- Apr 11, 2005
I am here building upon the astonishing work of the late, great Arthur Lawton, his writing of "The annals of our History" is a almost legendary piece of translation of the ancient Anglo-Saxon Chronicle. It seemed almost absurd when he went to the publishers and said that he wanted to put the history into contemporary prose, but they ran with the idea and, as we all know, his first volumes up to the death of Canute was an instant best-seller. He died while still working on the next volumes, and so I have decided to take up his pen and continue his worthy work. I know that the Chronicle is still being written, now in our modern tongue, but I think that an entire translation is worthy of our time.
Chapter One, Time of Ordeal
With the death of the old and noble king Canute, in 1035, the succession fell to his son, Harthacanute or Canute the Hardy. He was able to command the throne of Denmark, but a vicious war with Magnus I of Norway disenfranchised him from his English claim until later. With Harthacanute stuck over the North Sea his half-brother, Harold Harefoot, was proclaimed regent to the absentee monarch and ruled in his place. Magnus was plagued by the insurgency of Svend Estridsen, the great nephew of Canute, who also claimed the lands of Denmark and Norway. Magnus won a great battle against the man, but his position to Harthacanute was mortally weakened. In the year 1039 Harthacanute and Magnus came to an uneasy peace and agreed that the kingdoms should be divided as they already were and upon the first one of their deaths the other should inherit and rule supreme. Thus now at peace Harthacanute travelled back to England to regain his throne. In 1041 Harthacanute invited his mother and half-brother Edward, son of Ethelred the Unready, back from their exile in Normandy, it was with this invitation that the unmarried and childless Harthacanute wished to pass on his succession. Tragedy followed the two travellers and a sudden storm tossed their transport into the murky depths of the English Channel, thus robbing Harthacanute of his elected heir. It was merely a year later that the king himself died in his sleep leaving the British Isles once again without a clear heir, his last good deed was that of outliving the brutally murdered Norwegian King Magnus.
It was then, with this grave matter in mind that the ancient Anglo-Saxon Witan sat in presumption of an answer. After weeks of intense debate and discussion still only one man was coming to the fore, but while he had absolute support of many he also had the hatred of a great host of the wise council sitting, they looked with jealousy upon the already considerable power of Godwin of Wessex. The decision was almost at once made, however, when a man gave leave to the great gathering that the thought lost Edward the Exile was still alive in Hungary. It took little time for a decision to be reached and so King Edward Aetheling, son of King Edmund Ironside was proclaimed in early 1043, with Godwin his regent until his return from Hungary.
Harald Hardrde, who had been disenfranchised by Magnus's death of what he believed his birthright, the Kingdom of Norway, would not let the throne of the Vikings be passed to a mere Saxon and so he raised his people in open revolt. Harald was a successful leader managing to throw the English from Scandinavian shores and dealing a mortal blow to the regent Godwin. With the death of the erstwhile warrior and the destruction of the English expeditionary force the two halfs of the great Canute's empire settled down to an uneasy peace with neither being able to gain a foothold upon the others shores.
The greatest irony of the happenings was that the new King of England was never to make landfall upon the shores of his new Kingdom, and in effect Godwin had been made king, the very thing that many in the Witan did not want. Edward, his wife and their young son were taken hostage by Henry III, Holy Roman Emperor, and they were only released in 1057. His last act was to die aboard a transport to the shores of Dover, his body and his six year old son were taken ashore and met by Harold Godwinson who had taken the regency upon the death of his own farther in battle. Harold recognised that he would never be able to reign on the throne of England while a member of the House of Wessex was still alive, but also knew that if anything happened to the boy he would fall to gossip of murder and intrigue. He then decided to adopt the boy almost as his own, he tutored the young King Edgar Aetheling in everything that he would need in his later years and even had him married to his daughter, Gytha. It was, however, in 1066 that Harold would do his greatest service to both the, now fifteen year old, boy and his country.
