Category Archives: Norman Conquest

To whom did Edward the Confessor leave his crown?

As Edward the Confessor lay dying, even as his great building project of Westminster Abbey came near its completion there was the question of who should inherit the kingdom.  There were four possible contenders:

Edgar_the_ÆthelingFirst:  Edgar the Atheling son of Edward the Exile, who was the son of Edmund Ironside – Edward the Confessor’s older half brother by their father’s first wife Aefgifu.  But Edgar, who was only fourteen, was too young to rule independently and there were troubled times ahead. One source noted that Edward is said to have murmured something about being too young on his deathbed.  Despite this, initially, his claim would be supported by Earls Edwin of Mercia and Morcar of Northumbria but the Witan preferred an adult to be in charge with William Duke of Normandy across the Channel preparing an invasion fleet.  In the aftermath of the Battle of Hastings edgar would be elected king by the Witan.  His nominal rule lasted two months until he was captured by William at Berkhamstead. He was never crowned and  lived in William the Conqueror’s court as a “guest” until he fled to Scotland in 1068 where his sister, Margaret, was married to Malcolm III of Scotland.

Saint_Margaret_of_Scotland.pngThat was fine until 1072 when King William of England  and Malcom of Scotland signed the Treaty of Abernathy and Edgar was forced to seek protection from King Philip I in France. He eventually returned to England where he received a pension of £1 a day.  In 1097  Edgar led an invasion into Scotland and later still he went on a crusade to the Holy Land. He died in 1125.  His sister Margaret, pictured right, is a saint.

Second: Harold Hardrada was a relation of King Cnut. Cnut’s son Hardicnut or Harthacnut, who had no immediate heir,  had promised the throne to King Magnus of Norway – Hardrada was Magnus’s son. Hardrada claimed that the pact had devolved to him and now he wanted to claim the kingdom.  When Harthacnut died in 1042 Edward was already in England and Magnus was not in a position to make his claim.  Harold Hardrada had a reputation for being successfully violent and a large army to go with it so felt that he would be able to succeed in his bid for the crown.

Hardrada also had the support of Harold Godwinson’s brother Tostig.  Tostig was the third son of Earl Godwin and had acquired the Earldom of Northumbria but had been forced to hand it back to Morcar (let’s not go there- this post is already quite long enough).  Tostig’s role in the north of England had been similar to Harold’s in the south before the death of King Edward but he had not been very popular with the locals.  His status can be seen by the fact that he was married to Judith of Flanders. Her mother was Eleanor of Normandy – making Emma of Normandy, Edward the Confessor’s mother, her aunt, demonstrating that once again everybody in History is related one way or another (read Geoffrey Tobin’s very informative comments at the end of the post about Edward the Confessor to find out exactly how intertwined the families of England, Normandy, Brittany and Pontieu were).  Tostig, resentful of his demotion from the earldom of Northumbria and irritated by Harold’s promotion decided that he would like to be king so started to create trouble.  To cut a long story short the fyrd or militia was called out. Tostig went to Denmark and from there to Norway where he met with Harold Hardrada and came to an agreement.

As it happened the wind favoured Hardrada’s invasion.  By the 20th September 1066 Hardrada was in York.  By the 25th September King Harold had made a lightening march north and confronted Hardrada’s forces at the Battle of Fulford.  Hardrada who had been so confident of success that he’d brought the contents of his treasury with him was killed in a battle which his forces lost.  King Harold noted that luck must have deserted the Norwegian.


William-I-of-EnglandThird: William, Duke of Normandy.  He claimed that not only had Edward designated him to be the next king but that Harold had sworn under oath that he would support William in his claim to the throne.  There was also the relationship that existed between Normandy and England.  Emma of Normandy was the great aunt of William and Edward had spent most of his early life in exile in the Norman court.  When William invaded he carried a Papal flag at the head of his army.  The invasion was a crusade – God was on William’s side.  He and his wife Matilda had even dedicated one of their daughters to the Church to ensure success.

king haroldFourth: Harold Godwinson – It seems that Edward, to answer the question posed at the start of the post, gave the care of the English into Harold’s hands as he lay dying. Certainly this is what the Bayeux Tapestry suggests (He seems to have forgotten  the pact of 1051 that Norman Chroniclers reference as the starting point to William’s claim).

Harold was not part of the Royal House of Wessex although there were suggestions that his mother Gytha had been a bit closer to King Cnut than was entirely proper.  Harold’s older siblings all had Danish names and big brother Swein (who died in 1052) claimed that he was Cnut’s son.  Gytha had not been overly amused and had produced witnesses to testify that Earl Godwin was Swein’s father.

Just to side track a little bit, Swein was a busy boy with regard to Welsh politics. He also abducted the Abbess of Leominster – a lady called Aedgifu- with the intent of acquiring land.  He was made to return the abbess and then he fled to Flanders. He travelled from there to Denmark where he blotted his copybooks and was required to leave in a bit of a hurry so he returned home in 1049.  He managed to persuade his brother Harold and his cousin Beorn that he was a changed man. They agreed to take him to King Edward to plead his case.  Unfortunately he then murdered Beorn and had to flee again.  He was outlawed again but allowed back home in 1050.  The following year the entire Godwinson family managed to irritate King Edward and Swein was given his marching orders with the rest of his clan.

Swein ultimately repented of his sins and went on a pilgrimage to Jerusalem.  When he returned someone killed him but he left one son, a lad called Hakon, who managed to find himself in the Duke of Normandy’s custody along with another brother of Harold’s called Wulfnoth.  It is thought that Harold was going on a mission either to negotiate their release in 1064 when his boat was blown off course, landed in Ponthieu and was captured by Count Guy of Ponthieu.  William, Duke of Normandy demanded that Guy, who was his vassal, send Harold to him in Rouen immediately.

