Review for THE SONS OF GODWINE by “She Reads Novels”

June 10, 2016 by Mercedes Rochelle | No Comments | Filed in Book Reviews, The Sons of Godwine

HaroldCoverFront3This is the second of Mercedes Rochelle’s Last Great Saxon Earls novels which tell the story of the Godwinesons in the years leading up to the Norman Conquest. The first book, Godwine Kingmaker, follows Godwine, Earl of Wessex, as he rises to become one of the most powerful men in 11th century England. In this second novel we get to know the Earl’s family as his children take turns to narrate their own stories, each from his or her own unique viewpoint.

We begin with a prologue in which Queen Editha, daughter of Godwine and wife of Edward the Confessor, explains that the book she commissioned on the life of her husband – the famous Vita Ædwardi Regis – was originally intended to be a history of her own family and that she had asked her brothers to write down their memories to be included in the manuscript. The Sons of Godwine is presented as a collection of the brothers’ memoirs (fictional but based closely on historical fact).

Editha’s brother, Harold – the future King Harold II of England – is naturally the most famous member of the family and much of the novel revolves around him, but we also hear from Tostig, Gyrth, Leofwine and Wulfnoth (though not from the eldest brother, Swegn) and through their alternating narratives the story of the sons of Godwine gradually unfolds.
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Edwin and Morcar in 1066

June 7, 2016 by Mercedes Rochelle | 2 Comments | Filed in General 11th Century topics

housecarlWhen Tostig was exiled from England in November, 1065, Earls Edwin and Morcar (or Eadwine and Morkere) must have felt pretty secure in their earldoms. Is it possible they were trying to re-establish a northern entity similar to the Danelaw? Professor Edward A. Freeman seemed to think so, and other historians make the same suggestion. Nonetheless, King Edward’s sudden death must have thrown their plans into some confusion. Like everyone else, Edwin and Morcar would have been at the Christmas Court for the consecration of Westminster Abbey, and they stayed when the king took to his sickbed.

The very day King Edward breathed his last, Harold must have summoned the Witan to choose a successor, since I doubt there would have been time the following morning, with a funeral and coronation to arrange. I can just imagine the state Edward’s court must have been in, with all the running around and jockeying for position. Did anyone have time to mourn the king’s passing? Was Harold’s election in any doubt? Probably not, though it seems that he had to entice Edwin and Morcar to support him; perhaps this is when their sister’s betrothal to the new king came into play. Perhaps they merely bent to necessity, for they had no support in the south and Harold’s star was in the ascendant.

It stands to reason that Northumbria was not fully represented at the Witan electing Harold. What came of this imbalance manifested itself as a passive resistance to Harold’s rule, so much so that within a month the new king was on his way to visit his reluctant earldom with the Bishop of Worcester and a small contingent of housecarls. His conciliatory gesture bore fruit and he is said to have won over the hearts of the stubborn northerners, while flattering them by marring Ealdgyth, sister of Edwin and Morcar, possibly at York Cathedral.

We hear nothing further about the northern earls until Tostig made his move in May. After Harold chased him away from Sandwich, Tostig ravaged the coast of Lindesey in Mercia. Edwin and Morcar were vigilant and soon drove Tostig away, causing his little fleet to disperse. Presumably they spent the rest of the summer guarding the north against invasion—or maybe not. When Harald Hardrada started ravaging the coast of Cleveland and devastated the sturdy town of Scarborough, the local levies had to rely on their own devices to resist the invaders. The Norwegian fleet sailed unopposed into the Humber and dropped anchor near the little town of Riccall on the Ouse, nine miles from York.

Had the sons of Aelfgar been busy raising an army all along? Apparently that’s what they were doing, for Edwin and Morcar chose this time to advance on Hardrada in defense of York with about 5000 men. Later historians have castigated the earls for risking all and not waiting for King Harold to come to their aid. But given the situation, perhaps they thought it was their duty to defend their own territory. They certainly had a formidable army and put up a stout defense at Fulford Gate, only to be defeated by the superior generalship of the battle-hardened Hardrada.

