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  • The Anarchy: The Darkest Days of Medieval England by Teresa Cole

    One amazing year of Anarchy

    Before he died in December 1135, King Henry I of England had all the nobility of England and Normandy swear to accept his daughter, the Empress Matilda, as his successor. Before he was buried in January 1136, his nephew Stephen of Blois had been crowned as the new king. There followed a struggle for the crown between Stephen and Matilda, that lasted nearly nineteen years and was later known as the Anarchy. The strangest year of all that period, however, was the twelvemonth of 1141, when each side in turn came within touching distance of total victory over the other.

    Four Kings: This fanciful medieval representation of the four Norman kings shows, from left, William the Conqueror, William Rufus, Henry I and Stephen. (The Anarchy, Amberley Publishing)

    This ‘mazy labyrinth of events,’ as the chronicler William of Malmesbury called it, was set in train at the end of the previous year, when Earl Ranulf of Chester and his half-brother William of Roumare, took possession of Lincoln Castle. They claimed, with some justification that one of the two keeps there, known as Lucy’s Tower, was theirs by right of inheritance from their mother, Lucy of Bolingbroke. At first King Stephen seemed to accept this, but in the middle of the Christmas festivities he abruptly changed his mind, marched a relatively small army to Lincoln and put the castle under siege.

    Before the encirclement was complete, Ranulf of Chester had slipped away, and, having remained aloof from the struggle for the crown before this time, he came down firmly on the side of Matilda. His father-in-law was Robert, Earl of Gloucester, Matilda’s half-brother and most substantial backer, and when Robert received an appeal for help from Ranulf, he called up all the forces he could assemble, including a strong contingent of the Welsh, and marched to Lincoln to confront the king.

    Henry I's castle at Caen. This was inherited by his son, Robert of Gloucester, who eventually sided with Matilda and Geoffrey of Anjou against King Stephen. (The Anarchy, Amberley Publishing)

    Stephen was advised to retreat but refused to do so. On Candlemas Day, 2nd February 1141, the battle of Lincoln was fought and the king was soundly defeated and taken prisoner. For most of the rest of the year he would be held, sometimes in chains, in Robert of Gloucester’s strongest castle at Bristol.

    Stephen’s passage to the throne had been greatly helped by his brother Henry, bishop of Winchester, who, among other things, was by now the papal legate – the pope’s representative in England. Negotiations were now opened between Matilda and Henry, and soon the bishop was announcing that Stephen had broken the promises he had made to the church at the time of his coronation, and that therefore he should be deposed and replaced on the throne by the Empress Matilda.

    The church accepted Matilda. Many of the nobility in England and Normandy accepted her. London, however, did not accept her, and nor did Stephen’s queen, also called Matilda. The queen now set about raising an army of opposition, ably assisted by the mercenary leader William of Ypres. Over a period of months, as the empress slowly negotiated her way to an impressive entry into Westminster, Queen Matilda brought up her own army from Kent to threaten London from the other side. Then, on 24th June, just as it seemed that the empress had finally won her crown, the Londoners rose up and drove her away. So sudden was this uprising that she and her supporters had just sat down to eat when they were forced to flee, leaving the food behind them on the table.

    Wolvesey Castle. This was the palace and stronghold of Bishop Henry of Winchester. It was besieged by Matilda and her supporters in 1141. (The Anarchy, Amberley Publishing)

    Matilda and Robert of Gloucester made for Oxford, but Bishop Henry went instead to Winchester, where he decided he had been too hasty in abandoning his brother. Re-opening communications with the queen, he also took steps to strengthen and provision Wolvesey Castle, his fortified palace close to the cathedral. As soon as the empress got wind of this, she gathered her forces, moved to her royal castle at Winchester and put Wolvesey Castle under siege.

    Henry himself had already escaped to summon help from the queen. She now brought up her own forces – including a thousand-strong London militia – to encircle the entire city of Winchester. From being a besieger, the empress now found herself besieged, and in severe danger of falling into the hands of her namesake.

    By September the situation was desperate, and in the middle of that month Empress Matilda and her supporters made a break for freedom. The priority, of course, was to get her safely away, and she and a picked bodyguard set off at a gallop, first for Ludgershall, then Devizes and finally Gloucester. For some of the way, notes the chronicler John of Worcester, she even rode astride, ‘male fashion’, though whether he admired or disapproved is hard to tell.

