Battle of Hereford Part II: The Battle

hereford1055

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.

Al Camacho (1)Len howell
An accurate portrayal of a mounted Norman knight of the mid 11thc – photo c/o Len Howell and Al Camacho as the Norman

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.

Spangenhelm warrior

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.

References

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.

Writers of Anglo-Saxon literature: Patricia Bracewell on Edmund Ironside

Thank you, Paula, for inviting me to your blog site and giving me an opportunity to offer a brief sketch of the career of one of the heroic figures of late Anglo-Saxon England.
Edmund Ironside, Warrior King.
In preparing to write my novels about Emma of Normandy I immersed myself in everything I could learn about the 11th century Anglo-Saxon royals, including Emma’s stepchildren, the elder sons and daughters of Æthelred the Unready. Not surprisingly, the royal child who received the most documentation was Edmund Ironside who, after his father’s death, ruled England for 222 turbulent days.
A contemporary account of that period appears in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle (ASC), written by a clinically depressed monk who lamented the events in the reigns of both Edmund and Æthelred but offered the historian and the novelist few details. We know the WHAT, but we rarely know the WHY or the HOW. As a result, historians have to speculate, and novelists like me turn those speculations into story.
Edmund was born in about 989, the third of six sons from his father’s first marriage. He and his siblings were raised by their somewhat notorious grandmother, dowager queen Ælfthryth, at her estate about 10 miles from Winchester. They grew up in an England that was repeatedly assaulted by the Danish king Swein Forkbeard and his allies. By 1013 three of Edmund’s brothers had died in their teens or early twenties—illness? Misadventure? Battle wounds? We don’t know. They simply disappear from the records. That left Edmund, his eldest brother Athelstan (presumed heir to the throne), and younger brother Edwig.
In July 1013 a massive fleet led by Swein and his son Cnut landed in northern Mercia, intent on conquest. By year’s end Æthelred, Queen Emma and their young children had been forced to flee to Normandy. Did the sons from Æthelred’s first marriage accompany them across the Channel? The ASC doesn’t say, but it’s likely that they remained in England and may have led forays against the Danish garrisons that were now scattered across the kingdom.
Swein, though, was able to call himself king of England for only two months before he died suddenly in February 1014—an unwise move that brought Æthelred roaring back from exile in April. Cnut, who believed (mistakenly) that he’d inherited England when dad breathed his last, was sent pelting back to Denmark with the remnants of Swein’s fleet.
Two months later Edmund’s brother Athelstan was dead at age 28, unwed and without issue. Again, we don’t know how he died. Edmund was at his bedside and was executor of his will, suggesting that they were close, and the will itself provides a glimpse into their lives. Athelstan had servants, retainers, and numerous associates among the English elite. He owned armor, weapons, horses, movable wealth, and 16 estates in 9 different shires. Presumably Edmund had similar possessions. Athelstan left Edmund properties and weapons that included an heirloom sword of the 8th century Mercian King Offa. Historian N.J. Higham interprets this bequest as Athelstan passing “the mantle of succession” to Edmund, urging him to lead the English against the Danes.
Edmund surely got the message, but he wasn’t king yet. He was forced into action, though, when Æthelred made another of the questionable decisions that characterize his reign. In August of 1015 he ordered his son-in-law Eadric Streona, the ealdorman of Mercia, to murder two powerful northern Mercian nobles—associates of Athelstan and Edmund. The king confiscated their possessions and imprisoned one of the widows. Edmund, in a move that could not have pleased papa, seized the widow, married her, and took her north to claim her dead husband’s properties and the fealty of his men. This was not romance, but politics. (The bride’s sentiments are unrecorded, of course, but she gave him 2 sons.) The marriage gave Edmund control of a wide swath of northern Mercia, an area that two years before had harbored Swein and Cnut. It’s possible that what Æthelred probably interpreted as Edmund’s rebellious power grab was actually an aggressive response to rumors of a new Danish threat; because while Edmund was fetching his bride and claiming lands in the northeast, Cnut of Denmark landed in the southwest and began plundering.
Cnut, like Edmund, was now about 27 years old and his father had been, albeit briefly, king of England. Cnut wanted the throne. Æthelred was near 50, ill, and unable to respond to this Danish upstart. But Edmund gathered an army from his new lands and marched south to confront Cnut. He was thwarted by his treacherous brother-in-law Eadric Streona who had also raised an army and “meant to betray Edmund”. (ASC) We don’t know what Eadric intended exactly. Did the two men meet and quarrel? Did Eadric hope to curry favor with Cnut by ridding him of this fierce claimant to the throne? The novelist wonders, too, where Eadric’s wife, Edmund’s sister, was when this was going on. Were her sympathies with her husband or her brother? We know only that Edmund and his army sheered away from Eadric’s force. Eadric submitted to Cnut (which may have been his plan all along), and took with him many of the magnates in the southwestern shires of England (ie. an army). So now, Cnut had English allies riding with him.
Cnut and company ravaged northward throughout the winter of 1015, a tactic that fed and rewarded their men, terrorized the English and discouraged any resistance. Edmund twice gathered an army but his war leaders were reluctant to fight. They might not have known who to trust— Eadric, who was a powerful ealdorman of Mercia and had apparently accepted Cnut’s claim to the throne; or Edmund who was the king’s son but who had rebelled against his father, and where was the king anyway? They wanted Æthelred in their midst to be certain that they were fighting on the right (winning) side. Meantime, Æthelred dithered, and although he finally led a force from London to join Edmund, a rumor of treachery (real or imagined) sent him haring back to the city, and again Edmund’s army dispersed.
Ever resourceful, Edmund turned for aid to another brother-in-law, Uhtred, Ealdorman of Northumbria up in York; but instead of attacking the Danes who were terrorizing Eastern Mercia, they ravaged Eadric’s lands in Western Mercia, a move that puzzled even the monk writing the ASC. Perhaps Edmund hoped to deprive Eadric and Cnut of food and forage; perhaps he hoped to draw Eadric away from Cnut and so reduce Cnut’s numbers. Later chroniclers suggest he was punishing those who refused to take up arms against the Danes. Meanwhile Cnut and Eadric stormed into Uhtred’s Northumbria, and Uhtred was forced to return home to defend his people. Edmund, his army again depleted, headed for London, perhaps drawn there by news of the king.
It was now well into March of 1016. While Edmund rode south, Uhtred attempted to submit to Cnut but was murdered by one of Cnut’s allies. With Uhtred dead and Northumbria now securely under Scandinavian control, Cnut returned to his ships on the Dorset coast. Possibly hoping to trap both Edmund and Æthelred in London by laying siege to the city, Cnut sailed for the Thames estuary. Before Cnut made it to London, though, Æthelred died on 23 April, and Edmund was proclaimed king.
Edmund’s coronation must have been a hurried affair, and his first move as king was to get out of London before Cnut’s fleet arrived. He led his retainers deep into Wessex where he cajoled or coerced the West Saxons to give him their support. Cnut was laying siege to London, and Edmund needed an army to relieve the city.
Throughout 1016 Edmund Ironside’s movements and those of Cnut over hundreds of miles, each man probably leading 2000-3000 men, looked like this:
PHOTO #1 OF MAP