However, back to where I was supposed to be.  Harold was the senior earl in the country – no matter what Edwin and Morcar might think- he owned large tracts of land and vast wealth.  His sister was Queen Edith, King Edward’s wife.  Unusually Edith had been crowned when she became queen – the Saxons don’t seemed to have bothered with that sort of thing much. After King Edward’s dispute with the Godwinsons had been forgiven in 1052 Harold and his brother Tostig had more or less been responsible for running the country.  Ultimately the Witan decided that Harold was the man for the job so appointed him as their monarch after Edward the Confessor. He ruled for nine months and nine days until he was defeated and killed in his turn at the Battle of Hastings on the 14th October 1066.



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Edward the Confessor

Edward the confessor drawn.jpgKing Edward was born sometime between 1003 and 1005 at Islip in Oxfordshire. His father was the unfortunate Ethelred the Unready.  It should be “Unraed” which means ill counselled or sometimes he’s described as “the Redelss” which means more or less the same thing.  If Edward has a reputation for saintliness then his poor old father has a reputation for being the most incompetent king in English history – which is saying something. He had the misfortunate to be king at the time when the Scandinavians were flexing their muscles again and after a long period of peace the English were not in any state to resist.  The Anglo Saxon Chronicles of the period talk a lot about flight and being beaten.

The policy of buying off hairy Viking brutes with large axes is called paying Danegeld.  The Saxons had used the method before but after the Battle of Maldon in 991 it became much more commonplace.  And, of course, in paying off one bunch of raiders it didn’t mean that another independent group would arrive or that the first lot wouldn’t turn up for another bite of the cherry.  It went from bad to worse when a Dane called Sweyn Forkbeard arrived with the intention of invading rather than looting.

Ethelred was understandably feeling somewhat harried but it was perhaps a little bit excessive to order the death of all the Danes living ins kingdom especially as the Wantage Code of 991 had been agreed so that the Danes who lived in England would feel greater loyalty to the Saxon rulers.  On 13 November 1002 there was an attack on all the Danish settlers in the kingdom.  This is known as the St Brice’s Day Massacre and had the obvious effect of making all the surviving Danes rally towards Sweyn as averse to the monarch of their adopted country. Sweyn took the opportunity to destroy Exeter – a stronghold of the Saxons.

More sensibly in 1002 Ethelred had arrived at an agreement with the Normans to prevent the Danes from using the Normandy coast as a harbour and jumping off point for their endeavours.  As you might expect this agreement was cemented by a royal marriage. Emma of Normandy was sent to become Ethelred’s wife.

In 1011 the Danes captured Canterbury and its archbishop.  They carted the unfortunate archbishop to Greenwich where they had their encampment.  Archbishop Aelfheah refused to allow himself to be ransomed so the Danes killed him by throwing discarded ox  and cattle bones at him.  Eventually someone put him out of his misery by hitting him over the head with the butt of an axe.

Emma of Normandy.jpgIn 1013, the area known as Danelaw decided that Swyn and his son Cnut would make excellent rulers. This freed up the way for the Danes to invade Wessex at which point Aethelred fled to the Isle of Wight in the first instance leaving Emma to take her two small sons Edward and his younger brother Alfred home to Normandy (shown pictured left) – a young Edward is seated behind his mother.

Sweyn Forkbeard died in 1014 leaving Cnut to rule. Ethelred returned at this point in proceedings to try and retrieve the situation but he also died in 1016. Emma remained in England despite the fact that her children were in her brother’s kingdom. Emma now married Cnut – ignoring the fact that Cnut had a wife called Aelfgifu who he had married on 1006. So, Emma became queen for a second time. She had a son called Harthacnut and set about forging a more united kingdom for the Saxons and the Danes.

All this time Edward was in Normandy where his cousin Robert was now the duke.  It was Robert who demanded that Edward should be allowed to return home and that with Ethelred dead that Edward was the rightful king – although this did bypass the fact that Edward and Alfred were the product of a second marriage and that other older sons were available.  It was only when Robert died andWilliam became Duke of Normandy that the political situation changed.  The Normans did not now have the leisure to interfere in English affairs and it looked as though Edward and Arthur would be left kicking their heals.

In 1035 Cnut died.  Emma had negotiated as part of her marriage alliance with Cnut that any sons she might have would have a better claim to the kingdom than sons by other women. She took the precaution of commandeering the treasury. Unfortunately Harthacnut was in Denmark when Cnut popped his clogs so whilst Emma waited in Winchester for the arrival of her son, Cnut’s other wife Aelfgifu lobbied for her own son Harold Harefoot to become king. Ultimately there was a meeting in Oxford as both sons had a claim to the throne and both of them had their own group of supporters. Harthacnut still had not returned to England – so inevitably Harold Harefoot had the upper hand simply because he was on the scene.

It was a period of uncertainty.  This was the time that the sons by her first marriage to Ethelred, Edward and Alfred, returned to England to see if they could snaffle a kingdom whilst Cnut’s sons were busy.  Edward made landfall in Southampton and then went to Winchester where he met with his mother. Alfred arrived in Kent.

Unfortunately Earl Godwin had his own vested interests to consider and they did not involve the sons of Ethelred the Unready.  He met with Alfred and said that he would escort Alfred to Winchester. Instead he captured Alfred and blinded him. Edward seeing which way the tide had turned fled back to Normandy.

In 1037 Emma was forced to leave England. Harold Harefoot was king. Ultimately Harthacnut did not have to worry about invading England because after three years as ruler Harold Harefoot died rather unexpectedly whilst celebrating a wedding.

Harthacnut would not have won a popularity contest. He died unexpectedly as well.

Earl Godwin now decided that Edward was a better bet than some of the other possible claimants to the Crown.  Edward was crowned on 3rd April 1043 in Winchester.  The price for Godwin’s support was marriage to his daughter Edith – who had originally been named after her mother but changed to the more Saxon sounding Edith upon marriage – something that occurred in 1045 when Earl Godwin was at the height of his powers. Edith was about twenty-two whilst Edward was somewhere close to forty as we aren’t totally sure which year he was born. Rather unusually Edith had her own coronation. Anglo-Saxon kings don’t seem to have crowned their spouses very much.