    Rochester Castle. Rochester was held for King Stephen by William of Ypres. It was here that Robert of Gloucester was kept a prisoner while negotiations proceeded between the Empress Matilda and Stephen's queen, also named Matilda, for an exchange of captives. (The Anarchy, Amberley Publishing)

    Meanwhile, the weight of the queen’s army fell upon the empress’s forces. Many simply fled, leaving weapons, armour and costly possessions abandoned behind them. Robert of Gloucester, though, fought a determined rear-guard action at the Stockbridge crossing of the River Test, thus enabling his sister to escape.

    Eventually he was overcome by simple weight of numbers, taken before the queen, and handed over to William of Ypres to be imprisoned in his mighty keep at Rochester Castle. While he was there, inducements were offered to persuade him to change sides, but he remained loyal to his sister.

    Now, however, each side had a significant prisoner – Stephen at Bristol and Robert at Rochester. Many hoped a permanent peace could be negotiated, but instead all that was arranged was a prisoner swap, ‘an exchange of the king for the earl, one for the other.’ This was carried out early in November with great care, hostages and guarantors being given for each side, including the queen, the archbishop of Canterbury and Robert’s own son William.

    When all was complete, both sides were in exactly the same position as they had been at the start of the year, and all the triumph and tragedy in between had achieved precisely nothing. Another dozen years would pass before the Anarchy finally came to an end, and a little while longer than that before England once more had a single, undisputed king.

    Teresa Cole's new book The Anarchy: The Darkest Days of Medieval England is available for purchase now.

  • Did Harold die at Hastings? by Teresa Cole

    Although it was a turning point in British history we don’t actually know exactly how King Harold died. Two different stories have come down to us. The traditional one, known to every schoolchild probably from that day to this, is that he was fatally struck in the eye by an arrow in the final stages of the battle of Hastings. The Carmen de Hastingae Proelio (Song of the Battle of Hastings) however, gives an altogether different version.

    This Carmen is probably the earliest account of the events of 1066, a poem in Latin prepared rather hastily in 1067 for presentation to King William on his return to Normandy. The only manuscript copy of the poem disappeared some thirty years after it was written and was only rediscovered in 1856 leading to suspicions that it was a forgery. Now, however, it is generally accepted as authentic and the author is named as Guy, Bishop of Amiens.

    In this version of the story, as the English shield wall is finally weakening and beginning to break up, William himself spots a chance to dispose of his rival once and for all. Getting together a group of knights, he deliberately targets Harold, still in the thick of the fighting, and sets out to hack him to death. Gruesome descriptions are given of how Harold was pierced through with a lance and ‘drenched the earth with a gushing torrent of blood,’ at the same time being beheaded and disembowelled and even having his leg cut off.

    Which of these stories is true, we really don’t know. William of Poitiers, a Norman monk who had previously been a soldier himself, gives an account of the conquest full of detail on everything else, but says nothing at all about how Harold met his end. It has been suggested that he might have found the deliberate ganging up on Harold and the subsequent butchery to be a shameful act, and did not want to tarnish his hero William with such a deed, particularly when the victim was a consecrated king.

    the-norman-conquest-3 The death of Harold seems to cover two alternative versions of this as contained in the different accounts. Most take the figure on the left to be Harold, but the caption covers both. (By special permission of the City of Bayeux, The Norman Conquest, Amberley Publishing)

    The other almost contemporary record, the Bayeux Tapestry, is as unclear as usual. The caption, ‘Harold is slain’, is spread over two different deaths. One under the word Harold shows a man clutching an arrow apparently stuck in his eye, while the other has a man cut down by the sword of a horseman. The suggestion that both are Harold in a kind of cartoon sequence, can probably be discounted. In the first picture he is shown with a shield, but in the second this has disappeared and instead he is dropping a battle axe as he falls. It has also been pointed out that if both were intended to be Harold he seems to have had time to change his socks in between.

