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1066 The Year of the Conquest: Chapter One

 For the nobles of England, gathered in the great hall that Christmas, at King Edward’s palace on Thorney Island, it must have come as a surprise that this monarch who had lived for over sixty years and had reigned for a third of that, was about to die. Despite his current age, he had always been a robust creature in his lifetime, being a man who loved the outdoors and the thrill of the hunt. He had not been a warrior king, this is true; he left that side of his administration to his very capable deputy, Harold Godwinson, his brother-in-law, but he had rarely shown signs of ill health until that Christmas of 1065, and to know their king’s life was coming to an end, must have been a great astonishment to all. Not that people lived much beyond fifty those days. He would have been considered elderly by the standards of the middle-ages, but little seems to have been done, to prepare for the succession, apart from the expedition to bring home Edward’s nephew, Edward the Exile, the son of his long-deceased brother, Edmund Ironside. The process had begun in 1054, when Bishop Ealdred was sent on a fact-finding mission to Europe to investigate the existence and whereabouts of the Exile. The mission finally came to fruition in 1057, when the mysterious son of King Edmund was located, and he and his family were brought back to the country of his origin from a long exile in Hungary. Sadly though, fortune being against him, Edward the Exile died three days later and was buried in London. His young son, Edgar, only five years old at the time, took up the mantle of ætheling, (the throneworthy) but now, as the king lay dying, Edgar was only thirteen years old, and his inexperience in matters of warfare and statesmanship, would not have put him in good stead for what might be coming was coming: the invasion of England.

King Edmund Ironside

At that time, the English would not have known the brutal nature of the terrible events that were about to befall them. Harold’s inner circle, however, would have known that Harold had been a ‘guest’ at his court only just over a year ago, and had spent time with William, with his liberty on the line; made to swear an oath on holy relics, that he would advocate for the duke as his vassal, to become the new king upon Edward’s demise. If we are to believe Eadmer’s version of what occurred on that visit, Harold had not gone to Normandy to offer William the crown of England on that visit, but to secure the release of his younger brother and his even younger nephew who had been secreted away by the Norman Robert Champart, who had fled England taking the boys with him as hostages to guarantee his escape. They fell into the hands of William of Normandy who wrongly believed that they had been sent by his cousin, Edward, to ensure the succession would go to him. This was not how the English succession worked and it was not in Edward’s gift to offer the crown independently of the witan, the king’s council.

Although Harold’s status as dux Anglorum, which was the highest designation before king, he could not possibly become William of Normandy’s liegeman, the duke of Normandy had insisted. It seemed that William’s arrogance and the fact that Harold was far from home on someone else’s turf, made it difficult for the English earl to assert himself and contend the request. It is possible that when the duke of Normandy had made up his mind to something, nothing, no reasoning, would dissuade him. Harold was given arms, and made to bend the knee to the duke, and with the subtle and intimated threat that he would never see his homeland again, the English earl was coerced into submission against his will.

 Thus armed with this knowledge, and the fact that Tostig, Harold Godwinson’s recalcitrant brother, was stirring up trouble with Harald, King of Norway, another with his sights set on England’s throne, the men of this anxious country, were looking now to the only man they knew who could save them from the coming storm. The man who had caused the predicament in the first place; Harold Godwinson.

Harold swearing an oath on Holy relics to William of Normandy
 The Vita Ædwardi Regis is a work that was commissioned by Edward’s queen, Edith, mainly to enhance the reputation of her family. It tells us in detail of Edward’s last days. The king had been ill since November, with a ‘malady’ of the brain, perhaps today we would know this as a ‘stroke’, or an ischaemic attack. He seemed to recover from its initial onset but was beset on Christmas Eve by another episode. Somehow, he managed to attend the Christmas Day service. The day after he was confined to his bed, and by the 28th of December, he was too ill to attend the consecration of his life’s ambition, the great church of Westminster, a monument he built in dedication to St Peter, his favourite saint. And so, on the eve of the king’s death, there had been no established heir ready to step up to the dais and seat the throne by default once the king had drawn his last breath. Although the boy Edgar was the king’s heir, the designated throneworthy ætheling, it did not mean that he had been chosen as the definite heir apparent by the witan. In those last days of Edward’s life as he lay languishing in his death bed, the nobles knew what might come, and decided that a boy of thirteen was not going to cope with the threat of invasion as well as a fully grown experienced man.

