Monday, December 7, 2015

What is Sac and Soke in Anglo-Saxon England?

Sac and Soke and their derivitives (socage, sokeman, sake, soc) are found so frequently in so many different contexts, I finally started to question whether I understood them at all. It appears that these terms are more complicated than I first thought.

The basic definition implies a feudal-like tenancy, where the sokeman rendered non-military services to his lord (using soke as related to ploughshare). The sokeman apparently ranked between the free tenant and the bond tenant (or villein). He was a free man within the lord’s soke, or jurisdiction. But it does not stop there. According to Peter Rex in his “HAROLD II” book (p.276), “Then there is the Anglo-Scandinavian institution called a ‘soke‘. This was an estate made up of a main or central village and dependent pieces of property called variously berewicks or sokelands. The tenant of a soke, called a sokeman, held his land by attending the court of his lord, the holder of the soke, and by paying him a money rent and rendering various services of a non-military kind. The sokes were governed by a great body of custom requiring the sokemen to seek the lord’s court, his mill, his sheepfold, his church and so on, to the exclusion of other competing institutions.”

If you look up Soke in the Merriam-Webster dictionary the definition is: “The right in Anglo-Saxon and early English law to hold court and administer justice with the franchise to receive certain fees or fines arising from it:  jurisdiction over a territory or over people.” The Dictionary of Medieval Terms and Phrases interprets it thus: “Grants of sake and soke allowed the granter to intercept the fines and other profits of justice relating to his own estate which would otherwise have gone to the king.” Do Sac and Soke always go together? Apparently not. The English historian Adolphus Ballard stated that when used alone, soke denoted services. And according to Alexander Mansfield Burrill in his “A law dictionary and glossary”, when mentioned together soc gave the right to constitute a court, and sac gave authority to try cases in it.

In “The Domesday Inquest”, Adolphus Ballard points out that the sake and soc sometimes “varied according to the social position of those from whom it was due”. For instance, in the half-hundred of Diss, “all those who held less than 30 acres…their fines were paid to the officer of the manor…of all those who held 30 acres or more…their fines were payable to the sheriff at the hundred-moot.” Even the forfeitures could be broken up: “The possession of sake and soke did not confer on its owner the right to all forfeitures. The fines for certain offenses—peace-breach, “heinfare” (forcible entry),  and “forestel” (assault) were in the King’s demense throughout England and were paid to him alone; the Earl had no share in them.”

So apparently, sake and soke had more to do with judgments and fines than mere service owed as a tenant, although that was certainly an integral part of it. A man could possess sac and soke over others of lower rank (but not over himself), and a sokeman was the one who did the owing. Apparently the finer definitions go on and on, and there is plenty of confusion depending on what part of England you are talking about. Although sac and soke continued into the Anglo-Norman period, it seems to have been eventually supplanted by the feudal system, although knowing the difference sounds like another field of study.

