Sunday, 26 October 2014

Revisiting Battle Abbey 1066/ 2014

Early this month I revisited Battle Abbey for the first re enactment of the Battle of Hastings in several years. It was a superb event and it made me wonder why I am so fascinated by battles and why I am writing a trilogy about the noble women of the Norman Conquest and how they survived 1066. I studied both Medieval history and The English Civil War as a student and those eras are of particular interest to me. Another reason for my passion resides deep inside my personal past.  A direct ancestor who fought as a captain with the Scots Greys at The Battle of Blenheim was awarded a family crest by King George 1 and a parcel of land in Ireland as a reward for valour. In fact, I, absurdly used to use the family crest on notepaper when I applied for jobs (I was a student) thinking it made my applications look more impressive. I think I got the student jobs because I was suitable not because of my illustrious ancestor.

The Women of Hastings, The Saxon Camp, Re enactment 2014.

My father's family came from the Scottish Highlands. It was not until later in the eighteenth century that they took up residence in Ireland. They were military men until my great grandfather rebelled. He refused to join the army and decided to marry an unsuitable bride. William Baxter was banished from the family home. However, the land eventually came his way.  He ended up as a gentleman farmer who was also a carpenter. My mother's family were 'planted' in Ireland as a result of another war. Her ancestor fought as a mercenary in the Williamite wars of the late seventeenth century. He got his reward after the Battle of the Boyne which was the largest battle ever fought in the United Kingdom and ended up carving a successful future for himself in Northern Ireland. The shameful part of the story is that, just as after The Battle of Hastings, the victors literally seize territory from those who lived there before them. They destroy the lives of others. They bring about regime change and help to establish it. With this comes both positive and negative results but sadly human cost, the loss of life in battle and dispossessed. It is not a history to be proud of but it does explain my fascination with the past and, in particular, the effect of battles such as The Battle of Hastings on women.

Blessing the Battle

The event which took place on Senlac Hill almost a thousand years ago brought great change to England. The poor may not have noticed it greatly in that they exchanged one group of warlords for another. A feudal system was already in place in England by 1066. But for the noble wives of those who fought at Hastings the change was significant. They were survivors. Many wealthy women fled forced marriages with the enemy and took refuge in convents. Others looked after their families and estates until these were taken from them. Either they remarried or they took refuge where ever they could, and became exiles as did the heroine of the novel that I am writing currently. This is about Gytha, Harold's elder daughter who went into exile in Denmark and then married a prince of Kiev. Often the exiles lived in extreme poverty.

In the Saxon Camp

Attending a re enactment whether it is an eleventh century experience or a seventeenth century Civil War experience helps us appreciate what these battles were like, what people wore, what they ate and how people lived then. For a writer it is a perfect way to immerse oneself in the period you write about. For the reader, the student or the history lover it is a superb day out.

The Normans believed God was on their side

Norman Kite Shaped Shields

Saxon Round Shields

Musical Instruments

I wonder if anyone who reads this blog has any interesting family history. I have a signed copy of The Swan-Daughter, a novel about King Harold's younger daughter, which will be on general release on 11th December, as a prize for the most interesting comment. I would love to hear, too, if anyone is descended from Harold and Edith Swan-Neck.
The Raven

I shall choose the winner from the hat and announce the result here on this blog on 1st December ten days before the paperback release of The Swan-Daughter.

The winner can then send me his/her address for the signed book through my website email.

This competition is open internationally. I look forward to reading small snippets of your family history either via my web site email or here in the comments section.


  1. Great blog, lovely photos. I do think that re-enactments are vital to understand how the past felt. OK we can never recreate the past in enough detail, but even wandering around a castle in a long skirt gives you valuable insight into simply walking up a set of stone steps safely.

    I am going to count myself out of the competition but I do want to add my family history snippet - my family legend always said that we originated in Brittany and came to England with the Conqueror, which, if you look at it rationally, had to have been in the retinue of Alan of Brittany. I'm not saying we were kinsmen or all that noble, but the family did go on to be at least recognised gentry as they were, according to more legend, part of the bodyguard to the French king, something of a Quentin Durward!

    1. This comment has been removed by the author.

    2. Robert Walpole's mother was Mary Burwell (whose surname reminds me of Alan Rufus's man Alan of Burwell). She was the heiress of heiress of Sir Geoffrey Burwell of Rougham in Suffolk, which in 1086 belonged to the Abbey of Bury St Edmunds, where Alan R was buried.

    3. The Church of St Giles in Tydd St Giles is of interest architecturally and historically. The West Window was designed by none other than Alan of Walsingham, who created the famous "octagon" lantern on Ely Cathedral.

      "In the Lady Chapel there are still some remnants of the church's original medieval stained glass ... The outer southern wall of the church still has the remains of a medieval sundial, which was in use when the church was a cell of the priory in Wisbech."

  2. Sorry I needed to edit that one as ancestor was spelt incorrectly. Yes thank you for commenting. And I think your ancestor seems worthy of a novel himself.

  3. The copy of "The Handfasted Wife" I ordered at the local Dymocks bookstore on 7 August finally arrived today: a wait of 3 months and 3 days.

    The explanation given was that Customs had prevented the importation of the book and sent it back! Perhaps too many incendiary devices on the cover?

  4. If you send me an address via email so it is private, I shall send you a copy of The Swan-Daughter. You really helped me with the epitaph to Count Alan and the family tree. Thus you ought to have a complimentary copy posted out. I have sent to Australia before without hassle.

  5. As to the competition, I've said quite a bit about my family's geographical and ethnic links to Alan, but perhaps I'm disqualified on account of contributing to the story?

