A wonderfully executed, richly-developed historical novel!
Readers who enjoy tightly written, compelling story-telling with deeply engaging characters are in for a real treat with Mercedes Rochelle’s Godwine Kingmaker: Part One of The Last Great Saxon Earls. This is historical fiction in the grand tradition of Hope Muntz’s The Golden Warrior and Mary Stewart’s and T. H. White’s Arthurian sagas.
Godwine, an18-year-old Saxon sheepherder, accidentally meets and then befriends a marauding Danish nobleman whom he finds lost and wandering in the thick forest near his Wiltshire home. That friendship changes forever not only Godwine’s life, but the history of England as well.
Mercedes Rochelle takes us back into the dim past, almost before recorded history, when the nation we now know as England was being forged in the fiery crucible of war and treachery. Six hundred years before, invading Saxons had overrun England when the Roman Empire collapsed. Now the Saxons had gone from being conquerors to conquered as incessant waves of ferocious Danes and Norwegian Vikings attacked, plundered, and eventually settled in England, carving out a new kingdom for themselves in blood.
Godwine’s father, Wulfnoth, Thegn of Sussex, former commander of the Saxon King Aethelred’s fleet. had been wrongly betrayed and disgraced. Absent a father’s influence, Godwine’s ambition causes him to pledge his loyalty to his new Danish friend, Ulf, and to Ulf’s lord, the Danish king Canute the Great. Through his skill in war and politics, Godwine rises steadily in authority. Within 20 years he has become Earl of Wessex, one of the richest and most powerful men in England. Lacking royal blood, he cannot aspire to the kingship. But he does dream of the time when one of his fiercely competitive sons, Swegn, Harold, or Tostig, might unite England under a Saxon king.
In Godwine Kingmaker, the past becomes alive. Rochelle lets you walk around London and Winchester a thousand years ago. And for many readers, this is our distant past. Here’s the account of the Winter Solstice celebration that has now become our Christmas.
Inside the great hall … the carved Jul log was sprinkled with mead and decorated with dry sprigs of pine and cones. As it was lit, musicians plucked the strings of their harps and started the singing. Soon the hall was echoing with laughter … the children filled their shoes with straw, carrots, and sugar lumps and set them out by the fire to feed Odin’s flying eight-legged horse Sleipnir. … In return, Odin wold leave the children small gifts and sweets as a reward.
The more I research, the better I understand that what goes on behind the scenes is just as important as the high-profile episodes defining a king’s reign. So naturally, I was thrilled to discover “The Royal Household and the King’s Affinity: Service, Politics and Finance in England 1360-1413” by Chris Given-Wilson; this book brought me as close to the 14th century court as a layperson could hope to get. I’m highlighting the book’s major components, for there is a lot to learn here and I’d like to emphasize the parts that I found critical to my understanding. The author tells us that the king’s permanent staff numbered between 400-700 members, though when you add in the servants of the senior household officers, the foreign dignitaries with their staff, guests and hangers-on, the number of people at court could easily have surpassed 1000. That’s a lot of mouths to feed!
Bear in mind that in this period the king did not have a permanent address. King Richard tended to use residences within thirty miles of London, and he would typically stay in one place for maybe two weeks up to two months. Favored palaces were Windsor, Ethan and Sheen. Other royal houses included Havering, King’s Langley, Clarendon, Easthamstead, Woodstock, Henley-on-the-Heath, Kennigton and Berkhamstead. Richard also favored spending a few nights along the way at religious houses—at the monasteries’ expense; perhaps this gave the Exchequer some breathing space! All this moving around meant his household servants considered travel, or “removing”, as a regular part of everyday life. But when you add up all that went with the move—”many hundreds of horses, and a massive store of baggage: crockery and cutlery, hangings, furnishings, clothes and weaponry, wax, wine and storage vessels, parchment and quills, weights, measures, and so on”—the concept is staggering to the modern mind.