The younger brother of Harold, Tostig Godwinson, saw nothing but jealousy in both the position of his brother and his adopted liege. The man was nothing more than an ambitious hothead and even though he was given the title of Earl of Northumberland, he did it and his brother little service there. In October 1065 he provoked a northern rebellion against him. The tyrannical man had been thieving on the fortunes of abbeys and monasteries, using both monies and influence to create little more than his own private army. Harold was fearful of supporting his younger brother against the rebels, in that it may create a civil war and so he sided with the local nobles and Earl Morcar, throwing out his own kith and kin. His support unified England, a unity that would sorely be needed in the near future, but he also sowed the seeds of his own demise. After a bitter and dark winter, punctuated by great gales that tore trees up from the ground and destroyed house's of men and God alike did 1066 dawn. The year would be dark a worrying as the future of Anglo-Saxon England lay in the balance upon a precipice and great men and armies would arise and do battle.
William the bastard of Normandy was a man with lofty ambitions, his ancestors and their men had come from the north raiding and pillaging the northern French coast, but they had soon traded in their mighty long-ships for the majesty of grand warhorses. William, a distant claimant to the English throne, had been brought up in the same court as Edward son of the English kings, he had never forgotten the stories of the vast riches of the lands of the Angles and Saxons and he looked greedily upon them. With complete contempt for the truth he called upon the support of the pope, despoiling Edgar Aethelings reputation claiming that the man and his regent Harold were the raiders of the Celtic Church* and of wanting to bring the old pagan faith back to the shores of Britain. Only he, as he now professed, could bring back the right thinking. The story held, of course, little truth but the pope, thanks in no little part to an enomous'gift', was won over and gave his blessing to the crusade, knights from all of Europe flocked to the Papal banner and soon a vast invasion force a was ready. In England Harold went to work, proving his phenomenal military organising skill in the process, he could depend upon around 3,000 elite huscarls, professional soldiers able to loft a huge axe that could cleft horse and rider in two with only one skilful blow. The core of his army, as ever, was the noblemen of England, 5,000 Thanes in addition to 13,000 part-time soldiers, the fyrd, mobilised by their lords and obliged to give the king two months service each year. Both armies moved to their respective coasts and awaited, Harold for the Duke and William for a southerly wind that never came, by September the fyrd had served their time and were sent back to their homes for the harvest, if Harold felt uneasy and he had every right to.
Harald Hardrde had never forgotten his weak, if legitimate, claim, to the crown of England, and when a disenchanted Tostig fled to his court he was most welcoming. Just a week after Harold had sent his troops home, the two men landed in Northumbria with as many as 12,000 men intent upon conquest, the entire country felt and shared the regents dismay. Tostig had pulled off an impressive coup enlisting the support of Hardrde, quite simply the most feared warrior of the age. The two men seemed invincible, and they quickly marched to York where they dispatched the northern Earls, from here whether through carelessness or overconfidence the then travelled to Stamford Bridge with only one third of their army to take possession of 500 hostages. What awaited them there was no forlorn group of beaten men but a huge host of an army with, as the Viking bard put it, their weapons glittering like sheets of ice. The movement of Harold was impressive he travelled the 187 miles, picking up his army all the way, in only four short days managing an astonishing 37 to 45 miles a day. In the end the Battle of Stamford Bridge was one of the bloodiest in all of English history, Harold broke the Viking lines and the remaining Norsemen cowered around their chiefs, the great Hardrde swinging his immense axe under the Landvaster flag, sinking finally down with an arrow in his throat to be butchered by many blows of axe and sword leaving Tostig to hold up the Raven flag, before being just as cruelly cut down and destroyed. What carnage was created upon that day was seen in the returning fleet, what strong and jubilant force had taken a massive 300 ships to ferry across the sea, took only 24, full of the wounded and the sick, back to return a pitiful remnant of the great Norse army. The threat of Viking invasion was never to return to the shores of Britain, such was the bloody victory of that day, in a last show of brotherly affection and respect Harold sought out what pitiful remains there were of his brother and had them buried at York Minster. He could not grieve his brothers death for only a short 24 hours after the battle the knights in Normandy felt the wind change and set sail.
