The Story So Far ...

Thursday, 12 October 2017

Did Charlemagne's Imperial Coronation Change Anything?

Last month I blogged about administration in the reign of Charlemagne. This time I’m looking at what, if anything, changed after the imperial coronation in 800.

After Charlemagne was crowned Holy Roman Emperor on Christmas Day 800, there was no real profound transformation of royal power or fundamental reform of it, but the imperial power supplemented it. Certainly there was a quest for definition; Einhard (Charlemagne’s biographer) mentions that Charlemagne ordered unwritten laws and customs to be defined and written.


Along with the concept of imperial power came new ideas of fidelity and devotion. The basic element of feudalism arose; Charlemagne would safeguard the Christian Church and its people, in turn they must observe the laws of Christ and the Emperor.

The Imperial Coronation by Friedrich Kaulbach

In March 802, there was a meeting of the Diet at Aachen. Missi were dispatched to all parts of the empire. These missi were not chosen, as they were usually, from the palace vassals, but from ecclesiastical and lay aristocracy; archbishops, dukes and counts who would be less open to corruption. They had with them a written document in support of the oral instructions, a Capitulare Missorum. 

This fourth great capitulary of Charlemagne’s reign came about because of a psychological crisis within Charlemagne himself. His coronation had given him a more acute awareness of his responsibilities before God. From this arose a clearer view of the contrast between what ought to be, and what was, in the Frankish state. The capitulary presents a programme of imperial government of Church and State in the Empire and contains numerous purely ecclesiastical dispositions and many others of an administrative, judicial and political nature, and articles defining a new and more exacting concept of the fidelity owed to the emperor.

One of Charlemagne's capitularies

To initiate the new regime, it was necessary to lay down and enforce rules of conduct to be observed in the future, confirm and apply rules already in force, but most of all to eradicate existing abuses. It was hoped that these new missi of high standing would be conscientious. They were instructed to investigate complaints, take note of the existing situation and where possible remedy abuses. 

Where there were abuses that they were unable to remedy, the emperor would deal with them himself. They were to report on any gaps or defects they found in the laws, and they were to publish the regulations contained in the capitulary and see that they were enforced.

Homage in the Middle Ages

The duty of fidelity to the emperor was no innovation, and the concept was fundamentally negative; to do nothing that would endanger him to whom fidelity was owed. After the coronation, the duty was not only to refrain from certain actions, but there were certain positive obligations. These included obedience to the divine precepts and to the commands of Christian charity, obedience to the emperor’s orders and respect for imperial property, performance of military service and promotion of the regular course of justice. There was also a new formula for the oath; it became more like the oath sworn by vassals, and more religious in character. 

Swearing the oath of fealty

The whole programme was markedly religious in nature. Charlemagne became aware of his new power, bestowed on him by God. The way the emperor discharged his power indicated reward or punishment in the next world. Charlemagne was also responsible for the attitude of his subjects; they must also perform their duty to God. 

As Charlemagne had to protect the Church, his subjects were obliged to do likewise. There had to be harmony between the lay and ecclesiastical authorities. Bishops and abbots were ordered only to appoint upright and conscientious men. Charlemagne’s fate in the next world depended on the attitude and conduct of churchmen who wielded authority. It was ordered that the clergy should lead a common life. There was also a call for a stricter observance of their rule by monks and nuns.

There were 15 articles in the capitulary relating to religious matters, and religion enters into other aspects. The missi, as we have seen were chosen for their piety, and the capitulary also deals with protecting churches and their property. Disorders in monastic establishments annoyed Charlemagne, so autonomy for houses of monks and nuns was discouraged, indeed many were placed under very strict control of the bishop or even archbishop.

Among the more political articles, Charlemagne’s increased sense of power is clearly detectable. He demanded much more personal devotion from his subjects. He placed a strong emphasis on his Bannum, his power to command or to prohibit and to punish any contravention of his orders or prohibitions. Some of these orders and prohibitions he proclaimed permanent by making them law. They forbade the harming of churches, widows, orphans, or the ‘economically weak’. They prohibited rape, group assaults on a house, and arson. They sought to secure more dependable military service for the king. These eight examples are the best known and Charlemagne frequently called attention to their permanent character in his capitularies. 

The Coronation - by assistants of Raphael

After the imperial coronation, refusal to submit to the Bannum, or evasion of it by trickery, or attempts to restrict its application (in particular the eight examples) could not be tolerated. Non-obedience would in future count as infidelity. 

No-one was to refuse military service, and counts were not to grant unwarranted exemptions. Future contraventions would count as infidelity. This was important to maintain the quality and strength of the imperial fighting force.

As emperor, Charlemagne was the successor of Christian emperors who had been legislators, and he henceforth engaged in legislative activity with less caution, even in the realm of private law. Like the Roman emperors, he ordered that judgement should be made in accordance with the written text of the law where one existed. The chief object of his judicial reforms was to guarantee everyone an opportunity to claim and exercise his rights under the law. So there was a series of measures imposing on the courts a strict regard for the law. 

