Thursday, July 31, 2014

Duncan was not killed in his bed by Macbeth

Shakespeare told some great stories, but historians will agree that real history often gets buried beneath the great Bard’s verses.  The death of King Duncan was one of those exaggerations.  For anybody who hasn’t read or seen Macbeth, in essence he meets three witches on the heath who plant the suggestion in his mind that he will be king.  The best way to achieve this is to treacherously kill King Duncan in his bed (as Lady Macbeth goads him on), put the blame elsewhere and seize the throne.  Righteous countrymen attack his castle in the end and restore the throne to Duncan’s heir.

Just for the record, when king Malcolm II died in 1034 at age 80, there were many claimants to the throne.  Duncan’s claim was from Malcolm II through his mother’s side (the first of three daughters).  Thorfinn of Orkney,  the great Viking warrior, was Malcolm’s grandson through the third daughter, and was raised under the protection of the King.  Malcolm  eventually made him Earl of Caithness (the first time the title of Earl was used in Scotland); this could have been a consolation prize.  Macbeth had a claim to the throne through his wife Grouch, who was considered the real heir based on the customary Tanist succession practiced in Scotland; her father’s claim had been put aside by Malcolm II in favor of Duncan.

So  Malcolm II had cleared the way for his favorite grandson, although the 33 year-old Duncan did little to recommend himself to his contemporaries.  He fought five wars in five years and lost them all.  Ultimately, he made the mistake of trying to claim Caithness which was rightfully ruled by his cousin Thorfinn.  This led to a sea battle where Duncan’s forces were ignominiously thrashed, and the king was forced to flee.

That same year in August, Duncan raised an army including many Irish mercenaries, and met either Thorfinn or Macbeth (or both) in the Battle of Burghead on the Moray Firth.  This could be same battle I found reference to stating that Macbeth killed Duncan at Pitgaveny, which was nearby.  It was also recorded elsewhere that Duncan was killed by his own men immediately after the battle.  Regardless of who actually killed him, it is clear that Duncan met his end on the battlefield rather than treacherously in bed.  Macbeth was properly elected high king by a council of Scottish leaders, apparently without dissent.   In fact, Macbeth ruled for 14 years.  This is a far cry from the grasping, tortured protagonist of Shakespeare’s dark tragedy.

Wednesday, July 2, 2014

Death of Alfred Aetheling

When Queen Emma (widow of Aethelred the Unready) married Canute around 1017, they agreed that the sons from their own marriage would take precedence over any previous children.  Things didn’t entirely work out that way, but for the duration of Canute’s reign, her first two sons, Edward and Alfred, remained exiles in her native Normandy.

The second son Alfred’s story is a pitiful one, though it has come down to us full of contradictions.  The part we are certain of tells us that during the reign of Harold Harefoot, while Emma lived at Winchester, Alfred landed on the Kentish coast with a band of followers.  On orders of the King he was seized, his followers either killed or sold into slavery, and Alfred had his eyes put out, soon dying of his wounds.  What we don’t know was why he came to England in the first place, and who exactly was responsible for the dastardly deed, looked upon by disgust even by the Anglo-Saxons hardened to such violence.

One of the rumors was that Emma, discouraged by the non-appearance of Harthacnut, sent a letter to Edward and Alfred encouraging them to invade England and claim the crown. Others conjectured they were testing invasion plans on their own volition. Some say King Harold forged a letter in their mother’s name, intending to lure them to their deaths. Still others said that her sons were simply paying her a visit.

It was said that Edward landed with 40 ships at Southampton and Alfred landed at Dover; the Norman account numbered Alfred’s followers at 600, though other accounts said he came with less than a dozen friends. It has even been stated that Edward fought a battle and defeated the English with great slaughter (considering Edward’s later peaceable reign, I tend to doubt this).  However, on hearing of Alfred’s fate, Edward made a hasty retreat back to the safety of Normandy.

It seems relatively certain that Alfred’s capture came as a surprise, and Earl Godwine of Wessex has invariably been linked with his arrest. It is alleged that Godwine wined and dined Alfred, lodged his men throughout the town, then in the middle of the night, either Godwine’s men or Harold’s men raided the town, capturing, torturing and killing the Aetheling’s companions. Whether Godwine followed direct orders from King Harold or whether he acted on his own recognizance is total conjecture. Or he simply might have stepped aside and refrained from interfering with the King’s business.

