Monday 5 June 2017

King Cwichelm of Wessex and his part in the conversion of King Edwin of Northumbria

The first thing that should be said is that the primary sources for the kings of the West Saxons in the first half of the seventh century are at best sketchy. Cwichelm may not even have been the king of the West Saxons but it is probably safe to say that he was at least 'a' king of the West Saxons - and specifically those that were located around the Upper Thames valley.

At the time that Cwichelm features in Bede's Ecclesiastical History of Britain, in the year 626, the West Saxon regnal list - such as it is - shows Cynegils as King of Wessex, but then also shows that a son of his was called Cwichelm and that he was supposed to have died in around 636.

The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle has a number of references for Cwichelm, which serve only to complicate things further:
593 - Here Ceawlin and Cwichelm and Crida perished.
611 - Here Cynegils succeeded to the kingdom in Wessex and held it 31 years
614 - Here Cynegils and Cwichelm fought on Bea's Mount and killed 2,065 Welsh
626 - Eomer came from Cwichelm, king of the West Saxons  (more of this later)
628 - Here Cynegils and Cwichelm fought against Penda at Cirencester and came to an agreement
636 - Here Cwichelm was baptised in Dorchester and passed away the same year.

I tend to favour the view of DP Kirby that names such as Cynegils and Cwichelm were relatively common and thus it may be the fault of later historians who have tried to conflate several references over a wide period of time to the same person.

Anyway, back to the story of 'King' Cwichelm's unwitting part in Edwin's conversion to Christianity. At this time, Edwin was the most powerful ruler in the Heptarchy, described by Bede as the fifth Bretwalda "who ruled all the peoples of Britain, both Angles and Britons with the exception of the Kentish folk." It was this dominance that most probably resulted in Cwichelm's decision to send an assassin to Edwin's court in 626. Edwin had no doubt been looking to extend his influence to the south where he must have come up against Cwichelm's land. The West Saxon ruler was not about to give in easily to this foreign upstart.

That said, he knew that Edwin was the most powerful king in the island and that direct confrontation would most likely not result in a favourable outcome for him. Therefore he chose a more refined, but thoroughly underhand method of being rid of the Northumbrian king. As Bede says "an assassin named Eumer was sent into the province by Cwichelm, king of the West Saxons, in order to rob Edwin both of his kingdom and his life." [HE II 9]

And he nearly succeeded. Eumer presented himself at Edwin's court - which at that time was at the royal residence by the River Derwent. He gained an audience with the king on the pretext of having an important message from his king. Who knows why Edwin allowed him in - perhaps he needed a distraction; his wife was to give birth the same day to his first daughter, Eanfled, and he must have been in some stress, fearing for the safety of his wife and possible heir.

Whatever the reason, midway through delivering his pretend message, Eumer drew a knife from under his cloak and made a lunge for the king. The knife was said to be both doubled edged and dipped in poison so that if the blade did not kill him, then the poison would. Fortunately for Edwin, he had with him the most loyal of companions, one of whom - Lilla - having neither sword or shield to hand, nevertheless threw himself between the assassin and his king, paying the ultimate sacrifice for his bravery. Apparently the blow was so hard that the knife went all the way through Lilla and still wounded the king. One assumes the wound was superficial though as he made a full recovery. Eumer was then killed but not before he managed to take another thegn, Fordhere, with him.

So, how did this event bring about the eventual conversion of the first Anglo-Saxon king outside of Kent? Well, on its own, it did not but it can be said to have certainly played a part. Edwin had recently married a daughter of the Christian king of Kent, one Aethelberga. As part of the marriage agreement, Aethelberga had been promised the right to continue to practise her faith in Northumbria and had taken a priest called Paulinus with her for this purpose. Being one of the early Christian missionaries to England from Rome, Paulinus was not going to miss the opportunity to work on Edwin to try and convert him from his pagan idolatry. The fact that Edwin had allowed Paulinus to preach and had given him land in York on which to found his church shows that the king was open to new ideas but did not mean he was going to change his ways quickly and easily.