The Battle of Fulford has hardly made a splash in the history books, but its consequences were very significant. Both sides fought long and hard, and it’s estimated that there was a total of 11,000 men on the field. Perhaps 15% of this number was killed, and chroniclers stated that the bodies were so thick the victors could walk across them without getting their feet wet from the swamp. The battle was lost as Harald brought his best fighters around the Northumbrian flank and trapped the defenders against the ditch. Earl Morcar was said to have fled the field and Edwin retreated to York with the broken remains of his army. But York was in no position to defend itself any further and immediately surrendered to the invaders. Luckily, Hardrada and Tostig were not interested in plundering the town, but they arranged for an exchange of hostages four days thence at Stamfordbridge.

King Harold’s lightning march from the south saved York from further destruction. He did pass through the city on his way to Stamfordbridge, and apparently only the stoutest housecarls joined his forces. Edwin certainly did not, and I believe Morcar was still unaccounted for. And when Harold was called back south to deal with Duke William, the northern earls lagged behind, claiming they needed more time to gather their broken forces. Harold vainly waited in London for their appearance, then resolved to move on and face the Normans without them.

Much has been made of Edwin and Morcar’s failure to help Harold in his time of need—especially since the king just saved their necks while losing many of his most experienced housecarls at Stamfordbridge. Were the northerners just too exhausted, too disabled to undertake a forced march after having just fought two epic battles? Or was it possible that Edwin and Morcar were holding off in the hopes that they might get a better deal from Duke William? Some historians think their subsequent behavior indicated less-than-noble intentions. Many have thought the earls harbored their family’s historic antipathy toward the house of Godwine. It’s very likely that the concept of a united England had not yet come into play, and it’s possible that Edwin and Morcar were pursuing an ambition of a separate northern kingdom, starting with the Northumbrian rebellion against Tostig. If this this the case, they were destined to be sorely undeceived.

 

Rise of Edwin and Morcar, Ill-fated Earls

May 11, 2016 by Mercedes Rochelle | No Comments | Filed in General 11th Century topics, The Sons of Godwine
Statues of Earl Leofric and Lady Godiva on Coventry City Hall

Statues of Earl Leofric and Lady Godiva on Coventry City Hall

If the mid-eleventh century is dominated by any theme, the rivalry between the great houses ranks close to the top. When Edward the Confessor became king, England was dominated by the Three Great Earls: Godwine of Wessex, Leofric of Mercia, and Siward of Northumbria. Edward made it his policy to leverage one (or two) against the other, which usually held him in good stead.

When Godwine died in 1053, Harold stepped into his shoes with hardly a ripple. But once old Siward died in 1055 and Leofric followed in 1057, the balance of power had shifted. Tostig was awarded the earldom of Northumbria and Aelfgar, Leofric’s son, was given Mercia (though he proved much less effective than his father). Gyrth and Lefowine split the earldom of East Anglia. So by 1057, the house of Godwine controlled all of England except Mercia. Poor Aelfgar must have felt himself at a huge disadvantage, which probably goes a long way toward explaining his alliance with Gruffydd ap Llewelyn, Prince of Wales (and thorn in King Edward’s side). But this didn’t last long either, for Aelfgar expired in December 1062. He was survived by two sons, Edwin and Morcar (or Eadwine and Morkere), and a daughter, Ealdgyth, who was married to Gruffydd.

So Edwin became the next Earl of Mercia, though apparently his early years were pretty uneventful. Gryffydd was on the run, and there is no indication that Mercia interfered in Welsh politics at this time. Presumably Edwin took back his sister after the Prince of Wales was killed by Harold Godwineson in 1063 (she is the same Ealdgyth, or Edith, who married Harold around the time he became king). In 1065 he was to become involved in his brother’s unlawful acquisition of Northumbria, with Welsh fighters in tow. Where did they come from?