Wednesday, October 14, 2015

The Battle of Hastings, Excerpt from HEIR TO A PROPHECY

William sat astride his destrier, helmet on, iron shafted mace in hand. Above his head floated the consecrated gonfanon of the Pope, alongside his own standard. He surveyed the difficult line of attack.
Harold had indeed chosen his spot well; the army was spread across the summit of a hill perfectly suited for his somewhat reduced numbers. They were ten or twelve ranks deep, all on foot. Both of Harold’s flanks were impassable. To the west was a ravine, cut by a small stream and banked with mushy ground; to the east, the incline was precipitously steep.
Their post was purely defensive. The Saxons could not move from their firmly entrenched spot. William nodded to himself. His own mobile force could attack in waves, allowing them alternate periods of rest, while the solid English line would be forced to defend themselves almost continually. It was only a matter of wearing them down.
However, Harold did have a distinct advantage on his side. With tremendous energy, the Saxons had erected a wall that effectively enclosed them in a fortress. There were only three openings in the otherwise solid wall, to allow for possible forays. Charging uphill into a wooden palisade was no easy task.
The housecarls were concentrated in the middle, directly opposite the Norman division. Both wings were composed of shire levies, less experienced men, grimly clutching their axes and bills, homemade swords and daggers, clubs, rocks tied to a stick for throwing, slings, studded maces, or farm tools; they were crude, but effective enough. Their protection was minimal, but they stood, along with the rest, behind the kite shaped shields, a second line of defense beyond the palisade.
William glanced down as he felt a tug on his stirrup. Standing beside him, brilliantly dressed in parti-color, was his favorite jongleur, Taillefer—Cleaver of Iron—who had kept him amused for so many hours in their long wait across the channel. William’s smile faded at the serious look on the minstrel’s face.
“I beg a boon of you, my Lord,” the man said. William nodded. “The time has come for me to prove my mettle, Sir Duke. Would you permit me the first blow, so that the name of Taillefer shall always be remembered in remembering your own?”
William hesitated, moved by the man’s request. “You know what that means,” he said, bending low over his horse’s neck. “You will never make it back to our protection.”
Taillefer made a gay little leap, belying his fears. “Why Sir, what is that, next to immortality?”
Sighing, knowing that he would lose many more of his supporters before the day was over, William gave his consent. He looked at the sun as the jongleur armed himself. It was about three hours before noon.
In moments, Duke William watched his minstrel ride out into the open space between the two armies. He gave the order to be ready for the attack. The archers would go first.
Meanwhile, Taillefer rode forth on his little pony, singing songs of Roland and Charlemagne, to the astonishment of both armies. Spellbound, all watched him give the most momentous performance of his life, throwing his sword in the air and catching it with a practiced whirl.
He rode through an opening in the palisade, rearing his horse theatrically, when suddenly he brought his mount to the ground and charged forward, killing two men before their comrades came to their senses. In a flurry of axes, jongleur and horse went down.
At that moment the cry was given for the Norman archers to advance. In all three divisions, the first line moved into range, planting their feet wide, taking aim and showering the Saxon line with relentless shafts. However, the trajectory was uphill; the arrows did little damage.
Soon, the archers fell back, and the infantry was ordered to attack. Theirs was the most perilous work; in range of javelins and missiles, they had to apply all of their strength, attempting to tear down the stout palisade.
In places they succeeded. Breaking through, holding up their shields, they surged forward to pit themselves against the unmoving Saxon shield wall. Meanwhile, others continued the laborious task at the palisade.
However, the Saxons proved a formidable enemy. Unbeaten in battle, they smote with practiced confidence. Fierce as the attack was, the defense was fiercer, and the infantry was driven back by a combination of blows and well-aimed stones. They gave way to the next wave of attack.
It was the cavalry’s turn to try their best. The most awesome fighting men ever seen in England, the ponderous knights gave vent to their impatience, thundering past the infantry in their difficult uphill climb.
They were still hindered by the palisade, though the weaker spots were damaged further by the charging horses. Holding their spears before them, they crashed against the unyielding shield wall, crying their slogans, cursing the enemy.
The Saxons gave not an inch. Horses reared against each other, having no space to turn back. The Saxons were prepared; a well-aimed sweep with the poleaxe could bring down both man and horse in one blow. Unarmored, some of the horses fell on the first charge, pierced by English spears. The steep ascent proved too much for the Normans in their preliminary attempt. They retired in order back to their starting point.
This was more of a probing attack than an all-out assault. William had not committed all of his army to the first thrust, nor had he himself joined in. From his vantage point he was able to gauge the places of most serious resistance, and weakness, of the Saxon line.
William had his answer. Judging from his set expression, the strength of the English was every bit as menacing as he had supposed. With a stern shout, he ordered a second assault.
Once again the archers tried their skill, followed by the infantry. The attack was fiercer this time, their shouts of “God help us” answered by cries of “Out, out!” from the Saxon ranks. Still, they made no headway. Again they fell back, unsuccessful, to make way for the cavalry.
The Breton contingent was divided into three sub-commands: that of Alain, his brother Le Noir, and Walter. They found that the untried levies on the wing resisted as stoutly as the housecarls.
Amazed, Alain determined to break through this second time. With a cry of “A Brittany” the leaders spurred forward, followed by their undeterred troops.
But this time their anxiousness betrayed them. Charging through the infantry, no one in the rush, from commander to rear horseman, noticed that in their gentler ascent they had greatly outdistanced the Norman contingent to their right.
Intent on their immediate targets, the Bretons crashed into the shield wall again, meeting with a fiercer resistance than before. Heavy missiles flew at them, meeting their marks with a deadly thud. Sturdy Englishmen met their swords with sweeping axes, cleaving through blades and limbs.
Screaming horses lashed out in pain; men plunged through the shields only to be thrust forth again or pulled from their horses. All mingled in a chaotic roar. Slipping on fresh spilled blood, tripping over writhing bodies, the well-organized line broke into scattered tangles.
Suddenly the foremost knights realized that their right flank was undefended. A few men drew back in confusion, yelling their dismay.
From one man to the next, the word spread that they were unprotected. Bewildered, wanting only to get away from the onslaught, the inexperienced riders reined off, intent on a moment’s reprieve.
Walter felled a man with his sword, and looked up to see men pulling away. Jerking his horse’s head around, he dashed through the pandemonium, yelling for them to turn and fight. Slapping men with the flat of his blade, he cursed, admonished, threatened, but to no avail.
Like an avalanche the retreat gained in momentum, until all the men, losing their heads, shot away from the fighting. In short order they overran the infantry. They passed the Norman line, still struggling forward, spreading terror through their ranks as well.
Some of the Bretons found themselves in worse shape than ever; stumbling into the mire on the edge of the field, their desperate scrambling rooted them even deeper. Many tumbled into the ravine, pushed by their companions who couldn’t stop soon enough. Terrified horses kicked their riders senseless.
Walter found himself beside Le Noir at the rear of the retreat. They did not give up; grabbing men by the shoulders and jerking them around, they finally managed to force a small group to turn back. But it was not enough; from the midst of the confusion came the rumor that Duke William was dead. The battle was over.
Progress came to a halt as the few men milled around in confusion. Walter spotted Alain and rode toward him, leaving Le Noir to make some sense of the commotion. Between them, they shouted some sort of order into those within hearing. The best they could do was halt the retreat.
But a new clamor came to their ears. Turning, Count Alain saw that a group of Saxons were breaking ranks, itching to turn the retreat into a slaughter. Forgetting the safety of the shield wall, they came streaming down the hill.
At the same time Alain heard an even more familiar voice. The Duke spurred directly toward them, helmet off, thrusting at the recreants with a spear. “Madmen!” he shouted at the Bretons. “Behold me. Are you insane? Your retreat means death. Victory lies ahead. See you, cowards! Your Duke is before you!”
William struck more fear into the Bretons than the Saxons did. Turning toward the English, even the most fearful saw the charging men, and they were struck by their opportunity. Yelling their battle cries, the Bretons dashed back into action.
Gathering the fleeing Normans, William led them toward the headstrong English, cutting off the sundered warriors from the safety of their army. Seeing their plight, the Saxons gathered atop a little hillock in the midst of their enemies, fighting desperately for their lives. Their gallant stand, back to back, while they fell under the avenging swords of the Bretons, went farther than any other incident toward demoralizing their companions.
Then followed a brief reprieve, during which both sides managed to repair their disordered ranks. Just as expected, William rode up to chastise the unsteady Bretons, who had nearly lost the day. But the anger was gone from his face. Looking steadily at the men who had learned such a bitter lesson, he tried to boost their spirits.
“Well, my lads,” he spoke evenly, “there is no need to tell you what you have done. But remember…” he raised his voice, “there is no glory in running from a fight. Even were I killed, I would expect you to continue, if only to maintain your honor. There will be other battles after this one!”
He paused, moving his horse among them. “Perhaps not all bad has come from your panic. See how they mourn their dead on that little hill. Methinks we will try the same ruse again; mayhap you can redeem yourselves. But on my order this time! Not before.” The men cheered, encouraged. William spurred his horse back to the center and gave the order to prepare for another attack.
In ten minutes they moved again. Flowing through the breaches in the palisade, they widened the openings each attack. The Saxons never moved forward to block their way.
This time the Bretons fought valiantly, but the glory in this onslaught went to the Norman division.
In the middle, before the Royal standard, the fighting was the fiercest. William himself was the most apparent, appearing everywhere on his white horse in the midst of the worst exchanges. The pile of bodies was thickest here; making headway on a horse was laborious. William spotted Harold laying about with deadly blows from his poleaxe and surged toward him.
But his movement was checked by a most unexpected attack from Harold’s own brother, Gyrth. Seeing the King’s plight, the Earl of East Anglia heaved his spear, throwing it with tremendous strength. The shaft pierced the heart of William’s gallant steed, and the beast sank, nearly pinning the Duke beneath it.
