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Tag Archives: W.B. Bartlett

  • 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.

  • Richard the Lionheart: The Crusader King of England by W. B. Bartlett

    The last surviving remnant of the Castle at Tailleboug, site of one of Richard's great early triumphs in France. (c. W. B. Bartlett, Richard the Lionheart, Amberley Publishing)

    Shortly after the terrible events of 9/11 2001 in New York, President George W. Bush made an appeal for support in his efforts to right the wrongs done to his country. In the process, he unthinkingly used the word ‘crusade’ to describe the actions of the coalition he was attempting to form. He quickly had to withdraw the term as there was a widespread furore about the use of a word that for some still has extremely negative connotations.

    Neither was he alone in using the ‘crusade’ word. His main opponent, Osama Bin Laden, was quick to seize on the slip as evidence that indeed another ‘crusade’ was about to be launched in a rallying-cry for resistance against perceived Western aggression. He reminded his audience of some of those crusaders who had in the past unleashed chaos on the Muslim world; prominent amongst those singled out for particular mention was Richard Coeur de Lion.

    So eight centuries on Richard continues to court controversy. The crusades, in which he took a leading part, are in the modern world an embarrassment. However, eight centuries ago the perception of the movement was vastly different, certainly in Western Europe. The crusades were not only sanctioned by the church, they were encouraged and organised by it. Whilst this may seem morally indefensible through our eyes, it highlights the difficulty of judging the medieval world through a modern prism. We cannot expect a ruler of England in the late 12th Century to think and act in the same way as we would.

    Saladin's castle, one of the major Muslim fortresses in Syria on the borders of Outremer. (c. W. B. Bartlett, Richard the Lionheart, Amberley Publishing)

    When Richard became king of England in 1189 following the death of his father, Henry II, one of his first acts was to put flesh on the bones of his plans for a crusade. This had already been in formulation for a while; Richard had reacted quickly after the news of a disastrous crusader defeat at Hattin two years before had hit Christendom like a thunderbolt. He had quickly ‘taken the cross’ in a symbolic sense, pledging himself to be a crusader; but he was not so quick to turn his good intentions into practical reality. Now that he was king though, he had the resources of England at his disposal and he was quick to use them to further his crusading ambitions.

    The crusade that followed certainly courted considerable controversy. One such moment came early on after a great triumph at Acre following one of the great set-piece sieges of the Middle Ages. Richard was left after the victory with several thousand Muslim prisoners on his hands. Negotiations were held for their release with the Muslim leader Saladin but the terms agreed for whatever reason were not complied with. Keen to move on to the next stage of the campaign, Richard ordered that the prisoners should be massacred.

    The Victorian image of Richard the Crusader; the statue stands outside Parliament in Westminster. (c. W. B. Bartlett, Richard the Lionheart, Amberley Publishing)

    The killing of the prisoners at Acre still casts a huge shadow over Richard’s career – though it did not seem to do so at the time where cold-blooded acts such as this were not unique. Much more controversial back then were his relationships with his fellow-crusaders, particularly King Philip of France and Duke Leopold of Austria. Philip could not wait to get back to France and did so not long after he arrived in Outremer (the name for the crusader territories in the Holy Land). By that time, his relationship with Richard had completely broken down, not least because Richard had spurned Philip’s sister Alice to whom he had been betrothed for the ridiculous time of nearly three decades.

    Richard fell out with Duke Leopold over the grimy details of how to split the considerable amount of plunder after Acre fell. Leopold’s banner was flung into a ditch soon after he had put it up over the walls of the city; this was not just some empty symbolic gesture but Leopold staking a claim to a share of the loot that had been taken. Throwing the banner into the ditch was a symbolic rebuttal of his claim to any booty. This act came back to haunt Richard with a vengeance when he was captured by Leopold on his way back to England and held for a huge ransom.