Did Godwine turn the Aetheling over to Harold’s soldiers, or was he personally responsible for taking Alfred to the island of Ely and blinding him?  Nobody really knows, but Godwine was blamed by many of  his contemporaries; even though he later cleared himself in court, he was never able to rid himself of the stigma attached to the murder. In any event, the brutal circumstances gave Godwine’s enemies a great deal of ammunition to fling at him.  Even at the end of his life, the legend persists that during a feast, Godwine made an oath to Edward that he should choke on a piece of bread if he was responsible for Alfred’s death. Then suddenly, the great Earl was taken with a siezure and collapsed at the table, thus confirming his guilt for all eternity.

Wednesday, May 28, 2014

The English Earldoms of 1045

This map was scanned from Edward A. Freeman’s History of the Norman Conquest of England.  I found it in the Appendix of Volume 2 and I thought it was very helpful since a picture is worth a thousand words, as they say… doubly so for maps! 

I  hope you can read this map through all the rivers and towns (click on it to make the map a little wider); if you would like to see a larger version, drop me a line and I’ll send it to you.  These are the earldoms at the height of Edward the Confessor’s reign; the shifting of borders and earldoms was quite fluid during Edward’s reign, and this is a snapshot of the situation right before Swegn’s first exile.

These earldoms can be traced back to the great division during Canute’s reign, when he partitioned the kingdom into four great earldoms.  Wessex, the most important, was originally retained by the King then given over to Godwine in 1020. Mercia was given to Eadric (which only lasted until 1017), passed to Leofwine then to Leofric. East Anglia was given to Thurkill (banished in 1021) and eventually passed on to Harold Godwineson. The last, Northumbria, was given to Eric and eventually passed on to Siward the Strong.

Originally, Mercia stretched from east to west across the whole country from Bristol to Barton on the Humber.  As time progressed and the great earldom was dismembered, as Mr. Freeman suggests, it is unclear whether the smaller partitions were totally independent earldoms or whether they were subordinate to the Earl of Mercia.

Apparently both Harold and Beorn were given their earldoms in 1045. Beorn was the son of Ulf and Estrith, sister of Canute who was later married to Robert of Normandy.  Was this the connection that inspired Edward to make him an earl?  I found it interesting to see how Siward’s earldom was broken up by Beorn’s and how Beorn’s earldom was broken up by Siward’s.  Poor Beorn was the same who was murdered by Swegn Godwineson, but that was a few years later.

You can see Ralph’s earldom next to Swegn’s; this is the same Ralph of Mantes who was nephew of King Edward. When Swegn was exiled in 1046, Ralph’s earldom was expanded to encompass Hereford, where he was resoundly trounced by Gruffydd ap Llewelyn and the errant Aelfgar (son of Earl Leofric) in 1055.  Ralph died two years later.

During the reign of Edward, it’s not much of an exaggeration to say that the “big three” – Godwine, Leofric, and Siward held most of the influence with (or against) the king, depending on the situation. It’s interesting to see how Edward played one off against the other.

Wednesday, May 21, 2014

Alain le Roux, Count of Brittany (Earl of Richmond)

     Alain le Roux (c. 1040–1094) is one of my favorite historical characters who seems to have been relatively important in his time, but nobody seems to have heard of him.  Why do I like him so much?  Well, as I see it he went with  the flow (so to speak), amassed an incredible fortune (according to Wikipedia, at the time of his death he was worth around $166.9 billion, the equivalent of 7% of England’s national income.  Forbes placed him 9th in the list of most wealthy historical figures) and modestly did his thing, managing to keep King William happy as well as historians.
     Alain – called le Roux because of his red beard – hits  the historical stage around the time of the Norman Conquest.  He was in charge of the Breton contingent, a sizeable part of William’s invasion force.  If you recall, the Breton wing of the Norman army at the Battle of Hastings nearly lost the day: they were the first to panic and flee from the ferocity of the Saxons.  For a moment all was in chaos, then many of the inexperienced Saxon fyrd broke the shield wall and pursued the Bretons.  However, William rallied his men and cut off the Saxons from the rest of the army, wiping them out to a man.  Seeing the success of the maneuver, William instructed the Bretons to do it a couple of times more throughout the battle, with great success.
     After William become king he rewarded his supporters with grants of land and titles.  Alain was created the first Earl of Richmond, and a Norman keep stands on the site of his original castle overlooking the River Swale. In 1069, during the great Harrying of the North after the insurrection of Durham, Alain was the man William appointed to do the job.  By the end of his career, he had amassed over 250,000 acres in land grants.  Yet he is said to have died childless and his estate was inherited by his brother Alain le Noir (so- called because of his black beard).
     Early in my research for my upcoming novel,  “Heir to a Prophecy” I unearthed a story that my protagonist Walter actually went to Brittany and married Alain’s daughter, later taking her to Scotland and the court of Malcolm III where he was a favorite.  Although this is probably apocryphal, I did recently find an anecdote that makes me wonder if it could be true.
     Just the other day I was reading the book “The House of Godwine: The History of a Dynasty” (by Emma Mason) which was written 5 years ago.  Four pages from the end, the author states that King Malcolm planned to marry his daughter Edith to Count Alan the Red in 1093 (she was in the Wilton nunnery at the time), and King William Rufus forbid the union, causing Malcolm to storm out of the royal court. Now, why would Malcolm care about Alain unless there was some sort of connection between them (Walter)?
     Even more interesting (to me, that is), instead of Malcolm’s daughter, Alain actually took a fancy to another important novice at Wilton: Gunhild, daughter of Harold Godwineson and Edith Swanneck.  At the same time Malcolm took his daughter out of Wilton, Alain removed Gunhild (by then well into her 30s) and brought her to live with him…on the very estates he had taken over from her wealthy mother after Hastings.  When Alain died around 1094, Gunhild stayed and became the partner of Alain’s brother Le Noir, who succeeded to the estates.  What did she have to lose, after all?