Godwin had done very nicely from the rule of Cnut.  He also had a Danish wife  called Gytha who just so happened to be Cnut’s sister through marriage and a brood of sons – something which Edward the Confessor lacked. His sons Swein and Harold both became earls in their own right and they were brothers-in-law of the king just as Godwin was the king’s father-in-law. The trouble was that Edward did not look towards Scandinavian countries for alliances.  He turned to Normandy. Matters came to a head in 1051 when Edward insisted on appointing a Frenchman to the archbishopric of Canterbury.  There was then a spot of trouble in Dover which Godwin refused to put down followed by a stand off at Gloucester when Godwin had a rant about foreigners.

Edward who was not always the saintly but weak man that history often portrays him  called out the militia which meant that Godwin and his sons found themselves on the wrong end of an army – including some of their own tenants.  Edward then outlawed Swein who had some very questionable attitudes to women and property.  He demanded that Harold and Godwin explain themselves or face the consequences.  Godwin fled and was declared an outlaw – I’m not sure if any of this enhanced Edward’s relationship with his wife- especially when he confiscated Godwin’s property and sent Edith to a nunnery where she remained until 1052.

There is some evidence that by 1051 Edward had agreed to William becoming the next king of England but it is also true to say that Edward contacted the exiled son of Edmund Ironside, who was Edward the Confessor’s older half-brother by Ethelred’s first wife, and invited him to return from Hungary.  His name was also Edward.  History tends to call him Edward the Atheling or more pointedly Edward the Exile.  Edward the Atheling received his letter from his uncle inviting him home in 1056 having sent someone to find him on 1054.  He arrived with his wife Agatha, his daughter Margaret and his son Edgar.  This exiled family was a way for Edward the Confessor to get one over on Earl Godwin because not only did the king want to support his own family but the Witan (England’s council) liked the idea of England being ruled by the Saxon ruling house rather than a power hungry Godwin who’d done very nicely thank you out of Cnut’s reign. Unfortunately Edward the Atheling died unexpectedly on 19th April 1057 without ever meeting Edward the Confessor. The inevitable suspicion is that some unscrupulous person must have poisoned the Atheling leaving Edgar who was too young to be of political signficance.

Which brings us back to Earl Godwin and his brood.  Godwin had returned from exile in 1052 along with his son Harold who’d spent the time in Ireland.  Together they were able to march on London and force Edward to reinstate them.  Godwin died the following year but Harold was now nicely positioned to make a claim on the crown assuming that athelings dropped like flies whenever they came near his brother-in-law King Edward.

Meanwhile Edith was allowed to return to court when her father and brother regained the upper hand as Edward lacked the men or will to overcome them a second time.  Clearly the time spent contemplating her situation hadn’t improved the relationship between husband and wife.  Historians speculate as to the nature of their marriage.  It has been suggested that Edward refused to consummate the union because the bride was forced upon him by the family who had betrayed his brother, blinded him and left him to die.

From 1055 onwards the Godwinsons – Harold in the south (he had inherited his father’s Sussex estates) and Tostig in the North were more or less responsible for the running of the kingdom.  Edith can be found issuing charters and patronising monastic houses – in particular Wilton where she was educated and spent her time in exile from court.

In 1064 Harold made a mysterious trip to Normandy.  It might have been a bid to ransom members of his family or it might have been a bid to sort out who would wear England’s crown after Edward died.  Either way, Harold ended up taking part in a campaign against Conan II of Brittany and apparently swearing to support Duke William to become Edward the Confessor’s successor.

When Edward the Confessor died on 5 January 1065 he had just finished work on Westminster Abbey which is featured in the Bayeux Tapestry – a workman is in the middle of affixing a weather vane to it to indicate how complete it was.  These days he has a reputation for holiness thanks in part to William of Malmesbury who wrote, in the 1120s, about Edward and miracles associated with him either in his life time or at his tomb.  It was from texts like this that the concept of the king being able to cure scrofula or “the king’s evil” is derived.

Inevitably Edward the Confessor is usually remembered as the king who died and triggered the Norman Conquest.

Morris, Marc. (2013) The Norman Conquest. London:Windmill Books



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Pilsbury Castle, Derbyshire

Pilsbury castle.JPGThe village of Pilsbury in Derbyshire is what experts call a “shrunken Medieval village,” to the rest of us it’s a hamlet. Pilsbury is the start of a new fascination (sorry).  Obviously Derbyshire has Peveril Castle in Hathersage and there’s Haddon Hall which may indeed rejoice in the name ‘manor’ but which looks decidedly castle-ish but where are the rest of Derbyshire’s castles?  They seem to have gone missing.  Apparently there’s a site for a castle in Bakewell but its hardly on the tourist trail. Some ten miles from Bakewell, to the north of Pilsbury along the Dove Valley lies the village of Crowdecote which may have a motte, or large man-made mound upon which to stand a castle. Unlike so many other counties in England the castles of Derbyshire appear to be transient commodities.  Not even the Earl of Shrewsbury’s castle at Sheffield survived the test of time.  So, I’ve added castle spotting to my list of peculiarities.

