Friday, October 21, 2016

7 of England’s best medieval buildings

History Extra

Aerial view of Westminster Abbey at night. (Pawel Libera/LightRocket via Getty Images)

Westminster Abbey 

London’s iconic Westminster Abbey has since the medieval period held a significant place in royal history. It has been the setting of every royal coronation since 1066, seen 16 royal weddings and is the final resting place of 17 English monarchs.
The stunning Gothic structure that stands today was constructed by Henry III between 1245 and 1272, and his motivations for undertaking the mammoth building project are intriguing. Writing for History Extra in 2011, historian David Carpenter has argued that Henry built the spectacular abbey to win the favour of the dead Anglo-Saxon king, Edward the Confessor, who had established a church on the site almost 200 years earlier, in 1065. 
According to Carpenter, Henry was “passionately devoted to Edward”, who had been canonised in 1161, adopting him as his patron saint. He says Henry believed that “if he won the dead king’s saintly favour by building the magnificent abbey as an offering to him, Edward would support him in this life and shepherd him into the next. The Abbey was a very clear statement that Henry was backed by his saintly predecessor”. 
Westminster Abbey is home to some remarkable medieval art, including England’s oldest altarpiece, the 13th-century Westminster Retable [a panel painted with religious imagery, including an image of Westminster Abbey’s patron saint St Peter]. After surviving the dissolution of the monasteries, the Reformation and the Civil War, this precious altarpiece was rediscovered 1725, covered in paint and being used as a cupboard door in the Abbey’s storage.
Another of Westminster Abbey’s outstanding medieval artefacts is the coronation chair, in which every monarch since Edward II (apart from Edward V and Edward VIII) has been crowned. During the Second World War the coronation chair was evacuated to Gloucester Cathedral, however, like the Westminster Retable, it has not always received such good care. Its back is marked with graffiti, carved by mischievous Westminster schoolboys in the 18th and 19th centuries. 

Dover Castle 

Known as ‘the key to England’, the defensive fortress of Dover Castle has a long and turbulent history. Standing at the site of the shortest sea crossing between England and the continent, Dover has always been a key strategic spot in the defence of the kingdom, and over the centuries its castle has witnessed several bloody conflicts. 
The medieval structure that remains at Dover today was mostly constructed by King Henry II in the 1180s. Henry spent a vast fortune on the castle, which was not only intended to defend the British coast but also to entertain and impress distinguished guests. Between 1179 and his death in 1189, Henry spent £5,991 on Dover Castle – the greatest concentration of money spent on a single castle in English history. 
Writing for History Extra, John Gillingham has argued that Henry poured such vast sums into the impressive structure in order to “save face” following the brutal killing of Thomas Becket in 1170. The archbishop had been murdered in Henry’s name, significantly damaging Henry’s reputation. According to Gillingham, constructing the imposing castle was “a visible assertion of Henry’s power in the face of a developing anti-monarchical cult.” It served as stopping point a for high-status pilgrims visiting Beckets’s tomb at Canterbury Cathedral and Henry dedicated its chapel to the canonised Archbishop. 
During the reign of King John (r1199–1216), the castle defences were put to the test when it came under siege by French troops led by Prince Louis in 1216–17. It withstood 10 months of bombardment as the invasion forces targeted it with siege engines, tunneling and face-to-face combat. 

Dover Castle. (Photo by Olaf Protze/LightRocket via Getty Images)

Rievaulx Abbey 

A dramatic ruin set in the beautiful surroundings of rural North Yorkshire, Rievaulx Abbey was once a template for medieval monastic architecture across Europe. The Abbey underwent many stages of architectural development from the 12th to 15th centuries, reflecting the social and economic changes monastic communities underwent during the period. 
Rievaulx was first established as a Cistercian monastery in 1132. The Cisterian order (founded by St Bernard of Clairvaux in 1098 in an attempt to reform monastic life in Europe) aimed to return holy communities to an austere life, abiding to strict religious guidelines set down by St Benedict in the sixth century. After the foundation of Britain’s first Cistercian abbey in 1128 (Waverley Abbey in Surrey) the waves of reform quickly spread, and other Cistercian communities such as Rievaulx were established across the country. 
By the middle of the 12th century Rievaulx was a large and thriving self-sufficient community. In 1167 the Abbey’s community numbered around 140 monks and around 500 lay brothers. A larger site was needed to accommodate this growing community, leading to the building of a new chapter house and a dramatic, imposing church.  
The Abbey site was designed to facilitate both religious and practical aspects of life. In addition to a great cloister where the monks could study and read, the Abbey also contained private quarters for more senior monks, as well as a parlour, dormitory and kitchen. Rievaulx also holds the earliest surviving infirmary complex on any British Cistercian site, built in the 1150s to care for sick and elderly members of the monastic community. 
Like many abbeys, Rievaulx was targeted by Henry VIII’s dissolution of the monasteries in the 1530s. However, the Abbey’s religious population had dwindled over the centuries and by the time it was shut down and dismantled in 1538 only 23 monks remained there.

