The English Manor Part 2: The Free and the Unfree Peasants

February 14, 2017 by Mercedes Rochelle | 1 Comment | Filed in General Topics

In Part 1 of The English Manor, I gave a broad generalization of the average manor components. In Part 2, I’m going to do my best to differentiate between the classes of manorial population: the free and the unfree. This is harder than it sounds! One of the reasons this subject is so complicated is that by no means was the manor system consistent across the country. The Custom of the Manor varied from lord to lord and from region to region. So anything we learn must be taken as a broad generalization. One thing we can safely assume is that the work load and financial burdens of the unfree peasant greatly outweighed those of his free companions.

The working year was divided into two parts: Michaelmas (Sept 29) to August, where the Peasant would have to work 2-3 days a week (Week-work), then August to Michaelmas, where he had to work  3-5 days per week. Most of the labor fell on the unfree. During the harvest the peasant was required to give several extra days as his “boon” or “gift”, bringing all of his family to help. This was in addition to tending his own crops. Even the free peasant was required to give some boon-work on these crucial days, and the lord compensated them occasionally by offering meals and drink to the whole manor population.

The free and unfree status had little to do with how much land the peasant was holding. Sometimes the unfree held more land than the freeman; sometimes the freeman did paid work for the unfree. But the division between them was felt very strongly. Here is the manor population as best as I could define it:

STEWARD (or Seneschal)
The Steward was at the head of the lord’s officials. He was a man of rank and often was in charge of more than one manor. He was the voice of the lord and presided over the Manor Courts. He would stay in the great house, usually in the absence of the lord. The Steward gave orders to the Bailiff.

FREEMAN (Socage Tenants)
The freeman had to pay a yearly rent for his lands, but his obligations were not as onerous as the bondsman. At the top of this class you would have a Bailiff (usually brought in from the outside), who supervised the activities on the whole manor. Then you will see for the most part—but not always—a Hayward (or messor, to manage the sowing and gathering of the crops), a Meadsman (to look after the meadows), a Wood-Reeve,  and the Beadle (or constable, policeman of the village).

The Virgaters, the “aristocracy” of the peasant class held 30+ acres of “full land” in the common fields. At harvest, they were obliged to act as overseers—riding about with white wands of office—provide carts and horses for carrying services, and provide their own plow. A lesser class of freemen held “fardels” or “furlongs” of 10 to 15 acres in the common fields. At harvest, they were allowed to combine their resources and put together a team of two or three (or more).

Some freeman may only have held two or three acres, which probably wasn’t enough to support him. These smaller tenants may only have been able to bring their agricultural tools to task—in other words, live by their hands—but since their holdings were much smaller, so was their obligation. It is not at all uncommon for a poor freeman to hire out his services to an unfree villein who had more land than he could manage by himself.

UNFREE: BONDSMAN or SERF (bound to the land): VILLEIN, COTTAR and SLAVES
Villeins, top level of bondsman, had a heavier farming work-load than the cottars, for the villeins shared in the common fields. Typical size of a villein’s holding would be around 30 acres. A villein had the right to the hay crop and the lot meadows. The Reeve (official representative of the villeins and usually elected every year) almost always came from the villein ranks. He was in charge of the day-to-day activities. Although he was paid a small wage, his responsibilities were onerous and no one really wanted the job.

Cottars, Crofters and “pytel-holders” held only one to five acres, or sometimes only the bare croft (garden) around their house. These small tenants did not share in the common fields, so their work load was lighter; they usually farmed a few strips in the arable fields. From time to time they were called upon to do a day’s work at the lord’s will: spreading dung, driving pigs to market, helping to repair walls and thatches, odd-jobs. Their duties were so light that they often could commute their work for money payments to the lord; that left them free to provide alternative labor for a wage to support themselves. From this class could come smiths, carpenters, weavers, masons, etc. The cottars were often drafted to be used on the manor as ploughmen, swineherds, carters, shepherds, etc.; sometimes they even resided on the Home-farm, given a wage and food allowance.

