Currently viewing the tag: "William the Conqueror"

On this week’s edition of In Our Time, the long-running BBC Radio 4 series, the topic under discussion was Domesday Book. One of the most significant documents in English history, it is unparalleled in form and scope, and one of the greatest legacies of the Norman Conquest.

Commissioned by William the Conqueror in 1085, it is, in essence, a kingdom-wide record of who held what estates and other assets in England and how much they were all worth. The level of detail sought by the men carrying out the inquest was remarkable, even if not all of it necessarily made it into the final, edited version. As one of our key sources for the period, the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, comments in its entry describing the Domesday Survey:

“…there was not one single hide, not one yard of land, not even (it is shameful to tell – but it seemed no shame for him to do it) one ox, not one cow, not one pig was left out, that was not set down in his [King William’s] record.”

Joining Melvyn Bragg to discuss Domesday Book, the circumstances of its creation, the processes of the survey that supplied the information, its contents and its lasting impact, were three eminent scholars of the Norman Conquest: Elisabeth van Houts, David Bates and Stephen Baxter. It’s a fascinating debate; even after 900 years there remain several unanswered questions as to how it was put together and the exact reason for its being commissioned.

If you missed it, you can catch up online or else download the discussion as a podcast to listen to later from the BBC website. The In Our Time archive includes many excellent programmes related to Anglo-Saxon England and the Norman Conquest, and indeed history in general. In time I plan to compile a list of the best ones and post the links here on the website for anyone who’s interested in finding out more.

For the moment, however, here are two of my favourite programmes from the archives: firstly, Alfred and the Battle of Edington, about the West Saxon king’s struggles against the Viking invaders; and secondly, if you’re looking for further insight into life in England post-1066, The Norman Yoke, exploring and questioning the idea that the Conquest was necessarily a Bad Thing that resulted in many years of harsh oppression for the Anglo-Saxons.

If you’re interested in looking deeper into Domesday Book, meanwhile, or in exploring the history of your own home town or village, you need go no further than the Open Domesday project. Combining map data with records from the survey, it’s a visual, searchable database of who held what property in England, both on the eve of the Conquest in 1066 and at the time of the survey two decades later. It’s free to access, and easy to use.

And of course I can’t talk about Domesday Book and go without mentioning my own grand historical survey of the kingdom of England c.1066, Tancred’s England. With just three location entries so far, it’s not quite on the scale of that eleventh-century masterwork, which records 13,418 places and contains over 2 million words, but I’ll be adding to it bit by bit over the coming months. Any comments, including suggestions for other places that I could feature in Tancred’s England, are welcome – just let me know via the Contact page.

All this week the Historical Novel Society has been commemorating the anniversary of the Battle of Hastings, which took place 945 years ago today. As well as running a 1066-themed competition, the Society has also collected together a series of specially written articles about some of the lesser known figures of the Norman Conquest – figures who perhaps deserve to be better remembered – by novelists and historians specialising in the period.

Since my own series of novels is told through Norman rather than English eyes, my choice of subject is one of the invaders: William fitz Osbern, the Conqueror’s oldest and most loyal advisor, who acted as his right-hand man in Normandy and England both before and after the invasion.

Fitz Osbern was of a similar age to his namesake Duke William, which is to say he would have been around forty at the time of the invasion in 1066. The two probably grew up together in the ducal household, where his father had served as steward: a role that Fitz Osbern himself would later inherit. He and the duke formed a close friendship, and by 1066 he was one of the most powerful men in Normandy, with extensive lands centred around the town of Breteuil. He was also a regular part of the duke’s retinue, as evidenced by the large number of charters he attested.

In fact if we are to believe later sources, the Conquest might not have happened at all had it not been for Fitz Osbern. According to the twelfth-century poet and historian Wace, after news arrived at the Norman court that Harold had seized the throne, it was he who convinced the uncertain and despondent Duke William of the need to follow through with his intention to invade England and claim the crown. Indeed he went so far as to openly chastise him, saying:

“A worthy man must not begin anything or set anything in motion only to abandon it. Either start something and bring it to fruition or leave everything without more ado.”

