weib
Und laßt sie mit euch gehen
Zurück nach Hastings, der Blick des Weibs
Wird dort den König erspähen.

Nach Waltham-Abtei hierher alsdann
Sollt ihr die Leiche bringen,
Damit wir christlich bestatten den Leib
Und für die Seele singen.«

Um Mitternacht gelangten schon
Die Boten zur Hütte im Walde:
»Erwache, Edith Schwanenhals,
Und folge uns alsbalde.

Der Herzog der Normannen hat
Den Sieg davongetragen,
Und auf dem Feld bei Hastings liegt
Der König Harold erschlagen.

Komm mit nach Hastings, wir suchen dort
Den Leichnam unter den Toten,
Und bringen ihn nach Waltham-Abtei,
Wie uns der Abt geboten.«

Kein Wort sprach Edith Schwanenhals,
Sie schürzte sich geschwinde
Und folgte den Mönchen; ihr greisendes Haar,
Das flatterte wild im Winde.

Es folgte barfuß das arme Weib
Durch Sümpfe und Baumgestrüppe.
Bei Tagesanbruch gewahrten sie schon
Zu Hastings die kreidige Klippe.

Der Nebel, der das Schlachtfeld bedeckt
Als wie ein weißes Leilich,
Zerfloß allmählich; es flatterten auf
Die Dohlen und krächzten abscheulich.

Viel tausend Leichen lagen dort
Erbärmlich auf blutiger Erde,
Nackt ausgeplündert, verstümmelt, zerfleischt,
Daneben die Äser der Pferde.

Es wadete Edith Schwanenhals
Im Blute mit nackten Füßen;
Wie Pfeile aus ihrem stieren Aug’
Die forschenden Blicke schießen.

Sie suchte hin, sie suchte her,
Oft mußte sie mühsam verscheuchen
Die fraßbegierige Rabenschar;
Die Mönche hinter ihr keuchen.

Sie suchte schon den ganzen Tag,
Es ward schon Abend – plötzlich
Bricht aus der Brust des armen Weibs
Ein geller Schrei, entsetzlich.

Gefunden hat Edith Schwanenhals
Des toten Königs Leiche.
Sie sprach kein Wort, sie weinte nicht,
Sie küßte das Antlitz, das bleiche.

Sie küßte die Stirne, sie küßte den Mund,
Sie hielt ihn fest umschlossen;
Sie küßte auf des Königs Brust
Die Wunde blutumflossen.

Auf seiner Schulter erblickt sie auch –
Und sie bedeckt sie mit Küssen –
Drei kleine Narben, Denkmäler der Lust,
Die sie einst hineingebissen.

Die Mönche konnten mittlerweil’
Baumstämme zusammenfugen;
Das war die Bahre, worauf sie alsdann
Den toten König trugen.

Sie trugen ihn nach Waltham-Abtei,
Daß man ihn dort begrübe;
Es folgte Edith Schwanenhals
Der Leiche ihrer Liebe.

Sie sang die Totenlitanei’n
In kindisch frommer Weise;
Das klang so schauerlich in der Nacht –
Die Mönche beteten leise. –

Edith discovering the body of Harold

Edith discovering the body of Harold

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Norman Conquest

The Norman Conquest

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Robin Hood (Robin du Bois)

Robin Hood (Robin du Bois)

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

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

William of Malmesbury, 1135.[9]

 

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

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

 

 

Notes and references:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Norman Conquest was a disaster for the English people

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

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

Honi soit qui mal y pense

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thugs fighting thugs

Simon de Montfort – a very big French thug indeed

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

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

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

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

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

A Shropshire tale

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

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

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

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

Hugh Le Corbeau. Founder of the English Corbets

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

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

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

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

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

A Minor War

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

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

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

In The Antiquities of Shropshire Robert W Eyton tells us:

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

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

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

Love-days

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Corbet’s insult and Fulk’s day in court

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The court decides that Fulk do recover his seizin.

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

A view of Alberbury Church and Castle in the eighteenth century

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

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

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

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

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

Honour and feuds

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

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

In modern English:

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

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

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

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

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

An outlaw but no Robin Hood 

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

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

The History of Fulk Fitz-Warine

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

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

Kisses of Peace and Monty Python

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

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

Arthur: I am your king.

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

Arthur: People don’t vote for king.

Woman: How did you become king?

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

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

Arthur: Be quiet.

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

Arthur: Shut up.

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

And God will save the Queen.

Indeed.

