My Review of THE VIKINGS by Magnus Magnusson

July 30, 2015 by Mercedes Rochelle | No Comments | Filed in General 11th Century topics

vikingsI found this book about The Vikings to be a surprisingly enjoyable read; for the life of me I don’t know how historians can make such a lively subject so boring, but it seems to happen frequently. An unabashed descendant himself, Magnus Magnusson puts the antics of his Viking ancestors in everyday language that moves right along: “‘From the fury of the Northmen, deliver us, O Lord!’ That is probably the most hackneyed line in all the vast literature about the Vikings and their evil ways.” (He tells us that it is apocryphal.)

No, he does not whitewash the Viking violence, but he does make sure we understand the sociological implications of their expansion over Europe: “Their assaults on abbeys and monasteries destroyed not only buildings but also the organization of the extensive demenses of the church. The old-style loyalties to State and Church were breaking down. In their place, rural seigneuries grew up, in which free men offered their services to the lords in return for protection… The Vikings were the midwives of feudalism in France.” He admits this is an oversimplification, but asserts this is the best way to “make sense of the turmoil of the ninth century.” It’s an interesting approach, and throughout the book he does a good job expanding on his theory.

This edition was published in 2003, and I was gratified to see reference to my new favorite Viking: “These brothers (Halfdan, Ubbi and Ivar the Boneless) were said to be the sons of a certain Ragnar — perhaps the Ragnar who attacked Paris in 845.” We get a certain amount of discussion about Britain, and he doesn’t neglect Viking Dublin, Frankia, or Russia. Then we learn about the settlement of the Isle of Man, Iceland, the Faroes, Greenland, and even Vinland. I think he lost some steam during this latter section, but he brings us back to Harald Hardrada and we end the book with Stamfordbridge and his professed end of the Viking Age.

I came out of this reading with a healthy respect for the Viking talent to overcome obstacles, build successful settlements, create beautiful things, make money and survive. It’s a good overall introduction to a diverse set of people, and I would recommend it to readers who have reached any level of research on the subject.

Just who are the Housecarls?

July 18, 2015 by Mercedes Rochelle | No Comments | Filed in General 11th Century topics

housecarlAs with most of our information concerning the 11th century, the definition of Housecarl is open to interpretation. Once again I turn to the book “Anglo-Saxon Military Instititions” by C.Warren Hollister for my article; this scholarly work is the most comprehensive I have found on the subject.

Interestingly, the Housecarls as a defined group of warriors apparently only existed in 11th century pre-conquest England. Patterned after the Jomsvikings of Denmark (founded by King Harold, father of Swein Forkbeard), they are first mentioned in relation to King Canute—probably in 1018—and ceased to exist as an organization after the Battle of Hastings. It is believed they were in essence a military guild, with a body of regulations and the ability to call up a gemot or huskarlesteffne in the king’s presence to settle disputes or punish a transgressor. If a member of the guild wanted to leave the organization, they could only do so on New Year’s day. In 1049, when Swegn Godwineson killed his cousin Earl Beorn, the King and all the here (housecarls, thegns, even peasants) called a gemot and declared Swegn a nithing. This was a very judicial function, and under Canute’s rule the law states that he “shall be driven off the king’s estates with nithing’s word, and shall be exiled from every land.”

The Housecarls were the closest thing to a paid, standing army (or household troops) one would find in late Anglo-Saxon England. Occasionally they were used as tax collectors. They were loyal to their employer, the king or great earl, and were usually composed of Danish or English professional soldiers. Many of their number were landowners. It appears that as the years progressed, the Housecarls started to become a more generic designation, and the word began to be used synonymously with hiredmenn or hired and finally lithsmen and butescarls. The latter two are warriors that can fight equally well on both land and shipboard. In the end, perhaps it can only be said with real assurance that they were all mercenaries or retainers.

Highly trained warriors, the Housecarls mostly fought on foot although it is more than possible that they were perfectly capable of fighting on horseback. Snorri Sturluson tells us in Heimskringla that Harold’s mounted troops attacked the disorganized Norwegians in the early phase of the Stamfordbridge battle. They would not have attacked head-on like we picture in the 14th century battles; rather they would veer past the enemy and launch javelins into their foes’ ranks, much like the Normans did at Hastings. Then they would dismount and finish the battle on foot. During the Battle of Hastings, Harold most likely spread out his Housecarls along the shield wall to support the less experienced fyrd. Armed with their long Danish axes, the Housecarls would have been a formidable sight.