As laid out in the reign of King Stephen, the household was divided up into five main departments as depicted below.There were changes along the way, but I found this chart to be most helpful (before the mid-14th century, the Chancellor had detached itself from the chamber and kept a separate office). In Richard II’s time, the five chief officers of the household were the Steward, the Chamberlain, the Controller, the Keeper of the Wardrobe (or treasurer), and the Cofferer. The Steward was responsible “for the efficient running, discipline, and general organization” of the king’s household. The Chamberlain had overall charge of the chamber; he controlled written and personal access to the king. Both of these officers were the king’s close personal friends, and both were probably of equal status. Naturally they were incredibly powerful, but often contemporaries believed that they abused their position to enrich themselves and gave bad advice to the king; Sir Simon Burley, John Beauchamp of Holt, and William le Scrope paid for their royal influence with their lives. The Controller(s) kept the accounts and was responsible for “supervising purveyance, harbinging, (see below) and eating arrangements in the hall”. The Keeper of the Wardrobe was responsible to the Exchequer for all monies that passed through the household. The Cofferer was the deputy to the Keeper, and held the keys to the money box.
Each great office had its lesser servants: “they were not just ‘valets’ or ‘garcons’ but ‘valets of the buttery’ or ‘garcons of the sumpterhorses’ and so forth.” Each job was departmentalized, apparently with little cross-over. “By far the largest department of the household was the marshalsea, or avenary (to be distinguished from the Marshalsea Court) which throughout this period employed at least 100 valets and grooms, and sometimes nearer 200.”
Most of the household servants traveled with the king, though a large group went ahead to prepare the way. The 30-40 harbingers‘ job was to requisition lodgings for everyone; the nine purveyors commandeered supplies within the verge (12 mile radius from the king’s actual presence). “Then came the king himself, preceded by his thirty sergeants-at-arms and twenty-four foot-archers marching in solemn procession, surrounded by his knights, esquires and clerks as well as any other friends or guests who happened to be staying at court, and followed by all the remaining servants of the household, driving and pulling the horses and carts which carried the massive baggage-store.” With luck, the itinerary was planned several weeks or months in advance or else the king would have to lower his standard of living.
The purveyors had a particularly difficult job, for their activities were almost always a bone of contention. They rarely paid in cash; instead, they often gave the long-suffering supplier a note to be cashed at the exchequer—when the funds were available, that is. The supplier could wait months to get paid, if he got paid at all. And what are the purveying offices? “The Pantry, or bakehouse, for corn and bread; the Buttery, for wine and beer; the Kitchen, for all food not covered by other offices; the Poultery, for poultry, game-birds, and eggs; the Stables (or avenary, or marshalsea), for hay, oats and litter for the horses; the Saucery, for salt and whatever was needed for sauces; the Hall and Chamber, for coal and wood for heating, and rushes; the Scullery, for crockery, cutlery, storage vessels, and coal and wood for cooking; and the Spicery, for spices, wax, soap, parchment, and quills.”
It’s hard to get our hands around the everyday living arrangements of the king’s servants, but the author likened the king’s residence to the “upstairs and downstairs”. The chamber was the upstairs (quite literally) and the hall was the downstairs (where the servants congregated). The king would descend to the hall and feast communally during banquets and ceremonial occasions, but for the rest of the time he would be secluded in his chamber with his intimates. Edward III had taken to building private apartments for his high-ranking officers and guests. As for the bottom end of the household, “meals were served in the hall in two shifts…it was forbidden to remove food from the hall.” It seems pretty certain that the servants slept anywhere they could: “those who did not sleep in the hall probably distributed themselves around the passageways and vestibules, huddled in winter around the great fireplaces, lying on their straw mats (pallets) which may have been single or double.” Four sergeants-at-arms slept outside the king’s door and a further 26 slept in the hall. “No member of the household staff was to keep a wife or other woman at court”, though prostitutes were regularly ejected.