Sources and References

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

One summer day in 1076 in present-day Ukraine a young English Princess called Gytha was giving birth to her first child. It was a boy. His Russian name was Mstislav, but he was also given two baptismal names as well, Harold and Theodore. Gytha’s husband was a prince of the Kiev Rus’, and prince of Smolensk, called Vladimir Monomakh (or Monomachus in Greek). He would later become the ruler and Grand Prince of a united Kievan Rus’, a huge area that stretched all the way from the Baltic in the north to the Black Sea in the south.

The death of King Harold

The death of King Harold

Although the ‘Russians’ referred to Gytha’s son as Mstislav, the Scandinavian and Germanic world used his baptismal name of Harold. This was in deference to, and recognition of, the boy’s maternal grandfather (and Gytha’s father) Harold, the last Anglo-Saxon king of England, who had been slain and mutilated by William the Conqueror’s Normans at Hastings in 1066.

As I told recently (see here), it was in 1068, or possibly 1069, that many of Harold’s family had fled the tightening Norman yoke. They first went to the court of their kinsman Count Baldwin in Flanders, from where two of Harold’s sons, Edmund and Godwine, accompanied by their sister Gytha, moved on to find refuge with, and perhaps help from, their relative Swein Estrithson, the king of Denmark. Swein was King Harold’s cousin. Gytha, who was born around 1053, was named after her grandmother, who was Swein’s aunt

In The House of Godwine – the History of a Dynasty, historian Emma Mason writes:

Godwine and Edmund probably asked Sweyn for help in reinstating then in England. As an inducement they perhaps offered Sweyn their sister Gytha to use as a bargaining counter when he was negotiating some diplomatic alliance. Following the events of 1066-69, Gytha needed the help of an influential male kinsman to ensure that she made a marriage befitting a king’s daughter. Of her remaining kinsman, only Sweyn was in a position to assist.

The king was not prepared to offer his young cousins any military support. He had expended enough resources on his failed expedition of 1069 and had no wish to lose more in helping his kinsmen…. What actually became of these sons of King Harold is unknown.

Although there is no proof, Mason’s suggestion that, as well as seeking safety, the royal siblings were probably also hoping for Swein’s support in ridding England of the hated Normans, seems a reasonable one. If in fact the siblings had already arrived in Denmark by 1069, it could have been that their pleas helped prompt Swein to lead a large Danish army to England, which he did in the summer of that year. Swein certainly saw this as a chance for him to claim the crown of the Anglo-Scandinavian realm of England before William the Bastard and his Normans had too tight a grip.

A Danish Viking Ship

A Danish Viking Ship

A huge Danish fleet, numbering between 240 and 300 ships, arrived in the Humber estuary where they joined forces with their English allies led by Maerleswein, Gospatric and Edgar the aetheling (the English claimant to the throne). The writer of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle at the time was ecstatic. The leaders set out, he wrote, ‘with all the Northumbrians and all the people, riding and marching with an immense host, rejoicing exceedingly’. Historian Marc Morris writes in his excellent The Norman Conquest: ‘The days of Norman rule in England appeared to be numbered.’ Unfortunately it was not to be. The Norman yoke was to be around English necks for centuries to come.

Cutting a rather long story short, William came back with an army to confront the Anglo-Danish force, but had then to retreat south to deal once again, as Orderic Vitalis tells us, with the resistance of ‘Eadric the Wild and other untameable Englishmen’. On returning to the North the only way William could find to defeat the Anglo-Danish army was to buy off the Danish. The Danish war leader Earl Asbjorn was offered a large sum of money to stop fighting, which, ‘much to the chroniclers’ disgust’, he accepted. After the Danish army had spent a desperate winter in England awaiting the return of King Swein, they returned to Denmark in 1070.

After 1070 Swein certainly wasn’t prepared to try his luck in England again, even though over the next few years several mores embassies arrived from England to plead for his help (for example see here). It seems that William continued to pay the Danes off. All hope for the young Anglo-Saxon princes, Edmund and Godwine, had passed. But, as Emma Mason suggests:

Gytha on the other hand was a useful asset to King Sweyn. Probably around 1074 or 1075 he arranged her marriage with Vladimir Monomakh, the prince of Smolensk in western Russia. From the prince’s point of view that was an advantageous match, giving him a wife who was a king’s daughter, and an alliance with King Sweyn against the Poles. From Gytha’s perspective, too, it was a good match. Prince Vladimir was young, rich and handsome.

