Monday, December 19, 2016

Yule Celebrations in the Nordic lands

Sleipnir: detail from the Tjängvide Runestone
Yule celebrations are Pagan in origin and came from the Germanic countries. The celebrations were alive and well in the Nordic lands, and were most likely brought over to Anglo-Saxon England with the Viking settlers. Eventually, the midwinter celebrations merged with the Christian festival of Christmastide, better known as the 12 Days of Christmas. I think we would recognize much of their festivities, although some of them were dedicated to Odin!

Since the Yule (or Jul) took place after the Solstice, the shortest day of the year, there is a certain element of celebrating the return of the light. But it was also thought that in this time of year, the spirits of the dead most commonly crossed over into the human realm. It is thought that many of the Yuletide customs were an attempt to protect the household against hostile supernatural influences. On the other hand, it is also said that ancestors come back during this season, and sometimes food was left out for them so they would help promote a good harvest the following year.

Then we have the Yule Log. The largest ash or oak log was brought inside so that ritual runes could be carved onto it, calling on the gods to protect one and all from ill-fortune. Burning the Yule log was thought to give power to the sun and bring warmth again to the land. The carved log was sprinkled with mead and decorated with dry sprigs of pine and cones and as it was lit, musicians plucked the strings of their harps and started the singing.

 Outside, evergreens would be decorated with small lanterns and candles, plus crackers, little carved statues of gods, pieces of dried fruit, and even berries strung together. A huge bonfire was lit, reportedly to dispel any evil that was marching abroad. There was dancing around and through the bonfire, especially among the youngsters.

 One night stood out from the others. This is when the children filled their shoes with straw, carrots and sugar lumps and set them out by the fire to feed Odin’s flying eight-legged horse Sleipnir as the God led the Wild Hunt—the host of the restless dead—through the darkness. In return, Odin would leave the children small gifts and sweets as a reward.

 The traditional food of the Yule was Boar, an animal sacred to Freyr, the Norse God of Yule and fertility. This is probably the origin of the Boar’s Head presented at later Christmas feasts. It is said that the time of “great eating and drinking” only lasted about three days, although the Yule celebrations lasted two to three weeks.

Thursday, November 17, 2016

Death of William the Conqueror

The Death of William The Conqueror Engraving By J Gilbert
published in The Illustrated London News
William the Conqueror was not likely to be a person who mellowed-out in his final days.  His temper was still quick to anger and he did not hesitate to lay waste to his enemies’ lands at the slightest provocation.  He had become excessively fat, and it was said that his antagonist King Philip of France made an insulting comment about William’s bulk that enraged the Norman, who swore to take revenge.  And he did.

In England, the year 1087 was full of famine, pestilence and fire.  On the continent, William added his own devastation to the Vexin (the border between France and Normandy) and took especial aim at the town of Mantes, which he destroyed totally. On August 15, as he was encouraging his men to throw more wood on the flames, his horse stumbled, throwing William hard against his saddle pommel.

The injury turned out to be mortal.  Reeling from shock, William was removed to nearby Rouen where he was housed in the priory of Saint Gervase.  There he lingered for several weeks in sickness and pain surrounded by the Bishops and Abbots of the land, and according to Orderic he repented of his evil ways and even admitted that he had wrongly invaded England.  He is said to have especially regretted the Great Harrying of the North.

On a Thursday morning in September, William breathed his last.  Already, his heir William Rufus and younger brother Henry were already gone, on their way to claim their own—William the crown and Henry his 5000 pounds.  As William expired, the remaining prelates and nobles scattered to the four winds, intent on protecting their homes and possessions.  All feared the anarchy that would inevitably settle on the land until law could be reestablished. Once the coast was clear, even William’s servants set about stripping the body and the room of all its trappings, so that the corpse was left practically naked and all alone on the floor of his chamber for a whole day.

Finally, a single rustic knight by the name of Herlwin volunteered to take charge of collecting, washing and preparing the body for its funeral—at his own cost.  As they brought William’s corpse through Rouen and thence to Caen, the funeral cortege was swelled by local prelates and laymen, who brought the body to the Abbey of St. Stephen.  But even then William was not allowed to proceed in peace; just as happened on his coronation day, a fire broke out in a nearby house and many of the attendees ran off to fight the blaze as it spread through the town.

And that was not the end of William’s indignities. When the bier was brought into the church, a local knight rose up and asserted that William had stolen the land from his family to build this church, and he forbid that “the body of the robber be covered with my mould, or that he be buried within the bounds of my interitance” (Orderic).  His statement raised a great tumult, until finally William’s youngest son Henry and the prelates in attendance agreed to pay the knight 60 shillings for the seven feet of ground to lay the coffin, and furthermore to pledge the purchase-price of the whole estate, which they later paid.

