Two conquests of England in quick succession led to a period of shifting identities and allegiances. Courtnay Konshuh and Ryan Lavelle explore how those on the losing side of history tried to forge a place in a new world under new lords.
The upheavals caused by two conquests of the English kingdom in the space of just 50 years – and the resulting shifts in personal allegiances to those in power – meant that the people swept up in them had to do what they could to survive. On occasion, opportunities arose that could offer some prosperity, but no matter what the fate of ‘English’ men and women was, their experiences determined the shape of post-conquest societies as they were recorded and remembered. The legacy of the Danish conquest of 1016 still weighed heavily on the English when they were conquered again in 1066. While pre-existing Anglo-Danish links may have eased a transition after the first conquest, the Norman Conquest brought with it a complete restructuring of society. The difficulty of responding to a second conquest in 50 years led to serious crisis of identity among the conquered. Histories written shortly after 1066 attempt to make sense of this crisis.
The set of histories known to us as the Anglo-Saxon Chronicles are at the heart of this. While they would not all long outlast the Norman Conquest, at least two versions continued to be updated in Old English. These texts had previously chronicled important events in Anglo-Saxon history and described many instances of conquest, collaboration and rebellion. Often written in retrospect to fulfil the political purposes of the current king, the telling of previous events and battles shaped the memory of them, while also providing a model for the future. The Chronicles were a way for the English to process their contemporary world. Especially traumatic cases, such as foreign conquests, could therefore be fitted into this continuing history, making sense of loss and providing an example for recovery.
Dying for your lord was a noble action, legendary in its importance and vital to the cohesiveness of Anglo-Saxon society. In the wake of conquest, however, dying for a lord who had lost, such as kings Æthelred ‘the Unready’ ultimately in 1016 and Harold Godwinson in 1066, was no longer culturally or tactically advisable. This was especially true for those on the losing side against William, who brutally put down every rebellion against his rule. Praising those who continued to rebel was fighting for a lost cause. In the face of this new order, post-Conquest Anglo-Saxons needed to find another way to express their cultural identity: one that allowed for bravery in battle, but was not dependent upon rebellion against William.
After 1066, numerous attempts were made to overthrow William the Conqueror; but, as the Chronicles relate, each of these ended in failure. The telling of a battle at Gerberoy in Normandy, in 1079, however, allowed its English-speaking audience to hear about an Anglo-Scandinavian warrior playing a traditional, praiseworthy role in battle at William’s side. At first glance, a political struggle between the ageing Duke of Normandy and his young and impatient son on the borders of the Norman duchy – a zone where no-one could be sure whether one answered to the king of France or to the duke of Normandy – was an unlikely setting for a demonstration of Anglo-Scandinavian heroism in the mould of the Old English poem Beowulf. A last hurrah of the ‘Heroic Age’ it might have been, but it also revealed much about how the old Anglo-Saxon ways could survive in the new Anglo-Norman order.
The backdrop was the family quarrel of Duke William II (in England, William I – ‘the Conqueror’) with his eldest son, Robert Curthose, who was vying for power in Normandy and who also happened to have received a ducal title. Behind that quarrel, as with so many civil wars, was an external power, that of the French king, Philip I, who provided Robert with access to a castle, Gerberoy, on the Norman-French border region of the Vexin and gave money to Robert to buy the service of mercenaries. Relations between father and son had reached a level of outright violence as the castle was besieged. In the ensuing battle, William’s horse was killed while under him, just as had happened at Hastings 13 years earlier. With William that day was one man whose service represented the new political order that had emerged between England and Normandy since 1066. Toki of Wallingford was an Englishman, or at least a man who had been brought up in pre-Conquest England, but he also represented the creation of an Anglo-Norman realm.
Toki himself may have been a product of the previous, Danish, conquest. Both he and his father Wigot have Danish names; however, the family was obviously mixed, as his sister bore the Anglo-Saxon name Ealdgyth and he had a cousin named Alfred. This would not have been unusual or remarkable; even King Harold had mixed ancestry, his mother Gytha being Danish. The family was clearly well integrated into Anglo-Saxon society under Edward the Confessor and Wigot is addressed as Edward’s ‘dear cousin’ in one of his writs. Wigot had been a royal butler in Wallingford during the reign of Edward the Confessor, an office of no little importance. An action by Wigot in 1066 seems to have led to the final surrender of this crucially important fortified town to William’s army, allowing William to complete his encirclement of London and, with that, eventually take control of the English kingdom. In Domesday Book, Wallingford was linked with the service of housecarls, a group of figures who, like Wigot, owed royal service. Whatever the rights and wrongs of his father’s action, Toki had inherited an office which reflected his father’s status. With William unhorsed and fighting on foot at Gerberoy, Toki gave his own horse to the king. Toki paid dearly for that act of duty: as he was bringing the horse to William, a crossbow bolt shot him dead.