Saxo Grammaticus

Saxo Grammaticus

Whatever the precise circumstances and details, before his death in about 1075, King Swein did arrange for his young charge Gytha to be betrothed to the Kievan Rus’ prince of Smolensk, Vladimir. The early Danish chronicler Saxo Grammaticus wrote in Book 11 of his Historia Danica:

After the death of Harold, his two sons immediately fled with their sister to Denmark, Sweyn, forgetting the deserts of their father, as a relative received them under the custom of piety and gave the daughter in marriage to the king of the Ruthenians (Rutenorum) Waldemarus (who was also called Jarizlauus by his own people). He (Harold) obtained from the daughter a grandson who after the manner of our time became his successor both by lineage and by name. Thus the British and the Eastern blood being united in our prince caused the common offspring to be an adornment to both peoples.

Early Norwegian sources don’t mention the three siblings seeking refuge with Swein, but the Fagrkinna and Morgkinskinna both mention Gytha’s marriage to Vladimir. After telling the story of the death of King Harold Godwinson and his brothers, the Fagrskinna, which is a catalogue of the kings of Norway, goes on:

After these five chieftains there were no more of Jarl Gothini’s (Earl Godwin’s) family left alive, as far as we can tell, apart from King Haraldr’s daughter Gytha…. Gytha , King Haraldr’s daughter, was married to King Valdamarr (Vladimir), son of King Jarizleifr (Jaroslav) and of Ingigerthr, daughter of King Olafr soenski.

It then goes on to tell more of what became of Gytha and Vladimir’s children. The Morkinskinna tells much the same story.

Actually Saxo Grammaticus and the two Norwegian sources are somewhat confused here. Vladimir was the son of Vsevolod and not Jaroslav (who was his grandfather, and who died in 1052).

Under the year 1076, the Russian Primary Chronicle says, ‘in this year, a son was born to Vladimir, he was Mstislav, and was a grandson of Vsevolod.’

The extent of Kievan Rus' in 1054

The extent of Kievan Rus’ in 1054

The world that Gytha had married into, that of the Kiev Rus’, was positively Byzantine in its complexity. The original Rus’ were Scandinavian Vikings, the Varangians, including a certain Rurik, who had been ‘invited’ to take control in the ninth century. Over the next two centuries the Rus’ extended their reach and control, but they were constantly fighting each other as well as their external enemies, usually the Poles. Kievan Rus’ became a series of fragmented princely territories. The continual feuding, intrigues and battles made pre-Conquest England seem somewhat stable by comparison.

Most likely Gytha and her young husband Vladimir were able to communicate in Danish. Vladimir, like his father Prince Vsevolod, is known to have spoken several languages, and Gytha, being a member of an Anglo-Danish family, the Godwins, likely spoke Danish as well as English. Emma Mason writes:

There were no problems of communication, since her husband was an accomplished linguist. His dynasty had Scandinavian origins and his grandmother was Swedish. Probably he could converse with Gytha in the Norse tongue.

While Vladimir and his father continued fighting, he and Gytha had several more children. Many of his children were later to be married into other princely families, as was the way throughout Europe. Mstislav/Harold followed his father in becoming Grand Prince of the Kiev Rus’ when Vladimir died in 1125. As both Norse and Russian sources tell us, Prince Harold married Princess Christina Ingesdottir of Sweden in 1095. Christina was the daughter of King Inge I of Sweden. Through his daughter Euphrosyne, Mstislav/Harold is an ancestor of King Edward III of England and hence of all subsequent English and British Monarchs.

But I’m concerned here neither with royal genealogy, nor with the history of Kiev and Russia, fascinating though both are. Rather this is the story of the Anglo-Saxon princess Gytha. What became of her?

Prince Vladimir Monomakh

Prince Vladimir Monomakh

Conventionally it is said that Vladimir had three wives. But did he? As mentioned, the Primary Russian Chronicle mentions the death of two of his wives, under the years 1107 and 1126. We know that Gytha was Vladimir’s first wife, but who were the others? No names are found, just two dates of death. We know that Vladimir had several more children after the birth of Vyacheslav in about 1083. These children are usually assigned to an unknown putative second wife, who Vladimir is purported to have married after the death of Gytha. But there is no evidence whatsoever for the existence of this second, of three, wives: no name, no record of a marriage and no death. So it might very well be that these later children were Gytha’s as well?

That Vladimir did take another wife after Gytha seems reasonably clear, because, as mentioned, there are two entries for the death of a wife of Vladimir, in both 1107 and 1126. The name of this later wife who died in 1126 is often said to have been Anna, a daughter of Aepa Ocenevich, Khan of the Cumans, but there seems no evidence for this. It has been suggested that this attribution for the second/third wife most likely results from a misreading of the 1107 entry in the Primary Russian Chronicle, which states, “and Volodimer (Vladimir) took the daughter of Aepa for Jurij [his son]”. It clearly says that it was Jurij (who died in 1157) who married Aepa’s daughter, and not Vladimir. It’s unlikely that father and son married two sisters.