In the written record of the Vita, we are given to imagine, the whole of the witan, along with the most important men in the land, gathered in the ante chamber, waiting to hear of the king’s last proclamation befor his passing, the name of his preferred nomination; the man he would bequeath his estate and crown. We are told in the sources and also the visual account of the events, The Bayeux Tapestry, that King Edward, points to Harold and names him as the man he entrusts, upon his death, the care of his kingdom and his wife. According to English tradition, it was not necessarily the king’s oldest son who would naturally follow their father to kingship, as it became customary in later times. And the king’s wishes were not the end of it. Who he nominated was by the by, for it was the Witan to agree and that was how kings were made in Anglo Saxon England.

The king and his witan

At the last moment of the king’s life, everyone must have known already who that man was. It was, surely, a forgone conclusion, given that only one man was powerful enough to keep peace among the earldoms and stave off any would-be attackers.  All that was needed was the final endorsement to make the procedure complete – the king’s approval, the necessary detail that would fortify the decision against other claimants. All that needed to happen was for the king to point to that man; it was what they had been waiting for. His closest companions that were gathered around his bed within the king’s inner chamber, his wife, Edith, rubbing his feet as she had been wont to do throughout their married life; his kinsman, Robert FitzWimarc, a holder of high office in Edward’s court and later the shire-reeve of Essex under William; Stigand, the Archbishop of Canterbury, and the king’s primary earl, Harold Godwinson. One can imagine how tense they were, straining their ears every time Edward made a noise; waiting in anticipation for the words to utter from his chapped lips.

The king drifted in and out of sleep, with periods of restless delirium. On the day of his impending death, which was the 4th day of January, he awoke after many attempts to arouse him, and asked his servants to assemble his household. Some more people entered the chamber, and joined those aforementioned, who had never left his side. Imagine the air of expectation that must have filled the room. Picture the sighs of desperation as the king, according to the Vita, spoke not the words they wanted to hear, but told them of a dream. In this dream, he met two monks he had once known in Normandy and were no longer alive. They told him that God was cursing England because of the wickedness of the churchmen and the earls, and that a year and a day after his death, devils would put the land to fire and sword, and war would plague the country for years to come. The punishment would continue until a tree of green was felled halfway up its trunk and the cut off part taken three furlongs away and join its self together again without the assistance of men, and finally break into leaf and fruit once more. Such a prophetic monologue seems almost to be so insightful, given what was to follow, that one would think it was inserted after the fact and not before. Why or how a man who was gravely ill having had a stroke, was able to speak all these words is perhaps something that should be considered.Stigand the Archbishop of Canterbury turned to Harold and grumbled, as he probably would, being one of those churchmen, whom the king’s complaints were directed at, that the king was raving like a madman. Then the king seemed to be restored to sanity and spoke his last words. “Do not mourn for me but pray for my soul and give me leave to go to God. He who allowed himself to die, will not allow me not to.” Queen Edith was weeping, and he spoke words of comfort to her, and he said, “May God reward my wife for her devoted loving service. For she has been a devoted servant to me, always by my side like a beloved daughter.”It was then, we are told, that he offered his hand to Harold and spoke the words that everyone was waiting to hear: “I commend this woman and all the kingdom to your protection… and do not deprive her… of any honour she has received from me. I also commend to you all those men who have left their native land for love of me and served me faithfully. Take an oath of fealty from them, if they wish… or send them with safe conduct across the Channel to their own homes with all they have acquired in their service from me.”

After giving his instructions for his burial, he became unconscious once more and passed later that night, somewhere between or on the 4th or 5th of January 1066.

Edward the Confessor’s deathbed scenario

We might question the scenario, but the Norman sources do not challenge the reported death scene announcement, so we have no reason to disbelieve certain aspects of it. That Harold was nominated appears to be the case, even if Edith had picked his hand up and pointed it in her brother’s direction! What is certain however, is that the Witan was on board, with the nomination. Bought or not, it seemed to have been the sensible choice – to them at least. Robert FitzWimarc was half Norman, half Breton. He had been brought to England by Edward into his service. It seems he may have kept in contact with his homeland and may have even been enlisted as a spy for William at some point, but in any case, he was there at the scene when Edward died, and could vouch either way that Edward had or hadn’t announced the man who would follow him to the throne. He does not seem to have denied it.

