Monday, October 24, 2016

Reassessing William the Conqueror

History Extra

William the Conqueror. Unknown artist, c1590-1610, National Portrait Gallery, London. (Photo by VCG Wilson/Corbis via Getty Images)

To be asked to write about William the Conqueror is to be offered a wonderful opportunity to present some of the fruits of new research, but also to challenge some of the deeply entrenched assumptions about the man and his times.
Serious politics, with complex roots in England’s and northern Europe’s past were involved, and at the heart of everything was England’s relationship with Europe (a topical subject, of course, in 2016). When we take this broader perspective, 1066 becomes a succession crisis with Europe-wide ramifications, where we can think in terms of ‘European change’, rather than using the simplistic label ‘Norman’ to describe the changes that occurred. Indeed, we must abandon the notion that William’s conquest was the cause of these changes, and leave behind simplified notions of nationalism and national identity – while at the same time recognising that England is indeed distinctive in many ways.
After 1066, the cross-Channel empire that William’s conquest created lasted until 1204, both continuing this distinctiveness and radically changing it and England’s relationship with Europe. Because of all this, we can only reach a full understanding of William’s place in history if we locate him within a period that lasts from around 900 to around 1300.


In trying to understand William’s personality at a distance of nine-and-a-half centuries, it’s important to challenge the notion that his childhood and adolescence were profoundly disturbed times and that this was the result of his ‘illegitimate’ birth. Although his parents – Robert, duke of Normandy, and Herleva – were not married, theirs was a long-term and presumably stable relationship; just like the often-romanticised relationship between Harold and Edith ‘Swan-Neck’, who were also not married. William was certainly always intended for the life of an aristocrat and was trained for that role.
There were two short periods of turbulence during his mid- and late-teens during a struggle for influence at court, out of which he was already resilient enough to emerge victorious. The survival in the literature of what are often termed ‘Victorian values’ in relation to the subject of ‘William the Bastard’ is therefore quite astonishing to me. The influences that we might identify as crucial are the early death (on pilgrimage) of a capable father and the culture of medieval warrior rulership, of which there were some formidable practitioners in northern France, such as the counts of Anjou, Fulk Nerra (count from 987 to 1040) and Geoffrey Martel (count from 1040 to 1060), to which William had to measure up. William had a strong sense of personal entitlement that sometimes translated into quite exceptional ruthlessness; the ‘Harrying of the North’, of which more later, will forever be the benchmark against which he is assessed.

William the Conqueror. (Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images)



There is a puritanical quality about William that was expressed in many ways. One of these was that, one probably false story notwithstanding, he was faithful to his wife, Matilda, and gave her a notably extensive share in his authority as king of the English and duke of the Normans. Another is that he was an extremely generous patron of churches, becoming so on a European scale after 1066; his son-in-law, stopping off at Constantinople on the First Crusade, wrote back to his wife in France that he had seen nothing as grand as the buildings and religious communities supported by William’s and Matilda’s generosity until his visit to the great imperial city.
When it comes to the exercise of power, however, it looks as if William never truly forgave anyone who opposed him, with consequences for England after 1066 that were devastating for many. Such figures are pretty common throughout history, however, and not just in the history of medieval kings.
My own work, discovering and editing unpublished charters in France, has had a significant effect on aspects of the narrative of William’s life and introduced new or neglected material into it. Evidence scarcely utilised since the 19th century can also make a significant difference. To select one example from many, a Flemish charter dating to the year 1056 shows that Guy, count of Ponthieu, Harold’s supposed captor when he landed in France in 1064 on the journey that culminated in his swearing his fateful oath to William, had met the future king before.
A second is the story of William’s prostration in 1069 before Archbishop Ealdred of York, the man who had crowned him king of the English, to beg his forgiveness for the conduct of some royal officials. This has seemingly scarcely been noticed throughout the whole of the 20th century.
In relation to the first story, the statement by the major early 12th-century historian William of Malmesbury that Harold had a secret agenda when he went to France has led to a lot of speculation in some recent publications. Conspiracy theories abound! Suffice to say that there was one man who it was in both Harold’s and William’s interests to portray as a villain. And that was Guy.
William’s capacity to attract support in 1066 for a very risky enterprise is striking. This – returning to medieval warrior rulership – must have been because he was seen as a good soldier likely to win battles, but also as someone who would distribute appropriate rewards and sustain morale by conveying a sense of legitimacy; in this scenario the dedication in June 1066, as the invasion fleet was assembling, of Matilda’s monastic foundation of La Trinité of Caen assumes great importance. As also does their handing-over during the ceremony of their approximately seven-year-old daughter Cecilia as a child oblate destined in adulthood to become a nun.

Matilda of Flanders, wife of William the Conqueror, c1053. (Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

The Harrying of the North

These qualities associated with effective warrior rulership, expressed in William’s case through a combination of rectitude and extreme violence, are evident in England after 1066. When it comes to the Harrying of the North of 1069–70, an innovative combination of environmental history and Domesday Book evidence holds the key. Land recovers rapidly from deliberate devastation, but people and the animals required to cultivate it do not. Sixteen years later, in 1086, Yorkshire still had a huge deficit of people and oxen.
Oxen, if they can be bred in sufficient numbers, are unruly animals that take around five years to grow and to be trained to pull a plough. They are also crucial to the provision of manure. What William did in Yorkshire was to systematically destroy long-term livelihoods. Yet, as always, there is scope for debate. The result brought England closer to peace and deterred invaders.
Indeed, violence against non-combatants, including women and children, was an aspect of the political and military culture of the Middle Ages. Was what William did worse than the many other examples we know about? And finally we must be aware that, earlier in 1069, a revolt in Maine, the region around the great city of Le Mans over which William had taken control in 1063, had overthrown his rule there. It must perhaps have seemed that all William had accomplished was falling apart. Yet we should be aware that the scale of the violence he employed was a source of controversy and debate among his contemporaries across Western Europe.

William’s kingdom

The English kingdom that William conquered has justifiably acquired the reputation of having developed into a precocious and well-organised state from the time of King Æthelstan in the middle of the 10th century onwards. But, in terms of England’s relationship with Europe, the crucial point is that the English state drew heavily on the legacy of the Carolingian Empire. In other words, while the relationship with Europe produced invasions, at this time mostly from Scandinavia, it also provided cultural resources that were central to the English kingdom’s exceptional qualities, this time from the heartlands of the Carolingian Empire in France and Germany, and of course from the papacy and great monasteries such as Fleury-sur-Loire.
This precocity also provided structures that enabled kings such as Æthelred and Cnut to raise quite extraordinary sums in taxation. But this was also a time of extensive immigration, some of it associated with conquest. Although study of this period nowadays generally rejects simplified labels such as ‘Scandinavian’ and ‘English’, it does acknowledge diversity and multiculturalism. It is also the case that it produced Cnut’s conquest of 1016, an event inextricably linked to William’s conquest, since it drove the young Edward the Confessor into exile in Normandy and northern France, eventually making William a player in the drama.