There is a lot to be said here about the new world of the Anglo-Franco-Norman political order into which Toki had arrived. This was, after all, a minor battle, a skirmish even, outside a castle, typical of the type of warfare that was developing in the cross-Channel polities of the 11th and 12th centuries. Crossbows and warhorses were also beginning to characterise the warfare of the period. Whether or not the Normans really used warhorses to such an extent that the practice distinguished them from their English or even French neighbours, the depictions of the Normans as a people for whom cavalry determined noble status were beginning to solidify in the late 11th century, as we can see in the Bayeux Tapestry’s depictions of the Battle of Hastings.
Toki’s actions as an Englishman fighting for a Norman lord might be seen as 11th-century collaboration, an action to match his father’s surrender of Wallingford to William 13 years before. The annals composed shortly after the Conquest indeed praise those who rebel against William. However, after half a decade of failed rebellions led by English survivors of the Conquest until 1072, and a failed plot by a Norman and Breton baron alongside the last English earl, Waltheof, who was executed in 1076, it was becoming a less and less feasible position. For the first time since the Conquest, a contemporary Old English history presents this apparent collaborator, Toki, as having obligations to a lord, allowing his support of William to be seen as honourable. The reference to his father may even show the contrast that, while Wigot was unable to remain loyal to Edward, at least his son, Toki, was willing to die for his lord. This reflects an important shift in how collaboration and loyalty are perceived: the English were coming to terms with their new king and their Anglo-Norman identity.
It was, after all, in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicles that Toki’s fate is recorded; his act is not mentioned in Anglo-Norman accounts of the battle. The writers of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicles were often preoccupied with allusions to the obligations of a man to his lord, praising those who fought and died for their lords and condemning traitors who did not. From the first collection of annals put together in the reign of Alfred ‘the Great’ (871–99), the importance of fighting for your lord, even to the death, was emphasised. In the first year of Alfred’s reign, an ealdorman of Berkshire, Æthelwulf, died fighting the Vikings for Alfred and his contribution is memorialised in the annal for that year. Similarly, in the poetic and semi-legendary annal for 757 about Cyneheard and Cynewulf, the importance of dying for your lord, even if he has already died himself, is shown to be the noblest act that an Anglo-Saxon warrior can perform. This concern with praising loyalty persists as the annals were added to over the next 200 years. The set of annals which chronicle the decline of England under Æthelred and its eventual conquest by Cnut, during the period from 983 to 1016, are largely concerned with naming and shaming those English lords who were disloyal, either betraying their king and country through inaction and treacherous advice, or by running from battle.
This preoccupation with loyalty may seem unusual in a work of history. Descriptions of brave men dying for their lord are perhaps more appropriate to works of epic poetry, such as the ‘Battle of Maldon’ or Beowulf. However, the Anglo-Saxon Chronicles were often constructed in order to legitimise the current ruler or, retrospectively, to give authority to a given line. By emphasising that a king had loyal followers, the annals show that he deserved to rule and to be followed. In contrast, when a king was unable to rely on the loyalty of his war-leaders, as was the case with Æthelred, it implies that he was unfit to rule. Indeed, Æthelred’s annals have been interpreted as a retrospective smear campaign against an unfit king: they were compiled during the reign of Cnut, implicitly giving authority to the Danish conquest of 1016.
The writers of the Worcester Chronicle, chronicling the years 1066–80, make sense of the Conquest by framing it in terms of lordship, following patterns that had been set out in the period of Danish conquest, half a century earlier and, before that, in the way that the West-Saxon dynasty had been shaped by their conquests in previous centuries. Most of these annals are concerned with various claims to the English throne. These rebels are not portrayed as being loyal to an Anglo-Saxon king, however, but are rather betraying their new king, William. The rebellions are told sympathetically and, occasionally, the actors are praised, but it is clear that their actions would only result in more deaths. While this section of the Chronicles has multiple authors, they are consistent in their fatalism.
