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

November 28, 2015 by Mercedes Rochelle | No Comments | Filed in 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.

York Before the Conquest: Guest Post by Regan Walker

October 26, 2015 by Mercedes Rochelle | 1 Comment | Filed in General 11th Century topics

Regan-York, city pic

Medieval York is the setting for my new novel, Rogue Knight. Today it is a prominent city in Yorkshire in the North of England. And it was before the Conquest.

Though it has ancient origins, the city was founded by the Romans in 71AD. At one time, there was an old Roman fortress where the Minster is today. When Britain converted to Christianity in the middle of the second century, York became the seat of the archbishopric.

In the seventh century, York was the main city of the Northumbrian King Edwin, but in 866, the Danes captured York and it became the capital of the Danelaw where the laws of the Danes governed from the 9th into the 11th century. The growth in York’s size and prosperity beginning with the 10th century was accompanied by a transformation of the countryside with well-planned villages surrounded by arable open fields. Until the eleventh century, there were virtually no towns in Yorkshire except York. And York was the only town with a mint north of the Humber River until after 1066.Regan- Danelaw 9th century

Sweyn of Denmark conquered England in 1013 and was succeeded by his son Cnut the Great who ruled as King of Denmark, England and Norway. He and his progeny effectively ruled England until Edward the Confessor.

While the term “Yorkshire” was not recorded until about 1050, it is thought to have been created around 1000. By at least 1033, King Cnut had appointed Siward as Earl of Northumbria, including a greater Yorkshire, south Lancashire and (from 1041), Durham and Northumberland. In its language and culture, York was Anglo-Scandinavian. Even at the time of the Conquest, almost every street in the city of York had the Old Norse suffix “gata” or “gate” meaning “street” and most of the personal names of the people would have been Scandinavian. Likely Old Norse was spoken in the city, too. (It is in my novel.)

Excavations of the Coppergate area have revealed that York was importing a wide range of goods: Rhenish pottery (probably originally containing wine), honestones (for sharpening) from Scandinavia, clothing pins from Ireland, Regan-Coppergate Excavations, Yorkamber from the Baltic and cowrie shells from the Red Sea or Gulf of Aden. And there was silk, too, probably from Constantinople or Asia. They have even found Islamic coins from Samarkand. It was a city of business and trade. More 10th and 11th century weights and balances have been found in York than anywhere else in England.

In 1055, Siward died leaving one son, Waltheof (a character in Rogue Knight). Waltheof would later have a rather amazing life, first as an English earl, then as a rebel in Northumbria in 1069, but when his father died, Waltheof was too young to succeed as Earl of Northumbria, so King Edward appointed Tostig Godwinson to the earldom. And we all know where that led.

In 1066, Harald Hardrada obtained the submission of York after the battle of Fulford Gate. Not only did York provide Hardrada with supplies, they agreed to support him in his conquest of the south. It has been suggested that York was a willing accomplice in Harald’s venture; he might have been preferable to the distrusted Harold Godwinson. An exchange of hostages was arranged, and Hardrada moved on to Stamford Bridge to await their arrival. But it was not meant to be; after a forced march, Harold Godwinson passed through York on his way to Stamford Bridge and forestalled any further commication with the Norwegian King.Regan-Battle of Stamford Bridge

Both Tostig and Harald died at the Battle of Stamford Bridge and soon thereafter Harold of Wessex fell to William the Conqueror at the Battle of Hastings. At the time, York was the largest city north of London and an important center of commerce with as many as 15,000 residents, thus it was a city William the Conqueror very much wanted under his control. However, it was not to come to him easily. The people of York did not consider William their king any more than they had the Saxon Harold Godwinson before him. The years following the Conquest would see uprisings in York, one in 1069, led by the Danes with 240 ships. And that story is told in Rogue Knight.


New release: Rogue Knight by Regan Walker


York, England 1069… three years after the Norman Conquest

The North of England seethes with discontent under the heavy hand of William the Conqueror, who unleashes his fury on the rebels who dare to defy him. Amid the ensuing devastation, love blooms in the heart of a gallant Norman knight for a Yorkshire widow.


Angry at the cruelty she has witnessed at the Normans’ hands, Emma of York is torn between her loyalty to her noble Danish father, a leader of the rebels, and her growing passion for an honorable French knight.

Loyal to King William, Sir Geoffroi de Tournai has no idea Emma hides a secret that could mean death for him and his fellow knights.


War erupts, tearing asunder the tentative love growing between them, leaving each the enemy of the other. Will Sir Geoffroi, convinced Emma has betrayed him, defy his king to save her?


Rogue Knight on Amazon:
Author website:
Pinterest storyboard for Rogue Knight:

My Review of The Norman Conquest of the North: The Region and Its Transformation, 1000-1135

October 25, 2015 by Mercedes Rochelle | No Comments | Filed in General 11th Century topics, Reviews, William the Conqueror
northI had to order this book direct from England, but the title fell right into the middle of my research and I am so glad I stumbled across it. It’s hard for me to believe someone went to so much trouble to document every smidgen of information about this period, but it seems that William Kapelle left no stone unturned. Overall, I concluded that if he didn’t mention an item, then it was not to found anywhere. He has done such a good job connecting the dots, I was finally able to somewhat untangle the complicated shapshot of pre-conquest Northumbria, which was my focus.

