The last of the Anglo-Saxon kings, Harold Godwinson, or Harold II, born around 1022, met his death against the forces of William of Normandy at the Battle of Hastings on 14 October 1066.
Harold Godwinson was the second son of Earl Godwin, the most powerful man in England. By his early 20s, Harold held an extensive earldom in eastern England and took as his concubine, Edith Swan-neck. In 1051 the family were exiled after an altercation with the king, Edward the Confessor, and all their lands and wealth were confiscated. With the help of their allies at home, the Godwines returned in 1052, forcing the king to take them back and reinstating their lands and titles. With the death of his father in 1053, Harold became the new Earl of Wessex and had ascended to become the most powerful nobleman in the country.
The Oath of Fealty
After a series of successful campaigns against the Welsh ruler, Gruffydd ap Llywelyn, in 1052-1053, Harold earned a reputation as an excellent military commander and his victories were celebrated throughout England. It is alleged that in 1054 he was sent by King Edward on a diplomatic errand to William, Duke of Normandy. The voyage began badly; Harold was shipwrecked and captured by the Guy, Count of Ponthieu. After being rescued by Duke William, Harold accompanied him in battle against Conan, the Duke of Brittany, and was knighted shortly after. According to Norman sources, Harold then swore an oath of fealty to William over holy relics, promising that he would support his claim to the English throne when King Edward died. He then returned to England, only to become embroiled in a rebellion against his brother, Tostig Godwinson. This resulted in Tostig’s exile and, soon after, King Edward became seriously ill.
The Battle of Barnet, which took place on 14 April, 1471, was one of the most important engagements of the Wars of the Roses. These were a series of civil wars fought in England during the later fifteenth century, with the rival houses of York and Lancaster vying for the throne. The battle also determined the ultimate outcome of the personal conflict between King Edward IV and Richard Neville, Earl of Warwick – former allies who had by then become implacable foes.
Ten years earlier the Earl of Warwick, at that time a Yorkist, had helped Edward (pictured) – then still in his teens – to depose the Lancastrian King Henry VI and seize the throne. Warwick became the greatest man after the king. By the end of the 1460s, however, despite numerous attempts at reconciliation, the relationship between Edward and Warwick had broken down. Edward and Warwick clashed over the direction of foreign policy. Edward’s controversial marriage to Elizabeth Woodville was another key factor, as Elizabeth’s relatives gained increasing influence at court. Warwick was the driving force behind two rebellions; his supporters included Edward’s own brother, George Duke of Clarence. But ultimately Warwick’s plans failed; both he and Clarence were forced into exile in France.
Incredibly, through the agency of King Louis XI, Warwick now formed an alliance with Margaret of Anjou, Henry VI’s formidable queen. (Margaret had earlier fled to France with her young son, Prince Edward.) In September 1470 Warwick invaded England with French support, accompanied by Clarence, and quickly raised a large army. Crucially, Edward was betrayed by Warwick’s brother, John Marquis Montagu – who had hitherto remained loyal to Edward – and he was forced into exile in his turn. Queen Elizabeth, who was then heavily pregnant, sought sanctuary at Westminster. Henry VI, who had been imprisoned in the Tower of London, was restored to the throne. But Henry, never strong, was by now a broken man: Warwick was to rule.
Harald Hardrada Sigurdsson, King of Norway, was one of the claimants to the English throne following the death of Edward the Confessor in January 1066. Kaye Jones summarises Harald Hardrada’s life and his death at the hands of England’s Harold II at the Battle of Stamford Bridge, 25 September 1066.
Born in 1015, Harald ‘Hardrada’ Sigurdsson was the son of the Norwegian king, Sigurd the Sow. At the age of 15 Harald fought his first battle alongside his half brother, Olaf, at Sticklestad. Olaf was killed while the injured Harald fled to Kiev where he was given refuge by King Yaroslav. Harald stayed there for three or four years and then travelled to Constantinople to work for the Emperor of Byzantine.
Harald possessed natural fighting ability and quickly rose to become the commander of the emperor’s special guard. Having amassed a great personal wealth, Harald left Constantinople in 1043. After a brief time in Kiev, where he married King Yaroslav’s daughter, he returned to Norway.
