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Fortress Britain: All the Invasions and Incursions since 1066

Fortress Britain: All the Invasions and Incursions since 1066

by Ian Hernon

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The British have not been backward in coming forward when it comes to aggressive visits abroad. But it hasn't all been one way. In 1193 for example, the Danes teamed up with the most persistent offenders, the French, for a full-scale invasion. The French Prince Louis the Lion came close to success exactly 150 years after the Battle of Hastings. The 100 Years War


The British have not been backward in coming forward when it comes to aggressive visits abroad. But it hasn't all been one way. In 1193 for example, the Danes teamed up with the most persistent offenders, the French, for a full-scale invasion. The French Prince Louis the Lion came close to success exactly 150 years after the Battle of Hastings. The 100 Years War saw multiple raids on British towns and ports by the Spanish and French. Following the Armada, there was the bloodless invasion of 1688, Bonnie Prince Charlie's march south, the remarkable American John Paul Jones' attack on Whitehaven during the American War of Independence, the German occupation of the Channel Islands and—the great what if of British, perhaps world history—the threat of Operation Sealion. Ian Hernon brings his journalistic flair to bear in this dramatic narrative of the survival of an island race over 900 years—sometimes, surprisingly, against the odds. Whilst such a history (one leaving out the boring bits) is bound to entertain, it also cannot fail to inform: where were shots last exchanged with an enemy on the mainland? At Graveney Marsh in Kent.

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The History Press
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Fortress Britain

All the Invasions and Incursions Since 1066

By Ian Hernon

The History Press

Copyright © 2013 Ian Hernon
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-7524-9717-4



'... crushed, imprisoned, disinherited, banished' – the chronicler Odericus Vitalis

Before the bloody battle on Senlac Hill and William's conquest, invasions had been an integral part of the patchwork fabric which made Britain: Romans, Angles, Jutes, Saxons, Vikings, Danes and other Scandinavians all planted their standards and all, through assimilation, stayed to varying degrees. As the Roman Empire declined, its hold on Britain loosened. By AD 410, Roman forces had been withdrawn and small, isolated bands of migrating Germans began to invade Britain. There was no single invasion, but the Germanic tribes quickly established control over a mainland not yet a nation. Viking raiders landed near the monastery on Lindisfarne, slew its monks and looted it. Thus began more than two centuries of Viking incursions into England, which was divided into several kingdoms.

* * *

In 866, the Viking chief Ragnar Lodbrok was captured by King Aella of Northumbria and thrown into a snake pit. Ragnar's enraged sons, taking advantage of England's political instability, recruited the Great Heathen Army, which landed in Northumbria that year. York fell to the Vikings. Aella was in turn captured by the Vikings and executed. By 1000 the Vikings had overrun most of England and parts of Ireland. In Wessex, King Alfred the Great held off the Vikings during his lifetime, but the Norsemen managed to unite much of England with Norway and Denmark in the eleventh century during the reign of the Danish King Cnut.

When Cnut died he was succeeded by the Anglo-Saxon king Edward the Confessor, who reigned until his death in 1066, when he was succeeded by the powerful Earl of Wessex, Harold Godwinson. The Norwegian king Harald Hardrada invaded the North, only to be defeated with massive losses at Stamford Bridge. But William of Normandy, who also had legitimate claim to the throne, was waiting for good weather to carry his invasion fleet across the Channel.

Harold Godwinson retraced his steps south to take on the threat of the Normans, who landed at Pevensey Bay. He believed that England was now invincible, and that confidence lured him to disaster. The slaughter near Hastings dwarfed even the 901 massacre by Vikings at Maldon, or the defeat of Edmund Ironside by Cnut at Assendon in 1016. So much is common knowledge, along with the debate as to whether Harold died from an arrow in the eye or was hacked apart by Norman knights. Both, probably. But the invasion was not completed in a single battle, famous though it remains.

After the Battle of Hastings, William and his forces marched to Westminster Abbey for his coronation, taking a roundabout route via Romney, Dover, Canterbury, Surrey and Berkshire. From the foundation of the Cinque Ports in 1050, Dover had dominated and it became William's prime target. William of Poitiers wrote:

Then he marched to Dover, which had been reported impregnable and held by a large force. The English, stricken with fear at his approach, had confidence neither in their ramparts nor in the numbers of their troops ... While the inhabitants were preparing to surrender unconditionally, [the Normans], greedy for money, set the castle on fire and the great part of it was soon enveloped in flames ... [William then paid for the repair and] having taken possession of the castle, the Duke spent eight days adding new fortifications to it.

The Castle was first built entirely out of clay. It collapsed to the ground and the clay was then used as the flooring for many of the ground-floor rooms. William, variously described by chroniclers as cruel, greedy and devoutly pious, replaced the Saxon hierarchy or 'establishment' with his own, amalgamated the Church, imposed new taxation and his own stringent version of the feudal system, and above all wiped out resistance. The chronicler Odericus Vitalis wrote: 'The native inhabitants were crushed, imprisoned, disinherited, banished and scattered beyond the limits of their own country, while his own vassals were exalted to wealth and honours and raised to all its offices.'