Pilsbury Castle, which does at least rejoice in the name ‘castle,’ lies between Crowdecote and Pilsbury.  It is inaccessible by road.  You can’t hear any traffic, just the gurgle of the River Dove as it winds around the spur of land on which the earthworks that were once a de Ferrers motte and bailey castle stand.

pilsbury castle 2.JPGThe name Pilsbury gives a clue as to how old the defensive site may be – “pil“ comes from the Celtic, ‘bury,” from the Saxon and “castle” from the Norman – and they all mean much the same thing. Whatever the name of Pilsbury may tell us the archaeology is determinedly Norman with its one wall built into a natural outcrop of rock that was once a reef and its many green banks and mounds that depict a motte and bailey castle – actually its a two bailey castle as the helpful guidance board provided by the Peak District authorities illustrates.


dscf2692There are several theories as to how Pilsbury came to be built in the upper Dove Valley. The first is that it came into being during the so-called ‘harrying of the North’ between 1069-1070. The idea is that the Normans having destroyed people’s homes and livelihoods found themselves in a situation where those Saxons who survived took to the hills and turned to outlawry in order to survive. If this was the case it then follows that the Norman landowners had to build defences to keep the Saxons firmly under control especially somewhere like Pilsbury which stands near a ford and a packhorse route and is in terrain ideal for fugitives. It’s not too hard to imagine the dangers of an attack in this isolated spot.


There is a problem with this though, as elsewhere in the country.  Hartington and the Dove Valley were in the hands of the de Ferrers’ family. It is unlikely that William the Conqueror would rampage with fire, sword and salt across lands belonging to powerful favourites as the yield from those lands would fall rather drastically as a result making their acquisition somewhat pointless. The same may be said of landholdings, notably in Yorkshire, belonging to Alan the Red for example.


So if that theory doesn’t appeal, how about the Normans turfing hardworking Saxons off their lands in order to create a wilderness where they could hunt. The disposed Saxons may well have taken to the hills and caves in the Dove Valley,  again turning to outlawry just to survive. Alternatively maybe the de Ferrers simply wanted to stamp their authority on their land with one of those new fangled castles just to remind the locals who was in charge or to extract “tax” as pack-horses laden with salt and other goods crossed the ford.

A further theory derives from the years of the so-called “Anarchy” when King Stephen and Empress Matilda were slogging it out to see who would rule England. The Rive Dove marks the boundary between lands belonging to the Earl of Derby and lands belonging to the Earl of Chester. Let’s just say that between 1135 and 1153 the pair were not the best of friends with the Earl of Derby backing Stephen and the Earl of Chester backing Matilda. Under those circumstances with a ford just down the valley a fortification becomes rather a sensible idea. Actually come to think of it, the two earls weren’t terribly friendly at other times in history so the castle may simply have been built as part of a neighbourly dispute.


The written record after its construction is somewhat vague too. Pilsbury is mentioned in the Doomsday Book but not the castle. Pilsbury is mentioned again in 1262, again the land not the castle, when the Earl of Derby, Robert de Ferrers, granted land to Henry of Shelford. Four years later the Earl of Derby was up to his neck in rebellion and his land was promptly confiscated.  By the thirteenth century the land on both sides of the river was in the hands of the Duchy of Lancaster so there was no need for a defensive structure. And that as they say, is that – though I think we can safely say that the History Jar will be sporadically peppered with images of grassy knolls and hummocks purporting to be Norman mottes.


So far as Pilsbury Castle is concerned, it is possible that the castle was used as a hunting lodge during later times but it ceased to be a centre of administration after Hartington received its market charter in 1203 from King John.



Hart, C.R., 1981, The North Derbyshire Archaeological Survey to AD1500 (Derbyshire Archaeological Trust)

Millward, R. and Robinson, A., 1975, The Peak District (London: Eyre Methuen) p. 115, 121-2

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Worcester Cathedral

DSC_0102Bishop Wulfstan became a saint much admired by King John.  He was also a canny politician.  He’d been appointed bishop by Edward the Confessor  in 1062 and is said by his biographer a monk called Colman to have advised King Harold. This didn’t stop him from being one of the first bishops to offer his oath to William. The Worcester Chronicle also suggests that Wulfstan was at William’s coronation.

William set about reforming English Bishoprics, generally by removing Saxon clerics and appointing Normans. He demanded that Wulfstan surrender Worcester.  According to its chronicle Wulstan surrendered the staff to the king who appointed him – i.e. Edward the Confessor. No one else could shift it so William was forced to confirm Wulfstan as bishop.  King John trotted this legend out as an example of the way in which the king had the right to appoint English bishops rather than the pope having the right.

DSC_0114Wulfstan ensured that the Benedictine monks at Worcester continued their chronicle and he preached against slave trading in Bristol.  Meanwhile the priory at Worcester was growing (It was a priory rather than an abbey because it had a bishop as well as its monastic foundation- that’s probably a post for another time).  Not much remains of the early cathedral building apart from the crypt with its forest of  Norman and Saxon columns. Wulfstan’s chapter house draws on its Saxon past and is, according to Cannon, one of the finest examples of its time. In 1113 it suffered a fire rebuilding began immediately. Wulfstan’s canonisation in 1203 helped  Worcester Abbey’s and the cathedral’s economy although the Barons’ War ensured that Wulfstan’s shrine was destroyed on more than one occasion although when Simon de Montfort sacked Worcester he spared the priory.

On a happier note, King John was buried there  partly because of his veneration of St Wulfstan.  He’s one of the saintly bishop’s whispering in the John’s ear (see first image). Henry III crowned at Worcester aged nine with a circlet belonging to his mother because the crown was too big and John had famously just lost rather a lot of bling in The Wash (assuming you don’t think there’s a conspiracy behind the whole story).  Simon de Montfort’s daughter Eleanor (whose mother Eleanor was Henry III’s sister) married Llewelyn ap Gruffudd, Prince of Wales there in 1278 having been held prisoner for three years by her cousin Edward I.DSC_0102

A building programme was required for the final resting place of a monarch not least because in 1175 the central tower had collapsed possibly because of dodgy foundations. In 1202 there was yet another fire and in 1220 a storm blew down part of the edifice.  In 1224 the rebuilding began ensuring that Worcester is a good example of early English gothic. The building continued to expand.  By the fifteenth century new windows were being added.


