In Winning His Spurs, Cuthbert is described as being half-Norman, half-Saxon, but with a greater sympathy for the Saxon cause. At the point the story opens in mid-1189, England had been under the heel of the Norman invaders for 123 years, yet in spite of the decades, tensions between the Anglo-Saxons of England – as the underdogs – and their Norman overlords still ran high.
When the Romans abandoned Britain in the early fifth century AD, the local Celtic peoples were left exposed to attack. Germanic invaders crossed the North Sea in ever-increasing numbers: Angles, Jutes and Saxons. By the ninth century these invaders had intermingled to become Anglo-Saxons – eventually simply Saxons – and the Celtic Britons who survived sought refuge in the mountains of Scotland and Wales. Frequent Danish invasions ravaged the country, and one invader, Canute (1016–35), even held the high kingship for a period (and legendarily, the tide at bay).
King Edward the Confessor of England (1042–66) had strong Norman links; his uncle was the Duke of Normandy, so he spent his early years in Normandy, and his court contained several Norman supporters (the first Norman castle built in Herefordshire was several years before the conquest). Many Anglo-Saxons resented this foreign interference, and Earl Godwin of Wessex acted as the focal point of opposition. Godwin was succeeded as Earl by his son, Harold Godwinson, in 1053.
Harold continued to maintain his father’s isolationist stance. He was shipwrecked off the Norman coast in 1064, and captured by Duke William of Normandy, who also maintained a claim to the English throne through his aunt, the wife of King Edward. In return for his freedom, Earl Harold swore to support William’s claim to the throne. When Edward died in 1066, Harold ignored his oath, and accepted the kingship. Incensed, William began planning an invasion.
Since most Norman lords were not obligated to serve overseas, William called on Norman and French adventurers to join him; the younger sons of the feudal nobility. By the summer of 1066 he had collected an army of about 5,000 men and an invasion fleet. All he needed were favourable winds. In England, an invasion force led by King Harald Hardrada of Norway attacked in the north. The invaders were supported by Harold’s traitorous brother Tostig Godwinson. Harold was on the south coast, guarding against the anticipated Norman invasion. He raced north and defeated the Norsemen at Stamford Bridge (1066), in Yorkshire.
Three days later, the Normans landed on the south coast. Duke William stepped ashore at Pevensey, fortified the beach-head, then marched inland. Harold’s army force-marched
back south to meet him and, on 14 October 1066, the two armies clashed near Hastings. In a confused engagement, a series of Norman attacks were repulsed, but a feigned retreat drew the English from their hilltop position. The Normans turned and charged the now disorganised
Saxons, who were cut down by the hundred. The English formed a final shield-wall formed around their king and, as dusk fell, a final charge by Norman cavalry broke the English line, which disintegrated. Casualties were heavy on both sides, but the dead included King Harold –
reputedly pierced in the eye by an arrow – and most of his nobles.
For all practical purposes, England was conquered on the battlefield of Hastings. The Normans marched on London and William was crowned King William I of England in Westminster Abbey. The conquest was an immense stroke of luck; the Norwegian invasion meant that Harold was unable to oppose the Norman landings, and the resulting battle ended all English opposition at a stroke. The last traces of Saxon resistance, in the fenlands of East Anglia, were quashed by 1071, and the Normans extended their control west and north, enforcing their authority by constructing castles in each old Saxon borough, then garrisoning them with seasoned troops.
William the Conqueror rewarded his adventurers by granting them fiefdoms, and large royal castles were built in London, Dover and along the Sussex coastline to safeguard his communications with Normandy, and then later throughout the kingdom. His son Robert became the new Duke of Normandy, thus ensuring a dynastic control over all Norman territories in France (which included Brittany and before much longer Aquitaine). By his death in 1087, William the Conqueror had consolidated his Anglo-Norman kingdom into a largely unified political entity, safeguarded its Scottish and Welsh borders, and ensured its survival by imposing a feudal system based on the harsh Norman model. Any further expansion would have to be at the expense of France.
The Norman conquest of England signalled a change in the fortunes of the Saxons, effectively a defeated people. Many of the Anglo-Saxon ealdormen and thegns (the Saxon elite) lost their lands and titles, while the lesser thegns were pushed lower down the social order and many freemen found themselves in bondage as serfs or villeins to the new Norman nobility. This state of affairs naturally led to a great deal of resentment on the part of the oppressed and once proud Saxons. Under the more rapacious Norman barons, many Saxons found themselves landless and outlawed, with little alternative but to take to a life of hiding in the extensive forests, as depicted in Winning His Spurs.
Many of the old Saxon military elite emigrated, especially the younger men who had seen their anticipated inheritance snatched away and who had no particular future in a country under Norman rule. In fact, King William and his son, William II Rufus, encouraged them to leave since they would otherwise become the focus of revolt. The first port of call was usually Viking Denmark, but many drifted from there to join the Byzantine Empire’s Varangian Guard in Constantinople.
Among the lesser ranks of Saxons, a complete disarmament was impractical. In spite of the risks – England was effectively held by a relative handful of nobles, knights and their Norman retainers – William still needed an army. Instead, he had the Saxons trained by the Norman cavalry in counter-methods to hurt enemy cavalry. This led quickly to the establishment of an Anglo-Norman army made up of Norman horsemen of noble blood, Saxon infantrymen often of equally noble blood, Saxon freemen as rank-and-file, and foreign mercenaries and adventurers from other parts of the Continent. This military composition had hardly altered by the time Richard I Lionheart came to the throne in 1189.
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