Stained glass window of King Cnut from Canterbury Cathedral. (Photo by CM Dixon/Print Collector/Getty Images)

What if…

What would have happened if Harold had won the battle of Hastings is of course unknowable. However, since Romanesque architecture and variants on the style of aristocratic residence known as the castle reached parts of Europe that were not conquered by anyone, they would surely have arrived in England; the former was already doing so with Edward the Confessor’s Westminster Abbey and the residences of pre-1066 English aristocrats may have resembled the ring-works of the early post-Conquest period more than was once thought.
Major developments such as the growth of parish churches had begun in around 1030 and so-called planned villages were also evolving long before 1066. William’s insistence on grandeur and display did make a great difference after 1066 in ways that were very influential. But the labels ‘Norman’ and ‘English’ often do not fit. A great building such as the new Winchester cathedral was greatly influenced by the cathedral of Speyer in Germany. The surviving west front of Lincoln cathedral was modelled on the Arch of Constantine in Rome. Meanwhile, a smaller building such as the Rougemont gatehouse of Exeter castle has Anglo-Saxon features; an example of cooperation between victors and defeated. And so on.
It was as if it was William’s new status as a king that made the difference, not his status as a Norman. And the sources of inspiration were not based in Normandy. It was as if recognition of a new status and human resilience created much that was new in the crucible of triumph, trauma and catastrophe. The long-term links with Normandy and territories beyond then provided the basis for evolutionary change that emphasised further influences from Europe, and especially France.
A speculative thought is that Magna Carta would not have happened if Harold had won. The tradition of royal promises to rule well did indeed have a past in England before 1066. But the circumstances that produced Magna Carta derived from King John’s loss of the cross-Channel empire created by William the Conqueror. These events would surely not have occurred if England’s kings had continued to be only England-based. England’s multi-faceted relationship with Europe is central to this. Many must have debated the pros and cons of England’s multi-faceted relationship with Europe in the period from around 900 until around 1300. Just like in 2016 – again. In the end, however, the commemoration of the 950th anniversary of 1066 must be marked by a remembrance of the thousands of unnamed victims of violence deployed by William, Harold and others in what was believed to be a legitimate cause.
David Bates is professorial fellow at the University of East Anglia. His latest book is William the Conqueror (Yale University Press, 2016).
To listen to our podcast on the story and legacy of the Norman Conquest, click here.

Sunday, October 23, 2016

10 surprising facts about William the Conqueror and the Norman conquest

History Extra

William I the Conqueror, king of England from 1066–87. (Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

1) No one at the time called William ‘the Conqueror’

The earliest recorded use of that nickname occurs in the 1120s, and it didn’t really take off until the 13th century. At the time of his death in 1087, William was called ‘the Great’ by his admirers, and ‘the Bastard’ by his detractors; the latter a mocking reference to his illegitimate birth (he was the son of Robert I, Duke of Normandy, and his mistress Herleva).

2) Every major church in England was rebuilt as a result of the Norman conquest

The Anglo-Saxons were not famed for building in stone, and during the first half of the 11th century had not embraced the new architectural style, now known as ‘Romanesque’, that had become fashionable on the continent. Before 1066, the only major Romanesque church in England was Edward the Confessor’s new abbey at Westminster, still not quite finished at the time of the king’s death on 5 January that year.
Normandy, by contrast, had experienced a church-building boom during the rule of William the Conqueror, with dozens of new abbeys founded and ancient cathedrals rebuilt. After the Conquest, this revolution was extended to England, beginning with the rebuilding of Canterbury Cathedral from 1070. England had 15 cathedrals in the 11th-century. By the time of William’s death in 1087 nine of them had been rebuilt, and by the time of the death of his son Henry I, in 1135, so too had the remaining six. The same was true of every major abbey. It was the single greatest revolution in the history of English ecclesiastical architecture.
Canterbury Cathedral. (© Claudiodivizia/

3) The Norman conquest introduced castles to Britain

Castles were a French invention – the earliest examples were built around the turn of the first millennium along the Loire valley. There were plenty in Normandy before 1066, but only a tiny handful in England, built in the previous generation by French friends of the English king, Edward the Confessor. The Norman conquest changed all that. “They built castles far and wide, oppressing the unhappy people”, wept the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle for 1066.
By the time of William’s death in 1087, around 500 castles had been built across England and Wales. Most were constructed from earth and timber, but work had also begun on great stone towers in London, Colchester and Chepstow.


4) The battle of Hastings was fought at Battle, near Hastings

This may perhaps seem unsurprising, but it is worth emphatically re-stating, given the various alternatives that have attracted media attention in recent years.
It is generally very difficult to pinpoint the location of medieval battles with any accuracy. People often suppose that archaeology can solve the problem, but this is seldom the case. Metal rusts and wood rots, and battlefields were picked clean of valuables by scavengers and bodies were carted away to be buried in grave pits. The battle of Falkirk, fought between Edward I and William Wallace in 1298, was one of the largest engagements in medieval Britain, with almost 30,000 men on the English side alone, but not so much as a single arrowhead has ever been unearthed.
Happily, however, the case for Battle is well grounded, because William built an abbey to mark the site, which still stands today. The tradition that states he did this was not, as conspiracy theorists assert, invented by the monks of Battle in the late 12th century, but stretches right back to the time of the Conqueror himself. In its obituary of William, the contemporary Anglo-Saxon Chronicle says: “on the very spot where God granted him the victory, he caused a great abbey to be built”.


5) More than 100,000 people died as a result of the Norman conquest

The size of the armies on both sides at Hastings is unknown, but neither is likely to have exceeded 10,000 men. Many were killed during the battle, but thousands more would die in the years that followed, as English resistance led to Norman repression. In the winter of 1069–70, after a combined English rebellion and Danish invasion, William laid waste to England north of the Humber, destroying crops and livestock so that the region could not support human life. Famine followed, and, according to a later chronicler, 100,000 people perished as a result. Modern analysis of the data in Domesday Book suggests that a drop in population of this magnitude did indeed occur.
The death of Harold at the battle of Hastings, 1066. Detail from the Bayeux Tapestry. (Photo by Culture Club/Getty Images)

6) The Normans introduced chivalry to Britain

Savage in their warfare, William and the Normans were more civilised in their politics. Before 1066, the English political elite had routinely resorted to murdering their political rivals, as they would do again in the later Middle Ages. But for more than two centuries after the Conquest, chivalry prevailed, and political killing became taboo. “No man dared slay another, no matter what wrong he had done him”, said the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle in its summary of the plus points of William’s reign. Waltheof of Northumbria, beheaded in 1076, was the only earl to be executed after the Norman takeover. The next execution of an earl in England occurred in 1306, some 230 years later.