But a man trained in cavalry fighting must also learn how to clear his fallen mount. Leaping skillfully, the Duke fell heavily on the ground, but regained his feet before anyone had a chance to attack him.
William had not gained his formidable reputation for no reason; he was known to be as deadly on foot as he was on horseback. Shaking the stun from his head, he looked around, searching for his antagonist. With the instinct of a born warrior, he found him; momentarily, the Duke’s eyes locked with those of Gyrth.
Inaction was followed by swift reaction. Determined to avenge this insult, William pressed forward. On his right a man attempted to stop him; a sure sweep of the mace crashed into the unfortunate’s face, dropping him in his tracks. And still the Duke moved on, seeing that his opponent was waiting for him, sword in hand.
They met with a clash of steel on steel. The force of William’s blow would have reduced a lesser man, but Gyrth withstood it, bending slightly at the knees to absorb the shock. He tried to follow his block with a swing to the head, but William easily stopped it.
In anger the Duke swung his mace in a full circle about his head before crashing it into Gyrth’s shoulder; the man’s grimace betrayed his pain. Staggered, the Earl responded with an ineffectual thrust, but he knew the fight was over. In another moment the war club was brought down in a skull-crushing arc, and the valiant Earl’s life force had run out. It was no dishonor to die under the hands of so mighty a foe.
Shortly after, William saw Gyrth’s brother, Leofwine, fall under the mace of Bishop Odo. Brothers were killed by brothers. William gained a dark satisfaction in knowing that Harold had witnessed the slaying of his own two siblings.
But action cut short his unworthy thoughts. He was not as comfortable on foot, and disentangled himself from the Saxon crush, looking for a handy horse to borrow. He spotted a likely steed, mounted by some Maine knight whose name he did not know. The Duke called to the man, requesting him to relinquish his horse. Scorning the thought, perhaps not recognizing his sovereign, the man refused.
Already fired by the fighting, William seethed at his abrupt treatment. Striding forward, he struck the man such a blow that the knight fell from the horse. He leaped on the animal’s back, leaving the rebel to his own devices.
William was as active as ever, for still he had not taken a major wound. But the same luck did not hold for his mounts. Again, William’s horse was killed under him; again he wreaked revenge on his aggressor. This time, Count Eustace offered his own steed, and the Count in turn was given a mount belonging to one of his followers.
Deciding that the charge uphill was in every respect useless, William determined to find a way past the shield wall. He sent a message to Alain instructing him to command a feigned retreat with his whole division. He did not expect them to take long in obeying.
The Duke was not disappointed; shortly afterward, the Bretons took to their heels in a very convincing show of chaos. Forgetting their recent lesson, the inexperienced Saxons charged howling after them, taking nearly a third of their line.
Walter led a portion of the men in a different direction from Alain, scattering the Saxons even further. Then, when he deemed that the pursuers were sufficiently cut off from main army, he shouted for his men to turn.
Reeling their horses in a sudden reversal, the fugitives became the attackers. Realizing their error, the Saxons tried desperately to band together, but many were too late. They were cut down in their momentary bewilderment.
Those in the rear saw the danger; a certain number of them got together on the hill that had already proved so fatal to their fellows. But this time was different. There were more defenders on the hill; they were better armed. Throwing stones and darts, they killed many of the Bretons that were trying, once again, to attack uphill. The Saxons managed to hold the summit.
Other Saxons charged to the hidden ravine, so dangerous to the Bretons in the last incident. They turned on the edge and took a stand, followed by horsemen who hadn’t witnessed that fatal scene, so intent had they been on their own flight.
The Bretons tried to careen to a sudden stop, but their horses were not so nimble as men, nor could they halt those charging behind them. Over and over, horse and man toppled into the gully, crushing those underneath them, and being crushed in turn by those coming after. It was said that the corpses filled the ravine until level with the ground.
Walter’s men had not moved far; faced with the most defiant Saxons who held their ground, the fighting continued without a break. Clean battle-lines had melted into a surging chaos; individual struggles replaced organized assault.
A burly peasant pulled Walter from his horse while he was fighting off two other men. The frightened animal reared, chasing off the first two Saxons who otherwise would have finished him in a moment. Walter twisted from the man’s grasp, swinging wildly with his sword.
The peasant saw the movement, easily evading the badly-aimed cut. With a heavy club, he struck Walter in the side of the head, sending him reeling against his horse. Grinning, the man took a step forward when his face changed to a grimace of pain and his arms went out. The club fell to the ground, and the Saxon with it, blood spurting from his back.
Walter looked up, stunned. Through a fog he saw Le Noir circling him. “Be more careful, my boy. You were lucky your good Breton helmet saved you.”
The knight recovered the reins of Walter’s nervous horse, and held them out. Walter took them, but leaned heavily against the charger’s neck.
“Get out of the fighting,” the other shouted, then was gone, not wanting to miss too much action.
Walter heaved himself onto his mount’s back and followed Le Noir’s advice. Not until his head cleared did he wonder how he managed to maneuver without harm.
Duke William got what he wanted. With the mad pursuit of the Saxons, the continuity of the shield wall was forever broken. They left a large gap at the top of the hill, and the Normans were quick to take advantage. Charging crosswise before the shield wall, the cavalry reached the summit of the hill for the first time all day.
Now, they merely had to attack eastward into the teeth of Harold’s housecarls. The remaining Saxons quickly brought the shield wall around to face the new threat. But the Normans were no longer hindered by that difficult climb; their attacks were more powerful, given the easy footing. The summit, however, was too narrow for all of them; there was still much activity along the slope.
The lack of space on the hilltop also inhibited the movements of the Saxons. No man had the room to make a full swing without stepping out from the safety of the shield wall. It was said that the dead were held up by the living, so tightly wedged were they.
The fighting had gone on for nearly six hours without a stop. William was able to alternate his troops, following archery with infantry with cavalry. Where one tactic was weak, another was strong. The English, however, were forced to stand in one place, frustrated, watching their neighbors die beside them while they were constrained to hold themselves back in a defensive posture. The palisade was almost completely destroyed. The day was evolving in favor of the Normans.
But the outcome was still far from certain. If the Saxons could hold out until nightfall, the battle might be over.
At one point, Duke William found himself faced with an adversary as powerful as himself, who nimbly ducked his tireless attacks. Evading a particularly deadly blow, the man turned and smashed his axe down on William’s head, denting his helm and nearly knocking him from the horse. But the Duke held his seat, then aimed another blow before noticing that the man merged himself among his companions.
However, a group of Normans, always willing to curry their master’s favor, charged toward the fellow, transfixing him with their spears. Seeing this, William turned away, shrugging off his ill luck.
The Duke never succeeded in getting close to Harold. Another Norman almost reached the Saxon King; Robert Fitz-Erneis galloped toward the royal standard, smiting those who dared try to block his way. But the Saxons were too quick for him; they surrounded his horse, striking him until he fell off and was trampled underneath. His charge brought him to within a few feet of the banner.
More and more English abandoned their shield wall, preferring to die in a more actively offensive manner. Anything was better than standing for another minute crammed together. This change in tactics brought the fight back into the Saxons.
William surveyed the field for a moment. Then, with a burst of inspiration, he ordered the archers forward, commanding them to shoot up in the air, so that their arrows would fall like rain on the defending troops. “Aim especially for the royal standard,” he added.
Calmly, the bowmen stepped within range, pointed their bows into the sky; it was a tricky maneuver, depending mostly on luck and the wind. There was a danger of wounding their own men if the arrows were badly aimed.
At first, the Saxons didn’t pay much attention to the arrows. But like magic, the new threat drew their sight upward, threw them into a panic. Men were pierced in the face, in the throat; screaming in fear and frustration, they raised their shields, leaving their lower bodies defenseless.
Suddenly a burst of activity below the Dragon of Wessex relayed the message that one arrow, at least, hit its mark. Rumors spread instantly through the ranks; Harold was pierced in the eye.
Twenty of William’s knights spurred toward the spot, pursued by angry housecarls intent on having their revenge. All but four of the twenty were cut down in this last charge.
But the four reached the fallen King: Eustace of Boulogne, still intent on revenge for an earlier affront; the son of Guy of Pointhieu, Harold’s earlier captor; Hugh of Montfort; and the younger Walter Giffard.
Seeing that Harold was still alive, they leaped from their horses, intent on dealing the fatal blow. One of them pierced him through with a spear. Another struck him with a sword, below the fastenings of his helmet. Harold was stabbed through the chest by a third. But, most unchivalrous of all, the last man cut his leg clean through, and flung it far from the body.
In the struggle, Harold’s Fighting Man went down, trodden into the mud. The royal gonfanon was carried off.
Enraged, the housecarls doubled their vigorous attacks. But the Normans, as well, were heartened by this crucial death. The day was won; all present knew this. Harold’s valiant fighters, his most personal friends, were prepared to die on the field, defending their own honor to the end. Their only intent was to take as many Normans with them as they could.
Around the spot where the standard had fallen, fighting lasted into the dark. But elsewhere, as the banner fell, men who had farms and families waiting for them lost heart. Theirs was not a soldiering life; they were not used to sentiments like dying in battle. First by ones and twos they fled, then the whole field was moving with men streaming to safety, some throwing their weapons in their haste to be off.
The fighting became a race; the Saxons became fugitives, and their enemies the pursuers. But the English unwittingly had the advantage; it was dark. They knew the land, and could traverse the marsh, while heavily laden horses slipped and floundered. Spotting their opportunity, the pursued turned again, wreaking their last revenge on the premature victors.
Many Normans lost their life in that treacherous marsh, later called Malfosse, just at the moment when they thought themselves safe. It was an omen, if only they could see it; herein were displayed the problems facing William in dealing with this, his conquered people.

