Anglo-Saxon Kingship/leadership

Discussion in 'Military History and Militaria' started by Lairdx, Jun 21, 2005.

Welcome to the Army Rumour Service, ARRSE

The UK's largest and busiest UNofficial military website.

The heart of the site is the forum area, including:

  1. Thoughts on King Aethelred 'The Unready' by Lairdx. Sources are cited at the end.

    I'm looking for a pulblisher for an assortment of my rambling about the early medieval period/dark ages.

    King Aethelred has a reputation in popular eyes as being one of the least successful English Kings in history. His nick-name, the rather unflattering ‘Unready,’ raises questions about his competence and judgement and to school-children throughout Britain King ‘Ethelred the Unready’ has become the butt of many a joke in history lessons.
    “The Vikings are coming sire.”
    “Oh come on! I haven’t even got me armour on yet, or had me tea…”

    In fact the term ‘Unready’ is a corruption of the Old English word ‘Unraed’ which more accurately translates as Ill counselled. When one considers that Aethelred’s name translates as ‘Wise Council’ one begins to realise that this early-medieval joke has been seriously misunderstood. Aethelred ruled England (or at least a large part of it) during a very turbulent age. In this essay I intend to examine in closer detail the ‘disasters’ of Aethelred’s reign in an effort to prove that perhaps a more accurate nickname for this much maligned regent would have been ‘Aethelred the Misunderstood.’

    What then, were these ‘disasters’? In order to ascertain if they were indeed Aethelred’s fault or not, it is first necessary to examine these events in detail.

    Aethelred’s reign had a somewhat turbulent beginning. In A.D. 975 King Edgar died and the succession crisis which followed left behind a number of issues and resentments as Pauline Stafford Explains.

    “Although primogeniture was gaining ground, the rules of succession to the English throne were still open. All aethelings … …were considered to have a claim, and… …fraternal succession was as common as… …father to son. These… …rules were complicated by the marriage practices of kings. Late Saxon kings were serial monogamists, marrying several wives in succession, and not always waiting for the death of the first.”

    Edgar’s succession was typical of the Late Saxon kings and is particularly well documented. Edward, Aethelred’s half brother, was consecrated King initially but following his most unsavoury murder, in which Aethelred’s mother, Aelfhryth, was a prime suspect, the Kingdom fell to the youngster Aethelred. This type of struggle was not uncommon in late Saxon England and Stafford argues that these events did not throw “any undue gloom over the beginning of the reign.” She is quite correct, in that there is no evidence to suggest that Aethelred’s consecration was regarded any differently to any other Anglo-Saxon king, however, Aethelred’s faction must have been regarded with a certain amount of suspicion and other historians such as Stenton argue that Aethelred’s minority was overshadowed by the influence of Aelfhryth who begins to emerge as a rather sinister character and is likely to have been the driving force behind some of the less savoury antics of Edgar’s reign. Aethelred, a child at this time, cannot reasonably be blamed for these early troubles.

    In time Aethelred grew to adulthood and began to rule the kingdom of England. In the 980’s he made numerous land grants, particularly to laymen. Aethelred was rewarding his followers and supporters and ensuring continued loyalty and support. Should a king need to ‘buy’ his supporters in such a way? Stafford explains that it was not an unusual practice for kings to grant land to followers in such a way and uses as an example the fact that “King Eadred granted thirty five charters. Thirty of which were to laymen.” During this period the main Influences over the king were Aelfhere of Mercia and queen Aelfhryth although as the 980’s are a decade of which the contemporary sources are not very informative it is hard to decide whether they provided Aethelred with ‘ill counsel.’ Aelfhryth has already demonstrated ruthlessness but in a late Saxon king this was arguably a necessary quality. Aethelred himself demonstrated a certain ruthlessness when he attacked and ravaged the churches Rochester and Glastonbury in response to minor rebellion and rabble rousing and his massacre of the Danes in 1002 can hardly be deemed the actions of a weekling.

    Invasion was a further threat to Aethelred’s Kingdom and is arguably the greatest problem he faced. Like the earlier King Alfred with whom Aethelred is too often unfavourably compared, Aethelred’s reign was a period of war. In fact the Viking armies with which he was forced to deal were the largest that the British Isles had ever seen. It was inevitable that the English would lose this war. The length of time which Aethelred managed to hold them at bay arguably demonstrates both military ability and competent government. The Anglo-Saxon Chronicler typically shows Aethelreds military leadership to be flawed in his account of Aethelreds raids on Strathclyde and Cumbria and his ‘accidental’ harrying of the Isle of man.

    “In this year the king marched into Cumberland and laid waste very nearly to the whole of it. His fleet went round by Chester, but were unable to make contact with him as planned, so they harried the Isle of Man…”

    As usual the Chronicler is unkind and gives an impression of incompetence which is unfounded. Pauline Stafford gives us a more balanced and favourable account which makes considerably more sense.

    “This story of bungling incompetence hides a manoeuvre of great importance. In 1000 a double expedition was sent against Strathclyde and Man, two areas which had a long history of aid to the Dublin Vikings. It is a salutary reminder that although the Chronicler, interested in the forerunners of the Danish Campaigns, stresses the Danish attacks of the 990’s, the 980’s certainly and probably the 990’s still saw significant attacks on England from a source which had been a problem throughout the tenth century.”