7) William banned the English slave trade

In pre-Conquest England, at least 10 per cent of the population – and perhaps as much as 30 per cent – were slaves. Slaves were treated as human chattels, and could be sold, beaten and branded as their masters saw fit. It was a sin to kill a slave, but not a crime. The Norman Conquest hastened the demise of this system.
William banned the slave trade and in some cases freed slaves, to the extent that by the end of his reign their number had fallen by 25 per cent. By the early 12th century, slavery in England was no more. “After England had began to have Norman lords”, wrote Lawrence of Durham in the 1130s, “the English no longer suffered from outsiders that which they had suffered at their own hands; in this respect they found foreigners treated them better than they had themselves”.

8) William also invaded Scotland and Wales

Although he was king of England, William inherited the claim of the Anglo-Saxon kings to be overlord of the whole of the British Isles, and pursued it aggressively. When the king of Scots sheltered English rebels and sponsored the last surviving member of the Old English royal house, William responded by invading Scotland in 1072, travelling as far north as the River Tay.
Similarly, when in 1081 fighting among the various native rulers of south Wales upset the balance of power, William led an army into the region, stopping only when he reached the Irish Sea at St David’s. “Had he lived two years longer,” said the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, “he would have subdued Ireland by his prowess, and that without a battle”.


9) Both William and his queen, Matilda, were of normal height

It is still common to hear it said that William was unusually tall, and his wife, Matilda, was exceptionally short. There is no evidence to support either assertion, and plenty to contradict it. Contemporaries described William as being strong, certainly, but described his height only as “proper”. In Matilda’s case, they noted only that she was beautiful, and said nothing at all about her stature.
William and Matilda were both buried in Caen, he in the abbey of St Etienne that he had founded in 1063, she in the nunnery of Holy Trinity, founded in 1059. Their tombs were destroyed in the 16th century, so only fragments of their skeletons survive – in William’s case a single bone. In 1959 these remains were examined by French archaeologists and it was widely reported that Matilda had been a diminutive 127cm (4’2”), William a strapping 178cm (5’10”).
Widely, but not accurately. The experts in 1959 had actually concluded that Matilda was 152cm (5’) tall, making her just 5cm shorter than the average medieval adult female – a height, as the royal gynaecologist Sir Jack Dewhurst observed, far more compatible with her nine successful pregnancies. William’s single surviving thighbone, meanwhile, was re-examined in 1983 and the estimate of his height reduced to 173cm, just 2cm greater than that of the average medieval adult male.

Matilda of Flanders, wife of William the Conqueror. From ‘Costume & Fashion, Volume Two, Senlac to Bosworth 1066–1485’ by Herbert Norris. (Photo by The Print Collector/Getty Images)


10) William’s reign began and ended with inglorious scenes

The high point of William’s career was his coronation as king of England at Westminster Abbey on Christmas Day 1066, but things did not go according to plan. The ceremony took place in an atmosphere of high tension, the Normans surrounded by thousands of disgruntled Englishmen from nearby London. When the congregation shouted their assent to William’s rule, the Normans on guard outside the church mistook the noise for treachery and began setting fire to the surrounding buildings, at which those inside ran out to protect their property or join in the looting.
Similar embarrassing scenes attended William’s death in 1087. He died at the priory of St Gervais near Rouen, and as soon as he was dead his attendants looted his belongings and left his body almost naked. Eventually his body was taken by boat for burial in Caen, but as he was being led through the town a fire broke out, leading to scenes of chaos. His funeral ceremony in St Stephen’s Abbey was interrupted by an irate heckler, who complained that the church had been built on his father’s property without compensation.
Finally, William’s body proved to be too fat to fit into his stone sarcophagus, and when the monks tried to force the issue his swollen bowels burst, filling the abbey with such a stench that everyone apart from the officiating clergy fled.
Marc Morris is a historian who specialises in the Middle Ages. His publications include William I: England’s Conqueror (Penguin Books, 2016); King John: Treachery, Tyranny and the Road to Magna Carta (Penguin Books, 2016) and The Norman Conquest (Windmill Books, 2013).
You can follow him on Twitter @Longshanks1307.
To listen to our podcast interview with Marc on the story and legacy of the Norman Conquest, click here

Saturday, October 22, 2016

Controversial New Theory Suggests Ancient Greeks Helped Build Terracotta Army in China

Ancient Origins

New research suggests that Western explorers reached China more than 1,500 years before Marco Polo’s historic trip to the East, making it the first documented contact between Western and Chinese civilizations ever recorded. Now experts believe ancient Greeks may have inspired and helped build China’s famous Terracotta Army.