The next day, Edward was buried and Harold was crowned.

Harold is crowned

Primary Sources 

The Bayeux Tapestry

Eadmer: Historia Novorum in Anglia

Vita Edwardi Regis

Further Reading

Barlow F. (1970) Edward the Confessor, Eyre Methuen LTD, Great Britain.

Howarth D. (1978) 1066 The Year of the Conquest, Viking Press, New York.

Chapter One: Death of a King

 For the nobles of England, gathered in the Great Hall that Christmas, at King Edward’s palace on Thorney Island, it must have come as a surprise that this monarch who had lived for over sixty years and had reigned for a third of that, was about to die. Despite his current age, he had always been a robust creature in his lifetime, being a man who loved the outdoors and the thrill of the hunt. He had not been a warrior king, this is true; he left that side of his administration to his very capable deputy, Harold Godwinson, his brother-in-law, but he had rarely shown signs of ill health until that Christmas of 1065, and to know their king’s life was coming to an end, must have been a great astonishment to all. Not that people lived much beyond fifty those days. He would have been considered elderly by the standards of the middle-ages, but little seems to have been done, to prepare for the succession, apart from the expedition to bring home Edward’s nephew, Edward the Exile, the son of his long-deceased brother, Edmund Ironside. The process had begun in 1054, when Bishop Ealdred was sent on a fact-finding mission to Europe to investigate the existence and whereabouts of the Exile. The mission finally came to fruition in 1057, when the mysterious son of King Edmund was located, and he and his family were brought back to the country of his origin from a long exile in Hungary. Sadly though, fortune being against him, Edward the Exile died three days later and was buried in London. His young son, Edgar, only five years old at the time, took up the mantle of ætheling, (the throneworthy) but now, as the king lay dying, Edgar was only thirteen years old, and his inexperience in matters of warfare and statesmanship, would not have put him in good stead for what might be coming was coming: the invasion of England.

King Edmund Ironside

At that time, the English would not have known the brutal nature of the terrible events that were about to befall them. Harold’s inner circle, however, would have known that Harold had been a ‘guest’ at his court only just over a year ago, and had spent time with William, with his liberty on the line; made to swear an oath on holy relics, that he would advocate for the duke as his vassal, to become the new king upon Edward’s demise. If we are to believe Eadmer’s version of what occurred on that visit, Harold had not gone to Normandy to offer William the crown of England on that visit, but to secure the release of his younger brother and his even younger nephew who had been secreted away by the Norman Robert Champart, who had fled England taking the boys with him as hostages to guarantee his escape. They fell into the hands of William of Normandy who wrongly believed that they had been sent by his cousin, Edward, to ensure the succession would go to him. This was not how the English succession worked and it was not in Edward’s gift to offer the crown independently of the witan, the king’s council.

Although Harold’s status as dux Anglorum, which was the highest designation before king, he could not possibly become William of Normandy’s liegeman, the duke of Normandy had insisted. It seemed that William’s arrogance and the fact that Harold was far from home on someone else’s turf, made it difficult for the English earl to assert himself and contend the request. It is possible that when the duke of Normandy had made up his mind to something, nothing, no reasoning, would dissuade him. Harold was given arms, and made to bend the knee to the duke, and with the subtle and intimated threat that he would never see his homeland again, the English earl was coerced into submission against his will.

 Thus armed with this knowledge, and the fact that Tostig, Harold Godwinson’s recalcitrant brother, was stirring up trouble with Harald, King of Norway, another with his sights set on England’s throne, the men of this anxious country, were looking now to the only man they knew who could save them from the coming storm. The man who had caused the predicament in the first place; Harold Godwinson.

