Monthly Archives: December 2013

Stamford Bridge, was this William’s break?

The battle of Stamford Bridge took place at the village of Stamford Bridge, Yorkshire on 25th September 1066.  It took place just nineteen days before the battle of Hastings in which William of Conqueror defeated Harold Godwinson and took the crown of England.  You have to wonder what the outcome of that battle had of been if Harold was not fighting his name sake Harald Hardrada, the King of Norway at Stamford Bridge.  The battle is taken in history as the end of the Viking era in Britain, even though small campaigns took place in the decades to come.

Edward the Confessor had died earlier in the year which triggered a contest for the vacant crown in England.  These claimants included the King of Norway Harald Hardrada who assembled a fleet of 300 ships containing roughly 15,000 troops.  He arrived off the English coast in September 1066 and was joined by further forces recruited in Flanders and Scotland by Tostig Godwinson (broter of Harold).  Tostig had been ousted by Harold as Earl of Northumbria and had been raiding in England throughout the early part of 1066.

Harald’s army sailed up the river Ouse towards York where they defeated a northern English army led by Edwin, Earl of Mercia and his brother Morcar, Earl of Northumbria at the battle of Fulford on the 20th September.  Following the victory York surrendered to the Norwegian army.

During this time King Harold, who had already been crowned on the day of Edward’s funeral was in southern England waiting for the invasion of William, Duke of Normandy.  As soon as he heard of the invasion he headed north with his houscarls and as many of his thegns as he could gather.  He made the journey from London to York (185 miles) in just four days taking the Norwegians by surprise.

Anglo-Norman 13th manuscript showing a scene of the Battle of Stamford Bridge

Anglo-Norman 13th manuscript showing a scene of the Battle of Stamford Bridge

There was no village at Stamford Bridge in 1066 and not even in 1086 according to the Doomsday Book.  The Viking army was split into two with some on the west side of the River Derwent and the bulk of the army on the east side.  It was also a warm day for September and with the surprise a lot of the Viking army had left their armour on the ships.  Harold’s army first attacked the Vikings on the west side of the river and quickly overturned either slaying them or sending them backwards.  The English advance was then halted at the bottle neck of the bridge at the crossing.  Later folk tales said of a giant of a Viking armed with axe, who stood on the bridge and would not let any of the English army passed.  It is said that he defeated slayed 40 enemies before he was finally defeated by someone attacking him from underneath the bridge through the gaps.

This delay though is said to have allowed the bulk of the Norwegian army to create the shieldwall with their shields overlapping in defence.  Harold’s army then rushed across the bridge creating their own sheildwall before charging at the Norwegians.  The battle raged for hours and moved further away from the bridge.  The Vikings defence was faltering and then Harald was shot with an arrow in the wind pipe and Tostig was also slain.  The English army then pushed and the shieldwall broke.  The lack of armour for the Vikings was a great disadvantage and before long they totally disintegrated and were almost annihilated.

In the later battle they Norwegians were reinforced with troops that initially were left to defend the ships.  They apparently briefly checked the English advance but were soon also overwhelmed.  The Norwegians then retreated and fled chased by the English, with some of the Vikings drowning as they tried to cross the rivers.  So many died in such a small area that it was said the field was still whitened with bleached bones fifty years later.

King Harold then accepted a truce from the remaining Norwegians including Harald’s son Olaf and Paul Thorfinsson, Earl of Orkney.  The Norwegians then retreated to the Orkneys but only twenty four of the three hundred ships were needed so was the slaughter of the battle.

Three days after the battle William, Duke of Normandy landed on the south coast of England.  King Harold had to once again rush his now battle weary army on a forced march this time south.  On October 14th William defeated Harold at the battle of Hastings and so many Anglo-Saxon thegns and nobles died during the two battles that it was difficult for the Anglo-Saxons to counter a major resistance of the Normans.

But what if?

If Harald Hardrada had not attacked when he did how would the Norman invasion faired against a fresh Anglo-Saxon army?  Would Harald if he had invaded after William have then defeated Harold if he had won at Hastings?  So many questions over such a short period of time and such an important period in the growth and future of England and all of Western Europe.

Stamford Bridge battlefield memorial near Whiterose Drive

Stamford Bridge battlefield memorial near Whiterose Drive

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Matilda of Flanders, Queen consort to the Conqueror

Matilda of Flanders was born in roughly 1031, to Baldwin V, Count of Flanders and Adele of France.  Grand daughter of Robert II of France, she would go on to become Queen consort of England and mother of two Kings of England.