The king’s affinity embraces his great officers of state, magnates, clerks of the royal chapel, councilors, knights, servants, retainers, and other followers. In the next post I’ll concentrate on the many layers of knights in the king’s affinity and their assorted duties.
As if writing a trilogy of historical novels about one of the most important epochs of the western world wasn’t a large enough task, Mercedes Rochelle in Sons of Godwine adds an additional challenge: Various members of the Godwine family each tell the story in their own voices.
Godwine was the founder of a dynasty in Anglo-Saxon England. Perhaps the most famous member of the family was his son, Harold, who in 1066 A.D. was barely defeated by William the Conquerer. The Anglo-Saxon loss to the Normans changed the course of history for both England and the world.
The first book in the series, Godwine Kingmaker, followed Godwine from when he was a child to become one of the most powerful men in England. Sons of Godwine continues the story of the family past his death toward the fatal battle at Hastings.
Harold, appropriately, is one of the most important voices. He comes across as a natural leader of men: charismatic, clever, and strong. As with all of us, however, he did not live in a vacuum. He had family, friends, and enemies. In this book, we see the bonds and tensions common to all families. This is especially the case with Tostig, who has ambitions of his own and, as we find out, is envious of his brother. The voices of other family members, such as brothers Leofwine and Gyrth, are also heard.
Capturing a character’s voice is one of the difficult jobs of a writer. When a character tells the story in his own words (first person), the voice must be consistent throughout, the events must be only what the character himself observes, and be unique so that, as when hearing a friend, the identity is instantly recognizable.
Rochelle has taken pains to differentiate the characters, from Harold’s strength to Tostig’s growing dissatisfaction with his brother. She does so not with melodramatic flourishes, but with subtle phrasings and the events that each character tells about. One good example is when Tostig, who is desperate to show he is in charge of his earldom, orders the hands of a group of brigands to be cut off. Is this the best option to show his authority? He thinks so. Other members of the family may have reservations.
And there is this comment from Tostig:
“I would guess the high point of Harold’s early career came when he conducted his Welsh campaign against Gruffydd ap Llewelyn. It was an altogether different kind of offensive: fighting against wild men who didn’t understand the first thing about real warfare. Harold would have had a difficult time of it, if I wasn’t there to help him.”
As always, Rochelle captures authentic history,. She shows how politics works in a time where violence, murder, and warfare are all acceptable tools for advancement. Where “natural rights” are nonexistent and entire communities can be killed for little or no reason. Where cruelty is common and accepted.
After one of his victories, Harold orders the enemy dead to be remembered by mutilating their bodies and “the men became accustomed to chopping off Welsh heads, and even made a gruesome game of it, tossing those trophies to each other rather than walking them over to the pile.”
Experiences of love and tenderness, such as many of us have known, also exist in this world. Times such as when you spend the night with a woman you love and “dawn came too quickly.” Or upon separation and one’s face shows “such a strange look” of love and pain.
And speaking of history…
One of the great unresolved questions of history is whether Harold or William had the best claim to the kingship of England. A related question concerns what was in an oath made by Harold on a trip to Normandy. Did he agree to support William?
Rochelle provides plausible answers to these questions, which I will not reveal here. The reader can form his own conclusion, as history continues its inevitable way in this continuing series.