    Controversy also courted Richard in the shape of his relationships with Conrad of Montferrat. Conrad was an adventurer who had arrived in Outremer just as the kingdom was on the point of collapse after Hattin. He managed to organise the defence of the port of Tyre and in the process laid the foundations for a fight-back against Saladin. Conrad was elected king of Outremer whilst Richard was in the country, a decision that was not supported by the Lionheart. Shortly after, Conrad was killed in the streets by Muslim assassins. Though definitive evidence of who was behind the killing is elusive, Richard was one of the prime suspects and accusations of his involvement were given as reasons for his imprisonment and ransom by Duke Leopold’s relative, the immensely powerful Holy Roman Emperor Henry VI.

    The face of the Lionheart: Richard's tomb at Fontevraud. (c. W. B. Bartlett, Richard the Lionheart, Amberley Publishing)

    Even the outcome of the crusade in which Richard was so heavily involved is controversial. Was it a success? It is true that the basis of a reduced but revived crusader kingdom of Outremer was in place by the time that Richard sailed back homewards.  But on the other hand, Jerusalem – lost after Hattin – remained firmly in Muslim hands and that was always seen as the main objective of the expedition. As part of the peace deal negotiated between Richard and Saladin, crusaders were allowed free access to Jerusalem before they returned home. Richard was conspicuously one of those who chose not to go; a sure sign that he would only make the journey to the sacred city on his own terms. This is an indication perhaps that Richard himself did not see the crusade as a success that remained, for him, unfinished business; sadly for him, his premature death in 1199 brought all hopes of his leading a repeat expedition to an end.

    All these unsolved questions and moments of controversy help to explain Richard’s continuing fascination to a modern audience. Later historians tended to criticise him for his obsession with crusading. Ironically it is a claim that does not really stand up to scrutiny. Richard reached Outremer in 1191 and left it less than two years later; he did not go back there during the last seven years of his reign, being far too busy trying to recover lands he had lost to Philip in France during his absence. A number of contemporary chroniclers accused Richard of not being concerned enough about Outremer rather than being obsessed with it; how times have changed and how differently we see the world now.

    W. B. Bartlett's new book Richard the Lionheart: The Crusader King of England is available for purchase now.

  • Agincourt - October 1415: The Long March by W. B. Bartlett

    The English army set out for Calais. No doubt there was much grumbling in the ranks. Thousands had been invalided home through the effects of dysentery and the expedition would have to survive on the rations it could carry with it and those that they could obtain from the lands through which they passed. Enough food was carried to last the men for eight days which was how long it was expected to complete the march if it was unimpeded. This turned out to be a hopelessly optimistic assumption.

    To add to the dangers, it was now very likely that a French army was waiting to intercept the English force. Even early on during the march there were skirmishes between French and English forces though these were minor. Henry managed to negotiate passage past several important local towns, Arques and Eu. There was no time for a siege so the English had to do what they could to negotiate their way past these places unimpeded.

    They had one specific target in mind, a crossing of the River Somme at Blanchetaque. This was a crucial destination, a ford which had been forced successfully by the invading armies of Edward III during his Crecy campaign over half a century before to his great glory; it was an action that resonated in recent English history. If Henry V could get across here then there was every chance of making it to Calais and then England without a fight.

    Then disturbing news came in. A Frenchman was captured and interviewed. He told the English that an army lay ready and waiting for them at Blanchetaque. It has taken up a strong defensive position to block the way ahead. Henry pondered on the news, realising that a powerful army opposing him here could lead to disaster. Eventually he decided on his move: another way across the Somme must be sought.

    So the English army diverted inland, moving along the southern bank of the Somme seeking in vain for a way over. Each mile they moved away from the coast was a mile further from Calais. Each day that passed extinguished another day’s rations. There was only a very limited supply of provisions easily available from the areas through which the army journeyed and it was no position to involve itself in a fight. Morale began to plummet and petty pilfering broke out. In one incident that deeply disturbed the pious English king a church was robbed. The offending archer was discovered and promptly hanged as an example to his comrades.

    But then, a glimmer of hope. The army was thinking that it would have to make its way to the very source of the Somme before they could cross it. However, spies came in with the news that a crossing had at last been found. The French had taken steps to damage it beyond repair but had failed to do so. The army crossed gingerly over, just in time for French cavalry rode up to impede them but in insufficient numbers to successfully do so.