For instance, in the first chapter he gave us three maps of Northumbria: Political Divisions (what I would call counties) in 1000; Northern Geographic Names (such as vales, dales, mountain gaps, and rivers) and a Terrain Sketch map. I found myself referring to these maps all the way through the book, for they helped explain important boundaries and invasion routes. Especially in the west, it seems that the same territory is known by different names depending on the decade. Is it Strathclyde, Cumbria or Cumberland? His Genealogical Tables were equally important to me, because the relationships between people (and recurring names) can be mind-numbing. For instance, there are two Cospatrics I’m concerned with; the tables finally helped me figure out that one was an uncle-by-marriage to the other, and from which branch of the family each was descended.

But the book goes way beyond identification. We get a very good feel for what Siward’s Northumbria felt like when doomed Tostig took over. Why did Siward put together an invasion to place Malcolm on the throne of Scotland? We discover that this wasn’t the first attempt at controlling his borders by placing a friendly King on the Scottish throne. In the mid-1040s, Siward led an army over the border in an attempt to replace Macbeth with Malcolm’s paternal uncle Maldred; this invasion ultimately failed and he tried again when young Malcolm was old enough to reign. Siward’s secondary aim was to control the most likely invasion routes from the west (through the mountains) by annexing Cumberland, which Malcolm was later to recapture for the Scots, much to the discomfiture of Tostig. There were many loose ends Kapelle addressed, and once again I have filled my pages with bookmarks.

Then he goes on to the Conqueror and the Harrying of the North. This section was written logically and without the usual outrage; there were many steps that led to William’s unfortunate solution, and perhaps he wasn’t quite the monster he is usually made out to be. His horrific campaign was more a matter of failed policy rather than pure maliciousness. He imposed new taxes to pay for his occupation, he bungled appointments in the north—first with Copsig (Tostig’s old agent), then with Cospatric, who helped lead the 1068 rebellion. “The revolt of 1068 had resulted from William’s failure to govern the North through its native leaders, who had, in fact, led the resistance to the king. He was thus left with no realistic alternative but to replace them with Normans.” William had learned about the tactics of the northerners, who retreated into the mountains and waited for him to go away, “and he now adopted a plan that would make it impossible for the North to revolt after his departure.”

But William’s problems with the North did not end with the harrying. Although most of the devastation was in Yorkshire and a little bit into Durham, “Norman rule was restricted to the east coast plain and to the western plain as a result of the harrying. Between there was brigandage.” For the rest of his reign and beyond, William was faced with a myriad of problems that he was neither willing nor able to control. In the Domesday book, Kapelle hypothesizes that much of Northern shires seemed empty, not because they were uninhabited, but “The Normans did not actually survey many of the Pennine villages and all of northern Lancashire, probably because they did not control these areas.”

It’s a lot to take in. But there is much more, and I suspect that only a dedicated Northumbrian scholar can absorb the plethora of information. We learn how the Normans eventually repopulated the vacant farms with their own manors. We get a lot of details about manorial estates, agriculture, and functioning churches. By the reign of Henry I, the Normans ultimately founded a new aristocracy in the north. Nonetheless, the native Anglo-Saxons eventually creeped back into prominence, as Henry I realized that local men still made the best governors.

It’s possible that Kapelle did a bit of extrapolation in the early part of the eleventh century, but his statements and hypotheses were well documented with over 50 pages of notes and 18 pages of Bibliography. Every time I reread a chapter I discover something new.

The Battle of Hastings, Excerpt from HEIR TO A PROPHECY (inspired by Edward A.Freeman)

October 14, 2015 by Mercedes Rochelle | No Comments | Filed in General 11th Century topics
Battle of Senlac from History of the Norman Conquest