Henry IV is one of those kings best remembered because of Shakespeare, and even there he was overshadowed by more colorful characters. But in reality, he played a pivotal role in English history; without Henry of Lancaster, the Wars of the Roses would probably never have taken place. Ian Mortimer gives us a thorough and sympathetic biography of this unfortunate man, who started out so magnificently and ended up so pathetically. It seems that the antagonism between Richard II and Henry of Bolingbroke went all the way back to their childhood; interestingly enough, they were only a few months apart in age. Richard, raised quietly in his sick father’s (the Black Prince) isolated household, never had the benefit of interacting with children his own age: “He was both lacking in confidence and extremely self-conscious.” Henry, on the other hand, had everything a noble son expected, surrounded by boisterous siblings and companions, traveling around the family estates, and of course learning skills of arms including jousting. Just before Edward III’s death, Henry was sent to court and was knighted alongside Prince Richard; he and Richard became Knights of the Garter together in 1377. But the boys never really got along, and during the Peasants Rebellion in 1381, Henry was left behind in the Tower of London while King Richard went to meet the rebels at Miles End; it was only by the quick-witted intervention of one of the tower guards that Henry didn’t meet the same grisly end as Bishop Sudbury and Treasurer Hales. Did Richard leave Henry behind to protect him, or was he indifferent to Henry’s fate?
Although Henry of Bolingbroke was one of the five Appellants who threatened Richard’s rule in 1387, his participation was late in coming and not as virulent as the other earls. In fact, he was the one who argued against Richard’s deposition with his uncle Gloucester, who coveted the crown for himself. The author tells us why: because Edward III’s missing entailment of 1376 had settled the inheritance on male descendants only—which put John of Gaunt next in line. “If Richard was deposed, the Lancastrians might lose their position in the succession forever.” The royal succession was the key to Henry and his father’s behavior, for even though Richard did everything to supplant them over the years, their position was strong and Henry would not be easily displaced. Richard thought he got rid of the problem by banishing Henry for ten years, but when he changed that sentence to banishment for life, Richard crossed the line. By dispossessing the most powerful noble in the land, the king threatened everyone. Nobody was safe from his tyranny. As far as Henry was concerned, Richard had left him no choice. Either he acted the landless exile for the rest of his life, or he would have to take his inheritance back. And the rest of the barons were on his side. Once Henry invaded England, he had no choice but to depose Richard. The dilemma was clear: “If he was successful, and forced Richard to restore his Lancastrian inheritance, Richard would only hate him more intensely. One day the king would seek revenge, just as Edward II had done against Thomas of Lancaster.” We know the rest of Richard’s story, but Henry was in for rude awakening: from now on, “He would have to learn for himself what it was to be a hostage to the mood of the people, especially a people who now knew they had the power to dethrone a king.” The tables were turned; Henry was to discover that criticizing a king was much easier than ruling in his stead.
Halfway through the book, we transition from Henry of Bolingbroke to Henry IV. He had all the attributes of a great king: he was the richest man in England because of his Lancastrian inheritance; he was strong and handsome; “he was the ultimate thoroughbred warrior”, respected all over Europe—although he was soon to be disappointed when few European rulers recognized him as king. And his problems at home began almost immediately. First, what was he going to do with Richard? Not three months after Henry’s coronation, the first rebellion known as the Epiphany Rising was led by nobles who sought to release King Richard from prison. The deposed king had to go, and the author believes that Henry personally ordered him starved to death. But rumors of Richard’s escape to Scotland plagued Henry for years to come. Rebellion after rebellion took their toll on both Henry’s fortune and his health, so that by the end of his fourteen-year reign, he was a broken man, scorned even by his son and heir Henry of Monmouth. Although father and son patched things up at the end, this was only after Parliament tried to wrest the power from his hands, forcing Henry to bounce back from his sickbed with almost superhuman effort and retake control of the country. He had gone through so much to keep his crown, it wasn’t possible for him to relinquish his power when his body failed him.
I found this to be a thoroughly informative book which addressed a lot of issues normally overlooked in a rush to get to the next reign. Henry IV was a powerful influence on his age, and if he hadn’t been struck down in his prime by a still unidentified disease, I believe there’s much more he would have done to bring back the monarchy to a semblance of what it was before Richard II tried his experiment in autocratic rule.
