When the Conqueror met the Confessor

Edward the Confessor as depicted in the centre of the Wilton Diptych.

William, Duke of Normandy, knew Edward, future king of England, as a boy. This is because, when William was born, Edward was living in exile with his mother’s relatives in Normandy. Cnut had conquered England and Edward had fled with his mother, Emma, He had no expectation of ever becoming king. But when, via a series of unexpected marriages and early deaths, Edward came to the throne in 1042, William was 14 and quite old enough to be engaged by the politics that brought Edward the crown.

As king of England, Edward retained close links with the court where he had grown up. As king, Edward had had to engage with the powerful Earl Godwin and his family, marrying Godwin’s daughter, Edith, and raising Godwin’s son Harold to an earldom. But Edward apparently chafed at this dependence and in 1051 Edward moved against the family, forcing Godwin and his sons into exile and sending Edith to a convent. However, Godwin and his sons returned the following year with an army and, to prevent civil war, Edward had to reinstate them and take Edith back as his wife and queen.

However, during the year when Edward was free of the Godwins, one version of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle recorded a visit from across the Channel. Around October or November of 1051, William with his retinue visited Edward. Remembering his debt to the Norman court and his dislike of Earl Godwin and his family, it’s possible that Edward promised the throne to William should he remain childless.

William returned to Normandy convinced that, so long as Edward and Edith did not unexpectedly produce an heir, then he would be king of England.

Of course, what William did not know was that Edward did not have the authority to promise the crown to William. There were no fixed laws of succession but rather a series of traditions, starting with blood relation to the previous king but also involving the promise of the previous king and the assent of the English magnates.

The situation was slowly being set for the disaster that was to befall the English nobility.

Book review: Complete Short Stories by Evelyn Waugh

The Complete Short Stories by Evelyn Waugh

“Bunty, you see in the paper, that chap Waugh has a new book out?”

“What’s it called, darling?”

“The Complete Short Stories.”

“What a dull title. Must be a dreary writer.”

“Nonsense, Bunty. He’s the chap you met in a bar in Abyssinia.”

“You mean the fellow who stole all my stories?”

“That’s the one. You’re in this new one too.”

“I hope he gets me right this time, darling. He made me out to be a frightful cad in the last one.”

“But you are a frightful cad, Bunty.”

“Would you want me any other way, darling?”

“Of course not, Bunty. Just that…”

“Just what?”

“It would be nice if you could remember my name.”

“Of course I remember your name, darling.”

“What is it, Bunty?”

“Why, it’s darling. Would you have me call you anything else?”

“No, of course not, Bunty.”

“That’s better, darling. Now, pass me the paper. I must check the racing results.”

Book review: Christmas by Nick Page

Christmas by Nick Page

You know all those stories and memes about Christmas actually being a pagan feast that the early Church appropriated? Christmas trees, yule and yule logs, even the actual day of the celebration? Turns out that the myth of the Christian origin of Christmas is as much a myth as its detractors claim the feast is itself.

Nick Page does an excellent job of chasing the historical roots of Christmas down to their often obscure origins. In particular, he digs down into the origin of the feast in the Christian calendar and the roughly contemporary start of the pagan feast that the Church was supposed to have muscled in upon.

Coming closer in time, it’s fascinating to learn how many apparently ancient Christmas customs are actually relatively recent, with most of them starting in the 18th and, particularly, 19th centuries. The book’s subtitle – Tradition, Truth and Total Baubles – shows Page’s love of jokes and puns. For this reader, there were slightly too many but that’s down to taste. All in all, the book is an excellent and readable account of how we have come to have the Christmas that we celebrate today.

After 1066

The Battle of Hastings brought the world of the old Anglo-Saxon nobility to a bloody end. Twenty years after the battle, when the Domesday Book, William’s inventory of the country was completed, Englishmen owned just five per cent of the country. William of Malmesbury (c.1095 – c.1043), an Anglo-Norman monk and chronicler, wrote that “England has become the dwelling place of foreigners and a playground for lords of alien blood. No Englishman today is an earl, a bishop or an abbot.”

The Anglo-Saxon nobles who survived the invasion and William’s brutal supression of the rebellions of the next decade went abroad. Exiled Englishmen fetched up all over the old North Sea world. But some went further, all the way to Byzantium. With so many battle-trained exiles looking for employment, the Emperor’s Varangian Guard, which had previously been manned by Scandinavians, became a largely English unit.

They left behind an England where it seemed that the language might change as completely as land ownership. The new Norman kings spoke French and Latin and made little attempt to learn the language of their subjects. However, Henry I, the third in the line of Norman kings, began a revival in English and English customs that might have led to early reconciliation if it was not for his lack of a male heir. Henry designated his daughter, Matilda, as ruler but Stephen, William’s grandson, wanted the crown for himself. The ensuing 20-year civil war caused such destruction that it was called the Anarchy and, the Chronicle lamented, “Christ and his saints slept.”