BattleMap (1)
From The Cambridge Illustrated Atlas of Warfare: The Middle Ages.

This map, though, only hints at the logistical difficulties that Edmund overcame in raising, arming, supplying, and transporting, on horse and on foot, at least five different armies in his effort to defeat Cnut, who had the advantage of a fleet and probably had horses as well. Edmund must have been a skilled commander and strategist, and a man forceful enough to bend men to his will. Twice Cnut laid siege to London, and twice Edmund’s armies drove him off. Battles fought at Penselwood, Sherston, and Brentford in the southwest led to casualties on both sides, but no definitive victory for either.
In September, 1016, Edmund chased the Danes across Kent to Sheppey, an easily defended island that had often been a haven for viking armies. Edmund halted his troops fifteen miles west of the island, at Aylesford, where good old Eadric Streona sought him out and offered his allegiance. Remember, Eadric had murdered (among others) the first husband of Edmund’s wife; had conspired in some way against Edmund himself; had been Æthelred’s favorite, but had betrayed the king by submitting to Cnut; and had convinced the lords of Wessex to betray the king as well. Now he was offering to switch sides a third time by throwing his support behind Edmund. Historian Simon Keynes uses the word “unscrupulous” to describe Eadric Streona; the ASC calls him “treacherous”; Jamie Jeffers of The British History Podcast calls him “a traitorous little shit”.
Edmund, though, accepted his allegiance.
“No measure could be more ill-advised.” (ASC)
Edmund!! Why??? We can only guess. Eadric was powerful, wealthy, and had a large English army with him. Edmund couldn’t kill him without huge repercussions. There were likely complex familial, political and moral complications in their relationship that we can only imagine. And if Eadric, scoundrel that he was, was fighting at Edmund’s side, at least he wasn’t fighting on Cnut’s side. Numbers in this conflict were crucial.
Cnut’s fleet left Sheppey, and Edmund may have believed that they were making for Danish-controlled York before the winter gales set in. Perhaps Eadric convinced him of that. But Cnut did not sail to York. He sailed to Essex where he beached his ships and plundered toward Cambridge. Historian Timothy Bolton suggests that Cnut wanted to draw Edmund into a final battle. He describes Cnut as cunning, and Edmund as a straightforward warrior; and Cnut’s cunning worked.
Edmund gathered another army and on 18 October 1016 he attacked Cnut at Assandun (Ashdon) in Essex. It was a long, fierce battle. The Encomium Emmae Reginae, written 3 decades later, claimed that the Danes raged rather than fought, and that they were determined to conquer or perish to a man. But at the height of the battle, that treacherous little shit Eadric Streona, fighting on the English side, turned tail and fled with all his men, “and so betrayed his natural lord and all the people of England.” (ASC)