Returning to Gytha; what became of her and where and when might she have died?

In the German Rhine city of Cologne there was, and still is, a church and monastery dedicated to the late third century Greek Christian martyr St. Pantaleon, who was revered for his healing powers.

A man sick with the palsy was brought, who could neither walk nor stand without help. The heathen priests prayed for him, but in vain. Then Pantaleon prayed, took the sick man by the hand, and said: “In the name of Jesus, the Son of God, I command thee to rise and be well.” And the palsied man rose, restored to perfect health.

The monastic church of St. Pantaleon in Cologne

The monastic church of St. Pantaleon in Cologne

The monastic church of St. Pantaleon in Cologne was founded in the tenth century.

The impressive church, in the south west of the inner city, still has extensive parts of the original building. It is one of the oldest sacral buildings in Cologne. The monumental church of St. Pantaleon originated at the middle of the 10th century with the founding of a Benedictine abbey by the Archbishop Bruno. His niece by marriage, the Byzantine Theophanu, continued building after Bruno’s death in 965. Her interest in the church most certainly had family reasons, but especially the Patrocinium of the Holy Pantaleon played a decisive role, because this saint came from Theophanu’s homeland. Following her death she was buried in St. Pantaleon. Her mortal remains rest there today in a modern marble sarcophagus.

By the eleventh and early twelfth century it had acquired a certain international renown. It had strong links with England and also lay astride the usual route from Flanders to Denmark. Given later events, this latter fact has led some to conjecture that Gytha might have visited St. Pantaleon in Cologne with her brothers on her way to Denmark.

It is here we come to an interesting story. It’s contained in a Latin sermon given by Rupert, the abbot of the nearby monastery of Deutz, to the monks of St. Pantaleon’s in Cologne in the 1120s. Given the date of the sermon, the events it describes were certainly within the living memory of both Rupert and his audience, the St. Pantaleon monks. Most of the sermon was a hagiography detailing St. Pantaleon’s various miracles, but towards the end Rupert tells a little ‘miraculous’ story concerning Gytha and her son Harold. It’s a sort of prologue to two more miracles.

I have used the French summary of this Latin story given by the Belgian church historian Maurice Coens in 1937 in his Un sermon inconnue de Rupert, Abbe de Deutz sur St. Pantaleon. Coens’ summary unfortunately misses out some interesting details contained in the original sermon, and possibly misconstrues one or two things too, but for the time being it will have to suffice. The brackets are my own:

Harald, who reigns at present over the Russians (‘rex gentis Russorum’), had been attacked by a bear. He had been separated from his companions and, unarmed, couldn’t defend himself against the beast, which gored him cruelly. When he had been extricated, he was hardly breathing. His mother (‘Gida nomine’) wanted to care for him herself. But St. Pantaleon appeared (in a vision) to the wounded man, and declared that he had come to heal him. After she had heard of the vision, the prince’s mother was reassured regarding the health of her son. She had been a great benefactor of the monastery of St. Pantaleon in Cologne and knew the power of the thaumaturge (miracle worker). Following her son’s recovery, the Queen realised her desire to go on a pilgrimage to the Holy Places.

In addition, there is also a mention of Queen Gytha (‘Gida Regina’ preceded by a cross) in St. Pantaleon’s Necrolog, under the date March 7th. This is usually taken to imply Gytha’s date of death, but this is by no means sure. No year is given because a Necrolog wasn’t only a list of those Saints and benefactors who had recently died; it was also a list of days on which the monks in the monastery were to say prayers for the eternal souls of particular saints and holy benefactors. As we know, Saints’ days aren’t necessarily death dates. Rupert’s sermon clearly tells us that ‘Queen’ Gytha was a ‘liberal benefactor’ of St. Pantaleon’s in Cologne. It was on March the 7th that the monks prayed for her, which could as well have been the date they heard of her death as her death date itself.

Vladamir's Monomakh's Instructions to his Children

Vladamir’s Monomakh’s Instructions to his Children

The sermon tells us that Russian Prince (Rex) Harold had been badly gored by a bear while out hunting. We don’t know when this may have happened, such meetings with potentially dangerous wild animals were pretty common at this time when ‘nobles’ were out hunting, a time before Europe’s forests were completely hunted out. Harold’s father Vladimir was also a big hunter. He wrote some long ‘Instructions for my children’ (“Pouchenniya Dityam”) a few years before his death in 1125, in which he related his own experiences:

I devoted much energy to hunting as long as I reigned in Chernigov and made excursions from that city. Until the present year, in fact, I without difficulty used all my strength in hunting, not to mention other hunting expeditions around Turov, since I had been accustomed to chase every sort of game while in my father’s company.