    Not then a bungling display of incompetence but a show of strength to England’s Hiberno-Norse enemies who had at this time renewed raids on the English due to “political changes in the Scandinavian world” . Already Aethelred seems not so ‘Unready’ as his reputation suggests. The Danes were bound to be victorious in the end but Aethelred’s reign was not without English victories.

    Many accounts of Aethelred’s reign describe, particularly in his youthful years, an anti-clerical sentiment, which found expression in Aethelred mounting a “period of systematic attacks churches” and it is not unlikely that it is this has influenced later writers, notably the Anglo-Saxon Chronicler against him. The Chronicler would have been after all, an ecclesiastical himself. In many cases these accounts must be considered inaccurate. There is in fact a lot of evidence to suggest that during these years (c980-c995) Aethelred actually enjoyed considerable ecclesiastical support.

    “It was precisely now that he advanced some of the key ecclesiastical figures of his reign”

    It was true that the attacks on Rochester and Glastonbury had been centred on the churches but as has been already mentioned these were justifiable as examples of the King exercising his authority over those who would defy him.

    Disaster struck Aethelred’s reign again when in the year1005 a great famine plagued the land. This did give Aethelred temporary respite from the Danish invaders who the Anglo-Saxon Chronicler tells us “went from this country to Denmark” but a severe economic price was paid. Earlier in Aethelred’s reign an outbreak of some kind of Cattle disease had plagued the land. The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle blames this pestilence on Aethelred’s sacking of Rochester and it is important to consider that in Anglo-Saxon eyes these events would have been seen as being sent from God to punish the sins of the English and in this case the King.

    As well as strength Aethelred was capable of exercising moderation and even leniency on when dealing with those of his followers who rebelled. Indeed one such character who proves to be a thorn in the King’s side is Ealdorman Eadric. Eadric betrayed Aethelred on numerous occasions, he had avoided battle by feigning sickness, was responsible for the murder of sigeferth and Morcar, two of the Kings other officials, and subsequently joined Cnut against the King. When fighting the King’s battles Eadric had always fled the field and the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle portrays Eadric as a cowardly character.

    “Then Earldorman Eadric did as he had often done before; he was the first to start the flight with the magonsaete, and thus betrayed his liege lord and all the people of England.”

    Eadric was a poor choice on behalf of Aethelred, to be appointed as an earldorman. Many sources present an argument that Aethelred was a poor judge of character and blame him when these characters rebel or cause further problems.

    “Much of the blame for the progressive undermining of morale must be attributed to the king’s disastrous appointments to high offices.”

    Aethelred had allowed Queen Emma had appointed a Norman as Reeve at the city of Exeter, in 1003 he rebelled and Aethelred was forced to sack the city. Again the Anglo-Saxon Chronicler is brief in his description of events but his brevity hides greater implications.

    “In this year Exeter was destroyed because of a French fellow called Hugh, whom the lady had appointed as Reeve…”

    What kind of king, the Chronicler seems to be saying, allows a ‘lady’ to govern his affairs? What kind of king places a foreigner in office and then punishes his own people for their failing?

    Further Examples of the King’s poor judgement of men was his appointment of Ealdorman Leofsige who after negotiating with the Danes, murdered the King’s High Reeve and Ealdorman Aelfhelm who also betrayed Aethelred and although the king killed him and blinded his two sons these actions failed to deter others from the paths of treachery. Eventually his eldest son Edmond Ironside, impatient for the throne himself was to rebel. (Earldormen Aedric, allowed to live by Aethelred, once more sided with the traitor.)

    To Conclude, Aethelred was in an unusual position. The sheer scale of the Danish invasion, led by Denmark’s new king Swein Forkbeard, a particularly warlike King even by Danish standards, coupled with Hiberno-Norse raiding in the west meant that Aethelred was forced more than ever to rely on the Anglo-Saxon nobility. Aethelred even took the unusual precautions of marrying a number of his daughters to key English nobles in an attempt to ensure their support. This reliance on the nobility put Aethelred in a weak position. His early mistakes can be attributed to his being ‘unread’ but many of the later mistakes, particularly his poor judgement in the appointment of Earldormen and Reeves were, if not made by him directly, at least made with his approval. The King however also demonstrates military ability, although ultimately the campaign was lost, the length of time which Aethelred was able to keep his throne, despite the treachery of his underlings cannot be interpreted as incompetence. We are also faced with a severe handicap as historians by the fact that the main Anglo-Saxon source, The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, written in hindsight, tells us little about Aethelred, the man at all but dwells on the betrayals, accidents and ill fortune which plagued his reign. There had been a famine during the reign of King Edgar and countless before that, and such natural phenomenon cannot be blamed on the king. The onslaught of the Danes, caused by political pressure from overseas again was hardly Aethelred’s fault and yet as king it was his responsibility to keep them at bay. Ethelred did strengthen the military and built a large fleet. He also tried diplomacy to stave off the conquest by forming an alliance with Normandy and taking Emma, daughter of Duke Richard I of Normandy, as his second wife in 1002.
    When military action failed, peace had to be bought. A low point was the English defeat at the battle of Maldon in 991. As a result of this and other setbacks, Ethelred followed the practice of a number of his predecessors (including Alfred the Great) and began paying a tribute, known as the Danegeld, to the invaders. However, this provided only temporary respite as the Danes became more determined to conquer the kingdom. It is also important to bear in mind that however extortionate the price, Aethelred always managed to find the money. Aethelred wasn’t the greatest of the English Kings, his failure to inspire loyalty was his principle failing, however he applied himself diligently to his role as protector of his people and he certainly was not the worst king England has ever had. Aethelred’s reign is certainly not rated a success – there were many political murders and Church lands were plundered – but Ethelred was unfortunate in having to contend with almost constant war, beginning in 980.


