Ælfgyva: The Mystery Woman of the Bayeux Tapestry – Part III

So, to reflect on what we have this far, there were several Ælfgifus or Ælfgyvas which was a popular noble name for women in the 11thc. The name itself means noble gift, and therefore likely to be a high-status name. We have the story of Ælfgifu of Northampton who was involved in some mystery around the paternity and even the maternity of her sons by Cnut, Harold Harefoot and Swein. Then we have the tale of Emma/Ælfgifu, Edward the Confessor’s mother who supposedly committed adultery with the Bishop of Winchester. Were there any other contenders for this woman’s identity?

Yes, it seems to be so. Æthelred the Unready also had a wife called Ælfgifu of York, who was the mother of possibly all of the king’s sons apart from the two youngest, Edward and Alfred, who were born to his second wife, Emma of Normandy. Do you feel that headache coming on? (Please let me know if you need to lie down.) But to complicate things even more, it is possible that there were two wives called, Ælfgifu, as some historians have believed, for there are two named contenders for her father, however, seeing as there is as little evidence for there being two wives as for the one, we may as well discount this fact. And so, seeing as we do not know of any scandal attributed to her, and her existence is as far away from the events of the mid 11thc as the moon, it is not beneficial to think that this lady is being represented on the Tapestry.

So, is there any more Ælfgifus not mentioned as yet? There may be one other. Some historians have, in an effort to solve the riddle, gone for the simpler, but unlikely option, that Harold had a sister called Ælfgyva whom he’d promised to one of Duke William’s barons in return for his own alliance with one of the duke’s daughters. The lurid depiction of this woman called Ælfgyva and the cleric is said to explain a scandal of some sort that would have been common knowledge at the time. There are other stories that run along similar lines, but these also prove very dissatisfying, for they do not answer the riddle of the purpose of their appearance on the tapestry.

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Segment of the BT showing William and Harold arriving at the duke’s palace and in conference with each other.  The Alfgyva and the monk scene a caption

Here now I think, would be a good time to objectively examine the scene and the ones preceding it. If we go back two scenes, we are looking at four horsemen riding toward a tower-like building with a man in the lookout pointing at the men as they approach. The words in Latin along the top of the tapestry read, Here comes Duke William with Earl Harold to his palace. The next scene has no written explanation but simply shows an image of Duke William sitting on his throne in his great hall, and a man standing behind him whose fore-finger is pointing toward the figure of Harold stood before the duke. Harold’s right hand gesticulates, open palmed the way someone might when he is explaining something. His left-hand points behind him and appears to be almost touching the hand of a bearded guard that is standing a little way from the rest of his companions. Obviously, the bearded man represents someone important to the story of the tapestry. Curiously, this guard has not dressed his hair in the Norman fashion of shaving the back of his head to the crown, as do the other men in the image, Harold being the other exception. The guard also has a beard, which the others do not, having shaven faces. The artist seems to have gone to great lengths to distinguish this man from the others.

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William and Harold discuss the purpose of his visit

Finally, the next segment (below) shows the mysterious Ælfgyva standing in a doorway, presumably to convey a scene in a house, with a priest or monk reaching out to her, his hand touching her face and his other hand firmly on his waist. He looks as if he has taken a step toward her. He could be touching her face endearingly, or he could be slapping her face. It is open to conjecture. We will never know. Additionally, the scene in the border below show some very lewd figures. Underneath Ælfgyva, a naked man with a large appendage appears to be squatting, as though pointing under her skirt. In the scene with Harold and William, another naked, faceless man is bending over a work bench with a hatchet. The meaning of these images are obviously of a sexual nature, but what connection it has to the mystery scene is really not clear, but possibly would have been to those who had lived around the time the Tapestry was crafted, and most likely refers to a known scandal of the time.

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The BT scene where William and Harold are in a consultation

Going back to the first segment, the story of the tapestry so far, is that Harold, having sailed to across the sea from Bosham, has been brought to meet William by Guy of Ponthieu. The Count of Ponthieu had captured Harold and his crew after their ship had washed up far off his destination of Normandy. William essentially rescues the English earl from the clutches of his rebellious vassal, who was hoping, perhaps, to ransom the great English earl for a large sum of silver. These two great men, Harold and William are destined to become the fiercest of enemies. At this time, however, they are friends – of a sort – and they ride toward the duke’s palace, probably Rouen, with a following escort. William is carrying the hunting bird that Harold may have bought as a gift for the duke; a sweetener for what he might wish to request of him. William may have thought of doing a spot of hunting on the way to meet his guest. Kings and nobles were often wont to take their hunting animals with them wherever they went and further back in the tapestry, we see Harold embarking the vessel that takes him to Normandy, with his own hunting hounds and birds. One of the most remarkable things about the embroidery is that if you look closely there are plenty of hidden meanings portrayed in the story as it unfolds. One of these, if you look carefully, appears in this scene. Assuming that where the names appear, they are consistently sewn above of the image of the person portrayed, Harold is in the forefront of the riders, and appears to be signalling to the man leaning out of the tower to keep quiet by touching his lips with his fingers. Andrew Bridgeford states in his book, 1066 The Hidden History of the Bayeux Tapestry, that this is one of Harold’s kinsmen that William had kept as hostage since 1052, excitedly waving to him, almost as if he is saying, “Brother, it is me, Wulfnoth! At last you have come for me!”