At Chernigov, I even bound wild horses with my bare hands or captured ten or twenty live horses with the lasso, and besides that, while riding along the Ros, I caught these same wild horses barehanded. Two bisons tossed me and my horse on their horns, a stag once gored me, one elk stamped upon me, while another gored me, a boar once tore my sword from my thigh, a bear on one occasion bit my kneecap, and another wild beast jumped on my flank and threw my horse with me. But God preserved me unharmed.

Godfrey de Bouillon Captures Jerusalem

Godfrey de Bouillon Captures Jerusalem

It has been suggested that Harold’s near death and vision happened in 1097, when he would have been about twenty-one, and, to make good on her promise to make a pilgrimage, his mother Gytha had then joined the First Crusade to the Holy Land, where she died in 1098. That Gytha went on the First Crusade seems highly dubious. It is pure speculation based only on the assumption that Gytha died before Vladimir’s later children were born – by a ‘second’ wife. To this is sometimes added the thought that Gytha had connections with Flanders, because of her stay there when she fled England, and that Flemish nobles, led by Godfrey of Bouillon, made up a large contingent of this crusade.

If we take Rupert of Deutz’s story at face value, as fact except for the ‘miraculous’ healing, then even if the incident took place in 1097 (for which there is no evidence), I find it unlikely in the extreme that Gytha would then have instantly rushed to Flanders to join some Flemish nobles on their crusade to a Holy Land still in the possession of the Saracens.

If Gytha did go on a pilgrimage to Jerusalem, as Rupert of Deutz says she did, I think it much more likely that she went later, after Jerusalem had fallen into Christian hands, by when it was safer to make such a hazardous journey. And if she wanted to get to Jerusalem she would likely have taken the well trodden route from the land of the Kiev Rus’ to Constantinople and from there taken ship around the coast of Anatolia (Turkey), perhaps via Cyprus, to the Holy Land.

Danylo's Book

Danylo’s Book

This was the route taken in the early 1100s by the earliest known pilgrim from Kievan Rus’, Danylo, abbot of the Rus’ monastery of Chernigov. Danylo has left us a fascinating memoir of his pilgrimage to the Holy Land.

It is not known when Danylo set out on his journey to the Holy Land. Historians are of the opinion that he could have begun his journey in the early 1100s and could have reached Constantinople at about 1104–1106 whence he proceeded to Palestine via Greece and the Greek Islands. It is not known by which route he got to Constantinople, but it is likely he took the ancient route “from the Varengians (Vikings) to the Greeks” — down the Dnipro River and then across the Black Sea.

He tells of the places he visited, the people he met (including King Baldwin of Jerusalem), and the hazards he encountered. He even mentions on more than one occasion that he was travelling with Kievan Rus’ compatriots:

In his book, Danylo mentions about 60 places, monasteries included, that he visited during his stay in Palestine. In his travels he must have always had some company in addition to guides and interpreters because he always says “we” and never “I”, and writes about “druzhyna” (a group, team, troop, or brotherhood who are united by the same purpose or sharing the same ideas and ideals) who were with him on many occasions. Describing “the descent of the blessed fire upon the Lord’s Sepulchre” he says that among the witnesses of this miracle were “all of my druzhyna, sons of Rus who were together with me on that day, good men from Novgorod and Kyiv — Izdeslav Ivankovych, Horodyslav Mykhaylovych, Kashkychi and many others…” It is quite reasonable to suppose that the people mentioned by name were Danylo’s close companions who were with him on many other occasions, or maybe accompanied him on his pilgrimage from the outset…

Danylo seems to be patriotically minded and it is particularly evident when he reiterates his being a representative of Rus rather than of a particular monastery or province. At the end of narrative, he says, “May God be a witness of … me never forgetting to mention the names of the Rus princes, and of their children, of the Rus bishops, and of the hegumens, and of the boyars (members of the aristocratic orders.), and of my spiritual children, and of all the good Christians [during the liturgy services] I recited at the holy places.” In the Holy Land he celebrated 90 liturgies — 50 for the living and 40 for the dead — of his compatriots.

There is, to be sure, no mention of Gytha here, but, for me at least, it would have made more sense had Gytha gone on her pilgrimage in the company of some of her compatriots, using the most convenient route, and when Jerusalem was already in Christian hands, than that she had rushed off to Flanders in 1097 to join the First Crusade.

