The Children of Harold Godwineson

March 15, 2015 by Mercedes Rochelle | 4 Comments | Filed in General 11th Century topics, The Sons of Godwine
by Horace Vernet

Edith Swanneck discovering King Harold’s corpse on the battle field of Hastings 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.

My Review of The Norman Conquest by Marc Morris

March 6, 2015 by Mercedes Rochelle | 2 Comments | Filed in General 11th Century topics

NormanConquestConsidering the wealth of material available about the Norman Conquest, a book needs to be very special in order to stand out. Here, it was refreshing to recognize the Norman Conquest as something that did not end at the Battle of Hastings. In fact, Hastings was just the beginning of a tumultuous campaign to replace one ruling class with another, while subjugating a mutinous population. In fact, by the time Hastings is over, we aren’t even halfway through the book yet.

The first few years after William takes the crown, the incessant uprisings nearly proved to be his undoing. In my mind, to look at a map of England, where one fire went out, another appeared across the country. There were little fires marking insurrections everywhere! It seems that the men who accompanied William to Hastings did not bargain for so much resistance: “During the winter of 1069-70 conditions in William’s army were clearly so bad that there appears to have been something approaching a mutiny”. Since William did not have cash to offer his supporters, he could only promise them more land, the best thing to inflame the English even further. It started a vicious cycle that took 20 years to sort out; it seems that almost as much land was stolen from the native population as was awarded by the King. Who would be able to stop a rapacious Norman?

At the beginning of the book, I was concerned that Morris was leaving key considerations out of his tale. But no, it turns out that he just presented his facts in a different order than I expected. Satisfied that he gave due attention to evidence I was aware of, I was ready to absorb material I wasn’t as familiar with later on…of which there was plenty. For instance, I knew that the Normans took over vast expanses of prime land; what I didn’t know was that by the Domesday book, they had almost completely taken over everything else: “Of Domesday’s 1,000 tenants-in-chief, a mere thirteen are English”, and “Of the 8,000 subtenants recorded in the survey, only around ten percent are English…England’s middling thegns, who had numbered around 4,000-5,000, have been swept clean away.” This was an astonishing wake-up call to me, as I complacently thought that the Saxon chieftains, like Ivanhoe’s father Cedric, still held their own against the extortionate Normans. Maybe not!

To me, Morris’s study of the Domesday Book is the most critical section of this volume. I always assumed that the great survey was compiled to help William calculate how much to tax everyone. But  it was much more than that. The officers who gathered the information held courts and meetings to investigate claims of landholders and sometimes complaints from aggrieved parties. This resulted in binding charters that confirmed once and for all the exact boundaries of all the estates held by William’s feudal underlings. Not only did this give the new landowners security of title, but from now on “thanks to the survey he knew exactly who owned what and where it was located.” William was the overlord of every man in England, and they were beholden to him. It was a perfect new beginning for a system previously unknown in the land.

Having read this book, I now understand just how completely the Normans changed the country. When Canute conquered England, he “began his reign by executing those Englishmen whose loyalty he suspected and promoted trustworthy natives in their place.” When William conquered England, he “exercised clemency after his coronation and consequently found himself facing wave after wave of rebellion. The English knew they were conquered in 1016, but in 1066 they had refused to believe it.” I think this says it all!

Did Harold die from an Arrow in the Eye?

February 17, 2015 by Mercedes Rochelle | 3 Comments | Filed in Battle of Hastings, 1066
Tapisserie de Bayeux - Scène 57 : La mort d'Harold

click to enlarge

The 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.

I 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, Harold Arrowholesthen 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?

from bayeux-tapestry.org.uk

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.

Shakespeare’s Recipe For Disaster, Guest Post by Kit Perriman

February 4, 2015 by Mercedes Rochelle | No Comments | Filed in Macbeth

In Act IV – Scene I of Macbeth, Shakespeare’s three “weird sisters” prepare a “hell-broth” to produce a series of apparitions for Macbeth, that set in motion a chain of deadly events.  Written only six years before the Lancashire Witch Trials, this script provides a good insight into magical beliefs of that time.