Harold Swearing an oath on Holy relics to William of Normandy

The Vita Edwardi Regis is a work that was commissioned by Edward’s queen, Edith, mainly to enhance the reputation of her family. It tells us in detail of Edward’s last days. The king had been ill since November, with a ‘malady’ of the brain, perhaps today we would know this as a ‘stroke’, or an ischaemic attack. He seemed to recover from its initial onset but was beset on Christmas Eve by another episode. Somehow, he managed to attend the Christmas Day service. The day after he was confined to his bed, and by the 28th of December, he was too ill to attend the consecration of his life’s ambition, the great church of Westminster, a monument he built in dedication to St Peter, his favourite saint. And so, on the eve of the king’s death, there had been no established heir ready to step up to the dais and seat the throne by default once the king had drawn his last breath. Although the boy Edgar was the king’s heir, the designated throneworthy ætheling, it did not mean that he had been chosen as the definite heir apparent by the witan. In those last days of Edward’s life as he lay languishing in his death bed, the nobles knew what might come, and decided that a boy of thirteen was not going to cope with the threat of invasion as well as a fully grown experienced man.

In the written record of the Vita, we are given to imagine, the whole of the witan, along with the most important men in the land, gathered in the ante chamber, waiting to hear of the king’s last proclamation befor his passing, the name of his preferred nomination; the man he would bequeath his estate and crown. We are told in the sources and also the visual account of the events, The Bayeux Tapestry, that King Edward, points to Harold and names him as the man he entrusts, upon his death, the care of his kingdom and his wife. According to English tradition, it was not necessarily the king’s oldest son who would naturally follow their father to kingship, as it became customary in later times. And the king’s wishes were not the end of it. Who he nominated was by the by, for it was the Witan to agree and that was how kings were made in Anglo Saxon England.

The king and his witan

At the last moment of the king’s life, everyone must have known already who that man was. It was, I’m sure, a forgone conclusion, given that only one man was powerful enough to keep peace among the earldoms and stave off any would-be attackers.  All that was needed was the final endorsement to make the procedure complete – the king’s approval, the necessary detail that would fortify the decision against other claimants. All that needed to happen was for the king to point to that man; it was what they had been waiting for. His closest companions that were gathered around his bed within the king’s inner chamber, his wife, Edith, rubbing his feet as she had been wont to do throughout their married life; his kinsman, Robert FitzWimarc, a holder of high office in Edward’s court and later the shire-reeve of Essex under William; Stigand, the Archbishop of Canterbury, and the king’s primary earl, Harold Godwinson. One can imagine how tense they were, straining their ears every time Edward made a noise; waiting in anticipation for the words to utter from his chapped lips.

The king drifted in and out of sleep, with periods of restless delirium. On the day of his impending death, which was the 4th day of January, he awoke after many attempts to arouse him, and asked his servants to assemble his household. Some more people entered the chamber, and joined those aforementioned, who had never left his side. Imagine the air of expectation that must have filled the room. Picture the sighs of desperation as the king, according to the Vita, spoke not the words they wanted to hear, but told them of a dream. In this dream, he met two monks he had once known in Normandy and were no longer alive. They told him that God was cursing England because of the wickedness of the churchmen and the earls, and that a year and a day after his death, devils would put the land to fire and sword, and war would plague the country for years to come. The punishment would continue until a tree of green was felled halfway up its trunk and the cut off part taken three furlongs away and join its self together again without the assistance of men, and finally break into leaf and fruit once more. Such a prophetic monologue seems almost to be so insightful, given what was to follow, that one would think it was inserted after the fact and not before. Why or how a man who was gravely ill having had a stroke, was able to speak all these words is perhaps something that should be considered.

Stigand the Archbishop of Canterbury turned to Harold and grumbled, as he probably would, being one of those churchmen, whom the king’s complaints were directed at, that the king was raving like a madman. Then the king seemed to be restored to sanity and spoke his last words. “Do not mourn for me but pray for my soul and give me leave to go to God. He who allowed himself to die, will not allow me not to.” Queen Edith was weeping, and he spoke words of comfort to her, and he said, “May God reward my wife for her devoted loving service. For she has been a devoted servant to me, always by my side like a beloved daughter.”

It was then, we are told, that he offered his hand to Harold and spoke the words that everyone was waiting to hear: “I commend this woman and all the kingdom to your protection… and do not deprive her… of any honour she has received from me. I also commend to you all those men who have left their native land for love of me and served me faithfully. Take an oath of fealty from them, if they wish… or send them with safe conduct across the Channel to their own homes with all they have acquired in their service from me.”

After giving his instructions for his burial, he became unconscious once more and passed later that night, somewhere between or on the 4th or 5th of January 1066.