Tostig’s tenure in Northumbria lasted 10 years, but in October of 1065 his disgruntled thegns rose up in rebellion while the earl was in the south with the king. It was well planned, and Tostig’s 200 housecarls were wiped out before they were able to mount an effective resistance. The rebels broke into the treasury, raided the armory, killed any and all of Tostig’s supporters, then declared a Witan to choose a new earl. This was not a legal procedure, for only the king was entitled to elect an earl. But the Northumbrians were jealous of their privileges and intended to compel King Edward to accept their decision. Morcar was their choice, and apparently he was elected unanimously. He just happened to be within calling distance and quickly swore himself in; needless to say, many historians believe he had secretly agreed to become earl during the planning stages.

Why did the Northumbrians choose an outsider and an inexperienced leader, at that? Perhaps this was the very reason: what better way to control a puppet ruler? Everyone knew that Morcar was the best candidate to antagonize the house of Godwine. But also, the men from Northumberland and the men from Yorkshire (north vs. south in the earldom) didn’t exactly get along; it’s a good possibility that Morcar was a compromise candidate, acceptable to all. Regardless, he took his place at the Witan and proceeded to lead a very disruptive mob south to confront the king. They plundered their way though Tostig’s lands so as to do the most damage to their declared enemy—even taking hundreds of captives.

Somewhere around Northampton, the rebels paused, though their marauding continued. At this point they were joined by Edwin and a contingent from his earldom, supplemented by a large number of Welsh fighters. This new alliance seemed a little suspicious to many historians. Emma Mason in her “THE HOUSE OF GODWINE” proposed that there might be a connection between Edwin’s Welsh followers and the destruction of Harold’s new hunting lodge in Portskewett a few months before. Could it be that the attackers were on their way to join in Edwin’s “great rebellion that was about to break out”? I find this suggestion to be almost irresistible. Is it possible that Edwin and Morcar were hoping to build a whole new northern state, to bring England back to the days of the Danelaw?

In the end, the Northumbrian rebellion was successful and the rebels forced Harold Godwineson—Edward’s spokesman—to accept their demands. They refused to take Tostig back, and went so far as to insist on his outlawry. The king reluctantly agreed to allow Morcar to remain as Earl, and presumably they went peaceably back home, having satisfied their destructive impulses.

Earls Edwin and Morcar were not destined to enjoy their status for very long. I’ll continue their story in my next blog entry.

Harald Hardrada plans to invade England

April 5, 2016 by Mercedes Rochelle | 2 Comments | Filed in General 11th Century topics
Window with portrait of Harald in Lerwick Town Hall, Shetland. SOURCE: Wikipedia

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.

REVIEW: For Rapture of Ravens: The Sorrow Song Trilogy: Part Two by Peter Whitaker

March 29, 2016 by Mercedes Rochelle | No Comments | Filed in Book Reviews

ravensThis book is part two in the series that covers, firstly, the Battle of Fulford, and in this volume, the Battle of Stamford Bridge. Both books can stand alone, but it helps to see the extent of the Anglo-Saxon victory over the Norwegians when you realize just how much of a beating they took at the first battle. Harald Hardrada’s victory was complete; Earls Edwin and Morcar were on the run and York surrendered without the slightest hesitation. No wonder our hero Coenred and the remnants of the English army gathered disconsolately at Tadcaster, hoping against hope that King Harold would come to their rescue. And he did!

Coenred’s life quickly got complicated when his casual interest in the widow Mildryth deepened into something much more compelling, on both sides. Suddenly he had someone to go home to, but at the same time she became someone who could distract him from the business of war. The author tells a sweet story of their budding romance, forced into the background by compelling events he could never ignore. And when Harold Godwinson gathered his forces for a confrontation against the Viking invaders, Coenred was at the forefront of York’s support.