The ruins of Rievaulx Abbey, North Yorkshire. (English Heritage/Heritage Images/Getty Images)

York Minster

From humble beginnings as a small wooden church, York Minster underwent several transformations during the medieval period before evolving into the spectacular Gothic cathedral that stands today. 
The first Christian church on the site was a modest wooden structure dating back to AD 627. By AD 640 King Oswald had replaced this with a small stone church. After surviving the Viking invasion in AD 866, York’s Anglo-Saxon church was ransacked by William the Conqueror’s forces in the Harrying of the North in 1069. After destroying the Anglo-Saxon church, William appointed his own Norman archbishop of York, who went about constructing a grand Norman Cathedral on the site. 
In the 13th century Walter De Gray (archbishop of York between 1215 and 1255) decided to rebuild the cathedral for the final time. He embarked on a mammoth project to redesign it in a dramatic Gothic style, with a monumental arching roof, intended to convey a sense of soaring upwards towards the sky. Constructed between 1220 and 1472, the magnificent Gothic-style minster took more than 250 years to complete. Its Great East Window, glazed by John Thornton of Coventry between 1405 and 1408, is now the largest expanse of medieval glass to have survived in Europe. 
York Minster has suffered many misfortunes over the centuries. In 1407 the central tower collapsed due to soft soil, and four fires [in 1753, 1829, 1840 and 1984] have wreaked significant damage. York Minster is now one of only seven cathedrals in the world to boast its own police force [a small, specialized cathedral constabulary who continue to operate independently of the rest of the city’s police force]. 

York Minster at night. (Rod Lawton/Digital Camera Magazine via Getty Images)

The White Tower

The imposing White Tower at the heart of the Tower of London complex dates back to the late 11th century. Built by William the Conqueror to secure his hold on London, it was designed to awe and subdue the local population.
The exact construction dates of the White Tower are unclear, but building was certainly underway in the 1070s and was completed by 1100. A key example of Norman architecture, the White Tower was the first building of its kind in England. William employed Norman masons and even had stone imported from Normandy for its construction. At 27.5m tall the Tower would have been visible for miles around. 
Intended as a fortress and stronghold rather than a royal palace, the White Tower’s design favoured defence over hospitality. Its fortifications were updated throughout the medieval period and during the reign of Richard the Lionheart they doubled in size. This proved to be a wise move, as in Richard’s absence his brother John besieged the White Tower in an attempt to seize the throne. The Tower’s defences held fast but the forces defending it [led by Richard’s Chancellor William Longchamp] were compelled to surrender owing to a lack of supplies. 

For those who fell from royal favour, the White Tower was a place of imprisonment and execution. From its foundation it was used as a prison – the first recorded prisoner held in the White Tower was Ranulf Flambard, bishop of Durham, in 1100. Under Edward III, the captured kings of Scotland and France were kept at the White Tower and it is believed that, centuries later, Guy Fawkes was tortured and interrogated in the White Tower’s basement. 
Even monarchs were not immune to imprisonment at the White Tower: in 1399 Richard II was imprisoned there after being forced to renounce his throne by his cousin Henry Bolingbroke.

The White Tower at the Tower of London. (Arcaid/UIG via Getty)

Westminster Hall, Houses of Parliament 

As the oldest building on the parliamentary estate, Westminster Hall has been central to the government of England since the 11th century. Built in 1097 by the Norman king William II (the son of William the Conqueror and known as Rufus), the Hall was a symbol of Norman majesty intended to impress the king’s new subjects. 
Rufus’s construction project was remarkably ambitious. Covering a floor space of 1,547 square metres (with walls two metres thick), Westminster Hall was by far the largest hall in England at the time. It was so large that when surveying the vast hall just after its construction, one of Rufus’s attendants reportedly remarked it was far bigger than it needed to be. However, Rufus himself was less than impressed – he replied it was not half large enough, a mere bedchamber compared to what he had in mind. 
Recent archaeological explorations at Westminster Hall have prompted some fascinating theories about the groundbreaking nature of its original construction. No evidence of columns used to support the vast roof has been uncovered, suggesting that it may have been self-supporting. This engineering would have been remarkably ahead of its time, as self-supporting roofs of this size were not seen elsewhere until the 13th and 14th centuries.
Writing for History Extra, Paul Binski suggests that the “miracle” of Westminster Hall “is not just its survival, but its courage. The builders of these great structures had brilliant know-how, but also guts”.

A royal event at Westminster Hall in 2012. (Ben Stansall/WPA Pool/Getty)

Norwich Guildhall 

Situated in the centre of the medieval city, the Norwich Guildhall is a remarkable example of late medieval secular architecture. Built primarily between 1407 and 1412, its grandeur reflects the growing power and wealth of a new elite of merchants, traders and government agents during the period. 
By the 15th century Norwich had become one of the wealthiest and most important towns in England. Following a 1404 charter granting the city greater self–governing powers it was decided that a Guildhall should be built in order to administer the powers more effectively.
The Guildhall fulfilled a role similar to that of a modern town hall, performing all the administrative functions the city required to govern the everyday lives of the city’s residents. The Guildhall served multiple purposes as a court, a tax collection hub and administrative centre. The Guildhall also contained an assembly chamber for council meetings, was equipped to hold prisoners and had a large ‘sword room’ used for storing weapons. 
Today the Guildhall is the largest surviving medieval building intended for a civic purpose outside of London.

Thursday, October 20, 2016

History explorer: Stephen and Matilda’s fight for the throne

History Extra

The limestone ruins of St Nicholas’ Collegiate Church, which once formed part of Wallingford Castle. This now tranquil site was the epicentre of a 20-year conflict over who should rule England. © Alamy