Edward the Confessor’s deathbed scenario

We might question the scenario, but the Norman sources do not challenge the reported death scene announcement, so we have no reason to disbelieve certain aspects of it. That Harold was nominated appears to be the case, even if Edith had picked his hand up and pointed it in her brother’s direction! What is certain however, is that the Witan was on board, with the nomination. Bought or not, it seemed to have been the sensible choice – to them at least. Robert FitzWimarc was half Norman, half Breton. He had been brought to England by Edward into his service. It seems he may have kept in contact with his homeland and may have even been enlisted as a spy for William at some point, but in any case, he was there at the scene when Edward died, and could vouch either way that Edward had or hadn’t announced the man who would follow him to the throne. He does not seem to have denied it.

The next day, Edward was buried and Harold was crowned

Harold is crowned

Primary Sources 

The Bayeux Tapestry

Eadmer: Historia Novorum in Anglia

Vita Edwardi Regis

Further Reading

Barlow F. (1970) Edward the Confessor, Eyre Methuen LTD, Great Britain.

Howarth D. (1978) 1066 The Year of the Conquest, Viking Press, New York.

New Beginings

Almost seven years ago in 2016 I started a series of posts about the events of 1066 that led to the Battle of Hastings that year on 14 October, 1066. It had been the 950th anniversary of the great battle and the series began with Chapter One, the death of King Edward the Confessor and the crowning of Harold Godwinson. The series, known as 1066: The Road to Hastings, followed the year of 1066 event by event until Christmas Day, when the new king, William the Conqueror, was enthroned. This new year of 2023 I aim to be revising the posts and bringing them up to date with new knowledge and a new perspective, gained from new research undertaken for the book on Harold that I am currently writing for Pen & Sword books.

The book,

SEARCHING FOR THE LAST ANGLO-SAXON KING: HAROLD GODWINSON, ENGLAND’S GOLDEN WARRIOR

will be published in March 2024

The events of 1066 were to change the face of England forever. Her landscape, her laws and customs, and her great ruling dynasties, were changed forever. As we approach the 957th anniversary of the Battle of Hastings, here on my website, I will be posting a series of blogs each month, to commemorate the events that led up to the great battle in which the flower of English youth lost their lives. We will be taking a sightseeing tour of the background to what happened and as we journey through the year chronologically, we’ll be exploring what motivated Harold to take the throne instead of backing the young, inexperienced Edgar, and why William believed he had a right to cross the sea, vanquish the English, kill their chosen king, and take the English throne for himself.

I look forward to having you, my reader, on this journey with me as we enter into the world of the last Anglo-Saxon rulers and their ever lasting legacy.

