What happened on October 24th 1055 would most likely have stuck in the minds of many of the people who lived in Herefordshire for many years to come. I’m sure the names of Gruffudd and Alfgar would invoke terrible memories of burning buildings and blood strewn streets for a long time after that fateful date. As for the Welsh people, the Cymry, they would remember it as one of their great successes, a victory over the Saes invaders who had stolen their land. These days, the ravaging of Hereford is little known. It certainly wasn’t a fight on the scale that the Battle of Hastings was eleven years on, and it wasn’t a hard won victory for the vanquishers; but it was a devastating blow to the Franco-Norman Earl of Hereford, who, in his effort to pre-empt the Welsh King Gruffudd and the outlawed English Earl Alfgar from sacking his burgh, lost both his reputation and his standing in English affairs, when overwhelmed by the sight of the enemy, he and his Norman contingent left the field and many of his mounted men to die.
Gruffudd, self-proclaimed King of Wales, became so after he had won his bid to become supreme leader over the other British kingdoms of Wales. He had become King of Gwynedd and Powys after he fought against a Mercian army c 1040, killing Edwin, who was the paternal uncle of his later ally, Alfgar. Gruffudd soon began harbouring ambitions of uniting Wales against her enemies and so set about ridding himself of any impediments to realising his goal. One of these impediments was Gruffydd ap Rhydderch, ruler of South Wales. This he did, with the aid of Alfgar of Mercia in a sort of you scratch my back and I’ll scratch yours type arrangement.
After being exiled from England for uttering treason against the king, Earl Alfgar washed up on the shores of Rhuddlan, Gruffudd’s northern stronghold looking for an ally. With him he’d brought a fleet of mercenaries from Dublin. It would be the second time that Gruffudd had used a renegade outlaw exiled from England to assist him. The first was Swegn Godwinson, the scandalous older son of Godwin, outlawed for bad behaviour. Gruffudd was not above taking advantage of the discord that often went on at the English court. He was an astute and ruthless ruler, and to the Welsh, he was the Shield of the Britons. Unfortunately for him, he was to be betrayed by his own people some years later when murdered, they sent his head to Harold, Earl of Wessex.
Alfgar, Earl of East Anglia, was the son of Leofric, Earl of Mercia, and the legendary Godiva of the naked horse-ride fame. An unruly, truculent man, Alfgar was simply envious of the success the Godwins were having, and who could blame him, with the king based mostly in the south (he never seemed to go further than Gloucester) he was surrounded by Godwins all clamouring for power. The Anglo Saxon Chronicles don’t go into a lot of detail but he was banished from England after an angry outburst, the words, said to have been treasonous, seemed to have left his mouth without thinking. One might wonder just what those words were. Something, no doubt, very insulting about the king’s relationships with the Godwinson brothers. He was stripped of all his wealth and lands. Like the Godwinsons before him, he was determined to return and first went to Ireland to gather a force of Hiberno Norse, before approaching Gruffudd, his family’s natural enemy.
The King’s nephew Ralph was made Earl of Hereford around 1052. Ralph was the son of Edward’s sister Goda and her deceased husband Drogo de Mantes who had been the Count of Valois, the Vexin and Amiens. His older brother Walter, became the Count after Drogo and appears to have died along with his wife in tragic circumstances. Ralph may have been raised at the court of Normandy and travelled to England either with Edward or perhaps arriving shortly afterwards. He was most likely to have been in his mid to late twenties at the time of the battle. Ralph wanted to introduce Norman style tactics into English warfare and although it was not unheard of for English troops to fight on horseback, it was not the usual preferred method.
The mounted warrior would have looked very different to previous warriors who fought on foot. The mail that was being worn by this time was becoming longer than the usual byrnie that had formerly graced the bodies of 11thc warriors. The byrnie (or haubergeon) was more of a mail ‘shirt’ where as the hauberk covered the thighs and groin areas. Kite shields were also becoming popular as we see in the Bayeux Tapestry and they were more practical for using on horseback as the kite shield gave greater coverage to the unprotected side of the warrior’s body. He could hack or spear with his weapon-hand which would defend his other side from his shoulder down to his foot whilst he was horsed. He would also wear a conical shaped helmet like this spangenhelm wearing warrior. This chap is also wearing a mail coif under the helm to further protect his head, neck, and chest. The nose piece was a must to deflect sharp tips but would not necessarily prevent injury to eyes.