This is the third and final novel in Mercedes Rochelle’s Last Great Saxon Earls trilogy, completing the story begun in Godwine Kingmaker and The Sons of Godwine. Set in 11th century England, just before the Norman Conquest, Godwine Kingmaker told the story of Godwine, the powerful Earl of Wessex, while in The Sons of Godwine the focus switched to the Earl’s children – sons Harold, Tostig, Gyrth, Leofwine and Wulfnoth, and daughter Editha. Fatal Rivalry picks up where that book left off, describing the events leading up to the Battle of Hastings in 1066.
As the novel opens in 1064, Edward the Confessor, Editha’s husband, is still on the throne of England, but the question of his successor is on everybody’s minds. Editha’s brother Harold, who has inherited his father’s earldom of Wessex, has recently returned from Normandy, where he was made to swear an oath to support the claim of Duke William – not an oath Harold intends to keep, because he believes there is a better candidate for the throne: himself. History tells us that Harold will become king in 1066, only to be defeated by William at Hastings later that same year. Fatal Rivalry explores one theory as to why things went so disastrously wrong.
In The Sons of Godwine, we saw how Harold and his younger brother Tostig had been rivals since they were children; in this book the rivalry intensifies. As Earl of Northumbria, Tostig has become very unpopular with his people, particularly after attempting to raise taxes on Harold’s orders. When Tostig’s Northumbrian thegns rebel against him, King Edward sends Harold to negotiate with them. Seeing that the situation is hopeless, Harold agrees to their demands and Tostig is sent into exile. Unable to forgive his brother for siding against him, Tostig searches for new alliances overseas, finally joining forces with the Norwegian king, Harald Hardrada, and setting in motion a chain of events which contribute to Harold’s downfall.
Like the previous novel, this one is presented as the memoirs of the Godwineson brothers, with each one given a chance to narrate his own parts of the story. Leofwine and Gyrth have smaller roles to play, while Wulfnoth, held hostage at Duke William’s court in Normandy, makes only a few appearances – until the end, when he takes on the very important job of concluding his brothers’ stories. Understandably, it’s Harold and Tostig who get most of the attention. I’ve never read about Tostig in this much detail before and I did have some sympathy for him. I’m sure Harold was doing what he thought was in the best interests of the country, but to Tostig it must have seemed like an unforgivable betrayal, particularly when he learned that Harold had married the sister of Morcar, his replacement as Earl of Northumbria.
Fatal Rivalry is an interesting read and probably my favourite of the three books in this trilogy. Because the novel covers a relatively short period of time, it allows the author to go into a lot of detail in exploring the relationship between Harold and Tostig, the motivation behind their actions and how their rivalry could have been the reason why Harold was fighting a battle in the north of the country when William invaded from the south. I am not really a lover of battle scenes, but although there are two major battles which take place in this book – Stamford Bridge and then Senlac Hill (Hastings) – this is only one aspect of the novel and plenty of time is also spent on the more personal lives of the characters, such as Tostig’s relationship with his wife, Judith, and Harold’s marriages to Edith Swanneck and Ealdgyth of Mercia.
I think the Norman Conquest is fascinating to read about and, like many periods of history, there is so much left open to interpretation and debate. I will continue to look for more fiction set in this period and will also be interested to see what Mercedes Rochelle writes about next.
I’ve had this book on my shelves for years, waiting for the right moment to tackle it. The moment has arrived! I am doing research on Richard II, and the Peasant Revolt is a great place to start. I certainly picked up the right book; Charles Oman has given a thorough explanation of this pivotal event all the way down to the tax rolls (in the appendix, fortunately). Like most armchair historians, I knew about Wat Tyler and the London riot. What I didn’t know was that the Great Revolt extended through much of England and lasted a couple of weeks past the day Tyler was killed.
As for the revolt itself, we get a thorough description, as expected. We saw Richard’s courage in approaching the rebels: “His position had been so much changed by the fall of London, that he was now forced to take the risk of being imprisoned or even murdered by the rebels, which had seemed unnecessary on the previous day.” We saw the rioting in London and the fear of the authorities who stood helpless in the face of the insurgency. It was Richard alone who quelled the rebellion and sent many of the participants home. This was truly his greatest hour.