With its impressive central mound and tower, high protective walls and deep defensive ditches, Wallingford Castle must have posed a formidable sight to besieging forces in the medieval period, among them those of King Stephen, who sought to take the fortification from his would-be usurper, Empress Matilda, on a number of occasions between 1139 and 1153.
Today little remains of the mighty fortress that overlooked a key crossing point of the river Thames. Small, scattered sections of the castle’s stone walls can be found at various points in the 41-acre site now known as Wallingford Castle Meadows. The most complete section, however, is the ruins of St Nicholas’ Collegiate Church, a building that stood within the castle walls and can now be accessed via a relatively steep set of steps. Standing in the shadow of the huge motte – accessible via a wooden suspension bridge – the limestone ruins remind us of the castle’s long history and its strategic importance in the fight for the English crown following the death of Henry I in 1135.
“Succession was a flashpoint in any medieval nation’s history,” says Professor David Crouch, professor of medieval history at the University of Hull, “but England was notorious for having no succession customs. The person who took the throne was generally he – or she – who made the most of the opportunities available to them.”
Henry made every effort to ensure a straightforward succession, nominating his only surviving legitimate child, Matilda, as his heir before his death. The great barons and nobles of England had sworn to support Matilda’s claim to the throne and she had been married to one of the most powerful men in France: Geoffrey, Count of Anjou. Henry, it seemed, had set his daughter up to move smoothly into the role of England’s first reigning queen.
“Henry’s death couldn’t have come at a worse time,” says Crouch. “He died in the middle of a ferocious row with his son-in-law – a dispute that saw Matilda side with her husband against her father – and it is even said that Henry had released his magnates from their oath of support for Matilda’s succession. Whether this was the case or not, when Henry died after more than 35 years on the throne, the scene was set for a desperate scramble for power.”

Matilda, shown here in a 14th-century illustration, was within two days of becoming England’s first ruling queen. (Bridgeman)

Power struggles

Henry, like his father William the Conqueror before him, had ruled both Normandy and England, and after his death the Norman barons decided to ignore Matilda’s claim in favour of Henry’s nephew Theobald, Count of Blois, whom they felt would benefit their interests the most, as well as bring the principalities of Normandy and Blois into alignment.
But as Theobald arrived triumphantly in Rouen, confident of his support, he must surely have been shocked to discover that his younger brother, Stephen, had dashed ahead to London where he had already been crowned.
“London was a huge city in medieval terms, and the opinions of its people carried great weight,” says Crouch. “Stephen’s appeal to Londoners lay partly in his personality – he was by all accounts a very affable man – but also with the fact that his wife was Countess of Boulogne, a town that was a point of access for trade on the continent. Stephen’s coronation, therefore, was seen to be in London’s best interests.”
But what of Matilda, Henry’s nominated heir? Without the support of the Norman barons, Matilda could do little to stake her claim to the throne. Her uncle, David, king of Scotland, had invaded England on her behalf after Henry’s death, but had been unsuccessful and in 1136 he made a peace settlement with Stephen at Durham. All Matilda could do was wait for an opportunity to present itself.
The first years of Stephen’s reign went well, but in 1137 tensions surfaced among certain factions at court as the king began to neglect those key men who had served at the core of Henry’s government, and favour his friends, notably the charismatic Waleran de Beaumont. The king’s failure to put down a rebellion against English occupiers in Wales was the last straw, and in 1138 growing dissatisfaction became open revolt.

A 1253 depiction of King Stephen, whose charisma won over the people of London. (Alamy) 
“England can be seen to have staggered into rebellion in 1138,” says Crouch, “and when civil war did finally break out, it was very territorial. Generally speaking, Matilda’s support could be found in the south-west of England, where Matilda’s half-brother and chief supporter, Robert, Earl of Gloucester, had land. Yorkshire, East Anglia and London were for the king, while the Cotswold area in between became something of a war zone.”
One baron who eventually switched his allegiance from Stephen to Matilda was Brian fitz Count, Lord of Wallingford and Abergavenny. Like many other barons, fitz Count had initially accepted Stephen’s rule, but defended his later defection by citing the oath he had taken under Henry I to support his daughter’s claim. Soon after, Stephen attacked fitz Count’s castle in Wallingford, which had become an important stronghold for Matilda’s faction (Stephen made further attempts to take the castle in 1145/6 and again in 1152, but failed in his endeavours).
Matilda herself arrived in England in 1139, landing in Arundel and staying under the protection of Henry I’s widowed second wife, Adeliza of Louvain, at the town’s castle. Unwilling to risk offending Adeliza by attacking the castle, Stephen instead decided to broker a deal with the empress, and she was granted safe passage to Bristol, where she was reunited with Robert of Gloucester.

Becoming queen

Stephen most probably regretted his decision to allow Matilda to return to her faction when, in February 1141, he was captured by the combined forces of Robert of Gloucester and the Earl of Chester after being defeated in battle outside Lincoln’s city walls. At the mercy of his captors, the king was taken to Bristol Castle where he was held, in chains, for some 10 months on Matilda’s orders.
“Stephen’s treatment in Bristol reveals much about Matilda’s character,” says Crouch. “He was placed in leg irons, despite being an anointed king; this seemingly vindictive act shocked his subjects and did little to increase the empress’s popularity.
“Matilda’s lack of discretion and sensitivity in the way she treated her magnates at court is well documented by medieval chroniclers. After Stephen’s capture, her route to the throne looked clearer than it had ever been, yet she is described in contemporary sources as alienating members of her court with her uncontrollable and spiteful behaviour.”

Wallingford's castle ruins. (Alamy)
With Stephen imprisoned and unable to marshal his support, Matilda seized the initiative and made it as far as Westminster in her bid for the crown. There, she was accepted by the population of London – as Stephen had been some six years earlier – and preparations began to take place for her coronation.
“By 1141, victory looked to be well within Matilda’s reach,” says Crouch. “Her rival to the throne was in prison and the inhabitants of the most important city in England had accepted her as their reigning queen. But the tables turned dramatically when, just two days before her coronation, she alienated both new and old sources of support.
“As tradition dictated, Matilda was petitioned by Londoners for tax concessions  and other favours in the run-up to her coronation. But, instead of wooing her new subjects with generosity and magnanimity,  Matilda, as was her way, granted no favours, shrieked at her petitioners and banished them from her presence. In one fell swoop she had lost the city and its support.”
Realising they would gain nothing from Matilda’s reign, the rejected Londoners returned to the city where they proceeded to ring the bells. Men of London’s militia poured into the streets and an angry mob advanced on Westminster, forcing Matilda to flee to Oxford for her own safety.
Matilda’s bad luck continued when, in September 1141, Robert of Gloucester was captured at Winchester by Stephen’s queen –  also Matilda – who had led an army of Flemish mercenaries and loyal barons there to fight Stephen’s cause.