    G.N. Garmonsway (Trans), The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, (London, 1953)
    J. Campbell, The Anglo-Saxons, (London, 1982)
    D.G.V. Fisher, The Anglo-Saxon Age c400-1042, (New York, 1973)
    J.A. Graham-Campbell, The Vikings in England, History Today 32/7 (1982)
    Barbara Yorke, The Anglo-Saxons, (Stroud, 1999)
    F.M. Stenton, Anglo-Saxon England, (Oxford, 1971)
    Pauline Stafford, The Reign of Aethelred II, a Study in the Limitations on Royal Power and Action, in D. Hill (Ed.) Ethelred the Unready: Papers from the Millenary Conference, (Oxford, 1978)
    Patrick Wormald, Aethelred the Lawmaker, in D. Hill (Ed.) Ethelred the Unready: Papers from the Millenary Conference, (Oxford, 1978)
  2. Lairdx,

    very interesting read you obviously know a lot about this subject. A couple of questions, what is you definition of Danes and English. Do you include the Jutes/Danelaw as Danes or English?

    Intersted because I'm from an area settled by Jutes becoming part of the Danelaw, also this period of history is one of the main reasons why Yorkshire/Lancs/North Midlands could claim independance.

    Have read a bit about this period, any suggested reading
  3. Damn fine post lairdx

    Wandering slightly off thread, does anyone have a very good reference for Harold's advance to contact from Stamford Bridge?
  4. Polar. I am guilty of ignoring the Jutes in this essay as by this period the Jutes, Vandals, Angels and Saxons had such a simelar cultural identity that they were all termed Angels and were even beginning to call themselves the English by this time. Despite the fact that England itself was not really to become a unified nation it was already establishing a national identity.

    It is interesting to note that many Anglo Saxon settlements which fell under the jurisdiction of the Danelaw were quite happy to have Danish Lords. Thus when a Danish King succeeded to the English Throne, King Cnut (Canute) there was little protest.
    Language was simelar enough that the English (speaking Old English) Could easily communicate with the Danes Norse Dialect. The English commoners were no better or worse off under Danish rule and most simply got on with their daily routines.

    By Danes I mean just that. Danes. Most of the Vikings coming to England at this time were Danes. I do make reference to the Norse from Norway who settled in some parts of western Britain and Ireland. The Hiberno-Norse (Vikings who had made their permanent home in Ireland) frequently harried Western Britain.

    part time pongo. I will provide you with a reference for Haralds (Harolds) epic TAB. I personally think that Harald was the most gifted military leader of the three (William and Harald Hadrada.)

    My theory is that William was not delayed by the wind but that the attack on England was meant to be syncronised with Harald
    Hadrada's attack. William decided to delay at the last minute knowing that Harald (of England) was capable of defeating Hadrada's force. Hence he betrayed the bloke he was in league with. I reckon William hoped that the march would be crippling to Haralds force enabling him to defeat it.

    As it was Harald was killed by fluke and with the loss of the leader things went badly for the English. William was very lucky.

    Have a read of this book if you can get hold of it.

    McLynn, F., 1066 The Year of the Three Battles, (King’s Lynn, 1999)

    In the meantime. I will post my theory on 1066. A friend of mine reckons there is a film in this and his daughter works in the film industry. I have asked him that should he ever make the film I want a part.
  5. Was the Conquest of England by the Normans a result of planning, or of luck?

    A recent UKTV History channel programme, What If, examined the Battle of Hastings and identified the death of Harold’s brother, Earl Leofwine, whilst leading the counter-attack on the Normans, as the defining moment of the battle; had Leofwine lived, the Normans would have been routed and Harold would have won. The programme described his death as bad luck for Harold and, therefore, good luck for William. However, Leofwine would have been a marked man and the Normans would have targeted him for elimination as soon as they saw him advancing; his death was not luck as far as the Normans were concerned but good marksmanship. Whether it was bad luck or not that Leofwine died on Battle Field is debatable. Maybe it did come down to this one incident in determining the outcome of the battle, but that would be to ignore the intricate sequence of events that brought William and Harold to Hastings on the morning of 14 October 1066. If, however, we accept the battle ended as it did with William victorious and leave the debate about the battle itself to the military historians, we are left with the much more challenging question of whether it was luck or planning that got William to Hastings in the first place. In fact, when one analyses the events of 1066, one might ask, did William intend the conquest of all England or just the old kingdom of Wessex or was he just raiding in the old Viking tradition? If one looks at the few primary sources available for that year, they were all written after 1066 and fit the events just a little too conveniently. In addition, they provide very little explanation as to how William managed to conquer the whole of England in less than three months. Indeed, William’s achievement appears all the more remarkable when one considers that it took the Vikings centuries to put a Danish king, Cnut, on the throne. We therefore need to re-examine the events that led to William’s coronation on Christmas Day 1066 to determine if he actually planned to conquer all of England or if he really was just lucky.