    This week I discovered a couple of interesting things connected to Alan.

    Alan's brother Brian was said by some to have married an heiress of the family that ruled Chateuabriant. A lord of Chateaubriant in Brittany accompanied King Louis IX on the Third Crusade and saved his life during the disastrous Battle of Al Mansour in Egypt. As a reward, Louis gave him the right to replace the pine cones in his coat-of-arms with the fleur-de-lis. (Not as good as ermine, but next-best, I suppose.)

    In Christopher Clarkson's 1821 history of Richmond, page 16, it is claimed that Alan built the tower of Bowes (formerly in North Yorkshire but now in Durham county) which he gave to his cousin Guillermus, a lieutenant over 500 archers, for which Guillermus was surnamed "Arcubus". Alan gave Guillermus a shield with the arms of Brittany, charged with three bows in pale, and a bundle of arrows for his crest. The famous knightly family of Bowes descends from Guillermus.

    On page 20, Clarkson asserts that in 1089 Count Alan (Christopher thought Niger but the date would make it Rufus) persuaded William II to convene the very first "High Court of Parliament".

    What don't we owe to Alan?

    Robert Walpole, the first official Prime Minister of Great Britain, was born in Castle Rising, Norfolk, 8 km NE of King's Lynn. Castle Rising used to belong to Bishop Odo of Bayeux, but he lost it with all his other English domains in 1088. Some 14 km SW of King's Lynn, in the Fenland district of Cambridgeshire, is Wisbech, the likely ancestral home of my Wisbey ancestors. Adjacent to Wisbech is Walsoken, and to its north are West Walton, Walton Highway, Walpole Highway, Walpole Marsh, Walpole St Peter, Walpole St Andrew, Walpole Cross Keys. To its south is Waldersey.

    "Wal" is a term widely used to designate "Celts", as in "Wales" and Belgium's "Walloons".

    North-west of Wisbech are the settlements of Tydd St Giles, Tydd Gote and Tydd St Mary. In the Wikipedia entry for Tydd St Giles, we read:

    "The name 'Tydd' is known to derive from a corruption of the word `Tide', as the village was home to an important sluice used for draining the Fens. Although many Fenland names derive from Anglo Saxon words, a few scattered around Wisbech include Anglo Saxon words referencing the native British population. Even though the village is old enough, it does not appear in the Domesday Book, because the village was in the liberty of the Bishop of Ely."

    Tydd St Giles "is the northernmost village in Cambridgeshire (bordering Lincolnshire)". To its north are Long Sutton, Holbeach, with a short drive to Boston and its surrounding villages such as Drayton, where Alan Rufus had his Lincolnshire caput to oversee the major ports he developed around the Wash to service exports from as far as Derby.

    The article on Tydd St Giles continues: "A survey of 1868 described it thus: TYDD ST. GILES, a parish in the hundred of Wisbech, Isle of Ely, county Cambridge, 5 miles north-west of Wisbech, its post town, and 6 from St. Mary Sutton. The preparation of woad for dyeing is carried on."

    Woad. Now that's an old British tradition!

  6. Was just watching a German program, second in a series on "The Greeks, the Romans, the Vikings: the Founders of Europe". It mentioned that Britain provided the empire's wool. Makes me wonder how long the Suffolk Tweeds ("the rich ones") were in the wool business?

  7. The prominent abolitionist Thomas Clarkson was born in Wisbech; in the film "Amazing Grace" he was played by Rufus Sewell.

  8. I was wondering whether there was any evidence of Alan's association with William before Hastings. The nearest I've found is a reference in Keats-Rohan's "Domesday People: Domesday book", page 127, to an event she dates to 1066x1067 of William of Normandy assenting to the gift by Alan Comes (i.e. Alan Rufus) to St-Ouen de Rouen of the church of Saint-Sauveur without Rouen, and of the nearby church of Sainte Croix des Pelletiers, which had been William's gift to Alan.

    The unresolved question is whether this was in early 1066, before Hastings, or in 1067 after William returned to Normandy. How William signed might tell us, but I haven't sighted any image of the document.

    The French Wikipedia article on "Église Sainte-Croix-des-Pelletiers" gives the date 1060 for this gift by "le comte Alain". Perhaps a typo?

    Saint-Sauveur was destroyed in the Revolution, but its remains are evident at the (now much-enlarged) Place du Vieux-Marché, where Joan of Arc was burnt at the stake.

    Arthur III of Brittany, Duc de Richemont and Constable of France, who'd ridden beside Joan at Patay, might have been aware of Saint-Saueveur's place in his family's history. If so, this would have filled him with all the more determination to drive the English out of Normandy, as he did by the decisive Breton cavalry charge at Formigny.

  9. This morning I cast my vote in advance for the State election at an Early Voting booth close to home, then went down the road to check my PO Box, to find The Swan-Daughter waiting for her Prince.

    As I was reading, one of the blackbirds that have made a home in our garden appeared outside my study's window, glanced my way, then took no further notice of me as it pecked at the ground to feed. To my surprise, the next sentence I read was: "It was only a blackbird rustling through a clump of withies."

    Thank you so much for this book. I am enjoying it greatly and I'm well satisfied with the fictional elements. I think you have depicted Alan Rufus's personality quite accurately: his life was, figuratively, a game of high-stakes poker, and he played it very well.

    Speaking of which, it occurred to me when reading The Handfasted Wife that the circumstances around Elditha's opportunities for escape could only have been arranged by Alain. He always knew more than he let on, and was habitually better prepared, more patient, swifter and more forgiving than expected.

  10. The winner of this copy of The Swan-Daughter is Marsha Lambert. DM me or use my website mail with your address. Congratulations.