Thursday, October 8, 2015

What is Heriot in Anglo-Saxon England?

Heriot is one of those words I didn’t notice right away in my research, probably because I didn’t know what it was. But the payment of heriot was pervasive throughout the tenth and eleventh centuries, though it’s kind of hard to get one’s hands around. What is it? In a nutshell, heriot was a kind of inheritance tax. It was due to the king, or the overlord, or the bishop, or even the sheriff, and apparently was a great source of income overall. The higher the rank, the greater the heriot. Heriot was expected to be paid promptly, or at least within a year, if you wanted to ensure that you had the right to inherit land and wealth. A Will wasn’t exactly enough; payment of heriot put an obligation on the king (or recipient) to enforce the deceased person’s Will and ensure the inheritance for the heir. Alas, a suspicion of treason toward the dead person might derail the whole process, an event which was recorded in Aethelred’s reign. He refused to honor the will of a certain Aethelric of Bocking even though his widow arrived promptly with the heriot.

Apparently this custom came from the old Teutonic days when a lord presented arms and armor to a follower that were returned to him on the recipient’s death. Canute drew up special provisions for heriot in his secular law code (II Cnut § 71), which established the amount due from each level of aristocracy: “Heriots are to be determined as befits the rank: an earl’s as belongs thereto, namely eight horses, four saddled and four unsaddled, and four helmets and four coats of mail and eight spears and as many shields and four swords and 200 mancuses of gold; and next, the king’s thegns who are closest to him: four horses, two saddled and two unsaddled; and two swords and four spears and as many shields, and a helmet and a coat of mail and fifty mancuses of gold; and of the median (medumre) thegn: a horse and its trappings, and his weapons or his healsfang (2.5 pounds) in Wessex; and two pounds in Mercia and two pounds in East Anglia. And the heriot of the king’s thegn among the Danes, who has his soc (rights of jurisdiction): four pounds. And if he has a more intimate relation with the king: two horses, one saddled and one unsaddled, and a sword and two spears and two shields and 50 mancuses of gold. And he who is of lower position: two pounds.” (see Ancient laws and institutes of England, comprising laws enacted under the Anglo-Saxon kings from AEthelbirht to Cnut by Benjamin Thorpe). On some occasions, a Bishop’s heriot was seen to exceed even that of an earl. But heriot wasn’t only for the aristocrat; even ceorls and freemen were often obliged to give up their best beast or equivalent; apparently an oxen was worth more than a horse.