    If William had a plan, one needs to establish what it was and a brief review of the events will help provide some clues. Whether William had a rightful claim or not to the English crown, he ‘. . . would have been in no position to launch an expedition across the sea before 1060 . . .’ ‘Security in northern France was manifestly always his first objective, even if he did also do such things as accept Edward the Confessor’s offer of succession to the English kingdom’. It would only be when he had subdued his neighbours and secured Normandy, that he could contemplate an invasion of England. William’s military exploits since his accession in 1047, meant that he and his followers were battle-hardened veterans by the time of the Conquest. William’s previous successes would have taught him the need to plan his campaign and when Edward’s death during the night of 5/6 January 1066, set the hare running, William’s first task would have been to draw up his plans. Marshalling his forces and provisioning them would have been second nature to him from his considerable experience whilst campaigning in northern France since his accession in 1047; his planning here would have left nothing to chance. However, the invasion of northern England by Harald Hardrada and Tostig, and the unfavourable winds that delayed William’s crossing must have helped William immeasurably by diverting Harold north and allowing William to land unopposed at Pevensey. Fortune also smiled on William when the northern Earls, Edwin and Morcar, did not follow Harold south leaving him under strength at Hastings. On top of all this, William was so sure of his success that his invasion force was ‘. . . perhaps 7,000 men, including 2,000 or 3,000 knights and mounted esquires’; not very large when one considers that he intended to fight Harold and subdue all of England with them. One could consider all these events as a series of lucky incidents, or alternatively, that there are one or two coincidences too many. If one takes the former view, then William was indeed very lucky, but that would fly in the face of all that we know about William; he was a seasoned campaigner and hardly likely to leave very much to chance. If William did intend to conquer England then the events would appear to suggest an alliance or understanding with Harald Hardrada and Tostig or at least prior knowledge of their invasion and it is here that we need to look for evidence.

    In investigating the invasion by Harald Hardrada and Tostig, the latter plays a crucial role in the events of 1066. Tostig, a younger brother of Harold, had been a favourite of Edward the Confessor. He was Earl of Northumbria until 1065 when he was deposed and exiled. Tostig left England and took ‘. . . refuge in Flanders, his wife’s country . . .’ where he stayed with his relative, Count Baldwin. ‘Tostig himself was related by marriage to Duke William’. Although uncorroborated, we do have evidence of a possible meeting and alliance between Tostig and William from the Gesta Normannorum Ducum; ‘Furthermore, the Duke sent Earl Tostig to England . . .’ in late April 1066, ahead of his own invasion force. Use of the title Earl is important as this suggests that William recognised Tostig’s claim to Northumbria; Tostig may have agreed to support William’s claim to the throne in return for helping him regain Northumbria. Although this incident is not mentioned in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicles that still exist, it may have been mentioned in other sources available at that time but now lost. Such a meeting would have been highly likely when one considers that Tostig was a favourite of King Edward and, as such, would have been received favourably by William. This would explain why Tostig, from late April onwards, began harrying the south and then the east coast of England; he may have been drawing off Harold’s navy and splitting his land forces in preparation for an invasion by William. We also know that Tostig made an alliance with Harald Hardrada, king of Norway, as they fought side by side at Gate Fulford and Stamford Bridge. At first glance, this might seem to be at odds with any alliance to William. However, two scenarios present themselves at this point; either Tostig abandoned William and threw in his lot with Harald Hardrada or William and Hardrada intended to split England between them and re-establish the two kingdoms of Alfred’s extended Wessex and the old Danelaw; ‘It would be quite in keeping with William’s future actions if he chose to welcome immediate advantage – the distraction of Harold – and to leave the final settlement of York and the northern earldom to a more propitious time’.

    The latter scenario may also explain the size of William’s invasion force. When William faced Harold on 14 October 1066, he met him on roughly equal terms; Harold’s army probably numbered no more than ‘. . . 7,000 men of all types from housecarls to half-armed peasants’. In addition, Harold had raced south from Stamford Bridge and had not taken time to regroup and recruit more troops. The northern Earls, Edwin and Morcar, for whatever reason, had not provided support. Had Harold waited, one can safely assume that his force would have been much larger and fresher. However, Harold did not wait and William won, but only just. When William landed, he built castles at Pevensey and Hastings but he would have been hard pressed to defend them both against Harold at the head of a fresh army; William may well have only built them to provide a rearguard defence in the event of having to make a run for it. It would appear, therefore, that William’s invading force was totally inadequate by itself for the conquest of England. Furthermore, it suggests that either William was only leading a large raiding party, or that he knew that Harold’s army would not be there when he arrived, or that it would have only been a small force, which he could handle more easily with the army he had mustered. If William was intending to stay then either he knew of Tostig’s and Hardrada’s plans or he was in league with them.

