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The newly elected president of the United States has triggered over half a million women to march in a political protest against the new leader of their country. While this Women’s March was record-breaking, a report in an eleventh-century manuscript of The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle suggests that it may not have been unprecedented. This is the story of Gytha and the Anglo-Saxon rebellion against William the Conqueror. #NotMyConqueror
A Women’s March to Flat Holm in 1068
The entry for the year 1067 in manuscript D of The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle describes a number of events that took place in the two years following the Norman Conquest in 1066. Most of the executive orders by the new king William are described in a rather negative manner, such as his imposing a heavy tax on the “earm folc” [poor people] and his siege of Exeter in 1068 (“he heom wel behet, 7 yfele gelæste” [he promised them well and he performed evil]). The annalist is more positive about a curious journey by Gytha, mother of the deceased King Harold Godwinson (d. 1066), who was joined by other women of good standing:
7 her ferde Gyða ut, Haroldes modor, 7 manegra godra manna wif mid hyre, into Bradan Reolice, 7 þær wunode sume hwile, 7 swa for þanon ofer sæ to Sancte Audomare.
[and in this year Gytha, Harold’s mother, went out and many wives of good men with her, to Flat Holme, and remained there for a while and thus from there over sea to St Omer (France)]
Gytha’s ‘Women’s March’ is part of the English rebellion against William the Conqueror and probably followed the Siege of Exeter in 1068, in which Gytha played an important role.
Gytha and her sons: Breaking their mother’s heart three times over.
Much of what we know about Gytha (fl. 1022-1068) derives from sources post-dating the Norman Conquest. According to the Domesday Book, she was one of the greatest women landowners in the year 1066 (Stafford 1989), She owed much of her wealth and status to her marriage to the powerful Earl Godwin of Wessex (d. 1053), whom she bore many sons and daughters. Most of her sons became powerful earls and one of them even became king in 1066 (Harold Godwinson). While their careers may have made Gytha proud, some of her sons’ actions may have broken her heart.
Sweyn Godwinson, earl of Herefordshire (d. 1058), for instance, shocked his mother by insisting that Godwin was not his real father. Instead, he claimed to be the son of Cnut the Great (d. 1035). Sweyn’s claim was recorded in the late eleventh-century Cartulary of Hemming (a collection of charters and lawsuits regarding lands in Worcester). Hemming also included Gytha’s reaction:
Quam nimie arrogantie vanitatem mater illius, conjunx videlicet prefati ducis Godwini, exhorrescens, multis ex occidentalium Saxonum parte adductis nobilibus feminis, se matrem illius, et Godwinum patrem ejus esse, magnis juramentis et illarum probavit testmoniis.
[His mother, the wife of the aforesaid Earl Godwin, horrified by his excessive arrogance and vanity, brought together many noble ladies from the West Saxons, and proved by great oaths and their testimony that she was his mother and Godwine was his father.]
Sweyn disagreed and Hemming reports that while Cnut and Sweyn may not have shared blood and genes, they did share certain shortcomings, such as pride and excessive lusts of the flesh. To illustrate the latter, Hemming narrates how Sweyn had once abducted the abbess of Leominster and had kept her as a wife for a year. He had returned the abbess after threats of excommunication by the bishop of Worcester but had then retaliated by stealing some estates from the diocese of Worcester. Clearly the black sheep of the family, Sweyn was exiled on various occasions and died in 1052 after returning from a penitential pilgrimage to the Holy Land – Sweyn certainly did not make his mommy proud!
Her two more famous sons, Tostig (d. 1066) and Harold, did little better. In the year of the Norman Conquest, Tostig had rebelled against the English throne and had sided with the Norwegian king Harald Hardrada (d. 1066). In the Battle at Stamford Bridge, brother fought brother and Tostig was killed. Following the battle and his brother’s death, Harold hears the news that the Norman fleet of William has landed and Harold wants to rush south. The chronicler Orderic Vitalis (d. c. 1142) writes how Gytha, having just lost Tostig, feared for Harold’s life and tried to dissuade her son. Harold not only refused to listen to his elderly mother, he gave her a kick to boot: “[Harold] even forgot himself so far as to kick his mother when she hung about him in her too great anxiety to detain him with her” (trans. Forester, Vol. I, p. 482). Ouch!
