Monday, 23 February 2015

The first Robin Hood, Hereward the Wake

The fight against William the Conqueror does not end with the famous defeat at the Battle of Hastings in 1066. Instead many Anglo-Saxons continue to rebel rather than accept defeat and a lifetime of subjugation. 

The most famous of these rebels is Hereward the Wake (also known as Hereward the Outlaw or Hereward the Exile), a brave Anglo-Saxon leader who some say was the influence behind the stories of Robin Hood. Contemporary chroniclers describe him as someone who belongs to a band of men ‘who lived in tents, disdaining to sleep in houses lest they should become soft’. The Normans call them ‘wildmen’.

Hereward seems to have long courted trouble. He was seen as a trouble maker even under Edward the Confessor and after William the Conqueror takes over England the land belonging to Hereward is given to Oger the Breton. Hereward is so outraged he leads a band of men in open rebellion against the new King.

Help comes from unexpected quarters in the form of the Danish king Swein Estrithson who aides him in his endeavour in either 1069 or 1070 with an army large enough to fill 240 ships. He establishes a camp on the Isle of Ely and is soon joined by many, including Hereward. Swein’s first act is to storm and sack Peterborough Abbey in 1070 with local assistance.

William acknowledges this big threat. The opposing combined army is a tough match for him and he knows it will encourage others to rebel against him throughout England. The immensity of the challenge is put into the spotlight when this new army fight the Normans in York and manage to kill over 3,000 soldiers.

In the light of this William’s next move is both prudent and brilliant. He hands Swein enough money to encourage him to leave which Swein then proceeds to do so. This makes it possible for him to attack Hereward the Outlaw and bring his full army to bear down upon him.

Eventually William catches up with Hereward at the Isle of Ely in 1071. It is here that Hereward feels he will be safe hiding in a monastery inaccessible to non-locals unfamiliar with the marshes. These damp lands also offer him many places to hide until it is safe once again to resume his guerrilla tactics. In addition the plentiful water makes it impossible to burn the refuge down as has happened at other sites of rebellion.

To tackle this challenge the Norman army build a mile long causeway but this is destroyed by the sheer weight of the armour and the horses. This leaves the Normans at a loss as they can not find a way to the monastery. However one thing Hereward has not counted on is the avariciousness and greed of the monks themselves. Before the siege the monks had been used to a good standard of living indulging themselves with fine white bread, venison and good French wine. They simply can not cope with any further deprivation so encouraged by a Norman bribe they betray Hereward and show the Normans a secret way to the monastery through the largely inaccessible marshes. Once there they launch a surprise attack and decimate Hereward’s fellow band of men.

The events afterward are disputed. Some say he yields to William as the Conqueror or continues his resistance but whatever happens he will be remembered as a heroic fighter for England.

If you liked that story then you will also enjoy reading about The Amazing Real Life English Robin Hood - Roger Godberd.

A Brief History of Robin Hood by Nigel Cawthorne also offers more information about the real life Robin Hood known as Roger Godberd.

Thursday, 19 February 2015

King Athelstan first King of England and the epic ‘Great Battle’ of Brunanburgh

Athelstan is the great forgotten hero and founder of the England we know today. Grandson of Alfred the Great, King of Wessex, brave warrior and according to William of Malmesbury ’an imposing man of middle height, thin in person, his hair flaxen and beautifully wreathed with golden threads'. His most extraordinary claim to fame is the remarkable manner in which he stands up to defend his people from a simultaneous, overwhelming attack from all his enemies.

By 931AD his enemies are numerous. There is Olaf Guthfrithson, who succeeds his father, Gulfrith, the king of the Irish Norsemen in Dublin in 934AD. Olaf clearly has the ambition to regain the kingdom of Northumbria that his father had lost to Athelstan in 927AD. Then there is EĆ³gan of Strathclyde who has reason to fear that his strong southern neighbour might once again destroy his lands. Finally there is King Constantine II of the Scots. Using their common enemy as a rallying cause this collective unite together to face and defeat their sworn enemy, King Athelstan.

Athelstan is not one to cower away and decides that he will have to face all his enemies all at once. Together with his brother, Edmund they fight side by side as leaders of the West Saxons and Mercians.

The big confrontation begins at Brunanburgh. Thousands gather, ready for  brutal slaughter. The sons of Edward bring their banners to rally spirits for their men. All sides use mercenaries to get any edge they can over their opponents. Wary of defeat, the West Saxons and Mercians offer no mercy and expect none for they know should they lose to the fearsome Vikings they will probably be slaughtered.

The onslaught is relentless and yet under the firm guidance of Athelstan they keep their formation and manage to attack their enemies’ vulnerable rear. Athelstan’s best soldiers press hard against the combined forces of their enemy and throughout the carnage of a long and bloody day’s battle use their strong mill-sharpened blades. The Annals of Ulster record that ‘a great battle, lamentable and terrible was cruelly which fell uncounted thousands of the Northmen. ... And on the other side, a multitude of Saxons fell’. First to crack after hours of carnage and a relentless hail of arrows are the Scottish clans. They run away all the time whilst being pursued and hacked down. The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle says many end up lying ‘under a shower of arrows, shot over shields’ making a mockery over ‘Scotland's boast’ to be ‘a Scythian race, the mighty seed of Mars!’.

The Mercians likewise fight hard and attack the Vikings when they retreat back to their ships. By the end of battle five Kings lie down in the field, all pierced with swords along with seven Earls of Olaf and countless Scots. The pitiful Scottish King, Constantine is left to hurry away in hasty flight without his son, Cellach, who dies in battle. Likewise the Norse Vikings are also humiliated and embarrassed at losing they return to their homes in Dublin in great disgrace.

Athelstan’s great victory though comes at a cost. He loses his cousins Alfric and Athelwin. Never the less the battle is celebrated as the greatest of its generation and its successful conclusion allows Athelstan to finally unite the English together. Years later it is still talked about as ‘the Great Battle’. The Anglo Saxon Chronicle describes it triumphantly as ‘no slaughter yet was greater made e'er in this island, of people slain’ of people who had travelled from the ‘eastern shores’.

If you liked that story then remember there are new stories on this site every week that can be found at my Secret History Stories homepage.

Saint Alban and his extraordinary act of Martyrdom

Saint Alban is a 4th century Englishman worthy of celebration. Unlike Saint George he really existed, was English and performed heroic sacrifices.

Alban’s adventures begin when he shelters a Christian in his hometown, Verulamium and is converted by him to Christianity. This is heresy. Daring not to worship the Roman Gods is a sacrilegious act punishable by death. Knowing that Roman soldiers are seeking his fellow Christian he decides to court great risk by putting on the man’s robe in the hope this will confuse the Roman soldiers hunting for the Christian.

This enables the man he is sheltering to escape but it means Alban is arrested instead at Chantry Island. When the Roman governor finds out about this deception he is furious with Alban. He demands to know who Alban worships and hears the reply "I worship and adore the true and living God who created all things." This is simply too much for the pagan governor so he chops off Alban’s head instead of the fleeing Christian.

The story does not end here. On his way to his place of execution his composed manner leaves a lasting impression on many, in particular one of the soldiers escorting him. So much so that he decides he can not do anything to such a good hearted man as Alban.

As a consequence both men end up losing their heads. Today, British history revers Alban as a martyr but unfortunately not many people know why and instead myths have grown that pass for facts. A good example is the parting of the river as Alban passes over it, much like when Moses supposedly partes the Red Sea. Another is that the man who wielded the sword loses his sight. As with so much of English history this is simply not true.

If you liked that story then remember there are new stories on this site every week that can be found at my Secret History Stories homepage.