The Construction of Charlemagne's Palace at Aachen

A knowledge of the law was required of the judicial officials concerned with the administration of justice in courts under the jurisdiction of ecclesiastical authorities, in their capacity as seigneurs of great estates, especially when the church in question enjoyed the privileges of immunity. It was considered important for the law to be applied strictly in the seigneurial courts, in particular in those under the jurisdiction of churches with immunity.

There was much more personal intervention from the emperor, and it is implied that he actually presided over a palace court. This was another indication of his awareness of his responsibilities for his subjects, and of his heightened sense of his accountability to God. The punishment for perjurers, the amputation of the right hand, was no novelty, but now the responsibility for suppressing this crime was placed on the palace courts.

Charlemagne's Throne: attribution

These measures and reforms were not entirely effective, but the ideas remained for Charlemagne’s successors to take up. More than anything they show how his sense of responsibility increased with his new power. It is obvious that he took these new responsibilities seriously, especially where the welfare of the Church and his subjects was concerned. Once he had determined the significance of imperial power, he undertook to instigate reforms which would carry out the obligations he now had as ruler of his people, and as a successor to the Christian Roman emperors.

Further reading:
The Life of Charlemagne – Einhard University of Michigan Press
The Coronation of Charlemagne – Robert Folz
Frankish Institutions under Charlemagne – FL Ganshof
The Carolingians and the Frankish Monarchy – FL Ganshof

[images are in the public domain unless otherwise attributed]

Saturday, 7 October 2017

Review - The Needle in the Blood by Sarah Bower

You could call this the original 'stitch n bitch' story, since it is a tale woven (sorry, couldn't help myself) around the making of the Bayeux Tapestry. But actually, this book is so much more than the story of the sewing of the famous embroidery, and it seems to have left readers somewhat divided. As it's nearly the anniversary of the battle, it seemed timely to revisit this book.

Odo rallies William's troops during the battle in 1066

It begins on the battlefield, where Odo, brother of the conqueror, is introduced. Odo is a bishop and it is he who will commission the embroidery. This brings him into contact with Gytha, an Englishwoman. The chapter where she is introduced was more powerful, in my opinion. I've read about the battle itself many times, but what is less often written about is the immediate aftermath; the destruction of the world as the English knew it. Those early scenes of panic, confusion and fear are realistically drawn.
"Rape. That's what they all believe, the sullen crowd gathered before Winchester's West Gate, in the square where the tax man usually collect the duty on beasts brought into the city for market. It's clear from their faces, fear mixed with impotence and embarrassment, and the round eyed children, clinging to their mothers' skirts, who don't understand but just want to look at the soldiers."
A little boy darts out of the crowd, dazzled by the ornaments on the bishop's harness, and is trampled. The soldiers panic, one runs the grieving mother through with his lance. There is horror on the streets of England's capital. In this scene, Gytha first lays eyes on Bishop Odo. 

I'm giving no secrets away when I say that Gytha and Odo fall in love, but theirs is no straight-forward story, and I'll say no more about that, for it would spoil the enjoyment for anyone new to this book. Bower takes a scene from the tapestry (show below) in which an unknown woman, Ælfgyva, appears with a 'certain cleric' and comes up with an interesting reason for the inclusion of the scene.

Ubi unus clericus et Ælfgyva

This is an almost completely fictional tale, and I don't mind that. If I'm told at the outset that a book is a work of fiction, I'm quite happy to judge it as such. The setting is authentic and Bower has clearly done her research. If you want to know why this book has divided readers, look no further than the reviews on a well-known online retailer - the main concerns are the use of the third person present tense, and the lack of narrative structure.

It is a clever book. I read it many years ago and I don't recall the use of the present tense bothering me, particularly. Sometimes it is just a bit too clever, but there are many passages where the writing, and the insight, are sublime.

At one point, Gytha lies awake, unable to sleep as the wind picks up, remembering how the sound of her father checking the salt pans and barrels in the yard on stormy nights used to be comforting. That passage resonated with me; don't we all sometimes wish we were young again, with grown-ups watching out for us - why should eleventh-century folk be any different in that regard?
"When Odo is with her, she loves stormy nights, secure in his arms, curtained and cosseted. Even when he gets up, to check for broken shutters and fallen branches or calm his horses, the feeling of safety stays with her. Her father used to do the same; several times a night on rough nights she would hear...her parents whispering together, clothes rustling  and the creak of hinges as he went out ..." 
I found the book challenged me, because I am anti-Norman, and could not understand why on earth Gytha would become so enamoured of Odo. It dared me to alter my perception and by the end, I had begun to understand, a little, at least, the attraction between the two of them.

Reviewers have expressed surprise at the portrayal of Archbishop Lanfranc, but I had no difficulty in believing in him as a villain - probably my anti-Norman bias again - even though he perhaps strays onto the pantomime stage from time to time.

