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.