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Harold Meets with Edward to discuss his mission to Normandy

According to the Canterbury monk Eadmer, in his account (Historia Novorium in Anglia c 1095) of Harold’s mysterious visit to Normandy has the earl embarking on a mission to free his brother Wulfnoth and his nephew Hakon from the duke of Normandy’s clutches. A very different account to that given by the Norman propaganda machine, which has Harold travelling gaily overseas to meet with the duke, after being commissioned by King Edward, offering him his loyalty and promising to use his powers of persuasion with the Witan to have him as their king upon Edward’s death. The younger Godwin boys, were allegedly whisked away as hostages in some scheme possibly cooked up by Robert Champart, Archbishop of Canterbury, an arch enemy of Earl Godwin, sometime in 1052 when the family returned from exile. Champart may have used the hostages as a shield to help him escape without molestation, from Godwin’s revenge. Champart, being Norman, was sympathetic to the Norman cause. He may have schemed to persuade Edward to name Duke William as his heir. When the archbishop’s plot went awry, and Godwin returned to favour, the earl was gunning for those who had played a part in his exile, especially the major player, Champart.

The hostages were taken to the duke on Champart’s escape to Normandy, supposedly, as according to Norman Sources, as surety of Edward’s and possibly Godwin’s word (though the latter would have been doubtful) that he would succeed to the throne of England. Even having to flee from England with a charge of treason over his head, did not deter Champart to stir up trouble and continue with his plan to see William as Edward’s heir. It’s also possible that Edward had secretly given his blessing to Champart to take the boys, hoping that one day the tide would again turn against Godwin, that veritable boil on his bottom.

Harold and his men embark to Normandy

In the autumn of 1064, at the time when Harold’s visit to Normandy was most likely to have taken place, Wulfnoth would have been a man in his late twenties and Hakon, a teenager. The former was Godwin’s youngest son, and Hakon, the son of Godwin’s eldest, son, Swegn. How they would have fared all those years in Normandy away from their country of birth and family, one might wonder. There are no records of their progress during their stay, however one can perhaps surmise that by the time Harold appears on the scene, they have got used to being hostages, well treated in respect of their nobility and having found positions among the duke’s household. Eadmer’s version of Harold’s trip to Normandy takes a very different slant to that of the Normans, with the main purpose being to negotiate the release of Harold’s kin from the duke’s custody. In the Norman version, we are told that Harold arrived with gifts for William, gifts that it was said were for the duke from Edward, to confirm his promise of the ascendancy. Or were they boons of a different nature? Bribes perhaps for the release of Hakon and Wulfnoth, and not from Edward, but from Harold?

So, the segments of the Bayeux Tapestry that we have seen above can be interpreted in as Harold and William discussing the purpose of his visit, which could be to discuss Edward’s wish that William become his heir – or – it can be interpreted as Harold explaining that his visit is to talk about his kinsmen: brother, Wulfnoth, the bearded chap amongst William’s household guard, and Hakon, his nephew. Whatever the case, both men, it would seem, had different agendas…. and how does the curious picture of the noble lady and the monk fit into all this?

We have more to discover in the next Part.

References
Bridgeford A, 2004 1066: The Hidden History of the Bayeux Tapestry Fourth Estate; First Edition edition
Eadmer c1095 Historia Novorium in Anglia
Walker I, Harold: The Last Anglo-Saxon King The History Press; new edition, 2010.

This post can also be read here on the English Historical Fiction Authors’ Blog

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The Rise of Edward the Confessor: The Story of the Man Who But For a Quirk of Fate, Might Never Have Been King

How Edward Became King

Tapisserie de Bayeux - Scène 1 : le roi Édouard le Confesseur
Bayeux Tapestry, Scene 1: King Edward the Confessor and Earl Harold. Source: Wikipedia, Creative Commons, Author: Myrabella

Edward, son of Æthelred must have been one of if not the luckiest Anglo-Saxon kings to take the throne of England. He starts out with his chances of succeeding his father looking very hopeful up to the age of about eight. Then his luck ran out with the coming of Danish invaders, Svein and Cnut. His father Æthelred, chased out of England, returns again only to die in the midst of the Danish invasion. With Edward’s older brother Edmund¹ on the throne in Wessex and Cnut in charge of the Danelaw, his chances of ever becoming king were looking slim, and they got even slimmer when Edmund, the courageous Ironside, dies from his battle wounds leaving the kingdom to Cnut as agreed by the treaty the two men had made. As if things couldn’t get any worse, they are compounded when his dear mother, Emma, decides to get into a new marriage bed with Cnut, followed by two more children, leaving poor old Edward and his brother, Alfred, out in the cold in Normandy.
The years go by, and Edward spends it in exile, cultivating a hatred for his mother, that will last a life time. And who could blame him? After all, she abandons the interests of her sons by Æthelred to marry this Cnut chap who is years younger than her and not willing to play stepdaddy to two young lads one little bit. Emma seems quite happy about this, or perhaps, struck with a short memory problem, forgets her children from her former marriage also including a girl, Goda. Most likely, Emma negotiates her own terms for her marriage, seeing as her brother, in a fit of pique, more-or-less disowns her when she sails back to England to marry Cnut, and it would seem that within those terms there is no room for Edward or Alfred in this happy new family. So Emma, as far as her eldest son is concerned, bangs the first nail into her coffin, and there are more nails to bang in over the coming years.