Monday, May 19, 2014

Macbeth & Thorfinn of Orkney

The relationship between Macbeth and Thorfinn Sigurdsson, Earl of Orkney is more than accidental.  Thorfinn - known to  historians as The Black - was grandson of King Malcolm II and may have been raised in Malcolm's household.  However, he quickly became enemies with Malcolm's heir Duncan I, who tried to claim the earldom of Caithness on his accession to the throne.  Thorfinn bitterly contested Duncan's claims, and met him in battle at least twice, defeating the King's forces both times.

Macbeth had a claim to the throne through his wife Grouch, and it is thought that Thorfinn and Macbeth became allies against Duncan.  Shortly after the King's second defeat at Torfness, it is written that Duncan met Macbeth in battle at Pitgaveny on Aug. 15, 1040 and was killed on the battlefield.   This is a far cry from being murdered in his bed!

It is possible that after Duncan's death, Thorfinn and Macbeth managed Scotland jointly, for it is said that at the height of his power, Thorfinn ruled 9 northern earldoms.  Historians have written that Macbeth and Thorfinn went to Rome on Pilgrimage together.  Some actually believe they were the same person, although I think this is a stretch.  Nonetheless, you can read a lively story to this effect in Dorothy Dunnett's King Hereafter.

It's possible that Earl Thorfinn Raven-feeder  came to Macbeth's aid during the battle of Dunsinane.  He is said to have sailed up the Tay in support of Macbeth, and probably aided the King's escape from the battle, leaving Malcolm III victor on the field.  I write about this at length in my upcoming book, Heir to a Prophecy.

Friday, May 16, 2014

William the Conqueror’s Landing, 1066

I remember my first trip to England somewhere around 1990 or so.  I headed directly south to Hastings, for I had been studying about the great event and wanted to see the battlefield for myself.  Of course, travel itineraries were much harder to plan in those days, but I saw no reason to doubt that I would find what I was looking for as long as I had a good map. Well, I was certainly in for a surprise!

As I recall, Hastings was a sleepy little city.  Yes, there is a castle ruins there, but no battlefield.   As I was soon to discover, much to my embarrassment, the battle was fought about 7 miles north of Hastings at a place called Battle (no wonder!).   Nor did William the Conqueror land at Hastings; his ships touched land about 10 miles to the west at a spot known to history as Pevensey and to locals as Normans Bay (there’s even a train stop).

William had quickly assembled a great fleet, since he only started planning the invasion that very year.  Mostly built for transport (unlike the great warships of the Vikings),  they were single masted open boats with a sail and many were attached to smaller boats.  Wace numbers the fleet at 696, though others state he brought over 3000; the larger number possibly included all sized crafts.  Sir Charles Oman estimated that the Norman force numbered 12,000-14,000, though others estimated as many as 60,000.   It’s probably safer to stay with the lower number, considering the size of the battlefield.

William had planned to invade England months earlier; in August of that year, the Norman ships had gathered at the mouth of the river Dive.  If he had succeeded in crossing the Channel when he wanted to, Harold would have been on hand to contest his landing, for the King was diligently guarding the southern coast with his Saxon levies.  But the winds were against the invaders and William was delayed a month at Dive, then after an aborted attempt to cross, he spent another couple of weeks up the coast at Saint Valery.