The BBC reports that the new theory is based on evidence from excavations at the Tomb of the First Emperor, where the Terracotta Army was found, as well as the results of a genetic study.
"We now have evidence that close contact existed between the First Emperor's China and the West before the formal opening of the Silk Road. This is far earlier than we formerly thought," said Senior Archaeologist Li Xiuzhen, from the Emperor Qin Shi Huang's Mausoleum Site Museum [via BBC].
Until now, it was believed that explorer Marco Polo was among the first Europeans to make contact with China. Polo’s journey to Asia in the 13th century was aimed at bringing some letters and valuable gifts from Pope Gregory X to the Mongol ruler of China, Kublai Khan. He was well received by the Great Khan and remained there for 17 years, where he amassed a great fortune. However, he was clearly not the first European to be there.
Marco Polo travelling, Miniature from the Book "The Travels of Marco Polo" ("Il milione"), originally published during Polo's lifetime (c. 1254 - January 8, 1324), but frequently reprinted and translated.
Marco Polo travelling, Miniature from the Book "The Travels of Marco Polo" ("Il milione"), originally published during Polo's lifetime (c. 1254 - January 8, 1324), but frequently reprinted and translated. (Wikimedia Commons)
A genetic study has revealed European-specific mitochondrial DNA at ancient sites throughout Xinjiang Province in China, suggesting that Westerners travelled and settled there during the time of the First Emperor of China, Qin Shi Huang (259 – 210 BC), and even before. In fact, European contact may date back as far as 3,800 years ago, as a number of mummies were found in the Tarim Basin in China with distinctly Caucasian features, and a genetic study in 1993 revealed they had European DNA.
In her article ‘The Beauty of Loulan and the Tattooed Mummies of the Tarim Basin’, Margaret Moose writes: “The settlements along the Silk Road might very well have been meeting points where merchants from the west traded their goods for goods from the east. Having multicultural merchants would certainly have helped facilitate communication between the traders.”
“Mainstream historians have always had this strange concept that early people were not world travellers when in fact most evidence points to just the opposite. We are led to believe that many cultures lived in isolation and that the world was not truly explored until the last five hundred years,” she adds.
The Beauty of Loulan, a 3,800-year-old mummified woman with Caucasian features found in the Tarim Basin
The Beauty of Loulan, a 3,800-year-old mummified woman with Caucasian features found in the Tarim Basin (
In addition to the genetic research, new excavations carried out by archaeologists at Qin Shi Huang's Mausoleum and documented for television by the National Geographic Channel and BBC, revealed new evidence that the 8,000+ terracotta figures found buried near the tomb were inspired by Greek sculpture and that the craftsmen may have been trained by ancient Greek artisans in the 3rd century BC.
It is expected that the full details of the evidence for this theory will be revealed in the documentary. However, the researchers point to the fact that prior to the construction of the Terracotta Army, there had been no tradition of building life-sized human statues in China, and only outside influence could explain such a significant change in style and skill.
"We now think the Terracotta Army, the Acrobats and the bronze sculptures found on site have been inspired by ancient Greek sculptures and art," said Dr Xiuzhen [via the BBC}.
Prof Lukas Nickel, chair of Asian Art History at the University of Vienna, believes that the First Emperor was inspired by the arrival of Greek statues in Asia as a result of Alexander the Great’s conquests. He also suggests that Greek sculptors trained local craftsman in the art of life-sized sculpture.
Terracotta Warriors and Horses, is a collection of sculptures depicting the armies of Qin Shi Huang, the first Emperor of China. Xi'an, China.
Terracotta Warriors and Horses, is a collection of sculptures depicting the armies of Qin Shi Huang, the first Emperor of China. Xi'an, China.  (Wikimedia)
Historical documents suggest that soon after Emperor Qin Shi Huang ascended to the throne in 246 BC, he began work on his tomb near Xi'an, China - now recognized as one of the greatest mausoleums in the world. The massive effort required 700,000 laborers, many of whom were convicts or people who were in debt to the empire. As part of the huge project, craftspeople sculpted around 8,000 colorful warriors — likely using real human beings as inspiration — and those warriors wore stone armor and wielded real lances, swords and crossbows. Archaeologists believe the army was meant to protect the First Emperor in his journey after death.
The giant army lay sealed beneath earth and vegetation for more than 2,000 years, until Chinese farmers accidentally discovered the ancient site while digging a well in 1974. It was the beginning of one of the greatest archaeological discoveries of all times. However, while huge discoveries have been made at the site, including thousands of clay warriors, horses, chariots, and weapons, much still remains to be excavated and it is believed that the terracotta army is just the tip of the iceberg, as the emperor’s tomb itself remains unexcavated.
It is unlikely that the tomb of Qin Shi Huang will be opened any time soon. For a start, there are the tomb’s booby traps, including a moat of mercury. In addition, the Chinese government has said that technology at present would not be adequate to deal with the sheer scale of the underground complex and the preservation of the excavated artifacts. Perhaps when that day comes, more will be revealed about the construction of the world famous Terracotta Army.
Top image: The famous Terracotta Army. Source: BigStockPhoto
By April Holloway

Friday, October 21, 2016

7 of England’s best medieval buildings

History Extra

Aerial view of Westminster Abbey at night. (Pawel Libera/LightRocket via Getty Images)

Westminster Abbey 

London’s iconic Westminster Abbey has since the medieval period held a significant place in royal history. It has been the setting of every royal coronation since 1066, seen 16 royal weddings and is the final resting place of 17 English monarchs.
The stunning Gothic structure that stands today was constructed by Henry III between 1245 and 1272, and his motivations for undertaking the mammoth building project are intriguing. Writing for History Extra in 2011, historian David Carpenter has argued that Henry built the spectacular abbey to win the favour of the dead Anglo-Saxon king, Edward the Confessor, who had established a church on the site almost 200 years earlier, in 1065. 
According to Carpenter, Henry was “passionately devoted to Edward”, who had been canonised in 1161, adopting him as his patron saint. He says Henry believed that “if he won the dead king’s saintly favour by building the magnificent abbey as an offering to him, Edward would support him in this life and shepherd him into the next. The Abbey was a very clear statement that Henry was backed by his saintly predecessor”. 
Westminster Abbey is home to some remarkable medieval art, including England’s oldest altarpiece, the 13th-century Westminster Retable [a panel painted with religious imagery, including an image of Westminster Abbey’s patron saint St Peter]. After surviving the dissolution of the monasteries, the Reformation and the Civil War, this precious altarpiece was rediscovered 1725, covered in paint and being used as a cupboard door in the Abbey’s storage.
Another of Westminster Abbey’s outstanding medieval artefacts is the coronation chair, in which every monarch since Edward II (apart from Edward V and Edward VIII) has been crowned. During the Second World War the coronation chair was evacuated to Gloucester Cathedral, however, like the Westminster Retable, it has not always received such good care. Its back is marked with graffiti, carved by mischievous Westminster schoolboys in the 18th and 19th centuries. 

Dover Castle 

Known as ‘the key to England’, the defensive fortress of Dover Castle has a long and turbulent history. Standing at the site of the shortest sea crossing between England and the continent, Dover has always been a key strategic spot in the defence of the kingdom, and over the centuries its castle has witnessed several bloody conflicts. 
The medieval structure that remains at Dover today was mostly constructed by King Henry II in the 1180s. Henry spent a vast fortune on the castle, which was not only intended to defend the British coast but also to entertain and impress distinguished guests. Between 1179 and his death in 1189, Henry spent £5,991 on Dover Castle – the greatest concentration of money spent on a single castle in English history. 
Writing for History Extra, John Gillingham has argued that Henry poured such vast sums into the impressive structure in order to “save face” following the brutal killing of Thomas Becket in 1170. The archbishop had been murdered in Henry’s name, significantly damaging Henry’s reputation. According to Gillingham, constructing the imposing castle was “a visible assertion of Henry’s power in the face of a developing anti-monarchical cult.” It served as stopping point a for high-status pilgrims visiting Beckets’s tomb at Canterbury Cathedral and Henry dedicated its chapel to the canonised Archbishop. 
During the reign of King John (r1199–1216), the castle defences were put to the test when it came under siege by French troops led by Prince Louis in 1216–17. It withstood 10 months of bombardment as the invasion forces targeted it with siege engines, tunneling and face-to-face combat. 