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Emma and Cnut – public domain

Despite her neglect of her eldest children, Emma of Normandy was quite a woman for her time. Born somewhere between 985 and 989 she was shipped off to England in 1002 to marry Æthelred who was to earn the nomenclature Unready for prosperity. In becoming the second Mrs Unready, Emma was the first Norman queen of England. If her treatment of her children by Mr Unready is anything to go by, she obviously didn’t like her first husband. He was, no doubt, a lot older than her having grown up children of his own. She may had loved her first children dearly, but it still didn’t stop her from running to Cnut without securing something for them. Cnut probably needed her as much as she needed him, however, whether Cnut was unwilling to agree to her sons having a stake in the crown, or whether Emma was agreeable to forgoing their rights, is unsure. Whatever the machinations, I imagine that it was part of the nuptial contract that Emma forego her children’s rights, but she probably secured the succession for any children she had by Cnut over his children by any others. To give credit to her, she pulled off an amazing coup by becoming Cnut’s queen, ousting the backside of her rival, Ælfgifu², from his bed and replacing it with her own, getting her hands on that crown for the second time running.

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Norman knights supported by archers attack the English at the Battle of Hastings. Detail of the Bayeux Tapestry – 11th century

Edward probably spends the next twenty-five years living in Normandy being educated with his brother and being brought up as knights. He seems to make several friends, one of them being Robert Champart who may have travelled to Normandy with him later when his half-brother, Harthacnut, recalls him to assist with his government. It is not known exactly how he carried on his affairs in Normandy or what his relationship was like with Duke Robert or his young son, William. William would have only been in his infancy when Edward himself was a young man and Edward did not seem to have had much to do with him during the dangerous years of William’s succession to his father. It is unlikely that the Norman propaganda in later years that promulgated their relationship as cordial and supportive was true. Edward is not mentioned in the sources as being part of his administration which seems to have been carried out by close members of the senior duke’s family and that of the boy’s mother’s. If he had been, I’m sure that it would have been documented and used to their advantage. They may have known each other distantly, but there is no evidence to state that there was any love between them and by the time Edward sailed for England, the young duke would have been no older than twelve or thirteen. Edward may have studied at Jumièges, as his relationship with Robert Champart of Jumièges might suggest. Or he might have lived at the Abbey of Fécamp as his gifts to them during his reign might also suggest. William Calculus, a monk of Jumièges stated that Edward and Ælfred completed their schooling in the ducal court, which William of Poitiers, Archdeacon of Lisieux also repeats. No doubt, however, that whatever the case, the brothers were most likely brought up as young noble men would have been. Initially as pages, then learning squirely duties where they would also have learned to sing, dance, and fight on horseback as chevaliers.

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York Museums Trust (Yorkshire Museum)

Meanwhile, whilst Edward was going about his activities in Normandy, Cnut ups and dies in November of 1035. The country is split into to 2 factions, with those supporting Cnut’s son by Ælfgifu, Harold Harefoot in the north and those supporting his son, Harthacnut, by Emma in the south. Nobody thought about the two sons of Æthlefred languishing in exile over the water in Normandy – or perhaps they did, and found Edward wanting, if anyone had bothered to look into his character that is, as it was to become clear later, Edward was hardly the epitome of a king in such a warrior society as this, despite his knightly upbringing. Æthelred did have other sons that the English might have looked to should they have no desire to plant the troublesome offspring of Cnut on the throne, but by this time, they were all dead, and any issue from them may have been obscure or missing, as was the most famous amongst them, Edmund’s sons³, at this time, abroad in exile.
So, with Harthacnut held up in Denmark, unable to get back to England to claim his throne, his half-brother, Harold, is proclaimed Protector for his in his absence. Harold hurries to Emma in Winchester and seizes the Royal treasury and regalia from her. The next blow to her is Godwin, who had been a supporter of Harthacnut and Emma, accepts that his lot would be better served by switching sides and Emma, vulnerable and concerned for her own position is thought to have reached out to her first-born sons in Normandy. Edward and Ælfred, whether in harmony or not, cross separately with a contingent each to meet their mother in England. Ælfred is killed by Harold Harefoot’s henchmen after being handed over by Godwin. The Earl of Wessex intercepted had Ælfred on his way to parley with Harold. Edward is said to have landed in Southampton but is either repulsed or perhaps sent a messenger from his mother which warns him and he scuttles back home the way he came. Emma later claims that Harefoot forged a letter to sent to her sons to lure them to England and as in Ælfred’s case, eventual death. It was Earl Godwin who was the loser in this debacle. Whatever his reasons for intercepting Ælfred, he was to be blamed for the rest of his life by Edward for the death of his brother: an accusation that was said to have haunted Godwin until his death.
Harold Harefoot eventually has a timely death which coincides with Harthacnut’s return to England shortly after to take up his post as king. When he heard about the death of his half-brother, Ælfred, the first thing  he did was to dig up Harold Harefoot’s corpse and toss it in a ditch, so incensed was he. But he wasn’t to live for too long either, even though he was only about twenty-four at the time, he might have had some insight into his health. Not having married or fathered any known sons, he was advised to invite his older brother from across the sea in Normandy, to join him and be one of his counsellors. Edward had by now given up any thoughts of being king, so the summons must have come as a surprise.