    Wace, born on Jersey and brought up at Caen in Normandy, wrote his Roman de Rou some hundred years after the event, intending it more as an entertainment than a serious history, but he also has the story of an arrow. He places it, however, towards the start of the battle and has Harold pluck it out and carry on fighting. In fact he flatly declares, ‘I do not indeed know … and have not heard say, who it was that smote down King Harold, nor by what weapon he was wounded.’ This suggests that a century after Hastings neither version of events seemed to be regarded as definitive, at least in Normandy.

    The uncertainty about the mode of death extends even more to the disposal of the body. By the time William finished his pursuit of the fugitives and returned to the battlefield it would probably have been quite dark. In the meantime, as depicted in a whole series of cartoons along the lower frieze of the Tapestry, others had been busy gleaning everything they could from the fallen, leaving the corpses, and no doubt others who were merely wounded, lying naked as they were born. How then was the dead king to be recognised among the pile of bodies?

    There is a story that when women came to claim husbands, fathers and brothers from those left on the battlefield Harold was so disfigured that it was left to his long time mistress Edith Swan-neck to identify the body by some mark known to her alone. Next we hear that Harold’s mother, Gytha, came asking for the body. She is said to have offered his weight in gold in exchange but was flatly refused. Instead we are told William gave the body to one William Malet, telling him to bury it secretly on the seashore and adding that since he had guarded the coast so devotedly in life he could go on guarding it in death.

    A strong tradition, however, claims that, although William refused money for Harold’s body, he did in fact turn it over to Countess Gytha, or at least to two canons from Waltham Abbey who may have supported her claim, and who then brought it back to the abbey and buried it before the high altar. The basis of this claim comes from William of Malmesbury writing in 1125, and he is backed up by Wace in the 1160s, though Wace adds, ‘I do not know who it was that bore him thither, neither do I know who buried him.’ In the abbey grounds today there still stands a memorial to Harold, reputed to mark the site of his grave, and this is certainly the nearest the last consecrated Saxon king has ever come to a gravestone. It is recorded, though, that when on one occasion the grave was excavated it was empty.

    Perhaps that would not be surprising if we were to believe another legend, recorded in a ‘Life of Harold’ also written at Waltham that gives a completely different end to the story. According to this Harold survived the battle of Hastings and in fact lived for many years after.

    This Vita Haroldi or The Life of Harold was among a collection of ancient documents known as the Harley Collection, preserved after the dissolution of the monasteries and eventually sold to the newly founded British Museum in 1753. It appears to be an early fourteenth century copy of an original work from the late twelfth century, written by a secular canon of Waltham Abbey. This in turn claimed to be based on a shorter primary source from someone with direct personal knowledge of the facts alleged.

    The story it tells is quite simply that Harold survived Hastings, that another body was wrongly identified as his, and that he was slowly nursed back to health over a period of two years. He then went abroad to try and raise help to dislodge William, failed in that, became a pilgrim and eventually returned to England to live out his life at Chester as a hermit.

    Hastings, Chester or Waltham? 1066 or sometime between 1090 and 1150? Harold, last Anglo-Saxon King of England died and was buried, but how, when or where we may never know.

    9781445649221

    Teresa Cole's new book The Norman Conquest is available for purchase now.

  • William Shakespeare and Henry V by Teresa Cole

    One of Shakespeare’s most enduringly popular plays is Henry V. Indeed Henry appears as a main character in three plays, although in the first two his star is undoubtedly eclipsed by the fat knight, Falstaff. Despite the fact that Shakespeare was writing some 180 years after the death of his subject, Henry’s story had never been allowed to fade from the public consciousness, championed first by those who survived him, and later by Tudor kings such as Henry VIII, who saw himself as a similarly heroic figure.

    There were, therefore, many sources available to Shakespeare on which to base his works. Notable among them was the Chronicle of Edward Hall and the collaborative work known as Holinshed’s Chronicles, while the play, The Famous Victories of Henry the Fifth, being performed in the late 1580s, has so many points in common with Shakespeare’s own acknowledged work that some have suggested it might have been an early attempt by the bard himself. Given this wealth of material to draw on, it is interesting to consider how much of the story is told in the plays matches what we know as historical fact about this ‘star of England’.