Finally, on the 27th of September, the winds changed and the Normans raced to their ships, although it took all day to load supplies and horses.  Edward A. Freeman paints a picture of celebration while they were preparing: “The ships resounded with music; the pipe, the zittern, the drum, the cymbals, all were heard, and the voice of the trumpet sounded proudly over all.” (Vol. 3, p. 399). When William boarded it was already dark, so he ordered all the ships to put a light on their mast and he placed a huge lantern atop his own Mora to be the guiding star of the fleet.

William’s was one of the few ships that did not carry horses, and this is probably the reason he outstripped the rest of the fleet while crossing the Channel.  When the sun arose the next day, he was stunned to see himself all alone; not another ship was to be seen.  Undaunted, the Duke ordered that they drop anchor and he cheerfully sat down to breakfast, though he encouraged his sailor to climb back up to the mast head and keep watch.  Before long the sailor saw four ships, and soon, “he saw such a multitude that their masts looked like a forest upon the waves.”

William’s luck was with them.  Not only was the crossing almost without incident (two ships were lost, including one that carried a soothsayer who prophesied that England would fall without a blow), they were astounded to discover the long beach deserted.  No Saxon host stood ready to repel the invaders because unbeknownst to William, King Harold had hastened north to defend his country against a totally different threat: the Norwegian King Harald Hardraada.

Duke William was the first warrior to set foot on land — though his foot slipped out from under him and he fell forward on both hands.  Horrors!  A loud cry went up around him, for his men saw this accident as a terrible omen.  But William kept his wits about him.  Grabbing two fistfuls of sand, he cried out, “By the splendor of God I have taken seizen of my kingdom; the earth of England is in my two hands,” thus transforming bad luck into good fortune and saving the day.

Encouraged, the Normans disembarked in good order, still expecting resistance from the English.  But none was forthcoming and the invaders most likely drew their ships onto the beach.  It is thought a small garrison was left to guard the ships, utilizing the ruins of a Roman fort on the site.  It is possible that the Normans build one of their portable wooden fortresses there, but this is debated.Hastings

They did not bring many provisions with them, and Pevensey was not the ideal site for foraging.  The Normans probably only spent one day there before moving their force east to Hastings, which was set as William’s permanent camp.  They dug a trench, formed an earthen mound and erected a wooden fortress at their new location.  It was now September 29 and William had plenty of time to set about terrorizing the locals in earnest so as to draw King Harold back to meet him in fateful battle.

Sunday, March 30, 2014

Return of Earl Godwine, 1052

Earl Godwine may have had a humiliating experience finding himself exiled in the fall of 1051, but by many accounts his absence made the Saxons appreciate him like never before.  King Edward the Confessor, ever more at home in Normandy than England, surrounded himself with Thegns and Prelates from his adopted land who proceeded to lord it over the Saxons as though they were a conquered people.  Before the following winter was over, Godwine was encouraged by many requests for his return, and by summer he concluded that the time was right to reclaim his earldom.

Most likely he sent messages to Harold and Leofwine in Ireland, who finally set sail in nine borrowed ships loaded with mercenaries.  Landing at Porlock  in the Bristol channel for supplies, Harold met with fierce local resistance and a battle ensued that killed 30 Saxon thegns and their troops.  Harold plundered the immediate area then boarded again, rounding Land’s end and heading for Sandwich to meet up with his father.

Meanwhile, Godwine was headed toward Sandwich and was warned that the King had ordered a small fleet to be gathered against him. At the same time, one of those wicked Channel storms blew up, dispersed the Royal fleet and pushed Godwine back to Flanders.  As it turned out, this was a lucky break for Godwine because the King was unable to reassemble his ships and crews, so the King’s undermanned fleet stayed in London while Godwine reunited with Harold and made his triumphant way up the Thames.  Since Wessex was his own earldom, men flocked to his standard, and by the time he reached London at low tide and dropped anchor on the Southwark side, Godwine’s enthusiastic following had taken the spirit out of the King’s defenders.  No one wanted a civil war just to support the overbearing Normans surrounding the King.

When the tide came in, Godwine’s party weighed anchor and traveled under London Bridge unopposed, making their way to where the King was waiting.  Godwine sent messengers to Edward, asking him to return everything that had taken from him and restore his rights legally.  Hoping to find a way out of this mess, Edward prevaricated, until Godwine’s followers became restive and the Earl had great difficulty keeping them under control.