This is not an easy read; the flashbacks sneak up on you so you have to concentrate. But it is a brave book, a strong book, and quite different from a lot of historical fiction. The detail about how the 'tapestry' was constructed is fascinating, and, I'm sure, accurately portrayed.

As for the suppositions, well, Bower claims artistic licence, and why not? As with so many other periods of history, with no-one to ask, we can only wonder, 'what if'...

It is a 'Marmite' kind of book, I suspect. But if you are interested in this period of history, give it a try. Even if you don't find that you love it, I think you will admire the author's accomplished way with words, and the different approach to novel writing. You will be immersed in period detail, and you will emerge enriched.

[A word of warning - the language in this book is often x-rated and at times very explicit.] 

Tuesday, 26 September 2017

Historical Fantasy 24 Hours ~ Catherine of Aragon's Wedding

I asked a group of talented writers and historians to imagine their 'Fantasy Twenty-Four Hours.' I placed no restrictions on time period, place, or format, save that they must go back in time. 

This month it's the turn of writer and historian Susan Abernethy. Journey with her as she attends the wedding of Catherine of Aragon to Prince Arthur...


The Wedding of Arthur Tudor, Prince of Wales and Catherine of Aragon
By Susan Abernethy

It was hard to decide what day to witness in history but I ended up going back to the era that got me interested in history to begin with.  There are many monumental days in the Tudor era but this event is significant for the early days of the Tudor dynasty, allowing Henry VII to gain entrée into the great ruling houses of Europe, defuse any Yorkist plotting against his regime, secure allies and make an impression on his subjects.

Arthur, Prince of Wales

About mid-morning on November 14, 1501, Catherine of Aragon emerged from the Archbishop of Canterbury’s palace of Lambeth and walked along a wide blue carpet escorted by Arthur’s brother, Prince Henry who was dressed in silver tissue embroidered with gold roses.  She made her way past various English and Spanish nobility who were lavishly dressed for the occasion.   Catherine’s dress was made of white satin, pleated in the Spanish style and embroidered with pearls and gold thread.  Under the dress were hoops called farthingales, the first ever seen in England.  She wore a white silk veil that fell to her waist and had a border of gold and precious stones.  Her hair was loose, hanging over her shoulders symbolizing virginity.

Portrait thought to be of 11-year-old Catherine.

Catherine and Prince Henry arrived at the west door of Old St. Paul’s Cathedral.  (This is another reason I would enjoy the scene as I would be able to see Old St. Paul’s before it burned down in the Great Fire of London in 1660.)  An elevated walkway had been constructed from the door to the altar so everyone could witness the proceedings.  It was six hundred feet long and covered with red carpet which had been tacked down with gilded nails.  King Henry and Queen Elizabeth observed the wedding ceremony from a small closet inside the cathedral behind lattice windows.  The walls of the cathedral were covered mostly in tapestries.  Under the rose window, surrounding the high altar, was a display of gold plate, ornaments and relics encrusted with precious stones.

The family of Henry VII, depicted on an illuminated page.

The bride and Prince Henry processed slowly down the walkway.  At the high altar where the ceremony was to take place, a round stage had been built that gave the effect of looking like a mountain.  Arthur entered the cathedral from a side door and appeared on the stage, also dressed in white satin.  He was surrounded by the Archbishop of Canterbury, eighteen bishops and attendants dressed in colored silks and cloth of gold.  Henry turned the bride over to his brother.

The bishops celebrated the nuptial mass which lasted for three hours.  After mass, the newlyweds knelt to receive the blessing of the King and Queen.  They turned in every direction toward the crowd holding hands.  After a celebratory mass and refreshments, Arthur left as he had come in by the side entrance.

Portrait, either of Mary Tudor c1514,
or of Catherine c1502

Catherine and Henry returned to the west door along the raised walkway.  As they came out, they were greeted by a green mountain covered in precious metals.  This was meant to signify King Henry VII’s kingship, his Rich Mount (Richmond).  At the top of the mountain there were three trees and in front of the trees stood three kings dressed in armor.  In the middle was King Arthur flanked by the kings of Spain and France.  From Arthur’s tree, which was covered in red roses, a wild dragon emerged.  From the mountain’s core a spring of wine flowed.  Catherine and Henry watched as the crowd filed through a gate to the fountain to drink.  Trumpets blared and the crowd shouted King Henry and Prince Arthur’s names.  The entire wedding party made their way to Lambeth Palace where there was a grand, sumptuous feast and a formal bedding of the newlyweds.

Tapestry depicting the court of Arthur & Catherine

It must have been a magnificent sight.  This day was perhaps the greatest triumph of diplomacy and foreign relations for King Henry VII, demonstrating recognition of the new Tudor dynasty by a continental power.  It was also a glimpse into the future.  Catherine’s gallant escort, Prince Henry, would marry her in June of 1509 after he became King Henry VIII.

