Friday, 7 October 2016

1066 and Brexit

In a week’s time it will be the 950th anniversary of the one event that most people in Britain know…the Battle of Hastings.  It is no surprise that this totemic event has been linked to the equally totemic decision to leave the EU…the one was when England lost her independence before the Norman onslaught; the latter when the people of Britain took back that independence from the hordes of EU technocrats…a case of one in the eye for Brussels!!! 

The events of the summer and early autumn of 1066 are well known. On 25th September, the combined armies of Earl Tostig, brother of King Harold, and King Harold Hardrada of Norway, were defeated at Stamford Bridge. Upon his return to London, King Harold received the news of Duke William’s landing at Pevensey on 29th September and within a fortnight the battle of Hastings took place. King Harold was killed and with him the greater part of the English nobility. Duke William’s victory, the carnage of the battlefield, and the retrospective significance of the heavenly sign portending victory were at once reported all over Europe.  Britain lay at the heart of the globalisation of northern Europe in the eleventh century with the rapid expansion of the Viking trading empire…yes there was a Norway option even then!!

Many Norman families were of Scandinavian descent and retained memories of their Viking forebears. However, links between Normandy and Scandinavia weakened with time, and there is little evidence that in the period from the 1020s that the dukes of Normandy maintained relations with the Scandinavian realms in the way that they clearly did with the Scandinavian kings of England, Cnut, Harald and Harthacnut. When William became king of England in 1066, however, he was obliged to pay attention to these realms because of the threat represented by Denmark in particular. He had little to fear from Norway, because King Harald Hardrada, together with Earl Tostig, had perished. But King Sweyn Estrithsson of Denmark was a nephew of King Cnut of England; moreover, a sister of his father Ulf, called Gytha, had married Earl Godwine and was the mother of the Harold who died at Hastings. These dynastic links encouraged, in Sweyn Estrithsson and subsequently in his eldest son and successor King Cnut IV the ambition to reunite the kingdoms of Denmark and England. Svein Estrithsson gave active backing to the Anglo-Saxon rebels in England, besides invading England himself in 1069 and 1070. His sons invaded England again in 1075. And yet another invasion was planned in 1085 by Cnut IV in alliance with his father-in-law, the Flemish Count Robert ‘the Frisian’. This never materialised and was the last attempt to oust William from the English throne. 

Three sources are relevant with regard to Scandinavia. The earliest is a poem, which gives us a glimpse of how the Anglo-Danish community felt a decade after the arrival of the Normans. It was written in England in 1076 by Thorkill Skallason, a Danish skald[1] in the service of Earl Waltheof, shortly after his master had been executed by King William for his involvement in the 1075 rebellion. His view of William is understandably bitter[2].

“William crossed the cold channel and reddened the bright swords, and now he has betrayed noble Earl Waltheof. It is true that killing in England will be a long time ending. A braver lord than Waltheof will never be seen on earth.”

The second source is the History of the Archbishops of Bremen, written c. 1080 by Adam of Bremen, a clerk at the archiepiscopal court[3]. His testimony is important because in 1068 or 1069 he visited King Sweyn Estrithsson and may have incorporated some of the king’s views. He justifies a digression on 1066 by reminding his readers that the battle of Hastings was great and memorable and that it had happened in England which of old had been subjected to the Danes. Adam calls Harold Godwinson a ‘vir maleficus’ who usurped the throne of England. He continues by saying that Harold killed not only his brother Tostig, but also King Harold Hardrada and the king of Ireland. Then, relying on hearsay, he says that only eight days later William crossed from France to England and fought a battle against a tired victor. Harold died, together with 100,000 Englishmen. According to Adam, William was God’s avenger in punishing the English, who had sinned against Him. He banished almost all the monks who lived without a monastic rule and brought in Lanfranc to restore divine worship. In a later addition, Adam himself attributes King William’s wealth to his confiscation of 300 ships left behind by King Harald Hardrada plus the gold which Harald had collected while a Varangian in Greece. If this story originated from King Sweyn, which is quite possible, then it reinforces the hypothesis that Sweyn’s attacks on England in the immediate post-conquest period were inspired by a quest for booty as well as land. Although Adam of Bremen openly condemns Harold’s election as king, he justifies William’s invasion and his succession to the throne only in terms of divine retribution. The same attitude can be found in contemporary English sources like the anonymous Vita Edwardi, and the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle.

The third source that reflects Danish opinion dates from c. 1122, when the Anglo-Saxon exile Aelnoth of Canterbury[4], who lived at Odense, wrote his biography of King Cnut IV, son of King Sweyn Estrithsson, who was killed in 1086. According to Aelnoth, King Cnut planned the abortive invasion of 1085 as revenge for the death of his kinsman, King Harold Godwinson and for the imposition on the English by William the Conqueror of the imperium of the Romans and the French. “In their despair”, he wrote,

“the English, whose dukes, counts, lords, noblemen and other people of high rank had either been killed, or imprisoned, or deprived of their father’s honours, wealth, dignity or inheritance or expelled abroad, or left behind and forced into public slavery, were not able to bear the tyranny of the Romans and the French and declined to seek foreign help.”

King Cnut is pictured as the natural protector of the English people against the aggression of a foreign duke. Even almost a millennium after the Conquest, it seems there were people who still see the British Isles as part of a larger Scandinavian kingdom.

[1] R. Frank, Old Norse Court Poetry: the Dróttkvætt Stanza, Islandica, Vol. 2, (1978) for the nature of scaldic verse; also, R. Frank, ‘Skaldic Poetry’, Old Norse - Icelandic Literature: a Critical Guide, edited C.J. Clover and J. Lindow, Islandica, Vol. 45. (1985), pages 157-196.
[2] Heimskringla: History of the Kings of Norway, translated by L.M. Hollander, London, 1964 is the great twelfth-century synoptic history by Snorri Sturluson. Two sections of this poem have survived in Old Norse as part of the saga of Harold Hardrada: King Harald's Saga: Harold Hardrada of Norway from Snorri Sturluson’s Heimskringla, translated M. Magnusson and H. Palsson, Harmondsworth 1966, pages 157-8; cf. De gestis regum ii, 311: “Siquidem Weldeofus in Eboracensi pugna plures Normannorum solus obtrucavenat, unos per portam egredientes decapitans.” The suggestion of an underlying verse was first launched by F.S. Scott, ‘Earl Waltheof of Northumbria’, Archaelogia Aeliana, (1952), pages 159-213 at page 179.
[3] Adam of Bremen, Gesta Hammaburgensis ecclesiae pontificum was written c. 1080. In four books: book I covers activities of missionaries in the north; book II is on 10th and early 11th century archbishops of Hamburg-Bremen, including material on reigns of Sweyn Forkbeard and Cnut; book III is on Archbishop Adalbert (1043-72), including material on reign of Edward the Confessor etc. (e.g. pages 124-5, 158-9); book IV is on the islands of the north. Text: Adam von Bremen, Hamburgische Kirchengeschichte, ed. B. Schmeidler, Scriptores Rerum Germanicarum, 1917. Text and German translation: Quellen des 9. und 11. Jahrhunderts zur Geschichte der hamburgischen Kirche und des Reiches, ed. W. Trillmich and R. Buchner, Ausgewählte Quellen zur deutschen Geschichte des Mittelalters 11, 1978, pages 160-502. English translation: F.J. Tschan, Adam of Bremen: History of the Archbishops of Hamburg-Bremen, 1959.

[4] Aelnoth, Gesta Svenomagni etc 1047-1104, translated by E. Albrechtsen, Odense 1984.

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