Convincing William was the first challenge; the second was to secure the support of the other Norman barons, many of whom were less than enthusiastic about the proposed invasion, which they saw as a risky adventure. Again, as Wace tells the story, it was Fitz Osbern who brought order to the squabbling barons and persuaded them contribute the necessary men and ships.

Exactly how much truth lies behind either of these tales is hard to say; they originated many years after the events and so must be taken with a pinch of salt. At the very least they are suggestive of Fitz Osbern’s influence, showing that he was remembered in later generations for his extensive authority and for the respect he commanded from the Conqueror, in whose company he could speak freely: as a friend and equal rather than as a vassal.

After 1066 Fitz Osbern’s estates were much increased and his authority was extended across much of southern England. Along the Welsh borders he became known as a great builder of castles, and he was also later made castellan at York, although his activities elsewhere suggest that he cannot have spent much time in those parts of the country.

In 1067 the newly-crowned king returned to his native land to celebrate his victory. Fitz Osbern was entrusted, along with the Conqueror’s half brother Odo, with the governance of England, and in the king’s absence the two men became the enforcers of his rule. “Swollen with pride”, as the English-born chronicler Orderic Vitalis describes them, they proceeded to subdue the kingdom in brutal fashion. As Orderic relates:

When their men-at-arms were guilty of plunder and rape, they protected them by force and wreaked their wrath all the more violently upon those who complained of the cruel wrongs they suffered.

The other side of Fitz Osbern’s character thus presents itself: as well as being loyal and reliable, he also possessed a ruthless streak. For these acts of violence Orderic roundly condemned him; Wace later described him as “a very arrogant man”. Indeed it was his arrogance which was to prove his undoing.

In 1071 a struggle for the succession broke out in neighbouring Flanders between the young Count Arnulf and his uncle Robert. Fitz Osbern, who was at the time in Normandy governing the duchy with Queen Matilda, responded by riding to the count’s aid, albeit “as if to a tournament” with only ten knights accompanying him. At Cassel in late February he was ambushed and killed: an abrupt and embarrassing end for such a famed and powerful man.

How his career might have played out had he not died then, we can only speculate. Would his power have extended even further over the years to come as the nascent Anglo-Norman realm was consolidated?

For all his brutality, pride and recklessness, Fitz Osbern was remembered by contemporaries as a man of good character, great physical prowess and unwavering loyalty. Even Orderic conceded that he was greatly mourned by the Normans, and found space to admire his bravery and generosity. Perhaps the greatest commendation of all, however, comes from another twelfth-century historian, William of Malmesbury, who described Fitz Osbern as “better than the very best princes” – high praise indeed.


For more articles about some of the lesser known protagonists of the Conquest period, as well as links to other online resources for 1066, visit the HNS Competitions blog. To find out more about the Historical Novel Society itself, visit its website.

Norman knights ride to battle

Norman knights led by Bishop Odo of Bayeux riding into battle under the papal banner. Image taken at English Heritage's annual Battle of Hastings re-enactment.

One of the most common questions that readers of Sworn Sword ask me is why I chose to write from the Norman perspective, rather than that of the English, as might be expected. In fact this was a decision that I made very early on in the novel’s development, when it was little more than a bundle of research notes and half-formed plot ideas.

I had long been fascinated by the Conquest, and I knew that what I wanted to write about were the years that followed the Battle of Hastings: a turbulent period as the Normans fought to consolidate their gains and subdue a country rife with rebellion. (The story of one of those rebellions, led by the dispossessed prince Eadgar, forms the backbone of the novel.) However, while the theme of the tragic-heroic struggle of the Anglo-Saxons against their foreign oppressors seemed to me very familiar, the Norman version of events was not generally as well known. Straightaway, then, I started to think about giving the tale of the Conquest a fresh twist, by telling it from the “other” point of view.

Every story has two sides. One man’s freedom fighter is another man’s insurgent. These sayings are so familiar as to have almost become clichés. By blurring the traditional distinction between the “good” English and the “evil” Normans, I hoped to show the period in a different light, to challenge readers’ sympathies and preconceptions. So far as I could see it was an angle that few authors had taken before, which made this a subject ripe for exploration.

