Eleventh century Europe was a cockpit of warring kings, princes, lords and priests, all anxious to gain ascendancy and power through the sword, marriage or treachery, or in the case of priests, the offer of eternal life. The Christian Church had not yet gained full control over its own affairs and there were wars to gain the papal throne. According to the Church everyone was born in sin but it had not yet gained complete jurisdiction over sexual activities, so fornication was natural and normal and the begetting of children both in and out of marriage was an imperative. However, marriage was also a tool of the powerful, and used to secure and extend their territories.
When earlier, in the tenth century, traders from the north decided to settle in France it didn’t take them long to persuade the French that they should yield some land to the invaders. In the year AD 911 in which the Norse leader, Rollo the Ganger, converted to Christianity and acknowledged the French King Charles as his liege lord, the incomers were granted the area which became known as Normandy with their chief town at Rouen.
The first man to be known as Duke of Normandy was Richard the Fearless, in 942. By the year 1028 the title had passed to the man known as William the Conqueror, so dubbed because of his exploits in holding and gaining lands and domains beyond his own. William was not a man to mess with and so frightened the French that even though he was legally a vassal, subordinate to the kings of France, they were reluctant to trouble him for their dues.
Survival in the 11th century
It might be tempting to think that people died younger than today, but was that always the case?
The list below shows that many enjoyed quite a long life, given an adequate diet and some care, and a bit of luck, the family of William the Conqueror seemed to have enjoyed such an innings.
WHO WAS THIS?
REASON OF DEATH
William the Conqueror
King of England
1078/1087 – Aged 59
Wounded in battle.
Queen of England
1031/1083 – Aged 51
At least a dozen children, not all survived.
Duke of Normandy
c1058/1134 – Aged 83
Peacefully in Cardiff Castle.
Duke of Bernay
Killed hunting in the New Forest
c1055/1100 – Aged 45
King William II of England
1056/1100 – Aged 44
Killed in the New Forest – cause suspicious
1056/1126 – Aged 70
Peacefully in Caen
Countess of Blois
c1062/1138 – Aged 76
Little known of this lady
Little known of this lady
Duchess of Brittany
1066/1090 – Aged 24
Mysterious death, poisoning suspected
King of England
1068/1135 – Aged 67
Died of Gluttony
If anyone wondered why a Norman duke had the nerve to lay claim to the crown of the English, they can find the basis in the family bloodlines of the time
It is the likely case that William the Conqueror and Edward the Confessor, King of England, had an agreement that the English crown should pass to William upon Edward’s death should he die without heirs. This is not entirely surprising as Edward’s mother, Emma, was of the Norman bloodline – her father Richard I The Fearless was William’s great-grandfather – and Edward, who had spent his boyhood in the Norman court during the Viking Cnut’s reign over England, invited William to his court in 1051.
By contrast, Harold Godwinson’s tenuous claim, which he persevered with after Edward the Confessor’s death in 1066, even though it is believed that he gave fealty to William in Normandy after being rescued from a shipwreck in 1064, rested on two factors. First, the death-bed confession of a dying Edward, who, Harold stated, had changed his mind about the succession. There were no other witnesses to this (or to Edward’s earlier promise to William, for that matter). At the time the Witan, the great council of the Saxon earls, was clinging on to the time-honoured right to vote for their leader and Harold went to the Witan to tell them that it should be him, ‘because Edward said so’. The Witan went along with him, unsurprisingly as Harold, brother of Edward’s wife, was one of the foremost Saxon earls, whereas William Duke of Normandy was not – and he was a bastard to boot, with his mother’s father low-born.
Duke William’s other strength lay in the lineage of his wife, Matilda, a descendant of both Alfred the Great of England and Charles the Great (Charlemagne) – a card sufficient to trump Harold several times over, whose sister’s marriage gave him his only claim to the royal House of Wessex.
Neither Duke William nor Harald Hardrada, King of Norway, thought much of Harold’s dodgy claim, so they both invaded England to settle the matter by violence
The feared Viking king was also under the impression that Edward had meant the throne for him, and Harold’s treacherous brother Tostig invited him to England to make his claim. Tostig and Hardrada were killed and his vast army routed at the bloody battle of Stamford Bridge in Yorkshire by Harold’s men, who then famously dashed south to Hastings, worn out and without a full complement of warriors, to meet the challenge from the south. There, thanks to William’s audacity and cunning, Harold met his end and died on 14th October 1066.
At this point, the desperate Witan elected 15-year-old Edgar the Aethling, Edward’s nephew and a grandson of King Edmund II Ironside, as the next Anglo-Saxon king. He was never crowned. On 10 December Duke William entered London and declared himself King of England. With no one left to fight, the Witan and Edgar were forced to submit to William the Conqueror at Berkhamstead Castle in Hertfordshire.
Where do the most important people of the household live?
This is Laxton, in Sherwood Forest, a fine example of a Norman settlement, the castle sits on top of an earth mound within the inner bailey; the most important members of the household live here, they are the lord’s ‘mesnie.’ Outside is the outer bailey where all the household facilities are such as the smithy and stables, and where the other artisans live, with senior soldiers and their families.
Drawing reproduced by kind permission of Nottingham libraries service.
Notts, NG17 2RE