Sunday 28 August 2016

Just how many kings did England have in 1066?

It all started off with a question in a pub quiz a couple of years back: "How many kings ruled in the year 1066?". 

Being something of a history buff, I love it when we get a question or - nirvana of nirvanas - a whole round on history. I can feel the rest of the team looking at me with expectation in their eyes - not unexpectedly given how much I boringly bang on about history being my specialist subject and all that!

Anyway, on this occasion I was confident I knew the answer. Although I have not formally studied the Norman Conquest, I had a good enough grasp of the key facts and dates to answer this question. Or so I thought. 

At first glance you might think the answer was two - Duke William of Normandy (also known as William the Bastard (parentage rather than personality.... although........) and, more commonly William the Conqueror) defeated and killed King Harold II of England at Hastings on 14 October 1066. Every school child knows that, right? Well at least they did when I was a school child in 1970-something. 

But what not everyone knows is that Harold only reigned for ten months. He acceded to the throne in January 1066 following the death of his predecessor, the - not so saintly - Edward the Confessor. It was Harold's perceived usurpation of the throne, which William claimed had been promised to him, a claim which Harold had supposedly sworn on holy relics to support, that effectively triggered the whole conquest. 

So, anyway, the point is that Edward had reigned for the first few days of 1066. The answer was therefore three, an easy point in the pursuit of glory as that week's pub quiz champions (I think we came second in the end). But when the answer was confirmed as three, there was a mild protest in the corner from the uber-clever team. The team that won week in, week out which became so dull in the end that we ended up seeking a quiz elsewhere with more evenly matched contestants - but that is another story as well.

They stated that there had actually been four kings in 1066. I don't know whether they actually put four down as the answer - it would have been dangerous as the chances are the pub quiz would not have that kind of specialist knowledge. Nonetheless, my interest was piqued. Four? who was the fourth then and why is he not documented in the regnal lists? I was aware that there had been other men with claims based on their ancestry but had any of them actually been king - and if so, why do we not know more about them?

So who was this fourth king and when (and to what extent) did he reign? His name was Edgar and he was known as the Aetheling (a term used in Anglo-Saxon times to designate princes of the royal dynasty who were eligible for the kingship). Edgar was the great-nephew of Edward the Confessor and thus could be said to have had a better claim to the throne than Harold when the old king died. 

However, he was only a boy of 14 in January and the country needed a strong leader to face the troubled times ahead. An additional, and indeed crucial, point to note was that Anglo-Saxon kingship worked on a principle of acclamation. To be acclaimed by your peers was far more powerful than any mere coronation. Indeed, coronations often occurred long after the acclamation of kingship. More of that later - it's important! Harold was the most powerful man in the country (even during Edward's reign) and was head of the most powerful family: the Godwines. There was no way that Harold and his supporters would allow anyone else to muscle in on his patch.

Thus Harold, rather than Edgar was acclaimed on the very day that Edward the Confessor died. It is interesting to note, also, that his coronation took place within a matter of days too. Some might say the whole thing took place in unseemly haste, perhaps because Harold knew that his claim was not as strong as others, domestic or foreign, and needed to put the matter to bed quickly before any whispers began.

Now we fast forward 10 months to sunset on 14 October 1066. Harold lies dead, mutilated beyond recognition (and possibly with an arrow in his eye - i feel a subject for a future blog coming on....). The bodies of his two remaining brothers (Gyrth and Leofwine) lie close by. Duke William is victorious, but he is not yet king. The country does not submit to him (much as he might have hoped it would).He has not been acclaimed by anyone nor has he been formally crowned. Note, the Norman/French style of succession was much more based on coronation. Once the crown was placed on your head, then you were king - none of this acclamation malarkey was needed.

So what actually happened in the aftermath of the battle? Well the truth was that even though William had won a battle and killed a king, the only bits of England that he actually controlled were Pevensey and Hastings. None of the other towns and cities had submitted to him. Indeed, London, the biggest city of all, was full of fighting men; a mixture of those that had survived the battle or who had arrived too late to take part. Their mood was defiant and they were not about to raise the white flag. Instead they chose Edgar Aetheling to be their king, his main backers being the brother earls Edwin and Morcar (of Mercia and Northumbria). 

William meanwhile had waited in Hastings for two weeks, but when no formal surrender came, he set off to London to seize control for himself. On arrival, however, he found the city offered resistance - the defenders even attacked the Normans, albeit unsuccessfully. Nonetheless, safe as they were behind the city walls, William could not attempt frontal assault. Instead, William went on the rampage, turning west, crossing the Thames at Wallingford (the first place it could be safely forded) before turning back towards London. All along the way his army cut a swathe of devastation. 

The mood in the city changed to one of despair; partly because of the effect of the Norman pillaging and, more significantly, when Edwin and Morcar withdrew their support for Edgar ad retreated north. With no support and no options remaining, Edgar travelled to Berkhamsted where he submitted and swore fealty to the Conqueror. 

And so ended Edgar's brief reign, no more than a couple of months at best, as William was himself crowned in Westminster Abbey in Christmas Day, 1066. But was Edgar really a king of England and should he be remembered as such? Well, it comes down to how the definition of kingship and how that varied between the Saxons and the Normans. To the former, Edgar was king. He had been acclaimed by his peers and that was all that mattered. During his brief reign he had confirmed the appointment of a new abbot of Peterborough, a clear indication of him exercising royal authority as this was one of the duties of a king. The fact that he had not been formally crowned did not matter - that was simply a ceremony to confirm an existing fact.

To the Normans, however, the lack of coronation was key. Edgar had not been crowned and therefore was never a king. This, therefore, explains why the poor spotty teenager never gets the recognition he deserves because, you know what they say? History is always written by the victors!