from History of the Norman Conquest

William sat astride his destrier, helmet on, iron shafted mace in hand. Above his head floated the consecrated gonfanon of the Pope, alongside his own standard. He surveyed the difficult line of attack.
Harold had indeed chosen his spot well; the army was spread across the summit of a hill perfectly suited for his somewhat reduced numbers. They were ten or twelve ranks deep, all on foot.  Both of Harold’s flanks were impassable. To the west was a ravine, cut by a small stream and banked with mushy ground; to the east, the incline was precipitously steep.
Their post was purely defensive. The Saxons could not move from their firmly entrenched spot. William nodded to himself. His own mobile force could attack in waves, allowing them alternate periods of rest, while the solid English line would be forced to defend themselves almost continually. It was only a matter of wearing them down.
However, Harold did have a distinct advantage on his side. With tremendous energy, the Saxons had erected a wall that effectively enclosed them in a fortress. There were only three openings in the otherwise solid wall, to allow for possible forays. Charging uphill into a wooden palisade was no easy task.
The housecarls were concentrated in the middle, directly opposite the Norman division. Both wings were composed of shire levies, less experienced men, grimly clutching their axes and bills, homemade swords and daggers, clubs, rocks tied to a stick for throwing, slings, studded maces, or farm tools; they were crude, but effective enough. Their protection was minimal, but they stood, along with the rest, behind the kite shaped shields, a second line of defense beyond the palisade.
William glanced down as he felt a tug on his stirrup. Standing beside him, brilliantly dressed in parti-color, was his favorite jongleur, Taillefer—Cleaver of Iron—who had kept him amused for so many hours in their long wait across the channel. William’s smile faded at the serious look on the minstrel’s face.
“I beg a boon of you, my Lord,” the man said. William nodded. “The time has come for me to prove my mettle, Sir Duke. Would you permit me the first blow, so that the name of Taillefer shall always be remembered in remembering your own?”
William hesitated, moved by the man’s request. “You know what that means,” he said, bending low over his horse’s neck. “You will never make it back to our protection.”
Taillefer made a gay little leap, belying his fears. “Why Sir, what is that, next to immortality?”
Sighing, knowing that he would lose many more of his supporters before the day was over, William gave his consent. He looked at the sun as the jongleur armed himself. It was about three hours before noon.
In moments, Duke William watched his minstrel ride out into the open space between the two armies. He gave the order to be ready for the attack. The archers would go first.
Meanwhile, Taillefer rode forth on his little pony, singing songs of Roland and Charlemagne, to the astonishment of both armies. Spellbound, all watched him give the most momentous performance of his life, throwing his sword in the air and catching it with a practiced whirl.
He rode through an opening in the palisade, rearing his horse theatrically, when suddenly he brought his mount to the ground and charged forward, killing two men before their comrades came to their senses. In a flurry of axes, jongleur and horse went down.
At that moment the cry was given for the Norman archers to advance. In all three divisions, the first line moved into range, planting their feet wide, taking aim and showering the Saxon line with relentless shafts. However, the trajectory was uphill; the arrows did little damage.
Soon, the archers fell back, and the infantry was ordered to attack. Theirs was the most perilous work; in range of javelins and missiles, they had to apply all of their strength, attempting to tear down the stout palisade.
In places they succeeded. Breaking through, holding up their shields, they surged forward to pit themselves against the unmoving Saxon shield wall. Meanwhile, others continued the laborious task at the palisade.
However, the Saxons proved a formidable enemy. Unbeaten in battle, they smote with practiced confidence. Fierce as the attack was, the defense was fiercer, and the infantry was driven back by a combination of blows and well-aimed stones. They gave way to the next wave of attack.
It was the cavalry’s turn to try their best. The most awesome fighting men ever seen in England, the ponderous knights gave vent to their impatience, thundering past the infantry in their difficult uphill climb.
They were still hindered by the palisade, though the weaker spots were damaged further by the charging horses. Holding their spears before them, they crashed against the unyielding shield wall, crying their slogans, cursing the enemy.
The Saxons gave not an inch. Horses reared against each other, having no space to turn back. The Saxons were prepared; a well-aimed sweep with the poleaxe could bring down both man and horse in one blow. Unarmored, some of the horses fell on the first charge, pierced by English spears. The steep ascent proved too much for the Normans in their preliminary attempt. They retired in order back to their starting point.
This was more of a probing attack than an all-out assault. William had not committed all of his army to the first thrust, nor had he himself joined in. From his vantage point he was able to gauge the places of most serious resistance, and weakness, of the Saxon line.
William had his answer. Judging from his set expression, the strength of the English was every bit as menacing as he had supposed. With a stern shout, he ordered a second assault.
Once again the archers tried their skill, followed by the infantry. The attack was fiercer this time, their shouts of “God help us” answered by cries of “Out, out!” from the Saxon ranks. Still, they made no headway. Again they fell back, unsuccessful, to make way for the cavalry.
The Breton contingent was divided into three sub-commands: that of Alain, his brother Le Noir, and Walter. They found that the untried levies on the wing resisted as stoutly as the housecarls.
Amazed, Alain determined to break through this second time. With a cry of “A Brittany” the leaders spurred forward, followed by their undeterred troops.
But this time their anxiousness betrayed them. Charging through the infantry, no one in the rush, from commander to rear horseman, noticed that in their gentler ascent they had greatly outdistanced the Norman contingent to their right.
Intent on their immediate targets, the Bretons crashed into the shield wall again, meeting with a fiercer resistance than before. Heavy missiles flew at them, meeting their marks with a deadly thud. Sturdy Englishmen met their swords with sweeping axes, cleaving through blades and limbs.
Screaming horses lashed out in pain; men plunged through the shields only to be thrust forth again or pulled from their horses. All mingled in a chaotic roar. Slipping on fresh spilled blood, tripping over writhing bodies, the well-organized line broke into scattered tangles.
Suddenly the foremost knights realized that their right flank was undefended. A few men drew back in confusion, yelling their dismay.
From one man to the next, the word spread that they were unprotected. Bewildered, wanting only to get away from the onslaught, the inexperienced riders reined off, intent on a moment’s reprieve.
Walter felled a man with his sword, and looked up to see men pulling away. Jerking his horse’s head around, he dashed through the pandemonium, yelling for them to turn and fight. Slapping men with the flat of his blade, he cursed, admonished, threatened, but to no avail.
Like an avalanche the retreat gained in momentum, until all the men, losing their heads, shot away from the fighting. In short order they overran the infantry. They passed the Norman line, still struggling forward, spreading terror through their ranks as well.