Queen Emma, wife of Ethelred II and Cnut, receives the book from its author, watched by her sons Harthacnut and Edward (King Edward the Confessor)
Emma receives the Encomium from its author, flanked by Harthacnut and Edward, 11th century (c) British Library Board/Bridgeman Imageson

This must have seemed like a miracle to Edward, who, as the Vita Ædwardi Regis claims was sworn in as the future king when Emma was pregnant. The will of God had been that Edward would be their king all along, and that God had postponed the event in order to punish the people for their sins. Despite the auspisiousness of the prophecy, this was given to add meaning to Edward’s long-awaited kingship, thus rationalising the development of his saintly persona. Edward was now elevated to the highest status one could ever achieve. Just a few weeks prior to his invitation from his half-brother, Edward had been in the unlikely position of ever becoming king. Now, he was the king’s heir. Edward, without doing anything, had achieved the seemingly impossible. He had started out in a goodly position. His mother’s pre-marriage contract arranged by her brother, the Duke of Normandy, would have seen to it that any of her sons borne of Æthelred’s seed would have taken precedence over any of his sons from another woman’s womb.
Harthacnut, it was said as per the Encomium Emma, was inspired by brotherly love, because he obviously loved Edward even though he’d never given him a thought throughout his life, invited Edward to come and hold the kingdom with him. Edward hopefully didn’t rush into this rashly, after all, he’d only waited 25 years, but he obeyed the summons and ‘Emma and her two sons among whom there was true loyalty,’ ehem, *coughs, ‘amicably share the kingdom’s revenues.’ Poitiers chose to believe that William of Normandy, then only a mere twelve or thirteen, had something to do with helping the exile get back home to his rightful place.

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Edward’s Coronation

It’s possible that whilst Emma was in Bruges waiting for Harthacnut to withdraw from his issues in Denmark, some sort of reconciliation between the two brothers and their mother was made. Perhaps Emma at last felt the burden of guilt lay heavily on her shoulders, or perhaps it was Harthacnut’s idea, wanting to meet his brother and form a bond with him.
As it happened, the two brothers may have had just about enough time to get to know each other and form some sort of friendship before Harthacnut died, binging on drink in 1042 at the wedding of Tovi the Proud. He was said to have stood up to make a speech and then keeled over in what one can only imagine was some sort of stupor. He was never to recover. There is no suggestion that poison was involved, despite the fact that Harthacnut was not very well liked. In any case, the miracle that Edward had needed all his life if he was ever to be king, had finally happened. God’s will had been done, the English were punished enough, and Edward was now their king at last. The man who ought never to have been king, was elevated to that exulted place at last.

Notes

¹ King Edmund II known as the Ironside for his strength and courage.

²Ælfgifu of Northampton was Cnut’s first alliance, the daughter of an important Northern Anglo-Saxon family. She was the mother of Cnut’s two sons, Svein and Harold.

³ Edmund’s sons, Edward and Edmund, were sent abroad when they were infants to be done away with on Cnut’s orders. Luckily for them, the king of Sweden took pity on them and at least one of them survived into adulthood. Edward Edmundson was to become the subject of a mission by King Edward to find himself an heir.

References

Barlow F. 1997 Edward the Confessor, Yale University Press, Newhaven and London

Swanton M. 2000 The Anglo-Saxon Chronicles Phoenix Press, London.

Walker W. I. 2004 Harold, the Last Anglo-Saxon King

The Battle of Hereford – Part One: The story of two men and a king

a-motte-and-bailey-with-timber-defences-many-were-built-like-this-following-the-norman-invasion-of-1066Ralph de Mantes was the son of King Edward’s sister, Godgifu, known commonly as Goda. Goda was the king’s full sister, therefore a daughter of Æthelred the Unræd, and her son, Ralph, was fathered by Count Drogo of Mantes, Goda’s first husband. As such, Ralph could have been considered in line for the royal throne of England, however, he doesn’t seem to have been referred to as ‘ætheling‘, at least there is not any documented evidence. Possibly being born on the distaff side of the royal house may not have helped his cause – plus the fact he was a Norman. Whether or not Ralph, whom it was said Edward was very fond of, had aspirations to the throne of England, it is not known, however he was appointed Earl of Hereford in 1052 and he had a project in mind when he took up office, to use Norman-style defence works along the difficult to manage Welsh marches.

Due to the troublesome Welsh incursions along the Herefordshire and Welsh borders, Ralph and his followers, Richard FitzScrob and Osbern de Pentecost began to ‘Normanise’ the county and three castles were built in Herefordshire, Richard’s Castle, and Ewyas Harold Castle as well as the castle built in the town of Hereford.  These castles are two of only four known pre-Conquest castles, the other two being Hereford Castle and Clavering in Essex. Ewyas Harold Castle is thought to be the first in England.   One can’t help but wonder if this was an attempt on Ralph’s behalf to ingratiate himself to the English and his uncle, in order to raise his standing – and perhaps garner some support in regards to the succession of the throne. If it was, it was all going to come crashing down around him, soon.