Young Henry VIII after his coronation

Sources:  “Arthur Tudor Prince of Wales:  Life, Death and Commemoration” edited by Steven Gunn and Linda Monckton, “Winter King:  Henry VII and the Dawn of Tudor England” by Thomas Penn, “The Sisters of Henry VIII” by Maria Perry, “Elizabeth of York:  A Tudor Queen and Her World” by Alison Weir, “Elizabeth of York: The Forgotten Tudor Queen” by Amy Licence


Susan can’t remember a time when she didn’t love history. At the age of fourteen, she watched “The Six Wives of Henry VIII” on TV and was enthralled. Truth seemed much more strange than fiction. She started reading about Henry VIII and then branched out into many types of history. This even led her to study history in college. Even though she never did anything with the history degree, it’s always been a hobby of hers. She started her blog to write about her thoughts on all kinds of history from Ancient times to mid-20th Century.
Find her blog, The Freelance History WriterHERE

Monday, 18 September 2017

The Indomitable Nicholaa de la Haye

Some of you will know that I am busily researching for an upcoming history of Mercia, to be published by Amberley. This week I am delighted to turn the blog over to another Amberley author, Sharon Bennett Connolly, whose book, Heroines of the Medieval World, has just been published. 


2017 marked the 800th anniversary of the Battle of Lincoln, when a French force besieging Lincoln Castle were defeated by an army led by the great William Marshal himself. At the time, the defence of the castle was being led by one of the most remarkable people of medieval history; Nicholaa de la Haye.

Almost forgotten by history, Nicholaa was not some fresh-faced beauty in need of rescue, when the French came knocking at the door. She was a mature woman in her 60s and the highly experienced castellan of Lincoln Castle. A formidable matriarch if ever there was one.

Observatory Tower, Lincoln Castle

And it wasn’t even her first siege. Nicholaa was probably born sometime in the early 1150s, she was the eldest daughter of Richard de la Haye, a minor Lincolnshire lord, and his wife, Matilda de Verdun. When her father died in 1169, Nicholaa inherited his lands in Lincolnshire and his position as castellan of Lincoln Castle, a position she would hold for over 30 years.

Nicholaa was married twice, her husbands successively holding the position of Castellan at Lincoln by right of Nicholaa. Her first husband was William Fitz Erneis, who died in 1178. However, before 1185 she was married again, this time Gerard de Camville, son of Richard de Camville, admiral of Richard I’s crusading fleet during the Third Crusade. Although her first marriage was probably childless, Nicholaa and Gerard had at least 3 children; Richard, Thomas and Matilda.

Nicholaa first comes to the attention of the chroniclers in 1191, when Prince John made a play for his brother Richard’s throne. Gerard de Camville was a supporter of John and joined him at Nottingham Castle, leaving Nicholaa to hold Lincoln. Richard I’s Chancellor, William Longchamps, had headed north to halt John’s coup and laid siege to Lincoln Castle. The formidable Nicholaa refused to yield, successfully holding out for 40 days before Longchamps gave up the siege following the fall of the castles at Tickhill and Nottingham. In 1194, on King Richard’s return to England, Camville was stripped of his positions as Sheriff of Lincolnshire and Castellan of the castle; only having it returned to him on the accession of King John in 1199.

Tree carving of Nicholaa de la Haye, Lincoln Castle

Nicholaa was widowed for a second time when Gerard de Camville died around 1215. It seems, however, that the castle remained in her more-than-capable hands.

On one of King John’s visits to inspect the castle’s defences in either 1215 or 1216 there was a rather dramatic display of fealty from Nicholaa:
And once it happened that after the war King John came to Lincoln and the said Lady Nicholaa went out of the eastern gate of the castle carrying the keys of the castle in her hand and met the king and offered the keys to him as her lord and said she was a woman of great age and was unable to bear such fatigue any longer and he besought her saying, “My beloved Nicholaa, I will that you keep the castle as hitherto until I shall order otherwise”. [1]
Nicholaa’s greatest hour came shortly after the death of King John, but as a result of the late king’s tyrannical actions. As we all know, King John’s reign wasn’t exactly smooth sailing. He lost his French lands and was held to account by the barons of England for numerous examples of maladministration, corruption and outright murder. In 1215 he had been forced to seal the Magna Carta in order to avoid war. However, within months John had written to Pope Innocent III and the charter had been declared null and void; the barons were up in arms.

The rebel barons invited the king of France to take the throne of England; Philip II wasn’t interested but his son, Louis (the future Louis VIII), accepted the offer and was hailed as King of England in London in June of 1216.

As Louis consolidated his position in the south, John made an inspection of Lincoln castle in September 1216. During the visit Nicholaa de la Haye, who held the castle for John, even though the city supported the rebels, was appointed Sheriff of Lincolnshire in her own right. Moving south, just 2 weeks later, the king’s baggage train was lost as he crossed the Wash estuary and within a few more days John was desperately ill. He died at Newark on 19th October 1216, with half his country occupied by a foreign invader and his throne now occupied by his 9-year-old son, Henry III.

The elder statesman and notable soldier William Marshal, Earl of Pembroke was appointed Regent and set out to save the kingdom.