    The English army advanced towards Calais once more, the Duke of York in the lead. His men reached the village of Blagny where a small river was traversed. They climbed the hill that hid the way ahead from them. As they crested it, they drew up their horses in a state of shock. Before them they saw a huge army barring the way. Many of the men had hoped desperately to reach Calais without a fight. It was now clear that this was unlikely to happen. Few can have had any hope that the result would be in their favour.

    This must have been a blow to King Henry. His march across France had been a huge gamble and it is probable that he did not want to provoke a fight. The outcome of medieval battles was uncertain and defeat could destroy not only his claims to the throne of France but also his powerbase in England. He was young and inexperienced and, although he had fought in battle before, never in a position where the stakes were so high. The days ahead would provide the sternest test he was ever likely to face and the outcome of the battle that loomed would determine his place in history.


    W.B. Bartlett's book Agincourt is available for purchase now

  • Agincourt - September 1415: Disaster Beckons by W. B. Bartlett

    Agincourt - The attack by Henry V's army on Harfleur The attack by Henry V's army on Harfleur

    The days were hurrying past and Harfleur showed no sign of losing its will to fight. An action that was supposed to last for days had now turned into a siege, a slogging match. The determination of the defenders to slug it out increased the chance that the French king and his generals would be able to raise an army to counter-attack and drive Henry and his men back into the sea.

    Sieges were a lottery. They put great pressure on the supply situation, both for those inside the walls but also for the besieging army. This was made far worse for the latter given the fact that they were far away from home. Ships scuttled to and fro from England bringing provisions with them whilst foraging parties were sent out locally to grab what food they could for the troops.

    Problematic though it was to keep up the flow of supplies, this was not the main issue for the English. Siege camps in medieval times were unsanitary places to live. Thousands of men living close to each other with little concern for hygiene made for a breeding ground for disease. And it was now that one of the medieval world’s greatest killers played its hand: dysentery.

    Soon it started to take its toll, decimating the army. It hit common soldier and knights and nobles alike. On 1 September 1415, Lord Fitzwalter, a mere sixteen years of age, succumbed, having barely reached manhood. By the middle of the month, matters were approaching epidemic proportions. It touched Henry V personally. One of his closest advisers was Richard Courtenay, Bishop of Norwich. He too fell ill with dysentery and it became clear that he had not long for this world. The king himself tended him as he was dying.

    The death of Courtenay hit the king hard. But he could not afford to be overwhelmed by it. With each passing day there was an increased risk of a French counter-attack. Time was running out so it was decided to gamble everything on a shock attack on Harfleur. When it came it was carried out by a group of men who might be thought of as his storm troopers, individuals like John Holland, Sir John Cornwall, Sir Gilbert Umfraville and Sir William Bourchier.

    The English has been busy, smashing the walls with their cannon and breaches had been made. Through the shattered defences the English charged. A counter-attack was launched but the English were ready for them. Archers carrying fire-arrows shot their missiles into the French ranks and they were forced back. The barbican, an important part of the outer defences of Harfleur, had fallen.

    Agincourt - King_Henry_V_from_NPG Henry V

    The defenders were now beginning to realise that they were running out of time. A delegation was sent to Henry V, asking for terms if no help from the French king was received. Permission was granted to allow a rider to make his way to the headquarters of the French seeing if help would be forthcoming in time. He returned with the news that they would not.

    So at 8 o’clock in the morning of 22 September a procession of hostages made its way from out of Harfleur and towards a waiting English king, seated imperiously in front of his royal pavilion with a stern look on his face. He kept them guessing. By the harsh terms of medieval war, he would have been within his rights to slaughter the menfolk of the town who had resisted his calls to surrender. But he decided that on this occasion he would be magnanimous.

    The men would be allowed to live, though the more important of them would be forced to raise ransom before they would be released. The humbler of them would be allowed to stay in Harfleur thought this would soon be turned into an English enclave, a counterpoint to Calais further to the north. The women though were forced to leave, useless mouths to feed in a town that was short of supplies. Their lot would be a harsh one.

