I. A Bittersweet Christmas Day
Christmas Day in the Year of our Lord 1066 was a frigid and snow-bound one in Appleby, where Morcar, Earl of Northumbria, addressed his courtiers in his Westmorland hall. A feast adorned the table, but the mood was far from festive. Morcar still bore the weary look he’d worn ever since his defeat by the Norsemen at Fulford, but today he looked even wearier to Maelwine, the youngest and newest member of his court. Maelwine noticed the apprehension on the faces of his cousins, Aethelwin and William. Aethelwin peered upwards from under a mop of white hair, his back slightly hunched from deformity and age. His clever eyes missed little about Morcar, and years in his service had made them particularly keen to the moods of his liege. And now they betrayed just the slightest glimmer of worry in Aethelwin, which in itself was disconcerting. Morcar’s young wife, Wulfthryth, laid a slender hand on his broad shoulder in sympathy. Morcar favoured her with a distractedly appreciative smile and an amicable arm about her waist, but said nothing.
William stood to the side. He had had the same education as Maelwine, in the parish, but was ten years his senior, and had developed into a talented military mind. Before the debacle at Fulford, he had burned with ambition and drive. Morcar had noticed this immediately, making him the marshal of his men in the field. Maelwine had been left at Appleby, one day shy of the age of sixteen, when Morcar and William had led three thousand men into combat at Fulford. But they had struck the Viking line too soon, or so William would say later. The Vikings had left the most of their men in reserve, so that when the first Viking line had been penetrated, the exhausted Northumbrians faced a superior number of fresh Vikings. Of the men he had led, only half of them left whole, and they had lost that territory to the depredations of Harald Hardrade’s Norsemen. Now, William went about more hushed and with less bravado than usual. Bold and gauche though he tended to be, even he could note the weariness on his lord’s face. Morcar cleared his throat, swallowed a bit more of his wine, then spoke.
‘A messenger arrived just today, bearing this news: Harold King of England has been slain in the south by an arrow through the eye, at Hastings. His forces were routed by William of Normandy, who has assumed his title as King of England. I have sworn my fealty to William, but he already has brought his retinue of Norman lords to replace us. It is unlikely a Saxon such as I, especially one who has failed so miserably as I have at Fulford, will be allowed to retain his place much longer.
‘If I am to stay Earl of Northumbria, I am going to need vassals I can trust to show William my worth. It is my decision to confer the title Baron Durham upon Maelwine of Durham.’
There was a cluck of disapproval from Aethelwin and a gasp of outrage from William. Maelwine could hardly believe his ears, could not so much as make a sound. ‘Are you sure that is wise, my lord?’ asked William. ‘Maelwine is only sixteen years old!’
‘Indeed, my lord,’ Maelwine suddenly regained his voice. ‘Surely William is the better choice – his skill at arms, his tactical knowledge…’
‘… is why I still need him here, even after Fulford,’ Morcar sighed. ‘I knew your father, Maelwine, while he was still alive. Hrothgar was a good man: always trustworthy and honest, never undervaluing others, even if his temper was somewhat uneven. But he knew how to value himself, and it’s time you did the same. Believe me when I say that I know his son will be cut from the same cloth. I must admit I was somewhat disappointed when he chose for your education the monastery instead of one of my own knights, but all the same I believe you would make an excellent baron.’
Maelwine shook his shaggy brown locks from his face and saw that Morcar was indeed in earnest. Maelwine made a few more futile protestations of his inadequacy for the title, but was convinced in the end to accept it, and be created Baron Durham.
As he left for his home city, Maelwine pondered this turn of events. He was being handed all the responsibilities that came with nobility at the tender age of sixteen: a title and an entire county to look after. He looked upon the frozen River Wear over its snow-laden banks in the distance as he neared the hill fortress which would soon be his home. From the depths of a heart somewhat in awe, somewhat in triumph, somewhat in fear, Maelwine prayed God would see him a fit, liberal-minded lord of this land to which he was so familiar.
History has tended to characterise Baron Durham as a rather lacklustre leader and somewhat lacking in political initiative, and his policies tended to favour the burghers of Durham over the peasants and (strangely enough) the clergy. But we must keep in mind that Baron Durham was no military strategist, he was first and foremost a scholar and a brilliant theological and philosophical mind. He heavily encouraged learning within his realm, and some of the first improvements he gave to Durham and Northumberland were their libraries.