Slaves were the smallest population on the manor, and usually lived in the outbuildings connected to the manor hall. They were not permitted to own any land and were obliged to do whatever the lord commanded. Although slave trade was officially abolished in England after 1102, we keep finding mention of them in the occasional document. Frankly, I couldn’t find any substantial information about slavery in Medieval England, so I’m pretty much at a loss.

In part 3, I will be more specific as to the obligations of the bondsmen, who were the largest class on the manor. From H.S. Bennett, I gathered that a serf had every reason to want to gain his freedom. Once I saw what he was up against, I couldn’t really blame him.

 

 

The English Manor Part 1: The Land

February 2, 2017 by Mercedes Rochelle | 5 Comments | Filed in General Topics, Richard II

I discovered this amazing map in Montague Fordham’s book, “A Short History of English Rural Life from the Anglo-Saxon Invasion to the Present Time” published in 1916. (It’s amazing what you will find on ForgottenBooks.com.) I’ve recently come to the conclusion that any study of the Middle Ages is incomplete without getting your hands around the concept of the English Manor—and I will be the first to admit that my knowledge is sparse! I’m not writing this article as an expert—merely as a student of history.

I was introduced to the complexity of this subject when I recently read the book “Life on the English Manor” written by H.S. Bennett and first published in 1937. This was a very difficult volume to plow through (so to speak), and I don’t think I did it justice. Having finished the book with great relief I immediately shoved it back onto my shelf, but I’ve been fretting over it ever since! So here I am again, and I am going to attempt to pull out the major points so I can get things straight in my own mind, supplemented by what I’ve learned from Fordham (of the map). After all, I’m currently researching the Peasant Rebellion in 1381, and guess what led up to it? It’s only 30 years away from the Black Death, and the peasants were still struggling against the impositions from their betters, trying to keep them from taking advantage of their improved situation. But for the most part, these articles will concern manors before 1350.

The smaller manors contained about 20-30 acres, though others included many villages; the Bishop of Winchester’s Manor of East Meon in Hampshire was 24,000 acres. But this is the exception. Apparently the average manor contained one village and was separated from the next manor by a broad stretch of woods or wasteland. Sometimes two manors split the same village in two. All manors contained a Home Farm (or Demesne), where you would find the hall and barns belonging to the lord; outside of this you would find a mill, a church, the priest’s house, then the village houses, and of course the fields. The lord would probably stay there a month or two during the year; the rest of the time, the bailiff or seneschal would reside at the hall.

To look at this map, we see that the arable common fields were divided into sections called furlongs, shots, or dells. Each furlong was subdivided into little strips, or selions, which were separated by unploughed ridges called baulks. These strips were usually 1/2 to an acre of land, belonging to the peasants (sometimes the lord held some strips as well). A peasant often held more than one strip but they were not contiguous; an example is shown by the black colored-in holdings all belonging to Jack Straw. He must go to the end of his strip and walk on the headlands—more unploughed baulks perpendicular to the furroughs—to get to his other strips of land; the headlands were also where he turned his plough. Presumably the planting was a communal activity, though nothing is really known for sure. Apparently the reason a peasant’s holdings were scattered was the continual division between relatives and children. Bennett gave us an example from the Norfolk manor of Martham: “the 68 tenants of Domesday time had increased by 1291 to 107—a not unnatural growth—but, quite unexpectedly, subdivision had progressed so enormously that the land formerly held by the 68 had been split up into no less than 935 holdings in some 2000 separate strips.” Keeping track must have been a challenge.

If a peasant was lucky, he was permitted to rent, on a yearly basis, a few-acre patch of uncultivated “waste” land, usually on the border of the forest. This was called his “assart”, and he could plant on it what he pleased; it was often a godsend if the man had extra mouths to feed. The wastes satisfied other needs as well; they were used for grazing, and if wooded they provided fuel and wood for farm implements and repairs. Commonly, the peasant was allowed to take wood off the ground or “by hook or by crook”—whatever he could knock off a standing tree.

As best as I can determine, the wastes and the common area around the village is where the animals grazed while the crops were growing. The Lammas Land, or Meadows as they were called, were held in common, guarded, fenced around the outside, and planted between Christmas and Lammas (Aug. 1). When the crop was harvested, the Lammas Land was thrown open for grazing to the community.