The medieval road bridge across the Thames connects Wallingford and Crowmarsh Gifford. The original bridge played a key role in Stephen’s sieges of the town. (Alamy)
A prisoner exchange took place soon after, and Stephen was free to resume his place on the throne and pursue his would-be usurper to Oxford, where Matilda had based her campaign. As Stephen attacked the city, laying siege to Oxford Castle where the empress was residing, Matilda managed to escape. She fled first to the abbey at Abingdon before moving on to Wallingford Castle.
The war dragged on with neither side able to deliver the crucial final blow, but, with Robert of Gloucester’s death in 1147, the military heart went out of Matilda’s campaign and she finally left England for Normandy, resigning her rights to the English throne to her son, Henry (later Henry II), who made several expeditions to England to try where his mother had failed.
“The final showdown took place in 1153, at Wallingford,” says Crouch, “but it was far from the decisive battle Stephen had waited for. The two armies set up camp either side of the Thames, near Wallingford Castle, but in a dramatic twist, barons in both armies – many of whom had already made private peace treaties among themselves – refused to fight, forcing Henry and Stephen to iron out a peace settlement.”
The agreement – which became known widely as the Treaty of Wallingford – was sealed in Westminster in December 1153, and saw Stephen formally acknowledge Henry as his adopted son and successor.

Henry II granted Wallingford a royal charter in 1155 to recognise its loyalty to his mother. It allowed the town to host the markets still held today. (Alamy)
“The treaty was a remarkable event in British history,” concludes Crouch, “and laid the groundwork for Magna Carta in 1215. Ultimately, the war was ended, not by the anointed king, but by a group of barons who decided to stand up to their king in order to ensure the peace of the realm.”

Stephen and Matilda: five more places to explore

1) Oxford Castle
Where Matilda made a daring escape
Matilda based herself at Oxford Castle in 1141 but quickly found herself under siege from Stephen’s forces. Surrounded, the empress was forced to escape under the cover of darkness, allegedly lowered down the walls and dressed in white as camouflage against the snow. You can visit the castle’s medieval motte, crypt and tower.
2) Wareham Castle
Where allegiances changed constantly
Built in the 12th century, Wareham Castle was often employed as a transit point for armies just arrived in England from western Normandy. The castle was seized on a number of occasions, allegedly changing hands five times between Stephen and Matilda. Today, only the motte and ditches of the castle remain.
3) Leicester Castle
Where an earl promoted peace
The conflict was effectively ended by barons who made private peace treaties with each other to limit the effects of war. One of these was Robert de Beaumont, twin brother of royal favourite Waleran, who held Leicester Castle. A supporter of the king, Robert was one of those who led the movement for peace among England’s greater earls. The great hall is among the medieval remains that are accessible.
4) Winchester Cathedral
Where a peace treaty was announced
Stephen’s brother, Henry de Blois, bishop of Winchester, was one of the most powerful men in England, but transferred his support to Matilda after Stephen’s capture in 1141. He later rejoined his brother, defending the city from Matilda. The treaty that ended the war was announced in the city’s cathedral in November 1153.
5) Northallerton, Yorkshire
Where Matilda’s claim was defended
In 1138, David I of Scotland invaded England for a second time to defend his niece’s claim to the throne. At the ensuing battle just outside Northallerton, David was defeated and forced to return north.
Words by Charlotte Hodgman. The historical advisor was David Crouch, professor of medieval history at the University of Hull.

Wednesday, October 19, 2016

Spotlight on New Zealand author, screenwriter, and producer, Lance Morcan

It's my pleasure to feature the multi-talented Lance Morcan, discussing stuff you may or may not know.

Lance Morcan

Lance Morcan writes in collaboration with his son, James Morcan. They are a rare New Zealand father-and-son writing team who have co-authored 20 fiction and non-fiction book titles published by Sterling Gate Books. James is based in Sydney, Australia, while Lance is based in New Zealand, so their collaboration is essentially conducted long distance albeit with the help of daily Skype and phone calls.

James Morcan

Lance is a former journalist/newspaper editor with experience in all media.  James is also an actor and has accrued leading roles in film, television and also on stage.  His film credits can be viewed here.

James and Lance are also screenwriters and filmmakers, and have adapted several of their novels to feature film screenplays. These are in early development with their production company, Morcan Motion Pictures.  Several of their film projects can be viewed here.

Numerous books have been regular visitors to Amazon’s bestseller lists. These include the novels Into the Americas (a historical adventure) and The Ninth Orphan (an international thriller) and the non-fiction books Genius Intelligence and Antigravity Propulsion.  James Morcan Amazon author page. Lance Morcan Amazon author page.

Their latest non-fiction book, DEBUNKING HOLOCAUST DENIAL THEORIES: Two Non-Jews Affirm the Historicity of the Nazi Genocide, written in close collaboration with Holocaust survivors, has sparked an outcry from Holocaust deniers –  as some of the reviews reveal.  One of the world’s ‘leading’ deniers, who also happens to be an author and publisher (of anti-Semitic books) went so far as to publish a book (with an identical cover image, and a near-identical title) debunking the book!

For additional information on their various projects, kindly visit Morcan Books and Films blog here.

The Morcans have also established a fast-growing discussion group on called The Underground Knowledge group  – and as the title suggests it’s designed to encourage debates about important and underreported issues of our era. (All you need is an enquiring mind, an interest in the world we live in and a desire to learn or share “underground knowledge”).  Check out the group here.  More members welcome!