Dover Castle. (Photo by Olaf Protze/LightRocket via Getty Images)

Rievaulx Abbey 

A dramatic ruin set in the beautiful surroundings of rural North Yorkshire, Rievaulx Abbey was once a template for medieval monastic architecture across Europe. The Abbey underwent many stages of architectural development from the 12th to 15th centuries, reflecting the social and economic changes monastic communities underwent during the period. 
Rievaulx was first established as a Cistercian monastery in 1132. The Cisterian order (founded by St Bernard of Clairvaux in 1098 in an attempt to reform monastic life in Europe) aimed to return holy communities to an austere life, abiding to strict religious guidelines set down by St Benedict in the sixth century. After the foundation of Britain’s first Cistercian abbey in 1128 (Waverley Abbey in Surrey) the waves of reform quickly spread, and other Cistercian communities such as Rievaulx were established across the country. 
By the middle of the 12th century Rievaulx was a large and thriving self-sufficient community. In 1167 the Abbey’s community numbered around 140 monks and around 500 lay brothers. A larger site was needed to accommodate this growing community, leading to the building of a new chapter house and a dramatic, imposing church.  
The Abbey site was designed to facilitate both religious and practical aspects of life. In addition to a great cloister where the monks could study and read, the Abbey also contained private quarters for more senior monks, as well as a parlour, dormitory and kitchen. Rievaulx also holds the earliest surviving infirmary complex on any British Cistercian site, built in the 1150s to care for sick and elderly members of the monastic community. 
Like many abbeys, Rievaulx was targeted by Henry VIII’s dissolution of the monasteries in the 1530s. However, the Abbey’s religious population had dwindled over the centuries and by the time it was shut down and dismantled in 1538 only 23 monks remained there.

The ruins of Rievaulx Abbey, North Yorkshire. (English Heritage/Heritage Images/Getty Images)

York Minster

From humble beginnings as a small wooden church, York Minster underwent several transformations during the medieval period before evolving into the spectacular Gothic cathedral that stands today. 
The first Christian church on the site was a modest wooden structure dating back to AD 627. By AD 640 King Oswald had replaced this with a small stone church. After surviving the Viking invasion in AD 866, York’s Anglo-Saxon church was ransacked by William the Conqueror’s forces in the Harrying of the North in 1069. After destroying the Anglo-Saxon church, William appointed his own Norman archbishop of York, who went about constructing a grand Norman Cathedral on the site. 
In the 13th century Walter De Gray (archbishop of York between 1215 and 1255) decided to rebuild the cathedral for the final time. He embarked on a mammoth project to redesign it in a dramatic Gothic style, with a monumental arching roof, intended to convey a sense of soaring upwards towards the sky. Constructed between 1220 and 1472, the magnificent Gothic-style minster took more than 250 years to complete. Its Great East Window, glazed by John Thornton of Coventry between 1405 and 1408, is now the largest expanse of medieval glass to have survived in Europe. 
York Minster has suffered many misfortunes over the centuries. In 1407 the central tower collapsed due to soft soil, and four fires [in 1753, 1829, 1840 and 1984] have wreaked significant damage. York Minster is now one of only seven cathedrals in the world to boast its own police force [a small, specialized cathedral constabulary who continue to operate independently of the rest of the city’s police force]. 

York Minster at night. (Rod Lawton/Digital Camera Magazine via Getty Images)

The White Tower

The imposing White Tower at the heart of the Tower of London complex dates back to the late 11th century. Built by William the Conqueror to secure his hold on London, it was designed to awe and subdue the local population.
The exact construction dates of the White Tower are unclear, but building was certainly underway in the 1070s and was completed by 1100. A key example of Norman architecture, the White Tower was the first building of its kind in England. William employed Norman masons and even had stone imported from Normandy for its construction. At 27.5m tall the Tower would have been visible for miles around. 
Intended as a fortress and stronghold rather than a royal palace, the White Tower’s design favoured defence over hospitality. Its fortifications were updated throughout the medieval period and during the reign of Richard the Lionheart they doubled in size. This proved to be a wise move, as in Richard’s absence his brother John besieged the White Tower in an attempt to seize the throne. The Tower’s defences held fast but the forces defending it [led by Richard’s Chancellor William Longchamp] were compelled to surrender owing to a lack of supplies. 

For those who fell from royal favour, the White Tower was a place of imprisonment and execution. From its foundation it was used as a prison – the first recorded prisoner held in the White Tower was Ranulf Flambard, bishop of Durham, in 1100. Under Edward III, the captured kings of Scotland and France were kept at the White Tower and it is believed that, centuries later, Guy Fawkes was tortured and interrogated in the White Tower’s basement. 
Even monarchs were not immune to imprisonment at the White Tower: in 1399 Richard II was imprisoned there after being forced to renounce his throne by his cousin Henry Bolingbroke.

The White Tower at the Tower of London. (Arcaid/UIG via Getty)

Westminster Hall, Houses of Parliament 

As the oldest building on the parliamentary estate, Westminster Hall has been central to the government of England since the 11th century. Built in 1097 by the Norman king William II (the son of William the Conqueror and known as Rufus), the Hall was a symbol of Norman majesty intended to impress the king’s new subjects. 
Rufus’s construction project was remarkably ambitious. Covering a floor space of 1,547 square metres (with walls two metres thick), Westminster Hall was by far the largest hall in England at the time. It was so large that when surveying the vast hall just after its construction, one of Rufus’s attendants reportedly remarked it was far bigger than it needed to be. However, Rufus himself was less than impressed – he replied it was not half large enough, a mere bedchamber compared to what he had in mind. 
Recent archaeological explorations at Westminster Hall have prompted some fascinating theories about the groundbreaking nature of its original construction. No evidence of columns used to support the vast roof has been uncovered, suggesting that it may have been self-supporting. This engineering would have been remarkably ahead of its time, as self-supporting roofs of this size were not seen elsewhere until the 13th and 14th centuries.
Writing for History Extra, Paul Binski suggests that the “miracle” of Westminster Hall “is not just its survival, but its courage. The builders of these great structures had brilliant know-how, but also guts”.