A widow’s status was complicated. Canute gave a widow twelve months to pay her husband’s heriot. But she had to remain unmarried. If some unscrupulous relative coveted her inheritance, they could force her to marry or join a convent in that twelvemonth, in which case she would lose both her morning-gift and all possessions from her former husband. These would then pass on to the nearest kinsman. But at the same time, the king would lose the heriot tax if this were to happen, so it was also written into Canute’s law that a widow should never be forced to marry a man she dislikes. After all, the Crown had much to lose. Apparently this custom remained in force for many centuries in its various forms, though following its usage is fraught with confusion. I did find a book: The Law of the Heriots: With an Introductory Note on Their Origin by Edward Broughton Broughton-Rouse which brings you all the way up to the mid-19th century, but luckily this is beyond the scope of my study!

Friday, August 28, 2015

My review of THE MAID AND THE QUEEN by Nancy Goldstone

Finally! For years I've been waiting for a book about Joan of Arc that tells the history without relapsing into religious ecstasy. Goldstone delivers this and so much more in this historical account of France's turning point during the 100 Years War. I bought this book not knowing who the Queen was, her important role in Charles VII's life, or her association with Joan. I was surprised to learn that the story of Yolande of Aragon puts this formidable woman on a par with Eleanor of Aquitaine, yet I never heard of her.

This is a book about how Joan of Arc, aided by sympathetic members of Charles' party—mainly Yolande—invigorated the French people and its King to push back against the English. Joan's role is firmly established, but there are so many other events crowding the end of the war that her tragic martyrdom is not the end of the story. "It would be gratifying to be able to confirm...that, if not quite the catalyst for a precipitous surrender, Joan's execution at least marked the moral turning point in the conflict, the moment at which the native French population, repulsed by the deed, turned against the occupation and began the slow process of throwing off the yoke of the invaders. And yet the sad truth is that Joan's death had absolutely no effect upon the war, or the politics of the period..." In fact, the war dragged on for another twenty years, and much of the effort to turn the tables on the English came from the historically unacknowledged Yolande.

Charles, the future King, was the youngest son of mad king Charles VI and an unscrupulous Isabeau of Bavaria in war-torn France. He was a nervous, neglected child whose prospects were not particularly glittering and was sent away to be raised by his future mother-in-law in peaceful and beautiful Provence. Yolande's court was enlightened and brilliant, and the future king became totally attached to the Queen of Sicily. She was a formidable, efficient ruler and her support was instrumental in keeping Charles on the right path. It was eventually through Yolande's influence that Joan of Arc managed an interview with "the Dauphin" as she called him. Also, when Charles' natural timidity held him back from committing his military forces, Yolanda often returned to take control and push matters forward. In the end, she helped forge the diplomatic ties between France and Burgundy that finally dislodged the English from their French territories.

One might ask why Charles and Yolande did not work harder to redeem Joan from her captors. Yes, by that time she had already outlived her usefulness and seemed to be in the way more often than not. There was no doubt that the common people still looked up to her, but "she was during this period kept at arm's length and regarded as a nuisance and a potential liability by those in power at court." All along her military astuteness was questionable, and even at the siege of Orleans the French commanders ignored her advice and won the day despite her objections. By the time she was captured, Joan had taken it upon herself to lead a practically suicidal mission at Compiegne, and no one in charge paid much attention to her. When she was taken, one train of thought was "Because Joan claimed to have appeared by the order of God, to interfere in her fate would have been akin to questioning a divine imperative." I can see that as a solid medieval sentiment. But more to the point, the King wouldn't have thought she was in danger. Joan had been ennobled a few months previously, and the terms of her captivity were "dictated by the time-honored rules of chivalry." She would be held for ransom, it was supposed, and given honorable imprisonment. They never thought that Joan would be ransomed by the enemy of France, the Duke of Burgundy! And Burgundy was determined to prove that Joan was a witch and anyone following her advice was dishonored. Including, of course, Charles VII.

This period of history was incredibly complex, with murders and treason, political agendas and a long cast of characters. The author does an admirable job keeping everything straight. I had no trouble following events, and the writing was smooth and enjoyable; there were even times I felt a little excitement, as though in the midst of a novel. I suspect it was difficult presenting a mystical saint as a straightforward historical figure, but Goldstone smoothly sidestepped religious issues and gave us a credible explanation of events. She had a couple of theories of her own that tied things together: she is convinced that Yolande made a connection between Joan and the "Romance of Melusine", famous in its time, which is why she supported the Maid; the author attributed the vehemence of Joan's trial and later rehabilitation to a conflict between factions in the University of Paris faculty. I thought these theories a little bit of a stretch, but they didn't stop me from enjoying the book. I would highly recommend it to students of the Middle Ages.

Friday, August 14, 2015

The Children of Harold Godwineson

by Horace Vernet Like much of the eleventh century, the fate of Harold’s children is somewhat vague. We have a pretty good idea about the immediate years after the Battle of Hastings, but with the exception of Harold’s daughter Gytha we don’t exactly know what happened to them.

Harold’s long relationship with his handfasted wife Edith Swanneck produced five or six children. Godwine, the eldest, was named after Harold’s father. Then we have Edmund (named after Edmund Ironside?), Magnus, Gunhild and Gytha. The youngest son, Ulf, was probably from this marriage, but some historians think he was the twin brother of Harold from his father’s second marriage to Ealdgyth, sister of Edwin and Morcar and (uncrowned) Queen of England.