    The timing of the invasion provides further evidence. William of Poitier’s account states that William was delayed ‘. . . awaiting a south wind to take them to England . . .’ William even had the body of St Valery paraded through the streets of St Valery sur Somme in an attempt to persuade God to provide a favourable wind. However, why the rush? Had he taken his force across a month earlier, he would have been at the mercy of Harold’s full army and almost certainly lost. If William had been delayed longer than he actually was, then Harold would have had more time to gather his forces after Stamford Bridge and, with the threat from Tostig and Hardrada out of the way, would have met William with a much superior force and probably sent William packing. If, however, William had gone two weeks earlier than he actually did, his timing would have been perfect and Harold would have been left with every military commander’s nightmare, a war on two fronts; if Harold had engaged Harald Hardrada and Tostig first, William would have been able to march, unopposed, into London; similarly, had he engaged William first, then Tostig and Hardrada would have secured the north and threatened Harold’s hold on the rest of England; Harold’s only other alternative would have been to split his forces which would probably have led to defeat for him on both fronts.

    One must also ask if it was the weather that delayed William or did he know of Harald Hardrada and Tostig’s plans to invade and timed his crossing on to allow Harold to be drawn north? Of the contemporary sources, only William of Poitier’s account mentions a delay and this may be a simple case of embellishment to improve the story. William of Jumieges on the other hand only mentions that William crossed ‘. . . with a following wind . . .’ and makes no mention of any delay. The delay appears providential but maybe this was William’s plan all along and the weather had nothing to do with it; if he knew of Tostig and Harald Harada’s invasion plans a delay would cause Harold to be drawn off north thus allowing William to land at Pevensey unopposed and prepare his defences before Harold could return. Once again, we are left with the question of whether William knew of Tostig and Harald Hardrada’s plans or whether he was in league with them.

    Trying to establish any understanding between William and Harald Hardrada is impossible from the surviving contemporary English sources. Whilst it is possible that Tostig met with William, any plotting between William and Harald Hardrada is by no means certain. We do know that the Normans and Hardrada were no strangers to each other. During the campaign by the Byzantines to Sicily in 1038-41, Harald Hardrada was serving with the ‘. . . Varingian Guard of Norse mercenaries . . .’ who served the Byzantium Emperor. During this campaign, Harald came into conflict with his superior Maniakes and, ‘Having already sampled Maniakes’s arrogance, Harald and the Varingians openly sided with [Admiral] Stephen and the Normans’. These Norman mercenaries ‘. . . were commanded by the two sons of Tancred de Hauteville . . .’ Tancred was a member of the highest Norman Aristocracy and was related by marriage to William; ‘Both his wives were illegitimate daughters of Richard I, Duke of Normandy’. It is probable therefore, that Harald Hardrada’s military prowess and support for the Normans did not go unnoticed at the Norman court. It would be stretching the imagination a little too far, however, to suggest an alliance based on this incident a quarter of a century before Hastings, but at the very least, we know that Harald Hardrada and the Normans had fought side by side in Sicily and this, together with his subsequent exploits in gaining the crown of Norway, would have earned him a healthy respect in the eyes of the Normans.

    At best, therefore, any evidence of an alliance to organise a coordinated invasion between William, Tostig and Harald Hardrada is flimsy and, without further corroboration, must be put down to conjecture. Yet such an alliance would be more in line with William planning the conquest of at least part of England rather than trying to explain everything as luck. It would also be wrong to try to explain all his apparent luck in this way; to conquer England William ‘needed and obtained extraordinary luck’. There are a number of factors that can only be put down to luck. The first was that Edward died when he did; in 1066, William was reasonably secure in Normandy whilst Harold’s kingdom was threatened not only by William, but also by his own brother, Tostig and Harald Hardrada. Had Edward died before the northern revolt in 1065, Tostig would have still been loyal to Harold and Harold’s kingdom would have been more secure and less open to invasion. The second was the outcome of the battle at Stamford Bridge; the deaths of Harald Hardrada and Tostig and the complete rout of their army left William with only Harold to contend with. The third was Harold’s impetuosity in rushing south to face William so soon after Stamford Bridge, thus denying himself the support of the northern Earls and thereby facing William with a smaller force than if he had waited. Finally, there is the outcome of the Battle of Hastings itself; the death of Leofwine may well have turned the battle in William’s favour, but the deaths of Harold and his third brother Earl Gyrth, left the Godwins and England leaderless; Edwin and Morcar quickly made peace rather than face William’s conquering army, no doubt hoping to retain their northern Earldoms by their submission to William’s rule. Had any one of these events turned out differently, William would have been hard pressed to gain anything.

    So was William lucky or was the conquest due to good planning? William planned a campaign to England but whether the crown was his ultimate aim is debatable. The possibility of an alliance between William, Harald Hardrada and Tostig and a campaign aimed at partitioning England along the line of the old Danelaw would explain many of the lucky breaks from which William profited. Yet, as with the reports from the Anglo-Saxon Chronicles, and those of William of Jumieges, William of Poitiers and later chroniclers, it too maybe sits too neatly with the facts. In all probability, William only intended originally to raid southern England or at best gain a foothold for future incursions; he was doing no more than his Viking forebears had done before him, raiding England. He may even have had knowledge of Tostig and Harald Hardrada’s intentions to invade northeastern England and used the information to time his crossing to his own advantage. However, subsequent lucky events placed the crown of England on his head. That luck played its part in the Conquest is undeniable. William’s successful and unopposed landing on the south coast of England was the result of good planning but the subsequent Norman Conquest of England was undoubtedly due to good luck.