Some of the Bretons found themselves in worse shape than ever; stumbling into the mire on the edge of the field, their desperate scrambling rooted them even deeper. Many tumbled into the ravine, pushed by their companions who couldn’t stop soon enough. Terrified horses kicked their riders senseless.
Walter found himself beside Le Noir at the rear of the retreat. They did not give up; grabbing men by the shoulders and jerking them around, they finally managed to force a small group to turn back. But it was not enough; from the midst of the confusion came the rumor that Duke William was dead. The battle was over.
Progress came to a halt as the few men milled around in confusion. Walter spotted Alain and rode toward him, leaving Le Noir to make some sense of the commotion. Between them, they shouted some sort of order into those within hearing. The best they could do was halt the retreat.
But a new clamor came to their ears. Turning, Count Alain saw that a group of Saxons were breaking ranks, itching to turn the retreat into a slaughter. Forgetting the safety of the shield wall, they came streaming down the hill.
At the same time Alain heard an even more familiar voice. The Duke spurred directly toward them, helmet off, thrusting at the recreants with a spear. “Madmen!” he shouted at the Bretons. “Behold me. Are you insane? Your retreat means death. Victory lies ahead. See you, cowards! Your Duke is before you!”
William struck more fear into the Bretons than the Saxons did. Turning toward the English, even the most fearful saw the charging men, and they were struck by their opportunity. Yelling their battle cries, the Bretons dashed back into action.
Gathering the fleeing Normans, William led them toward the headstrong English, cutting off the sundered warriors from the safety of their army. Seeing their plight, the Saxons gathered atop a little hillock in the midst of their enemies, fighting desperately for their lives. Their gallant stand, back to back, while they fell under the avenging swords of the Bretons, went farther than any other incident toward demoralizing their companions.
Then followed a brief reprieve, during which both sides managed to repair their disordered ranks. Just as expected, William rode up to chastise the unsteady Bretons, who had nearly lost the day. But the anger was gone from his face. Looking steadily at the men who had learned such a bitter lesson, he tried to boost their spirits.
“Well, my lads,” he spoke evenly, “there is no need to tell you what you have done. But remember…” he raised his voice, “there is no glory in running from a fight. Even were I killed, I would expect you to continue, if only to maintain your honor. There will be other battles after this one!”
He paused, moving his horse among them. “Perhaps not all bad has come from your panic. See how they mourn their dead on that little hill. Methinks we will try the same ruse again; mayhap you can redeem yourselves. But on my order this time! Not before.”
The men cheered, encouraged. William spurred his horse back to the center and gave the order to prepare for another attack.
In ten minutes they moved again. Flowing through the breaches in the palisade, they widened the openings each attack. The Saxons never moved forward to block their way.
This time the Bretons fought valiantly, but the glory in this onslaught went to the Norman division.
In the middle, before the Royal standard, the fighting was the fiercest. William himself was the most apparent, appearing everywhere on his white horse in the midst of the worst exchanges. The pile of bodies was thickest here; making headway on a horse was laborious. William spotted Harold laying about with deadly blows from his poleaxe and surged toward him.
But his movement was checked by a most unexpected attack from Harold’s own brother, Gyrth. Seeing the King’s plight, the Earl of East Anglia heaved his spear, throwing it with tremendous strength. The shaft pierced the heart of William’s gallant steed, and the beast sank, nearly pinning the Duke beneath it.
But a man trained in cavalry fighting must also learn how to clear his fallen mount. Leaping skillfully, the Duke fell heavily on the ground, but regained his feet before anyone had a chance to attack him.
William had not gained his formidable reputation for no reason; he was known to be as deadly on foot as he was on horseback. Shaking the stun from his head, he looked around, searching for his antagonist. With the instinct of a born warrior, he found him; momentarily, the Duke’s eyes locked with those of Gyrth.
Inaction was followed by swift reaction. Determined to avenge this insult, William pressed forward. On his right a man attempted to stop him; a sure sweep of the mace crashed into the unfortunate’s face, dropping him in his tracks. And still the Duke moved on, seeing that his opponent was waiting for him, sword in hand.
They met with a clash of steel on steel. The force of William’s blow would have reduced a lesser man, but Gyrth withstood it, bending slightly at the knees to absorb the shock. He tried to follow his block with a swing to the head, but William easily stopped it.
In anger the Duke swung his mace in a full circle about his head before crashing it into Gyrth’s shoulder; the man’s grimace betrayed his pain. Staggered, the Earl responded with an ineffectual thrust, but he knew the fight was over. In another moment the war club was brought down in a skull-crushing arc, and the valiant Earl’s life force had run out. It was no dishonor to die under the hands of so mighty a foe.
Shortly after, William saw Gyrth’s brother, Leofwine, fall under the mace of Bishop Odo. Brothers were killed by brothers. William gained a dark satisfaction in knowing that Harold had witnessed the slaying of his own two siblings.
But action cut short his unworthy thoughts. He was not as comfortable on foot, and disentangled himself from the Saxon crush, looking for a handy horse to borrow. He spotted a likely steed, mounted by some Maine knight whose name he did not know. The Duke called to the man, requesting him to relinquish his horse. Scorning the thought, perhaps not recognizing his sovereign, the man refused.
Already fired by the fighting, William seethed at his abrupt treatment. Striding forward, he struck the man such a blow that the knight fell from the horse. He leaped on the animal’s back, leaving the rebel to his own devices.
William was as active as ever, for still he had not taken a major wound. But the same luck did not hold for his mounts. Again, William’s horse was killed under him; again he wreaked revenge on his aggressor. This time, Count Eustace offered his own steed, and the Count in turn was given a mount belonging to one of his followers.
Deciding that the charge uphill was in every respect useless, William determined to find a way past the shield wall. He sent a message to Alain instructing him to command a feigned retreat with his whole division. He did not expect them to take long in obeying.
The Duke was not disappointed; shortly afterward, the Bretons took to their heels in a very convincing show of chaos. Forgetting their recent lesson, the inexperienced Saxons charged howling after them, taking nearly a third of their line.     Walter led a portion of the men in a different direction from Alain, scattering the Saxons even further. Then, when he deemed that the pursuers were sufficiently cut off from main army, he shouted for his men to turn.
Reeling their horses in a sudden reversal, the fugitives became the attackers. Realizing their error, the Saxons tried desperately to band together, but many were too late. They were cut down in their momentary bewilderment.
Those in the rear saw the danger; a certain number of them got together on the hill that had already proved so fatal to their fellows. But this time was different. There were more defenders on the hill; they were better armed. Throwing stones and darts, they killed many of the Bretons that were trying, once again, to attack uphill. The Saxons managed to hold the summit.