We shift now to the Tudor period.  In 1502 Prince Arthur died at Ludlow after only a few months marriage to Catherine of Aragon.  His heart in buried in Ludlow but the rest of him was interred in Worcester Cathedral. His tomb and chantry will be posted about separately.  The Tudor propaganda machine provided symbolism with bells and whistles.

In 1535 Latimer was made Bishop of Worcester.  He visited his see in 1537 by which time Cromwell’s commissioners had carried out the Valor Ecclesiasticus. Its income was £1,260.  It was the fourth richest of the monastic cathedrals behind Canterbury, Durham and Winchester (Lehmberg: 46). Holbeach had sent Cromwell “a remembrance of his duty” in the form of an annuity to the tune of some twenty nobles a year – presumably in the hope of being left alone.  Latimer found that the monks were sticking to their old ways of dressing the Lady Chapel with ornaments and jewels rather than new more austere Protestant approach. He laid down the law but three years later Worcester Priory was surrendered by Prior Holbeach on 18 thJanuary 1540.

Two years later it was re-founded as the Cathedral of Worcester. Holbeach became the first dean of the  cathedral. As with many other religious buildings it suffered during the English Civil War – lead was stripped from its roof valued at £8000. The eighteenth and nineteenth centuries were a time of renovation for Worcester Cathedral.


DSC_0151Somehow, thirty-nine fifteenth century misericords survive at Worcester.  There are also some fine spandrels (triangular bits between arches) depicting various scenes including a crusader doing battle with a lion not to mention the crypt and Arthur’s chantry with its tomb of Purbeck marble.

‘The city of Worcester: Cathedral and priory’, in A History of the County of Worcester: Volume 4, ed. William Page and J W Willis-Bund (London, 1924), pp. 394-408. British History Online [accessed 27 August 2016].

Cannon, Jon. (2007). Cathedral: The Great English Cathedrals and the World that Made Them. London: Constable

Lehmberg, Stanford. E. (2014) The Reformation of Cathedrals: Cathedrals in English Society. Princetown: Princetown University Press.



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Great Malvern Priory

IMG_7747.JPGWhat a gem!  Great Malvern Priory was founded in 1085 by a hermit, Aldwin, from Worcester Abbey on land belonging to Westminster Abbey.  This means that during the life of Great Malvern’s monastic establishment it looked to  Benedictine Westminster for direction which is why it’s a priory rather than an abbey in its own right.

Aldwin was supported and guided by Bishop Wulfstan of Worcester who went on to become one of King John’s favourite saints. The priory also received its charter and funding from  William the Conqueror who gave charters to many monasteries – a reminder that the conquest of England had the Pope’s blessing and that William was conscious of the need to give thanks for his victory. Henry I and Edward III confirmed and renewed the charter. The priory wasn’t without its problems though.  The fact that it was on Westminster Abbey land but founded by a monk from Worcester and looked to the Worcester for guidance led to friction at various times in the priory’s history.

DSC_0102The pillars in the nave of today’s building are Norman and there are odd clues to the Norman past scattered about the building but the priory as it stands today dates largely from the fifteenth century.  The Bishop of Worcester was called upon to consecrate the new build in 1460 – just as the Wars of the Roses really got started (Battle of Wakefield December 30 1460).  However, the new build ensured that assorted Lancaster and York monarchs added their ‘bit’ to the decor from Henry VI’s tiles via Richard III’s stained glass windows to Henry VII. At least those monarchs wanted to enhance the building, finished in 1502.

In 1535 Dr Legh, one of Cromwell’s commissioners and a bit of a thug by all accounts,  visited the priory.  Things can’t have been that bad as there is no report of his findings amongst Cromwell’s documents.  According to the Valor Ecclesiasticus of 1535, the income of the prior and convent amounted to £375 0s. 6½ d. It escaped the act suppressing the small monasteries, although a cell belonging to the priory wasn’t so fortunate.


In 1539 the monastery was dissolved despite the please of Hugh Latimer the Bishop of Worcester (he would ultimately go to the flames in the reign of Mary Tudor for his Protestantism). He wrote to Cromwell on behalf of the prior; ‘at the request of an honest man, the prior of GreatMalvern, of my diocese,’ pleads for the ‘upstandynge’ of his house, and continuance of the same to many good purposes, ‘not in monkery . . . but to maintain teaching, preaching, study with praying, and (to the which he is much given) good “howsekepynge,” for to the “vertu” of hospitality he hath been greatly inclined from his beginning, and is very much commended in these parts for the same . . . The man is old, a good “howsekepere,” feeds many, and that daily, for the country is poor and full of penury. Alas, my good lord, shall not we see two or three in each shire changed to such remedy? . . Sir William Kingston can report of the man further.’ The letter dated 13 December 1538 finishes with flattery: “Blessed be God of England that worketh all, whose instrument you be! I heard you say once after you had seen that furious invective of cardinal Pole that you would make him to eat his own heart, which you have now, [I trow], brought to pass, for he must [needs] now eat his own heart, and be[as] heartless as he is graceless.”  Latimer went on to offer Cromwell 200 marks and the king 500 if they would spare the priory.

Not that it did any good. By January 1539 the priory had been suppressed and the lead stripped from its roof.  The prior, one Richard Whitborn, received h £66 13s. 4d. each year.  Ultimately, in 1541, the parishioners of Great Malvern purchased the priory for £20.00 as the original parish church was in a poor state.  They acquired the “stateliest parish church in England.” The parish church of St Mary and St Michael is without a shadow of a doubt a show stopper.


A second post will consider Great Malvern’s medieval tiles whilst a third post will explore the wonderful medieval windows and also a fourth post on the glass given by Richard III and by Henry VII.  As you might guess, I spent a very happy morning in Great Malvern Priory although I wasn’t able to study the misericords (the ledges on which the monks could rest during services) because of work being done in the choir of the church.  Great Malvern is unusual in that as well as depicting a mermaid on its misericords it also has a merman.