It is also interesting to note that many Russian historians say that upon his return Danylo was promoted to bishop of Yuryev by ‘Grand Duke Vladimir Monomakh’, i.e. promoted by Gytha’s husband!

My contention that Gytha didn’t go on the First Crusade, and didn’t die in the Holy Land in 1098, is, I think, also supported by the thought that had she done so she would probably have had to drop in at St. Pantaleon’s monastery in Cologne on her way to Flanders, and there make a large enough, and one-off, benefaction to the monastery to ensure the reverence in which she was subsequently held by the monks there for her piety and largesse.

In addition, if Vladimir’s son Jurij was married to a daughter of Aepa Ocenevich, Khan of the Cumans, in 1107, as the Primary Russian Chronicle says, then Jurij was probably in his twenties at the time, and therefore born in the 1080s, well before Gytha’s supposed death in the Holy Land in 1098.

All the evidence seems to support the view that Gytha died in 1107.

St. Pantaleon/Panteleimon Church in Shevchenkove, Ukraine

St. Pantaleon/Panteleimon Church in Shevchenkove, Ukraine

The intercession of St. Pantaleon (St. Panteleimon) which had saved Prince Harold’s life was not forgotten by the Rus’. Churches named after the Saint began to appear all over the Ukraine. One such was built in the town of Shevchenkove in 1194 by Prince Roman Mstyslavovych in honour of his grandfather — the Kiev Prince Izyaslav (a son of English Princess Gytha born circ 1078,  whose baptismal name was Panteleimon). There are several more.

In the museum at Sint-Salvator Cathedral in Brugge in Flanders, there is an interesting funerary tablet made from black lead and bearing a long inscription in Latin. It tells the story of Gunnhild, the youngest sister of Harold, the last Anglo-Saxon king.

King Harold

King Harold

After the Battle of Hastings, William the Conqueror started divvying up England, giving all the lands previously possessed by those English who had fought at Hastings (alive or dead) to his Norman-French henchmen. Because Norman control of England was tenuous in the period after the Conquest, William had, at first, allowed some English earls, priests and thegns to remain in place, as long as they submitted to him. In 1068 there was an abortive revolt led by Mercian and Northumbrian earls Morcar, Edwin, Waltheof and Gospatric. Edgar the Atheling, the rightful English claimant to the crown, and the Bishop of Durham were also involved. William reacted fast and marched north, building castle after castle as he went. The revolt collapsed and the earls fled.

In the same year another plot was also being hatched to oust the hated Normans, a plot in which Harold’s mother and children were involved. William got warning of the plot and that it would centre on the town of Exeter in southwest England. He besieged Exeter, whose English defenders caused William’s Normans much grief. Eventually, however, Gytha, Harold’s mother, escaped from Exeter along with many of her kin and found refuge on the small island of Flat Holm in the Bristol Channel. Among Gytha’s kin who fled with her to Flat Holme was her daughter Gunnhild (whose funerary tablet is in Brugge), as well as two of Harold’s daughters – another Gunnhild and another Gytha. Harold’s sons were at the time probably in Ireland, waiting to join the revolt.

The town of Exeter had to capitulate.

From this point onwards, William’s initial willingness to allow some English to remain in possession of their lands evaporated. Earl Edwin was later killed and Gospatric fled to Scotland. William kept Harold’s son Ulf a prisoner in Normandy for twenty years. With a few notable, but minor, exceptions, William now bowed to the wishes of his Norman followers and dispossessed practically all the English of their patrimony. The Anglo-Norman monk Orderic Vitalis wrote that “foreigners grew wealthy with the spoils of England, whilst her own sons were either shamefully slain or driven as exiles to wonder hopelessly through foreign lands”.

William embarked on a regional genocide in the north of England in 1069, misleadingly now known as ‘The Harrying of the North’.

English earls had to flee if they wanted to avoid death or imprisonment. Multitudes of lesser English thegns had grudgingly to submit to the Norman yoke, and be dispossessed, or go into exile. Thousands of them eventually ended up in the Byzantine Empire and served in the Varangian Guard (See here).

A wooden Norman Motte and Bailey castle

A wooden Norman Motte and Bailey castle

The Normans continued to build their castles. The English started to call their conquerors ‘Castlemen’. These castles were at first just quickly thrown-up wooden palisades, but these were soon replaced by the Motte and Bailey type we are so familiar with. These castles provided the Normans with protection from the surly and resentful English, as well as places from which they could sally forth to rape and rob. A thing the new ‘aristocracy’ of the country would continue to do for centuries to come.