Other Saxons charged to the hidden ravine, so dangerous to the Bretons in the last incident. They turned on the edge and took a stand, followed by horsemen who hadn’t witnessed that fatal scene, so intent had they been on their own flight.
The Bretons tried to careen to a sudden stop, but their horses were not so nimble as men, nor could they halt those charging behind them. Over and over, horse and man toppled into the gully, crushing those underneath them, and being crushed in turn by those coming after. It was said that the corpses filled the ravine until level with the ground.
Walter’s men had not moved far; faced with the most defiant Saxons who held their ground, the fighting continued without a break. Clean battle-lines had melted into a surging chaos; individual struggles replaced organized assault.
A burly peasant pulled Walter from his horse while he was fighting off two other men. The frightened animal reared, chasing off the first two Saxons who otherwise would have finished him in a moment. Walter twisted from the man’s grasp, swinging wildly with his sword.
The peasant saw the movement, easily evading the badly-aimed cut. With a heavy club, he struck Walter in the side of the head, sending him reeling against his horse. Grinning, the man took a step forward when his face changed to a grimace of pain and his arms went out. The club fell to the ground, and the Saxon with it, blood spurting from his back.
Walter looked up, stunned. Through a fog he saw Le Noir circling him. “Be more careful, my boy. You were lucky your good Breton helmet saved you.”
The knight recovered the reins of Walter’s nervous horse, and held them out. Walter took them, but leaned heavily against the charger’s neck.
“Get out of the fighting,” the other shouted, then was gone, not wanting to miss too much action.
Walter heaved himself onto his mount’s back and followed Le Noir’s advice. Not until his head cleared did he wonder how he managed to maneuver without harm.
Duke William got what he wanted. With the mad pursuit of the Saxons, the continuity of the shield wall was forever broken. They left a large gap at the top of the hill, and the Normans were quick to take advantage. Charging crosswise before the shield wall, the cavalry reached the summit of the hill for the first time all day.
Now, they merely had to attack eastward into the teeth of Harold’s housecarls. The remaining Saxons quickly brought the shield wall around to face the new threat. But the Normans were no longer hindered by that difficult climb; their attacks were more powerful, given the easy footing. The summit, however, was too narrow for all of them; there was still much activity along the slope.
The lack of space on the hilltop also inhibited the movements of the Saxons. No man had the room to make a full swing without stepping out from the safety of the shield wall. It was said that the dead were held up by the living, so tightly wedged were they.
The fighting had gone on for nearly six hours without a stop. William was able to alternate his troops, following archery with infantry with cavalry. Where one tactic was weak, another was strong. The English, however, were forced to stand in one place, frustrated, watching their neighbors die beside them while they were constrained to hold themselves back in a defensive posture. The palisade was almost completely destroyed. The day was evolving in favor of the Normans.
But the outcome was still far from certain. If the Saxons could hold out until nightfall, the battle might be over.
At one point, Duke William found himself faced with an adversary as powerful as himself, who nimbly ducked his tireless attacks. Evading a particularly deadly blow, the man turned and smashed his axe down on William’s head, denting his helm and nearly knocking him from the horse. But the Duke held his seat, then aimed another blow before noticing that the man merged himself among his companions.
However, a group of Normans, always willing to curry their master’s favor, charged toward the fellow, transfixing him with their spears. Seeing this, William turned away, shrugging off his ill luck.
The Duke never succeeded in getting close to Harold. Another Norman almost reached the Saxon King; Robert Fitz-Erneis galloped toward the royal standard, smiting those who dared try to block his way. But the Saxons were too quick for him; they surrounded his horse, striking him until he fell off and was trampled underneath. His charge brought him to within a few feet of the banner.
More and more English abandoned their shield wall, preferring to die in a more actively offensive manner. Anything was better than standing for another minute crammed together. This change in tactics brought the fight back into the Saxons.
William surveyed the field for a moment. Then, with a burst of inspiration, he ordered the archers forward, commanding them to shoot up in the air, so that their arrows would fall like rain on the defending troops. “Aim especially for the royal standard,” he added.
Calmly, the bowmen stepped within range, pointed their bows into the sky; it was a tricky maneuver, depending mostly on luck and the wind. There was a danger of wounding their own men if the arrows were badly aimed.
At first, the Saxons didn’t pay much attention to the arrows. But like magic, the new threat drew their sight upward, threw them into a panic. Men were pierced in the face, in the throat; screaming in fear and frustration, they raised their shields, leaving their lower bodies defenseless.
Suddenly a burst of activity below the Dragon of Wessex relayed the message that one arrow, at least, hit its mark. Rumors spread instantly through the ranks; Harold was pierced in the eye.
Twenty of William’s knights spurred toward the spot, pursued by angry housecarls intent on having their revenge. All but four of the twenty were cut down in this last charge.
But the four reached the fallen King: Eustace of Boulogne, still intent on revenge for an earlier affront; the son of Guy of Pointhieu, Harold’s earlier captor; Hugh of Montfort; and the younger Walter Giffard.
Seeing that Harold was still alive, they leaped from their horses, intent on dealing the fatal blow. One of them pierced him through with a spear. Another struck him with a sword, below the fastenings of his helmet. Harold was stabbed through the chest by a third. But, most unchivalrous of all, the last man cut his leg clean through, and flung it far from the body.
In the struggle, Harold’s Fighting Man went down, trodden into the mud. The royal gonfanon was carried off.
Enraged, the housecarls doubled their vigorous attacks. But the Normans, as well, were heartened by this crucial death. The day was won; all present knew this. Harold’s valiant fighters, his most personal friends, were prepared to die on the field, defending their own honor to the end. Their only intent was to take as many Normans with them as they could.
Around the spot where the standard had fallen, fighting lasted into the dark. But elsewhere, as the banner fell, men who had farms and families waiting for them lost heart. Theirs was not a soldiering life; they were not used to sentiments like dying in battle. First by ones and twos they fled, then the whole field was moving with men streaming to safety, some throwing their weapons in their haste to be off.
The fighting became a race; the Saxons became fugitives, and their enemies the pursuers. But the English unwittingly had the advantage; it was dark. They knew the land, and could traverse the marsh, while heavily laden horses slipped and floundered. Spotting their opportunity, the pursued turned again, wreaking their last revenge on the premature victors.
Many Normans lost their life in that treacherous marsh, later called Malfosse, just at the moment when they thought themselves safe. It was an omen, if only they could see it; herein were displayed the problems facing William in dealing with this, his conquered people.