Gytha’s fear became a reality and Harold did die at the Battle of Hastings. Orderic Vitalis reports how the grieving mother had asked William the Conqueror for the body of her son:
The sorrowing mother now offered to Duke William, for the body of Harold, its weight in gold; but the great conqueror refused such a barter, thinking it was not right that a mother should pay the last honours to one by whose insatiable ambition vast numbers lay unburied (trans. Forester, Vol. I, p. 488)
Another twelfth-century chronicler, William of Malmesbury (d. c. 1143) supplies an ‘alternative fact’: “He sent the body of Harold to his mother, who begged it, unransomed; though she proffered large sums by her messengers” (trans. Giles, pp. 280-281).
Whatever may have happened to Harold’s body, Gytha had every reason to detest William and she, a well-connected and wealthy noblewoman, became the focal point of resistance against the new Norman overlord.
Gytha and the Siege of Exeter in 1068
It is generally assumed that Gytha was involved in the resistance offered by the city of Exeter in 1068. Orderic Vitalis records how Exeter was the first city to fight for its freedom. The townsfolk barricaded the city walls and claimed “We will neither swear allegiance to the king, nor admit him within our walls; but will pay him tribute, according to ancient custom” (trans. Forester, Vol. II, p. 15). #NotMyConqueror. William gathered 500 horsemen and marched on Exeter. He besieged the town for eighteen days and committed various acts of cruelty, including the blinding of one the hostages. William of Malmesbury related William’s ferocity to an intriguing action by one of the Exeter townsfolk:
Indeed he had attacked it with more ferocity, asserting that those irreverent men would be deserted by God’s favour, because one of them, standing upon the wall, had bared his posteriors, and had broken wind, in contempt of the Normans. (trans. Giles, p. 282)
That’s right, it seems as if someone farted in the king’s general direction! After eighteen days, Exeter capitulated, but Gytha had escaped and began making her way to Flat Holm.
A Women’s March or a Women’s Flight?
The Siege of Exeter was a definite blow to Gytha and her rebellion. However, her march might still be regarded as an act of defiance against William, if only because a group of travelling noblewomen was sure to draw the people’s attention. It certainly made an impression on the annalist of annal 1067 in MS D of The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle. Whereas he had denounced William’s actions following the Norman Conquest (see above), the annalist writes approvingly of Gytha’s going out, noting how the women who joined her are the “wives of good men”. Orderic Vitalis, generally more appreciative of William the Conqueror, is more negative about Gytha’s retreat to France. After going over how various English uprisings were justly put to rest, Orderic describes how Gytha “secretly collected vast wealth, and from her fear of King William crossed over to France, never to return” (trans. Forester, Vol. II, pp. 23-24).
So, was it a women’s march or a women’s flight? Much depends, it would seem, on the political stance of the person bringing the news – a notion that still very much applies to this day and age.
If you liked this blog post, you may also be interested in:
- Lǣce Hwā: Doctor Who and the Norman Conquest
- An Anglo-Saxon Anecdote: Dreaming of witch-wives, fiery pitchforks and the Battle of Fulford
- Anglo-Saxon bynames: Old English nicknames from the Domesday Book
Works referred to:
- Stafford, Pauline, ‘Women in Domesday’, Reading Medieval Studies 15 (1989), 75-94
- Forester, T. A. (Trans.), The Ecclesiastical History of England and Normandy by Orderic Vitalis (London, 1853-1854)
- Giles, J.A. (Trans.), William of Malmesbury’s Chronicle of the English Kings (London, 1847)
The TARDIS occasionally found its way to early medieval England and these visits of the nation’s most beloved ‘Time Lord’ can also teach us something about Anglo-Saxon history. This post focuses on the Norman Conquest and is the last of a series of three blogs that deal with the visits of BBC’s Doctor Who to Anglo-Saxon England.
The Time Meddler (1965): A space helmet for a cow and a meddling monk with a cannon
The Time Meddler, a Doctor Who classic of the second series, features the first Doctor (William Hartnell) and his companions Vicki and Steven Taylor. The four episodes are set in pre-Conquest England and provide an interesting introduction to some of the events that took place in the year 1066; the episode also reveals that the Doctor could have prevented the Anglo-Saxon loss at the Battle of Hastings!
