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.
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.
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.
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.
The problem was the wind. The current was difficult too. The coastal winds of west Africa and the steady northward current running along its shore pushed back against the Portuguese caravels slowly exploring southwards.
For sixty years, the Portuguese, under Prince Henry the Navigator and King John II, had mounted a consistent and continuing effort to find a new route to the east. The only way to do that was to go around Africa. But according to Ptolemy, the foremost geographer of the classical world, the Indian Ocean was landlocked. There was no direct sailing route to it.
However, the Portuguese, perched on the edge of the known world and with the ocean as their western border, did not believe this. Having invented the caravel, a lateen sailed ship of unparalleled manoeuvrability and seaworthiness, they had already discovered the Azores and Madeira, islands unknown to antiquity.
Now, with the encouragement of Henry and John, a succession of Portuguese expeditions made their way south, following the west coast of Africa, and planting stone columns on prominent headlands to mark the southern limit of their sailing. In 1486, Diogo Cão discovered the Congo River. In 1486, he made it as far south as Namibia. But the coast of Africa seemed to stretch on without end and the winds along the coast of Namibia and Angola blew against their further progress. What’s more, the ships had to contend with the north-flowing Benguela current too.
But having reached so far south, King John was determined to find the route to the Indian Ocean he and his geographers were certain existed.
Prince Henry the Navigator (1394 – 1460) was the Portuguese prince who first co-ordinated Portuguese efforts to explore down the West coast of Africa. Henry hoped both to find a route to the Indian Ocean and to make contact with Prester John, who was said to rule a great Christian kingdom in the east. The Portuguese had fought a centuries-long struggle to reclaim their land from Muslim invaders. Now Henry aimed to outflank the Muslim world, claim its lucrative Indian Ocean spice trade and make alliance with Prester John.
To that end, Henry sponsored a succession of voyages down the coast of Africa, each marking a new southerly furthest point before returning with geographical and navigational information for other navigators and for the geographers who were assembling in Lisbon. During the 15th century Lisbon became a nexus for geographical information, where news and discoveries were shared (as well as being jealously guarded from other powers). By Henry’s death, the Portuguese had explored south as far as present-day Sierra Leone, as well as discovering Madeira and the Azores, previously unknown islands in the great Ocean. The Portuguese were beginning to outstrip Ptolemy in knowledge.
The final steps to opening up the world took place under the rule of John II (1455 – 1495). For the Portuguese, John would pass into history as the Perfect Prince. Even his rivals acknowledged his natural majesty: Isabella, Queen of Castile and then of the united monarchies of Castile and Aragon, simply referred to John as ‘El Hombre’ (‘The Man’). During his reign, John sponsored the naval expeditions that would, finally, solve the great navigational conundrum that had stopped the Portuguese advancing further south down the coast of Africa.
The problem was the wind. In the Gulf of Guinea, that great bite into the side of Africa, the winds became unreliable and often died away to calm. Exploration by coast hopping became stifled. To get further south required better, steadier, stronger winds. These winds were available, out in the ocean. So rather than inch down the coast, Portuguese navigators trimmed their sails, set their compasses and, having reached as far south as Guinea, headed out into the open ocean. In caravels measuring between 12 and 18 metres, they sailed for days, sometimes weeks, across empty ocean, first south west, then due south until, reaching the lower latitudes, they steered east again. They were literally sailing into the unknown.
Following this course, Bartolomeu Dias eventually reached and passed the Cape of Good Hope in 1488, opening up the Indian Ocean and definitively proving Ptolemy’s geography wrong. But also, and unknown to these first navigators, the south west course was bringing them towards a continent previously completely unknown in the Old World: the Americas. Christopher Columbus, selling his services to the rival crown in Castile but employing a Portuguese navigator, attempted to use this new navigational technique to find a westward route to the east. But, instead, he found a New World.
In the early 15th century, Portugal was a poor country stuck on the edge of the world, hundreds of miles from anything. The Mediterranean remained what its name proclaimed it to be: the centre of the world. It was via maritime trade routes running across the Mediterranean that the hugely lucrative spice trade with the east ran. The Italian maritime republics, Venice and Genoa, had sewn up the trade in luxury goods from the east, establishing fiercely defended monopolies. All the Portuguese had was the Ocean, the endless World Ocean that, according to the geographer Ptolemy, enclosed all the lands of the world, possibly continuing without end.
What seemed set to lock out the Portuguese from this lucrative trade was the fact that, according to Ptolemy, the Indian Ocean was landlocked. The most eminent authority of antiquity averred that the Portuguese might sail to the ends of the world and still never gain access to the ports trading pepper and gold and silk. They were stuck forever with only Ocean as their western boundary.
But through a concerted, generation spanning effort that required the whole-hearted support of the Portuguese crown, this small, poor nation – so poor that that at the start of the great enterprise the King of Portugal was too poor to mint gold coins – fundamentally changed the nature of the world, giving birth to the global, interconnected world in which we live today.