In 1055, Gruffudd ap Llywelyn (or Griffith as its pronounced in Welsh) was the small-time king of Gwynedd at this time. He was soon, to become self-styled king of Wales through killing off all the other regional kings in Wales. He was born around 1013, which by 1055, would make him around 42 or 43 and well on the way to ‘medieval old age.’ However by this time, he still appeared to be a very robust man. He came to be known as the ‘Shield of the Britons’ for uniting Wales against the English, but unfortunately when he died, his subjects were unable to maintain what he had built up in a united Wales. He  was his father’s only son, however his mother, Angharad, remarried after Llywelyn’s death in 1023 and had two brothers, Rhiwallon and Bleddyn, and a sister for Gruffudd. On the death of Gruffudd’s father, Iago ap Idwal took over power in Gwynnedd.

Gruffudd  was to claim kingship of Gwynedd in 1039. He’d already held a position of power within Powys and when  Iago ab Idwal was supposedly killed by his own men, Gruffudd expanded in to Gwynedd . This may have been a deal he had with the men of Gwynedd. It was quite common to kill a ruler off when he was getting too big for his boots, as Gruffudd was later to see when he was also killed by his own men. By the summer of 1055, Gruffudd had rid himself of his other rival, Gruffudd ap Rhydderch, the king of the Deheubarth. This paved the way for him to take the title of King of all Wales.

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Gruffudd ap Llywelyn

Alfgar,  son of Leofric, Earl of Mercia and the legendary Godiva of the naked horse ride fame, appears to have been an unruly, truculent man, envious of the success the Godwins were  having. He found himself exiled after what seems to have been an angry outburst during the witan’s meeting of Easter 1055 to decide a new earl for Northumberland. Charged with treason and stripped of all his wealth and lands, he fled to Ireland to raise a mercenary force. Like the Godwinsons before him, he was determined to return to England by force if he had to.  With 18 Hiberno/Norse ships filled with warriors, he sought out Gruffudd ap Llywelyn in Rhuddlan to ally himself with him for an invasion of England, but not before helping Gruffudd in his quest to become king of all Wales by defeating and killing his opponent in the kingdom of Deheubarth.  Interestingly, Gruffudd, had been his family’s natural enemy having killed Edwin, Alfgar’s uncle in an ambush in 1040, and also driven Hywel out of Powys and carrying off Hywel’s wife, who’d been a kinswoman of Leofric. But past recriminations seem to matter not when a man wanted to fight for his land and what he owned.

The Welsh had long been raiding across the borders and causing chaos for some time, which had caused Ralph to build his castle in Hereford and encouraged other Normans to do the same. He was also bent on training the local thegns to fight on horseback to emulate the continental style of combat. Most people believe that the English preferred to fight on foot, and mostly this seems to be so, however it may not have been unheard of for the English to go into battle on horseback. The tactics however, were not known, but in this case, Ralph wanted to create a continental-style force to combat the continuing harassment from across the Welsh border.
Earl on horse

What would a mounted ‘chevalier’ have appeared like and how would he have fought? Most likely he would go into battle with a few javelins to project at the enemy, or/and 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. His tunic would need to be split in the front to allow comfortability in the saddle. The maille he wore would have to be longer than the byrnie to protect his legs, he would also use a kite shield, more manageable than a round shield on a horse. He would need to dexterous enough to be able to control his horse and manage various weapons on horseback. He would need years of training to achieve the sort of horsemanship that was seen at Hastings 11 years later. Those men would have been training from around 12/14, something these English men would mostly have lacked.

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.  Ralph was obviously out to impress his uncle, the king, and may have considered himself worthy of being his successor. 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 atheling. Unfortunately for Ralph, it was not to be.

 

References

Barlow F (1997) Edward the Confessor (2nd ed) Yale University Press, US.

https://htt.herefordshire.gov.uk/herefordshires-past/the-medieval-period/castles/)

Stenton F. 1971 Anglo-Saxon England (3rd ed) Oxford University Press, Oxford.

Swanton M (2000) The Anglo Saxon Chronicles (2nd ed) Phoenix Press, London.

The Battle of Dunsinane: MacBeth Vs Malcolm Canmore

Malcolm

July 27th – Malcolm, the exiled son of King Duncan I, marshalled thousands of English and Danish warriors in Birnam Wood, in Perthshire, where he had come, supported by his kinsman Siward, Earl of Northumbria to defeat the king of Alba. Nearby, a few miles from them, MacBeth was camped on Dunsinane Hill, expecting to meet Malcolm in battle. This was meant to be the decisive fight that would see Malcolm take back the crown from the man who was said to have killed his father, Duncan, in battle. But although Malcolm’s troops slaughtered 3000 of MacBeth’s men, MacBeth was not done, and it was not for another 4 years before Malcolm would wear the crown of Alba, becoming Malcolm III, King of Alba.