The Norman apologist William of Poitiers wrote: “Nothing was given to any Frenchman which had been unjustly taken from any Englishman.” This is blatant nonsense. With, and quite often without, the new king’s consent, the Normans had simply grabbed as much of England as they could. Only in those remote regions into which Norman control had not yet extended, Cumbria and northern Northumbria for example, did any significant vestige of English land possession remain.

William didn’t even know precisely what lands many of his followers had grabbed. It was for this reason that as late as 1086 he ordered the Domesday Survey. To control his lordly vassals he needed to know what they possessed.

As time went on, these Normans, holed up in their castles, wanted to try to legitimize their land grab, and this is where English women come in. English men would no longer be allowed to retain any significant power or land, which might lead to Norman hegemony once again being challenged.  But under Anglo-Saxon law English women could, and did, become the rightful inheritors of the lands their fathers, brothers and sons had lost. William was always keen to emphasise his claim to be the rightful successor of King Edward the Confessor – Harold was wherever possible simply airbrushed out of history. Thus William encouraged his followers, particularly those who weren’t great magnates, to legitimize their seizures by marrying English women who had an acknowledged English right to the seized lands.

Historian Eleanor Searle writes:

First, lesser lords and knights legitimised their occupation of Anglo-Saxon manors assigned to them by their lords, through the means of marriage to Anglo-Saxon women, declared to be heiresses. Secondly, among the magnates, legitimisation of membership in their group remained the point, and pattern, of marriage. Norman magnates who employed the first pattern of legitimisation did not marry the daughters of the Anglo-Saxon magnates, but lived with them, in unions accepted by the natives, but not presented to their own group for approval.

The English knew this. One very frequent reaction was to shut up their daughters, sisters and mothers in nunneries. Partly this was to protect their womenfolk from literally being raped or kidnapped by the conquerors, a pretty frequent occurrence. The other, related, reason was to try to prevent the Normans marrying their women and thereby legitimizing their possession of the property and land they had grabbed.

In the 1070s, the Norman Archbishop of Canterbury Lanfranc was asked, “which Englishwomen in nunneries are to remain as nuns and which are to be sent home?”

The answer was that nuns who had made profession or who had been offered as oblates were to remain such. Those women who fell in neither category were to be sent away ad presens until their wishes about living as nuns might be minutely investigated.

Women who had truly ‘professed’ and become nuns were, under Norman as well as English law, not allowed to marry and were, in theory at least, afforded some measure of protection against rapacious Normans. But it was certainly the case, and Lanfranc knew it, that many of these English women hadn’t really professed and thus weren’t really nuns. Rather, they had simply sought safety in the nunneries.

As Searle says, what concerned Lanfranc was that these women were “wanted at home as peace-weavers and channels of inheritance”.

There is much more to tell about the role of these English women in legitimizing Norman property possession. I would highly recommend Eleanor Searle’s Women and the Legitimisation of Succession at the Norman Conquest.

Flat Holm Island

Flat Holm Island

Here I’d like to return to where we started, to Harold’s mother, sister and daughters escaping from Exeter and fleeing to the safety of Flat Holm. Just before Exeter surrendered to the besieging Normans, John of Worcester tells us that Gytha, Harold’s mother, had “escaped with many in flight from the city”. The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle is more cutting. It says that Exeter surrendered “because the thegns had betrayed them”; adding that Gytha “was accompanied by many other distinguished men’s wives”. As Marc Morris puts it in The Norman Conquest, “Gytha sailed into the Bristol Channel and took refuge on the tiny island of Flat Holm. Presumably these pro-Godwine women remained hopeful that their husbands and grandsons would soon be crossing from Ireland” where they had previously fled.

Some of these Godwine men, including Harold’s sons Edmund, Godwine and Magnus, did then raid the coast of southwest England with Irish help, but it was a failure, any remaining chance for Harold’s family had passed.

A book could be written on what became of Harold’s family, many of whom had been either in Exeter or in Ireland. His daughter Gunnhild was one of those English women put away in a nunnery, in her case at Wilton in Wiltshire. She would later become the mistress of William’s Breton follower Alan the Red, and thereby helped him and his successors legitimize their vast land holdings in the east of England. Son Magnus probably died in the brothers’ unsuccessful invasion following the capitulation of Exeter. Most of the rest sought refuge with Count Baldwin in Flanders. The Flemish court had already been a place to where some members of the Godwine clan had fled in pre-Conquest days. Baldwin’s aunt Judith, the bereaved widow of Harold’s brother earl Tostig, would also find sanctuary there.