What is Heriot in Anglo-Saxon England?

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

OpeningOfBeowulfHeriot is one of those words I didn’t notice right away in my research, probably because I didn’t know what it was. But the payment of heriot was pervasive throughout the tenth and eleventh centuries, though it’s kind of hard to get one’s hands around. What is it? In a nutshell, heriot was a kind of inheritance tax. It was due to the king, or the overlord, or the bishop, or even the sheriff, and apparently was a great source of income overall. The higher the rank, the greater the heriot. Heriot was expected to be paid promptly, or at least within a year, if you wanted to ensure that you had the right to inherit land and wealth. A Will wasn’t exactly enough; payment of heriot put an obligation on the king (or recipient) to enforce the deceased person’s Will and ensure the inheritance for the heir. Alas, a suspicion of treason toward the dead person might derail the whole process, an event which was recorded in Aethelred’s reign. He refused to honor the will of a certain Aethelric of Bocking even though his widow arrived promptly with the heriot.

Apparently this custom came from the old Teutonic days when a lord presented arms and armor to a follower that were returned to him on the recipient’s death. Canute drew up special provisions for heriot in his secular law code (II Cnut § 71), which established the amount due from each level of aristocracy: “Heriots are to be determined as befits the rank: an earl’s as belongs thereto, namely eight horses, four saddled and four unsaddled, and four helmets and four coats of mail and eight spears and as many shields and four swords and 200 mancuses of gold; and next, the king’s thegns who are closest to him: four horses, two saddled and two unsaddled; and two swords and four spears and as many shields, and a helmet and a coat of mail and fifty mancuses of gold; and of the median (medumre) thegn: a horse and its trappings, and his weapons or his healsfang (2.5 pounds) in Wessex; and two pounds in Mercia and two pounds in East Anglia. And the heriot of the king’s thegn among the Danes, who has his soc (rights of jurisdiction): four pounds. And if he has a more intimate relation with the king: two horses, one saddled and one unsaddled, and a sword and two spears and two shields and 50 mancuses of gold. And he who is of lower position: two pounds.” (see Ancient laws and institutes of England, comprising laws enacted under the Anglo-Saxon kings from AEthelbirht to Cnut by Benjamin Thorpe). On some occasions, a Bishop’s heriot was seen to exceed even that of an earl. But heriot wasn’t only for the aristocrat; even ceorls and freemen were often obliged to give up their best beast or equivalent; apparently an oxen was worth more than a horse.