“Round about the cauldron go;witch-circle
In the poison’d entrails throw.
Toad, that under cold stone
Days and nights hast thirty one
Swelter’d venom sleeping got,
Boil thou first i’ the charmed pot.
Double, double toil and trouble;
Fire burn and cauldron bubble.
Fillet of a fenny snake,
In the cauldron boil and bake;
Eye of newt, and toe of frog,
Wool of bat, and tongue of dog,
Adder’s fork, and blind-worm’s sting,
Lizard’s leg, and howlet’s wing,
For a charm of powerful trouble,
Like a hell-broth boil and bubble.
Double, double toil and trouble;
Fire burn and cauldron bubble.
Scale of dragon, tooth of wolf,
Witches’ mummy, maw and gulf
Of the ravin’d salt-sea shark,
Root of hemlock digg’d i’ the dark,
Liver of blaspheming Jew,
Gall of goat, and slips of yew
Sliver’d in the moon’s eclipse,
Nose of Turk, and Tartar’s lips,
Finger of birth-strangled babe
Ditch-deliver’d by a drab,
Make the gruel thick and slab:
Add thereto a tiger’s chaudron,
For the ingredients of our cauldron.
Double, double toil and trouble;
Fire burn and cauldron bubble.
Cool it with a baboon’s blood,
Then the charm is firm and good.”

Seeing this dramatic scene live on stage, the Jacobean audience would believe the witches had brewed some diabolical charm.  They would be terrified, fascinated, mesmerized, and revolted by the disgusting ingredients – exactly as Shakespeare intended.  But let’s take a closer look at his recipe.

The bard was not only a master playwright, he was also a shrewd psychologist who understood the minds of the masses who flocked to The Globe Theatre in London. Therefore it isn’t surprising that one of the first things thrown in the pot is the fenny snake, a nod to the snake who tempted Eve in the Garden of Eden.  The Catholic Church claimed all women were necessarily evil because of Eve’s transgression and that’s why the majority of witches were female.  The next three ingredients – eye of newt, toe of frog, and wool of bat - get added to the first item swelter’d toad venom – highlighting four nocturnal creatures that are often associated with witches and their familiar spirits.  The liver of blaspheming Jew endorses the common anti-Semitic beliefs of that era, alongside the racial prejudices held against the Turk and Tartar.  And Shakespeare further played into the beliefs of his class-conscious, biased audience by having a good man like Macbeth brought down by his scheming wife and a band of wicked hags.

A country audience, however, may have interpreted Macbeth’s cauldron quite differently from the royal courtiers and city dwellers.  Many of these exotic ingredients are actually poetic variants on the common names for herbs.  Fenny snake = chickweed; Eye of newt=mustard seed; Toe of frog = frog’s foot or bulbous buttercup; Wool of bat = bog moss; Tongue of dog = hound’s tongue; Adder’s tongue = adder’s tongue fern; Lizard’s leg = ivy; Howlet’s wing = henbane; Scale of dragon = dragonwort; Tooth of Wolf = wolf’s bane; Hemlock root = hemlock; Liver of Jew = Jew’s myrtle or box holly; Gall of goat = St. John’s Wort or honeysuckle;  Slips of Yew = yew tree bark; Nose of Turk = Turk’s cap; Tartar’s lips = ginseng or tartar root; Tiger’s chaudron = lady’s mantle; and the Finger of birth-strangled babe= foxglove, also known as “bloody fingers”.   The remaining items – toad venom, powdered mummy, shark, and baboon’s blood – were all widely thought to have medicinal properties.

Why did Shakespeare choose these fierce-sounding ingredients?  Joyce Froome (Wicked Enchantments) argues that, for the wise women of Pendle, these herbs would be part of their everyday folk magic.  Catt Foy (Witches & Pagans) suggests that maybe “Shakespeare knew a little more about herbcraft than he was letting on,” and Nigel Beale (Literary Tourists Blog) believes he chose names “designed to gross out the masses, to stop them from practicing magic.”

But William Shakespeare was  also a poet.  He knew the magic of words and  rhythmical power of his hypnotic witch chant.  It didn’t matter that these characters may have been throwing armfuls of common hedgerow roots and leaves into a boiling cook pot.  What mattered was the awful-sounding names that conjured up terrifying images in the minds of his audience – and at this he was an unsurpassed wizard!

________

Kit is trying to raise money for the charity “Stepping Stones”, which continues to defend and uphold the rights of accused “Witch” children in the Niger Delta. You can find more information on facebook.com/kitperriman
Follow Kit’s blog at https://kitperriman.wordpress.com/

Lands belonging to Harold Godwineson and King Edward

January 27, 2015 by Mercedes Rochelle | No Comments | Filed in General 11th Century topics

Land belonging to Harold and Edward

Click for PDF: Lands belonging to Edward and Harold

These maps were taken from Ian Walker’s HAROLD, THE LAST ANGLO-SAXON KING. Because I read that Harold was the wealthiest landowner in England, I was particularly taken with the big difference between what he owned as Earl and Edward the Confessor’s personal wealth. How much would Harold have inherited at Edward’s death?

Walker devotes a whole chapter of his book to Harold’s lands and wealth. According to the author: “There are four principal sources of lands in this period. The first was family land inherited from relatives. The second was ‘bookland’ or land granted by diploma, most often by the king or another lord and in return for loyal service. The third was land attached to an office like that of an earl… The fourth was straightforward purchase.”

