Today in Medieval History: The Battle of Hastings

William of Malmesbury recounts the battle:

The courageous leaders mutually prepared for battle, each according to his national custom. The English, as we have heard, passed the night without sleep, in drinking and singing, and in the morning proceeded without delay against the enemy. All on foot, armed with battle-axes, and covering themselves in front by the juncture of their shields, they formed an impenetrable body which would assuredly have secured their safety that day had not the Normans, by a feigned flight, induced them to open their ranks, which till that time, according to their custom, had been closely compacted. King Harold himself, on foot, stood with his brothers near the standard in order that, so long as all shared equal danger, none could think of retreating. This same standard William sent, after his victory, to the pope; it was sumptuously embroidered with gold and precious stones, and represented the figure of a man fighting.

On the other hand, the Normans passed the whole night in confessing their sins, and received the communion of the Lord=s body in the morning. Their infantry, with bows and arrows, formed the vanguard, while their cavalry, divided into wings, was placed in the rear. The duke, with serene countenance, declaring aloud that God would favor his as being the righteous side, called for his arms; and when, through the haste of his attendants, he had put on his hauberk the hind part before, he corrected the mistake with a laugh, saying “The power of my dukedom shall be turned into a kingdom.” Then starting the Song of Roland, in order that the warlike example of that hero might stimulate the soldiers, and calling on God for assistance, the battle commenced on both sides, and was fought with great ardor, neither side giving ground during the greater part of the day.

Read more of William’s account

The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle mentions the battle only briefly, no elaborate details or examinations like Malmesbury’s account. It basically says it happened and then moves on:

Meantime Earl William came up from Normandy into Pevensey on the eve of St. Michael’s mass; and soon after his landing was effected, they constructed a castle at the port of Hastings. This was then told to King Harold; and he gathered a large force, and came to meet him at the estuary of Appledore. William, however, came against him unawares, ere his army was collected; but the king, nevertheless, very hardly encountered him with the men that would support him: and there was a great slaughter made on either side. There was slain King Harold, and Leofwin his brother, and Earl Girth his brother, with many good men: and the Frenchmen gained the field of battle, as God granted them for the sins of the nation. Archbishop Aldred and the corporation of London were then desirous of having child Edgar to king, as he was quite natural to them; and Edwin and Morkar promised them that they would fight with them. But the more prompt the business should ever be, so was it from day to day the later and worse; as in the end it all fared. This battle was fought on the day of Pope Calixtus: and Earl William returned to Hastings, and waited there to know whether the people would submit to him.

Interview with Bernard Cornwell on Death of Kings

Death of Kings is the latest installment in Bernard Cornwell’s Saxon series. It is set for release January of 2012.

Product Description:

The master of historical fiction presents the iconic story of King Alfred and the making of a nation.As the ninth century wanes, England appears about to be plunged into chaos once more. For the Viking-raised but Saxon-born warrior, Uhtred, whose life seems to shadow the making of England, this presents him with difficult choices.King Alfred is dying and his passing threatens the island of Britain to renewed warfare. Alfred wants his son, Edward, to succeed him but there are other Saxon claimants to the throne as well as ambitious pagan Vikings to the north.Uhtred‘s loyalty – and his vows – were to Alfred, not to his son, and despite his long years of service to Alfred, he is still not committed to the Saxon cause. His own desire is to reclaim his long lost lands and castle to the north. But the challenge to him, as the king’s warrior, is that he knows that he will either be the means of making Alfred’s dream of a united and Christian England come to pass or be responsible for condemning it to oblivion.This novel is a dramatic story of the power of tribal commitment and the terrible difficulties of divided loyalties.This is the making of England magnificently brought to life by the master of historical fiction.

The Anglo-Saxon Organization

From Regia Anglorum:

The Anglo-Saxon community in England was basically a rural one, where primarily all classes of society lived on the land. At the top of the social system was the royal house. This consisted of the king and princes (æðelings), who claimed a common ancestry with the king; they had special privileges and responsibilities which included military service and command in the field. By the middle of the ninth century the royal family of Wessex was universally recognised as the English royal family and held a hereditary right to rule. Succession to the throne was not guaranteed as the witan, or council of leaders, had the right to choose the best successor from the members of the royal house.

Below the king were the eoldermen, the ruling nobility. The eolderman was the king’s ‘viceroy’ in a shire, responsible for administration and justice, for calling out the fyrd and leading its forces in the field. The office was not hereditary, but it became usual in the tenth century to choose eoldermen from a few outstanding families.

Read more…

Who were the Anglo-Saxons

Anglo-Saxons, Medieval Britain, Medieval England, Medieval History

A good article written by Richard Denning on the origins of the Anglo-Saxons:

From AD 70 until around AD 400 most of Britain was ruled from Rome as the Province of Britannia. As pressures from outside the empire, and weaknesses and corruption from inside grew Rome abandoned Britain. The result was that the Romano-British (who would one day become the Welsh) were left to defend themselves from Picts and Irish and Germanic Raiders.

The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle and other records suggest that after Rome officially told the former province of Britannia to look to its own defences in about 416 AD that the British invited in Germanic mercenaries to help defend Britain. Probably German tribes were already migrating to Britain in the Roman period as the Romans used Germans in their Legions but in 449 there is this entry. The British King Vortigern invited Hengest and Horsa to come to Britain.

Hengest and Horsa were followed by many other warlords and their followers. At first they fought for the British and settled peacefully along the eastern and Southern coasts. Eventually several things may have occurred…

Read the entire article.

In conjunction with Richard’s article, I wrote a post about the Anglo-Saxons a few years back.

Edgar the Etheling

Edgar the Etheling (1051 – 1126) was born in Hungary. His father, Edward the Exile, spent most of his life there after the Danish king Cnut conquered England and defeated Edward’s father King Edmund II Ironside. Edgar was the last member of the house of Cerdic of Wessex. After Edward the Confessor’s death in 1066, Edgar had a legitimate claim to the throne over Harold Godwineson and William the Conqueror, but he was never crowned King of England.

After Harold’s death, we find in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle that there were prominent people in England who wanted Edgar to succeed Harold as king:

There was slain King Harold, and Leofwin his brother, and Earl Girth his brother, with many good men: and the Frenchmen gained the field of battle, as God granted them for the sins of the nation. Archbishop Aldred and the corporation of London were then desirous of having child Edgar to king, as he was quite natural to them; and Edwin and Morkar promised them that they would fight with them.

And later in that same section…

The monks then chose for abbot Provost Brand, because he was a very good man, and very wise; and sent him to Edgar Etheling, for that the land-folk supposed that he should be king: and the etheling received him gladly. When King William heard say that, he was very wroth, and said that the abbot had renounced him: but good men went between them, and reconciled them; because the abbot was a good man.

In 1067, Edgar along with his mother, Agatha, and two sisters, Margaret and Christina, and others fled to Scotland seeking protection at the court of King Malcolm III. Malcolm welcomed them, and in turn, he later married Margaret.

In 1068, it is noted in the Chronicle that King William gave Northumbria to Robert Comine. The people of Northumbria rebelled against Robert and killed him in the town of Durham, along with 900 other men. Edgar Etheling then came with all the Northumbrians to York, but William the Conqueror, learning of this, set out with a large army and routed Edgar’s army. Edgar then returned to Scotland.

The following year in 1069, King Sweyne of Denmark invaded England. According to the Chronicle:

Soon after this came from Denmark three of the sons of King Sweyne with two hundred and forty ships, together with Earl Esborn and Earl Thurkill, into the Humber; where they were met by the child Edgar, and Earl Waltheof, and Merle-Sweyne, and Earl Gospatric with the Northumbrians, and all the landsmen; riding and marching full merrily with an immense army: and so all unanimously advanced to York; where they stormed and demolished the castle, and won innumerable treasures therein; slew there many hundreds of Frenchmen, and led many with them to the ships; but, ere that the shipmen came thither, the Frenchmen had burned the city, and also the holy minster of St. Peter had they entirely plundered, and destroyed with fire. When the king heard this, then went he northward with all the force that he could collect, despoiling and laying waste the shire withal; whilst the fleet lay all the winter in the Humber, where the king could not come at them.

In 1074, Edgar had been in Flanders but returned to Scotland when William sailed across the channel to Normandy. King Malcolm and Margaret received Edgar fondly and gave him many gifts. Around that same time, King Philip of France sent a letter to Edgar promising to give him the castle of Montreuil, and so Edgar headed back to France, but on his way down the coast of England, a storm shipwrecked his crew, and Edgar had to return to Scotland. He lost most of the treasure Malcolm had given him, and some of his men were captured by the Normans.

After this incident, Edgar sent a request to William for a treaty, and William accepted. Edgar then traveled to William’s court in Normandy, where the King of England received him.

Due to the sake of time, I will skip forward to Edgar’s later life.

In 1106, King Henry I of England, the youngest son of William the Conqueror, defeated his older brother, Robert Curthose, and Edgar at the Battle of Tinchebray. Robert was imprisoned for the remainder of his life, while Edgar was released and pardoned. Edgar’s niece, Edith (or Matilda), the daughter of Malcolm and Margaret, married Henry in 1100, which might have had something to do with Henry’s pardoning of Edgar. It is generally believed Edgar died sometime in 1125, though the location of his grave is unknown. The last mention I could find of him in the Chronicles related to his defeat at the Battle of Tinchebray:

Edgar Etheling, who a little before had gone over from the king to the earl, was also there taken, whom the king afterwards let go unpunished. Then went the king over all that was in Normandy, and settled it according to his will and discretion. This year also were heavy and sinful conflicts between the Emperor of Saxony and his son, and in the midst of these conflicts the father fell, and the son succeeded to the empire.

*Main source: The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle

Review of Harold: The Last Anglo-Saxon King

Harold Godwineson - Anglo Saxon England - Medieval England - Battle of Hastings - William the ConquerorHarold: The Last Anglo-Saxon King by Ian Walker
Hardcover: 258 pages
Publisher: Alan Sutton Publishing, Ltd.; First English Edition edition (August 1997)
ISBN-10: 0750913886

He only ruled England for nine and a half months, but his reign signified an important turning point in the culture and society of the English people. Threatened by enemies from across the channel, Harold II, son of Godwine, represented the last of the English line of kings, following generations of rulers that included Alfred the Great and Edward the Confessor. On October 14, 1066, he took his last stand for all of England on a small ridge just outside of Hastings.

Author Ian Walker begins the book by looking at the family origins of Harold. The family of Godwine, though not of the higher nobility, enjoyed a rise to prominence that eventually made them the most powerful family in all of England, rivaling the power of even Edward the Confessor. Their power in Wessex brought them many supporters, making the relationship between Edward and the family somewhat tenuous. At one point, Edward exiled the family, though they eventually returned, and Edward restored the majority of their lands to them.

After Godwine’s death, Harold took control of Wessex and served Edward faithfully until the king’s death. Walker examines the character of Harold, underlying his loyalty to England, his intelligence in military and diplomatic affairs, and his rapport among the English people. Upon Edward the Confessor’s death, Harold was the unanimous choice to ascend to the throne, seeing that Edward died childless.

Harold was crowned king on January 6, 1066. His reign, however, was marked by turmoil as he had to deal with the threat of constant invasions from across the channel in Normandy and from across the sea in Norway. Duke William of Normandy made his claim to the English throne, stating Edward had promised the crown to him upon his death and Harold had in fact supported his claim. The other threat came from Harold’s brother, Tosti, and the king of Norway, Harald Sigurdsson (aka Hardrada). Harold had supported the decision to exile his brother years earlier, and Tosti wanted revenge, so he allied himself with Hardrada.

Even though Harold’s reign was short-lived, he managed to write his legacy in the pages of history by the very nature of his character. To the English people, he would forever represent everything England, a monument linked to the memories of the past and the great rulers who had come before him. Walker does a fantastic job with breathing life into Harold’s character, allowing readers to feel the same affections that the king’s subjects must have felt for him at that time. They remained loyal to him — as he had to them — even to the end when he fell at Hastings and for a time afterwards until William finally succeeded in bringing all of England under his rule.

One matter historians have widely debated has been the decision of Harold to keep his army on the ridge when William’s army appeared to be almost broken. Some argue Harold felt God had turned against him before the battle in favor of William and his fate was already sealed. Walker contends that Harold stayed on the ridge because that’s all he needed to do. If he had held and his army had not broken, William would have been forced to retreat back to his ships and across the channel, likely to never return to England again. So Harold had no reason to press the attack, because all he needed to do was defend his position, and if he had succeeded, the history of England — and the world — might have been very different. I believe both camps make good arguments, though at the moment I tend to lean more toward Walker’s position. The next book I plan to read is William the Conqueror by David Douglas, which should good me a better perspective from the Norman side. My position might flip again after reading Douglas’s account.

My rating: 5 stars

Anglo-Saxon Settlement in Cheltenham

From the BBC News:

An Anglo-Saxon settlement has been discovered on the site of the new All Saints’ Academy in Cheltenham.

Two skeletons, pottery and a large timber hall, all thought to date back to between the 6th to 8th Century, have been uncovered.

Steve Sheldon, of Cotswold Archaeology, said it was previously thought the area did not succumb to Saxon control during that period.


Medieval History Term of the Week: Atheling


Aetheling, also spelt Ætheling, Atheling or Etheling, was an Old English term (æþeling) used in Anglo-Saxon England to designate princes of the royal dynasty who were eligible for the kingship.

Aetheling is an Old English and Old Saxon compound of aethele, æþele or (a)ethel, meaning “noble family”, and -ing, which means “belonging to.”[1] It is etymologically related to the modern German words Adel, “nobility”, and adelig or adlig, “noble”, and also to the modern swedish word “ättling” (“descendant”.) It was usually rendered in Latin as clito.

From the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle:

A.D. 1057. This year came Edward Etheling, son of King Edmund, to this land, and soon after died. His body is buried within St. Paul’s minster at London. He was brother’s son to King Edward. King Edmund was called Ironside for his valour. This etheling King Knute had sent into Hungary, to betray him; but he there grew in favour with good men, as God granted him, and it well became him;

Earl Godwin of Wessex

Godwin of Wessex was the father of Harold II, the last Anglo-Saxon king of England, defeated by Duke William of Normandy at the Battle of Hastings. Godwin was likely the son of Wulfnoth Cild, a thegn of Sussex. He first appears in documents during the reign of Cnut, one of the last major Danish rulers of England. Cnut married Godwin to his brother-in-law’s sister, and he also appointed him as Earl of Wessex. This appointment would eventually make the Godwin family the most powerful family in England.

In 1042, when Edward the Confessor took the throne, Godwin cemented his power by arranging for the king to marry his daughter, Edith. The two men, Edward and Godwin, always had a rift between them, for Edward believed Godwin had taken part in the murder of his brother Alfred. With the help of the Archbishop of Canterbury, Robert of Jumieges, Edward banished his wife to a nunnery at Wherwell and exiled Godwin and his sons. Godwin eventually returned, and Edward reinstated him and his family. Godwin died at Winchester on April 15, 1053.

Additional Reading:


Kingmakers – The Story of the House of Godwin

The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle


The Last Anglo-Saxon King by Ian Walker

Edward the Confessor by Frank Barlow