Meanwhile the Norwegians, confident that the resistance is at an end, gather at Stamford Bridge to collect hostages and supplies; about a third of the army stays with the ships at Ricall, around 10 miles away. The atmosphere is nearly festive, as they lay in the sun, swim in the river, and generally rest from their recent efforts. Most of them left their armor behind, only bringing a helmet and sword. When the grim and vengeful Anglo-Saxons approach from York, the Norwegians are surprised and totally unprepared. They fight well but their lack of armor ultimately decides the battle. Nonetheless, many stout English warriors fall by their sides.

Whitaker is very, very good at writing battle scenes. He brings us right into the midst of the action, and events are so cleanly depicted that there is no confusion. We also feel the desperate fear of the inexperienced fighters and the bitter determination of the veterans, intent on redeeming their losses at Fulford. The dialog reads much like a saga, full of glory and poetry, which gives this novel an other-worldly ambience of another time in another place.

New Release: THE SONS OF GODWINE

March 10, 2016 by Mercedes Rochelle | No Comments | Filed in General 11th Century topics

HaroldCoverFront3Emerging 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.

Available NOW on Kindle, and Paperback

 

Calm Before the Danes: Guest Post by Annie Whitehead

February 7, 2016 by Mercedes Rochelle | 3 Comments | Filed in General 11th Century topics
Edward Murdered at Corfe by James William Edmund Doyle

Edward Murdered at Corfe by James William Edmund Doyle

It was 1984. I was in a seminar room in Kentish Town in North London and my tutor, Ann Williams, was talking to us about the 10thc anti-monastic rebellion. Ealdorman Aelfhere, one of the three most powerful noblemen in the country, was the leader of this rebellion, and he was described as the ‘Mad blast’ from Mercia. I wanted to know more about this guy. And I wanted to write his story.

My first novel, To Be a Queen, tells the story of Aethelflaed, daughter of Alfred the Great. She effectively became ruler of what was by then little more than a satellite kingdom of Wessex, but had originally been a powerful kingdom in its own right. Mercia gave us such great and notorious kings as Penda, and Offa. Now it was allied to Wessex, pledged to fighting off the Viking army.

The allies were successful, for a while. Anybody who regularly reads Mercedes’ blog and/or knows a bit about the 11thc will know that it wasn’t long before the Vikings were not only here to stay, but were running the show. Swein, his son Canute, his sons (briefly), and then William of Normandy who was, to all intents and purposes, ethnically a Viking.

But what happened in between? And why was England so ripe for a takeover bid in the 11thc?

The 10thc is not much talked about. It was a bit, well, peaceful. No Vikings, no wars between the kingdoms, no kings with the epithet ‘the great’.

England in AD956 was, for the first time in living memory, free of the Viking threat. Just as well, because there was a bit of a problem. Kings kept dying, young, without offspring. Athelstan (Alfred’s grandson) had done an excellent job of uniting all the English kingdoms and sorting out the Scots and Irish but he’d not done such a great job of finding a wife and having children. When he died in 939 the crown passed to his half-brother, Edmund. He managed to produce two sons, Edwy and Edgar, but he died prematurely and the kingship went to his brother, Eadred. His most notable act was probably seeing off Erik Bloodaxe and restoring the Viking Kingdom of York to English control. Then he died, too.

In AD955 King Edwy, the eldest of the boys born to Edmund, became king. Unfortunately, not a very good, wise, or chaste king. His brother, Edgar, was sent away to be fostered in Mercia and decided, when he was about 14, that he’d quite like a shot at being king. Trouble was, he was only 14, and he needed a bit of help. Like, maybe, from a newly ennobled earl by the name of Aelfhere (or Alvar, as I call him in my novel.) Alvar had received his earldom from King Edwy, and thus had sworn to serve him, but he knew him to be a fornicator and a fool. He was faced with a difficult choice. And so began his career…

I won’t reveal any plot spoilers, but it’s a matter of fact that Edgar died relatively young, although not childless. And this presented a bit of a problem. Because once again, the heirs to the throne were two young boys. This time, however, they were born of different mothers. The eldest boy, Edward, was already famous for having a short temper, and the other was very young.