We know that Harold inherited a great deal of wealth from his father, who was granted many forfeited estates by Canute. It’s interesting to see how much land Harold owned in East Anglia after having ceded that Earldom to Gyrth. Presumably some of these lands were granted to him by local men to secure his support. Also, his wife Edith Swanneck was wealthy in her own right and many of the estates came with her. We see a heavy concentration of properties in Herefordshire, which probably came from Swegn’s forfeited estates, possibly from the murdered Beorn, and from Earl Ralf, who died in 1057.

The author gave us their relative values, calculated from the Domesday book. In 1066, Harold’s land values were £2846 plus £836 held by his men. The whole Godwine family held lands valued at £5187 plus £1428 for their men, while King Edward’s land was only valued at £3840, plus the value of his men, which was the land of every man in England! I would guess the latter uncalculated value would accrue to Harold once he became king? And what of the rest? It’s pretty mind-boggling to me.

What of Bosham? Perhaps it belonged to his mother? I have more questions than answers, but that’s history for you.

 

Map of Stamfordbridge Campaign

January 18, 2015 by Mercedes Rochelle | No Comments | Filed in General 11th Century topics, The Sons of Godwine
FreemanStamfordbridge

Click for larger image

Once again I stumbled across a very helpful map in Volume 3 of Freeman’s History of the Norman Conquest. In my mind I had trouble locating the relative locations of these important spots so this is very helpful to me.

The sequence of events:
1) Harald Hardrada lands at Riccall, leaving his fleet there. The small Northumbrian fleet may have withdrawn to Tadcaster.
2) Hardrada and Tostig march to Gate Fulford. Eadwine and Morkere march from York and meet them at Fulford in battle. The English were slaughtered. This happened on a Wednesday; York capitulated on Sunday Sept. 24. Supplies were promised; 150 hostages were given. Hostages from the rest of the shire were also promised, to be delivered at Stamfordbridge. Hardrada returned to Ricall.
3) That same Sunday evening, Harold Godwineson reached Tadcaster by the old Roman Road. He would have had to pass due west of Riccall. Did he know about the fleet?

4) Monday morning Hardrada went to Stamfordbridge with 2/3 of his army, leaving the rest at Riccall. Harold Godwineson marched to York, was greeted enthusiastically, and passed directly through the city toward Stamfordbridge. Apparently Hardrada only reached Stamfordbridge a short time before Godwineson.

I learned that the actual battle was probably fought a little less than 3 miles north of Stamfordbridge and a bit inland at a place called “Battle Flat”.  I’m still working on this confusing scenario!

 

Death of Edward the Confessor, Jan. 5 1066

January 5, 2015 by Mercedes Rochelle | No Comments | Filed in General 11th Century topics
Cambridge University Library MS. Ee.iii.59

Cambridge University Library MS. Ee.iii.59

We think of King Edward as an old man by 1066, and I suppose by 11th century standards, 63 years of age was getting on there. However, his health declined so precipitously the previous month that Duke William of Normandy was caught unawares, and by the time the Normans got the news, Harold was crowned as a fait accompli.

It was thought by many that Edward’s sudden illness was caused by the revolt of the Northumbrians in October of 1065. This rebellion resulted in the enforced exile of his favorite, Tostig, and the King’s realization that his commands were ineffectual. Edward wanted to call up the fyrd and compel his rebellious subjects to capitulate and accept Tostig back. Alas, because of the lateness of the year and the general abhorrence for civil war, he couldn’t gather enough support for this course of action. Even Harold was unwilling to cooperate, and Edward was obliged to accept the Northumbrians’ terms and acknowledge Morkere as their new Earl, even though their hastily called election was illegal. It was thought that Edward was so humiliated that he suffered a number of strokes as a result.

Whether or not this was the true cause of Edward’s decline, he was noticeably ill by Christmas Eve. He managed to stumble through the next couple of days but took to his bed on the 28th of December, unable to attend the consecration of his great Westminster Abbey. For the next week, he slipped in and out of unconsciousness, but rallied enough to give a long and drawn-out account of a dream he had, predicting the fall and misery of England. It was said that Archbishop Stigand whispered to Harold that this was the babbling of an old man worn out by sickness.