Their latest book is a historical adventure titled WHITE SPIRIT (A novel based on a true story). It’s a 1,000-page epic set in 19th Century Australia and based on the remarkable true story of Irish convict John Graham.

After escaping from the notorious Moreton Bay Penal Settlement, Graham finds refuge with the Kabi, a tribe of Aborigines who eventually accept him as one of their own.
Attempts to recapture Graham are orchestrated by a variety of contrasting characters working for the all-pervasive British Empire. They include Moreton Bay's tyrannical, opium-addicted commandant Lord Cheetham, the dashing yet warlike Lieutenant Hogan, native tracker Barega and the penal settlement's captain, Tom Marsden.
Marsden's young daughter Helen, a progressive lady ahead of her time who is both an egalitarian and a feminist, boldly inserts herself into the clash between the Irish convict, her father and Moreton Bay's other iron-fisted rulers. Helen complicates things further when she finds herself in a Pride and Prejudice-style love triangle with men on opposite sides of the conflict.
When Scottish woman Eliza Fraser is found shipwrecked and close to death in Kabi territory, Graham and his legion of pursuers, as well as the Irishman's adopted Aboriginal family, are all forced to navigate a multi-faceted rescue mission. The precarious rendezvous is made all the more dangerous by Helen Marsden's ethically-driven meddling that often outwits the men involved.
WHITE SPIRIT is not only based on arguably the great Australian (true) story, a sweeping tale that encapsulates all the nuances of the southern continent's unique history, it also provides readers with detailed insights into the tribal life of First Australian (Aboriginal) peoples.
An Amazon exclusive, available here.  More reviews welcome!

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It was a delight hosting Lance and James. Stay tuned for more information about upcoming projects from our talented friends down under.

Cnut's invasion of England: setting the scene for the Norman conquest

History Extra

King Cnut (Canute) failing to hold back the waves, early 11th century (c1900). Artist: Trelleek. © Heritage Image Partnership Ltd / Alamy

In the summer of 1013, the Danish king Svein, accompanied by his son Cnut, launched an invasion of England – the first of the two successful conquests England would witness in the 11th century, but by far the less well known.
Scandinavian armies had been raiding in England on and off for more than 30 years, extracting huge sums of money from the country and putting King Æthelred under ever-increasing pressure, but Svein’s arrival in 1013 seems to have been something different – a carefully-planned, full-scale invasion. After years of raiding England, Svein knew enough about the English political situation to exploit its weaknesses: Æthelred's court was fractured by internal rivalries, a poisonous atmosphere attributed to the influence of his untrustworthy advisor Eadric, and Svein was able to make a strategic alliance with some of those who had fallen from the king's favour.
The invasion progressed with devastating speed: within a few weeks all the country north of Watling Street – the ancient dividing-line between the north and south of England – had submitted to the Danish king. Next the south was subdued by violence, and before the end of the year Æthelred and his family had been forced to flee to Normandy.
Svein, now king of England and Denmark, ruled from Christmas to Candlemas, but died suddenly on 3 February 1014. The Danish fleet chose Cnut to succeed him, but the English nobles had other ideas: they contacted Æthelred, still in refuge in Normandy, and invited him to come back as king. They said, the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle tells us, “that no lord could be dearer to them than their natural lord, if he would govern more justly than he had done before”. In response, Æthelred promised to be a better king, to forgive those who had deserted him, and to “remedy all the things of which they disapproved”. On these terms the agreement was made, and Æthelred returned to England. This time he managed to drive out Cnut, and the fleet went back to Denmark.
But a year later the young Danish king was back, hoping to repeat his father’s conquest. Despite his promises, Æthelred did not forgive those who had sided with the Danes: he viciously punished the northern leaders who had made an alliance with Svein, and in doing so caused his son, Edmund Ironside, to rebel against him. When Cnut returned in 1015, Æthelred was ill and England was divided: large parts of the country submitted to the Danes, while Edmund struggled to put an army together.
Only after Æthelred died in April 1016 did southern England finally unite behind Edmund, and six months of war followed, with the two armies fighting battles all over the south. The last was fought at a place called Assandun in Essex on 18 October 1016 – by strange coincidence, 50 years almost to the day before the battle of Hastings – and there the Danes were victorious. Edmund died six weeks later (likely by wounds received in battle or by disease, but some sources say he was murdered), and Cnut was finally sole king of England.
The immediate aftermath of Cnut's conquest was violent, although not much more so than the last years of Æthelred's reign. Potential opponents were summarily killed, and the remaining members of the royal family were driven into exile. Cnut married Æthelred's widow, Emma, sister of the duke of Normandy, and between them they founded a new dynasty – part Danish, part Norman, but presenting itself as English. There had been Danish kings ruling in England before, some of them famous Vikings whose names were still something to conjure with in the 11th century: Cnut's poets, extolling his conquest in Old Norse verse, compared him to the fearsome Ivar the Boneless and the sons of Ragnar Lothbrok, and in one sense, Cnut was heir to the conquests of these larger-than-life Danish kings.
But at the same time Cnut presented himself as a conciliatory conqueror, eager to learn from the land he had captured: by gifts to churches and monasteries he made amends for the damage his father and previous Danish kings had done, and he ruled in English and through English laws – even as his poets praised him for driving Æthelred's family out of England. When he made a diplomatic visit to Rome in 1027, he was welcomed as the Christian ruler of a new North Sea empire. Almost the only thing many people know about Cnut is that he made a grand display of his inability to control the tide, and this story – first recorded in the 12th century – is not quite as silly as it is sometimes assumed to be: power over the sea was the very basis of Cnut's authority, and a story in which Cnut yields that sea-power to God might have helped to explain the remarkable transformation of a Viking king into a Christian monarch.
When Cnut died in 1035, after ruling for nearly 20 years, he was buried in Winchester, the traditional seat of power of the kings of Wessex. His empire did not long survive him. After the early death of Harthacnut, Cnut’s son by Emma, Æthelred's son Edward regained the English throne – “as was his natural right”, the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle says. During his reign Edward had to deal with those, like Earl Godwine and his sons, who had risen to power under Cnut, but before long the impact of the Danish Conquest was to be overshadowed by the second, more famous conquest of the 11th century.
Compared to the Norman victory in 1066 – perhaps the single most famous date in medieval English history – the Danish Conquest has always seemed less important, with few enduring consequences. But the story of Svein’s well-planned invasion and Cnut’s successful reign tells us some interesting things about regional divisions within England, and England’s relationship with Scandinavia and the rest of Europe in the 11th century: in many ways – not least by destabilising the English monarchy and driving Edward into exile in Normandy – the Danish Conquest set the stage for much of what happened in 1066.
Dr Eleanor Parker is Mellon Postdoctoral Fellow in Anglo-Norman England at the University of Oxford.