    Allen Brown, R., The Normans and the Norman Conquest, (London, 1969)

    Allen Brown, R., The Norman Conquest of England: Sources and Documents, (London. 1995)

    American Pictures,
    <>, 22 December 2004

    Barlow, F., The Feudal Kingdom of England, (London, 1972)

    Bates, D., William the Conqueror, (London, 1989)

    Le Patourel, J., The Norman Empire, (Oxford, 1976)

    Loyn, H. R., The Norman Conquest, (London, 1967)

    McLynn, F., 1066 The Year of the Three Battles, (King’s Lynn, 1999)

    Stenton, Sir F., Anglo-Saxon England, (Oxford, 1971)

    UKTV History, What If, 10.00 a.m. 18 December 2004

    Van Houts, E. M. C., The Gesta Normannorum Ducum of William of Jumieges, Orderic Vitalis and Robert of Torigni: Volume II, (Oxford, 1995)
  6. Great postings Lairdx, this is putting flesh on the bones of my knowledge, and raising the intellectual profile of ARRSE. I wont feel so guilty about logging on in work time now. :D
    • Dislike Dislike x 1
  7. Didn't William (and Norman Kings) retain the Danelaw for a period after the conquest (plus Angles and Saxon divisions - wasn't the Doomsday book split along these lines). The division lasting for quite a few years but the Danelaw was frequently a source of rebellion until pacified (brutally - mass slaughter) by the English.

    On the Language/dialect side of things isn't the main split in English accents on the North Midland and Yorks/Lancs border (again indicating that the Jutes had a more Anglo/Saxon accent). Also isn't this area (pennines) the supposed source of the english language.
  8. Has anyone read "The Last Kingdom" by Bernard Corrnwell (he of Sharpe fame)?

    It deals with the Danish invasions and the later wars of King Alfred and is an excellent read.

    There is more than enough material on this thread to generate a novel about the decline of the Anglo Saxons and the Norman Conquest!

    for a re-enactment perspective. Always recruiting for those who look forward to the order 'fix bayonets'
  10. The Danelaw eventually dissolved under Norman rule but even without the Danelaw the Norman Kings did not rule the whole of England until probably the reign of King Stephen (A period of civil war in itself.)

    William's Tax collecterd would mysteriously vanish in the North of England and the Domesday Record becomes sketchy at best when it gets as far north as parts of Yorkshire and durham. In those days the North could not be ruled from the south.

    With regards to liguistics it's not really my area but i recently attended a talk by a proffessor whose name I cannot remember but will cite if it comes back to me.

    She theorised that the closest modern regional accent to OLD ENGLISH is that found in South Yorkshire. Barnsley/Sheffield for instance. Although the language itself was closer to Dutch or Danish than to modern English.

    Middle English (The language used in Chaucer's Canterbury Tales) Is very different again and displays some of the traits of modern English. The Norman influence begins to become aparrant.

    One of the principle records of this period the Domesday Book is now usefully available on CD Rom.
  11. Didn't know the Saxons or Danes had bayonets? And the town of Bayonne in France thought they had invented it half a millenia later! 8)
  12. I have not read that yet. It is set during Alfreds reign as I understand. I have hinted to Mrs Lairdx that I would like it for my birthday.

    Alfred was responsible for the production of arguably the most important primary source material. The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle.

    Here are my Thoughts on Alfred.

    Does Alfred deserve to be known as The Great?

    Of all the English Kings, only King Alfred is given the title ‘The Great’. In this essay I intend to examine Alfred’s reign in an effort to determine whether or not this title is deserved. Alfred’s contemporaries certainly never referred to him as such and indeed it was not until the sixteenth century that historians began to use the epithet. As the two main primary source documents, The Anglo-Saxon Chronicles and Asser’s biography of King Alfred, did not refer to him as Alfred the Great, it is necessary to examine his kingship in order to understand why later historians thought of Alfred as ‘The Great.’

    When one looks at the contemporary sources, in particular the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, it is important to bear in mind the fact that it was Alfred himself who commissioned the work and it is heavily biased in Alfred’s favour . The Life of Alfred by Asser is also biased as it was intended as a tribute to Alfred who was Asser’s patron. Asser was a member of the Kings household. As Alfred undoubtedly had influence over these texts we cannot ignore the possibility that Alfred is believed to have been great “because he tells us so.”

    “This was court history written for propaganda purposes, to magnify the achievement of King Alfred and to Mobilise support for him.”

    Alfred is probably remembered more for his military prowess than any other aspect of Kingship and it is here that his greatness is most obvious. Alfred ruled over the Kingdom of Wessex during a time of Viking invasion and as a King in danger of losing his Kingdom. The Anglo-Saxon Chroniclers underplay the seriousness of Alfred’s position “…by the chronicler’s deft turn of phrase and by his generally restrained manner of report.” By the time of his death, however, he had driven back the Vikings and extended his Kingdom to become the overlord of what was the Kingdom of Mercia; established the burhs as a defensive precaution in case of further invasion, and reorganised the fyrd to ensure that one half of the army was always in the field. Alfred also provided for sea warfare by building an English fleet and founding the first English Navy.