‘Hardrada’, Hard Ruler
William the Conqueror, the future William I of England, was born between 1027 and 1028 at Falaise in Normandy. As the product of a brief relationship between his father, Robert, the 2nd Duke of Normandy and his mother, Herleva, the daughter of a local tanner, William came to be known as the Bastard by his contemporaries. After the death of his father in 1035, the boy William inherited the Duchy of Normandy with his great uncle acting as regent. Due to his illegitimacy, there were several Norman magnates who refused to accept the young William as the rightful heir and in 1040 they hatched a plan to murder him. The plot failed but William’s guardians were killed.
By 1045 William was old enough to take control of the Duchy and successfully crushed the first threat to his power in 1047 at Val-es-Dunes. It was after a visit to his distant cousin, King Edward the Confessor, in 1051 that William alleged he had been promised the throne of England. This was later confirmed with Harold’s Godwinson’s visit in 1064. After King Edward’s death and the coronation of Harold as Harold II in January 1066, William prepared to invade the country. The Norman army arrived at Pevensey on September 28th and defeated the English at the Battle of Hastings on October 14th. After his coronation on Christmas Day 1066, William spent the early years of his reign stamping out English resistance and strengthening the borders, including the building of defensive “marcher” counties along the border of Wales in 1081.
‘We come here with no peaceful intent, but ready for battle, determined to avenge our wrongs and set our country free. Let your masters come and attack us; we are ready to meet them beard to beard.’
This, in 1297, was the manner in which William Wallace was reported to have lured the English into the first significant defeat they had suffered in 30 years – at the battle of Stirling Bridge.
William Wallace was the younger son of a minor landowner from the west of Scotland, and is perhaps the best known character from the early battles of the Scottish Wars of Independence.
Wallace was born some time around 1274 and was only a teenager at the time of the death of Alexander III, king of Scotland.
Fighting the English
William Wallace grew into a huge young man; estimates place him at six feet seven inches tall. This would truly have made him a giant of the era and afforded him an enormous advantage in a medieval battle, where strength was of great importance. He wasted little time in using this muscle as he would fight the English at any given opportunity, killing them with impunity and without mercy.
Alice Perrers, mistress of that most powerful of Plantagenet Kings, Edward III, at the same time as she was a damsel (lady-in- waiting) to Queen Philippa, first crossed my path, writes Anne O’Brien, when I discovered a copy of Lady of the Sun, the Life and Times of Alice Perrers by F. George Kay in a second hand book shop. I was not impressed with Alice. There was little that we knew about her that could be supported by evidence. Furthermore she had an astonishingly bad press from contemporary writers, painting her reputation black with absolutely no redeeming features.
‘There was … in England a shameless woman and wanton harlot called Ales Peres, of base kindred … being neither beautiful or fair, she knew how to cover these defects with her flattering tongue …’
This was the view of Thomas Walsingham, a monk at St Albans who knew Alice well.
Alice faired no better at the hands of reputable modern historians who have been hardly less damning. ‘Edward III was sick and enfeebled, given over to the wiles of his rapacious mistress.’ The adjective rapacious figures widely.
And yet something attracted me to this remarkable woman from the fourteenth century. Here is Alice, in all her notoriety.
Alice the low born usurper of royal power
Alice had neither breeding nor wealth nor significant family connections. According to rumour, she came from the lowest of the low, being the illegitimate daughter of a town labourer – a tiler – and a tavern whore. She was born with nothing and deserved no promotion, but she did not know her place. With ruthless determination she stepped out of it, rising above herself to become one of the Queen’s damsels and mistress to the King.
The story of England’s first civil war is one of strong personalities and conflicts. The Empress Matilda is one such personality who for her sheer determination and ambition, stands head and shoulders above the rest. Though she was never able to secure the succession for herself, she was instrumental in bringing about the rule of her son, Henry II, and the welcome return of peace to the kingdom after almost two decades of fighting.
The King’s Heir
Born on 7 February 1102 at Sutton Courtenay in Oxfordshire, Matilda was the only legitimate daughter of Henry I and his first wife, Edith of Scotland. When her brother William died in the White Ship disaster of 1120, Henry nominated Matilda as his heir to the throne of England – an unusual position for a medieval princess. In an era where the role of monarch encompassed that of a soldier and politician, a woman’s unsuitability for rule was a foregone conclusion.