I have my own theories about how and why the younger son’s temperament developed, but suffice to say he was the youngest of his mother’s four sons. The eldest two were deliberately kept away from her, the third died of a childhood fever. Could she be blamed for being overprotective of her last-born?

This lady, Aelfthryth, whom I’ve called Alfreda, was Edgar’s widow. She was also a consecrated queen and her supporters, Alvar included, felt that her son, having been born ‘in the purple’, was the rightful heir.

Others, including Alvar’s enemies in the Church, thought differently, and crowned Edward.

One night, Edward, he of the famous short temper, went to see Alfreda and her son. There was an argument, then a scuffle. Accounts vary as to what happened next, but the result was that Edward was fatally stabbed. Accusatory fingers pointed right at Alfreda but Alvar managed to quell the disquiet, put an end to the infighting and help to establish the surviving heir as king. It’s just a bit of a shame that the new boy-king’s name was Aethelred. And he did get an epithet, although not ‘the Great’ but ‘the Unready’ (meaning badly-counselled.)

He was not a good king. He was not a wise one. I think he was still a bit of a ‘mummy’s boy’. And somewhere, across the sea, a Danish king knew he could take advantage of this…


AnnieHeadshotMeet Annie Whitehead

Annie Whitehead is a history graduate who now works as an Early Years music teacher. Her first novel, To Be A Queen, was long-listed for the Historical Novel Society’s Indie Book of the Year 2016. Her new release, Alvar the Kingmaker, is available now. She is currently working on the novel which was a prize-winning entry in the Mail on Sunday Novel Writing competition and which she was encouraged by Judge Fay Weldon to complete.

New Release: Alvar the Kingmaker

Alvar the Kingmaker (6)In 10th Century England,nobleman Alvar knows that securing the throne for the young and worthy King Edgar will brand him as an oath-breaker. As a fighting man, he is indispensable to the new sovereign, but his success and power gain him deadly, murderous enemies amongst those who seek favour with the king. Alvar must fight to protect his lands, and his position, and learn the subtle art of politics. He must also, as a man of principle, keep secret his love for the wife of his trusted deputy. Civil war erupts, and Alvar once again finds himself the only man capable of setting a new king upon the throne of England, an act which comes at great personal cost. His career began with a dishonourable deed to help a good king; now he must be loyal to a new king, Aethelred, whom he knows will be weak, and whose supporters have been accused of regicide. Can he bring about peace, reconcile with his enemies, and find personal happiness, whilst all the time doing his duty to his loved ones? And what of the fragile Queen, who not only depends upon him but has fallen in love with him? Aelfhere (Alvar) of Mercia was known to the chroniclers as the “The blast of the mad wind from the Western territories” but also as “The glorious earl.” This is his story.    Available on Amazon.com

FeedARead.com: https://www.feedaread.com/books/Alvar-the-Kingmaker-9781786106889.aspx0

Also by Annie Whitehead: To Be A Queen

Annie Queen (003)One family, two kingdoms, one common enemy …
This is the true story of Aethelflaed, the ‘Lady of the Mercians’, daughter of Alfred the Great. She was the only female leader of an Anglo-Saxon kingdom.
Born into the royal house of Wessex at the height of the Viking wars, she is sent to her aunt in Mercia as a foster-child, only to return home when the Vikings overrun Mercia. In Wessex, she witnesses another Viking attack and this compounds her fear of the enemy.
She falls in love with a Mercian lord but is heartbroken to be given as bride to the ruler of Mercia to seal the alliance between the two Anglo-Saxon kingdoms.
She must learn to subjugate her feelings for her first love, overcome her indifference to her husband and win the hearts of the Mercians who despise her as a foreigner and twice make an attempt on her life.
When her husband falls ill and is incapacitated, she has to learn to rule and lead an army in his stead. Eventually she must fight to save her adopted Mercia from the Vikings and, ultimately, her own brother.   Available on Amazon.com