Meanwhile, Louis’ forces, under the Comte du Perche, headed north and, in early 1217, took the City of Lincoln and surrounded the castle, laying siege to it with a small force. Although in her 60s, Nicholaa de la Haye took charge of the defences and refused to be daunted by her position. When Prince Louis personally travelled north to Lincoln to ask for her surrender, he assured her no one would be hurt, but Nicholaa refused to yield. When the small force proved insufficient to force a surrender, the French had to send for reinforcements. For almost 3 months – from March to mid-May – siege machinery bombarded the south and east walls of the castle.

West Gate, Lincoln Castle

However, the loyal English forces were not going to leave a woman to the mercy of a siege for long and the regent, William Marshal, organised a force to march to Nicholaa’s relief. The English commanders included William Marshal, earl of Pembroke, his son, Young William Marshal, and nephew, John Marshal, in addition to Ranulph, Earl of Chester, Wiliam Longspee, earl of Salisbury, Peter des Roches, bishop of Winchester, and Faulkes de Breauté. They led 406 knights, 317 crossbowmen and a large number of sergeants-at-arms, foot soldiers and camp followers. The enemy forces in Lincoln were led by Thomas, Comte de Perche, himself a grandson of Henry II’s daughter Matilda and therefore a cousin of King Henry III; the commanders, of the English rebels in the city included Robert FitzWalter and Saer de Quincey. They led over 600 knights and several thousand infantry.

Having mustered at Newark, Marshal’s forces marched on Lincoln, using a roundabout route; crossing the River Trent they came upon the city from the north in the early morning of 20th May. He made a rousing speech before the battle, telling his men: “Now listen, my lords! There is honour and glory to be won here…” [2]

On seeing the arrival of Marshal’s forces, Nicholaa sent her deputy to the regent, who returned with Peter des Roches, secretly entering the castle by a postern gate, in order to inform Nicholaa of Marshal’s plans, and then sneaked into the city to do a little reconnaissance. Des Roches discovered a heavily barricaded gate in the city wall, which Marshal’s forces proceeded to knock through in a few hours. Splitting his forces, Faulke de Breaute was sent into the castle with his crossbowmen, entering through a postern gate, he positioned his men on the walls and proceeded to rain a fire of bolts on the besiegers. The Earl of Chester was sent to attack the North Gate as William Marshal’s men attacked the newly-cleared gate.

It’s not hard to imagine Nicholaa standing on the castle’s walkway, watching the battle unfold, relieved that help had arrived, but desperate for victory.

The hardest fighting took place in the ground between the castle and cathedral; with the enemy’s commander, the Comte du Perche, killed in front of the cathedral itself. And with the death of their leader, the French and rebel barons lost heart and started pulling back. They fled downhill, to the south of the city. Although they briefly rallied, making an uphill assault, but the battle was lost and there was a bottleneck at the South Gate and the bridge across the Witham as the enemy forces fled. The rebel leaders, Saer de Quincey and Robert FitzWalter were both taken prisoner, as were many others. In total, about half of the enemy knights surrendered.

The city, which had supported the rebels and welcomed the French, was sacked and looted by the victorious army; the battle becoming known as the Lincoln Fair, as a result.

The Battle of Lincoln turned the tide of the war. The French were forced to seek peace and eventually returned home. Magna Carta was reissued and Henry III’s regents could set about healing the country.

In a magnificent demonstration of total ingratitude, within four days of the relief of the Castle, Nicholaa was relieved of her position as Sheriff of Lincolnshire. The post was, instead, given to the king’s uncle William Longspée, Earl of Salisbury, who took control of the city and seized the castle.

Not one to give up easily, however, Nicholaa travelled to court to remind the king’s regents of her services, and request her rights be restored to her. Eventually a compromise was reached whereby Salisbury remained as Sheriff of the County, while Nicholaa held the city and her beloved castle.

A staunchly independent woman, Nicholaa issued some 25 surviving charters in her name. She made grants to various religious houses, including Lincoln Cathedral, and even secured a royal grant for a weekly market on one of her properties.

Lincoln Knights' Sculpture of Nicolaa, Lincoln East Gate

A most able adversary for some of the greatest military minds of the time, and a loyal supporter of King John, she was unique among her peers. The chroniclers were full of praise for Nicholaa de la Haye, but seemed to have difficulty in finding the right adjectives for such an incredible; the Dunstable annals refer to her as a ‘noble woman’, saying she acted ‘manfully’. Richard of Devizes said of her first defence of Lincoln Castle, against William Longchamps, that she did it ‘without thinking of anything womanly’.

One cannot fail to feel admiration for a woman who managed to hold her own in a man’s world, who fought for her castle and her home in a time when women had so little say over their own lives – and at such an advanced age. Her bravery and tenacity saved Henry III’s throne.

Not surprisingly, Henry III referred to her as ‘our beloved and faithful Nicholaa de la Haye’.