    Henry V 1 The battlefield at Shrewsbury

    Certainly Shakespeare telescoped the timescale within his three plays. We see Henry first as a grown man, Prince Henry, king-in-waiting, consorting with thieves and scoundrels at the time of the Percys’ revolt and the battle of Shrewsbury. In fact at that time Henry was a boy of sixteen, while Hotspur, shown as his contemporary, was a generation older and recently the Prince’s mentor and governor. In spite of this the boy did fight in the battle, not rescuing his father as depicted in the play, but still contributing substantially to the king’s victory, and in the process receiving a severe wound to the face that might easily have ended his career there and then.

    As for the tales of consorting with low-lifes and frequenting the taverns in Eastcheap which make up a large part of the first two plays, there is again some basis for this in the records. Henry, made Prince of Wales immediately after his father’s accession to the throne, spent a large part of his teens actively and dutifully subduing the Glendower rebellion in his principality. There was, however, a period in his early twenties when something of a rift appeared between him and his father, Henry IV, though this seems to have been more of the king’s making than his son’s.

    The Prince had been effectively running the country for some time during the king’s prolonged illness when abruptly he was dismissed and stories began to circulate about his behaviour. Accused of drunken brawling, womanising and even stealing the wages of the Calais garrison while Captain of Calais, Henry himself always flatly denied these stories, claiming that someone was deliberately trying to blacken his name. Certainly he was present in Eastcheap. He had a house there, formerly known as Poulteney Inn, given to him by his father, but the only concrete evidence of brawls names his brothers rather than himself.

    Maybe the strongest evidence for these accusations is the fact that many people commented how much the Prince changed for the better as soon as he became king. Shakespeare’s comment, “The breath no sooner left his father’s body but that his wildness … seemed to die too,” only reflects what people were saying at the time.

    The strangest part of the unruly episodes depicted in Henry IV Parts 1 and 2, however, is the naming of the fat knight himself. Though he comes down to us today as Sir John Falstaff, Shakespeare originally called him Sir John Oldcastle, and only changed the name under sustained pressure from the descendants of the real Oldcastle, one of whom was chamberlain to Queen Elizabeth I. Why the playwright originally chose that name is puzzling since there seems nothing whatever in common between the historical character and the drunken head of a thieves’ kitchen.

    Henry V 2 Oldcastle escaped from the Tower of London

    Sir John Oldcastle was indeed a friend of Prince Henry, first becoming acquainted with him during the Welsh wars. On marrying an heiress he became Lord Cobham with a seat in the House of Lords, and his notoriety is based not on thieving and drunkenness but on his membership of what was at the time seen as a heretical sect, the Lollards. These predecessors of the Protestant revolution to come, followed the teaching of John Wycliffe, believing that the Catholic Church was corrupt and in need of reform, and far too involved in meddling in state rather than religious matters. Lollard involvement in the Peasant’s Revolt of 1381 led to the sect being banned, and from 1401 Lollards in England who refused to recant could be burned as heretics.

    In 1413, soon after Henry became king, Oldcastle was arrested, put on trial for his beliefs which he made no attempt to deny, and condemned as a ‘most pernicious and detestable heretic.’ The king, however, intervened and insisted Oldcastle should have 40 days to consider his situation before the death penalty should be carried out. In that time Sir John escaped from the Tower, led a failed plot against Henry, escaped again and then spent four years at large, probably in his own territory of Herefordshire, before being captured and finally put to death in December 1417. At that time Henry was busy at the siege of Rouen so we don’t know whether he would have tried again to save the life of his old friend.

    Of course by the time Shakespeare was writing the Protestant religion held sway in England and it was dangerous to be a Catholic. Oldcastle’s stand against the old church would, by then, have been seen as heroic. When the bard changed the name of his character, therefore, he added a clear disclaimer in the epilogue to Henry IV Part 2. “For Oldcastle died a martyr, and this is not the man.” Some have suggested that the Shakespeare family held secret sympathies with the outlawed Catholic Church, and it is just possible that the name Sir John Oldcastle was chosen deliberately in an attempt to blacken the name of that martyr. If so it seems the playwright did not allow for the determination of high-placed family members to protect the image of their ancestor.

    9781445655413

    Teresa Cole's new paperback editon of her book Henry V: The Life of the Warrior King and the Battle of Agincourt is available now.

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