I always wondered about Richard’s reversal after he promised everything to the peasants: was he idealistic and later forced to recant by his uncles, or did he lie through his teeth to get out of a tight situation? Apparently, Oman thinks the king leaned toward the latter, and not without reason. Significantly, the famous line “Villeins ye are still, and villeins ye shall remain” did not come unprovoked. Richard’s proclamation was made after he marched to Waltham at the head of an army a week later to put down further insurrections; a new embassy of Essex insurgents had approached him “with a demand for the ratification of the promises made at Mile End on June 14, and a request that they might be granted the additional privilege of freedom from the duty of attending the King’s courts…” The author adds: “It is clear that the sentimental sympathy for the oppressed peasantry attributed to the young king by some modern authors had no real existence. He was incensed at the duress which he had suffered on June 14-15, and anxious to revenge himself.” To me, this interpretation of Richard’s actions goes a long way toward defining who he really was. But at the same time, Richard’s courage was irrefutable and he alone saved the day. “What might not have been hoped from a boy of fourteen capable of such an achievement, and who could have guessed that this gifted but wayward king was to wreck his own career and end as the miserable starved prisoner of Pontefract?”
What I took away from this book was the understanding that conditions leading up to the Peasant Revolt were long-term and widespread. When taking a broad look, apparently the leaders of the revolt were not in communication with each other; the participants were reacting to the situation as the opportunities presented themselves (and not all of them were peasants). In the long run, things went on the same as before: “If we had not the chronicles of Tyler’s rising, we should never have gathered from the court rolls of the manors that there had been an earth-shaking convulsion in 1381”. But there was one tangible result; now the peasants had a new ideal to strive for. They cherished the charters of freedom and amnesty that were issued by the king, and although all Richard’s promises were broken, they knew it could be done. It was a sad and enlightening event, and I found this book to be most satisfying.
This is the second of Mercedes Rochelle’s Last Great Saxon Earls novels which tell the story of the Godwinesons in the years leading up to the Norman Conquest. The first book, Godwine Kingmaker, follows Godwine, Earl of Wessex, as he rises to become one of the most powerful men in 11th century England. In this second novel we get to know the Earl’s family as his children take turns to narrate their own stories, each from his or her own unique viewpoint.
We begin with a prologue in which Queen Editha, daughter of Godwine and wife of Edward the Confessor, explains that the book she commissioned on the life of her husband – the famous Vita Ædwardi Regis – was originally intended to be a history of her own family and that she had asked her brothers to write down their memories to be included in the manuscript. The Sons of Godwine is presented as a collection of the brothers’ memoirs (fictional but based closely on historical fact).
Editha’s brother, Harold – the future King Harold II of England – is naturally the most famous member of the family and much of the novel revolves around him, but we also hear from Tostig, Gyrth, Leofwine and Wulfnoth (though not from the eldest brother, Swegn) and through their alternating narratives the story of the sons of Godwine gradually unfolds. See More…
This book is part two in the series that covers, firstly, the Battle of Fulford, and in this volume, the Battle of Stamford Bridge. Both books can stand alone, but it helps to see the extent of the Anglo-Saxon victory over the Norwegians when you realize just how much of a beating they took at the first battle. Harald Hardrada’s victory was complete; Earls Edwin and Morcar were on the run and York surrendered without the slightest hesitation. No wonder our hero Coenred and the remnants of the English army gathered disconsolately at Tadcaster, hoping against hope that King Harold would come to their rescue. And he did!
Coenred’s life quickly got complicated when his casual interest in the widow Mildryth deepened into something much more compelling, on both sides. Suddenly he had someone to go home to, but at the same time she became someone who could distract him from the business of war. The author tells a sweet story of their budding romance, forced into the background by compelling events he could never ignore. And when Harold Godwinson gathered his forces for a confrontation against the Viking invaders, Coenred was at the forefront of York’s support.