What was an Anglo-Saxon Hide?

June 19, 2015 by Mercedes Rochelle | 6 Comments | Filed in General 11th Century topics


For many, many years I was content to think of the Anglo-Saxon Hide as a sort-of unit of measure, equivalent to the amount of land required to feed a peasant family. Good soil, smaller hide, I assumed. Rocky, mountainous soil, a larger hide. And perhaps it started this way, as Wikipedia tells us; the acre, as we know it today, did not exist. Imagine my surprise, when digging even farther into Anglo-Saxon studies, to discover that at least in the late Anglo-Saxon period, the Hide had an altogether different purpose. It was used to determine the amount of service owed to the king.

Now, let me start by saying I am not an expert on this subject! I am a student of history, and this article is intended to pass on my new discovery the best way I can; it’s is a very difficult topic, considering what little source material we have to go on. Nothing in the country was universal. Much has been pieced together by C.Warren Hollister, and he was as dry as they come (ANGLO-SAXON MILITARY INSTITUTIONS On the Eve of the Norman Conquest, 1962). But my copy of his little book is full of place-marks and I have to reorganize my mental file cabinet to absorb it all!

The Hide was not a geographic unit of measure, nor was it necessarily static. I would guess it had more to do with a density of population rather than a physical land mass, considering the above chart. The bigger towns had more hides. You will note that they are all measured in increments of 5; this seems to be the closest to universal that we will find. What was the responsibility of the five-hide unit? There was a three-fold obligation: military service, fortress work, and bridge repair. Each five-hide unit was required to produce one soldier and pay him for two months’ service (20 shillings) if called up by the king. This soldier was usually the same person whenever called up, so he would probably be better trained and equipped than the ordinary fyrdman. The five-hide unit would be contributing to the select fyrd, as Hollister puts it, rather than the great fyrd (I think these are his terms, used for convenience sake. More on that in another post). So Cambridge, for instance, would be obliged to product 20 warriors; where exactly they came from did not matter, as long as there were 20. If a great lord had the necessary number of retainers in his household, that could serve. But again, he was also obliged to pay their subsistence, not the king.

A five-hide unit could be a portion of one man’s estate, or several small estates could be stitched together to compose one five-hide unit (they would probably be contiguous). If the warrior-representative owned all 5 hides, he would be responsible for collecting his own pay from his tenants or his own income (or he could send someone in his stead). If the five-hide unit was made up of smaller landholders, they would be responsible for paying the soldier proportionally. Say, for example, five one-hide farms made up the unit. One hide would produce the warrior who paid himself 4 shillings; the the other four hides would have to contribute 4 shillings each to make up the 20 shillings for his subsistence. I believe the warrior would not be responsible for the bridge repairs and fortress work; the other representatives would contribute the manpower on that end. (In the Danelaw, the land was assessed in carucates rather than hides, and Hollister thinks they practiced a similar custom of military service.)

The hide was also a fiscal unit as well as military. When Danegeld was raised, the assessment was customarily 2 shillings per hide regardless of its size. Also, there might be additional requirements. According to the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, in 1008 “Every 300 hides should provide a large warship, every ten hides should produce a cutter, and every eight hides should produce a helmet and a coat of mail”.  Can you imagine the distress when Aethelred’s fleet met with disaster later that year? “The vast toil of the whole nation was thus thrown away,” according of Florence of Worcester.

Interestingly enough, when the King wanted to show favor, he could reduce the hidage of certain estates, hence reducing the military obligation. In one recorded instance, “The manor of Chilcomb, belonging to the bishop of Worcester, was reduced prior to the Conquest from 100 hides to one hide” (Hollister, p.55). Thus, the size of the estate was not reduced, only its assessment.

When taken as a whole, this system seems to have been very well organized and helps explain why the continentals thought England to be such a wealthy country. I have made a few other discoveries reading this book, and will put them together in a future post.