In the 1079 annal, however, it is William’s son Robert who is depicted as the traitor. Manipulating his situation where he owed allegiance to his father and lord, King William, as well as his father’s lord in France, King Philip, Robert exploited a potential area of discord between the two for his own gain. He had some justification for this because, as the chronicler notes, he had received the submission of the best men of Normandy and was their legitimate lord; nonetheless, as the previous annals emphasised, treachery against William is pointless and leads only to more loss of life. As a foil to Robert’s action, Toki remains loyal to William, following his father Wigot’s choice.
But it is not just about propaganda. Toki remains loyal to William and his role in the battle is not insignificant. He was a bringer of a horse to his royal lord. The act is a reflection of lordship bonds: horses are given by men to their lords in Old English wills, showing that they had been gifts of service during the men’s lifetimes. Old English poems emphasise horses in situations that hinge on loyalty, such as in the ‘Battle of Maldon’, where the cowardly Godric and Godwin run away with the horses of their lord, Byrhtnoth, despite the fact that he had given them horses. In the literature of the Anglo-Saxons and Anglo-Danes, the idea of dying for one’s lord still played a role in the heroic expectations of the 11th century, just as in earlier centuries. This was, of course, about expectations. To that end, Toki was demonstrating loyalty to a royal lord according to traditional Anglo-Saxon values. Although Toki presumably did not expect to die at Gerberoy, his death was still important to the way in which an English audience could make sense of what had happened to their kingdom and what affected that kingdom beyond its borders.
Comparisons can be made with Cnut’s conquest in the early 11th century. One character who is conspicuous by his absence from the Anglo-Saxon Chronicles during Cnut’s reign is a man whose importance, both during Cnut’s reign and in its bloody aftermath, is, in contrast to Toki, well known. Godwin, King Harold’s father, was a relatively minor English nobleman in 1016, who rose quickly through the ranks to become Earl of Wessex, one of the foremost figures in the English kingdom. Godwin’s father, Wulfnoth, had caused some serious problems for Cnut’s luckless predecessor, Æthelred, in 1009, but Godwin’s service in the 1020s allowed Cnut’s authority beyond England to flourish.
We only hear of Godwin’s father because one Canterbury chronicler, writing long after the Conquest, chose to add a detail linking his treachery with Godwin in a negative portrayal of the pre-Conquest earl. A positive portrayal of Godwin as the foremost nobleman is given in the Life of King Edward, a book written for Edward’s wife, Edith (his widow by the time it was completed), who was the daughter of Godwin and sister of Harold. As the historian Pauline Stafford demonstrated in a major biographical study published in the late 1990s, for Edith to have commissioned a Life of her husband during his lifetime (at this point he was not a saint) was a clever way of ensuring her survival after the Conquest – the text would be useful for demonstrating Edith’s own worth to a Norman audience, just as it showed her significance to the English. Similarly, by commissioning her own Encomium (a text in celebration of a life), Queen Emma, Edith’s predecessor and Æthelred’s Norman bride, aided her own survival as the widow of Æthelred and Cnut and mother of two would-be kings at a time of uncertainty in the aftermath of the death of Cnut and another of his sons.
These commissions show us something about the different ways in which men and women had to respond to conquest. The Norman Conquest is well known for the marriages, probably forced in many cases, of English widows to Franco-Norman noblemen as a way for those noblemen to get their hands on the wealth that came with marriage. We do not know if this also happened after 1016, but Emma’s experience of being ‘fetched’ for marriage to Cnut in 1017 suggests that it would not be surprising if it did. These survivors made the best of their situation. Important women, with links to the Church and its learning, could commission books to show their importance, as families enlarged or loyalties shifted during a conquest. Men might also commission books but expectations of male behaviour meant that serving a new lord could be a more positive act than mere collaboration.
In serving his lord, Toki participated in a tradition that had been established for at least the course of the 11th century. There was nothing new about the 11th-century conquerors of the English kingdom taking Englishmen with them on service outside the realm.
William’s ‘ship army’ and ‘land army’, which had forced the King of Scots, Malcolm III, to submit in 1072, was evidently making use of a combined force and the Chronicle author was clearly alluding to the importance of English participants in his use of the Old English word fyrd to describe the armies. In 1073, English soldiers went across the Channel and devastated the county of Maine, which was subject to the Norman duke’s authority. The Chronicles record both English and French troops taking part in the expedition, but it is the English troops who were credited with the dubious distinction of ravaging the countryside in terms that were most characteristic of the Chronicles’ accounts of Viking raids.