The mounted warrior Norman style, would go into battle with a few javelins to project at the enemy, or a spear to skewer them with. His sword or hand axe would be for closer hand to hand fighting when proximity to his opponent made the longer arms too difficult to use. If he was able to afford them, he would no doubt be wearing some mail chausses on his legs to protect them whilst he was in the saddle, though this does not seem to be reflected in the Bayeux Tapestry but hey, the its the Tapestry, right? Therefore it must be true!
Ralph had been working on his Norman style defences, too, building wooden structures with palisades, the pre-runner to castles. These would have consisted of a motte, a mound of earth with a towered structure within an inner bailey. The wooden fencing would have contained ramparts and lookouts. These were posted around the marcher borders and in Hereford itself. Ralph was obviously out to impress his uncle the king and may have considered himself worthy of being his successor, although there is no evidence to believe that he ever did, apart from the fact he was of the Royal bloodline through his mother. This might have been one reason why he was never declared an aetheling; he came from the distaff side of the House of Wessex. A great resounding defeat against the Welsh might have brought him the adulation and respect that he desired. Perhaps it would have gained him the title aetheling. Unfortunately for Ralph, it was not to be.
On October the 24th, the two armies faced each other across the plain. Here is what the D version of the AS Chronicle said about it
“…And soon after that, Earl Alfgar, son of Earl Leofric,
was outlawed well-nigh without fault; but he turned to
Ireland and Wales and there got himself a great band,
and travelled thus to Hereford; but there Earl Ralph came
against him with a great raiding party, and with a little
struggle they were brought to flight, and many people
killed in that flight, and then turned into Hereford market
town and raided it, burned down the famous minster which
Bishop Athelstan built, and killed the priests inside the min-
-ster, and many others as well, seized all the treasures in
there and led them away with them. And then when they had
done most harm, it was decided to reinstate Earl Alfgar, and
give him back his earldom and all that was taken away from
him. This raid was made on October the 24th…..”
Why the date of the 24th was chosen is not known. The initial battle was said to have taken place 2 miles outside of Hereford’s walls where Ralf and his men had gone to meet with the enemy. They must have had prior intelligence of the coming army, spies most likely had been seeking out intel on Alfgar’s whereabouts and doings, but this is not known.
The Abingon Manuscript elaborates a little more on the precipitating events of the battle and states that after Alfgar was outlawed, he went to Ireland and raised an army and then sought asylum with King Gruffudd of Wales. The allied forces then go into Hereford and Earl Ralph comes against him with a ‘great army’. “But before a spear could be thrown, the English people fled because they were on horse; and great slaughter was made”. The Manuscript also states about 400-500 English were slaughtered and the enemy lost none. It has also been suggested that Ralph and his men left the field leaving the English to die. Hence he is later known as Ralph the Timid. As there is little evidence of a full eyewitness account of what happened that day, one has to imagine how this might have occurred. Whatever happened, the day belonged to the victorious duo, Gruffudd and Alfgar. Alfgar, we see was reinstated and Gruffudd most likely given Lordship over the lands around Archenfield. Harold Godwinson later followed with a great army to chase the Welsh and their allies back into the mountains but there was no return match and Gruffudd’s Welshmen and Alfgar’s Hiberno-Norse made away with slaves, livestock and treasures from the church they had sacked.
The people of Hereford were left to lick their wounds and Harold rebuilt the defences that seemed to have been neglected by Ralph. The fact that Alfgar was never called to account for this outrage shows how brutal and non-consequential life could be in these days. The fact that he got away with it shows how little regard there was for the ordinary people concerned. The razing and ravaging of lands was often a punishment levelled at the nobility but although it is an absurd notion for us to protest the irony of it with our 21st century outlook, the lower echelons of life in medieval times mattered only to their immediate lords for what they were worth in economical terms. A simple local thegn may have been devastated at the loss of his ‘people’ but for the major nobility it was more of a financial disaster than an emotional one. As for Ralph, it seemed he may not have ever got over the disgrace and he disappears from the pages of history until he dies in 1057. The Earldom of Hereford later passed to his son Harold, after the Conquest.
Barlow F (1997) Edward the Confessor (2nd ed) Yale University Press, US.
Stenton F (1971) Anglo Saxon England (3rd Ed) Oxford University Press, Oxford.
Swanton M (2000) The Anglo Saxon Chronicles (2nd ed) Phoenix Press, London.
This Battle features in my novel Sons of the Wolf and was part of the research I did for it.