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Duncan I

Following the death of his father, Duncan I, in 1040 at the hands of MacBeth, Malcolm fled to his kinsman, Siward, Earl of Northumbria. Malcolm’s mother, a cousin of Siward, sadly, died in childbirth. Another brother, Donald Ban, was said to have fled to the Hebrides. Malcolm, who was to become known as Malcolm Canmore (meaning bighead) grew up at the English court of Edward the Confessor. It was there that he probably made friends with Tostig Godwinson who was his uncle’s successor in Northumbria after his death in 1055 which may account for their closeness when Tostig later ruled as earl in the north. In 1054, Edward the Confessor, seeing an opportunity to have a friendly face in Scotland, agreed to assist Malcolm in his bid for revenge against MacBeth. Edward allowed Siward to march north into Scotland with thousands of English soldiers, reputed to be 10,000 strong, which, if true, was generous, considering the king was able to call on 14,000 men for the select fyrd.

Macbeth_of_Scotland_(Holyrood)

MacBeth, Mormaer of Moray, was Malcolm’s older adversary (mormaer meaning the equivalent of an earl). He had killed Malcolm’s father in 1040, most likely in battle, or after a pursuit. The reason for the hostility between the two men was said to have been something to do with Donald’s rather violent, unkingly, behaviour. Malcolm, Duncan’s father, had been a somewhat cruel and ruthless man, and Duncan had gone the same way, subjecting his people to rampaging around their lands, stealing  their property, and offering them death and destruction if they opposed him or his men. MacBeth’s tennants demanded that MacBeth do his duty to protect them, and he decided to put an end to this undesirable king’s doings. With the support of Thorfinn of Orkney, known as the Mighty, his end came in 1040 somewhere near Elgin or Forres. This led to the Bigheaded one fleeing to England, although his head might not have been that big then,  and MacBeth ruled sensibly and peaceably for 17 years over Alba as Scotland was then known.

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Thorfinn of Orkney, also ruler of Caithness, and a kinsman of Duncan, had more reason to be hostile to MacBeth, but he too had been attacked, unsuccesfully, by Duncan and swore allegiance to MacBeth. The two men joined forces to bring peace and order to the kingdoms sending out small bands of men to oversee that justice was carried out. MacBeth also brought some social reforms to Alba, seeing to it that widows received a pension and orphans, benefits. Doesn’t sound like the ambitious cousin murdering, avaricious mad man of Shakespeare, does it? Marianus Scottus, the Irish chronicler, tells us that MacBeth went to Rome and gave coins to the homeless in the streets there. A very nice man indeed with a social conscience.

Tony Harmsworth  asks this question: with all these good deeds, how did Shakespeare get it so wrong? This is what he says:

“William Shakespeare, was reading the History of Scotland by Holinshed and was living under the rule of King James – you can imagine the Bard interpreting events as Macbeth murdering the king and then stealing the throne from the rightful heir.”

Therefore, it seems, it was a case of making the facts fit the political situation of the time.

Harmsworth claims in his book, Scotland’s Bloody History, that when MacBeth returned from Rome c 1050/51, he pushed Alba’s borders with a substantial army all the way down to Yorkshire and Lancashire; however Harmsworth does not clarify his sources for this, and it is difficult to know the veracity of this information, especially when none of the Anglo-Saxon chronicles mention it. If there is any truth in this, it might have been one of the reasons why Edward allowed Siward to lead the fyrd, including many of his own personal warriors into Scotland to support Malcolm against MacBeth.

Known today as MacBeth, his real name in Medieval Gaelic was Mac Bethad mac Findlaích. His father Findlaich was Mormaer of Moray, and was said to have been murdered by a usurping cousin, Gille Coemgáin in 1032. MacBeth cornered him and his men and got his revenge by burning them in a hall. He then married Gruoch, the wife of  Gille Coemgáin and adopted her son Lulach. Gruoch was also of royal blood and so MacBeth could have had a claim on both his own and his wife’s lineage. He has been thought by some to have also been Thorfinn the Mighty. In fact Dorothy Dunnett, the famous historical fiction writer of the 80’s and 90’s writes about Thorfinn in her book, The King Hereafter, as being one and the same as MacBeth based on the fact that they are never mentioned together in the chronicles.

Malcolm was probably around somewhere between the age of 18-25 when he made his expedition into his old homeland with a large army of professional fighters at his back and his uncle Siward at his side. Growing up in the English courts, he would have learned the ways of warriors, trained to fight with numerous weapons and battle strategics. No doubt the doughty character of his uncle would come in use in his first taste of war.

The English army were said to have crossed the river Tweed, raiding, plundering as they went, a sure way to win hearts and minds, but that’s how it was done in those days. According to Hollingshed, whilst planning his strategy in Birnam Wood, Malcolm was hit with the idea of using branches of cut trees as camouflage to approach MacBeth’s position, camped nearby with an elite bodyguard. Harmsworth mentions that this is one of the earliest recorded use of camouflage in battle. This is where Shakespeare gets his lines: Dunsinane-Hill

It is mentioned in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle D (Worcester) that:

Siward travelled forth with a great raiding ship army, and raiding land-army, and fought against the Scots and put to flight the king, MacBeth, and killed all that was best there in the land…

The fact that they took ships as well, does suggest a large scale invasion. The battle that took place was also said to have been ‘hard-fought’ and the chronicle goes on to say:

…and led away from there such a great warbooty as no man had ever got before; but his [Siward] son Osbern and his sister’s son, Siward, and some of his huscarles and also the king’s, were killed on the Day of the Seven Sleepers.