Tuesday, October 18, 2016

The Normans: a timeline

History Extra

Harold’s foot soldiers try to defend themselves at Hastings in a scene from the Bayeux tapestry. (Getty Images)


According to later writer Dudo of Saint-Quentin, in this year the king of the Franks, Charles the Simple, grants land around the city of Rouen to Rollo, or Rolf, leader of the Vikings who have settled the region: the duchy of Normandy is founded. In return Rollo undertakes to protect the area and to receive baptism, taking the Christian name Robert.



Emma, sister of Duke Richard II of Normandy, marries Æthelred (‘the Unready’), king of England. Their son, the future Edward the Confessor, flees to Normandy 14 years later when England is conquered by King Cnut, and remains there for the next quarter of a century. This dynastic link is later used as one of the justifications for the Norman conquest.

An English silver penny minted c991 during the reign of King Æthelred the Unready. (Getty Images)


A group of Norman pilgrims en route to Jerusalem are ‘invited’ to help liberate southern Italy from Byzantine (Greek) control. Norman knights have already been operating as mercenaries here since the turn of the first millennium, selling their military services to rival Lombard, Greek and Muslim rulers.


Having ruled Normandy for eight years, Duke Robert I falls ill on his return from
a pilgrimage to Jerusalem and dies at Nicaea. By prior agreement, Robert is succeeded by his illegitimate son William, the future Conqueror of England, then aged just seven or eight. A decade of violence follows as Norman nobles fight each other for control of the young duke and his duchy.


Duke William visits England. His rule in Normandy now established, and newly married to Matilda of Flanders, William crosses the Channel to speak with his second cousin, King Edward the Confessor of England. The subject of their conference is unknown, but later chroniclers assert that at this time Edward promises William the English succession.


Pope Nicholas II invests the Norman Robert Guiscard with the dukedoms of Apulia, Calabria and Sicily. The popes had opposed the ambitions of the Normans in Italy, but defeat in battle at Civitate in southern Italy in 1053 had caused them to reconsider. In 1060 Robert and his brother Roger embark on the conquest of Sicily, and Roger subsequently rules the island as its great count.

The Norman army of Roger I defeats a vast Saracen army at Cerami, Sicily in 1063, in a 19th-century painting by Prosper Lafaye. (Getty Images)


Edward the Confessor dies on 5 January, and the throne is immediately taken by his brother-in-law Harold Godwinson, the most powerful earl in England, with strong popular backing. Harold defeats his Norwegian namesake at Stamford Bridge in September. But on 14 October William’s Norman forces defeat Harold’s army at Hastings. William is crowned as England’s king on Christmas Day.


The initial years of William’s reign in England are marked by almost constant English rebellion, matched by violent Norman repression. In autumn 1069 a fresh English revolt is triggered by a Danish invasion. William responds by laying waste to the country north of the Humber, destroying crops and cattle in a campaign that becomes known as the Harrying of the North, leading to widespread famine and death.



Worried by the threat of Danish invasion, at Christmas 1085 William decides to survey his kingdom – partly to assess its wealth, and partly to settle arguments about landownership created by 20 years of conquest. The results, later redacted and compiled as Domesday Book, are probably brought to him in August 1086 at Old Sarum (near Salisbury), where all landowners swear an oath to him.

A 19th-century illustration shows scribes compiling the results of William’s great survey in Domesday Book. (Getty Images)


William retaliates against a French invasion of Normandy. While attacking Mantes he is taken ill or injured – possibly damaging his intestines on the pommel of his saddle – and retires to Rouen, where he dies on 9 September. Taken to Caen for burial, his body proves too fat for its stone sarcophagus, and bursts when monks try to force it in. His eldest surviving son, Robert Curthose, becomes duke of Normandy, while England passes to his second son, William Rufus.


Following a call to arms by Pope Urban II in 1095, many Normans set out towards the Holy Land on the First Crusade, determined to recover Jerusalem. Among them are Robert Curthose, who mortgages Normandy to his younger brother, William Rufus, and William the Conqueror’s notorious half-brother, Bishop Odo of Bayeux. Odo dies en route and is buried in Palermo, but Robert goes on to win victories in Palestine and is present when Jerusalem falls.

The siege of Jerusalem during the First Crusade in 1099, shown in a 13th-century illumination. (Getty Images)


Having succeeded his father in 1087 and defeated Robert Curthose’s attempts to unseat him, the rule of William II (‘Rufus’, depicted below) seems secure. But on 2 August 1100, while hunting in the New Forest with some of his barons, William is struck by a stray arrow and killed. His body is carted to Winchester for burial, and the English throne passes to his younger brother, Henry, who is crowned in Westminster Abbey just three days later.