TheTestament of Vladimir Monomakh to his children. 1125

TheTestament of Vladimir Monomakh to his children. 1125

And so somehow Harold’s mother Gytha, his sister Gunnhild, his daughter Gytha and his two sons Godwine and Edmund all ended up in Flanders. Exactly how long they stayed with Baldwin is unknown. What we do know, from Saxo Grammaticus and two other sources, is that sons Edmund and Godwine, together with their sister Gytha, then moved to Denmark, to seek the protection and possible help of their kinsman, the Danish king Svein. Gytha would later be married off by Svein to the Russian Prince of Smolensk and Kiev, Vladimir Monomakh, with whom she would have several children. Following Svein’s death in 1074, no more is heard of the two brothers.

Harold’s mother Gytha and sister Gunnhild had stayed in Flanders and both became nuns in the convent at St. Omer.

And so, finally, we come back to the funerary tablet/plaque in the Belgian museum. After being a nun for almost twenty years, Gunnhild, King Harold’s sister, died in 1087. She was interred in the cathedral of Sint-Donaas in Brugge. The lead plaque was placed under her head, where it was discovered in 1786. “The plaque was immured again with her remains, but it came to light a second time in 1804 during the demolition of the cathedral of Sint-Donaas”, from where it was taken to the museum.

This is the Latin text of the tablet laid under Gunnhild’s head in 1087, followed by my own English précis:

Pater noster: Credo in Deum Patrem, et cetera quae in Simbolo Apostolorum sunt scripta.

Gunildis nobilissimis orta parentibus, genere Angla, patre Godwino Comite, sub cujus dominio maxima pars militabat Angliae, matre Githa, illustri prosapia Dacorum oriunda, Hec,  dum voveret adhuc puella virginalem castitatem, desiderans spiritual conjugium, sprevit connubial nonnullorum nobelium principum. Hecque, dum jam ad nubilem aetatem pervenisset, Anglia devicta a Willelmo Normannorum Comite et ab codem interfecto fratre suo Rege Anglorum Haroldo, relicta patria, apud Sanctum Audomarum aliquot annos exulans in Flandria. Christum quem pie amabat, in pectore sancte simper colebat in opera, circa sibi famulantes hilaris et modesta, erga extraneos benivola et justa, pauperibus larga, suo corpori admodum parca; quid dicam, adeo ut omnibus illecebris se abstinendo, per multos annos ante sui diem obitus non vesceretur carnibus, neque quidquam quod sibi dulce visum est gustando; sed vix necessaria vitae capiendo cilicio induta ut nec etiam quibusdam pateret familiaribus, conflictando  cum viciis vicit in virtutibus. Dehine transiens Bruggas, et ibi transvolutis quibusdam annis et inde pertransiens in Dacia, huc reversa, virgo transmigravit in Domino, Anno incarnationis domini millesimo LXXXV11, nono kalendas Septembris, luna XX11.

Here is my own inadequate summary of the Latin inscription. It’s not intended to be a literal translation, just to give the gist:

Having professed Gunnhild’s belief in ‘God Our Father’ and the teachings of the Apostles written in the scriptures, the table then states the Gunnhild came from a noble family of the English race. Her father was Godwin, who had gained dominion over most of England. Her mother was Gytha, who came from illustrious Danish stock. When she was still a child she had taken a vow of chastity and, having rejected several offers of marriage by noble princes, had sought a spiritual life. When she became of marriageable age, Count (Duke) William of Normandy conquered England and killed her brother Harold, the king of England. Gunnhild had fled the country and found sanctuary in St. Omer in Flanders, where she lived for some years as an exile. She loved Christ devotedly and all her works showed that the Holy Spirit was in her heart. She was cheerful and modest in His service. She was just and benevolent with others and towards the poor. Her body was thin and she abstained from all worldly temptations. For many years before her death she hadn’t eaten meat or tasted anything that was sweet. By putting on the ‘hairshirt’ she had only the necessities of life, and even among family and friends virtue always won over vice. She had then moved to Brugge (Bruges), where she lived for some years before going to Denmark, before returning to Brugge. She was taken to the Lord in the year of the Lord 1087 – on the 9th September at 10 in the evening.

Sint-Salvator Cathedral, Brugge/Bruges

Sint-Salvator Cathedral, Brugge/Bruges

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

Játvarðar Saga

Játvarðar Saga

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

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

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

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

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

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

An English Huscar

An English Huscarl

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

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

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

The Icelandic Saga says:

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

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

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

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

An Anglo-Saxon Ship

An Anglo-Saxon Ship

The Icelandic Saga continues:

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

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

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

Emperor Alexis 1 Comnenus

Emperor Alexis 1 Comnenus

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

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

The Pechenegs

The Pechenegs