She married William the Conqueror in about 1051-52, although the route to marriage was not an easy one.  It is said that when William sent his representative to ask Matilda to marry him she replied saying that she was to high-born to marry a bastard.  It was also rumoured that Matilda truly loved the English ambassador to Flanders, a Saxon named Brihtric who declined her advances.

After hearing Matilda’s initial response William rode from Normandy to Bruges and found Matilda on her way to church, dragged her from her horse by her long braids and threw her to the floor in front of flabbergasted attendants and rode off.  Another version of the story states William rode to Matilda’s father’s house in Lille and threw her to the ground in her room and violently battered her before leaving.

Baldwin was angered by the events but before he could draw swords to avenge the incident Matilda resolved the matter by decreeing that she would marry no one but William.  Even a banning of the wedding by Pope Leo IX on the grounds of consanguinity did not stop or dissuade Matilda.  The marriage took place in 1051/52 and a papal dispensation was granted in 1059 by Pope Nicholas II on the grounds that the couple agreed to found two churches as penance.

When William was preparing to invade England Matilda ruled Normandy in his absence.  She also outfitted a ship called the Mora which she gifted to her husband and he used as his flagship.  This indicated that she had funds and lands of her own within Normandy to be able to afford such a gift.

Even after William conquered England Matilda would remain mainly in Normandy looking after the duchy for the duke.  She would only have one of her nine children in England.  Henry who would later become Henry I of England was born in Yorkshire when his mother accompanied his father during the harrying of the North.

Matilda would be crowned Queen of England on 11th May 1068 at Westminster during the feast of Pentecost in a ceremony presided over by archbishop of York.  She invested her time mainly in her children, who were all known to be well educated.  It is also said that William was faithful to her and never produced a child out side of the marriage.

She was godmother to Matilda of Scotland who would become Queen of England through her marriage to the French Matilda’s son Henry.  During the christening the young Matilda pulled the headdress of her godmother down onto herself which was seen as an omen that she would one day be queen.

Matilda became ill during the summer of 1083 and died in November of the same year.  William was present during her final confession and is said to be lost and distraught without her and became tyrannical during the last four years of his reign before he died himself in 1087.

Matilda of Flanders, Carle Elshoecht (1850)

Matilda of Flanders, Carle Elshoecht (1850)

Herleva, mother of the Norman bastard who became the Conqueror

Herleva's three sons William, Odo and Robert.  As depicted in the Bayeux tapestry

Herleva’s three sons William, Odo and Robert. As depicted in the Bayeux tapestry

Herleva was the mother of William the Conqueror, the daughter of a tanner and mistress to William’s father Robert the Magnificent, Duke of Normandy.  Her name is often spelt many different ways Herleva, Herleve, Arlette, Arletta, Arlotte and Harlette.

She was born c.1003 in Falaise, Normandy and her father was Fulbert the tanner.  It is written that Fulbert may have been an embalmer or an apothecary, some even say he may have belonged to the burgher class.

In one tradition it is said that Robert, William’s father saw Herlvea from the roof of the castle tower.  It is said that Herleva was in the trenches at the edge of the courtyard used for dyeing clothes.  Upon seeing Robert she is said to have hitched her skirt, maybe just a little too high as she begun to trample barefoot on the garments that were being dyed.  The Duke then became smitten and ordered that Herleva was brought before him as tradition demanded through a back door of the castle.  Herleva refused saying she would only enter the castle on horseback through the front door.  The Duke taken by her boldness agreed and a few days later Herleva entered the castle on the back of a white horse.

In another tradition it said on the night that Herleva fell pregnant with William she had a dream where in the dream a tree erupted from within her stomach and grew so big and so tall that it covered all of Normandy, but it did not stop growing there.  The tree is said to then grow and cover the English Channel and continue until it covered all of the kingdom of England.  Some say the story may have been invented later to give William’s claim even more legitimacy.  One thing for sure that night was that the growth of an important figure in the history of North West Europe was beginning.

In 1027/1028 she bore fruit of the relationship with Robert and William was born.

Later in about 1031 she married Herluin de Conteville.  Some historians say that this marriage was set up by Robert to give Herleva as best a life as he could because as their social status was too far apart he could never marry her.  Some say that she did not marry Herluin till after Robert’s death.

From the marriage with Herluin she produced two further sons.  Odo who later became the Bishop of Bayeux who commission the Bayeux tapestry which tells the story of William’s conquer of England.  Her other son was Robert who became Count of Mortain.  Both of William’s half-brothers became important figures and trusted allies during the conquest of England.

According to Robert of Torigni, Herleva was buried at the abbey in Grestain which was founded by her husband and son Robert in about 1050.  This would place Herleva somewhere in her forties upon her death.