William and his force landed at the sheltered harbours at Pevensey, an ancient and ruined Roman fort stood guarding the beach and within its shattered and bare area he built a prefabricated, wooden fort in the Norman style for his own, the first of many or so he thought. His troop's many forays inland were more raids, striking fear into the hearts of locals and burning whatever could not be seized. The journey to London, and the spoils that awaited the duke and his men there, would not be an easy one. The land behind the small town was waterlogged and crisscrossed with small streams and rivers all running into the mighty channel. There was only one rutted and ancient Anglo-Saxon trail that meandered its way up to the old Roman road, still the best thoroughfares in the country, which would take them north through Kent. It was for this seemingly insignificant track the most gruelling battle in English History would be fought, its like not seen again for hundreds of years. It must have seemed incomprehensible to Harold that he should have to fight the return leg on the south coast only a week or so after smashing the Vikings, he must have wondered what or who would come to his aid, his army already battered and beaten. Although now he may have thought that he could rely upon his gamblers luck, he was said to have thrown up his hands and invoking the ancient trial by ordeal he put his faith in God to decide the righteous and therefore who would prevail. He moved to a point along the trail to gather what there was of his army, he stood by an ancient and twisted grey apple tree eroded by time standing upon a hill. Planting his banner, The Dragon of Wessex, he rallied his men to the place the Normans would call the Senlach, meaning Lake of Blood.
The scene is set for the morning of Saturday 14th October, 1066 with vicious and viperous chanting assailing that battlefield from both sides. On the Saxon side spirits are high, they have survived Stamford Bridge and there position is perfect. Harold arrayed his troops on the brow of the hill looking down at the Norman positions; all that was needed was to stop the enemy breaking through to the London Road. With a thin band of the professional huscarls along the entire line making a seeming impregnable shield-wall and the fearsome axe-men scattered among them. Behind them are the part-time fyrd, men of strong constitution once roused, but needing time to fortify their indomitable courage. The Normans in contrast are gathered at the bottom of the hill, the average foot soldier fingering the rings on his hawberg, or coat of mail, wondering just how much use such a thing is against the scream of the bloodcurdling axes arranged against them. They knew that the papal banner was upon their side and must have taken heart; surly God was on their side. The battle was joined when the Norman cavalry rode upon the lines of Saxons, riding close to the lines and throwing their javelins into the densely packed men. Then came the archers advancing and unloosing there first arrows, because of the elevation of Harolds lines many just smacked into the immense shield wall as Saxon spears hailed down upon them, with a different aim the arrows just sailed over the heads of the men leaving little mark upon them. Finally the ground rumbles as the Norman foot men break into a run and charge the wall of wood and steel. All there is from then on is the murderous smash of flesh, both human and equine, against wood and steel as the battle degenerates from a tactical game of chess unto a bloody and sweaty mele. The initial success of the English army almost lead to their downfall, on the Duke's left flank his horsed knights stumbled and then retreated, many of the inexperienced fyrdmen looked to give chase, exuberant as they were with the successes they had wrought, but the call of the professionals cried out and the part-timers stood fast. William threw back his helm and showed that he was not lost in an attempt to rally his men, to some degree it worked, but men still fled. For six long hours the two sides remained in the mele, with the Norman forces trying time and again to break through the resolute ranks. The Norman army was eventually pushed back and very, very slowly ground down with Harold exploiting weak points in Williams lines, eventually the Normans broke into an uncontrolled route. The duke ordered a last salvo from his archers, with the Saxons now lower in the field they shot high into the air, arrows rained down upon the unprotected heads of men and one crucial fletch hit its target and Harold fell. The Saxon lines failed for just a moment with their leader down, but the Thanes bravely rushed forward carrying the melancholy men with them. This sudden charge did for the Normans and Williams own entourage was butchered, the duke stood tall and traded many a blow with the Thanes, but was struck from his horse whereupon he was cleaved in two by a Saxon axe.
* The Saxon kings were never converted to the Catholic faith as in OTL, they were instead converted to the older Roman/Celtic church and the British Isles were given special dispensation by the Pope in Rome. This means that the organisation of the British Church is primarrily through the monasteries and their leaders, normally the local Lord, and not it the traditional Catholic way.
OOC: Hello my friends and gentle readers, this is a project that I have been working on for a long time and is something that I have always wanted to attempt. I do need the suspention of your disbelife, as I have decided to keep place names in the Anglo-Norman style, as I find it most vexing trying to translate them all and it is, I think, confusing as a reader. Similary I am writing this in our English, although I know that it would be nothing like a modern Anglo-Saxon English, I hope that these points do not detract from the story.