For fans of C.S. Lewis it is also worth noting that he went to school in Malvern College just before World War One and whilst he was there he may have been inspired by the enclosed east doors of the priory church which ultimately turned into the wardrobe by which the Pevensies entered Narnia.  A glimpse through the lock reveals a fir tree and a lamp post.

‘Houses of Benedictine monks: Priory of Great Malvern’, in A History of the County of Worcester: Volume 2, ed. J W Willis-Bund and William Page (London, 1971), pp. 136-143. British History Online [accessed 16 August 2016].

Cleop. E. iv.264. B. M.Wright’s Suppression of the Monasteries,148. ‘Henry VIII: December 1538 11-15’, in Letters and Papers, Foreign and Domestic, Henry VIII, Volume 13 Part 2, August-December 1538, ed. James Gairdner (London, 1893), pp. 438-455. British History Online [accessed 23 August 2016].

‘Parishes: Great Malvern with Newland’, in A History of the County of Worcester: Volume 4, ed. William Page and J W Willis-Bund (London, 1924), pp. 123-134. British History Online [accessed 16 August 2016].


Filed under Churches and Chapels, Fifteenth Century, Kings of England, Literary connections, Norman Conquest, Sixteenth Century, The Tudors

Two Scandalous Bishops at Lichfield Cathedral – Leofwin and Walter Langton

DSC_0049.jpgLichfield, in pre-Conquest times was a great see covering most of Mercia, these days its very much smaller and well worth a visit with its beautiful gospels and carved angel.


The first of this post’s scandalous bishops to reside in Lichfield, according to Cannon, was minding his own business when he was accused, fairly promptly after the Norman Conquest, of being married and forced to resign.   In fact, a quick glance at Bell’s entry for Lichfield suggests that not only did the Bishop Leofwin resign but that he also died in 1066 suggesting a convenient stratagem for removing the incumbent Saxon.  The next bishop was William the Conqueror’s own chaplain, Peter, and it was during his tenure that the seat of the see was moved from Lichfield to Chester and from there to Coventry where there was an abbey until in 1189 Lichfield was restored to its role of cathedral although there appears to have been some pretty unpleasant vying for power between the inhabitants of Lichfield and Coventry for several centuries afterwards.


The second scandalous bishop rocked up in 1296. Rejoicing in the nickname of ‘the king’s right-eye,’ treasurer Walter Langton was given the bishopric as a reward by King Edward I and nominated as Edward’s executor. He got down to some serious building work in Lichfield which including building houses around the cathedral precincts for the vicars and canons.


Four years later Walter was up to his neck in trouble. He was accused of adultery with his step-mother, of murdering his father, witchcraft and corruption. These charges were without foundation but they reflect the way in which medieval political smear campaigns  sometimes ran.  In 1307 with a new king on the throne in the form of ditch digging Edward II (that really was one of his hobbies) Walter found himself under arrest and his income handed to royal favourite Piers Gaveston. Now whilst Langton may have been corrupt and greedy the other charges had rather more to do with the dislike of Edward II and the Archbishop of Canterbury for the former treasurer than anything else.  Not that Walter appears terribly popular with anyone else either. When the Lords Ordainers, so called because of the ordinances or regulations that they (there were 21 of them) imposed on Edward II, took power in 1311 and booted Piers Gaveston out of his position as royal favourite Walter continued to languish in prison.  He did ultimately regain his position as treasurer having cleared his name but no one appears to have trusted him very much.


It was Langton who constructed (presumably not personally) the West front and also the three spires. Lichfield is the only cathedral in England to have a triple spire arrangement. The grotesques adorning the cathedral are rather more Victorian in design.  Unfortunately the cathedral had a rather unpleasant time during the English Civil War but more of that anon.




Cannon, Jon. (2007) Cathedral: The Great English Cathedrals And The World That Made Them London: Constable

Clifton A. (1900) Bell’s Cathedrals: The Cathedral Church of Lichfield A Description of Its Fabric and A Brief History of the Espicopal See. Edinburgh: White and Co


Filed under Cathedrals, Church Architecture, Fourteenth Century, Norman Conquest

Matilda’s ship – the Mora

mora-guillaume-le-conquerant.jpgMrs Conqueror a.k.a Duchess Matilda was an organised sort of woman – which was probably just as well given her spouse.  In the run up to the Norman conquest she and William handed over their daughter Cecilia to God as a nun at La Trinite in Caen.  She went on to become the abbess.

Having made her investment with the Almighty Mrs Conqueror moved on to the practicalities of sailing across the Channel and capturing England.  She commissioned a new ship to be built in Barfleur in the Viking style with a figurehead of a golden child holding an ivory horn in one hand and pointing onwards with the other- which as Borman says was unusual.  The more normal figurehead usually had an animal or perhaps a dragon head. Hilliam says that the child was ten-year-old William Rufus but Borman speculates that the duchess might well have fallen pregnant just before the whole conquest project. The prow bore a lion’s head and the banner on the masthead had been consecrated in Rome. You can see the golden child in this picture of the Mora from the Bayeux Tapestry.  And, ladies and gentleman should you be wondering what to give the significant other in your life, the Mora was a surprise present.  William only found out about it in the summer of 1066 and immediately made it his flagship (sensible man).

It would have to be said that William’s entire family seem to have gone slightly to town on the boat giving that year. Harkins’ comment that his mother’s family donated one hundred and twenty small boats to William’s project (Harkins:32) but that they were largely small boats capable of carrying not more than forty men.

Just in case you’re wondering what you give the woman who gives you a nice new flagship – the answer is Kent.

As to the meaning of the name Mora I direct you to a guest post on the Freelance History Writer dating from 2014 which explores some of the possible meanings of the name and directs its readers to William’s royal Nordic past.  Click on the blue link to open a new window on a very interesting article.