Nicholaa de la Haye, the woman who saved England, lived well into her 70s. By late 1226 she had retired to her manor at Swaton, dying there in 1230. She was buried in St Michael’s Church, Swaton in Lincolnshire. Nicholaa’s granddaughte, Idonea – daughter of her eldest son Richard and married to Salisbury’s son, William II Longspée - inherited the de la Haye and Camville lands on Nicholaa’s death

Footnotes: ¹Irene Gladwin: The Sheriff; The Man and His Office; ²Histoire de Guillaume le Maréschal translated by Stewart Gregory.


Sources: The Plantagenet Chronicles edited by Elizabeth Hallam; Brassey’s Battles by John Laffin; 1215 The Year of Magna Carta by Danny Danziger & John Gillingham; The Life and times of King John by Maurice Ashley; The Story of Britain by Roy Strong; The Plantagenets, the Kings Who Made England by Dan Jones; England Under the Norman and Angevin Kings by Robert Bartlett;;;;;; The Sheriff: The Man and His Office by Irene Gladwin; Elizabeth Chadwick; Nick Buckingham;


Thank you so much for this wonderfully informative post, Sharon!
Sharon's book, Heroines of the Medieval World is available now, and features a chapter on my favourite heroine, The Lady of the Mercians, as well as Nicolaa, Eleanor of Aquitaine, and many others.

Wednesday, 13 September 2017

English Place Names

I often drive through a town or village and wonder about its name. There are some strange ones out there - Chapel-en-le-Frith, Stoke Poges, Egremont, Kingston Bagpuize, Ashby de la Zouch... 

Also odd are the ones that aren't pronounced anything like they should be. Happisburgh in Norfolk, for example. Yep, that's right, it's pronounced Hazeburra. Oh I know, let's not even get started on the boroughs, and burghs, some of which are pronounced burra, and some bruff! (Although I shall return to them later and maybe clear up the confusion.)

With a lot of place-names, it's easy to break them down into their constituent parts and work out what they mean.

The OE (Old English) place names seem to be are straightforward. In an earlier blog post about Wulfric Spott I mentioned his mother, Wulfrun, who gave her name to Wolverhampton.

Her personal name forms the first part of the town name, and the rest consists of ham and ton:~

Ham = farm, settlement, homestead (ON Toft) but we'll see that this is not quite so straightforward...

Ton = enclosure

So it would seem that many place names contain elements of OE or ON (Old Norse) which are simply words to denote topographical or geographical features.

Wic (OE)/By (ON) = market

Thorpe - secondary settlement
Leigh/ley (OE) = woodland clearing- so my fictional village of Ashleigh in Alvar the Kingmaker is 'clearing in the ash forest'
Thwaite (ON) = clearing in Old Norse
Ing (OE) = people

As you can see, the above village name has the elements ing and ham. Great Massingham is in Norfolk. In Cumbria there are a lot of place names with ON origins : Kirkby Lonsdale, Kirkby Thore, Seathwaite.

So far, so straightforward. But all is not as it seems. In her Signposts to the Past, Margaret Gelling dispels a lot of the accepted thinking.

To go back to the element ham:~ Another OE word was hamm, which was not connected. Kingsholme near Gloucester does not mean king’s home, but Kyngeshamme, a water meadow on the royal estate.
“The uncompounded name Ham offers no problems, as it always derives from the topographical term hamm, which has been considered to mean ‘land in a river (bed), promontory, dry ground in a marsh, river-meadow. It may be used on its own, as in East and West Ham, or in a first element, as in some instances of Hampton, but it occurs most frequently as a final element. The habitative term hām, (village, estate) is not used as a simplex place-name and only occurs as a first element if the name derives form a compound appellative like hāmtūn, hāmstede.”

Another pair of similar words which cause trouble are būr (bower) and burh (fort) - and we need to distinguish beorg, from burh, and its dative byrig. Had they been differentiated in Middle English beorg would give berrow or barrow, and burh would mostly give borough while byrig would give bury. Archaeological evidence is needed in these cases to establish exactly how the place-names developed.

Burh can mean not only a hill fort but also a defended manor house as well as the later 'town'.

In the country as a whole, Bury is more common than Borough, Burgh or Brough. The OE final -h could develop into -f in pronunciation but not spelling, as in laugh and tough, and this led to burh becoming Burf as in Abdon Burf, and sometime Berth.

Later on there are instances of byrig meaning manor house:~ Bibury, from Beage, daughter of Leppa, and burh meaning monastery. In the case of Fladbury, this is probably derived from Flæde’s byrig, possibly a manor house built by a widow.
In the case of the element ing, it had always been assumed that newcomers took what land they chose, and that places such as Hastings (followers of Hæsta) and Reading (followers of Réad) were believed to mark those settlements. But Gelling says these were not 'primary settlement' place-names but actually came much later.

Ing sometimes has no filial relationship at all – Clavering in Essex comes about from the element ing being added to clœfre (clover) to give place where the clover grows. The same construction applies to Docking in Norfolk, from docce, the place where dock grows.