I will be following up with more on the English Manor as I sort it out. The most important thing I learned is that there was no consistency from region to region or even from manor to manor. As Bennett put it, if a village was divided up between two manors, “it was possible for two men to be living in the same village, and each holding the same amount of land; but, because they served different lords, they might find themselves very unevenly burdened with services and rents.” So, of necessity, anything we learn about the Manor can only be seen as representational of the medieval peasant’s life.

 

 

New Release: FATAL RIVALRY

January 30, 2017 by Mercedes Rochelle | 2 Comments | Filed in The Sons of Godwine

In 1066, the rivalry between two brothers brought England to its knees. When Duke William of Normandy landed at Pevensey on September 28, 1066, no one was there to resist him. King Harold Godwineson was in the north, fighting his brother Tostig and a fierce Viking invasion. How could this have happened? Why would Tostig turn traitor to wreak revenge on his brother?

The Sons of Godwine were not always enemies. It took a massive Northumbrian uprising to tear them apart, making Tostig an exile and Harold his sworn enemy. And when 1066 came to an end, all the Godwinesons were dead except one: Wulfnoth, hostage in Normandy. For two generations, Godwine and his sons were a mighty force, but their power faded away as the Anglo-Saxon era came to a close.

Available in Paperback and Kindle: http://a.co/838SFLc

Lord Mayors of London

January 20, 2017 by Mercedes Rochelle | 1 Comment | Filed in General Topics, Richard II

I found this paper, interestingly enough, as a loose insert in the used book I had received from England. The name of the book is THE TURBULENT LONDON OF RICHARD II. The book is practically unreadable, but does preserve lots of names and minutiae from the period that are of no interest to almost anybody. But you never know! This paper was stuck in the back; it appears to be from a different source altogether. I found it most helpful (if you click on it and click again with the magnifying glass, you will get full size):


Book Review: The Great Revolt of 1381 by Charles Oman

January 19, 2017 by Mercedes Rochelle | No Comments | Filed in Book Reviews

I’ve had this book on my shelves for years, waiting for the right moment to tackle it. The moment has arrived! I am doing research on Richard II, and the Peasant Revolt is a great place to start. I certainly picked up the right book; Charles Oman has given a thorough explanation of this pivotal event all the way down to the tax rolls (in the appendix, fortunately). Like most armchair historians, I knew about Wat Tyler and the London riot. What I didn’t know was that the Great Revolt extended through much of England and lasted a couple of weeks past the day Tyler was killed.

As for the revolt itself, we get a thorough description, as expected. We saw Richard’s courage in approaching the rebels: “His position had been so much changed by the fall of London, that he was now forced to take the risk of being imprisoned or even murdered by the rebels, which had seemed unnecessary on the previous day.” We saw the rioting in London and the fear of the authorities who stood helpless in the face of the insurgency. It was Richard alone who quelled the rebellion and sent many of the participants home. This was truly his greatest hour.

I always wondered about Richard’s reversal after he promised everything to the peasants: was he idealistic and later forced to recant by his uncles, or did he lie through his teeth to get out of a tight situation? Apparently, Oman thinks the king leaned toward the latter, and not without reason. Significantly, the famous line “Villeins ye are still, and villeins ye shall remain” did not come unprovoked. Richard’s proclamation was made after he marched to Waltham at the head of an army a week later to put down further insurrections; a new embassy of Essex insurgents had approached him “with a demand for the ratification of the promises made at Mile End on June 14, and a request that they might be granted the additional privilege of freedom from the duty of attending the King’s courts…” The author adds: “It is clear that the sentimental sympathy for the oppressed peasantry attributed to the young king by some modern authors had no real existence. He was incensed at the duress which he had suffered on June 14-15, and anxious to revenge himself.” To me, this interpretation of Richard’s actions goes a long way toward defining who he really was. But at the same time, Richard’s courage was irrefutable and he alone saved the day. “What might not have been hoped from a boy of fourteen capable of such an achievement, and who could have guessed that this gifted but wayward king was to wreck his own career and end as the miserable starved prisoner of Pontefract?”