To do this, the Portuguese made use of a number of discoveries, some indigenous, others borrowed. Fundamental among these were compasses, imported from China via Arab traders, and the caravel, developed in Portugal, the revolutionary ship design that opened up the Atlantic Ocean to Portuguese explorers by allowing sailors to sail windward by beating (tacking backwards and forwards at an angle to the prevailing oncoming wind). Caravels were fast and manoeuvrable, with the triangular lateen sails allowing it to sail windward while the square-rigged sails gave it speed before the wind.
King John II of Portugal (1455-1495) was set upon furthering the work of his great-uncle, Henry the Navigator, and to that end sponsored many of the key Portuguese voyages that unlocked the secret of blue-water navigation and allowed a small country on the far west of Europe to found the first global maritime empire. But King John did not just send ships: he sent spies as well.
In particular, he dispatched Pêro da Covilhã, a low-born but multilingual adventurer, with orders to find the origin of spices such as cinammon and to contact the legendary Christian king, Prester John. Covilhã, with letters of exchange to pay his way, made his way to Alexandria, the entry port to the Islamic world and then, passing himself off as a Muslim merchant, he made his way to Cairo and then on to Aden.
From there, he took ship on a dhow across the Indian Ocean, arriving in Calicut, India. Taking notes on the Indian Ocean spice trade, Covilhã then returned to Cairo where he met emissaries sent by John II, giving them his report.
Now apparently bit by wonderlust, Covilhã explored Arabia, even entering Mecca and Medina in disguise as a Muslim pilgrim, before venturing across the Red Sea to Mount Sinai.
Rather than return home, the indefatigable Covilhã headed to Ethiopia, the Christian kingdom in the heart of Africa and the probable source of the legends of Prester John. The ruler, Eskender, received Covilhã well but refused to let him leave, although Eskender allowed Covilhã to write back to his king.
Thirty years later, a Portuguese embassy arrived in Ethiopia and met their countryman, still living in the court of the kings of Ethiopia. Covilhã wept with joy to meet them but the king of Ethiopia, while treating Covilhã well, would not give him leave to depart. Eventually, Covilhã died there, far from home, a traveller to the end.
How Alfred defended the country and kickstarted the development of towns.
The army and navy provided offensive options, but the kingdom needed defence in depth. Places of safety where people could take shelter when the Vikings raided and bases from which to harry the enemy as he advanced and retreated. To that end, Alfred built fortresses, or burhs, across the kingdom, each carefully placed in a strategic location.
But a fortress without men to guard it would simply provide convenient strongholds for the Vikings themselves. They were adept at throwing up quick defences. The Vikings particularly liked to fortify the ‘Y’ at the junction of two rivers, building a palisade between the two waterways and mooring their boats there.
To make surethe Vikings did not use the burhs for their own defence, Alfred had to ensure manpower. So he created fortified towns, the first since Roman times, with each given sufficient land to ensure it was economically viable.
Furthermore, Alfred placed the burhs so that nowhere in Wessex was more than 20 miles – a day’s march – from the refuge they provided. In particular, Alfred guarded rivers – building burhs in Southwark, Sashes, Wallingford and Cricklade to guard the Thames – and along the coast to guard the mouths of rivers and the best harbours. Inland burhs were sited to guard the Roman road system and Britain’s ancient trackways.
Now, when the Vikings raided, they found the local populace sheltering behind high earth ramparts surmounted with wooden palisades. Should they choose to bypass the burh, they left themselves vulnerable to attack from the rear or an assault on their moored boats.
By slowing down the enemy, the burhs also allowed Alfred to get to the Vikings with his own army and force them to battle or to flee. This was a classic example of area denial, a key military concept that is still practised today.
Also, by founding these fortified towns, Alfred provided a major impetus to local economies, providing centres of population that began to grown organically. It was an extraordinary achievement.
The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle mentions four naval actions in the whole 9th century: Alfred took part in three of them. Alfred was all too aware of the importance of sea power and even more conscious of how the Anglo-Saxons had ceded the advantage to the Vikings.
In his analysis of the Vikings’ strategic advantage Alfred had realised the importance of sea power. The freedom of the sea allowed the Danes to choose when and where to attack, as well as providing them with a means to retreat should the Alfred’s men catch up with them.
So Alfred set about trying to counter this. The Chronicle records that Alfred ordered ships to be built, twice the length of Viking longships, with sixty oars or more. Alfred personally designed them to be faster and steadier than the enemy ships. His plan was to engage the Danes at sea or soon after landing.
With bigger ships, Alfred aimed to bring superior numbers to bear in a battle whose outcome would be largely determined by strength of numbers. In a battle in AD 897, Alfred’s navy was blooded for the first time, blockading a Danish fleet of six ships in the mouth of a river. The fighting was vicious, with losses on both sides, but the Danish fleet was crippled. Only three ships managed to escape, and two of these were driven ashore by storms and their crews captured and taken before Alfred. He ordered them to be hung. Of the six Viking ships, only one escaped.
So among Alfred’s many achievements was the foundation of the English navy.