The chronicle makes no mention of Malcolm or the purpose of the expedition, which seems to have been to restore Malcolm to his rightful birthright of king of the Scots. Florence of Worcester mentions that Siward, by the King’s orders (Edward the Confessor), made Malcolm king (Florence refers to him as the son of the king of the Cumbrians). Chronicle C, (Abingdon) like the D, mentions Earl Siward only, and fails to mention any ships. It mentions that much slaughter of the Scots was made there and also that many Danish and English died, indicating that both many men died on both sides and that the Danes were probably Siward’s men, being a Dane himself. What was wrong with the English monks that they failed to mention Malcolm’s achievements in this? There was definitely an economy among the monks in their establishment of facts when writing the chronicles in the 11thc! Would mentioning Malcolm’s name overshadow the doings of the English so badly, after all, he was but one Scotsman, and there were plenty of Anglo-Danes. One has to wonder at this seemingly jealousness that riddles the chronicles!

Dunsinane Hill is located near the village of Collace in Perthshire. It has the remains of two early forts and the highest point on the hill is 1020 feet. We do not know where MacBeth was camped, or whether he was in the fort – depending on what state the fort was in – but it seems that if Malcolm’s army were able to sneak up on them, then they were vulnerable so probably not surrounded by defences. It was said that MacBeth’s guard surrounded him and defended him as best they could but they were defeated 3000 – 1,500, apparently, but MacBeth eventually got away to safety and spent the next 3 years on the run.

Malcolm attended a meeting of the mormaers who elected MacBeth’s stepson Lulach as king – perhaps thinking that MacBeth was dead – or that it was time to move on – who knows? Malcolm, of course, was not happy about this, seeing as he had fought really hard to win. He still had a support from the English soldiers, so he chased Lulach, if the king was not to be him, then he would kill whoever it was. And Lulach was – caught and killed – by Malcolm, another victim in the long line of murdered Scots kings. As far as killing their kings went, the Scots seemed to be pretty good at it, perhaps better than the English.

Three years after Dunsinane, MacBeth was finally cornered and killed at Lumphanen and his 17 year reign came to an end. There has to be a moral to this story, that being: ‘you will get yours eventually’. And whatever happened, Malcolm was eventually crowned, not because it was his birthright, but because of the tanistry system that operated in Scotland at this time in which a male successor was elected from among the royal family including extended branches – much like the Anglo-Saxon aethelings. 

 

 

Leofgar – Death in the Valleys

 

Saxon bishop (Cuth)
A picture of how Gruffudd might have looked (actually Hywel Dda)

October 1055 saw Earl Ralph’s magnificent defeat by the allied forces of Alfgar of Mercia and Gruffudd, self-proclaimed King of Cymru (Wales). The Battle took place 2 miles out of Hereford and during the aftermath of the English’ defeat, Hereford was razed to the ground. Ralph, otherwise known as Ralph de Mantes, and after this unmitigated disaster, Ralph the Timid, was Edward the Confessor’s nephew by his sister Goda. He may have fancied himself as the king’s heir, seeing as in 1055, the king and queen had failed to produce one and there were none likely to appear on the horizon, soon. Gruffudd had been causing trouble along the Welsh border for decades and was to provide Ralph with an opportunity to show what he was made of, so, having been granted the Earldom of Herefordshire, he set up a Norman-style defence along the marcher lands. This involved motte and bailey wooden castles, palisaded around a tower on a mound within a courtyard.

hereford1055_large
Having fought his way to supremacy in the north of Wales, Gruffudd ap Llywellyn decided to consolidate his power by embarking on a mission to exterminate his opponents in the south of Wales. This came at a very good time for the Mercian lord, for having been outlawed for unknown treason(1), Alfgar was in need of a powerful ally that would aid him in his restoration to power in England. And Gruffudd, having found the south of his kingdom the hardest battle to win, was obviously happy to have an ally against his arch enemy, Gruffudd ap Rhydderch of Deheubarth.

Earl on horse
How one of Ralph’s English cavalrymen may have looked

Ralph may have upset Alfgar in some way, perhaps had something to do with his exile (though I might add that this is just conjecture). Or it may have been that Ralph just happened to be in the place Alfgar wanted to use as a springboard back into England. Whatever the case, Ralph’s Norman-style English cavalry forces were destroyed, with Ralph earning the insulting nomenclature of ‘Timid’ for running away with his Norman retainers and leaving his men to be slaughtered.

The ensuing result was that Harold Godwinson was to lead the negotiations with Bishop Ealdred, conceding the diocese of Archenfield, Ergyng in Welsh, to Gruffudd. Alfgar was permitted to return from exile, picking up his former earldom of East Anglia and all that he had owned before, which seems very lenient to me, but Harold Godwinson always was very keen to quell problems with diplomacy, rather than to give battle. He was not too young to know the perils of a divided kingdom and was born not long after the troubled years of Æthelred the Unready, and would know that a divided kingdom is a vacuum for invaders.