A royal event at Westminster Hall in 2012. (Ben Stansall/WPA Pool/Getty)

Norwich Guildhall 

Situated in the centre of the medieval city, the Norwich Guildhall is a remarkable example of late medieval secular architecture. Built primarily between 1407 and 1412, its grandeur reflects the growing power and wealth of a new elite of merchants, traders and government agents during the period. 
By the 15th century Norwich had become one of the wealthiest and most important towns in England. Following a 1404 charter granting the city greater self–governing powers it was decided that a Guildhall should be built in order to administer the powers more effectively.
The Guildhall fulfilled a role similar to that of a modern town hall, performing all the administrative functions the city required to govern the everyday lives of the city’s residents. The Guildhall served multiple purposes as a court, a tax collection hub and administrative centre. The Guildhall also contained an assembly chamber for council meetings, was equipped to hold prisoners and had a large ‘sword room’ used for storing weapons. 
Today the Guildhall is the largest surviving medieval building intended for a civic purpose outside of London.

Thursday, October 20, 2016

History explorer: Stephen and Matilda’s fight for the throne

History Extra

The limestone ruins of St Nicholas’ Collegiate Church, which once formed part of Wallingford Castle. This now tranquil site was the epicentre of a 20-year conflict over who should rule England. © Alamy

With its impressive central mound and tower, high protective walls and deep defensive ditches, Wallingford Castle must have posed a formidable sight to besieging forces in the medieval period, among them those of King Stephen, who sought to take the fortification from his would-be usurper, Empress Matilda, on a number of occasions between 1139 and 1153.
Today little remains of the mighty fortress that overlooked a key crossing point of the river Thames. Small, scattered sections of the castle’s stone walls can be found at various points in the 41-acre site now known as Wallingford Castle Meadows. The most complete section, however, is the ruins of St Nicholas’ Collegiate Church, a building that stood within the castle walls and can now be accessed via a relatively steep set of steps. Standing in the shadow of the huge motte – accessible via a wooden suspension bridge – the limestone ruins remind us of the castle’s long history and its strategic importance in the fight for the English crown following the death of Henry I in 1135.
“Succession was a flashpoint in any medieval nation’s history,” says Professor David Crouch, professor of medieval history at the University of Hull, “but England was notorious for having no succession customs. The person who took the throne was generally he – or she – who made the most of the opportunities available to them.”
Henry made every effort to ensure a straightforward succession, nominating his only surviving legitimate child, Matilda, as his heir before his death. The great barons and nobles of England had sworn to support Matilda’s claim to the throne and she had been married to one of the most powerful men in France: Geoffrey, Count of Anjou. Henry, it seemed, had set his daughter up to move smoothly into the role of England’s first reigning queen.
“Henry’s death couldn’t have come at a worse time,” says Crouch. “He died in the middle of a ferocious row with his son-in-law – a dispute that saw Matilda side with her husband against her father – and it is even said that Henry had released his magnates from their oath of support for Matilda’s succession. Whether this was the case or not, when Henry died after more than 35 years on the throne, the scene was set for a desperate scramble for power.”

Matilda, shown here in a 14th-century illustration, was within two days of becoming England’s first ruling queen. (Bridgeman)

Power struggles

Henry, like his father William the Conqueror before him, had ruled both Normandy and England, and after his death the Norman barons decided to ignore Matilda’s claim in favour of Henry’s nephew Theobald, Count of Blois, whom they felt would benefit their interests the most, as well as bring the principalities of Normandy and Blois into alignment.
But as Theobald arrived triumphantly in Rouen, confident of his support, he must surely have been shocked to discover that his younger brother, Stephen, had dashed ahead to London where he had already been crowned.
“London was a huge city in medieval terms, and the opinions of its people carried great weight,” says Crouch. “Stephen’s appeal to Londoners lay partly in his personality – he was by all accounts a very affable man – but also with the fact that his wife was Countess of Boulogne, a town that was a point of access for trade on the continent. Stephen’s coronation, therefore, was seen to be in London’s best interests.”
But what of Matilda, Henry’s nominated heir? Without the support of the Norman barons, Matilda could do little to stake her claim to the throne. Her uncle, David, king of Scotland, had invaded England on her behalf after Henry’s death, but had been unsuccessful and in 1136 he made a peace settlement with Stephen at Durham. All Matilda could do was wait for an opportunity to present itself.
The first years of Stephen’s reign went well, but in 1137 tensions surfaced among certain factions at court as the king began to neglect those key men who had served at the core of Henry’s government, and favour his friends, notably the charismatic Waleran de Beaumont. The king’s failure to put down a rebellion against English occupiers in Wales was the last straw, and in 1138 growing dissatisfaction became open revolt.

A 1253 depiction of King Stephen, whose charisma won over the people of London. (Alamy) 
“England can be seen to have staggered into rebellion in 1138,” says Crouch, “and when civil war did finally break out, it was very territorial. Generally speaking, Matilda’s support could be found in the south-west of England, where Matilda’s half-brother and chief supporter, Robert, Earl of Gloucester, had land. Yorkshire, East Anglia and London were for the king, while the Cotswold area in between became something of a war zone.”
One baron who eventually switched his allegiance from Stephen to Matilda was Brian fitz Count, Lord of Wallingford and Abergavenny. Like many other barons, fitz Count had initially accepted Stephen’s rule, but defended his later defection by citing the oath he had taken under Henry I to support his daughter’s claim. Soon after, Stephen attacked fitz Count’s castle in Wallingford, which had become an important stronghold for Matilda’s faction (Stephen made further attempts to take the castle in 1145/6 and again in 1152, but failed in his endeavours).
Matilda herself arrived in England in 1139, landing in Arundel and staying under the protection of Henry I’s widowed second wife, Adeliza of Louvain, at the town’s castle. Unwilling to risk offending Adeliza by attacking the castle, Stephen instead decided to broker a deal with the empress, and she was granted safe passage to Bristol, where she was reunited with Robert of Gloucester.

Becoming queen

Stephen most probably regretted his decision to allow Matilda to return to her faction when, in February 1141, he was captured by the combined forces of Robert of Gloucester and the Earl of Chester after being defeated in battle outside Lincoln’s city walls. At the mercy of his captors, the king was taken to Bristol Castle where he was held, in chains, for some 10 months on Matilda’s orders.
“Stephen’s treatment in Bristol reveals much about Matilda’s character,” says Crouch. “He was placed in leg irons, despite being an anointed king; this seemingly vindictive act shocked his subjects and did little to increase the empress’s popularity.
“Matilda’s lack of discretion and sensitivity in the way she treated her magnates at court is well documented by medieval chroniclers. After Stephen’s capture, her route to the throne looked clearer than it had ever been, yet she is described in contemporary sources as alienating members of her court with her uncontrollable and spiteful behaviour.”