    With Harfleur fallen, Henry entered its shattered walls, walking barefoot through its gates like a Christian pilgrim. It was a great moment no doubt but it was a worried English king who acted the part of humble conqueror. The time spent on taking Harfleur had allowed the French to organise their defences further afield. Quite what to do next was a major concern. The most obvious next move perhaps was to hold what he had taken and send the part of the army that would not be needed back home.

    That was the safe option but having thought long and hard about what to do next, the decision when it came was surprising and to some no doubt alarming. Henry would march its way to Calais and return home from there. The only problem with this was that it meant crossing over 100 miles of French territory with the strong possibility that the enemy’s army would be lying in wait for them. Henry V had turned gambler and the stakes for which he was playing could not have been higher.

    Agincourt - 9781445639499

    W. B. Bartlett's Agincourt Henry V, The Man-at-Arms & the Archers is available now

  • The Story of the World by W.B. Bartlett

    How do you write a story of the world? The subject matter is of course vast to the point of almost being infinite and what to put in and what to leave out becomes a monumental challenge of Herculean proportions. In the end it is all a matter of personal choice.

    Yet some informal guidelines help. For one thing I had decided from the start of writing this book, which took several years of my life to complete, that I would adopt a strictly chronological approach. World histories often adopt a thematic rather than a time-based view of things. I fully understand that but I also feel that there is an interest in knowing what was happening when. As a result the book was divided into chapters each covering a period of time, typically a century but as it moves towards modern times for shorter periods.

    Story of the World 1That though posed a different challenge. The further back in time we go, the less agreement we have on when exactly things happened. When we get to the ‘BC’ period, there is a wide variation in estimates of when events took place. There is also the issue that new discoveries are being made all the time. As a recent example, news emerged in March this year that the origin of man has been pushed back half a million years with the discovery of a fossil that is 2.8 million years old in Ethiopia. One has to accept that this is happening all the time, and so too is the story of the world being written all the time.

    At the back of my mind when writing this book though was the question ‘how did we get where we are today’? As a result I was on the lookout for major events and civilisations. Some I knew a good deal about already. My background as a medievalist prepared me well for that era in Europe. I had always had a passing interest in Ancient Egypt or Rome too.

    But other areas required more research. I wanted to avoid making this too Eurocentric a book, so I studied the history of China and India, or the Americas and Africa, much more than I had done previously. Hopefully there is a bit of a balance in the book as a result.

    Story of the World 2I also wanted to talk about people as well as civilisations. History really begins when we can talk about a person called ‘X’. When we go far back in time, into prehistory, we cannot pick out much about the lives of individuals. Archaeology can help to fill in some gaps but only up to a certain limit. It is writing that enables us to (almost literally) put some flesh on the bones of lives now long gone.

    At the end of this rather large and challenging project, is there an overall conclusion to be made? There are perhaps many but one thing stands out for me. For many countries in the world, it is geography that shapes their history. Britain, with its narrow seas, has been largely protected throughout the past thousand years because of its island status. Other countries on the other hand live on political fault-lines which often expose them to stresses: Israel, Georgia, Romania for example. Or even the country where I am writing this blog from, Moldova in Eastern Europe, where half the population is of Romanian heritage and the other half Russian. Next door to Ukraine as it is, Moldova is well aware of the danger of being too close to conflict zones.

    It was in any event an enjoyable book to write and I hope it will be an enjoyable one to read too. It will though need an update in 25 years’ time because much will surely happen in the intervening period that we do not currently anticipate.

    World - 9781445646992

    W.B. Bartlett's paperback book The Story of the World is available for purchase now.

  • Agincourt - July 1415: Henry V survives the Southampton Plot by W.B Bartlett

    Henry V was now ready for war as July 1415 began. The last ditch attempts of the French to stall through more peace negotiations having failed, he moved off to Portchester on the shores of Portsmouth Harbour where his great armada was assembled. En route he spent some time at the monastic house at Titchfield where he fortified himself spiritually for the great invasion of France that was at long last imminent. Everything was ready and time was of the essence. The campaign season was already quite advanced and any more delay could create problems.