Earl Ralph must have been taken ill or so disturbed by his embarrassing defeat, that he does not seem to have shown much of himself for the next two years, and although he seems to have kept the title of earl, the responsibility fell naturally to Harold Godwinson.
So, with all the other responsibilities that he must have had, Harold needed to appoint a strong man to protect and oversee this important town. Also, Hereford was an ecclesiastic see, and so who better than his doughty mass priest, Leofgar, who had once been a warrior before taking up the cloth, for the position of Bishop of Hereford. Part of the treaty that had been made in Billingsley after the Battle of Hereford, was that the diocese must relinquish control of Archenfield to the bishopric of Glamorgan (2). Harold wanted a man who was strong, as well as pious, who was able to look after the new church’s interests, reminding the Welsh that they had burned the old one down and that they needed to pay recompense for the deaths of the canons who had tried to defend the church during the attack. Purely conjecture on my part, but perhaps they were supposed to have help rebuild it and return all the treasures they had stolen from it, and Leofgar, enraged that nothing had been forthcoming, decided to take on the Welsh individually, without consulting his masters.

Ralph's men
How Ralph’s men might have looked

Leofgar was in his position as bishop for 3 months before he decided to ride out with an army from the town, and attack Gruffudd in a place called Glasbyrig. It is not known what prompted this impulsive act, but as the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle suggests, he swapped his chrism and cross for his sword and spear not long after his conscecration and was killed by Gruffudd’s army along with all the priests he had taken and Ælfnoth, the shire-reeve as well as many other good men. No doubt, among the ‘many good men’ would have been survivors of the terrible battle the year before, eager for revenge. But it came to nought, for Gruffudd was victorious and Leofgar and his men were slaughtered.
Glasbury-on-Wye, where the battle is said to have taken place, lies between Brecon and Hereford, on a bend in the river of Wye. Behind it, stood the majestic back drop of the mountain range known as the y Mynyddoedd Duon, or the Black Mountains in English, and the Brecon Beacons. Considering that Gruffudd had only just come to power in the South of Wales after his defeat of that other King Gruffudd in Deheubarth, it might have been pertinent to him to have kept a presence there, to consolidate his hold and ensure that the terms of the treaty with the English were kept to.

Glasbury on wye 3
The River Wye in Glasbury, perhaps the battle was fought on those fields to the right

The fact that Leofgar’s defeat was so decisive shows the Welsh king’s power in establishing a disciplined army that could easily travel by land or river and disappear in to the mountains quickly if needed. The local Herefordshire levies were certainly no challenge to them as their defeat shows.

This was a turning point in the Welsh king’s reign, for the peace deal included lands beyond the river Dee that had been long disputed over, and Edward acknowledging Gruffudd as ‘King of the Britons’, albeit a subregulus or an under-king. That a nation significantly larger in size as England was to Wales, should be so pressured into ceding a considerable amount of land to the Welsh shows the power Gruffudd possessed in resisting English rule. Despite his reduction in status to the English king, he was never compelled to attend the English court at any time.

Lost kingdoms of Wales
A map showing the area called Ergyng to the Welsh and Archenfield to the English

As a consequence of Leofgar’s actions, England had conceded ‘all the lands beyond the river called Dee’ except for a narrow strip along the estuary to the Welsh to add to their gains of 1055 in the Ergyng. According to Davies, these were lands that had been in English control since the days of Offa. There is a story as told by Walter Map, but cannot be verified historically, that the two kings, Edward and Gruffudd had a stand off on opposite sides of the banks of the Severn, one on the Welsh side and one in Gloucestershire. Gruffudd had agreed to bend the knee to Edward, who was his overlord in name only, but had refused to cross the river to meet with Edward, and Edward was refusing to cross to meet with Gruffudd. After all, why should he? It was preposterous that he, Edward, whose lineage went back to the days of Cerdic who conquered England from Gruffudd’s ancestors, the Britons, should have to play the subservient to that Welsh upstart who thought himself as entitled a king as he. With each king protesting that their lineage was better than the other, arguments for whom should cross first went back and forth for much of a day until eventually, Edward conceded and allowed himself to be politely rowed across the river where Gruffudd is said to have avowed himself on bended knee to recognise Edward as his overlord. In some ways, there was an aggreable outcome for both not to lose all of their integrity; Edward received Gruffudd on bended knee, however Edward was the one who had to cross. Whether this is how it happened is not confirmed by any contemporary source, but makes for a good story.
Gruffudd may not have bent his knee completely; like one who makes an oath with fingers crossed, he may have kept at least one of his knees slightly off the ground, because it would not be long before he was back at it again, causing trouble and getting mixed up with that rebellious English Lord, Alfgar once more.

 

Notes

1 Most likely the cause was that he had upset the king and his courtiers for not being elected to the Earldom of Northumberland, which was given to Tostig Godwinson.
2 Davies, in his his book, Gruffudd ap Llewllyn, The Last King of Wales, suggests that the evidence for this is in the Book of Llandaff, which points to the Bishop of Glamorgan having been concecrated in 1056 by Archbishop Cynesige in the presence of King Edward. The document also attests to Bishop Herewald’s activities in the area which indicates that the English had ceded the diocese at the time of the peace treaty.

 

Primary Sources

References
Davies S & Davies W (2012) The Last King of Wales: Gruffudd ap Llywelyn c. 1013-1063 The History Press

Petts, D. The Early Medieval Church in Wales (Stroud 2009) p.170