Once the disturbance was over, they proceeded to move the body to the stone coffin, only to discover that the coffin was too small!  There was no recourse except to stuff the awesome bulk into the stone box.  But the process proved too much for the flesh and the body burst apart, filling the cathedral with such a stench that they rushed through the rest of the ceremony.  And so the great king was left to spend his eternity alone and abandoned, but certainly never forgotten.

Sunday, November 6, 2016

In the Days After Hastings

It was said that after the great Battle, William the Conqueror retired to Hastings and awaited the submission of the English people. None was forthcoming. Was he surprised, I wonder? After all, England had been subjected to Danish invasions the last couple of centuries, winning and losing battle after battle. Of course, they had not lost their king during one of those battles, but electing another king was only a matter of time. Apparently—at least initially—no one had any intention of recognizing the usurper. Of course, this was destined to change.

But not yet. With a few days after Harold’s death (I can’t find an exact date), a hastily-assembled Witan elected Eadgar Aetheling as king; he was the last surviving heir of the Royal house of Cedric of Wessex though still in his early teens. Eadgar was not crowned, presumably because this event always coincided with a high religious holiday and the next appropriate date would not occur until Christmas. Historian Edward A. Freeman suggested that Edwin and Morcar put themselves forward as likely candidates but received no support. They duly consented to Eadgar’s election, then went back home with their levies, “and left Eadgar and England to their fate”. Freeman’s judgment was harsh: “The patriotic zeal of the men of London was thwarted by the base secession of the Northern traitors. By their act all was lost.” Divided, England could not stand up to the might of the Norman invader.

William waited at Hastings for five days then resolved to secure the southeast portion of England before advancing on London. He marched along the coast, plundering his way to strike terror in his conquered people. He took especial revenge on Romney who had the audacity to attack some of his men before the great Battle. William then advanced to Dover which surrendered without a blow. Had the garrison already been killed at Hastings? It is said that William intended to spare the city because of its submission but that some of his unruly soldiers plundered anyway, setting fire to many houses. William brought his men under control and even compensated the homeowners for their losses. He spent eight days at Dover and left his wounded there to recover.

The Conqueror’s violence to the resistors and leniency to towns surrendering along the way served its purpose in Kent; even the city of Canterbury met the Duke on the road with hostages and tribute. This was on October 29. Interestingly, two days later, he pitched camp nearby in a neighborhood called the Broken Tower and stayed there for a month, for he was stricken down with a serious illness. This didn’t stop him from sending messengers to Winchester where Queen Editha had taken refuge, offering to leave them alone as long as they submitted to his rule (along with tribute, of course). Editha consulted with the city fathers and together they agreed to William’s terms. For all intents and purposes, the south was in William’s hands.

He now turned his attention to London; the last vestiges of resistance were strong there. Initially he sent forward a small contingent of 500 knights, who were met south of the Thames by a stout company of Londoners. A skirmish took place that sent the citizens retreating back inside the walls of the city; at this, the soldiers set fire to Southwark. But William was not minded to attack London yet; rather, he struck west along the southern bank of the Thames, harrying Surrey, Hampshire, and Berkshire until he reached Wallingford, which offered a bridge and a ford across the river. Unchallenged, William crossed and continued north, intent on creating a circle of desolation around London. Although this was not a formal siege, it was beginning to have the trappings of one.

By the time William reached Berkhampstead, apparently the English were demoralized. An embassy led by none other than Eadgar Aetheling himself, accompanied by Archbishops Ealdred and probably Stigand (as well as many of the chiefest men from London and southern England) came and did homage to William. Prepared to be merciful, the Conqueror received them graciously and gave Eadgar the kiss of peace. As Freeman reminds us: “It was the chance shot of an arrow which had overcome the English King, but it was William’s own policy which had overcome the English people.” And so it began.

Friday, September 16, 2016

Harold Marches to York, September 1066

Stamford Bridge by Peter Nicolai Arbo (Wikipedia)
While working on my latest novel, FATAL RIVALRY, I have had quite a struggle putting together a timeline for events leading up to Stamford Bridge. Many histories (even Wikipedia) tell us that as soon as Harold learned of the defeat at Fulford, he rushed north and surprised the Vikings who expected him to be at the other end of the country. OK, I understand the surprise part. But really, Fulford was fought on September 20 and Stamford Bridge was fought on Sept. 25.  Even if Harold and his mounted army were able to do 50 miles a day (unlikely, though I suppose not impossible), this would be predicated on having an army standing by, ready to go. Oh, and how about hearing the news in the first place? Someone had to travel the 190 miles or so from Fulford to London so Harold could get the message. Already that doubles the time he would have required, and what are the odds a messenger would push himself to do 50 miles per day?