Wallingford's castle ruins. (Alamy)
With Stephen imprisoned and unable to marshal his support, Matilda seized the initiative and made it as far as Westminster in her bid for the crown. There, she was accepted by the population of London – as Stephen had been some six years earlier – and preparations began to take place for her coronation.
“By 1141, victory looked to be well within Matilda’s reach,” says Crouch. “Her rival to the throne was in prison and the inhabitants of the most important city in England had accepted her as their reigning queen. But the tables turned dramatically when, just two days before her coronation, she alienated both new and old sources of support.
“As tradition dictated, Matilda was petitioned by Londoners for tax concessions  and other favours in the run-up to her coronation. But, instead of wooing her new subjects with generosity and magnanimity,  Matilda, as was her way, granted no favours, shrieked at her petitioners and banished them from her presence. In one fell swoop she had lost the city and its support.”
Realising they would gain nothing from Matilda’s reign, the rejected Londoners returned to the city where they proceeded to ring the bells. Men of London’s militia poured into the streets and an angry mob advanced on Westminster, forcing Matilda to flee to Oxford for her own safety.
Matilda’s bad luck continued when, in September 1141, Robert of Gloucester was captured at Winchester by Stephen’s queen –  also Matilda – who had led an army of Flemish mercenaries and loyal barons there to fight Stephen’s cause.

The medieval road bridge across the Thames connects Wallingford and Crowmarsh Gifford. The original bridge played a key role in Stephen’s sieges of the town. (Alamy)
A prisoner exchange took place soon after, and Stephen was free to resume his place on the throne and pursue his would-be usurper to Oxford, where Matilda had based her campaign. As Stephen attacked the city, laying siege to Oxford Castle where the empress was residing, Matilda managed to escape. She fled first to the abbey at Abingdon before moving on to Wallingford Castle.
The war dragged on with neither side able to deliver the crucial final blow, but, with Robert of Gloucester’s death in 1147, the military heart went out of Matilda’s campaign and she finally left England for Normandy, resigning her rights to the English throne to her son, Henry (later Henry II), who made several expeditions to England to try where his mother had failed.
“The final showdown took place in 1153, at Wallingford,” says Crouch, “but it was far from the decisive battle Stephen had waited for. The two armies set up camp either side of the Thames, near Wallingford Castle, but in a dramatic twist, barons in both armies – many of whom had already made private peace treaties among themselves – refused to fight, forcing Henry and Stephen to iron out a peace settlement.”
The agreement – which became known widely as the Treaty of Wallingford – was sealed in Westminster in December 1153, and saw Stephen formally acknowledge Henry as his adopted son and successor.

Henry II granted Wallingford a royal charter in 1155 to recognise its loyalty to his mother. It allowed the town to host the markets still held today. (Alamy)
“The treaty was a remarkable event in British history,” concludes Crouch, “and laid the groundwork for Magna Carta in 1215. Ultimately, the war was ended, not by the anointed king, but by a group of barons who decided to stand up to their king in order to ensure the peace of the realm.”

Stephen and Matilda: five more places to explore

1) Oxford Castle
Where Matilda made a daring escape
Matilda based herself at Oxford Castle in 1141 but quickly found herself under siege from Stephen’s forces. Surrounded, the empress was forced to escape under the cover of darkness, allegedly lowered down the walls and dressed in white as camouflage against the snow. You can visit the castle’s medieval motte, crypt and tower.
2) Wareham Castle
Where allegiances changed constantly
Built in the 12th century, Wareham Castle was often employed as a transit point for armies just arrived in England from western Normandy. The castle was seized on a number of occasions, allegedly changing hands five times between Stephen and Matilda. Today, only the motte and ditches of the castle remain.
3) Leicester Castle
Where an earl promoted peace
The conflict was effectively ended by barons who made private peace treaties with each other to limit the effects of war. One of these was Robert de Beaumont, twin brother of royal favourite Waleran, who held Leicester Castle. A supporter of the king, Robert was one of those who led the movement for peace among England’s greater earls. The great hall is among the medieval remains that are accessible.
4) Winchester Cathedral
Where a peace treaty was announced
Stephen’s brother, Henry de Blois, bishop of Winchester, was one of the most powerful men in England, but transferred his support to Matilda after Stephen’s capture in 1141. He later rejoined his brother, defending the city from Matilda. The treaty that ended the war was announced in the city’s cathedral in November 1153.
5) Northallerton, Yorkshire
Where Matilda’s claim was defended
In 1138, David I of Scotland invaded England for a second time to defend his niece’s claim to the throne. At the ensuing battle just outside Northallerton, David was defeated and forced to return north.
Words by Charlotte Hodgman. The historical advisor was David Crouch, professor of medieval history at the University of Hull.

Wednesday, October 19, 2016

Spotlight on New Zealand author, screenwriter, and producer, Lance Morcan

It's my pleasure to feature the multi-talented Lance Morcan, discussing stuff you may or may not know.

Lance Morcan

Lance Morcan writes in collaboration with his son, James Morcan. They are a rare New Zealand father-and-son writing team who have co-authored 20 fiction and non-fiction book titles published by Sterling Gate Books. James is based in Sydney, Australia, while Lance is based in New Zealand, so their collaboration is essentially conducted long distance albeit with the help of daily Skype and phone calls.

James Morcan

Lance is a former journalist/newspaper editor with experience in all media.  James is also an actor and has accrued leading roles in film, television and also on stage.  His film credits can be viewed here.

James and Lance are also screenwriters and filmmakers, and have adapted several of their novels to feature film screenplays. These are in early development with their production company, Morcan Motion Pictures.  Several of their film projects can be viewed here.

Numerous books have been regular visitors to Amazon’s bestseller lists. These include the novels Into the Americas (a historical adventure) and The Ninth Orphan (an international thriller) and the non-fiction books Genius Intelligence and Antigravity Propulsion.  James Morcan Amazon author page. Lance Morcan Amazon author page.

Their latest non-fiction book, DEBUNKING HOLOCAUST DENIAL THEORIES: Two Non-Jews Affirm the Historicity of the Nazi Genocide, written in close collaboration with Holocaust survivors, has sparked an outcry from Holocaust deniers –  as some of the reviews reveal.  One of the world’s ‘leading’ deniers, who also happens to be an author and publisher (of anti-Semitic books) went so far as to publish a book (with an identical cover image, and a near-identical title) debunking the book!

For additional information on their various projects, kindly visit Morcan Books and Films blog here.

The Morcans have also established a fast-growing discussion group on called The Underground Knowledge group  – and as the title suggests it’s designed to encourage debates about important and underreported issues of our era. (All you need is an enquiring mind, an interest in the world we live in and a desire to learn or share “underground knowledge”).  Check out the group here.  More members welcome!

Their latest book is a historical adventure titled WHITE SPIRIT (A novel based on a true story). It’s a 1,000-page epic set in 19th Century Australia and based on the remarkable true story of Irish convict John Graham.

