Category Archives: Normans

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

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.

Diamait Mac Murchada, the man who invited the Normans to Ireland.


The island of Ireland’s history is a turbulent one and one that has to be treated delicately.  Again it is a topic that Henry II just couldn’t keep away from, holding the title of Lord of Ireland at different points of his reign.  Asked to help the disposed King of Leinster Diarmait Mac Murchada Henry began English involvement in what was and would become even more a hotbed of trouble for the smaller of the large islands within the British Isles.  It is this man Diamait Mac Murchada that interests me, and I hope to find out who he was and what led him in more detail to seek Henry’s help.

Diamait was born around 1110, the son of Donnchad  mac Murchada, King of Leinster and Dublin.  His father’s grandmother was Dervorgilla, who was a daughter of Donnchad King of Munster and therefore a great granddaughter of Brian Boru , King of Ireland between 1002-14.  Diamait had two wives as allowed by Brehon Laws.  His first wife was Sadb of Ui Faelain and they had a daughter called Orlaith who married Domnall Mor, King of Munster.  His second wife was Mor Ui Tuathail.

His father died in battle in 1115 killed by his cousin Sigtrygg Silkbeard the king of the Dublin Vikings.  Then his elder brother, Enna mac Donnchada Mac Murchada, Diarmait became king of Leinster.  Although this was opposed by the High King of Ireland Toirdelbach Ua Conchobair who feared Diamait could become a rival.  Toirdelbach enlisted the help of Tigernan Ua Ruairc to attempt to conquer Leinster.  Ua Ruaric slaughtered all the livestock of Leinster trying to starve the population.   Diamait initially lost Leinster but with the aid of the clans in 1132 won back the province.  This then lead to an uneasy peace between Ua Conchobair and Diamait for the next two decades.

In 1166 the current High King Muirchertach Ua Lochlainn and Diamait’s only real ally fell and a large coalition led by Ua Ruairc attacked Leinster once more.  Diamait lost the throne once more and fled to Wales then to England and eventually to France.  He requested help from Henry who allowed Diamait to try and recruit soldiers and support from the Lords of Henry’s kingdoms.  Those who agreed were Richard de Clare and the half-brothers Robert FitzStephen and Maurice FitzGerald.  De Clare was handed Aoife, Diamait’s daughter from his second marriage as a bride.  He was also promised Kingship of Leinster of Diamait’s death.

They first returned to Wales were FitzStephen assisted in gathering a combined force of Norman and Welsh mercenaries.  They landed at Bannow Bay in Wexford, laying siege to Wexford itself.  Wexford fell in May 1169.  Consolidating themselves they then launched raids against the territories of Ui Tuathail, the Ui Broin and the Ui Conchobhair.  Then Diamait led the army marching on Tara the political capital at the time to attempt to oust Turlough Mor O’Connor the current High King of Ireland.

With the aid of the church the leaders on both sides began negotiations at Ferns.  An agreement was reached where Diamait was allowed to remain as King of Leinster as long as he then recognised Ua Conchobhair as the High King.  In May 1170 Maurice FitzGerald landed in Wexford with a force of 10 knights, 30 men-at-arms and a hundred archers and foot soldiers.  Diamait and FitzGerald then marched on Dublin which surrendered and it didn’t take long to subdue in unrest within the whole of Leinster.

Under the influence of both FitsStephen and FitzGerald persuaded Diamait to write to de Clare asking for assistance with his mind moving towards the High Kingship for himself.  de Clare sent Raymond le Gros with an advance party and arriving later in 1170 himself at Waterford.  The marriage of de Clare and Aoife then took place and de Clare claimed all the lands that were his under Norman law.  Diamait retreated himself back to Ferns where he died a couple of months later in 1171.

de Clare’s successful land grab led to Henry’s larger invasion in 1171 to ensure his control over his Norman subjects.  He accepted the submission of the Irish kings in Dublin in November 1171.  In 1172 the papal bull Laudabiliter was reconfirmed by Pope Alexander III and he then added ‘Lord of Ireland’ to his many titles.  Before he could consolidate his new lands he had to return to France to deal with his son’s rebellion in 1173.