Photo care of REGBphotography and Mitchell Lawrence portraying Harold Godwinson

Welcome Home

I lay awake feeling the cold air swirl around my bed. The sweat, though my skin was ice cold, prickled my entire body. Something – or someone – was calling me; a soft, gentle child-like voice full of pleading and wretchedness. I sat up and looked around me. There was no one there. The moon illuminated my room, casting its light through the large balcony windows. It was just as it always was as my eyes swept cautiously around the walls. The wall paper still wore the same complicated patterns of flowers swirling around the walls and the dark mahogany furniture stood like sentinels in the dark. The heavy velvet curtains blew with the wind that forced its way in the cracks in the worn window frames. Nothing had changed, and yet – there was this ice coldness that filled my room and I was overcome with an intense feeling of fear.
“Clara,” whispered the sweet gentle voice again and I groaned. “Clara, come, come to me.”
I put my head in my hands. No, this cannot be. My mind was racing and I felt myself shudder. The voice… it was familiar.
“Clara…”
“Who is it?” I cried out. “Where are you? Are you in the wardrobe?”
With a sudden feeling of panic, I remembered how she used to hide in there sometimes. When I came to my bed at night, she would wait until I was asleep and would frighten me half to death by calling my name out in the night, making me think there was something ghostly in my room.
“Claraaaah,” the voice called again.
“Stop it! Stop it!” I jumped out of my bed, ready to run if I had to. “You’re dead! You’re dead!”
Sarah, my older sister had been gone for months now, and I had been so traumatised by her death that I had had to be sent away to recover. They had found me by her body at the bottom of the long staircase. So I was told; the one that wound its way down from the first floor landing to the great reception hall at the bottom of the stairs. Her neck had been broken and her face was contorted as if she had seen something that had badly frightened her. I don’t remember any of it, just that I woke up one morning to be told that she was dead and I had been lying there in my bed, mutely, for days. Then I screamed and I couldn’t stop. No one knew why I was screaming, least of all me. And so it was that I was sent away to stay with my Aunt Florence in Hanley. Now I was back, my first day home since that terrible tragedy had happened in Fallowthrop Hall. I was home amongst the servants who treated me with kindness, my father whom I adored and my step mother who I tolerated for my father’s sake and all the things that made life bearable, such as my books, my paints and easel, my inkpens and writing paper. Or so I had thought.
Sarah was gone, the sister that had made my life a misery. The days of torment were dead, just as she was. Life would be peaceful now, wouldn’t it? They said she had tripped on an old wooden toy that had been left at the top of the stairs. It had been mine and I was told not to blame myself. I must have left it there accidentally. I wanted to hug that old wooden horse that I had left there on the stairs. I wouldn’t blame myself. It was an accident. But oh, how joyful I was that such an accident should have happened. Well you would understand if you had known what Sarah had done to me most of my life. Sarah had been the beloved one in the family. She was the daughter who was beautiful, kind and endearing. The daughter who made everyone feel alive. I was the plain one whom everyone overlooked for Sarah. I hated her for the things she did to me, but I loved her too. Yet, she was not gone, was she? I could hear her, smell her and feel her presence. No, she was not gone.
As I breathed deeply, I took a step toward the wardrobe. I had to see if she was still there, tormenting me like she used to. They had said that I would probably never remember what had happened that day and although I tried hard to remember, I could recall nothing.
My hand reached for the wardrobe handle. I could hear her laughing in her familiar, sweet girlish way. She had touched everyone’s hearts. I could feel her vibrancy; even in death it haunted me. I should never have come back here, I thought. Because she would never let me live here in the peace that I had so longed for. Why Sarah? Why could you have not just let me be?”
My hand was shaking as I opened the door of the wardrobe. I looked into the darkness and walked in. I couldn’t see. It was very dark. Suddenly the door closed behind me and I heard her giggling. I struggled to open the door and when I couldn’t open it I cried out to her, begging her to stop tormenting me.
Eventually the door opened and I almost fell right back into the wardrobe with the impact of it. Relieved I stepped out of it and there before me she stood, pale and wraithlike, her neck twisted horribly to one side. My breath was gone and I couldn’t scream.
“Welcome home Clara,” she said.

Paula’s People: John Fletcher, author of Cornish History

Please welcome my guest poster for today here on Paula’s People. John is a member of our facebook group Historical Writers Forum and I’ve invited him along to talk about his book on the birth of that beautiful British Province Kernow!

Hello!
My name is John, like Paula I am a writer and reenactor although we currently sit in ‘opposing’ societies dedicated to Early Medieval Reenactment. Paula has kindly let me take up some screen space to introduce myself and to also showcase a short extract from my first book, The Western Kingdom – The Birth of Cornwall. The Western Kingdom is an examination of Cornwall and the far SW of Britain during the Early Medieval period. That is, roughly between 400 and 1100 CE. For all of Britain this was a time of immense change and upheaval, but also the solidifying of national identities that we would recognise today – The English, The Scottish, The Welsh and, though often forgotten, the Cornish.

Not only does Cornwall emerge as both a political and personal identity in this period, the actions of the Cornish allow this identity to survive despite coming under the political control of Wessex. How they managed that, when so many Brythonic entities were utterly eclipsed, is a fascinating story. Below is a short extract from The Western Kingdom, discussing the exploits of King Egbert and how Cornwall came to be defined both by its people and, potentially, by the modern borders for the first time.