The story starts with the TARDIS, stranded on a beach. Vicki chances upon a horned helmet, which the Doctor establishes as having belongedd to a Viking, rather than a bovine from outer space:
Soon after, the Doctor enters a Saxon village and, disguised as an old, forgetful pilgrim, he finds out that they have landed in the year 1066. A little later, the Doctor makes his way to a monastery, where monkish singing can be heard. To his surprise, the place is empty, except for a gramophone playing Gregorian chant. Suddenly, bars come down and the Doctor is trapped – a monk laughs hysterically.
That monk turns out to be ‘the Monk’: another Time Lord, who is up to no good. Eventually, the Doctor escapes the monastery and, reunited with his companions, he finds out what the Monk is doing in 1066. Helpfully, the latter had written down an 8-step plan:
- Arrival in Northumbria
- Position atomic cannon
- Sight Vikings
- Light beacon fires
- Destroy Viking fleet
- Norman landing
- Battle of Hastings
- Meet King Harold.
The Monk, as it turns out, wants to alter history by stopping the Vikings from invading. Should he succeed, the Battle of Stamford Bridge (25 September, 1066) would never take place; Harold Godwinson and the English troops would not have to march all the way to Northumbria; they would not have to suffer any losses; and they would not have to rush all the way south again to fight of the Normans (who would land at Pevensey only three days after the battle against the Vikings). In other words, the Monk wants to make sure the Anglo-Saxons would win the Battle of Hastings!
As an Anglo-Saxonist, I rather fancy the Monk’s idea, but, alas, the Doctor will not stand for any time meddling: history must “be allowed to take its natural course!”. Regrettably, then, the Doctor thwarts the plans of his fellow Time Lord and disables the Monk’s TARDIS, effectively stranding him in the year 1066:
Marooned in 1066…things could be worse!
“The real Hereward the Wake” (1984): True identity of proto-Robin Hood revealed!
Some years after the Battle of Hastings (which, apparently, the Doctor had swayed in William the Conqueror’s favour!), the TARDIS once again materializes in England. This visit is recounted in the Doctor Who Annual (1984), a collection of illustrated short stories featuring the colourfully dressed sixth Doctor.
In a cottage in the Fens (North Cambridgeshire), the Doctor and his companion Peri meet up with a group of Saxon rebels, lead by the legendary Hereward the Wake…
“Hereward the who?”
“The Wake. I forgot, you’re American. Hereward the Wake was the foremost of the Saxon outlaws who led a guerilla campagin against the Normans after the battle of Hastings. He tended to concentrate on the fen country, where we are now.”
“Did he win?”asked Peri.
“Don’t be silly,” the Doctor said acidly. “How could he have won with the Normans safely on the throne for the next dozen or so generations? No, after a while he just vanished into the mist, never to be seen again.”
The Doctor overhears the Saxon rebels contemplate joining with the Danes and marching on London, to take back the English throne. When the Doctor advises against this plan (since the Danes would never allow the Saxons to rule, he says – or is the Doctor still siding with William the Conqueror?), one of the Saxons retorts that ‘King Harold’ can claim Danish allegiance, since his mother was the sister of King Cnut (d. 1035; king of Denmark and England).
After an awkward moment of silence, the Doctor realises that Hereward the Wake is, in fact, Harold Godwinson, who reportedly died during the Battle of Hastings:
Then the Doctor spoke. “But Harold was killed at Hastings,” he said slowly. “At least, that was the word the Normans sent round. The body was identified.”
The tall Saxon turned back to the Doctor. “Identifed by the Countess Gytha [Gytha Thorkelsdóttir (c. 997 – c. 1069); Harold’s mother],”he said, and smiled. “And the Lady Edith, known as the Swan-Neck [Edith the Fair (c. 1025 – c. 1086; Harold’s wife or mistress]. Both of whom knew the king very well, one his mother, the other the mother of his children. Who better to identify him? But do you think for one moment that they would fail to do as he asked?”
“You mean – they knew that you were alive? Even while they looked at the body of some unknown Saxon soldier and wept over it as yours?”