Meanwhile the Norwegians, confident that the resistance is at an end, gather at Stamford Bridge to collect hostages and supplies; about a third of the army stays with the ships at Ricall, around 10 miles away. The atmosphere is nearly festive, as they lay in the sun, swim in the river, and generally rest from their recent efforts. Most of them left their armor behind, only bringing a helmet and sword. When the grim and vengeful Anglo-Saxons approach from York, the Norwegians are surprised and totally unprepared. They fight well but their lack of armor ultimately decides the battle. Nonetheless, many stout English warriors fall by their sides.
Whitaker is very, very good at writing battle scenes. He brings us right into the midst of the action, and events are so cleanly depicted that there is no confusion. We also feel the desperate fear of the inexperienced fighters and the bitter determination of the veterans, intent on redeeming their losses at Fulford. The dialog reads much like a saga, full of glory and poetry, which gives this novel an other-worldly ambience of another time in another place.
I’m not quite sure where I would put this volume in my own line-up of pre-conquest history books. On the one hand, it covered the issues intelligently and carefully. On the other hand, many of the major books he cites in his bibliography are already on my bookshelf…especially the 20th century sources. So on the one hand, on an information gathering mission I didn’t learn anything majorly new. Nonetheless, I placed a lot of bookmarks which means he touched on little details that fleshed out my understanding.
In many ways, the value of this book is in the explanations of things we just might not be entirely sure about. For instance, we get interesting general details: “The manors of an earl were probably organized like the royal demesne, the ‘home farms’ of the monarchy, into either provisioning or revenue-producing units. Entries in the Domesday Book note the number of nights’ farm that could be obtained from a manor. They were the cost of overnight provisions for the king or lord and his whole household when visiting the manor.” That helps explain some everyday factors that usually slip past us. There are many other explanations of this kind that helped put things into perspective for me.
The author also tried to make sense of conflicting histories, especially concerning the battle of Hastings and its aftermath. Which came first, and who influenced who? And why? “Admittedly, some historians criticize the Carmen, believing it to be a twelfth-century product, but the balance of probability seems to favor an early date for this work, around 1068…” Was the arrow in the eye story an effort to portray Harold as being punished from God for his perjury? Or was there some confusion between his death by an arrow and Harold Hardrada’s arrow in the throat? How much was this story influenced by the nineteenth century restoration of the Bayeux Tapestry? As you might guess, these passages raise more questions than they answer, but these questions are probably unanswerable anyway, so we might as well learn as much background as possible.
I was interested to see that Tostig’s troubles in the north may have had much to do with reforming the out-of-balance low taxation in Northumbria (when compared to the rest of the country). According to the author, “There was a reform of the royal household in the interests of efficiency early in the 1060s…Tostig’s rule was then seen as tightening royal control of the north at a time when the Witan in England was dominated by Harold, which would explain why Tostig blamed Harold for the revolt and accused him of conspiring against him.” To me, this is a big statement. First of all, it implies that Tostig did not arbitrarily raise taxes, which supposedly sparked off the insurrection. And it also gives a reason why he would accuse Harold of fomenting the rebellion, aside from a mere hysterical reaction. There’s a lot of food for thought here, which certainly delves deeper than the usual bland interpretation of Tostig’s allegedly poor government.
So, overall, I would say I have benefitted from reading this book. The writing was a little hard to get through in places, and I feel the author jumped around a little bit, but it gave me some specifics where I needed them in an academic manner. If I didn’t know anything about the period, I would probably have had a hard time getting through the book. It was really more about explaining why certain things happened rather than merely telling us a straightforward history, although there is a certain amount of that, too. But I think the straight history passages served as a vehicle to get us to the good stuff: sorting out the evidence of our many sources.
I had to order this book direct from England, but the title fell right into the middle of my research and I am so glad I stumbled across it. It’s hard for me to believe someone went to so much trouble to document every smidgen of information about this period, but it seems that William Kapelle left no stone unturned. Overall, I concluded that if he didn’t mention an item, then it was not to found anywhere. He has done such a good job connecting the dots, I was finally able to somewhat untangle the complicated shapshot of pre-conquest Northumbria, which was my focus.
For instance, in the first chapter he gave us three maps of Northumbria: Political Divisions (what I would call counties) in 1000; Northern Geographic Names (such as vales, dales, mountain gaps, and rivers) and a Terrain Sketch map. I found myself referring to these maps all the way through the book, for they helped explain important boundaries and invasion routes. Especially in the west, it seems that the same territory is known by different names depending on the decade. Is it Strathclyde, Cumbria or Cumberland? His Genealogical Tables were equally important to me, because the relationships between people (and recurring names) can be mind-numbing. For instance, there are two Cospatrics I’m concerned with; the tables finally helped me figure out that one was an uncle-by-marriage to the other, and from which branch of the family each was descended.
But the book goes way beyond identification. We get a very good feel for what Siward’s Northumbria felt like when doomed Tostig took over. Why did Siward put together an invasion to place Malcolm on the throne of Scotland? We discover that this wasn’t the first attempt at controlling his borders by placing a friendly King on the Scottish throne. In the mid-1040s, Siward led an army over the border in an attempt to replace Macbeth with Malcolm’s paternal uncle Maldred; this invasion ultimately failed and he tried again when young Malcolm was old enough to reign. Siward’s secondary aim was to control the most likely invasion routes from the west (through the mountains) by annexing Cumberland, which Malcolm was later to recapture for the Scots, much to the discomfiture of Tostig. There were many loose ends Kapelle addressed, and once again I have filled my pages with bookmarks.
Then he goes on to the Conqueror and the Harrying of the North. This section was written logically and without the usual outrage; there were many steps that led to William’s unfortunate solution, and perhaps he wasn’t quite the monster he is usually made out to be. His horrific campaign was more a matter of failed policy rather than pure maliciousness. He imposed new taxes to pay for his occupation, he bungled appointments in the north—first with Copsig (Tostig’s old agent), then with Cospatric, who helped lead the 1068 rebellion. “The revolt of 1068 had resulted from William’s failure to govern the North through its native leaders, who had, in fact, led the resistance to the king. He was thus left with no realistic alternative but to replace them with Normans.” William had learned about the tactics of the northerners, who retreated into the mountains and waited for him to go away, “and he now adopted a plan that would make it impossible for the North to revolt after his departure.”
But William’s problems with the North did not end with the harrying. Although most of the devastation was in Yorkshire and a little bit into Durham, “Norman rule was restricted to the east coast plain and to the western plain as a result of the harrying. Between there was brigandage.” For the rest of his reign and beyond, William was faced with a myriad of problems that he was neither willing nor able to control. In the Domesday book, Kapelle hypothesizes that much of Northern shires seemed empty, not because they were uninhabited, but “The Normans did not actually survey many of the Pennine villages and all of northern Lancashire, probably because they did not control these areas.”
It’s a lot to take in. But there is much more, and I suspect that only a dedicated Northumbrian scholar can absorb the plethora of information. We learn how the Normans eventually repopulated the vacant farms with their own manors. We get a lot of details about manorial estates, agriculture, and functioning churches. By the reign of Henry I, the Normans ultimately founded a new aristocracy in the north. Nonetheless, the native Anglo-Saxons eventually creeped back into prominence, as Henry I realized that local men still made the best governors.
It’s possible that Kapelle did a bit of extrapolation in the early part of the eleventh century, but his statements and hypotheses were well documented with over 50 pages of notes and 18 pages of Bibliography. Every time I reread a chapter I discover something new.