Fredericksborg3
Streona with his countrymen leaves the battle

The Danes held the slaughter field at Assandun, but Edmund still lived. He rode west with the remnants of his army, and seems to have wanted to fight on. But too many of his warlords had been killed, including two ealdormen and another brother-in-law. His councilors urged him to meet with Cnut and make peace. Eadric Streona, with a foot in both camps, (still!!!) played intermediary, and at a meeting on the isle of Alney in Gloucestershire on a date that went unrecorded, England was divided between them. Cnut could call himself king of Northumbria and Mercia, including the trading powerhouses of York and London; Edmund remained king of the West Saxon heartland, Wessex.

Fredericksborg_Alney
The 2 young princes meet at Alney and decide on the division of England

The two men made pledges of friendship and, according to the ASC, of brotherhood. That pledge of brotherhood, I think, is important because as Edmund’s brother, Cnut could lay claim to Wessex if Edmund should die. And 43 days later, on 30 November, 1016, Edmund died.
We don’t know what caused his death. Later chroniclers blamed Eadric Streona and there were lurid tales of an iron hook in the king’s hinder parts. A far more likely cause: a wound taken at Assandun. Of course, it could be argued that if Edmund had any inkling that his death was imminent he would never have made an agreement with Cnut at Alney that disinherited his remaining brother and his sons; but in the 11th century even a slight wound, easily dismissed, might fester and lead to death. Or, Edmund’s loss at Assandun may have made his position too weak militarily to oppose anything that Cnut demanded.
Edmund was buried at Glastonbury Abbey. As is usually the case, we have no idea what happened to his wife, Aldyth. She may have accompanied her infant sons to Hungary where one of them grew up, married and had children. Edmund’s grand-daughter would wed the king of Scotland, and her daughter would wed William the Conqueror’s son, Henry I. Edmund’s Anglo-Saxon blood line continues today in the English royal family.
None of this tells us what Edmund was like as a person, although it’s safe to say that he was bold and courageous. He hounded Cnut all over England, and faced him in hand to hand combat. But we don’t know what he felt toward his father, his wife, his sons, or even his stepmother, Emma. That emotional territory is the province of the novelist. In my first two novels I imagined Edmund as a quiet youth, but watchful; suspicious of his father’s Norman bride—something I believe was quite likely. In my third novel, not yet published, I have given him a viewpoint and a voice, and I have pitted him against an enemy far more dangerous than his stepmother. He is a vigorous man of forceful character who steadfastly defends England against Danish conquest. He is a heroic figure in the image of his forbears Alfred the Great and King Athelstan. I based that on how the ASC portrays him: a warrior king who raised and led five armies, but who lost half a kingdom through treachery, and before he could win it back, lost his life.

Sources:
Bolton, Timothy, Cnut the Great. Yale University Press, New Haven, 2017

Campbell, Alistair, Ed., Encomium Emmae Reginae, Cambridge University Press, 1998

Higham, N. J., The Death of Anglo-Saxon England, Sutton Publishing, Gloucestershire, 1997

Rodwell, Warwick J., “The Battle of Assandun and its Memorial Church: A Reappraisal”, The Battle of Maldon: Fiction and Fact, Cooper, Janet, ed., London, 1993

Savage, Anne, Trans., The Anglo-Saxon Chronicles, CLB, Wayne, New Jersey,1997

Whitelock, D., English Historical Documents, London, 1979

Pat Bracewell jpeg

Patricia Bracewell’s first two books, Shadow on the Crown (2013) and The Price of Blood (2015) are available in paperback, e-book and audio book formats. Her novels have been published in the U.S., Canada, Britain, Australia, Italy, Germany, Russia and Brazil. In the fall of 2014 she was honored to serve as Writer-in-Residence at Gladstone’s Library, Wales, and she continues to travel extensively for research. She holds a Masters Degree in English Literature, lives in Oakland, California, and has been in love with England and its history since childhood. She is currently completing the third novel in her series about the 11th century queen of England, Emma of Normandy.

Paula Says

Thank you so much, Pat, for coming on my blog to talk about one of my greatest heroes of the 11th century. Like many others who have had their lives cut short before they could reach their full potential, Edmund never had the chance to fight to regain England back from Danish rule, and I definitely think he would have given Cnut a run for his money. He was, unfortunately, the only leader at the time who seemed to have the wherewithal to stand up and take the English forces to the fight. He was indeed a great hero. Your extensive research really shows here and I am grateful that you have shared so much of it here!

One question I have is that I notice you don’t mention Godwin, later Earl Godwin under Cnut. I have always thought that Godwin was a member of Edmund and Aethelstan’s retainers, due to being returned his father’s land in Aethelstan’s will, I just wondered what your thoughts are regarding him?