What I took away from this book was the understanding that conditions leading up to the Peasant Revolt were long-term and widespread. When taking a broad look, apparently the leaders of the revolt were not in communication with each other; the participants were reacting to the situation as the opportunities presented themselves (and not all of them were peasants). In the long run, things went on the same as before: “If we had not the chronicles of Tyler’s rising, we should never have gathered from the court rolls of the manors that there had been an earth-shaking convulsion in 1381”. But there was one tangible result; now the peasants had a new ideal to strive for. They cherished the charters of freedom and amnesty that were issued by the king, and although all Richard’s promises were broken, they knew it could be done. It was a sad and enlightening event, and I found this book to be most satisfying.

Moving forward into the High Middle Ages

January 16, 2017 by Mercedes Rochelle | No Comments | Filed in Richard II

Death of Wat Tyler (source: Wikipedia)

After spending the last 20 some-odd-years studying the eleventh century, I’ve finally finished my fourth book in that era (FATAL RIVALRY) and I’m ready to move forward! Why not expand my blog as well? There are so many interesting topics in the high middle ages, I feel like I’ve been limiting myself up to now.

So I’m happy to announce that my next book will be about Richard II. Way back in my college days, I was inspired  by Shakespeare’s play, performed by Derek Jacobi for the BBC series in 1978. At the time I knew nothing at all about Richard, but the soliloquy at the end tugged at my heartstrings (naturally). I’ve carried him around with me ever since, and now I’m ready; of course, I have to start a new round of research. It’ll be fun to follow with blog entries concerning what I’ve discovered. And while I’m at it, I might as well talk about everything in-between. I do so love the Plantagenets! But I will continue to focus on England; otherwise, I’d have to rename this blog.

Excerpt from FATAL RIVALRY, Part Three of The Last Great Saxon Earls trilogy

January 5, 2017 by Mercedes Rochelle | No Comments | Filed in General Topics, The Sons of Godwine

In this chapter, Harold has come back from his ineffectual meeting with the Northumbrian rebels and must relay their demands to King Edward and Tostig:

TOSTIG REMEMBERS

      Editha and I stood next to the wall watching as Harold entered the great hall accompanied by a group of men who were very nervous; the newcomers seemed reluctant to hand over their weapons as required by law. Finally they consented but stood in a little clump next to the door. I gasped, recognizing a few of them. They were some of the very thegns who undoubtedly murdered my household. Editha put a hand on my harm, shushing me.
Harold pulled away from them as soon as he could. He looked around for the king, then entered Edward’s presence chamber alone. I could see his face; it was drawn with worry lines. He was pacing the chamber when Editha and I came in behind him. Then he whirled around, expecting the king. He let out a big sigh when he saw me.
“Tostig,” he began. “Sit down.”
I refused. He wasn’t going to stand over me.
“Tostig,” he began again. “They are a rabble. They are ravaging the country around Northampton. And soon they will be moving on to Oxford.”
I looked at him in disbelief. “Then we must raise the fyrd,” I began hesitantly. “We need an army to put them down.”
The door slammed behind us. It was the king.
“What is this about the fyrd? What happened at Northampton?”
Harold kneeled before King Edward. “The rebels took you at your word,” he said. “They sent representatives to put their case to you in person.” He stood and looked over at me. “I could get nowhere with them.”
Edward looked troubled. “They will not accede to my demands? That they cease their ravaging?”
“For a short time. It appears they want to show you how powerful a force they are. I believe they are prepared to overrun East Anglia if you do not accept their terms.”
I stared at Harold, not believing what I was hearing.
“What are you saying?” I couldn’t help myself. “You let them dictate terms to you!” I could barely control my voice. For once, Edward did not stop me.
“Tostig,” Harold tried to cajole me in his most manipulative voice. “That’s why I wanted to prepare you for this. They were unruly, but they were united. They had many grievances. And more than that: I believe they have been plotting this rebellion for some time. Why else would Morcar be on hand to accept the earldom?”
My brother spoke out loud what I dared not think to myself. Before I had time to consider the consequences, he turned back to the king. “The men would present their complaints directly to you, in front of our assembly. I could not say nay.”
Editha had a hold of my arm. “Let them speak,” she whispered in my ear. “We must know what their plans are before we can foil them.”
My sister was always the voice of reason between Harold and me. I allowed her to pull me from the room. I stood aside as the king passed and my sister kept her hand on my arm. Edward made a majestic entry into the witan chamber with Harold; my sister and I followed. The assembly bowed to the king and the rebels came forward as one.
“Sire,” the spokesman said. “We come before you freemen born and bred. It is not in our blood to bow before the pride of any earl. We learned before our fathers to take no third choice between freedom or death.” He looked up at Edward, avoiding my eye.
“If you want to keep Northumbria in your allegiance, we insist you confirm the banishment of Tostig from our earldom and from the kingdom. If you persist on forcing Tostig on your unwilling subjects, we will deal with you as an enemy!”
At that, I lunged at his shaggy face, wanting to crush his throat in my bare hands. Harold grabbed me and forced my arms behind my back.
The bastard wasn’t finished. He bravely faced me while Harold held me firm. “We have already elected Morcar as our earl,” he shouted over the commotion. “You must confirm our election! If you yield to our demands, you will see what loyal subjects your Northumbrians can be, when ruled by a candidate of our own choosing.”
Staggered, I went limp in Harold’s arms. He let me go gently. I don’t think I believed what could happen—what was happening—until this moment. I stepped behind the king and used the back of his throne for support.
But the worst was yet to come. The hall was in an uproar, and Edward insisted that the Northumbrian deputation be removed from the room while their demands were discussed. At first, I had to listen to the same old accusations again, but Edward finally put a stop to that.
“Silence,” he shouted. “We are not here to determine why the Northumbrians revolted, but how to stop their depredations.”
That helped quiet the room down. “There is no justification for their illegal actions,” the king continued. “They have pillaged and killed my lawful subjects. They have risen up in rebellion against Tostig’s lawful rule. They must be punished.”
Finally! I stood straighter, more confident now that the king was in control.
Harold cleared his throat. “Sire,” he said, beginning slowly. “Are you speaking of civil war?”
Edward turned to my brother impatiently. “Call it what you will,” he said disdainfully. “These people must be chastised. They are in rebellion against their king!”
The room fell silent. Edward looked around at the witan. Where was his support?
I could feel myself losing patience, but I bit my tongue.
“Sire,” my brother ventured again. “What would you accomplish but more bloodshed? If you compelled the Northumbrians to take back the rule of Tostig, how would we enforce it?”
“Enforce it?” I exclaimed, no longer able to control myself. “What are you saying, brother?” I seized him by the arms and faced him, eye to eye. “We will enforce it with our soldiers!”
“We would have to lay waste to your whole earldom! Is that what you want?”
“If that’s what it takes, then yes!”
“Tostig, aren’t you listening? They won’t take you back!”
This couldn’t be my brother speaking! “I beggared myself for you,” I spat. “For your endless Welsh campaign, so you could come home with all the glory! Is this how you thank me?”