As mentioned Ireland in complicated and from reading and writing about the first major involvement of the English it is easy to see that even before they steped foot in Ireland it was already a very complex island with many local leaders all trying to oust each other for the claim of High King.

Although mainly it’s Henry’s story that we are following at the moment, and next it will be to France and rebellion.

1066, the year of four Kings

When Edward the Confessor died, the nation of England was thrust into turmoil.  Double promises of succession and foreign upstarts laying claim to the throne that now had no head to sit on.  Each claim had its own merits and down falls but would lead to two battles that would shape the future of England forever.  England would have four Kings within the year 1066, and each of them with a story to tell.

The first of these Kings, Edward the Confessor did not last very long.  He died at Westminster Palace on 4th or 5th of January leaving empty the throne with no children to sit on it. The Normans claimed that in 1064 Edward is meant to have sent his actual successor Harold to see William, Duke of Normandy to confirm to William that he would follow him onto the throne.   This is evidenced in the account of William of Poitiers just after the Battle of Hastings.  William states that an envoy was sent by Harold to William stating that on his deathbed Edward had promised him the throne and that he would become the next King of England.  William never disputed this claim but always believed that the previous promise overruled the later one.  Some say that Edward actually entrusted the Kingdom to Harold before he died.

Edward the Confessor, opening scene of the Bayeux Tapestry

The Witenagemot or Witan convened the next day and declared Harold as the successor to Edward and he was crowned most probably at Westminster Abbey on the 6th January 1066. On hearing of this William began plans for the invasion of England with a mass fleet being built of 700 hundred ships.  A standoff then took place for the next seven months with unfavourable winds not allowing William to sail and Harold with the English army encamped on the Isle of Wight.  Provisions were nearing empty and Harold disbanded the army and set off back to London.  On the 8th of September the same day as Harold left the Isle of Wight, another claimant to the throne landed at the foot of the Tyne.

Harald Hardrada was the King of Norway and stuck his claim from Cnut.  He was joined by Harold’s brother and the ex Earl of Nothumbria Tostig.  It is stated that Edwards’s predecessor Harthacnut as the King of England, had stated that the crown would pass down the House of Denmark line instead of moving back to the House of Wessex.  Magnus I of Norway didn’t follow this through but with persuasion from Tostig the fallen brother Harald believed he had a claim to stake.  Harald invaded England with about 300 ships and 15,000 men.  The major and decisive battle took place at Stamford Bridge on the 25th September 1066.

After Harald had landed at the Tyne Harold raced north making the journey from London to Yorkshire in three days.  With the speed at which Harold was traveling the invading Norwegian army was taken by surprise not knowing about the oncoming army came into view.  It is said that with the surprise the Viking army were ill equipped and there armour had been left aboard their ships.  The battle raged on the Viking side of the river once the Anglo-Saxon had removed the danger on the bridge.   Sheild walls were formed and the fighting became close quarter.  With the Norwegians having no armour they were at a disadvantage and their army began to fragment.  The Anglo-Saxon then drove home this advantage and went on to win the battle.  Harald was killed during the battle and Harold accepted the truce of his sons Olaf and Paul Thorfinnsson, Earl of Orkneyto which they pledged never to attack England again.  The battle is quite often stated as being the end of the era of Viking raiding in the British Isles, although there were a further two campaigns in the next couple of decades, notably those of King Sweyn Estrithson of Denmark in 1069-70 and King Magnus Barefoot of Norway in 1098 and 1102.

Battle of Stamford Bridge.
From 13th century Anglo-Norman manuscript.

Harold was not allowed to rest on his victory for long.  Three days after the battle on the 28th September 1066 William landed on the south coast of England.  Harold and his battle weary army had to turn round and race back the road they had come to fight, to try and repulse the second invasion of the year.  The tale of the crown in 1066 had taken another twist.

The Battle of Hastings took place on the 14th October 1066.  The Anglo-Saxon spirit was broken during the battle when Harold was shot through the eye with an arrow.  This scene has been made famous by the Bayeux Tapestry.  After numerous attacks and counter attacks the causalities caused by William’s army led to the Saxon shield wall being filled with untrained and poorly weaponed troops.  Small chinks were being made into the shield wall when William and a group of knights made a breakthrough this is where the attack against Harold himself is believed to come from.  To many of the Anglo Saxon nobles had died Hastings to rally the remaining of the troops around and it looked like William would become the next King of England.