After escaping from the notorious Moreton Bay Penal Settlement, Graham finds refuge with the Kabi, a tribe of Aborigines who eventually accept him as one of their own.
Attempts to recapture Graham are orchestrated by a variety of contrasting characters working for the all-pervasive British Empire. They include Moreton Bay's tyrannical, opium-addicted commandant Lord Cheetham, the dashing yet warlike Lieutenant Hogan, native tracker Barega and the penal settlement's captain, Tom Marsden.
Marsden's young daughter Helen, a progressive lady ahead of her time who is both an egalitarian and a feminist, boldly inserts herself into the clash between the Irish convict, her father and Moreton Bay's other iron-fisted rulers. Helen complicates things further when she finds herself in a Pride and Prejudice-style love triangle with men on opposite sides of the conflict.
When Scottish woman Eliza Fraser is found shipwrecked and close to death in Kabi territory, Graham and his legion of pursuers, as well as the Irishman's adopted Aboriginal family, are all forced to navigate a multi-faceted rescue mission. The precarious rendezvous is made all the more dangerous by Helen Marsden's ethically-driven meddling that often outwits the men involved.
WHITE SPIRIT is not only based on arguably the great Australian (true) story, a sweeping tale that encapsulates all the nuances of the southern continent's unique history, it also provides readers with detailed insights into the tribal life of First Australian (Aboriginal) peoples.
An Amazon exclusive, available here.  More reviews welcome!

Follow Sterling Gate Books on:


It was a delight hosting Lance and James. Stay tuned for more information about upcoming projects from our talented friends down under.

Cnut's invasion of England: setting the scene for the Norman conquest

History Extra

King Cnut (Canute) failing to hold back the waves, early 11th century (c1900). Artist: Trelleek. © Heritage Image Partnership Ltd / Alamy

In the summer of 1013, the Danish king Svein, accompanied by his son Cnut, launched an invasion of England – the first of the two successful conquests England would witness in the 11th century, but by far the less well known.
Scandinavian armies had been raiding in England on and off for more than 30 years, extracting huge sums of money from the country and putting King Æthelred under ever-increasing pressure, but Svein’s arrival in 1013 seems to have been something different – a carefully-planned, full-scale invasion. After years of raiding England, Svein knew enough about the English political situation to exploit its weaknesses: Æthelred's court was fractured by internal rivalries, a poisonous atmosphere attributed to the influence of his untrustworthy advisor Eadric, and Svein was able to make a strategic alliance with some of those who had fallen from the king's favour.
The invasion progressed with devastating speed: within a few weeks all the country north of Watling Street – the ancient dividing-line between the north and south of England – had submitted to the Danish king. Next the south was subdued by violence, and before the end of the year Æthelred and his family had been forced to flee to Normandy.
Svein, now king of England and Denmark, ruled from Christmas to Candlemas, but died suddenly on 3 February 1014. The Danish fleet chose Cnut to succeed him, but the English nobles had other ideas: they contacted Æthelred, still in refuge in Normandy, and invited him to come back as king. They said, the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle tells us, “that no lord could be dearer to them than their natural lord, if he would govern more justly than he had done before”. In response, Æthelred promised to be a better king, to forgive those who had deserted him, and to “remedy all the things of which they disapproved”. On these terms the agreement was made, and Æthelred returned to England. This time he managed to drive out Cnut, and the fleet went back to Denmark.
But a year later the young Danish king was back, hoping to repeat his father’s conquest. Despite his promises, Æthelred did not forgive those who had sided with the Danes: he viciously punished the northern leaders who had made an alliance with Svein, and in doing so caused his son, Edmund Ironside, to rebel against him. When Cnut returned in 1015, Æthelred was ill and England was divided: large parts of the country submitted to the Danes, while Edmund struggled to put an army together.
Only after Æthelred died in April 1016 did southern England finally unite behind Edmund, and six months of war followed, with the two armies fighting battles all over the south. The last was fought at a place called Assandun in Essex on 18 October 1016 – by strange coincidence, 50 years almost to the day before the battle of Hastings – and there the Danes were victorious. Edmund died six weeks later (likely by wounds received in battle or by disease, but some sources say he was murdered), and Cnut was finally sole king of England.
The immediate aftermath of Cnut's conquest was violent, although not much more so than the last years of Æthelred's reign. Potential opponents were summarily killed, and the remaining members of the royal family were driven into exile. Cnut married Æthelred's widow, Emma, sister of the duke of Normandy, and between them they founded a new dynasty – part Danish, part Norman, but presenting itself as English. There had been Danish kings ruling in England before, some of them famous Vikings whose names were still something to conjure with in the 11th century: Cnut's poets, extolling his conquest in Old Norse verse, compared him to the fearsome Ivar the Boneless and the sons of Ragnar Lothbrok, and in one sense, Cnut was heir to the conquests of these larger-than-life Danish kings.
But at the same time Cnut presented himself as a conciliatory conqueror, eager to learn from the land he had captured: by gifts to churches and monasteries he made amends for the damage his father and previous Danish kings had done, and he ruled in English and through English laws – even as his poets praised him for driving Æthelred's family out of England. When he made a diplomatic visit to Rome in 1027, he was welcomed as the Christian ruler of a new North Sea empire. Almost the only thing many people know about Cnut is that he made a grand display of his inability to control the tide, and this story – first recorded in the 12th century – is not quite as silly as it is sometimes assumed to be: power over the sea was the very basis of Cnut's authority, and a story in which Cnut yields that sea-power to God might have helped to explain the remarkable transformation of a Viking king into a Christian monarch.
When Cnut died in 1035, after ruling for nearly 20 years, he was buried in Winchester, the traditional seat of power of the kings of Wessex. His empire did not long survive him. After the early death of Harthacnut, Cnut’s son by Emma, Æthelred's son Edward regained the English throne – “as was his natural right”, the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle says. During his reign Edward had to deal with those, like Earl Godwine and his sons, who had risen to power under Cnut, but before long the impact of the Danish Conquest was to be overshadowed by the second, more famous conquest of the 11th century.
Compared to the Norman victory in 1066 – perhaps the single most famous date in medieval English history – the Danish Conquest has always seemed less important, with few enduring consequences. But the story of Svein’s well-planned invasion and Cnut’s successful reign tells us some interesting things about regional divisions within England, and England’s relationship with Scandinavia and the rest of Europe in the 11th century: in many ways – not least by destabilising the English monarchy and driving Edward into exile in Normandy – the Danish Conquest set the stage for much of what happened in 1066.
Dr Eleanor Parker is Mellon Postdoctoral Fellow in Anglo-Norman England at the University of Oxford.