Of all Henry’s leading men, only two supported Matilda’s nomination – David, King of Scotland, and Robert of Gloucester – Matilda’s uncle and half-brother.
But whether the barons liked it or not, Matilda had already proven herself capable of direct rule. Back in 1114 Matilda had married Henry V, the German King and Holy Roman Emperor. During their 11 year union, Matilda ruled alongside her husband and independently during his many periods of absence. On his death in 1125, Matilda was recalled to England by her father and soon after married Geoffrey Plantagenet, son of the Count of Anjou. Like her first marriage, the match was purely political and designed to produce a son who might, one day, sit on the English throne. In the meantime Henry had his barons swear an oath of fealty to Matilda on three separate occasions – in 1127, 1128 and 1131 – to ensure the smooth succession of his crown.
‘No ship ever brought so much misery to England’
William of Malmesbury.
When we think of important dates in medieval history, 25 November 1120 probably isn’t one that springs to mind. But for England this was, in many ways, a momentous day. Not only did this day witnesses the death of Prince William, heir to the throne, it also set the country on the road to its first and often forgotten, civil war…
The port of Barfleur
On 25 November 1120, King Henry I and his heir, Prince William, were in Normandy. Their purpose in France was to ensure peace in the duchy of Normandy and with this now achieved, were about to sail home.
On arrival at the port of Barfleur, Thomas FitzStephen, captain of the White Ship, approached Henry and offered his captaincy and use of his vessel. FitzStephen claimed that his father had been employed by William the Conqueror as his personal captain and had in fact taken the duke to England for the invasion of 1066. With such impressive credentials, Henry accepted his offer – not for himself but for his son. The deal was then sealed with few drinks which soon turned into a long day of partying. By the time they boarded the ship that evening, FitzStephen and the royal party were roaring drunk.
If the Scottish armies’ glorious victory at Stirling Bridge, 11 September 1297, was a spectacular affront to the superpower of the day, then the defeat at the Battle of Falkirk on 22 July 1298, was normal service resumed as far as England’s king, Edward I, was concerned.
Infuriated by the defeat at Stirling, the English monarch mustered another army, larger than before and extremely well organised.
William Wallace (pictured) knew that the English forces were far superior. He would probably have known that achieving such a success as at the Battle of Stirling Bridge was unlikely, as Edward I himself was in command now and it is doubtful that he would be drawn into a similar trap that lost him the battle at Stirling.
Wallace, then, contented himself with a scorched earth policy. He burned the villages of his own country, destroyed the crops of the farms and moved the people and their animals to the north, out of the reach of Edward.
Scorched earth was an effective, if not extreme, solution to the military problem Wallace faced. His army was more disciplined than the Scots rabble that had faced John de Warenne at the Battle of Dunbar, but it was still little match for the English in a pitched battle on equal terms.
Robert the Bruce had been king of Scotland since March 1306 but his land was still populated by several English garrisons and under constant threat from his southern neighbour and its king, firstly Edward I until his death in 1307, then his son and successor, Edward II. The Scots rallied behind Bruce and between 1306 and 1314 they set about recapturing the castles and towns of Scotland that were still under English control. After eight years of successful guerilla warfare and a number of plundering raids into northern England, Bruce felt ready to meet the mighty English in open battle.
Robert the Bruce prepares
The ground that Robert the Bruce (pictured) chose for the battle, which was to determine the fate of his country and crown, was that which would give him the best advantage against the superior forces he was likely to face.
He took up position just to the north of the Bannock Burn with the thickly wooded New Park giving cover to his rear. The English army, advancing from the south, would have to cross the burn in order to engage the Scots, but with areas of swamp on either flank they would be severely restricted in their movement.
The Scots army was standing directly in the path of the English host, and their goal of saving the garrison at Stirling castle could only be achieved by a frontal assault against Bruce’s well-drilled spearmen.
The Scots were drawn up in three infantry formations, or shiltrons, with a small contingent of cavalry. A large number of camp followers were also nearby, although these were largely unarmed and unsuited for battle. Indeed, King Robert had dismissed many men who were willing to fight for him but, unable to afford suitable weapons or armour, had come ill prepared.