There’s little doubt Harold would have set out shortly after he heard the alarming news. Presumably he would have started the march with his housecarls, who were the closest to a standing army available—it has been suggested he had 3000 at hand. He is said to have gathered forces as he rode north, which again must have taken time for they had to be notified and given a chance to prepare themselves—then travel a distance to meet Harold on the march. We don’t know how big the English army was—somewhere between 8,000-15,000 men—but this is one big logistical task in an age when communication was slow and unreliable. Yes, Harold’s march to York was certainly noteworthy, but I don’t think he was a miracle worker! (Even historian Edward A. Freeman was not prepared to accept the five day forced-march saga.)

Cooler heads have sorted out a more reasonable scenario. Harald Hardrada met his first major resistance in Northumbria at Scarborough, which would have been probably the first week of September. Presumably someone would have ridden south at that point, to notify the king of the Viking raids. Meanwhile, we know Harold disbanded the fyrd on September 8 according to the A.S. Chronicle, because “the men’s provisions had run out, and no one could keep them there (on the south coast) any longer”. The timing would be such that Harold could have received the news about Hardrada shortly after he returned to London. He certainly needed some time to prepare for a new campaign and wait for his mounted thegns to come back. So it stands to reason that he might have started his march north some time between Sept. 12-16, which would have given him 9-13 days to reach Stamford Bridge. Undoubtedly he learned about Fulford along  the way, which would have spurred him on to greater efforts.

On September 24, four days after the Battle at Fulford, Harold arrived at Tadcaster with his exhausted troops. This town was upriver from Riccall where Hardrada had spread out his 300 ships (beyond a fork where the Wharfe meets the Ouse). It is believed that the Northumbrians withdrew their little fleet to Tadcaster when the Norwegians approached, since they were no match for the invaders. Harold spent the night at Tadcaster and started early in the morning to York, approximately ten miles away. By now he probably learned of Hardrada’s arrangement to wait for hostages at Stamford Bridge. It goes far to suggest that the northerners accepted Harold as their rightful king, for no one sought to warn the Norwegians of the royal army’s approach.

York may have surrendered to Hardrada, but it was apparently lightly guarded by the Norwegians—if at all. Harold made an unhindered entry into the city, acclaimed by the grateful inhabitants who must have felt doubly relieved that they had not been plundered. He marched his army through York and continued east another eight miles to Stamford Bridge. This means his army covered 18 miles that day before engaging the enemy. No rest for the weary!

Sunday, August 28, 2016

Who was Wulfnoth Godwineson?

William the Conqueror. Source:
Wikimedia Commons
In this 950th anniversary year of the Battle of Hastings, most of us have heard the story about Harold Godwineson (or Godwinson), last of the Anglo-Saxon kings and the arrow in his eye. But how many know about his younger brother Wulfnoth? Born about 20 years after his famous sibling, Wulfnoth was whisked away as hostage for his father’s good behavior when he was only about 12 years old. In all the confusion surrounding Godwine’s return from exile in 1052, he was probably kidnapped by the Archbishop Robert of Jumièges, who fled from London with the rest of Edward’s Norman allies. Robert turned over Wulfnoth and cousin Hakon to William, claiming (in one version) that King Edward had declared the Norman Duke as his heir, and sent the boys along as guarantee of his pledge. Presumable the Duke did not investigate the validity of this promise. Why should he suspect the word of an Archbishop?

Poor Wulfnoth was in quite a fix. After all, he was the youngest son and hence, expendable. At the time he was abducted, his father was striving to get his position back. Earl Godwine probably didn’t even know his son was missing until after the fact. How culpable was the King? Could Godwine accuse him of betraying his trust? Not likely. Would Godwine have written to Duke William offering to pay a ransom for his son? Wulfnoth was not likely ever to know, and his father died the next year, which must have seemed like a catastrophe to the lonely youth.

I’ve read some Victorian-era historians who bemoan the innocent prisoner kept under lock and key. But I suspect his confinement was more in the nature of a high-ranking son of a noble, raised in the ducal household to ensure the loyalty of the father. The captive son would be treated like a squire or even a member of the family, provisionally allowed to roam free with the understanding that he would not try to leave. Or at least, I hope this is how Wulfnoth was treated, for he never deserved his fate. I can only suspect the boy was a powerful negotiating tool for the Duke, just in case the opportunity arose. And if King Edward really did offer William the crown, of course he would keep the boy as security. There should have been no reason to put him in a prison cell.