According to the Life of King Edward, Godwin went with his new king and father-in-law to Scandinavia, serving with him in the campaigns that followed. Although a large pinch of salt is useful to accompany a reading of Godwin’s apparent importance in a book commissioned by his daughter, the fact that Godwin appears on the witness lists of Cnut’s charters after the king’s return from Scandinavia suggests that, if the author exaggerated, he at least had something to build upon. Godwin is said to have presented Cnut’s successors, Harthacnut and Edward, with magnificent ships in the 1040s.
So it turns out that ‘collaboration’ was not that uncommon, although it is not recorded as such and collaborators are usually introduced as loyal to their new lord, rather than disloyal to their old one. Again, Toki is an exception to this, for, while he is presented in William’s reign with no explicit reference to betrayal of Harold, the reference to his father must have been a red flag to an Anglo-Saxon audience. Wigot betrayed Harold; but his son found honour defending his lord William as a true retainer, even dying for him in battle.
Nor was Toki’s support of William anomalous after the Conquest. English warriors had also taken part in William’s move against Exeter when that city rebelled in 1068. This made some sense. English warriors were used to riding down ‘rebellious’ territory soon after the accession of a new king and had done so since at least the accession of Edward the Elder in 899. In 1075, for example, before Gerberoy, Bishop Wulfstan of Worcester had led a predominantly English army against Norman rebels, who were acting against the Norman regime in England because of their baronial interests. The repetition of rebellion and response is important; it normalises support of William against rebels.
The aftermath of conquest calls the very notion of legitimacy into question. It is tempting to look at these episodes as symptomatic of colonialism, of the Normans using levies raised in their conquered territories to put down rebellion across their empire, as was seen in the British and French imperial adventures of the 19th century. England was a large enough kingdom for the English troops who countered the uprising at Exeter in 1068 to have no connections with the shire of Devon. However, when we think of the place of the English in the wider worlds of Anglo-Danish and Anglo-Norman conquerors, a different dynamic is revealed. William may not have been Anglo-Saxon at all, yet none of the kings since the Danish conquest had been entirely so. After Cnut, two of his part-Danish, part-Norman sons ruled, followed by Edward the Confessor, whose mother was Norman. Harold was half-Danish and did not even descend from one of the previous rulers. England in 1066 was an ethnically diverse sociey: an increasing proportion of the population since the ninth century was Scandinavian and a substantial number of Normans had settled since Æthelred’s marriage to Emma. Alfred had introduced a number of foreign advisers and there had been immigrants from Wales and Ireland. Wales (where Harold, the Anglo-Danish Earl of Wessex campaigned on behalf of his Anglo-Norman king, Edward) and Maine, Sweden and the Baltic, Norway and the Norman Vexin, perhaps even Exeter, were places at frontiers of expanding polities where loyalties and obligations to a ruler had shifted, as had the opportunities. Despite his Scandinavian name and support of a Norman conqueror, Toki is depicted as an English hero in the annal. It is perhaps this rich background that enabled people to extend their sense of Englishness to include new circumstances and carry on celebrating their heroes.
After the deaths of all the various people who fought against William, both in England and on the Continent, which are described in detail in the annals from 1066-78, William’s overlordship must have seemed inevitable. In contrast to these worthless deaths, there were many collaborators after Cnut’s and William’s conquests who were able to promote England’s needs under a foreign ruler. The 1079 annal, for the first time, singles out an Englishman dying for William, rather than fighting against him. The reference to Wigot suggests that he, unlike many others, chose the right side in 1066, reflecting a keen sense of pragmatism. After a certain number of losses, unwavering loyalty to a lost cause becomes less praiseworthy. As a result of Wigot’s pragmatism, his son Toki was able to fight and die honourably for his lord, a course of action not open to everyone, due to inflexible lordship bonds. In a way, this annal presents an option for redemption. Wigot should be noted for the invocation of him in the Worcester Chronicle, where the rebellion of a son against his father is a live issue; in the death of Toki here was this reference to a man dying for his royal lord whose own father had been instrumental in the first act of loyal service to the new king in the aftermath of Hastings. The annal for Toki’s death in the cause of his lord looks backwards, in that it pays homage to Anglo-Saxon tradition. Yet it is also focused on the future in its attempt to locate Toki’s actions in the new Anglo-Norman kingdom. In that manner it stands for the experience of many in the conquered kingdom of England in both 1016 and 1066.
Courtnay Konshuh is Lecturer in Early Medieval History at St Thomas More College, University of Saskatchewan and Ryan Lavelle is Reader in Early Medieval History at the University of Winchester.