    Alfred was not King of the whole of England; the eastern part of the country was firmly under the control of the Danes. Arguably, a ‘Great’ king would have driven the Vikings out of the rest of England too; It could be argued that the sea and his new Navy would then have provided greater protection than the land defences protecting only Wessex. Maybe Alfred was not so great after all. This analysis would be a little unfair. It is easy to think of today’s England with its natural coastline as its border protected by a powerful modern Navy, but late ninth century England was far from united. Many Danes had already settled the Danelaw and now considered it their own territory; an attempt by Alfred to reclaim these lands from them would have been seen as an act of war, not liberation. The Navy was new, inexperienced and subject to the whims of weather and tide. Neither did the Navy fare particularly well against the Vikings. English sailors simply did not have the skill and experience of the Danes. When the Danes returned in 892,
    “It was through their power at sea that the Danes of Northumbria and East Anglia chiefly influenced the course of the war.”

    The Anglo-Saxon chronicle entry for 897, demonstrates this when, during one sea battle, a Viking ship escaped “because the ships of the others [the English] were grounded”. If, the Navy was not capable of defeating the Danes, it is understandable that Alfred did not try to recapture the Danelaw; he knew that even if he did expel them, his Navy could not prevent them from coming back. John Peddie puts forward a reasonable suggestion that the Navy’s role was to “protect the strategically important Thames estuary” however if this was the case then the documentary evidence provided by the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle show that it failed. Indeed the Danes had taken the Isle of Sheppey in 855 and had used it both as a staging post for subsequent raids deeper up the Thames and as a place of refuge during periods when Alfred’s Land Forces had the upper hand.

    Events on land did not always work in Alfred’s favour either. Particularly during the years prior to Alfred becoming king and in the early years of his reign Alfred suffered numerous defeats at the hands of his Danish enemies, notably at Ashdown, Reading and Basing, whilst fighting alongside his brother, King Aethelred , and later at Wilton after succeeding the throne. These defeats prompted the poet Chesterton to write in his Ballad of the White Horse.

    “I am that oft-defeated King
    Whose failure fills the land
    Who fled before the Danes of old
    Who chaffered with the Danes for gold
    Who now upon this Wessex Wold”
    Hardly has feet to stand.

    It would be wrong, however, to use this to underplay Alfred’s military prowess; if his Navy was not quite up to scratch, his organisation of the fyrd, and his system of burhs managed to turn the tables on his Danish foes. His military prowess, therefore, secured his kingdom but did not remove the Danes entirely. Nevertheless, by the end of his reign, “He was king over all the English race except that part which was under Danish control” A worthy achievement for a king who had inherited a kingdom almost overrun by invaders.

    Military ability, however, was not the only thing required of a King. Other qualities were important in a successful ruler and in this respect; his piety is often referred to. Although the Anglo-Saxons had been converted to Christianity long before Alfred’s reign, the Church was not always a king’s main priority. Clerics, in turn, often interpreted a King’s success or failure on how religious he was. The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle is scornful of the later Aethelred II principally as he failed to win the Church’s favour. Bede, writing in the early eighth century, gives as an example a King Egfrid who after ignoring the advice of Saint Cuthbert was killed during a battle with the Irish . The Clergy of the age were responsible for recording history and if for any reason a king was out of favour with the clergy it would be unlikely for these documents to give us a favourable impression. Bede, like other ecclesiastical writers of the Anglo-Saxon age, saw the disasters of his day as God’s punishment on mankind for the transgressions and sins of the people/clergy/king. Alfred, however, did display piety and Asser, who would have been acquainted with Bede’s writing, connects his success to his religious beliefs as Kershaw explains.

    “By presenting Alfred as a holy supplicant, devout in prayer, Asser was presenting his audience with an image not of an obsessive atheling but rather of a king-in-waiting, mastering his inner drives and establishing his relationship with God through humility and prayer.”

    At the same time, Asser was careful to demonstrate that Alfred’s piety was not more important than his kingdom;

    “. . . Asser was keen to show Alfred as an able warrior, and in one telling story, was particularly keen to stress that Alfred was a man unwilling to let his devotions take precedence over battle with the Vikings, in marked contrast to his brother , Aethelred…. Humility and physical infirmity stood at the very opposite of the spectrum of conventional Anglo-Saxon warrior values, and war-leadership remained a key element of Anglo-Saxon kingship until its end.”

    In Asser’s eyes, Alfred was doing God’s work.

    To Alfred, religion wasn’t just a personal ideal; he wanted to establish a stronger Church. Alfred believed that education was the key. He wanted a stronger and more literate clergy and went to great lengths to circulate what he deemed appropriate texts. In the introduction to his translation of Pope Gregory’s Pastoral Care, Alfred laments the absence of literacy amongst clergymen.

    “There were so few of them [literate clergy] that I cannot recollect even a single one south of the Thames when I succeeded to the kingdom”.

    The import which Alfred placed on these texts was aptly demonstrated by the gift of the Alfred Jewels which were distributed along with the books. Such precious objects worked a dual purpose. On the one hand they were a sign to the recipient that Alfred valued the clergy and the church, on the other they provided an expensive gift, in a way a subtle bribe to encourage these ecclesiastics to do things Alfred’s way. A gift of such value works on several levels.

    Alfred’s encouragement of learning went further than just the clergy however and he extended his encouragement to the Anglo-Saxon nobility when he attempted to

    “Restore Christianity among the English aristocracy, which in the king’s opinion had declined so far, notably through their loss of understanding of Latin, that God had sent the Danes as divine punishment”.

    In stark contrast to Bede, Asser is able to write of a successful king whose accomplishments have been achieved because, in his eyes, he has supported and established a strong Church and looked after the interests of the Clergy. Where Bede admonished, Asser praised.