When Harold made his fatal oath to support William’s claim to the throne in 1064, once again Wulfnoth had to stay as surety for his promise; it seems that Hakon was not as important, and William let him go home. Once Harold took the throne, I wonder if William was tempted to kill his hostage? If the Duke was as nasty as he is made out to be, surely one would have expected him to take his revenge. But he didn’t. In fact, Wulfnoth was the Duke’s hostage until the day William died; on his death bed, a repentant William the Conqueror released all his hostages.

Alas, Wulfnoth’s freedom was short-lived. William Rufus is said to have rushed to England to claim his patrimony, taking Wulfnoth with him. Having a Godwineson on the loose was too risky for the Norman heir; the last thing Rufus needed was a new rebellion with a puppet figurehead. Of course by then, Wulfnoth had been a captive so many years he had no friends in England, no property, nor any family left, for they had all fled the country and his sister Queen Editha had died in 1075. So he wasn’t much of a threat, and the new king was content to confine Wulfnoth to Winchester, where he may have become a monk at the cloister. He died in the year 1094.

It’s interesting to me that the least dramatic and least talked-about Son of Godwine is the only one to have survived the events of 1066. In my world of historical fiction, this gave him the opportunity to compile the remembrances of his brothers and finish the chronicle begun by his sister Editha. In her words: I preserved my real story, and intend to pass it on to my last surviving brother Wulfnoth, who can prepare it for a future chronicler not hostile to our house. Who is that chronicler? Myself, of course!

Friday, August 19, 2016


Harold Swears an Oath on the Relics. Source: Wikimedia
That is one of the most debated questions in Pre-Conquest history, with no answer in sight. Was William’s claim to the English throne the result of wishful thinking? Was he promised the crown directly by King Edward, or was the offer presented by a third party? Did Harold Godwineson even know about William’s designs on the throne when he made his fateful visit to Normandy in 1064?

Let’s start with William’s pedigree. Richard I, Duke of Normandy was Queen Emma’s father; this made him the grandfather of Edward the Confessor. Richard I was also the great-grandfather of Duke William. So there was a distant kinship between Edward and William, though one generation apart.

When Edward the Confessor left Normandy in 1041, William was only 13 years old and Edward was 38. With that age gap, it seems unlikely that the two of them would have developed a close relationship, so any alleged gratitude Edward might have owed probably belonged to William’s father Robert, dead by 1035.

By 1052, when William supposedly traveled to England while Earl Godwine was in exile, Edward’s alleged gratitude may have cooled somewhat. It’s hard to say. William’s visit to England is by no means certain; some historians thought he would have been too busy putting down rebellions to leave his country even for a short time. If he did visit England, it is claimed that Edward offered him the crown at this point. Still, given the king’s knowledge that it was up to the Witan to decide the succession, it’s curious why he would have done so. However, considering his antagonism toward the Godwines (he put the queen in a nunnery while Godwine was in exile), perhaps he did it out of spite. Perhaps he knew there would never be children from his own marriage (was Edward celibate? Another unanswered question).

There is another scenario concerning Robert of Jumièges, former Archbishop of Canterbury and arch-enemy of Earl Godwine. Robert is one of the Normans who fled from London once it was clear that Godwine was back in control. It is probable that he kidnapped the hostages, Godwine’s son Wulfnoth and nephew Hakon, and brought them to Normandy. In this interpretation, he might have been acting on his own when he told William that Edward was declaring him heir to the English throne, and here are the hostages to guarantee his promise—hostages agreed to by Godwine and the other great earls. I don’t see how Godwine would have agreed to this, since he didn’t even know about it! So my interpretation is that Archbishop Robert concocted this pledge as an effective revenge on Godwine and all of England for kicking him out. And this is the scenario I develop in THE SONS OF GODWINE.

If this is the case, it’s very possible that Harold Godwineson had no idea William was harboring thoughts for the crown when he visited Normandy in 1064. Again, historians don’t even agree to his motives for going. Some believe—and the Normans contend—that Edward sent Harold across the Channel to confirm his pledge of the crown. Personally, I think Harold would have been unwilling to discharge this errand (depending on whether or not he harbored his own designs on the crown). If Harold had gone to Normandy to reaffirm Edward’s promise, why would William feel the need to make him swear an oath?