From the first, we don’t know what happened to Edith Swanneck. Legend has it that she was brought to the battlefield to identify King Harold’s mangled corpse, based on marks that only she would know. After that, she presumably accompanied the body to Waltham Abbey for burial, but we know nothing further after that. Where were the children all this time?

We know that Gunhild took refuge in Wilton Abbey, a favorite establishment of her aunt Editha (Edward the Confessor’s wife). Perhaps Gunhild was already settled at the Abbey for her education and thus remained there after the battle. Years later, she left the Abbey in the company of Count Alain le Roux, Lord of Richmond, who was the recipient of many estates belonging to her mother. It seems that she had little vocation for the veil and took advantage of an opportunity to go back to her own lands. She and Alain lived together until his death, and afterwards she took up with his brother, Alain le Noir who inherited the estates. After le Noir’s death, she disappears from the records.

The three eldest sons of Edith may well have accompanied their mother to Ireland. Diarmaid of Leinster, the same King who sheltered Harold Godwineson back in 1051, is said to have welcomed Harold’s sons in their exile. It’s also possible that they went to Exeter, a stronghold of the Godwine family where their grandmother Gytha resided. Exeter became a focal point of local rebellion; King William took this threat seriously enough to lay siege to the city for 18 days in the winter of 1068. Apparently the besieged were not in agreement, for they capitulated to William while Gytha, accompanied by her allies, fled to the island of Flat Holm in the Bristol channel and stayed for many months.

The Irish King permitted the sons of Harold to recruit a fleet of mercenaries and invade England on two separate occasions; the last invasion proved a costly disaster in manpower and Magnus was probably killed. It’s possible that Gytha waited until it was clear that her grandsons’ cause was hopeless before leaving Flat Holme for good and traveling to Flanders. She may have entered a convent at St. Omer. Or she might have gone back to Scandinavia, where the presiding King of Denmark was her nephew.

It was thought that Godwine and Edmund probably went to Scandinavia as well, along with their sister Gytha. If they thought King Swegn would help militarily, they were destined to be disappointed. Our knowledge of their fate disappears after this, but Swegn was able to use his influence to set young Gytha up in a royal marriage. Her new husband, Vladimir Monomakh, prince of Smolensk was said to be handsome and rich, and she lived, in apparent contentment, until 1107.

Ulf, surprisingly, ended up a hostage in William the Conqueror’s court. Whether he was captured after the Exeter siege (which would make him a son of Edith Swanneck) or captured as a baby in Chester (which would make him a son of Ealdgyth) is unknown. He stayed in captivity until King William’s death in 1087, when he was released into the custody of Duke Robert, who knighted him and set him free. By all indications Ulf wisely stayed on the continent and has been identified as Loup Fitz Heraut (Wulf son of Harold) whose signature has been found in charters.

This leaves us with young Harold Haroldson, son of Queen Ealdgyth and heir to the throne if all had gone differently. Ealdgyth was heavily pregnant by the battle of Hastings, and afterwards her brothers Edwin and Morcar whisked her off to Chester for safekeeping. It is thought that the child’s uncles might have had it in mind to use him as a figurehead in a future bid for the throne, but they never got that far. When Ealdgyth found herself with no defenders, she is said to have fled to Ireland with her son. After he grew up, Harold apparently found his way to Norway.  In 1098 he accompanied King Magnus III Barelegs on an expedition to Ireland, but all traces are lost after this point.

It is ironic that Godwine and his clan, once the most powerful force in England, should be reduced to historical footnotes in two generations. And it’s even more ironic that through his daughter Gytha and her son (Mstislav I Vladimirovich the Great), Harold’s blood still flows through the royal houses of Europe all the way to the present day.
(photo: Edith Swanneck discovering King Harold’s corpse on the battle field of Hastings by Horace Vernet)

Saturday, July 18, 2015

Exile of Earl Godwine, 1051

By the middle of the eleventh century, Earl Godwine might have seemed pretty much at the height of his power.  His daughter was married to King Edward, Godwine himself held the most important Earldom in England and his second son Harold was Earl of East Anglia.  He had more strapping sons awaiting their turn for the next vacant earldoms.

But on closer inspection, things were not quite right.  By 1051, it was apparent that Queen Edith was not likely to give birth to an heir, thus reducing her own and Godwine’s influence.  Swegn, Godwine’s eldest son, had shamed the family by his outrageous behavior, then committed the heinous crime of murdering his own cousin.  And to make matters worse, King Edward was surrounding himself with powerful Norman allies and churchmen, culminating in appointing Robert of Jumieges as Archbishop of Canterbury against Godwine’s and the local monks’ approved choice.  Archbishop Robert immediately began poisoning Edward’s mind against Godwine, especially bringing up the old question about Alfred‘s fate and Godwine’s alleged role in the tragedy concerning the King’s brother.
Things came to a head when Eustace, Count of Boulogne, visited King Edward in September, 1051.  On his return trip, he and his men attempted to force the residents of Dover to give them lodging in their homes, just as they were used to in their native country. The stout Dover townsmen resisted, one was killed in his home, a Frenchman was killed in return, and the intruders mounted their steeds and plunged through the town, slashing and maiming whoever got in their way.  The townspeople resisted, turning the incident into a full-fledged skirmish, and when all was done twenty English and nineteen Frenchmen lay dead on the streets.

Eustace turned around at full gallop and took his remaining men back to King Edward at Gloucester, demanding  justice.  Enraged, the King summoned Earl Godwine and insisted that he immediately chastise the offending town with fire and sword.  This was putting the king above the law, and Godwine refused, insisting on a full trial.  Then, having had his say, he retreated to his estate,  leaving the King securely in the hands of the Normans.  It didn’t take long before Godwine’s refusal to obey the King was construed as traitorous.

One thing led to another, and by the end of the month the tide was turning against Godwine.  Edward summoned the other great earls of the land to support him against Godwine’s family; ultimately the King commanded Godwine and Harold to appear and answer charges.  Godwine only agreed to do so if the King issued a safe-conduct.  Edward refused.

