Robert’s Journeys – Task Force to the North

Book 1

One of the most remarkable things about this age was the distances which people travelled.

For instance, one of Robert’s first major journeys was from Winchester to Falkirk, near Edinburgh. Notwithstanding that he had already endured a ride to the Normandy coast and a crossing of the English Channel, after just a few days he climbed merrily upon the back of a horse, knowing full well how far he had to go.

Here, Gorman the Norman will guide you along his lord Robert’s route and tell you more information about the places they stopped.

The Great Hall was completed by 1067.

The Original Wall.

Winchester

Our starting point.

My lord’s revered father William the Conqueror liked to make an impression wherever he went. He lost no time in stamping his mark on the former chief city of Wessex, home of Alfred the Great.

Work on the Great Hall and the Bishop’s Palace started early, but the existing Saxon cathedral came in for different treatment. The site had an eight-hundred-year history but my lord’s noble father didn’t hesitate in having the building demolished and the stones used to reconstruct the grand Norman cathedral, consecrated in 1093, that now occupies the site.

Below, at the foot of the photo, is what’s left of the original Hall’s stonework, as the building was largely reconstructed long after our time, in the thirteenth century.

On to Leicester – 140 miles to go

Modern Leicester – no castle here, only the remains of the motte or mound. It used to be much taller. The tower on top where my lord spends some happy days – and nights! – was built of wood.

In my lord Robert’s time, there was a grassy meadow in front of the old castle site leading down to the river Soar. It’s been much altered, mostly by straightening of the river, called canalisation, so this now stands between the castle motte and the old river course.

When my lord Robert came a-calling, Leicester was the home of the Grandmesnils, or Grentsmesnils. Hugh Grentsmesnil was recognised as one of the best horse trainers around. His main focus was on stallions, the warhorses; these were part of the weapons system known as the Norman cavalry. Based on the Roman system, the cavalry was feared throughout Europe because of its closely coordinated formations, known as the conroy.

Other horses in common use were the palfrey, an everyday riding horse, and the sumpter, a load-carrying beast.

Clifford Tower

Little Tower

Ninety miles to York

The next leg sees my lord Robert and his army move north into hostile territory. I’m afraid the inhabitants were still resentful after his father’s ‘scorched earth’ devastation of the area – this in response to rebellion against what those Saxons saw as Norman invasion. Our lord William, of course, had it both ways: he insisted the old king Edward had meant to grant him the English throne – but he also claimed it by right of conquest when Harold and the Saxon nobles saw things differently.

Rebellion north of the Humber did neither side much good. In 1069/70, William slaughtered the inhabitants without discrimination, burnt crops and killed the animals. In later years, we called this the Harrying of the North, which sounds a bit of an understatement to modern ears. It led to economic failure in the region, with no income from there for at least ten years. Nor did it entirely quell rebellion; those persistent Danes landed again and received support from those surviving, and in 1080 the locals murdered the bishop, William Walcher, who King William appointed in 1071. (I’ve heard say our bishop rather asked for it with arrogant high-handedness when dealing with the natives but of course we’re not allowed to whisper such a thing.) Anyway, King William sent his half brother, Bishop Odo to teach the northerners another lesson, and while he was there a-harrying Odo also managed to appropriate a lot of the Church’s treasures. So when we turned up only a matter of months later we knew not to expect a friendly welcome.

From here on my lord Robert’s army is on full alert; the columns tightened, mail cotes kept handy and a ring of mounted archers acting as scouts keeping a sharp lookout for any locals foolish enough to try an attack.

Upon reaching York, my lord Robert doesn’t find much of the former Viking and Saxon town standing after his father’s demolition work. There is a lot under construction though, especially in the peninsular formed by the rivers Foss and Ouse; here two motte and bailey castles were built to establish the king’s authority.

Nottingham

Only thirty miles from Leicester, but as fifteen miles is the daily limit for our marching army with its foot soldiers and supply wagons, a two-day footslog. Long days too.

Once again, the castle we knew no longer exists, but its prominent site now houses a seventeenth-century mansion, which sits on top with a commanding view of the surrounding countryside and the River Trent.

Our steps turn northwards.

Nottingham

Durham

Durham

With York behind him, Robert and his army have seventy miles to travel to reach the place known as Durham.

This place has a bloody history, and is scene of the massacre of a Norman formation of some seven hundred men and the execution of earls and bishops. On his way back from concluding the Treaty of Abernethy with the Scottish King Malcolm, in 1073, King William authorised the construction of a new castle to dominate the area. It stands today at the entrance to the peninsular protected by cliffs and the meander of the River Wear.

Monkchester, fifteen miles after leaving Durham

Here we come to the first fordable point on the river Tyne.

The Emperor Hadrian built a bridge and fortress on a point above the river to safeguard the new crossing. The bridge is to the left of the illustration and the road curves around behind the bailey before heading northwards, the buildings are in need of re-development, to which My Lord, Robert, will give some consideration.

Sketch by Judith Dobie, reproduced with kind permission of ‘Old Newcastle,’ more on their website: www.newcastlecastle.co.uk

Bernicia

If Lord Robert and we men felt vulnerable travelling through North Humbria, it’s about to get worse. Notwithstanding his being joined by the Guardian of the North, Robert de Mowbray, when we reach the old Roman bridge on the River Tyne, (Pons Ælii), we find it nestled amid the ruins of the town of Monkchester, flattened by my lord’s father during his earlier visit.

Nothing much else to say about that, except that de Mowbray would have been safer in his citadel at the mouth of the Tyne.

Onwards now, into the lawless, high moorlands of the north, once the Saxon kingdom of Bernicia. Up the Roman road of Via Dere where the road traverses wooded valleys and bare crests until, after eighty miles, we trudging soldiers catch our first glimpse of the northern hills which stretch into Scotland. The place named Lauder is our stopping point while we await de Mowbray; he travelled via the coast and comes along from the ford at North Ham, this being the first crossing point of the River Tweed.

Not a nice place, either deep in ambush territory or out in the open on the drafty plains. My lord John of Selkirk provided these modern illustrations. It looks a lot more pleasant than I remember!

Bamburgh

Across the strand lies Lindisfarne, or Holy Island, once home to St Cuthbert, and where the Lindisfarne Gospels were created three or four hundred years ago, I’m told. It was the Saxon Bretwalda King Oswald, also later sanctified, who invited monks from Iona to found the monastery at Lindisfarne long ago, but a vicious Viking raid in 793 saw to that building together with the poor folks in it. We understand that monks from Durham escaped back to Lindisfarne with the body of St Cuthbert to avoid our Norman Harrying. Perhaps they’ll rebuild a priory there in time, although I’m certain it won’t be long before Cuthbert returns to Durham; he’s too good a draw and attracts much money.

Bamburgh itself is named after Saxon Queen Bebba, and the original structure dates back at least four hundred years, apparently. The castle in stone shown here is impressive, although it was still all in timber when I visited with my lord Robert. It possessed that most valuable asset in withstanding sieges, apart from its lofty position, a well; fully forty-eight paces deep and carved by Saxon hands out of the Whinstone rock.

After enjoying the hospitality at Bamburgh, we head south once more. My lord is contemplating de Mowbray’s defensive plans and when he reaches Monkchester he decides to authorise the building of a New Castle to guard the strategic river crossing over the Tyne.

His next thoughts are much further south – only another four hundred miles to go. When he reaches the arms of the stately Morberga back in Winchester we will have travelled near a thousand miles in pursuit of our duties to the king.