It took Paulinus a number of years and several artifices before he secured Edwin's baptism. One such opportunity was the failed assassination attempt. In response to the  birth of his daughter, later that same day, Edwin gave thanks to the Gods for the fact that both the child and mother had come through the ordeal safely (never a guaranteed outcome in those times). Paulinus however claimed that it was because of his prayers to Christ that the birth had gone so well.  In response, Edwin promised to give up his pagan ways and also to dedicate his new daughter to Christ if he would be granted victory against those that had sent the assassin.

Edwin then embarked on a punitive expedition into Wessex where we are told that slew or forced to surrender all those who had been involved in the plot, including the killing (as the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle tells us) of 5 kings (more evidence to support the view that Wessex was a network of tribes and sub kings, possibly under the aegis of a single overlord). Returning to Northumbria with the spoils of war, Edwin made good on his promise and gave Eanfled to Paulinus where she - and 12 members of her household - became the first Northumbrians to be baptised on the eve of the feast of Pentecost (6th June).

Edwin himself held on for a while longer, but it is safe to surmise that his resistance was crumbling because of events such as these. It cannot, however, have been an easy decision to give up the Gods of his ancestors not least because the king's religion would have also dictated the religion of his people in effect. Such a decision could not be taken lightly.

Friday 2 June 2017

1217: The Battle of Lincoln - a big reason why we don't all speak French today

The Battle of Lincoln recently celebrated its 800th anniversary but, unlike some other major battles such as Agincourt, Waterloo, Hastings, The Somme, I'd wager that very few people outside the eclectic world of the history nerd are even aware of it. And yet, for all that, it had the potential to be a massive game-changer in the history of this island.

Perhaps it is overshadowed by the event that most school children know which took place two years earlier close to the banks of the Thames and not far from Windsor, namely the signing of the Magna Carta by King John at Runnymede. It is from here, and the earlier events of John's reign, that we can see the causes of the battle that came a year after John's death in 1216.

As an aside, to continue what seems to be a fairly common theme of this blog, John died a horrible, bottom-related death. He contracted dysentery whilst on campaign and suffered what must have been a humiliating and painful demise by, quite literally, shitting himself to death at Newark Castle in October 1216. However bad a king he may have been, you wouldn't wish that on your worst enemy.

Anyway, back to the story. What had once been a vast domain stretching across England and France under his predecessors, had - as a result of John's mismanagement and ill-advised policies - dwindled to control over largely just England. Almost the last overseas possessions, Normandy - the original ducal lands from which our Norman dynasty had hailed - had been lost in 1204. Understandably many of John's barons were particularly dischuffed by this turn of events, not least because they had held considerable estates on both sides of the channel and had thus lost significant income and wealth, not to mention the loss of prestige, which resulted in King John acquiring the nickname, Lackland (those medieval comedians at it again there).

Due to this and John's own cruel and vindictive personality, a good two-thirds of the barons had turned against their King. Matters were temporarily patched up by the issuing of the Magna Carta in 1215. (In this context I always tend to see this great bastion of English civil law as actually being for the barons in the first instance rather than being an early Bill of Rights for the common man. That there were clauses in there which protected Johnny Farmer is all well and good, but the fact is - for me - protecting the people who made money for the Barons was also going to benefit them. That you could not take away a man's plough or convict him without trial meant that the workers were safe from false accusations and could carry on working for their lord until proven guilty in a court of law. A huge simplification - but you get the point).

Oops - I have digressed again. So Magna Carta gets issued and is rescinded soon after (something else that might not be widely known). Indeed one of the main reasons the Carta is so well known today is largely due to it being re-issued several times, firstly by John's son - Henry III - in 1217. Anyway, John' reneging on the deal tips the Barons over the edge and so we have civil war.

Into this mess steps Louis, the heir to the French throne. The Capetian dynasty of France was the arch-rival of the Angevin (i.e. from Anjou) rulers of England. However, alliances sealed by marriages in the 12th century had resulted in Louis having a claim (albeit a weak one) to the English throne. The disaffection of a sizeable proportion of the English barons gave him the opportunity to cause mischief; an opportunity that he was not going to pass up. So it was that Louis landed in Kent in May 1216 at the head of a significant French invasion force.