“In 813 the Chronicle records that he is on the offensive in one of the most infamous, for Cornwall certainly, passages in the entire recording:
‘King Egbert spread devastation in Cornwall from east to west.’
This is frequently interpreted as a campaign that took the entirety of Cornwall into his dominion, or at least it suffered from his campaign [Kirby, 1992]; however, this is difficult to square with the longer-running conflicts we’ve seen over the preceding century. Additionally, if Wessex is able to so easily dominate the entirety of Cornwall, then we would expect the conflict to end here and potentially Cornwall’s unique identity to more or less vanish, in the way that Devon’s Brythonic origins are now only vaguely remembered. Obviously neither of these things occur.
Of course, even the Chronicle doesn’t actually state he conquered the region, only that he went raiding or harrying: ‘spreading devastation’. As such, it seems necessary to seek out alternative explanations.
The most obvious interpretation, and in this case the most likely to be correct, if we start from a position of conflict in mid-to-west Devon (as highlighted earlier), is that Ecgberht finalised the conquest of Devon around this time, pushing from the region around Exeter and Crediton towards the Tamar or north towards Launceston.
This may, in this case, be the first time that Cornwall corresponds to its historic boundaries, tying its longer-standing identity into the region that modern audiences will be most familiar with. Between this and the early eighth-century identification of the Cornish as a separate people, it is not entirely without merit to suggest that Cornwall is actually the oldest of the nations that make up the United Kingdom.
While questions around Cornish nationalism are fraught with both emotional and political stakes, it is certainly true that the Cornish as a people originate from outside the English state, and in this regard have as much claim to a national identity as the Welsh or Scots. The counter-argument to this, that Cornwall was absorbed by the English state, could also be made about those two nations, albeit on very different timelines.
Certainly in the early ninth century Cornwall is being referred to, by its own people, by a name we would recognise (Cerniu) while the concept of a singular English state is still not fully formed. Even at the height of his power, Ecgberht is not ‘King of the English’ – he is instead still King of Wessex, extracting tribute and acquiescence from those beneath him.
The same is true of Wales, where the many small kingdoms will not start formulating a singular shared identity – that of the ‘folk’ or Cymru – until the tenth century at the earliest.
Returning to Ecgberht and his exploits in Cornwall, the idea of a whole sale conquest is undercut in 825 when, in the same entry describing his victory at Ellandun, a fight is recorded between the men of Devon and the Cornish at Gafulford.
Gafulford was at one time thought to be Camelford in Cornwall; however, this is too far west to be taken seriously and for the most part seems to have been arrived at without considerable supporting evidence. More recent works, such as Higham [2008], have instead looked towards Galford on the northern section of the border between Devon and Cornwall, which seems to have the much stronger claim based on its location along the traditional border and the obvious place-name evolution.

Subsequent to the publication of The Western Kingdom I happened across another near-contemporary source (as is always the way!) which may have an interesting insight to offer regarding this clash at Gafulford. Inside the Codex Oxoniensis Posterior, a collection of Early Medieval manuscripts; many of which are Cornish in origin, is a Latin teaching text known as ‘De Raris Fabulis’ or ‘On Uncommon Tales’. In and amongst various short lines of text to help new monks learn Latin is the following:
“…there had been a great battle between the king of the Britons and the king of the English, and God gave victory to the Britons because they are humble as well as poor, and they trusted in God and confessed and received the body of Christ before they entered the skirmish or conflict. The English, however, are proud, and because of their pride God humbled them, for God did as it was said, ‘God opposes the proud but he gives mercy or victory to the humble’. A great combat (that is, hair) was ventured, and many of the English were struck down, but few of the Britons” – De Raris Fabulis
The dating of the text in the 9th or perhaps early 10th Century puts the tantalising possibility forward that this lengthy, and somewhat gloating, description of a victory recalls the conflict between Cornwall and Wessex in the 9th Century and provides, perhaps, support for the Cornish victory.
Gafulford wouldn’t be the last time that Wessex and Cornwall clashed, that would come later in 838 at Hingston Down. This is another battle that is usually sited much too far West, although discussing the many reasons why would require another blog post! Suffice to say the more likely location, in the Western fringes of Dartmoor, would see the fighting end in Devon and thus prove crucial in the ongoing preservation of the Cornish identity and, at least into the late 9th century, a Cornish monarch.
Hopefully you’ve enjoyed this window into Early Medieval Cornwall, if you’d like to learn more I of course encourage you to seek out The Western Kingdom at a bookshop near you!


John Fletcher is a local historian, based in the far SouthWest of Britain. He has also been an Early Medieval reenactor for sixteen years, with much of that being focused on recreating life in 8th-11th century Cornwall and Devon. He researches and gives talks on this period and the emergence of the Cornish state.

He has a Bsc in Environmental Sciences and focussed his dissertation on how climate change impacted Early Medieval settlement on Dartmoor.