Godwine knew there was no hope for his cause, at least for the moment.  He had apparently been preparing for such an eventuality, because much of his treasure had already been loaded on a ship, and he quickly left the country along with most of his family.  Their destination was Flanders, a common refuge for English exiles and home Count Baldwin, brother of Tostig’s new bride.  On a different ship, Harold and his younger brother Leofwine took sail for Ireland, where they were well-received by Dermot, King of Dublin and Leinster.

Poor Queen Edith, caught between father and husband, was quickly trundled off to a convent and deprived of all her goods, real and personal. Did Edward think this was going to be permanent?  Elated at his successful coup, apparently he wanted to make the most of it.  But his freedom from Godwine was destined not to last.

Monday, June 22, 2015

The almost forgotten Edith of Wessex, Queen of England

Edith at left on top panel

Edith was a common name in Anglo-Saxon England, and it’s hard to keep them all straight. You are more likely to see this name spelled Ealdgyth, Editha, Aldgyth, Eddeva, Aldyth, Eadgyth, Edyth…I’m sure I missed a few. I like to think of her as Edith Godwindottir, but she is rarely found under that name. Why Edith of Wessex? She was Queen of England, not Wessex. She did not belong to the House of Wessex like her husband Edward the Confessor. Since her father was first Earl of Wessex, I suppose that is why the name stuck, though I do find it puzzling.

I also find it ironic that one our primary sources of the period, the Life of King Edward who rests at Westminster was commissioned by Edith herself (admittedly called a work of propaganda), and yet she’s been largely overlooked in favor of her illustrious brother Harold II. Try finding any artwork about her; oh yes, there is one memorable depiction of Edith warming Edward’s feet on his deathbed in the Bayeux Tapestry. If you look really hard you can see a female figure. There’s another depiction of her in a MS illum. next to her husband. But that’s about it. Nonetheless, according to Wikipedia, at the time of her husband’s death she was the wealthiest woman in England and the fourth wealthiest person in England after the King, Archbishop Stigand, and her brother Harold. Of course, by the time William was through with her, I imagine some of that great wealth had dissipated.

As was natural for a noble-born daughter, Edith didn’t have any say in her marriage plans. She was a very important pawn in her father’s ambitions, and I imagine Godwine didn’t even consider that she would object to becoming queen of England. But King Edward was at least 20 years older than her, and it seems to be common knowledge that he wasn’t terribly friendly toward her father. It’s pretty clear that Edward held Godwine responsible for the violent death of his brother Alfred, no matter how much the Earl protested his innocence. I wonder who was more unwilling: the bride or the groom?

So what kind of marriage did Edward and Edith have? It is thought by some that Edith commissioned Edward’s Life as an attempt to save face concerning her barren marriage. After all, a woman was always held responsible for a lack of children, and England’s fate relied on her. If she could portray Edward as too saintly to be anything but celibate, then she was off the hook. Was this really the case? Or did Edward find her guilt-by-association too much to overcome? Did they ever consummate the marriage? Or was one of them merely infertile? Hmm, one of the great mysteries of the eleventh century.

One thing is for sure: once Earl Godwine was sent into exile in 1051, poor Edith was trundled off to a nunnery at the earliest opportunity. It is said that if Archbishop Robert of Jumieges had his way, Edward would have annulled his marriage. But the King stopped short of this; perhaps he feared the consequences. On Godwine’s return, Edith was reinstalled as well, and for the rest of his reign she was treated with respect. On his deathbed, Edward said she had always been like a loving and dutiful daughter. Of course, those could have been her propagandist’s words, but they do put some distance between man and wife.

Edith does seem to have a reputation as a well-educated woman, speaking many languages; she made sure Edward’s appearance was always exquisite, outfitting him with fine accessories and jewels. She is also thought to be demanding and possibly ruthless; there was an assassination at the Christmas Court in 1064 which has been pinned on Edith, who allegedly ordered the murder of a certain Gospatric as a favor to Tostig, her closest brother. It must have been difficult for her to be sidelined after Edward died, but in those challenging times maybe it wasn’t such a bad thing to fade into the background. At first Harold treated her as befit her station, then after the conquest William pretty much left her alone, provided she didn’t make any trouble for him. William even buried her in Westminster Abbey beside her husband. In the end it could be said that she fared better than her more illustrious siblings.

Friday, June 19, 2015

Who is Harthacnut?

Harthacnut_-_MS_Royal_14_B_VISoon after Canute gained the throne of England, he invited Aethelred’s widow Emma of Normandy to be his queen.  Emma agreed, on the condition that only the sons born of their union would be next in line to the throne.  This meant that two of his sons and two of her sons from previous marriages would be put aside.

And so Canute and Emma’s child Harthacnut was born in 1017. It seems ironic to me that the young heir Harthacnut was sent to Denmark when he was eight years old, under the regency of Canute’s brother-in-law Jarl Ulf, to help strengthen Canute’s hold on the country. Why would England’s heir be raised in Denmark? But that’s how it went, and in Denmark he stayed, eventually ruling in  his own right. When Canute died unexpectedly in 1035, his firstborn son Harold Harefoot was resident in England, and heir Harthacnut had his hands full in Denmark and did not dare leave the country.

The matter went before the Witan. Earl Godwine and Wessex were in favor of Harthacnut, and the North favored Harold, their native son.  The Witan ruled, at least short-term, to divide the country and appoint Harthacnut King in the south, and Harold King north of the Thames.  Apparently Emma acted as regent, and sent her son increasingly insistent messages to come and claim his kingdom.
Unfortunately, Harthacnut could not get away, and by 1037 Harold Harefoot claimed the whole kingdom, causing Emma to flee to Bruges in Flanders.  There she awaited the arrival of Harthacnut who sailed to join her in 1039 with 10 ships, preparing to invade England. As it turned out, the invasion was not necessary because they heard word that Harold was ailing. Indeed, the king died a few months later, and Harthacnut sailed to England with 62 warships to claim his kingdom.