Things went well for Louis and, by the time of John's death five months later, it looked as if there was a very good chance that England could fall to him. John's successor, Henry, was only 9 years old when he became king which made him extremely vulnerable and almost wholly dependent on the men that were charged with his care by his father. It was here, however, that John did something right for once. The men he set around his son were both capable and effective, and it is largely down to them that Henry not only survived, but went on to rule for over 50 years.

Key among these men was William Marshal, Earl of Pembroke, often described, with some justification, as the greatest knight who ever lived. Alongside him were Peter des Roches, the bishop of Winchester who was not scared of a good dust-up and Faulkes de Breaute who - as one of John's cronies - had a reputation for brutality but who was, nonetheless, a capable military commander. In addition, Henry had the backing of the Pope as he was seen to be the legitimate ruler of England and because John - in another all-to-rare sensible move - had submitted to the Pope's authority in 1213.

The new government began to take steps to establish its presence: a new centre of government was established in Bristol (much of the east and north of the country, including London, was lost to the crown at this time) and the Magna Carta (revised in places) was reissued. On its own, however, his was not enough. a quick and decisive victory was needed against Louis and his rebel supporters. The crown did not have the finances or manpower to wage a protracted campaign. The opportunity for such a victory came in May 1217 at Lincoln.

The city stood as one of the few royalist strongholds to resist the invader in the east of the country. A force comprising French troops and northern rebels had been besieging it for some time but had only managed to breach the outer city walls; the castle itself stood firm under the control of Lady Nicholaa de la Haye. Louis then decided to make a bold move to sweep up any remaining resistance in the eastern half of England before pushing west to take the rest of the country. To achieve this he divided his force in two, sending half to take Dover and the other half to Lincoln.

Whilst this was a grave threat to the royalist cause, William Marshal also saw it as a great opportunity to land a significant blow for Henry against a weakened rebel force. The knight - who was around 70 years old - used all of his knowledge and experience to good effect. Rather than take the direct route from Newark to Lincoln, he looped around from the west to approach the city from the north. This was key as the main southern approach to the city would have resulted in the royal forces having to fight their way across a defended bridge and then up a steep hill to the castle. If you have been to Lincoln you will be aware of this hill that divides the upper and lower town; I think the road that leads up to the castle is even called 'Steep Hill Road' - short and to the point.

Coming from the north, however, meant that Marshal's forces were able to fight on level ground. Nevertheless, there still remained the challenge of finding a way into the city. A scouting party, commanded by Peter des Roches, found a  gate that was undefended as it was blocked with rubble. Setting off two diversionary attacks to distract attention from the gate, William cleared the rubble and launched his assault. The old knight led the charge himself, his white hair flowing behind him as he went.

Whilst the surprise appearance of the royalist knights was a huge blow for the rebels, they did not immediately crack. A vicious melee broke out in front of the cathedral in which men of both sides were slaughtered without mercy.

However the turning point seems to have been the death of the French leader - Count Thomnas of Perche - from a sword thrust through the visor of his helmet that pierced his eye and skewered his brain, The sight of their leader being killed got the better of the rebels, and they began a panicked retreat through the city and across the river Witham, during which many more were butchered. The royalists, under the world's greatest knight, had their stunning victory.

The defeat at Lincoln was the beginning of the end for Louis's attempt to take the English throne. Many of the remaining rebel barons began to come over to the royalist side and Louis's last throw of the dice - a fleet of reinforcements - was beaten off in a naval engagement just off the port of Sandwich in Kent. Whilst England had stood on the brink of a new French rule, the reality was that the outcome of the war saw England actually began to find a new identity - one that was far more English than French. Who knows how things might have turned out were it not for a 70 year old knight who decided to put his remaining energies into protecting the birth right of a 9 year old boy, rather than putting his feet up and letting them all get on with it.

Finally, one should spare a thought for poor Nicholaa de la Haye. Her reward for her staunch resistance and loyalty to the crown was to be removed from her position as Sheriff of Lincolnshire four days later and replaced by Henry III's uncle the earl of Salisbury. Yeah - thanks for that!