Bishop Stigand and other negotiators decided that an exchange of hostages would help the situation, and this is probably when Godwine released his son Wulfnoth and grandson Hakon to Edward.  It was agreed that the King and the Earl of Wessex would meet at a great Witan Gemot the following day and restore peace.

As soon as the Normans saw which way the wind was blowing, they decided to make a run for it.  I have this vision of Norman soldiers bursting out of the city in every direction, among them Archbishop Robert, Godwine’s bitter enemy.  He and his followers were said to have cut their way through the crowd and out by the east gate of London, leaving a trail of dead and wounded victims.  Worst of all, it appears that they abducted Godwine’s son and grandson, which might be the explanation why their departure was so violent; perhaps the Earl’s men were trying to stop the kidnapping.  Alas for poor Godwine, the hostages given in good faith ended up as pawns in Duke William’s hands, and Godwine would never see his youngest son again.

Regardless, the great gathering was held the following day outside the walls of London, where the people and the other Earls gathered to welcome the return of their hero.  Godwine laid his axe at the King’s feet and declared his homage, and while the crowd cheered their acclaim he and Edward exchanged the kiss of peace.  Godwine was restored all that had been taken from him, the charges were put aside, and amnesty was declared for any ills that had taken place the last three months.  Archbishop Robert was deprived of his post and declared outlaw. And lastly, “Good law was decreed for all folk” (Anglo-Saxon Chronicle).

Alas, Godwine was not destined to enjoy his triumph for long.  The events had taken their toll on his health and he soon fell seriously ill.  Within the year he was dead; while feasting at the King’s table he was seized by a powerful convulsion and fell insensible, never to waken again.

Robert Curthose, son of William the Conqueror

When we study the succession of post-conquest English kings, we often forget that England might not be their primary interest.  This may be the reason that William the Conqueror groomed his eldest son to inherit the Dukedom of Normandy and gave the English crown to a younger brother. Or was it because Robert, surnamed Curthose was a bit of a wastrel and couldn’t be depended on to manage his tempestuous new conquest?

Robert does not present a very appealing picture. He is described as short and fat with a heavy face, but at the same time it is said he was a powerful warrior, generous and bold and likeable. However, like the later Henry II and his eldest son Henry the Young King, poor Robert was given Normandy as his inheritance, but not allowed to rule or even receive any revenue with which to pay his followers.  Nor did William share any of the spoils of his new kingdom of England with his eldest son. William expected him to be content with an empty title and bide his time until William was ready to die.

Robert had other ideas and bitterly reproached his father, to no avail. Finally, frustrated, impoverished, he surrounded himself with his friends who were also sons of nobles and wandered hither and yon, invoking aid from William’s tempestuous underlords and waging rebellion against his father. There is no doubt that he was also helped by the King of France, who was always ready to wreak havoc with William.  Finally, the French King permitted Robert to occupy the castle of Gerberol on the borders of Normandy and France, and William had to take a firm stand against his errant son. Laying siege to the castle in 1079, William received his first ever wound, unluckily by the hand of his own son.  At the same moment, an arrow killed William’s horse and he fell to the ground, expecting to receive the final death blow, but was saved by a loyal Englishman who gave up his own life. In the fighting that followed, even William Rufus was wounded defending his father, and the Conqueror retreated, leaving the victory to his rebellious son.

Humiliated, William retreated to Rouen and the rebellious Robert, perhaps in remorse, took his followers and passed over to Flanders. Although William was incensed, he listened to the arguments of the nobles in Normany, many of whom were fathers of Robert’s companions. They urged him to reconcile and he eventually agreed, receiving his son and friends and renewing the succession, as before.

When William the Conqueror died in 1087, Robert and William II made an agreement to be each other’s heir, but this arrangement was short-lived and the wily Norman barons sought to get rid of the stronger brother (the King of England) in favor of the weaker brother they thought they could control.  In the following year, the rebel Barons fortified their castles in England and, led by William the Conqueror’s elder half-brothers Odo of Bayeux and Robert, Count of Mortain marched against William Rufus in the expectation that Robert would bring supporters from Normandy and join their forces.  Alas for them, bad weather forced Robert back across the channel and the rebellion collapsed.

In 1096, Robert went on Crusade, not to return until five years later – too late to stop his younger brother Henry from taking the crown of England on the death of William II.  He led an invasion that came to nothing, and eventually annoyed Henry so much that the new King of England invaded Normandy instead, capturing Robert in 1106 and imprisoning him for the rest of his life.  Robert lived in captivity another 28 years and died in  his early 80s.