There has been a suggestion in recent times that some names came about because the Anglo-Saxons settlers mispronounced the Celtic names they discovered, much as the English in WWI pronounced Ypres as Wipers. Gelling is not convinced that the newcomers had such poor linguistic skills, and she points out that this was not the fate of all the Celtic place names.

Some tun names might have come about because of the Mercian administrators who might have been in the habit of describing places which had Celtic names as the ea-tun (river settlement) and that these names eventually stuck, but this is only a theory.

Where the Celtic, or Pre-Celtic names have been preserved, it is largely in the names of rivers. 

The use of the word walh to mean slave is probably a misconception, and it's more likely that it means ‘a Celt’; however, the reality is that most slaves would have been (descendants) of British who had that status under the Romans. 

The seventh-century king of the Magonsæte, who appears in my latest novel, Cometh the Hour was Merewalh, which has been translated as 'famous Welshman'. That being accepted, it seems unlikely that walh meant 'slave'. 

If the Angles and Saxons had problems with the place-names they encountered, the same was certainly true of the Norman invaders.

The initial sound Y was a problem for the Normans, so Yarrow became Jarrow, Yesmond became Jesmond. These are fairly easy to spot once armed with the knowledge that the letter was not in use in the Anglo-Saxon alphabet. So too the letter Z, which appears in names such as Belsize.

The initial sound in words such as thorn was unknown to the Normans, and they replaced it with T so that Tilsworth probably would have developed into Thilsworth had the conquest not happened.

Wic, the element identified as meaning market, was borrowed from Latin vicus. Before it was used as salt-working centre and ‘dairy farm’, it might have been used by the earliest English speaking people to refer to Romano-British settlements, or to Roman administrative units.

Gelling points out that more than 75% of the instances of places called wīchām were situated directly on or not more than a mile from a major Roman Road.

Often  tūn (ton) developed where an estate was once part of a larger demesne. An estate given to a thegn named Wulfgar came over time to be called Aughton (Aeffe’s estate, Aeffe being Wulfgar’s widow. Likewise an estate granted to Sibba becomes Sibton. Some ton names are more general, Preston (priests), Charlton, (ceorla-ton, enclosure of the the ceorls).

Grim is a nickname for Woden, but not all Grims- are of this origin. Grimr was a common ON personal name. So we cannot assume that all Grims are the devil.

And speaking of personal names, they aren’t all. Whitchurch could be Hwīta’s church, but it could also simply be the white church. 

Another key place in my new novel is Oswestry, universally believed to have developed from Oswald's tree, the site of his killing. But Warburton developed from Wærburg’s farm or estate, where the religious house was dedicated to St Werburgh, probably because the name suggested it, and the same logic should, according to Gelling, be applied to Oswestry, where the dedication of St Oswald probably arose from a place name which did not originally refer to the saint.

Sometimes the ON and OE elements are hard to differentiate.
Brunum or Brunnum in ON corresponds to burna (OE), which gives us the modern burn. Similarly, Lythe could be from ON lith, (slope) or from OE hlith, with the same meaning.

Beck - ON

But there are some words which have no English cognate. Going back to Cumbria we find Wasdale and Watendlath, containing vatn (lake,) Fossdale containing fors (waterfall,) and thveit, (thwaite -clearing.)

Many Scandinavian settlement names of eastern England can be divided into three main categories -by, -thorp, and those combined with English tun combined with a Norse personal name.

PH Sawyer argued that Norse place-names did not denote the settlements of a victorious army, but more likely inferior land. Older villages were probably already on the best sites.
Alford, for example, is much larger than the surrounding places with -by and -thorpe names.

Kirby/Kirkby generally denotes a church village, and is usually borne by places with desirable locations and it is likely that it replaces an older English, or perhaps Celtic name. It might have simply been that kirkby was an appellative applied to any village with a noteworthy church.

Mitchelgate (gate=ON gata - road) in Kirkby Lonsdale

Moving into the the post-Conquest era brings us the wonderful place-names such as Ashby de la Zouch and Egremont. But many of the French names were just stereo-typical descriptions, giving us beautiful seat, beautiful place, beautiful hill. (Belvoir, Beaulieu, Beauvale, Beaumont)

So, next time you drive past a place-name sign, don't assume the obvious; there may be more to the story of the name than meets the eye... 

Wednesday, 6 September 2017

Anglo-Saxons in the Scottish Court: Joining up the Dots

Often, fiction has been the lure for me to explore aspects of history which take me sideways, rather than back or forth from my favourite period.

I was reading Queen Hereafter, by Susan Fraser King, which tells the story of Margaret of Scotland. She was English, a member of the Anglo-Saxon royal house whose rule was brought to an abrupt end by the events of 1066. This blog post was going to be a review, but events took a turn which means it has become an adventure, too...

Of the book itself, I can say that it is an accomplished exploration of Margaret's life, thoroughly researched, with credible dialogue and a good sense of time and place. 

The description of the Scottish locations was brilliantly done, and the indoor scenes were beautifully painted. I finished the book feeling glad that I had read it, and that's always a good sign.