But at the more local level, contacts between the 8,000-odd Norman settlers and the native English slowly improved. Intermarriage had become common by the early 12th century. While there were no English abbots, Englishmen served as priors in monasteries and monks worked to improve relations between the two peoples. And when the Anarchy ended and Henry II ascended the throne at the end of 1154, things had changed. A century after Hastings, English had become again the national language, although the Old English names were largely lost. The English were now a race of Roberts and Johns and Williams, rather than Æthelwins and Œthelwalds and Oswalds.

By 1170, Richard fitz Nigel could write, “In the present day, the races have become so fused that it can scarcely be discerned who is English and who is Norman.” The conquerors had, in the end, been assimilated.

Book review: The Greatest Viking by Desmond Seward

The Greatest Viking by Desmond Seward

Desmond Seward, who died on 3 April 2022, was one of Britain’s most accomplished popular historians, his many books displaying a mixture of vigorous storytelling and close attention to primary and secondary sources. Seward’s final book, published posthumously, shows that he suffered no decline in his gifts in his final years. The Greatest Viking takes the life of King Olav Haraldsson and brings the man and his times to life. In this, Seward was helped by Olav’s life being, like that of so many of the great Vikings, a tale of outrageous adventure, of reversals and victories, daring escapes and unlikely returns. Indeed, it’s the sort of life that if Seward had been writing a novel, he would have had to tone it down to make it more believable.

Olav, in life and even more in his death, became a symbol of Norwegian national identity, so much so that we was given – and still holds – the title of Rex Perpetuus Norvegiae, the eternal king of Norway. Olav, a descendant of Harald Fairhair, the first man to unite Norway, saw it as his destiny to bring the country under his rule. Following his conversion to Christianity, he widened his mission to include banishing the old Norse gods. Seward is particularly insightful in explaining the savagery with which Olav went about suppressing the old pagan religion, neither excusing Olav’s fierceness nor downplaying the depravity attached to worshipping the old gods. Although we have lost an excellent historian, The Greatest Viking is an excellent valediction of a lifetime’s work bringing the past to life for new generations.

Book review: Cult of the Spiral Dawn by Peter Fehervari

Cult of the Spiral Dawn by Peter Fehervari

Peter Fehervari is the unlikely Evelyn Waugh of 40k authors. Writing about Tyrannid genestealer cults is not an obvious opportunity to showcase a prose style that combines the economy of Evelyn Waugh’s Decline and Fall with the jewel crusted baroquetries of his Brideshead Revisited, but Fehervari, rather extraordinarily, manages to do so. One of the very, very few 40k books to read for its literary qualities.

Book review: Relentless by Dean Koontz

Relentless by Dean Koontz

I am, in principle, in favour of stories where the hero is an unassuming but nevertheless quietly heroic writer – I can’t imagine why. I also thoroughly approve of stories where the villain is a horribly unfair literary critic, of vituperative opinions and little discernment. Having been on the receiving end of a few reviews of the writer-is-an-idiot-and-his-work-is-worse variety I can aver that there are few retributions not fully deserved by such reviewers.

Despite all these points in its favour, I must nevertheless admit that ‘Relentless’ is boiler plate Koontz: standard late period fare without the original ideas of ‘Innocence’ or ‘The City’. One for Koontz completists only.

The Strategy of Alfred the Great 4: Cultural Renewal

Driven into the marshes of the Somerset Levels by Guthrum’s surprise Christmas attack, Alfred had time to reflect on his strategy. On the Isle of Athelney, his household reduced to his immediate family and retainers, it must have seemed that everything was gone.

But Alfred, the most deeply Christian of early medieval kings, saw Biblical parallels in his reverse. Notably, David himself had had to flee from King Saul, taking refuge in the wilderness. From that wilderness, David had launched his guerilla campaign against Saul and that was what Alfred proceeded to do against Guthrum’s still unstable regime.

Success came at the Battle of Edington, where Alfred defeated Guthrum. But while Alfred imposed terms upon Guthrum and oversaw his baptism, standing as the Viking’s godfather, Alfred had been made painfully aware that his previous plans to deal with Norse attacks had been inadequate.

Alfred tackled the matter with his characteristic systematic intelligence. First came the question, ‘Why’? Why would God allow pagans to devastate the Christian kingdoms of the Anglo-Saxons? Alfred did not believe in a universe of chance. Things happened for a reason, and he applied to recent events the sort of self-analysis that the Jews applied to their own history in the Bible.