Borman, Tracy. (2011) Matilda: Queen of the Conqueror. London: Jonathan Cape

Harkins,  Susan S and Harkins, William H.(2008) The Life and Times of William the Conqueror. Mitchell Lane Publishers

Hilliam, Paul. (2005) William the Conqueror: First Norman King of England. The Rosen Publishing Group



Filed under Eleventh Century, Norman Conquest

Harold Godwinson’s women

aeflgyvva.jpgIn 1064, so yes slightly before the start date of my self imposed chronological constraint, Earl Harold Godwinson ended up on the wrong side of the Channel.  The Malmesbury Chronicle says that he went on a fishing trip and got blown off course due to bad weather whilst the Bayeux Tapestry depicts Harold arriving to retrieve various relations who had been held hostage for several years.  Whatever the truth of it Harold swiftly found himself being handed over to Duke William in Rouen and during his time in Normandy even taking part in William’s military campaign in Brittany.

Both the Malmesbury Chronicle and the writer of the Jumieges Chronicle report that Harold agreed to support William’s claim to the English throne at this time but that William offered his eldest daughter Adeliza to Harold as a deal sweetener.  Apparently the girl wasn’t yet old enough to marry the handsome English earl but when she did come of age William offered his daughter together with a handsome dowry. Borman notes that Adeliza would have been about seven-years-old in 1064. Borman continues her story by suggesting that it was William’s wife, Matilda, who brokered the deal and that the woman in the Bayeux Tapestry titled “Aelfgyva” is in fact Adeliza.  The woman in the Bayeux Tapestry is an adult, and of course, Adeliza would not have been married until she reached puberty so it could be that the creators of the tapestry are looking to the future.  Borman (page 81) adds that it is possible that the woman is framed in a ducal doorway on the tapestry and that the priest touching her cheek is actually removing her veil – so a depiction of the betrothal ceremony.  The only problem, apart from the obvious age thing, is that why anglicise Adeliza’s name?  The tapestry is, after all, Norman despite its English crafting.  Borman also makes the very good point that there is a subtext in the tapestry.  There are a couple up to marginal naughtiness in the borders of the tapestry at this point in the story – and it hardly seems to apply to Adeliza.  Borman goes on to suggest that Aelfygvva is actually Harold’s sister who was fetched across to Normandy for a corresponding Norman-English marriage to cement the agreement.

Walker notes that one source suggests a plan to marry Harold’s sister to Duke William – which can’t have been the case as his wife Matilda might have objected.  More plausibly there may have been a projected marriage between Harold’s sister and William’s eldest son Robert. Walker also offers the suggestion that Harold was actually on his way into continental Europe to arrange an advantageous match for his sister when he got blown off course and ended up as a ‘guest’ of William.

Freeman notes that the lady in question could be a courtesan provided for Harold at Rouen or even, and I’m still not quite sure why she’d be in the Bayeux Tapestry a mistress of either Cnut or Harold’s brother Swegn (who happened to also be an abbess- the mistress that is). Freeman presents the argument that the lady in question is none of the above but actually Queen Emma who changed her name to one that tripped off Saxon tongues upon her marriage to Aethelred (the Unready). Emma ultimately married Aethelred’s enemy Cnut having left the children of her first marriage in Normandy (Alfred and Edward – who became the Confessor and despite being Saxon was actually very Norman).  At a later date she was accused of impropriety with the Bishop of Winchester – not to mention the blinding and eventual death of her own son Alfred at Ely.  Freeman argues that not only did Emma have a Norman link but demonstrated the chaos of pre-conquest England in the minds of the Normans as well as the perfidy of the Godwinson clan – Emma having been linked in her policies to Harold’s father (the treacherous Earl Godwin.) Double click on the image to open a new page and a post on the published in 2012 with more detail about who the mysterious Aelfgyvva might be and why.


Now that’s what you call an aside!

The Malmesbury Chronicle, to go back to the original point of the post, says that William’s daughter died before she could be married to Harold and this added to Harold’s justification for breaking his oath to support William.

There’s also the small matter that Harold was some forty years older than his intended bride and possibly already had a wife in the form of  Edith Swanneck.  History always seems a bit vague about what to call this particular Edith.  Some texts refer to her as Harold’s mistress, others as his common law wife.  It appears that the couple were hand fasted in the Norse  not-entirely-Christian-somewhat frowned upon by the Church-tradition.  Harold had several children with Edith Swanneck and they were not regarded as illegitimate at the time but then when Harold made his claim to the throne it was deemed sensible that he should make a more acceptable marriage to the widow of his enemy Llewelyn – Edith of Mercia to strengthen his position.  It was Edith Swan neck who, according to legend,  went in search of Harold’s body in the aftermath of the Battle of Hastings.

History is a bit vague about when Harold married Edith of Mercia but they were certainly married by the time he became king in 1066.  In the aftermath of Hastings, history’s last sight of Edith is heading in the direction of Chester in the company of her brothers.

Borman, Tracy (2011 ) Matilda: Queen of the Conqueror.  London: Jonathan Cape

Freeman, Eric ( 1991)  Annales de Normandie. The Identity of Aelfgyva in the Bayeux Tapestry  Volume 41  number 2 pp. 117-134 (accessed 13th June 2016 23:35)

Walker Ian W. (2010) Harold: The Last Anglo-Saxon King Stroud: Sutton Publishing



Filed under Eleventh Century, Norman Conquest

Matilda or Mrs William the Conqueror

matilda of flandersMatilda of Flanders had an illustrious pedigree including Alfred the Great.  Tracy Borman comments that she was related to most, if not all, Norther Europe’s royalty.  Her mother Adela supervised her education and later Matilda would be praised for her learning.  By the time Matilda was eighteen in about 1049 a certain Duke William whose lands marched with those of Count Baldwin V looked to be an advantageous match so when he approached Baldwin with a marriage proposal Matilda’s father accepted.