    A further area on which to judge Alfred is his law-code. By establishing such a code, he was not only giving his subjects certainty in what they could and could not do, he was also laying down the boundaries of his own prerogative; no longer could he make arbitrary decisions which conflicted with his own code. It was in effect a code of Chivalry and “The text above all others which gave Alfred’s officials knowledge of the kind of wisdom they needed to fulfil their duties”. Although Alfred was still only the overlord over half of what would later become England, there is a sound argument that the English nation was born under Alfred’s rule and his law-code played a key role in that development. There is certainly something Arthurian about this aspect of Alfred’s kingship and it cannot be discounted that some of Alfreds actions were to be later attributed to Arthur in the romances of later centuries.

    The unreliability of Asser’s Life of King Alfred must not be overlooked. Asser’s account is largely a retrospective one written with hindsight and as Alfred Smyth informs us relied heavily on the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, the problems with which have already been mentioned, for its source material. Smyth even goes as far as to suggest that the Life is merely a “Latin Translation of yet another version of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle covering the period 849-887.”

    In reviewing Alfred’s life from both the contemporary sources and accounts of later historians, it is easy to understand why Alfred could be labelled ‘The Great’. However other English kings such as Henry V for example have had successful reigns, indeed not only have they defended the Kingdom but under their rule England grew to include parts of France. Why then should only Alfred be awarded this title? Queen Victoria was the figurehead of a vast global Empire and yet she was only Queen Victoria (admittedly Empress of India.) The reason appears to lie in the century in which his title first came into use. The seventeenth century, saw the emergence of the Whig interpretation of history which viewed Anglo-Saxon England as an almost utopian society and one which was to become corrupted by the influences of the Normans after 1066. The Anglo-Saxons were seen as a democratic society and Alfred, a very successful Anglo-Saxon king who could be seen as both unifying England and providing a democratic law-code, provided an excellent role model. The English civil war was to be fought over this argument. Charles I was seen by the parliamentarians as the embodiment of bad kingship and this argument was used to discredit him. Under such circumstances, it is hardly surprising that he would be acknowledged as ‘The Great’ to give further credibility to those who wished to depose King Charles I and seek the benefits of Anglo-Saxon democracy over Norman tyranny.

    Does Alfred, then, deserve to be called ‘The Great?’ I think he probably does. Some historians might argue that he did nothing special to achieve his title; after all, he did nothing more than defend his kingdom; but that would be to deny his very real achievements. Wessex was the only Anglo-Saxon Kingdom to survive the ninth century intact. Mercia remained under Anglo-Saxon Control but it’s ruler Aethelred recognised the overlordship of Alfred. Alfred, unlike other kings who might subsequently lay claim to such a title, did not just excel in one or two areas but displayed exceptional ability in all aspects of early medieval kingship. Alfred provided an example by which great kings could be compared. It was a later interpretation of history that gave him that title and he deserves to be remembered as such.
    Alfred found learning dead and he restored it
    Education neglected and he revived it
    The laws powerless and he gave them force
    The church debased and he raised it
    The land ravaged by a fearful enemy from which he delivered it
    Alfred’s name will live as long as mankind shall respect the past

    Campbell, A (Ed.) The Chronicle of Aethelweard. (Edinburgh, 1962)
    Bertram Colgrave and R.A.B. Mynors (Eds.) Bede's Ecclesiastical History of the English People, (Oxford, 1969)
    Alfred P. Smyth (Trans.), The Medieval Life of King Alfred the Great: A Translation and Commentary on the Text Attributed to Asser, (Basingstoke, 2002)
    N. P. Brooks, England in the Ninth Century: The Crucible of Defeat, Royal Historical Society Transactions, (Fifth Series) 29, pp. 1-20.
    S. Foot, The Making of Angelcynn: English Identity before the Norman Conquest, Royal Historical Society Transactions, (Sixth Series) 6, pp. 25-51.
    P. Kershaw, Illness, Power and Prayer in Asser’s Life of King Alfred, Early Medieval Europe, 10/2 (2001), pp. 201-224.
    S. Keynes, A Tale of Two Kings: Alfred the Great and Aethelred the Unready, Royal Historical Society Transactions, (Fifth Series) 36, pp.195-217.
    S. Keynes and M. Lapidge, Alfred the Great, (Harmondsworth, 1983)
    Sir F.M. Stenton, Anglo-Saxon England, (Oxford, 1971)
    Dorothy M. Stenton (Ed.) Preface to Anglo-Saxon England, The Collected Papers of Frank Merry Stenton, (Oxford, 1970)
    Ian. W. Walker, Mercia and the Making of England, (Stroud, 2000)
    John Peddie, Alfred, Warrior King, (Stroud, 2001)
    Magnus Magnusson, Vikings! (London, 1980)
    Julian Richards, Blood of the Vikings. (London, 2001)

    I will just quickly point out to any would be plaguirists that my material although still unpublished is protected by copyright. :wink:
  13. Last time I read his books (entire Sharpe series), I ended up buying around 20 odd books on the Napoleonic area, so might leave it alone this time.

    Ok.. buying it this weekend
  14. Polar, also try the Grail Trilogy about an Archer in the 100 years war. Cornwell has an excellent grasp of history from a squaddies point of view no matter the era!