Alfred saw the English as a new Chosen people, set apart by God for his purposes. But while the Jews came to understand their history in terms of their falling away from the ancestral covenant they had made with God, Alfred came to a different conclusion with respect to his own people. It wasn’t so much that they had failed morally, but rather that they had failed by abandoning their previous commitment to learning and education. In the seventh and eighth centuries, Anglo-Saxon scholars such as Bede and Alcuin had been among the most learned men in the world. But by Alfred’s reign scholarship had fallen off so precipitously that the scribes for Canterbury Cathedral were unable to produce texts in intelligible Latin. It was this failure to nurture their patrimony of learning, Alfred believed, that had caused God to remove his protection from the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms.

Having established the cause, Alfred set out to remedy it. He started with himself. He had only learned to read and write English when he was 12. This was better than for many other people but it was still a source of embarrassment to Alfred. Nor could he read or write Latin, the language of scholarship. So, somewhere in his mid-30s, Alfred started to learn Latin, with the aim of achieving a high-enough standard that he would be able to translate Latin texts into English.

For Alfred had decided to embark upon a programme of education for his people so that they could recalim the mantle of scholars they had worn when Bede and Alcuin were alive. Alfred recruited to his court the most able clerics he could find, from Britain and abroad, men such as Asser, a Welshman, Plegemund, a Mercian, John from Saxony and Grimbald from France. Alfred’s court was becoming an international institution.

Recognising that most of his people had neither the time nor the opportunity to learn Latin, Alfred and his court scholars set about translating the books ‘most necessary for all men to know’ into English. These included the Dialogues and Pastoral Care of Gregory the Great, Bede’s Ecclesiastical History of the English People, the Consolation of Philosophy by Boethius and the first fifty Psalms. These works are full of spiritual, moral and practical wisdom, from the Consolation’s advice on how to deal with turns of fortune that leave you destitute – something Alfred himself was familiar with – to sound precepts for how a bishop should do his job in Pastoral Care.

Alfred sent a copy of Pastoral Care to every bishopric in the country. He was shrewd enough to guess that Gregory’s pastoral advice might best be gold-plated with an earthly gift, so included with each book a beautiful and valuable text pointer. To ensure that the knowledge in these books reached beyond the episcopacy, Alfred established a court school to teach not only his own children but also the children of the nobility and even many among the common born. To recover from the ravages of the Vikings, Alfred fostered a thorough going cultural renewal.

That Alfred, while burdened with all the duties of a king, should still find time in his day to translate Latin texts into English for the good of his people marks him out as truly exceptional among monarchs. There have been many great warrior kings, there have even been a few scholar kings, but Alfred is pretty well unique in being both.

Bartolomeu Dias and the Tip of Africa

Portuguese explorations showing the dog leg into the Atlantic Ocean first sailed by Bartolomeu Dias

In October 1486, King John II of Portugal charged Bartolomeu Dias, with finally finding the tip of Africa and the route into the Indian Ocean. Dias was to lead an expedition consisting of two caravels and a square-rigged cog carrying provisions for the expedition.

Dias recruited the best pilots and navigators he could find and set sail in July or August 1487. By Christmas Day, the little flotilla of ships had passed the previous southern limit of Portuguese exploration. They had gone further than any Europeans before them.

But the expedition was struggling against a south-west wind that blew them towards the shore and a steady current pushing them north. The square-rigged cog could not make headway, so Dias decided that it would moor, on the shore of what is today Namibia, and wait on the return of the rest of the expedition.

With just the two caravels, Dias pushed on south.Tacking back and forth against the wind, the ships crawled southwards. And then, after a few days of little progress, Dias did something extraordinary. He turned west.

The expedition sailed out into the empty ocean, directly away from land and at right angles to where they wanted to go. Two small caravels headed into the swell of the open Atlantic. There’s no record whether this was an inspired call by Dias and his navigators or a strategy worked out back in Portugal with John’s geographers.

The little expedition continued sailing south west for 13 days and a thousand miles. The temperature dropped precipitously. Then the winds changed and Dias turned east.

But even after days of running before the wind, there was still no sign of land. Finally, Dias turned north again. At the end of January, the lookout saw distant ridges. On 3 February 1488, the ships made land (today called Mossel Bay). Although they did not know it yet, the great wide loop they had sailed had carried them past the southern tip of Africa and into the Indian Ocean.

The expedition continued sailing, following the coast for two hundred miles further so Dias could be sure this was not another bay. By mid March, with supplies running out and the coast continuing to run north east, Dias was sure. He had sailed around the tip of Africa and opened up the Indian Ocean to the Portuguese.

Turning back, Dias spotted the Cape of Good Hope on his return journey. The voyage north was aided by the current and the prevailing winds but returning to their supply ship, only three of the nine men left to guard it were still alive. Burning the cog – it was no longer seaworthy – the surviving men transferred to Dias’ ships and set off for home, reaching Portugal in December 1488. Dias’ voyages ranks alongside Columbus’ discovery of America as the most important voyage of the Age of Discovery. The world was opening up and it was the Portuguese who opened it.