Some say that Harold was on a fishing trip and got blown across the Channel by a storm. This is possible, but the theory doesn’t find much favor. I read a suggestion that Harold went to Normandy to scope out possible support concerning his own bid for the throne. But I think this might have been a little premature; after all, Edward was in perfectly good health and Eadgar Aetheling, though young, was a direct descendant of Edmund Ironside. Another reason Harold might have crossed to Normandy would be an attempt to free his little brother who had been hostage for 12 years by then. If Robert of Jumièges made the whole succession promise up, it’s possible that Harold unwittingly put himself at William’s mercy. I doubt whether he would have gone if he had known about William’s aspirations. But at least he was forewarned when the time came!

Tuesday, April 5, 2016

Harald Hardrada plans to invade England 1066

Window with portrait of Harald in Lerwick Town Hall,
Shetland. SOURCE: Wikipedia
Harald Hardrada certainly wreaked havoc with Harold Godwineson’s efforts to protect his new kingdom. I assume King Harold knew there was a threat from the Norse, though historians seem pretty quiet on the subject.

It all started back in Harthacnut’s day. In 1040, the soon-to-be King of England and Magnus I of Norway made a treaty that if one of them died childless, the other would inherit his kingdom (sounds a lot like Canute and Edmund Ironside). When Harthacnut died childless, the Witan decided to elect Edward the Confessor instead, and Magnus threatened to invade and assert his claim. Apparently the English didn’t take the threat too seriously, though Edward is said to have accused  his mother Emma of favoring Magnus’s cause. He retaliated by relieving her of Canute’s treasure. Nonetheless, Magnus’s successor, Harald Sigurdsson (Hardrada) must have inherited the treaty as well as the throne, and hence he had a claim to the English crown…not that he needed much of an excuse.

So when King Edward died, Duke William wasn’t Harold Godwineson’s only rival. But by all indications, Hardrada’s invasion plans weren’t taken seriously. Or did Harold know about them at all? One of our titillating questions about 1066 is: when did Hardrada make his plans, and did the vengeful Tostig have anything to do with it?

As the popular story goes, Tostig first went to Sweyn Estridsson’s court in Denmark and tried to talk his cousin into invading England. After all, the Danish King was the grandson of Sweyn Forkbeard, so he was in line to the throne of England. But after 15 hard years of conflict with Harald Hardrada, Sweyn was exhausted and so was his treasury. Disappointed, Tostig went on to Norway and gave Harald such a pep talk that the formidable king was chomping at the proverbial bit. According to Snorri Sturleson in HEIMSKRINGLA, Tostig assured Harald “If you wish to gain possession of England, then I may bring it about that most of the chieftains in England will be on your side and support you.” He added: “All men know that no greater warrior has arisen in the North than you; and it seems strange to me that you have fought fifteen years to gain possession of Denmark and don’t want to have England which is yours for the having.” What self-respecting Norseman could resist that line of reasoning?

Snorri has this conversation take place in the winter, which gave Hardrada the spring and summer to raise his army. However, not all historians agree with this scenario. The venerable Edward A. Freeman concluded that there wasn’t enough time for Tostig to make the voyage AND for Hardrada to raise an army. He concluded that Hardrada had planned the campaign on his own and Tostig joined up with him after he made his move. It has also been suggested that Tostig sent Copsig, his right-hand man in his old earldom, as an ambassador to Norway to plan the invasion and didn’t meet Harald in person until later.

Whether Tostig went to Norway in 1066 or not, historians agree that he spent the summer at King Malcolm’s court in Scotland and joined up with Hardrada after Harald dropped off his queen in the Orkneys and came south with the Orkney Earls. Some think Harald stopped at Dunfermline where Malcolm and Tostig waited. William of Malmesbury thought that Tostig joined Hardrada and pledged his support when the Norwegians reached the Humber, which is very late in the story. Regardless, by that point Harald Sigurdsson was clearly in charge of the expedition, and Tostig was his subordinate.

Thursday, March 24, 2016

Swegn Godwineson, Evil or Tragic?

Swegn was the eldest son of a prolific family.  His father, Godwine of Wessex, worked his way up from relative obscurity to the most powerful Earl in the country.  Swegn’s future could have been assured if only he had behaved himself and not acted like a rogue and an outlaw.  He was the only one of his brood who seemed totally evil from the first.  What happened?

We know very little beside the basic events which look very bad indeed.  Initially Swegn held an important earldom which included Herefordshire, Gloucestershire, Oxfordshire, and Somerset.  In 1046, as he was returning from a successful expedition into Wales, he is said to have abducted the abbess of Leominster, had his way with her then sent her back in disgrace.  For this deed he was exiled and lost his earldom.