LINKS:

Author Webpage: Casting Light Upon the Shadow

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King Canute and Jarl Ulf

January 23, 2016 by Mercedes Rochelle | No Comments | Filed in King Canute
Canute and Ulf quarrel over chess by Morris Meredith Williams

Canute and Ulf quarrel over chess by Morris Meredith Williams SOURCE: Wikimedia

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.

What is Sac and Soke in Anglo-Saxon England?

December 7, 2015 by Mercedes Rochelle | No Comments | Filed in General 11th Century topics

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

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

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

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

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

My review of HAROLD II: The Doomed Saxon King by Peter Rex

November 28, 2015 by Mercedes Rochelle | 6 Comments | Filed in Book Reviews, The Sons of Godwine

HaroldIII’m not quite sure where I would put this volume in my own line-up of pre-conquest history books. On the one hand, it covered the issues intelligently and carefully. On the other hand, many of the major books he cites in his bibliography are already on my bookshelf…especially the 20th century sources. So on the one hand, on an information gathering mission I didn’t learn anything majorly new. Nonetheless, I placed a lot of bookmarks which means he touched on little details that fleshed out my understanding.

In many ways, the value of this book is in the explanations of things we just might not be entirely sure about. For instance, we get interesting general details: “The manors of an earl were probably organized like the royal demesne, the ‘home farms’ of the monarchy, into either provisioning or revenue-producing units. Entries in the Domesday Book note the number of nights’ farm that could be obtained from a manor. They were the cost of overnight provisions for the king or lord and his whole household when visiting the manor.” That helps explain some everyday factors that usually slip past us. There are many other explanations of this kind that helped put things into perspective for me.

The author also tried to make sense of conflicting histories, especially concerning the battle of Hastings and its aftermath. Which came first, and who influenced who? And why? “Admittedly, some historians criticize the Carmen, believing it to be a twelfth-century product, but the balance of probability seems to favor an early date for this work, around 1068…” Was the arrow in the eye story an effort to portray Harold as being punished from God for his perjury? Or was there some confusion between his death by an arrow and Harold Hardrada’s arrow in the throat? How much was this story influenced by the nineteenth century restoration of the Bayeux Tapestry? As you might guess, these passages raise more questions than they answer, but these questions are probably unanswerable anyway, so we might as well learn as much background as possible.

I was interested to see that Tostig’s troubles in the north may have had much to do with reforming the out-of-balance low taxation in Northumbria (when compared to the rest of the country). According to the author, “There was a reform of the royal household in the interests of efficiency early in the 1060s…Tostig’s rule was then seen as tightening royal control of the north at a time when the Witan in England was dominated by Harold, which would explain why Tostig blamed Harold for the revolt and accused him of conspiring against him.” To me, this is a big statement. First of all, it implies that Tostig did not arbitrarily raise taxes, which supposedly sparked off the insurrection. And it also gives a reason why he would accuse Harold of fomenting the rebellion, aside from a mere hysterical reaction. There’s a lot of food for thought here, which certainly delves deeper than the usual bland interpretation of Tostig’s allegedly poor government.

So, overall, I would say I have benefitted from reading this book. The writing was a little hard to get through in places, and I feel the author jumped around a little bit, but it gave me some specifics where I needed them in an academic manner. If I didn’t know anything about the period, I would probably have had a hard time getting through the book. It was really more about explaining why certain things happened rather than merely telling us a straightforward history, although there is a certain amount of that, too. But I think the straight history passages served as a vehicle to get us to the good stuff: sorting out the evidence of our many sources.