Actually, the transition was peaceful and Harthacnut raised a Danegeld of 21,000 pounds to pay them off, just like Canute had done in 1017.  The first thing he did on taking the throne was to order the body of his brother, Harold Harefoot, disinterred and thrown into the Thames. That certainly set the stage for his short reign!  Harthacnut ruled by intimidation, harrying the population when they objected to his harsh taxation to pay for a large fleet necessary to keep things under control.
Harthacnut had health problems of his own; in 1041 he invited his half-brother Edward (the Confessor) to live in England, and may have made Edward his heir.  And not too soon!  In June of 1042, during a wedding feast as he was toasting the bride, Harthacnut went into convulsions and died shortly thereafter, unmourned by all but his mother.

Hence ended the brief reign of the Danes. If Svegn Forkbeard, Canute and his sons weren’t so short-lived, things might have turned out differently for Anglo-Saxon England.

Sunday, March 15, 2015

Did Harold die from an Arrow in the Eye?

Tapisserie de Bayeux - Scène 57 : La mort d'HaroldThe Bayeux Tapestry gave us an iconic image of Harold pulling an arrow from his eye. It must be Harold: the name is embroidered around his head and spear. And since the Tapestry is created so close in time to the actual event, it is considered on of the major sources of documentation and hence to be trusted. But somehow, even the identification of the wounded hero is questioned by some, and further investigation raises more questions than it answers. Why?

Well, one thread of discussion is the identity of the figure at Harold's right, falling to the ground in the process of getting his leg cut off. As we learned from the 11th century Carmen de Hastingae Proelio, Harold was hacked up by four attackers (one of them might have been William). From 12th century Wace we learned that Harold was wounded in his eye by an arrow, then felled while still fighting, struck "on the thick of his thigh, down to the bone". So many historians think the second figure is Harold. A third opinion is that both figures are Harold, since the Tapestry could be read like a long cartoon, where one scene leads to the next.

Harold ArrowholesI recently learned about evidence that gives credence to the third theory, but only a close-up view will enlighten: a row of holes next to the second figure's eye, that looks suspiciously like stitches that have been removed! An arrow? If so, then clearly this is the same figure as the other. As historian David Bernstein tells us in a thoroughly investigated "The Blinding of Harold and the Meaning of the Bayeux Tapestry", there are three possible explanations for this row of holes: 1. They are traces of original stitches, which must have indicated an arrow above his eye (not in it). 2. Traces of an arrow sewn in by a later "inspired" restorer, that were subsequently removed by that person or someone else, or 3. Traces of an unrelated repair. Bernstein pretty much discards the third possibility. But what of #2?
I should have realized that the Bayeux Tapestry was subjected to a few major restorations during its 900+ year-old existence. From what I can gather, it was restored in 1730, 1818, 1842 and most recently in 1982. It is recorded that the Victorian-era restorations are fairly easy to determine because the wool used for the embroidery left stains on the edges of the holes. But how many figures were altered considerably beyond their original form? And does Harold's death scene count among the alterations?
Sketches drawn by Antoine Benoît before the 18th century restoration do not indicate the row of holes next to the prone Harold's eye, so it is apparent they might have been added later.

Bernstein tantalizingly reassured us in his manuscript that the 1982 restoration was bound to enlighten us through scientific analysis, but so far I haven't been able to find the results of this event. Meanwhile, he gave us a theory as to why the Tapestry shows an arrow in the eye when not one of the six contemporary accounts mention it at all. He theorized that the arrow represented the hand of God in retribution for Harold's oath-breaking. After all, the Tapestry was a Norman creation (propaganda tool?) and it is possible that William saw this supernatural intervention as an expression of God's approval.

Friday, January 9, 2015

Why was King Edward called the Confessor?

Edward the Confessor is the only King of England to be canonized, though I think many would see him as an unlikely saint. Just for the record, up until the 4th century a Confessor was seen as a holy person who was tortured and suffered for his faith but not killed, as opposed to martyrs who were killed for their faith. After that, since persecutions had mostly ceased, a Confessor was a holy person who by virtue of his writings and preachings became an object of veneration. In reality, it seems that Edward’s canonization was more politically driven, as Osbert of Clare, the prior of Westminster Abbey started a campaign in the 12th century to increase the importance (and wealth) of the Abbey.  It took 20 some-odd years, a new Pope and a new King of England (Henry II) to finally canonize Edward in 1161. Ironically, his Feast Day is Oct. 13, the day before the Battle of Hastings anniversary (actually, it had nothing to do with Hastings. That was the day he was translated-moved to his new tomb-by St. Thomas of Canterbury in Henry II’s presence).

What made Edward so holy? Well, it is conjectured that his widow Editha commissioned the Life of King Edward (Vita Ædwardi Regis) partly to glorify the deeds of her family, partly to glorify her husband, and partly to excuse her lack of children. After all, if Edward was considered a holy man who was not interested in the things of this world, his sanctity would include refraining from the marriage bed; she couldn’t be held responsible for England’s fate. Nonetheless, this was our most important source for his life and cast him in a holy light. According to, “By 1138, he (Osbert) had converted the Vita Ædwardi…into a conventional saint’s life.”

Here is a legend I found on the Westminster Abbey website: “Edward was riding by a church in Essex and an old man asked for alms. As the king had no money to give he drew a large ring off his finger and gave this to the beggar. A few years later two pilgrims were traveling in the Holy Land and became stranded. They were helped by an old man and when he knew they came from England he told them he was St John the Evangelist and asked them to return the ring to Edward telling him that in six months he would join him in heaven.” When his uncorrupted body was translated in 1163 the ring was removed and placed with the Abbey relics, which of course were plundered in 1540 when the monastery was dissolved. Edward’s body was moved to some obscure place, but Mary Tudor had it returned in 1557 and replaced the stolen jewels with new ones.

Edward was considered one of the Patron Saints of England until Edward III created the Order of the Garter and promoted St. George in his place, although he has remained the patron saint of the English royal family. He is the first English King to cure people suffering from scrofula, “the king’s evil” by the touch of his hand; William of Malmesbury stated that he was already known for this in Normandy while an exile.  Interestingly, he is also the patron saint of difficult marriages and separated spouses.

Many would see his ungracious treatment of Earl Godwine in 1051, not to mention his insistence that Godwine wreak havoc with the unfortunate citizens of Dover, as unsaintly behavior. But in the end, his ardor in building Westminster Cathedral seems to have overcome any earlier indiscretions.