Swegn eventually submitted to the King and asked to be restored his lands.  At first Edward agreed, but Harold and cousin Beorn, who were given parts of Swegn’s divided earldom, refused to turn over their possessions.  King Edward decided to accept their refusal and gave Swegn four days safe conduct back to his ships, anchored at Bosham.

At the same time, England was threatened by a Danish fleet; there was a lot of back and forth as Godwine and family moved their ships to defend the Kentish coast.  Threatened by severe weather, Godwine anchored off Pevensey and Beorn apparently searched him out there (to defend his actions?).  Swegn did as well, and I assume there was some heated discussion before Beorn agreed to accompany his cousin back to the king and make amends. Reluctant to leave his ships unsupervised any longer, Swegn persuaded Beorn to return to their home base at Bosham, from whence they would continue to King Edward at Sandwich.

Poor Beorn never made it to Sandwich.  Once at Bosham, he was seized, bound and thrown into a rowboat, taken to Dartmouth and murdered aboard one of Swegn’s longships.  Declared nithing (or worthless) by king and countrymen, Swegn was deserted by his own men and took refuge in Flanders.

Amazingly, the next year he was reinstated in his old earldom with the help of Bishop Ealdred. But trouble was on the horizon and in 1051, Eustace of Bologne created a huge ruckus in Dover then fled to the king complaining that he lost 21 men to the vicious townspeople. When Edward, taking advantage of the opportunity, ordered Godwine to punish the offenders, the earl refused, putting himself on the wrong side of the law. The crisis escalated into an armed confrontation, with Godwine and Swegn cast as rebels. But no one wanted civil war, so Godwine backed down and was eventually driven into exile along with his family. Swegn accompanied his father to Flanders once again, but, overcome with remorse, continued to Jerusalem on a pilgrimage from which he never returned.

It’s easy to dismiss Swegn as the black sheep of the family.  But perhaps his story goes a little deeper than that.  First of all, consider the circumstances of Godwine and Gytha’s marriage.  King Canute gave Godwine—a relative newcomer—in marriage to this high-ranking Danish woman whose brother had recently been killed by Canute’s orders.  This doesn’t sound like an auspicious beginning, and I wonder if the early years of their marriage weren’t a bit tempestuous.  Perhaps their first son was born in the midst of bitter recriminations?  This might explain Godwine’s stubborn defense of his wayward son in face of almost universal disapproval.  It was reported that during his second banishment, Swegn put it about that King Canute was his real father, which caused Gytha to strenuously and very publicly object.  What was the motivation behind this outrage?

The abbess of Leominster story has a possible explanation.  There is circumstantial evidence Eadgifu may have been related to the late Earl Hakon, nephew of King Canute.  She may possibly have been childhood friends with Swegn, and perhaps more: it doesn’t make sense for him to have kidnapped a high-profile total stranger.  The Worcester tradition states that he kept her for one year and wanted to marry her, but was forbidden by the church and commanded to return her to Leominster, which caused him to leave the country.

As for Beorn, there seems little defence.  It has been said that it was Harold rather than Beorn that stubbornly refused to release the territory to Swegn, and this is why Swegn was able to persuade Beorn to accompany him to the King in Sandwich.  Perhaps Beorn wanted to please Godwine, his uncle-by-marriage. Regardless, Beorn must have been the victim of Swegn’s bad temper (at best) or revenge (at worst).  Swegn’s decision to go on pilgrimage seems to have been the last attempt to redeem himself.

It is said that Swegn died on his way back from Jerusalem exactly fourteen days after Godwine’s successful return to England.  By all reports, Swegn was mourned by no one except his father.  No one was to know it yet, but this was the beginning of the end for Earl Godwine; he fell into decline and didn’t last out the year.

You can read more about this in my novel, GODWINE KINGMAKER.

Thursday, March 10, 2016


Emerging from the long shadow cast by his formidable father, Harold Godwineson showed himself to be a worthy successor to the Earldom of Wessex. In the following twelve years, he became the King's most trusted advisor, practically taking the reins of government into his own hands. And on Edward the Confessor's death, Harold Godwineson mounted the throne—the first king of England not of royal blood. Yet Harold was only a man, and his rise in fortune was not blameless. Like any person aspiring to power, he made choices he wasn't particularly proud of. Unfortunately, those closest to him sometimes paid the price of his fame. 

This is a story of Godwine's family as told from the viewpoint of Harold and his younger brothers. Queen Editha, known for her Vita Ædwardi Regis, originally commissioned a work to memorialize the deeds of her family, but after the Conquest historians tell us she abandoned this project and concentrated on her husband, the less dangerous subject. In THE SONS OF GODWINE and FATAL RIVALRY, I am telling the story as it might have survived had she collected and passed on the memoirs of her tragic brothers.