Roger I of Sicily dies. By the end of his long rule, Count Roger has gained control over the whole of Sicily – the central Muslim town of Enna submitted in 1087, and the last emirs in the southeast surrendered in 1091. He is briefly succeeded by his eldest son, Simon, but the new count dies in 1105 and is succeeded by his younger brother, Roger II.


On 25 November Henry I sets out across the Channel from Normandy to England. One of the vessels in his fleet, the White Ship, strikes a rock soon after its departure, with the loss of all but one of its passengers. One of the drowned is the king’s only legitimate son, William Ætheling. Henry responds by fixing the succession on his daughter, Matilda, and marrying her to Geoffrey Plantagenet, count of Anjou.

The wreck of King Henry’s White Ship, shown in a c1850 illustration. (Getty Images)


Roger II is crowned king of Sicily, having pushed for royal status in order to assert his authority over the barons of southern Italy. A disputed papal succession in 1130 has provided an opportunity and, in return for support against a papal rival, Pope Anacletus II confers the kingship on Roger in September. He is crowned in Palermo Cathedral on Christmas Day.



Henry I dies in Normandy on 1 December, reportedly after ignoring doctor’s orders and eating his favourite dish: lampreys. His body is shipped back to England for burial at the abbey he founded in Reading. Many of his barons reject the rule of his daughter, Matilda, instead backing his nephew, Stephen, who is crowned as England’s new king on 22 December.


King Stephen, the last Norman king of England, dies. His death ends the vicious civil war between him and his cousin Matilda that lasted for most of his reign. As a result of the Treaty of Wallingford, which Stephen was pressured to sign in 1153, he is succeeded by Matilda’s son Henry of Anjou, who takes the throne as Henry II.

King Stephen is pictured  as a falconer alongside his successor, Henry II, in a late-13th-century manuscript. (AKG Images)


King William II of Sicily begins the construction of the great church at Monreale (‘Mount Royal’), nine miles from his capital at Palermo. The building is a fusion of Byzantine, Latin and Muslim architectural styles, and is decorated throughout with gold mosaics, including the earliest depiction of Thomas Becket, martyred in 1170.


Norman rule on Sicily ends. Tancred of Lecce, son of Roger III, Duke of Apulia, seizes the throne on William’s death in 1189; on his death in 1194 he is succeeded by his young son, William III. Eight months later, Holy Roman Emperor Henry VI, husband of Roger II’s daughter Constance, invades Sicily and is crowned in Palermo on Christmas Day. The following day, Constance gives birth to their son, the future Frederick II.

Tancred (crowned figure on right), king of Sicily until 1194. (AKG Images)


King John loses Normandy to the French. The youngest son of Henry II, John had succeeded to England, Normandy, Anjou and Aquitaine after the death of his elder brother, Richard the Lionheart, in 1199. But in just five years he lost almost all of his continental lands to his rival King Philip Augustus of France – the end of England’s link with Normandy.

Marc Morris is a historian who specialises in the Middle Ages.

Monday, October 17, 2016

Bringing a Bronze Age Face to Light: Face of the Greek Griffin Warrior

Ancient Origins

Researchers believe that a Bronze Age skeleton found near the Mycenaean palace of Nestor was once a handsome man with long black hair. Their reconstruction of his appearance was based on an analysis of his skull and an artifact recovered in his rich grave. This is just the latest in discoveries related to the burial of the so-called Griffin Warrior.

The facial reconstruction was one of the topics presented on October 6, 2016 at The American School of Classical Studies at Athens, Greece. reports that the image of the Griffin warrior’s face was created by Lynne Schepartz and Tobias Houlton from the University of Witwatersrand, South Africa.
Schepartz and Houlton based their reconstruction on the man’s skull and a stamp which was found alongside his remains. Sharon R. Stocker, one of the University of Cincinnati archaeologists who unearthed the tomb in 2015, said the stamp provided an inspiration for the long black hair shown in the representation and “It seems he was a handsome man.” That stamp is one of the artifacts Stocker and the rest of the team will make public next year.
Some of the jewelry recovered from the grave.

Some of the jewelry recovered from the grave. (Griffin Warrior Tomb)
The grave of the 30- 35-year-old warrior was discovered by Sharon Stocker and Jack Davis, another University of Cincinnati archaeologist, during their 2015 excavations at the Palace of Nestor on Greece’s Peloponnese peninsula. The man was buried in a shaft grave that measured 5 ft. (1.5 meters) deep, 4 ft. (1.2 meters) wide, and 8 ft. (2.4 meters) long.
According to, the Griffin Warrior’s grave was intact except for the one-ton stone which had crushed the wooden coffin containing the man’s remains. When April Holloway wrote of the discovery for Ancient Origins she said that the unplundered tomb predates the palace of Nestor and contained many intriguing artifacts.
Looking inside the Griffin Warrior tomb, complete with the fallen stone.