A widow’s status was complicated. Canute gave a widow twelve months to pay her husband’s heriot. But she had to remain unmarried. If some unscrupulous relative coveted her inheritance, they could force her to marry or join a convent in that twelvemonth, in which case she would lose both her morning-gift and all possessions from her former husband. These would then pass on to the nearest kinsman. But at the same time, the king would lose the heriot tax if this were to happen, so it was also written into Canute’s law that a widow should never be forced to marry a man she dislikes. After all, the Crown had much to lose.

Apparently this custom remained in force for many centuries in its various forms, though following its usage is fraught with confusion. I did find a book: The Law of the Heriots: With an Introductory Note on Their Origin by Edward Broughton Broughton-Rouse which brings you all the way up to the mid-19th century, but luckily this is beyond the scope of my study!

Malcolm III and Tostig Godwineson

September 3, 2015 by Mercedes Rochelle | No Comments | Filed in General 11th Century topics

tostigThe friendship between Earl Tostig and King Malcolm of Scotland seems to have been largely overlooked, but it seems to me that it had a significant impact on Tostig’s career. When Tostig was made Earl of Northumbria in 1055, Malcolm had been unofficial king for a year or so. As usual, there is much confusion regarding this period, but it is thought that Malcolm reigned over Lothian and Strathclyde, or Cumbria, south of the Firth of Forth. He would not officially be crowned while Macbeth lived, as presumably Macbeth still ruled in the northern part of Scotland.

In Wikipedia’s entry about Earl Siward’s Dunsinane campaign, it was stated that “It has been suggested that the chief consequence of Siward’s expedition was not the overthrow of Mac Bethad, but the transfer of British territory—perhaps previously lying under Scottish suzerainty—to Northumbrian overlordship.” If so, it’s possible that Malcolm swore fealty to King Edward for Lothian and Strathclyde and ruled there under the careful eye of his uncle Siward…for a year. But broken by the death of his son at Dinsinane, Siward died and the King awarded Northumbria to his favorite, Tostig.

It’s hard to say what overlordship Tostig may have had in relation to Malcolm. But what we do know is that in 1057, Tostig joined Malcolm’s final expedition against Macbeth. They tracked down and defeated the fleeing king at Lumphanan in Abersdeenshire; Macbeth allegedly died a few days later at Scone. According to E.A. Freeman, Edward’s biographer tells us that “Macbeth…was first defeated by Siward, then by Tostig.” (Vol 3, Appendix EE). So in some eyes, Tostig carried on the conflict begun by his predecessor. It seems he must have had a vested interest.

He went on to create a very strong friendship with Malcolm. In 1059, Malcolm accompanied Tostig to King Edward’s court in 1059 (first visit by a Scottish monarch in 80 years). Somewhere in that time frame, Tostig and Malcom became sworn brothers: blood brothers, as it were. This was a strong tie between rulers, but it seems that Tostig took it more seriously than Malcolm, for the Scots raided across the border whenever it suited them and Tostig seems often to have responded with diplomacy rather than reprisals. This was much to the dissatisfaction of his earldom, who seem to have thought him ineffectual in defending them. But this wasn’t all; according to Freeman, Tostig’s growing unpopularity made it hard for him to raise troops, which sounds like a vicious cycle. It culminated in 1061 while Tostig was on pilgrimage with his brother Gyrth (now Earl of East Anglia) and his favorite Bishop, Ealdred. Apparently Malcolm led the most vicious of all raids deep into Northumbria, and even the sacred abbey of Lindisfarne was not spared. When Tostig returned home, once again he apparently resorted to negotiation, for no further mention is made of violence from either side.

Could it be that Tostig wanted to ensure his welcome if the occasion arose? It seems unlikely he knew what was brewing in his earldom in 1065, for he was frequently in the company of King Edward, neglecting his earldom. When the terrible and well-planned revolt broke out in Northumbria and all 200+ of his household were killed, Tostig was once again in far-off south, hunting with the King. You can read more of the Northumbrian revolt here. Tostig was forced into exile, and the next time he set foot on English soil, he was an outlaw intent on revenge. This most likely took place around May of 1066.

After an aborted raid on Sandwich, he sailed north and stopped at the Humber, but Edwin and Morcar were ready for him and drove his little fleet away. At this juncture, most of his allies (volunteers or impressed into service) melted away, and he limped off with only seven of his original sixty boats in tow. This is when his friendship with Malcolm really gave him a boost, for the King of the Scots welcomed his sworn brother with open arms and reportedly gave him sanctuary for the rest of the summer. From this safe haven, Tostig is said to have recruited Scottish mercenaries as well as allies from the Orkney Islands, who were planning to join Harald Hardrada’s September invasion. King Malcolm did not accompany Tostig on his last campaign, but it is supposed he saw him off with a fond farewell.

I wonder if he said “good riddance” under his breath.


Review for HEIR TO A PROPHECY by Frank Watson

August 21, 2015 by Mercedes Rochelle | No Comments | Filed in General 11th Century topics, Macbeth, Reviews

Get out of the way, Philippa Gregory! There’s a new sheriff in town.

Or, considering the historical setting, should I say “high sheriff.”