Hereward/Harold here refers to the famous stoy of how the English king’s body had been mutilated in such a way that only his wife had been able to identify it. The notion that Edith and Gytha may have faked the identification is an intriguing one and not wholly unimaginable. In fact, the myth that Harold survived the Battle of Hastings has a long history, stretching back as far as the twelfth-century chronicler Gerald of Wales); if you are ever in Chester, you can still see ‘The Hermitage’, where Harold is supposed to have lived out his days as a hermit (more info here).
The story continues with a near run-in with Norman troops. Luckily, the Doctor manages to scare them off with a little toy robot! Having escaped the Normans, the Doctor convinces Hereward/Harold to forego the march on London and remain Hereward the Wake, in order to give the Saxons the strength to persevere during the Norman yoke: “Let the country think that Harold is dead – but let it believe in Hereward”. The King decides that this is indeed the best course of action and bids the Doctor and his companion farewell: “Farewell, Doctor. You too, Peri. May you meet no more Normans.”
Reflections: Doctor Who as an ‘Anglo-Saxonism’
Over the past three blogs, I have looked at the depiction of Anglo-Saxon history in BBC’s Doctor Who (see: Part 1: Lǣce Hwā: Doctor Who in Anglo-Saxon England and Part 2: Lǣce Hwā: Doctor Who and Alfred the Great). To conclude this Whovian trilology, I want to reflect on Doctor Who as an ‘Anglo-Saxonism’, that is to say:
The perception of the history and culture of Anglo-Saxon England at different times from the sixteenth century to the present day, developing in response to contemporary purposes or fashions, and the representation of these perceptions in word and image. (Keynes)
The concept of Anglo-Saxonism allows us to study representations of Anglo-Saxon history or culture not just by focusing on their historical accuracy, but also by taking into account how the representation of Anglo-Saxon England was shaped by the interests and concerns of the makers and/or audience of the cultural products under scrutiny.
With regard to Doctor Who, two general observations can be made:
1) The aspect of Anglo-Saxon history which most appealed to the makers of Doctor Who was the Vikings; even to the point that the Vikings were presented as invading as early as the fifth century (see part 1). Tom Shippey (2000) has rightly observed that Vikings are regarded as more interesting and accesible than the Anglo-Saxons and, as such, they make far better historical icons for the early Middle Ages (pp. 217-219). In the case of Doctor Who, an additional factor for the interest in Vikings may be the show’s interest in ‘alien invasions’. The Viking invasions of the early Middle Ages may be said to resemble the extra-terrestrial threats depicted in the TV series; the Vikings as historical alien invaders!
2) A second general tenor in the representation of Anglo-Saxon history in the Doctor Who universe is the absence of the religious history of early medieval England. Monks rarely feature in these Doctor Who stories, neither do bishops, nor do we learn anything about the conversion. This religious void may be explained by the fact that Doctor Who is, in a way, an ‘atheist'(or: humanist) television series, in which religions tend to be portrayed as backward and primitive, whereas science represents the only truth. This areligious aspect of Doctor Who, then, may explain why the Christian history of Anglo-Saxon England is either ignored or shown to be corrupted (like the meddling monk in The Time Meddler). In much the same way, the Viking religion is not taken seriously either (see, e.g., the silly Vikings who believe the TARDIS to be a magic box sent by Woden in part 1).
Thus, while the Doctor Who franchise is an interesting introduction to some aspects of Anglo-Saxon England (its myths, its kings and some of its celebrities), its focus on Vikings and its downplay of religion creates a sense of the early Middle Ages that is warped by the interests and fashions of another time. Whodathunkit?
This completes my Whovian trylogy, which celebrates the fact that, on the 26th of April 2016, I became ‘Doctor Porck’; you can read more about my, now finished, PhD-project here: Growing Old among the Anglo-Saxons
Works referred to:
- T.A. Shippey, ‘The undeveloped image: Anglo-Saxons in popular consciousness from Turner to Tolkien’, in Literary Appropriations of the Anglo-Saxons from the Thirteenth to the Twentieth Century, ed. D. Scragg and C. Weinberg (Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2000), pp. 215-236.
- S. Keynes, ‘Anglo-Saxonism’, in The Wiley Blackwell Encyclopedia of Anglo-Saxon England (2014)