This book is part two of The Last Great Saxon Earls series. Book one, GODWINE KINGMAKER, depicted the rise and fall of the first Earl of Wessex who came to power under Canute and rose to preeminence at the beginning of Edward the Confessor's reign. Unfortunately, Godwine's misguided efforts to champion his eldest son Swegn recoiled on the whole family, contributing to their outlawry and Queen Editha's disgrace. Their exile only lasted one year and they returned victorious to London, though it was obvious that Harold's career was just beginning as his father's journey was coming to an end. 

Harold's siblings were all overshadowed by their famous brother; in their memoirs we see remarks tinged sometimes with admiration, sometimes with skepticism, and in Tostig's case, with jealousy. We see a Harold who is ambitious, self-assured, sometimes egocentric, imperfect, yet heroic. His own story is all about Harold, but his brothers see things a little differently. Throughout, their observations are purely subjective, and witnessing events through their eyes gives us an insider’s perspective.

Harold was his mother's favorite, confident enough to rise above petty sibling rivalry but Tostig, next in line, was not so lucky. Harold would have been surprised by Tostig's vindictiveness, if he had ever given his brother a second thought. And that was the problem. Tostig's love/hate relationship with Harold would eventually destroy everything they worked for, leaving the country open to foreign conquest. This subplot comes to a crisis in book three of the series, FATAL RIVALRY.

Saturday, January 23, 2016

My first Video post:

King Canute and Jarl Ulf

The year was 1016 and King Edmund Ironside had just died on November 30, leaving Canute (or Knut) as reigning monarch over all of England. The Danish king was the beneficiary of the Treaty of Olney granting survivorship to one or the other. Canute was crowned in London on Christmas Day, with recognition by the nobility at Oxford the following month. But let's face it: Canute didn't do it alone. Without the support of his Jarls, the tempestuous year of five battles could easily have gone the other way.

Ulf Thorgilsson was one of Canute's most trusted Jarls and accompanied him to England during his great invasion of 1016. He was also married to Canute's sister Estrid. Incidentally (or maybe not, to Godwine), he was brother to Gytha who became Godwine's wife. Legend has it that Ulf got lost in the forest while pursuing Saxons after the battle at Sherstone. He stumbled across young Godwine and offered him a gold ring in exchange for escorting him back to the ships. Seeing an opportunity, Godwine returned the ring and agreed to act at Ulf's guide. He never looked back.

Once Canute was comfortably settled on the throne, he dismissed the bulk of his mercenary forces (after raising a huge Danegeld—or stern geld—of 82,500 pounds). Ulf went back to Denmark and acted as Canute's regent for many years. In 1026, Canute brought over his eight year-old son Harthacnut to represent the crown as Denmark's future king under the tutelage of Ulf. Unfortunately, this is when the trouble started.

Canute's extended absence rankled his countrymen, and when the Swedish king Anund Jakob and the Norwegian king Olaf II decided to invade Denmark, Ulf persuaded the provinces to elect the child as king—with him as de facto ruler, of course. Some men say he actually joined forces with the invaders, though there is no agreement on this. Canute was not amused. He returned to Denmark with a fleet and promptly went after the raiders, chasing them down and engaging in a naval battle at the estuary of a river called Helgeå in Sweden. Olaf nearly crushed Canute by a clever stratagem of releasing a deluge of water onto his fleet, but Ulf came to the rescue and helped defeat the enemy. Alas, this was not enough to save him.

Although Canute did not hold his son responsible for usurping the throne, he was still furious with Ulf. As the legend goes, after a feast at Roskilde, Canute and Ulf argued over a game of chess. When Ulf got up to leave, Canute jeered after him, "Are you running away, Ulf the coward?" The Jarl turned with his retort, "You would have run, if you could, at Helge River. Then, you didn't call me Ulf the coward, when I saved you from the Swedes who were beating you like dogs."

As you can imagine, this insult could not go unpunished. The following day, on Christmas of 1026, Canute ordered one of his housecarls to kill Ulf while at prayer in the local Trinity Church. Or so goes the legend. I can only imagine that Godwine was horrified, and you can read about this and the aftermath in GODWINE KINGMAKER.

Sunday, January 17, 2016

Canute and the Treaty of Olney

In the year 1016, the succession was bitterly contested between Edmund Ironside and Canute (or Knut) the Dane. Although Wessex had submitted to Canute late in 1015, Aethelred was still alive and sulking in London, leaving his son Edmund to fight his battles. But this didn’t last long; King Aethelred took his last breath on 23 April 1016, and London declared Edmund king. So now England had two kings, and so began a treacherous struggle marked by five major battles, men changing sides, a siege of London were Canute was said to have dug a trench around the city, and many, many dead warriors.