Maybe “steward” (an important official who manages another’s property or financial affairs) might be even more accurate, because Mercedes Rochelle has entered the popular and competitive historical fiction field with Heir to a Prophecy. This tale follows a family from a penniless young man exiled from the court of Macbeth, the Scottish king made famous by Shakespeare, to becoming the first steward of Scotland. The story takes place during the early mid-11th century in Anglo-Saxon England, Wales, and Scotland. Rochelle tells the story in her own unique way that transcends genres and comfortable conventions, combining hints of the supernatural, hard-edged geopolitics, and  historical characters presented as believable human beings living in that place and time. She uses well-researched details to depict scenes of home and hearth as well as cataclysmic battles.

The story starts with an excerpt from a scene in Macbeth, probably familiar to most of us, though it might be considered a throw-away scene. This is early in Shakespeare’s play, when Banquo and his son, Fleance, are leaving a banquet given by the ambitious Macbeth, and are attacked in a base betrayal.

Here is the excerpt from the original:

BANQUO: It will be rain tonight.

FIRST MURDERER: Let it come down.


BANQUO: O treachery! Fly, good Fleance, fly, fly, fly!

Here is Rochelle’s spin:

It was a quiet night, punctuated by the crunch of stones underfoot. Not a cricket was heard – nor birds – only the sigh of leaves rustling far overhead.

“It shall be rain tonight,” Banquo said.

From behind came the cry: “Let it come down!”

In an instant, three dark forms were among them. Banquo was their main target, and two of them fell upon him, slashing the startled man in the face. The worthy lord was blinded by his own blood even as he shouted, “Villains, Murderers! Fly, Fleance, Fly!”

Fleance escapes, but where Shakespeare drops the father and son from his story, Rochelle traces the family through Fleance, his illegitimate son, Walter, and ultimately Walter becoming the first Steward of Scotland.

And the witches? What would any story with any connection to Macbeth be without the witches that Shakespeare included in his play? Some of us would have been tempted to turn the story over to the supernatural elements, which at that time and place were as real as the rocks or sky. The author, however, took a different approach. She incorporates the occult, allowing the witches to be seen and heard, but more as a whisper than a shout. They prophesize about Banquo’s lineage, but to what end? (Hint: Take a close look at the title.)

Making these fantastic elements easier to believe is that they are slipped in as easily as political intrigues, military strategies, and vivid, concrete, descriptions, such as at the Battle of Dunsinane:

Seward saw the danger and retreated, finding himself among friends, who had come to his aid. Together, four of them attacked the horseman, who reared up his mount, using the sharpened horseshoes to ward them off. He didn’t see the fifth man leap up from behind and throw crushing arms around his waist. The Norman was pulled from his horse slashing wildly with his sword. His random stroke met with flesh, but he didn’t know how successful he was; a blow to his face finished him off before he hit the ground…

Heir is the Rochelle’s first published book in a planned series exploring the late Anglo-Saxon period.  Rochelle has a rich vein to explore, and she seems to a good candidate to become not sheriff, but steward, of these riches.


Follow Frank’s blog at Frank Watson, Writer

The Anglo-Saxon Fyrd

August 7, 2015 by Mercedes Rochelle | No Comments | Filed in General 11th Century topics
Anglo-Saxon Fyrd from

Anglo-Saxon Fyrd from

This is my third and last post referring to C. Warren Hollister’s Anglo-Saxon Military Institutions on the Eve of the Norman Conquest. We always read about calling up the Fyrd, but what was it composed of? Hollister attempts to explain this in detail and ultimately seems to coin his own phrase; he breaks down the fyrd into two categories: the great fyrd and the select fyrd. Chroniclers didn’t seem to make any distinction between the select and the great fyrd, so I think there is plenty of room for extrapolation. Nonetheless, once I understood the differences, his arguments made a lot of sense.

The great fyrd was, as you would expect, every able-bodied man who is called up in an emergency. They were locals who defended their immediate region against invasion. The key here is that “They must be able to return to their homes by nightfall. If the king should lead them farther, he is obligated to pay them wages.” Hence, they were not paid mercenaries, nor were they expected to come armed with much more than whatever came to hand: clubs, stones tied to sticks, farm utensils, etc. In many cases, they could very well supplement the better-armed select fyrd, which is perhaps what we saw at Hastings.

The select fyrd, on the other hand, is thought to be composed of those warriors provided by the Five Hide unit which I earlier discussed. Because these warriors were funded as part of the function of these Five Hides (“If the king sent an army anywhere, only one soldier went from five hides, and four shillings were given him from each hide as subsistence and wages for two months. This money, indeed, was not sent to the king but was given to the soldiers” – Domesday passage relating to Berkshire), they were better armed, better trained, and expected to travel. The select fyrd was composed of Thegns, ceorls (under the Promotion Law a ceorl could attain thegnhood if he owned five hides of land) or upper peasantry. There were intermediary groups known as cniht, radmannus, and sokeman, who might be the Five Hide warrior-representative if a Thegn was not available.

There was no annual training period for the select fyrd, and they were only called up in time of war; years could go by without going into service. This is probably one good reason why they fought on foot; there was no cavalry training as in Normandy. Also, a distinction must be made between these warriors who served because of their territorial obligations and hired mercenaries or household troops who were paid by the king or earl, etc. The housecarls would fall into the latter category, though many did own land. They were highly trained and battle-ready. The mercenaries were undoubtedly the spearhead of the Old English fyrd, so in a great battle all three categories of warriors might fight together.

My Review of THE VIKINGS by Magnus Magnusson

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

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.