    Unfortunately for Henry his plans were to suffer a spectacular setback. He was far from a universally popular king yet and one man in particular had an axe to grind. This was Richard, Duke of Cambridge, himself a member of the royal bloodline and a man who felt that he had not been well treated by the king. Even as the time for departure drew near, he was at the heart of a plot which had as its aim no less than the removal of Henry from the throne of England.

    Who was to replace Henry? The man identified to do so was Edmund Mortimer, the Fourth Earl of March. He was also in the royal bloodline and in the time of the late king Richard II had indeed been the heir to the throne. But although he was also probably ambitious enough, he was not well-equipped for the part of a plotter. He lacked much military or political experience and he does not seem to have had a lot of personal attributes to compensate for these shortcomings. However he had recently had a bad falling-out with the king who had issued him with a heavy fine for marrying a prominent heiress (also part of the royal bloodline) without getting permission to do so.

    So March allowed himself to be convinced. He went along with the plan which basically foresaw the Earl and his supporters escaping to Wales with their men just as the fleet was about to sail for Wales. As the month of July went on, Henry remained blissfully unaware of the plot. But as the decisive moment approached, March got cold feet. He reasoned that the plot would be a terrible failure and that the personal consequences for him would be fatal.

    Things were so far gone it was difficult for March to stop the momentum of the plot. The only way out that he could see was to throw himself on the far from certain mercy of the king. This is what he did, making his way to the great castle at Portchester. Breaking the news to Henry in an interview which must have been a terrible ordeal, Henry was both shocked and angry. Shocked because of the betrayal and angry because the date of the invasion would have to be delayed.

    March survived the fallout though he was a marked man. His co-conspirators were not so lucky. The Duke of Cambridge was executed in Southampton for his part in the plot, along with several other prominent plotters. The invasion was further delayed and Henry V was faced with the far from welcome prospect of leaving the country when the after-effects of the plot were still playing themselves out.

    Agincourt - 9781445639499

    W.B. Bartlett's book Agincourt: Henry V, The Man at Arms & The Archer coming September 2015 pre-order your copy today.

  • Agincourt - June 1415: England prepares for war by W.B. Bartlett

    The plans were all in place, the invasion army was assembling, the ports of southern England were full of ships and sailors. Vast amounts of supplies had been collected, as the fleet looked south across the English Channel towards the beaches of Normandy. Everyone hoped that the June weather would hold, allowing the armada to make it safely across to France. Things were not so different in 1415 than they were in 1944.

    Agincourt - Microsoft Word - Document2There had been various diplomatic missions to and fro for several years ever since the young, untried Henry V became king. He was determined from the start of his reign to stake a claim to France but the French ruler, Charles VI, had unsurprisingly rejected any such suggestions. Now the time for talking was over, or so Henry thought. Everything was ready until at the last moment there was an unwelcome complication.

    Towards the end of June a peace delegation from France arrived. They chased after Henry, who had already moved off to Winchester on his way to captain the invasion army. The French delegation caught him up and for a few days desultory negotiations took place. These were in all likelihood just an attempt to buy time by the French and Henry had no interest in further delay. His large army, some 11,000 men strong, had not come cheap; this was an army that was recruited, not conscripted. Delay could lead to desertion by the men and the chance to invade might never come again. The discussions got nowhere as they were doomed to do from the start.

    Agincourt - Microsoft Word - Document2


    This was the scene in England in June 1415, 600 years ago. Men-at-arms and archers had been recruited from across England and Wales and there were some Europeans there too from the English-held land of Gascony and expert gunners from Germany. Ships had been impressed in their hundreds. The Hundred Years War as it later became known had been essentially dormant for decades with just the occasional flare-up in between. Now Henry was ready to renew the conflict and England prepared for a decisive confrontation with the armies of France. The journey to Agincourt had begun.

    Agincourt - 9781445639499

    Agincourt: Henry V, the Man at Arms & the Archer coming September 2015 pre-order your copy today.

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