More to the point, the moment had come where Edward was to declare his heir. As with just about everything else, no one knows exactly what happened. If we take the Bayeux Tapestry literally, there were only four witnesses: Queen Editha, Harold, Archbishop Stigand, and Robert the Staller, Edward’s Norman friend who held the King in his arms. It is possible (and I think probable) that there were other witnesses. Nonetheless, the King was apparently  conscious and alert by now, and he addressed the Queen, who he compared to a beloved daughter. Then, according to the Vita Aedwardi Regis, he stretched his hand to Harold and said, “I commend this woman and all the kingdom to your protection.” He exhorted Harold to care for her and any Normans who chose to stay, or give safe conduct to those who decided to leave. Perhaps wisely, he also commanded that they announce his death at once, so the people could pray for him. Did he fear that Harold would keep his death a secret so he could properly arrange for the succession?

Were his words really so ambiguous? It’s curious that the venerable Edward A. Freedom chose to interpret the statement as “To thee, Harold my brother, I commit my Kingdom” and justified his decision in a footnote. Edward could just as easily have been assigning the regency to Harold rather than the crown, but obviously Harold chose the latter. Interestingly enough, most contemporary documents—even those from Normandy—seem to accept that the King had declared Harold his heir.

It is possible that Harold brought the issue to the Witan that very night, since the following day saw both a funeral and a coronation at Westminster Abbey; I don’t see how there could have been time for a Witenagemot in between the two ceremonies. Without the Witan’s approval, Harold’s kingship would have been unlawful. King Edward’s wishes were secondary, and everybody knew it (except, perhaps, for Duke William). In times of trouble, the country needed a strong hand at the helm and Harold had proven himself a good administrator and a formidable warrior.

Why was King Edward called the Confessor?

January 1, 2015 by Mercedes Rochelle | 7 Comments | Filed in General 11th Century topics

edward_ConfessorEdward 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 Catholic.org, “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.

 

Macbeth Stands Alone

December 18, 2014 by Mercedes Rochelle | 1 Comment | Filed in King Canute

JohnFinchMacbethWhat is it about Macbeth that stands out from the other Shakespeare tragedies? I think it might be easier to ask: what makes Macbeth a tragedy at all? Even though his eerie meeting with the Three Witches sets him on a destructive path, his rise and fall are truly of his own making, driven by his hunger for power. We the audience don’t cry for him when he gets killed in the end; rather, we are pretty satisfied by the event. Nor do we mourn Lady Macbeth as she descends into madness and suicide. Shakespeare has other heroes destroyed by their inner demons: Othello is eaten up by jealousy; Hamlet is doomed by his own indecision; King Lear, that old fool, is humiliated by his wicked daughters. Actually, none of these seem tragic to me, but at least we get a morality play of sorts. But not with Macbeth. His is a fairly straight-forward tale of ambition led astray; the bad guy gets it in the end.

Or is it that simple? Macbeth is a pretty multi-faceted story if we take a closer look at it. First of all, there is the supernatural angle. King James I, reigning monarch and Shakespeare’s patron, was the Witch Hunter extraordinaire. Why throw in the witches who seem to get away with wreaking havoc on poor unsuspecting Macbeth (not to mention Banquo, who certainly didn’t deserve to be murdered). Perhaps this was called a tragedy because Macbeth couldn’t resist the Witches’ spells, and so he was really a victim of their evil designs?

If you look at Shakespeare’s source, Raphael Holinshed’s Chronicles, he suggested the Witches could have been “weird sisters, that is (as ye would say) the goddesses of destinie“. The word “weird” has its origins in the Saxon word wyrd meaning fate, or personal destiny.  Some even attribute the first modern use of the word “weird” to Shakespeare. If you look at the Weird Sisters from the Scandinavian point of view, the word wyrd  translates to Urðr  in Norse, namely one of the Norns of Scandinavian mythology who controlled the destiny of mankind. I favor this interpretation and used it in my novel.

Back to James I, if we remember that the King had only been on the throne for three years, there’s a good possibility that Shakespeare was introducing Scottish history to the English masses by glorifying the ancestors of their new King. Macbeth was written one year after the Gunpowder Plot, when James was nearly blown up with his Parliament. Guy Fawkes and his accomplices were horribly tortured, and it has been thought by some that the play was intended as a cautionary story for any other potential king-killers.

So it has been said that Shakespeare wrote this play specifically to please James I, which certainly makes it unique. I would be inclined to throw it in with the History Plays instead of Tragedies; after all, we have the Tragedy of Richard II and the Tragedy of Richard III grouped in with the Histories. Why is that? I see Richard II as much more a tragic figure than Macbeth. Who made this decision, anyway?

On the other hand, the historical Macbeth died two years after the Battle of Dunsinane (and not by the hand of Macduff), so I suppose the play is more imagination than history anyway.

Today is P-DAY! (Publication Day)

December 12, 2014 by Mercedes Rochelle | No Comments | Filed in General 11th Century topics

Available in Paperback and Kindle from Amazon.com: