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Tag Archives: 1066

  • Silk and the Sword: The Women of the Norman Conquest by Sharon Bennett Connolly

    One of the first things I had to do when planning Silk and the Sword: The Women of the Norman Conquest was to decide which women would be included in the book. I had to decide whether I would include as many as possible, with short biographies (which was pretty much how I had written Heroines of the Medieval World), or to write about fewer women, but with more in-depth biographies.

    Detail of the 'Ælfgyva and a certain cleric' scene from the Bayeux Tapestry. (c. Dennis Jarvis, Silk and the Sword: The Women of the Norman Conquest, Amberley Publishing)

    In the end, it was a simple decision, to choose twelve of the more prominent women of the 11th century and dedicate a chapter to each one. Twelve chapters may not seem a lot, but it became evident early on in my research that I would have to include three general chapters, which told the story of the actual events before, during and after the Norman Conquest, and then tell the women’s stories and highlight their place in the wider events of the time.

    And so how to choose who to include?

    Some of the women were quite obvious choices; Harold II’s 20-year relationship with Edith Swanneck and subsequent marriage to Ealdgyth of Mercia were impossible to leave out, as was Matilda of Flanders, the wife of William the Conqueror. And if you were including the wives of two of the contenders, then it would be impossible to leave out the wives of Harald Hardrada, the third contender to the English throne in 1066. He was husband to both Elisiv of Kiev and Thora Thorbergsdottir.

    The stories of these five women formed the backbone of Silk and the Sword: The Women of the Norman Conquest, but they were the easiest choices to include.

    Detail of a miniature of Queen Emma before an altar. (c. British Library Catalogue of Illuminated Manuscripts, Silk and the Sword: The Women of the Norman Conquest, Amberley Publishing)

    Deciding to tell the story from the beginning of the 11th century onwards meant that the tale had to start with Emma of Normandy. Emma was the only woman to ever be crowned queen of England, twice; as the wife of, firstly, Æthelred II and, secondly, King Cnut. She was also the mother of two English kings; Harthacnut and the saintly king, Edward the Confessor. Emma’s story was the perfect place to start the story of the Norman Conquest; she was an integral part of the politics and government of the first half of the 11th century.

    A woman who may, at first, to appear to be an anomaly to the story of 1066 is Lady Godiva. Her tale is more fiction and legend than fact, but she serves to demonstrate how history can be shrouded in the mists of these legends. While Lady Godiva almost certainly did not ride through Coventry naked, she did exist and was a powerful benefactor of the church, as well as being the matriarch of the House of Mercia, from which King Harold’s wide, Ealdgyth, came – Godiva was her grandmother.

    Another lady who could not be left out comes towards the end of the 1066 story: St Margaret. As one of the last survivors of the Anglo-Saxon royal house, Margaret, was a great marriage prize. And, although her preference was for a life dedicated to God, she married Malcom III Canmor, king of Scots and it is through her daughter, Edith – later known as Matilda – and her marriage to King Henry I, that the blood of the Saxon royal family once again sat on the English throne.

    The final chapter is dedicated to a mysterious woman known as Ælfgyva. One of only three women to appear in the Bayeux Tapestry, Ælfgyva’s identity remains a mystery, though there are many theories….

    Sharon Bennett Connolly's new book Silk and the Sword: The Women of the Norman Conquest is available for purchase now.

  • King Cnut and the Viking Conquest of England by W. B. Bartlett

    Emma of Normandy, Cnut and the Norman Conquest of 1066

    The powerful edifice of Corfe Castle. (King Cnut and the Viking Conquest of England 1016, Amberley Publishing)

    There is no year in English history more famous than 1066. The events of half a century before when Cnut the Great, ultimately king of both England and Denmark, took the throne of the country are however much less remembered. That is a shame, for there are some important links between the two events, most significantly through a remarkable woman, Emma of Normandy. She is also largely forgotten when compared to her more famous relative, William, Duke of Normandy; and her story deserves to be told.

    Most remarkably Emma was married to two kings of England, a situation that is made even more significant because her two husbands were bitter rivals of each other. She married her first husband, Æthelred II (the ‘Unready’) in 1002. It was a marriage that brought benefits to both parties, not atypical for a time when most such relationships were entered into for political reasons rather than love. Emma, daughter of Richard I, Duke of Normandy, gained a king as a husband whilst Æthelred obtained an important potential ally. The Duchy of Normandy was populated by men and women who were directly descended from Vikings; and their contemporary relatives from Denmark and Norway had been using it as a base from which to attack England.   

    The atmospheric site of Glastonbury Abbey, burial place of Edmund Ironside and visited by Cnut. (King Cnut and the Viking Conquest of England 1016, Amberley Publishing)

    Two sons were born to Æthelred and Emma, named Edward and Alfred. However, things did not go well for England in the meantime. In 1013, Æthelred fled the country when he was defeated by the Viking warlord, Sweyn Forkbeard, who had invaded his country with a large force. The exiled English king found sanctuary, along with the rest of his family, in Normandy. However he was not there long, for soon afterwards Sweyn unexpectedly died and Æthelred was invited back to England. Sweyn’s son, Cnut, was caught by surprise and was forced to flee for his life when defeated in battle after a surprise attack. As if by a miracle Æthelred found himself once more king of England.

    However, this incredible turnaround in fortunes did not last. Æthelred soon after died and Cnut came back with another large force and ultimately succeeded in taking the throne of England. Despite the fact that he was already in a relationship with Ælfgifu of Northampton, he looked around for a wife to increase his legitimacy. Emma was the perfect candidate, particularly as she was now very conveniently widowed. And so in 1017 Emma and Cnut were married.

    The statue of Alfred looks over the ruins of Shaftesbury Abbey where Cnut died in Novmeber 1035. (King Cnut and the Viking Conquest of England 1016, Amberley Publishing)

    However, the marriage introduced complications into Emma’s family life. The children she had from this relationship, namely her son Harthacnut, took precedence over those from the first in the line of succession. Edward and Alfred continued to be brought up in exile at the court in Normandy. In the process they seem to have become significantly ‘Nomanised’. There appears to have been little contact between Emma and her absentee sons whilst Cnut was still alive. However this situation changed when first Cnut died in 1035, to be followed a few years later by Harthacnut. By now, Emma’s son from her first marriage, Alfred, was also dead, expiring in agony after being brutally blinded following a failed attempt to invade England after Cnut’s demise. This left Edward as the last man standing, and the heir apparent to the throne of England.

    Edward therefore became king, being known to subsequent generations as ‘the Confessor’. However, he died in 1066, leaving no children behind him. This left the throne vacant; it went first of all to Harold Godwinesson and then, after his death at Hastings, to William of Normandy. Edward whilst alive had fostered close links with Normandy and even invited in some Norman advisers. There were even claims that he had promised that the throne would go to William after his death. And so, in 1066, the Anglo-Saxon kingdom of England breathed its last, an unintended indirect consequence of the marriage politics of the period half a century before which saw a Viking ruler of England and, uniquely in royal dynastic history, the remarkable story of a woman who was queen to two kings of England.

    W. B. Bartlett's new paperback book King Cnut and the Viking Conquest of England is available for purchase now.

  • Secret Exeter by Chris Hallam

    1068 and all that: Exeter, Gytha and the Norman Conquest

    Bayeux Tapestry (Secret Exeter, Amberley Publishing)

    It is one of the most famous years in English history: 1066.

    Like 1936 and (perhaps) 1483, it was to be a year of three kings. In January, just five days into the year, Edward the Confessor, king of England since 1042, died. Harold Godwinson, a leading Saxon nobleman, succeeded him. The new Harold II had acquired a difficult inheritance, however, as he faced almost immediate attack from another Harold, Harald Hardrada of Norway who he managed to defeat at the Battle of Stamford Bridge. However, as we know, King Harold II fared less well in the Battle of Hastings in October. Harold, in truth, probably wasn’t killed by an arrow in the eye as the famous Bayeux Tapestry appears to show but was certainly killed in battle just as Richard the Lionheart and Richard III would be in later years. His rival, William, Duke of Normandy won and was subsequently crowned king on Christmas Day 1066. Thereafter, England succumbed to a long period of Norman rule which, to some extent, has never ended.

    William the Conqueror (Secret Exeter, Amberley Publishing)

    The above story is famous and mostly true. Edward the Confessor perhaps deserves more blame than has been traditionally attributed to him, for bequeathing England such chaotic situation in the first place. However, what is most questionable about the above account is the last sentence: William the Conqueror’s subsequent conquest of England, after his victory at Hastings, was in fact, much less smooth than the traditional version of events makes it sound.

    Exeter, in Devon, was one area which fiercely resisted William’s rule. Stirred into insurrection by the presence of Harold’s mother, Gytha, Exeter (then known as Escanceaster by the Saxons) openly revolted, refusing to sign an oath of allegiance to William. Angered, William returned from Normandy to deal with the rebels himself.

    A siege ensued, one of many Exeter would endure in the centuries ahead. Ugly scenes followed as William ordered one of the hostages that had been given to him as a sign of good faith to be publicly blinded. But the Normans suffered heavy losses. After nearly two weeks, Exeter surrendered but only on one condition, William would not punish the populace either physically or financially. William, facing rebellion elsewhere, acquiesced. Gytha, incidentally, seems to have been smuggled out just before the Norman king arrived. England, as a whole, didn’t fully come under Norman control until about 1072.

    The gatehouse of Exeter Castle id the oldest Norman castle building in Britain. (Secret Exeter, Amberley Publishing)

    What happened to Exeter next? After the siege, the Normans tore down the houses that stood on the hill at the northernmost parts of the walled city and built Rougemont Castle (Red Hill, because of the colour of the volcanic soil), essentially to keep a watchful eye on Exeter’s potentially restless population. Today, 950 years later, not much more than the castle walls remain. But these walls do include the original Norman gatehouse, widely considered to be one of the finest examples of early Norman architecture still visible in the UK. It is certainly the earliest Norman castle building still in existence, predating the more famous White Tower at the Tower of London by about ten years.

    Ironically, as my colleague Tim Isaac points out in our bestselling new book, Secret Exeter, a flaw in the design of the gatehouse essentially made them useless from the outset. It is this very uselessness which has ensured their survival to this day. Lucky for us!

    Tim Isaac and Chris Hallam's new book Secret Exeter is available for purchase now.

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