Even so, to get the modern reader on the side of the foreigner is no easy task. Why this should be isn’t completely clear. After all, it goes almost without saying that the Englisc of the eleventh century are not at all the same people as the English of the twenty-first. Moreover, were it not for the Normans, we would not speak the language we do today, our systems of law and governance would be entirely different, as so too would our cultural heritage, since all are based on the foundations that they laid. The world we live in today owes as much, if not more to the Normans than it does to the Anglo-Saxons.

None of that, of course, is to deny that the Norman invasion was a brutal affair, or that it resulted in tremendous suffering for many thousands of people. In particular the campaign later known as the Harrying of the North, by which King William devastated Yorkshire in the winter of 1069-70, is testament to that. Nonetheless, to suggest that the Normans were universally bad men would be a gross oversimplification. Undoubtedly some came to England purely for self-serving reasons – out of desire for land and wealth, blood and glory – but I believe that many were also complex human beings who truly believed in the righteousness of their cause.

William of Normandy’s case for war in 1066 was built on two main pillars. The first of those was that the claim that he had been promised the succession by King Edward the Confessor in 1051. The second was that in c. 1064 Harold Godwineson had sworn on holy relics to uphold his right to the throne: a promise that he had subsequently broken when he himself seized the crown upon Edward’s death in January 1066. As far as the invaders were concerned, then, Harold was a perjurer and a usurper who had no right to the English crown. Worse than that, he was effectively made an enemy of God after Pope Alexander II gave his approval to William’s proposed invasion and sent him a consecrated banner under which to fight. To a Christian knight riding in the Conqueror’s army, there would have been little question that he was on the side of justice. William was the rightful king, anointed by God, and any who rose against him were to be crushed.

However, as Tancred finds out over the course of Sworn Sword, it is often difficult to tell who is right and who is wrong in any given situation. There are times when men will betray their principles in noble causes; on other occasions they will hold steadfastly to them even if it means the destruction of all that they hold dear. Englishmen will fight in the service of Normans and vice versa, to the extent that the “sides” become blurred and it becomes harder to talk about this period as a simple conflict between the two peoples, still less as one of good versus evil.

In reality the Conquest was a complicated and morally messy affair, and by offering a different perspective this is what I hope to show in Sworn Sword.

Listeners to this morning’s edition of In Our Time on BBC Radio 4 were treated to a fascinating discussion about the Battle of Stamford Bridge, which took place close to the city of York on 25 September 1066. This encounter saw the famed Norwegian adventurer and warrior King Harald Hardrada pitched against the newly crowned King of England, Harold Godwineson, and were it not for what happened less than three weeks later at Hastings, it would probably be regarded as one of the most significant battles of the age.

Many of the specifics relating to the battle are impossible to know, such as how many men fought on either side, or even where exactly it took place: there is no village of Stamford Bridge recorded in Domesday Book, and it is probable that the name was purely descriptive, referring to a crossing-point somewhere on the River Derwent. The outcome, however, could not have been clearer, as the Norwegian forces were routed in a decisive victory for the English.

The near-contemporary Anglo-Saxon Chronicle records that Harold came upon them by surprise, although the story that the Norwegians had left their mail hauberks on their ships is harder to credit, since it originates from Snorri Sturluson’s Heimskringla saga, written more than 150 years after the event. Whatever the manner of the victory, what is known is that Harald Hardrada was killed along with the vast majority of his army, which included Harold Godwineson’s own brother Tostig. Indeed it is said that only 24 ships sailed back to Norway, out of a fleet of roughly 300 that had set out.

Of course Stamford Bridge was merely one episode in the story of 1066, but its repercussions were enormous. Even as Harold was engaged in the north, Guillaume (William) of Normandy was able to land unopposed at Pevensey on the south coast, before raiding the region in order to gather supplies for his army. At the same time he established a castle at Hastings, thus entrenching his position. If Harold wanted to drive the invader out of the kingdom, he therefore had little choice but to march south and do battle with him, at tremendous risk to himself and the kingdom. The dénouement of that story is of course well known.

It is worth noting finally that York and the region around it continued to be a battleground for years to come. The second-largest city in England at the time, it was a rich centre for trade and a vital strong-point in the north of the kingdom, making it a key target in 1069 when Eadgar Ætheling led his army against the Normans: a tale shortly to unfold when Sworn Sword is released in hardback on 4 August.