However, Matilda was less delighted.  She refused to marry William.  Borman speculates that it was because William was illegitimate – although of course the stigma of illegitimacy was not necessarily the bar to high office that it became in later centuries.

imagesWilliam was not a happy man.  He rode to Bruges, met Matilda coming out of church and proceeded to knock her into the mud, pull her plaits and hit her…an interesting variation on a box of chocolates and bunch of flowers.  In one account he is said to have kicked her with his spurs which would have been painful at the very least and Borman makes the point probably fatal.  Baldwin immediately declared war on William only to discover that Matilda had changed her mind.  After her rather rough wooing she decided she wanted to marry William.  The story was written approximately two hundred years later so a rather large pinch of salt is required in order to digest the tale but the pair do seem to have been evenly matched in terms of temper.

There may have been another reason for the change of heart.  Tracey Borman discusses the possibility of an earlier relationship with Brihtric Mau tarnishing her reputation but there again her father had already arranged another betrothal with Saxony when Matilda refused William.

Brihtric Mau was Edward the Confessor’s ambassador. He was descended from the House of Wessex and he was a wealthy man which made him a powerful man.  He was tall and handsome with blond hair.  Borman suggests that Mau is derived from ‘snew’  which is of course the Old English word for snow (Borman: 17).  Borman goes on to explain that the Chronicle of Tewkesbury – and the largest part of Mau’s lands were in Gloucestershire- describes Matilda as falling in love with the handsome Saxon.  She apparently sent a messenger back to England when he returned there proposing marriage.  This was not the way that a nice girl behaved, even if she was the daughter of a count.  It caused a scandal and to make matters worse the unspellable Brihtric rejected her.

The reason why the Chronicle of Tewkesbury is at such pains to tell the tale is because in 1067, twenty years after he’d rejected her, Matilda got her own back.  She asked William for the Manor of Tewkesbury and removed Gloucester’s charter – which was a disaster commercially and legally for the town. Dugdale’s History of the Norman Conquest adds the fact that Brihtric found himself in a dungeon in Winchester where he died in suspicious circumstances two years later – though there’s nothing very suspicious about lack of food, poor hygiene and lack of fresh air.

That’s the story – Borman also presents the evidence that Brihtric was present at Matilda’s coronation (Borman:118) which means that he can’t have been languishing in a dank cell in Winchester awaiting a visit from Matilda’s assassin.  Whatever the truth all we have is rumours and historical fragments.  It does at least demonstrate that Matilda must have been as tempestuous as her spouse.

Borman, Tracy. (2011) Matilda: Queen of the Conqueror. London: Jonathan Cape


Filed under Eleventh Century, Norman Conquest, Queens of England

Christmas crowning

imagesThere are twelve days until Christmas so I thought I’d turn my attention to a few festive posts and where better to start that with William, Duke of Normandy.

The Orderic Vitalis recounts events. Given that the dates for the Orderic are 1075-1142 the chronicler could hardly be accused of penning his words from the front line but it’s the best historians have to go on and it is a reliable source.


So at last on Christmas Day… the English assembled at London for the king’s coronation, and a strong guard of Normen men-at-arms and knights was posted round the minster to prevent any treachery or disorder. And, in the presence of the bishops, abbots, and nobles of the whole realm of Albion, Archbishop Ealdred consecrated William duke of Normandy as king of the English and placed the royal crown on his head. This was done in the abbey church of St Peter the chief of the apostles, called Westminster , where the body of King Edward lies honourably buried.


But at the prompting of the devil, who hates everything good, a sudden disaster and portent of future catastrophes occurred. For when Archbishop Ealdred asked the English, and Geoffrey Bishop of Coutances asked the Normans, if they would accept William as their king, all of them gladly shouted out with once voice if not in one language that they would. The armed guard outside, hearing the tumult of the joyful crowd in the church and the harsh accents of a foreign tongue, imagined that some treachery was afoot, and rashly set fire to some of the buildings. The fire spread rapidly from house to house; the crowd who had been rejoicing in the church took fright and throngs of men and women of every rank and condition rushed out of the church in frantic haste. Only the bishops and a few clergy and monks remained, terrified, in the sanctuary, and with difficulty completed the consecration of the king who was trembling from head to foot. Almost all the rest made for the scene of conflagration, some to fight the flames and many others hoping to find loot for themselves in the general confusion. The English, after hearing of the perpetration of such misdeeds, never again trusted the Normans who seemed to have betrayed them, but nursed their anger and bided their time to take revenge.


Source: The Ecclesiastic History of Orderic Vitalis, translated by Marjorie Chibnill (Oxford University Press, 1978)


Now I ask you – you’re a man at arms; your man Bill is getting crowned, you hear a loud noise inside the abbey where the coronation is going down. You panic because of the loud noises. Fair enough, you’re probably aware that you’ve not won friends and influenced people during the last three months but then- and this is the bit I struggle with- instead of checking that Bill isn’t being brutally murdered by some very cross Saxons you set fire to random buildings…why exactly would you do that? It’s not really a terribly logical thing to do – but then I’m not a Norman.  There again, perhaps if you set fire to the buildings on either side of the narrow streets it would prevent anyone else getting to the abbey?

Every monarch since William the Conqueror has been crowned in Westminster Abbey apart from Edward V and Edward VIII who weren’t crowned at all- the first because he disappeared whilst in the Tower and the second because he became sidetracked by a divorced American.  Other monarchs had themselves crowned elsewhere to be certain of the job but had themselves re-crowned at Westminster in due course.  Henry I on spotting that brother William Rufus had expired due to a nasty arrow related injury in the New Forest on 2nd August 1100 took himself off to Winchester, secured the treasury and  had himself crowned there the next day.  The procedure was repeated in Westminster on the 6th.  It was normal for medieval kings to hold more than one coronation – it helped remind people who was in charge.


Anyway, that’s the first of my festive posts – William the Conqueror being crowned on Christmas Day 1066 followed, not with the first edition of the King’s speech,  by a good old-fashioned medieval riot.


Filed under Kings of England, Norman Conquest