Although Edmund stoutly aided London in its defense against the Danes, he frequently left the city in order to draw the Danes away from their siege. It is said he raised five armies that year–one for each battle. The last and most important, the Battle of Assandun took place on October 18, ended in disaster for the Saxons because of the treachery of Eadric Streona, who took to flight with his forces and turned the tide against Edmund.

This time Canute was determined to end the conflicts. The Saxons withdrew but the Danes followed them up the Severn river into Gloucestershire, finally stopping at an island called Olney (or Alney). There, in deference to the chieftains of the land who had had enough (led by Eadric Streona, who somehow retained the goodwill of Edmund Ironside), the two Kings decided to solve the issue by single combat. This legend is according to the chroniclers, as unlikely as it sounds.

The Saxon King was said to have been the stronger fighter and soon hammered the Dane, breaking his shield and beating him down when Canute called a stop to the fight. “Bravest of youths,” he cried out, “why should either of us risk his life for the sake of a crown?” Edmund paused, considering. “Let us be brothers by adoption,” the Dane continued, “and divide the kingdom, governing so that I may rule your affairs, and you mine.” (Florence of Worcester).

The single combat story is probably apocryphal, but the ensuing treaty is not. According to their agreement, Canute was to rule Northumbria and Danish Mercia, while Edmund was ruler of Wessex, Essex, East Anglia, and English Mercia. It’s unclear who was supposed to rule London (I found it stated both ways), but in the end, the Londoners were obliged to come up with their own tribute payment to Canute and permit him to anchor his ships in the Thames for winter, so I guess the result speaks for itself.

Most importantly, it was stated that this treaty excluded brothers and children of the two Kings; if either was to die, all the possessions would revert to the other. And so when Edmund Ironside died suddenly in the winter of 1016, Canute took the crown and made sure to bring the witnesses forward to confirm the terms of the treaty. An exhausted England accepted his claim without demurring.

You can read about this and more in my novel, GODWINE KINGMAKER. Of course, I assume Godwine was witness to these great events!

Saturday, January 9, 2016

When England Lived Under Danish Rule

This year marks the 1000th anniversary of Canute’s coronation as the King of England. I think it’s interesting that the Danes ruled all of England for more than a generation and very few moderns seem to give it any thought at all. Between Canute and his sons, the Danes were kings from 1016 through 1042, yet we still think of England as Anglo-Saxon during that era.

Of course, the Vikings were no strangers to England. During the reign of Alfred the Great, the Danes overran the country and would have conquered but for the dogged resistance of the King of Wessex. In the end, Alfred divided the country in half, and the Northmen settled and ruled the Danelaw  for the next 200 years. By the time Canute’s father, Swegn Forkbeard took the crown in 1013, England’s Aethelred the Unready had made such a mess of things that the country was beginning to think that Danish rule might be preferable after all.  Not that they had much choice.

Swegn Forkbeard died suddenly, having ruled for only a few months. Aethelred’s son Edmund Ironside had a brief tenure as king, constantly harassed by the Danes under Canute, who was the second son of Swegn (his older brother Harald ruled Denmark until 1018). Ultimately, Edmund and Canute agreed to divide the country so that Edmund would rule Wessex and Canute the rest of England; if one died, the crown would devolve to the survivor.  Alas, the end result was all too predictable.

It was conjectured that Edmund Ironside may have been murdered by the villanous Eadric Streona who seemed to change sides like most people change their clothes.  But whether by foul means or natural causes, Edmund did not survive his first winter as King.  Canute took over in 1016 and at first things didn’t look good for the Anglo-Saxons. Some key english Thanes were assassinated (including Eadric Streona) and Viking Jarls installed in their places. Canute proceeded to raise the largest Danegeld tax yet (£82,500) to pay off the Viking ships, but luckily he sent most of the army home afterwards.  From then on, England was not considered fair game (except for the occasional raid) until the unhappy events of 1066.

Historians often voice their surprise that Canute decided to settle down and adopt the ways of his conquered people, in direct contrast to William the Norman. It could fairly be said that the Vikings were absorbed by the Anglo-Saxons through intermarriage and common economic concerns. Although Canute had difficulty juggling his Empire of Denmark, England, Norway and part of Sweden, he made England his home.  He presided over 20 years of peace and prosperity, and by the end of his reign, Canute was known as a good and just king.  Had he not died young – only about 40 years old – England might have stayed Danish considerably longer.