Looking inside the Griffin Warrior tomb, complete with the fallen stone. (Griffin Warrior Tomb)
Apart from his weapons - a bronze sword with a gold and ivory handle and a gold-hilted dagger, Holloway wrote that the archaeologists found “gold rings, an ornate string of pearls, 50 Minoan seal stones carved with imagery of goddesses, silver vases, gold cups, a bronze mirror, ivory combs, an ivory plaque carved with a griffin [from which the tomb received its name], and Minoan-style gold jewelry decorated with figures of deities, animals, and floral motifs.”
Artifacts within the grave.
Artifacts within the grave. (Griffin Warrior Tomb)
The four gold rings which were found in the tomb also made the news recently for their magnificent craftsmanship and the tales that accompany their designs.
The rings were crafted with multiple sheets of gold by a skilled person who managed to create highly detailed Minoan iconography on the small artifacts. At first, it was believed that the rings and some of the other artifacts showing Minoan themes were loot from a raid of Crete, however further study suggests that they may be examples of Mycenaean-Minoan cultural transfer instead.
As Jack Davis, told EurekAlert!:
“People have suggested that the findings in the grave are treasure, like Blackbeard's treasure, that was just buried along with the dead as impressive contraband. We think that already in this period the people on the mainland already understood much of the religious iconography on these rings, and they were already buying into religious concepts on the island of Crete. This isn't just loot […] it may be loot, but they're specifically selecting loot that transmits messages that are understandable to them.”
The researchers also said that “it is no coincidence that the Griffin Warrior was found buried with a bronze bull's head staff capped by prominent horns, which were likely a symbol of his power and authority.”
One of the four gold rings found in the tomb of the Griffin Warrior depicts a leaping bull.
One of the four gold rings found in the tomb of the Griffin Warrior depicts a leaping bull. (Jennifer Stephens/University of Cincinnati)
Finally, Davis told the New York Times that they are uncertain if the warrior was buried by Minoans or Mycenaeans who had adopted elements of Minoan culture. He said, “Whoever they are, they are the people introducing Minoan ways to the mainland and forging Mycenaean culture. They were probably dressing like Minoans and building their houses according to styles used on Crete, using Minoan building techniques.”
Top Image: Facial Reconstruction of the so-called ‘Griffin Warrior.’ Source: Tornosnews
By Alicia McDermott

Sunday, October 16, 2016

Magnificent 3D Reconstruction of Pompeii Home Sheds Light on Life in the Ancient City Before its Destruction

Ancient Origins

Pompeii was an ancient Roman city near modern-day Naples in Italy, which was wiped out and buried under 6 meters of ash and pumice following the eruption of Mount Vesuvius in 79 AD.  It is an eerie feeling to walk the empty streets of Pompeii and to view shops and homes left virtually untouched for nearly two millennia. One home still contains a complete loaf of bread sitting in the oven, perfectly preserved by a coating of ash. Now everyone has the opportunity to walk the streets and peer inside homes thanks to a detailed 3D digital reconstruction of an entire Pompeian city-block.

The impressive initiative is part of the Swedish Pompeii Project, which began in 2000 at the Swedish Institute in Rome, and sheds light on the lives of the people who lived and died in the ancient Roman city in the first century AD. It is now overseen by researchers at Sweden's Lund University. The researchers virtually reconstructed an entire block, including a magnificent house that belonged to a banker called Caecilius Iucundus. The home was designed to allow as much light as possible to shine into the rooms, especially in the most elaborate room known as the tabularium (city archive).
The city block that was reconstructed, called Insula VI, includes two large and wealthy estates, in addition to the house of the banker. There is also a bakery, tavern, laundry, and a garden with fountains.
An overhead view of Insula VI, the city block that was reconstructed.

An overhead view of Insula VI, the city block that was reconstructed. Credit: Swedish Pompeii Project
The well preserved mosaic floor pieces and fully intact windows made of translucent gypsum enabled archaeologists to piece together what the home would have looked like nearly 2,000 years ago.
Archeologists also studied the water and sewer systems and discovered important information about the social hierarchies of the town – namely, that retailers were dependent on wealthy families for water, which they held in large tanks or wells, until the construction of a large aqueduct in later days.

The team was led by Anne-Marie Leander Touati, former director of the Swedish Institute in Rome and now Professor of Archaeology and Ancient History at Lund University. 3D scanning of the Pompeii city block took place during fieldwork expeditions between 2011 and 2012 with the use of FARO Focus3D and FARO PHOTON 120 laser scanners.
"By combining new technology with more traditional methods, we can describe Pompeii in greater detail and more accurately than was previously possible,'' said digital archaeologist Nicoló Dell´Unto [via ScienceAlert].
The reconstruction is fully documented in the article “Reconstructing the Original Splendour of the House of Caecilius Iucundus: A Complete Methodology for Virtual Archaeology Aimed at Digital Exhibition”. The part of the city known as Insula V1 was chosen due to its location at the crossing of two of Pompeii's main thoroughfares. The project was carried out using technical and literary texts, paintings, drawings, pictures taken via drone, and scans.

Pompeii still hides many treasures and secrets. Researchers have been excavating it for centuries, but there is still a lot to discover. In September, 2015, Mark Miller from Ancient Origins, reported on a discovery of an unexpected tomb in Pompeii:
''Archaeologists have unearthed an extremely rare 4 th century BC tomb of a woman dating to before the Roman presence in Pompeii, when the Samnites occupied the area. Evidence suggests the Romans knew of the burial site and chose not to build on it, allowing the site to survive undisturbed for more than two millennia. Scholars hope the find will give important insight into the Samnite people, an Italic people who once fought against the Romans.
Inside the tomb, archaeologists found amphorae or earthenware jugs, still with substances in them. The clay jars were found to come from various parts of Italy, showing that the Samnite people had contact outside their own area on the western coast of Italy. Researchers will examine the contents of the jars, but an initial examinations revealed food, wine and cosmetics, providing a fascinating insight into Samnite diet and culture.
A French archaeological team based in Naples discovered the tomb by surprise.
“The burial objects will show us much about the role of women in Samnite society and can provide us with a useful social insight,” Massimo Osanna, the archaeological superintendent of Pompeii said , according to .
After the Samnite Wars in the 4 th century BC, the town became subject to Rome while still retaining administrative and linguistic autonomy. Osanna said little is known about Pompeii before Rome annexed it.
The Samnite inhabitants of early Pompeii took part in the wars against Rome along with other towns of the Campania region in 89 BC. Rome laid siege to the town but did not subdue it until 80 BC.''
Top image: Digital reconstruction of a Pompeii home. Credit: Swedish Pompeii Project.
By Natalia Klimzcak