Edgar the Atheling was the great grandson of Aethelred the Unready.  Aged only 15 at the time of the Battle of Hastings this did not stop the Witan meeting the day after the battle in London and proclaiming him King.  Edgar although was never actually officially crowned.  England had now its third King of the year.  As William then closed in on London in December Edgar’s supporters began to slowly dwindle   In December of 1066 the remaining members of the Witan took Edgar out to William submitting to him at Berkhamsted quietly forgetting about the previous proclamation of Edgar as King.

Harold Rex Interfectus Est: “King Harold is killed”. Scene from the Bayeux Tapestry depicting the Battle of Hastings. Harold grasps the arrow lodged in his eye.

William the Conqueror sent troops into London to begin to construct a castle.  He was crowned England’s fourth King of the year on Christmas Day at Westminster Abbey 1066.  His Kingship would be littered with revolts as he slowly put down the different rebellions of the Anglo Saxons, but his tenure would be the beginning of the House of Normandy that would revolutionise England.  The death of the House of Wessex would end two hundred and fifty year history of the House of Wessex as it grew from the southern parts of England into uniting the whole nation as one.

1066 was defiantly not a quiet year in the making on England and would be one that every inhabitant of England would go on not to forget.

English coin of William the Conqueror

Emma of Normandy, the Multinational Viking Queen

If Rollo could be called the ‘Father of Royal Europe’, then you would have to look at his great granddaughter Emma of Normandy as the first prominent woman of modern monarchy.  If being Queen of England, Denmark and Norway through two different marriages and at different times throughout her life was not good enough she was also mother to a King of England, a King of England and Denmark and a Holy Roman Empress.   Emma is also the link to the English throne that gave William ‘the Conqueror’ (her great nephew) his claim to the title of King.

Emma (b.985) was the daughter of Richard the Fearless, Duke of Normandy and his mistress Gunmora.  Her parents went on and later married this then legitimised the birth.

In 1000-01 Normandy gave shelter to a Viking Army that threatened England and it is believed that Aethelred King at the time may have attempted an invasion to try and surpass the threat.  This then could of led to the alliance between England and Normandy with the marriage of Emma to Aethelred in 1002.  She then had three children with Aethelred, Edward the Confessor (future King of England), Alfred Aetheling, and Goda (future Countess of Boulogne).  In 1013 Emma and her children were sent to Normandy to escape the invasion on Sweyn where they were shortly joined by Aethelred.

When Sweyn died they returned to England where Aetheling was restored as King of England. On his death Edmund Ironside from his first marriage to Aelfgifu of York became the next King of England.  Within the matter of months at the Battle of Ashingdon on 18th October 1016 this was all to change as Edmund signed a treaty with Sweyn’s son Cnut giving up all of England except for Wessex.  Edmund died soon after this on 30th November.  Cnut then seized control of Wessex as well and the crown of England moved back into the hands of the House of Denmark.

In what could have been a marriage of convenience and to guarantee the safety of her sons following Cnut’s campaign to rid himself of all other possible threats, Emma became again the second wife to the second wife to the King of England once more.  Cnut went on to become King of Denmark and also the Norway and some of the Swedes.

On Cnut’s death in 1035 the throne of England jumped around a little between the next generation first it went to Harold his son to Aelfgifu of Northampton his first wife.  Then to Harthacnut , Emma’s first son with Cnut.  Harthacnut suddenly died in 1042 aged only roughly 23-24.  Upon his death Edward Emma’s son to Aethelered was made King and the house of Wessex was restored once more to the throne of England.  Emma thou during his reign was cast aside setting her support for Magnus the Noble who was son of the dethroned Olaf, King of Norway.  It was believed that she had no love for the children from her first marriage and that is why her support went behind Magnus.

Emma died in Winchester, Hampshire on 6th March 1052.  Her life twisted between three different branches of the throne of England.  England, Denmark, Norway, Sweden, Normandy she clearly shows already how intertwined the thrones of Europe where becoming at such an early age.

Cnut and Emma of Normandy, from the Liber Vitae of the New Minster, Winchester (1031).