I had two tiny niggles: the slight reliance on the past historic tense - she wore, she sat - left me musing that the use of the past imperfect - she was sitting - would give some of the scenes more immediacy and leave the reader feeling a little less detached from the scene being laid out for them. And, occasionally, characters explain, for the benefit of the reader, things which the other character would already know, but this at least shows that the author has done her stuff. I felt safe that I was learning historical facts, that the fiction was woven on a solid frame of truth.

Margaret is portrayed as fervently religious. Reading the book, I wondered if the authors' suggestion is that she was an obsessive compulsive? If so, it's an interesting proposition. Margaret was certainly revered for her religious observance, but on the other hand, was there anything inherently untoward about someone being devout, in those times?

Margaret arriving in Scotland - attribution

I love it when things all fall into place - and it was at this point that they did so, spectacularly. At the same moment as I began reading the chapter in which Margaret arrives at Dunfermline, I found out that our summer holiday booking was for Fife, in Scotland, and we were going to be staying just a few miles outside Dunfermline, where Margaret was buried.

The medieval abbey, founded by Margaret
and rebuilt by her son, David

Margaret's grandfather was Edmund Ironside, the son of Æthelred the Unready who fought, and nearly beat, Cnut. When Cnut became king, Edmund's son, Edward, was exiled, and Margaret was born in Hungary. 

In 1057 her father was recalled to England, being the heir to Edward the Confessor, who was childless and, at this stage, it seemed inevitable that he would remain so. However, Margaret's father died almost immediately upon arrival in England. Her brother, Edgar, became a figurehead for uprising in the aftermath of the Battle of Hastings. Margaret, her siblings, and their mother fled north, initially to Northumbria.

There is some dispute as to when and how they ended up in Scotland. The chronicler Simeon of Durham recorded in 1070 that "King Malcolm, with the consent of his relatives, took in marriage Edgar's sister, Margaret, a woman noble by royal ascent." Others place the date of Margaret and Edgar's arrival in Scotland as 1068.

Malcom Canmore's Tower - Pittencrieff Park, Dunfermline 

What I did know about Margaret was that she was canonised, for her piety, charity and strict observance of the Catholic faith. I had never really joined up the dots though, for her new husband, Malcolm III, also known as Malcolm Canmore, is the same Malcolm who appears in that Scottish play ~ it was this Malcolm who slew Macbeth.

A statue of Margaret in the cave where she
is known to have prayed

The descendants of Malcolm III and Margaret dominated the Scottish monarchy for the next two hundred years, although their reigns were not without challenges.

Malcolm's own journey to the throne was a bloody one. The Annals of England and Ireland are in agreement that Macbeth was put to flight by Malcolm in 1054, and later sources agreed with Shakespeare that this battle took place at Dunsinan. Malcolm killed Macbeth near Aberdeen, at Lumphanan on 15th August 1057, and I just happened to be at Malcolm's power base of Dunfermline/Edinburgh on 15th August this year, 960 years later!

It's a possibility that although Macbeth was killed, his army might in fact have been victorious, because Malcolm was still not considered king.

Macbeth at Dunsinane - John Martin
(Public Domain image)

Macbeth's stepson, Lulach, reigned for a short while but was also killed by Malcolm. The Chronicle of Melrose reported that "[Lulach] fell by the arms of the same Malcolm. The man met his fate at Essie, in Strathbogie."

Even so, Malcolm's slaying of Macbeth and Lulach did not eradicate all rivals to the Scottish throne. The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle's entry for 1078 tells us that "In this year King Malcolm captured the mother of Maelslæta and all his best men, and all his treasures, and his live-stock, and he himself escaped with difficulty."

Maelslæta, or Máel Snechtai, was Lulach's son, and was, according to the Irish Annals, the king of Moray. These same annals record, enigmatically, that Malcolm's son Donald, by his first wife, died 'unhappily' in 1085. Was this retribution for the attack on Máel Snechtai?

Malcolm and his eldest son by Margaret, Edward, were killed at the Battle of Alnwick in 1093, fighting against Robert de Mowbray, Earl of Northumbria, and it seems that Margaret died of a broken heart, just a few months later.

Her relics drew huge numbers of pilgrims to Dunfermline abbey until the Reformation, 'when heretics stole into the Kingdome, trampled underfoot all divine and human lawes and seized the sacred moveables on [Dunfermline] Church.'

Margaret's Shrine

Margaret is best-known for her piety, and her 'reform' of the Celtic Church in Scotland. This is what I knew of her. Somehow I didn't ever really put her together with Malcolm Canmore, Edmund Ironside, and Shakespeare's Macbeth. Nor, perhaps, had I not read Fraser King's novel, would I have taken quite such an interest in the town of Dunfermline when I visited. Well, I probably would've done, because it's a fabulous place for history fans. Watch out for an EHFA (English Historical Fiction Authors) post about Dunfermline in the near future.

[all photos by and copyright of the author]