Review for HEIR TO A PROPHECY by Helen Skinner

May 25, 2015 by Mercedes Rochelle | No Comments | Filed in General 11th Century topics, Macbeth

“Thou shalt get kings, though thou be none.” In Shakespeare’s Macbeth, these are the words spoken by the three witches to Macbeth’s friend, Banquo. Soon after this, Banquo is murdered and his son, Fleance, flees Scotland and does not appear again in the play. In Heir to a Prophecy, we follow Fleance as he escapes to Wales and joins the court of the Welsh king, Gruffydd ap Llewelyn. Here he meets Gruffydd’s daughter, Nesta, and they have a child together. The name of this child is Walter and it is through him that the witches’ prophecy will eventually be fulfilled.

According to some legends, the Stewart monarchs of Scotland were descended from Fleance, although more recent research has shown that in reality Banquo and Fleance probably never even existed. However, this doesn’t make Heir to a Prophecy any less enjoyable to read. The witches’ prophecy is a starting point which the author uses to explore the history of the 11th century, mixing fact, fiction and fantasy together into one fascinating story.

As we accompany first Fleance, then Walter on a journey through medieval Scotland, England and Wales, we witness the unfolding of important historical events which will shape the future of the British Isles. We spend some time in France where William of Normandy, with his eye on the throne of England, is preparing to cross the Channel. His invasion will result in victory over Harold Godwinson at the Battle of Hastings in 1066, but a period of further discontent and rebellion will follow. We also join Walter as he embarks on a personal mission to discover the truth behind his grandfather Banquo’s murder and ultimately to return to his rightful place by the side of Scotland’s King Malcom III.

Read the rest of the review here

The almost forgotten Edith of Wessex, Queen of England

May 15, 2015 by Mercedes Rochelle | 1 Comment | Filed in General 11th Century topics

Edith at left on top panel

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

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

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

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

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

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


Review of GODWINE KINGMAKER by Stephanie Hopkins

May 8, 2015 by Mercedes Rochelle | No Comments | Filed in General 11th Century topics

I’d like to first say that this period in English history is probably without a doubt my favorite. I am quite the critic when it comes to reading historical fiction during this extraordinary time…when I saw this book tour available for this book, I knew that I had to read this story. I wanted to know how seriously Rochelle takes her history and how she will portray this period and the people. I’d have to say I was thoroughly fascinated with her look into this time. She gives you a really good sense of it if you will. That’s what I want in a story. To be transported back.

This story centers on Harold Godwineson’s Father, Godwine. He became Earl of Wessex under King Canute. For those of you who don’t know, Canute is Danish by birth. He and his father conquered England. I highly recommend you read up on King Canute.

Anyhow, I really have never had an opinion about Godwine. I knew he was powerful and how he got his power. I have always been more interested in his son Harold-the last king of the Saxon rule. They were both two powerful men in their own right. Although what Godwine built for his families power was amazing! It really is extraordinary how he rose from his commoner status and how his family rose even further with Harold. This story shows Godwine’s power and intelligence-I think-perfectly. The story begins with him as a young boy who was befriended by the Danes. By chance really and was befriended by King Canute. This is that story and more. A brilliant story at that. Gosh there is so much to this story and I could go on and on about it. But instead of me doing that, I really encourage you to read the book.

I will caution those who are critical of authors for taking liberties regarding the historical aspects of a story. I will say this with a firm voice, “This is Historical Fiction!” I did spot some of that in this story and even asked the author about one particular scene via social media. How she explained it to me worked perfectly in her story. Matter of fact there is a part of history about a piece of land that Canute and Godwine was viewing and where Canute was telling Godwine about it is where she took some liberty. Still she kept it believable and I actually want to do further study on it. So thank you, Rochelle for including the scene in your story. Readers, I can’t tell you what it is because I don’t want to give spoilers….so go read it and find out!

I adore the authors writing style, premise, how she brought it all together. She knows how to write historical fiction and I can’t WAIT for the second book to come out. I hope it will be soon! I’m rating this book five stars. Thank you, Rochelle for a fine story. We readers of history do appreciate it.

Oh, and one last thing….I pretty much agree with Rochelle’s portrayal of the Normans! Ha! :)

Stephanie M. Hopkins


The Children of Harold Godwineson

March 15, 2015 by Mercedes Rochelle | 7 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?


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
Follow Kit’s blog at