My brother ignored my taunt. Leaning to one side, he tried to look around me at the king. “Think of what they are threatening, Sire. They are threatening to ravage Northamptonshire as we argue. Think of what they are doing to our country. I was there. I heard how uncompromising they were. It might be better to consider their demands.”
I couldn’t believe my ears! I tightened my grip on his arms.
“You can’t be saying this!” I shouted in his face. “You must have instigated this rebellion! You! Who insisted I raise all the taxes! You knew what would happen! You must be in league with Edwin and Morcar! How could you turn on your own brother!”
The uproar continued, but Harold and I were locked in a private struggle. I stared him down; he was the first to look away.
“I swear!” he roared over the noise. “I swear to you that I knew nothing about this rebellion.”
“We already know what your oath is worth,” I growled. I doubt anyone heard me except Harold and King Edward.
But Harold was busy pointing up in the air and calling for attention. “I am willing to call oath-helpers to prove my innocence. I have witnesses! I swear I am innocent of this accusation!”
“All right, all right,” Edward consented. “That will not be necessary. Now, sit down.”
I didn’t agree with the king. I didn’t move. “My faithful brother.” I spat the words. “Support me in this, else you will lose my loyalty forever.”
Harold blanched. “Tostig,” he pleaded. “Give me time.”
“Sit, Earl Tostig,” the king remonstrated. “You must control your temper.”
I took a deep breath and backed away. It was then that I noticed the silence in the room. Frustrated, I sat down. My sister came up behind me and put a hand on my shoulder. That helped calm me a bit. For a moment.
One of Harold’s under-chieftains stood up. “Sire, it would be very difficult to raise an army so late in the year. How would we provision ourselves?”
“We cannot campaign in the winter,” another shouted.
My brother’s minions all murmured their agreement. Another stood up. “What good would it do for England if Wessex was to make war on Northumbria?” He turned around, nodding his head as others shouted that he was right. Someone else called out, “Why should we support a cast-off earl?”
I stood up at that, but Edward stood too, pointing in my direction.
“I do not call out the fyrd to support a cast-off earl. I call out the fyrd to support my Royal authority!”
It made sense, though I was a little dismayed to be so discounted.
“Those traitors need to be punished!” Edward’s voice was starting to sound like a whine again. I hated when he lost control. I took a step down and approached the assembly, trying my best to sound reasonable.
“King Edward speaks true,” I proclaimed in my most authoritative voice. “All the injured and dead are our countrymen.”
People started shouting at me, brandishing their fists. I bellowed back, to no avail. No one would listen to me.
“I command you to call out the whole force of England to my Royal Standard!” the king ordered, screaming over my head. Nobody heard. Nobody answered.
My arrogant brother just stood there, arms crossed, and waited for the noise to die down. In disgust, I went back to my seat.
Edward collapsed into his throne, his energy spent. After another few minutes, Harold moved to where I had been standing.
“The king requests that we call the fyrd,” he said to a restless but quieter crowd. “But we all would abstain from a civil war.” He turned and looked at me and I narrowed my eyes, glaring at him. “Our father would not do it fourteen years ago. It’s no different now. Our enemies across the sea would attack us at the first opportunity.”
Another stood up. “Even if we forced them to take Tostig back, who is to stop them from rebelling again?” Harold watched while the shouting started all over again.
My brother finally turned to King Edward. “Some of the rebels have crossed into my brother Gyrth’s earldom. They are headed for Oxford. I propose we call a witenagemot of the whole realm, and stop the renegades there before they progress any farther south. Then we can negotiate further.”
The king had sunk further into his throne. My advocate. My supporter. Edward nodded, looked away and waved his hand, granting Harold the power to call his assembly. I knew the signs. The meeting was finished. So was I.
As the crowd made their way out of the assembly hall, I went up to Harold. He didn’t want to look at me but he couldn’t help himself. He was drawn to me like a moth to a flame; my ire was such that he couldn’t avoid me, though he knew my righteous anger was going to burn deep. We’ve opposed each other before, but not like this.
“Brother,” I said to him. I couldn’t keep the threat from my voice. “I hope you bestow some sense on my Northumbrian traitors. Because if you do not, I swear to God Almighty that you will regret it for the rest of your life.”
Not trusting myself further, I turned on my heel and headed for the king’s personal door. Turning, I looked back and saw my sister, standing and glaring at Harold. At least she was on my side.

Release date: Jan 30, 2017. You can pre-order at Amazon.com (also available on Kindle Unlimited)

Yule Celebrations in the Nordic lands

December 19, 2016 by Mercedes Rochelle | No Comments | Filed in General Topics

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.

In the Days After Hastings

November 6, 2016 by Mercedes Rochelle | 2 Comments | Filed in William the Conqueror
William the Conqueror. Source: Wikimedia

William the Conqueror. Source: Wikimedia

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.

Harold Marches to York, September 1066

September 16, 2016 by Mercedes Rochelle | 3 Comments | Filed in General Topics, The Sons of Godwine

FreemanStamfordbridgeWhile 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!