After 1066 foreign incursions, real or threatened, continued until William re-forged his realm, bending it to his own will. But it was a drawn-out business. His iron heel quickly assured his rule in London and the South, but rebellions popped up across his new realm, often aided by overseas forces. He brutally subdued the populations of Yorkshire, Nottingham and Warwick, and repeated the exercise in Somerset, Dorset and the West Midlands.

On the Welsh border, Norman earls whose families had settled in the area during the reign of the Confessor snatched lands held by Edric 'the Wild'. There was open warfare. Edric, in alliance with the Welsh princes Bleððyn and Rhiwallon, devastated Herefordshire and eventually sacked Hereford itself. They withdrew back into the hills, knowing full well that William would seek vengeance.

King Harold's mother, Gytha, encouraged the people of Devon to rise up and William only subdued the county after Exeter fell. The other main claimant to the English throne, Edgar Æþeling, grandson of Edmund Ironside, issued a call to arms from his bolthole in Scotland. Later in the year, the men of Dover invited Eustace of Boulogne to help them in their insurrection. This uprising was soon put down with extreme prejudice. But it was in the North that William suffered the greatest defiance. William took his army to crush revolt in Northumberland. The rebels quickly either submitted or fled into Scotland to join the other refugees there in the face of Norman military might.

In the autumn, cousins of Edgar sailed to the Norse-held east coast of Ireland, picked up recruits and raided the West Country, where the Celtic Cornishmen joined them in arms. They plundered and ravaged the countryside so excessively, however, that eventually even the Saxon English joined with local Norman garrisons to expel them.

In 1068, King William appointed Robert de Comines as Earl of Northumberland, instead of the English Earl Morcar. The men of the county promptly killed him and massacred 900 of his men in Durham. Edgar Æþeling travelled to York when he was met by the Northumbrians. William moved up fast from the south and surprised the 'rebels'. Hundreds were slain and the city torched. The conqueror made York his base of operations in the North. He expropriated property and divided half amongst his Norman followers and kept half for himself. William strengthened the defences of the city and built two motte and bailey castles, one on each side of the River Ouse.

The following year Edgar's kinsmen and supporters again rampaged through the West Country, but were defeated by Earl Brian of Penthievre, and fled back to Ireland. Meanwhile Edric the Wild and his Welsh allies broke out from the Marcher hills and took Shrewsbury before moving on to Chester. William, no doubt feeling that he was sailing in a colander, with leaks springing up in all directions, was forced to ignore them while dealing with the Northumbrians led by Morcar and his brother Edwin, supported by the Danish king, Sweyn Estridsson.

Sweyn, the grandson of Harald Bluetooth, was born in England around 1019 and had a solid claim to the English throne as his mother Estrid was the daughter of King Cnut. He grew up as a military leader, courageous in battle but fairly hopeless as a tactician. A long and bitter civil war in Denmark eventually saw him rule supreme, only to be embroiled in another war with Harald Hardrada. Sweyn almost captured Hardrada in a sea battle off the coast of Jutland; if he had succeeded, the events of 1066 may have taken a different course. He was almost killed himself at the naval battle of Nisa in 1062. Harald relinquished his claims to Denmark in 1064, in return for Sweyn's recognition of Harald as king of Norway. After that he sailed off to England to try to enforce his claim on the English crown, with bitter results.

Sweyn was Christian, literate and ruthless, but like many hotheaded rulers of that age, he could be penitent. After one massacre in a church he walked barefoot, dressed in sackcloth, to do penance. While William was away in Normandy, English nobles appealed to Sweyn to claim their throne and revenge his cousin, King Harold. Ever cautious, Sweyn waited almost two years before sending a fleet to the Humber to break William's still-fragile grip on the North. Even then he sent his brother, Asbjorn, to lead the fleet. It was an act that, rather than uniting the English behind one war leader, as they might have behind Sweyn, just complicated what was already confused leadership. and loyalties. The Danes joined the Earls Waltheof and Gospatrick, together with Edgar Æþeling. The Normans in York were slaughtered; Earl Waltheof's exploit of allegedly killing 100 Normans with his long-axe as they tried to escape through a gate provided material for heroic verse.

William was occupied elsewhere. He crossed the Pennine hills to face the threat posed by Edric and the Welsh princes, who now had a formidable army bolstered by the men of Cheshire and Staffordshire. William rode with his men and joined Earl Brian, who had marched up from the West Country after beating Harold's sons. A prudent Edric withdrew to the hills with his Herefordshire and Shropshire men. The Welsh princes marched on and were defeated at the battle of Stafford. William, no surprise here, laid waste to the land. A further revolt in the West Country fizzled out in the face of forces drawn from London and the south east and through internal dissent amongst the insurgents.

William turned back to the North and after a hard march marked by determined resistance, vandalised bridges and swollen rivers, he took and re-entered York without a fight. The Danes had fled and the men of Northumberland took to the hills, pursued by William's force. The Danes withdrew from northern England while William 'harryed' (or harrowed) the North, burning homes and crops, slaughtering livestock and smashing tools and implements in a great scorched earth swathe between the Humber and Durham. The resultant famine wiped out whole villages and the region took generations to recover.

During the extended bloodbath William celebrated Christmas at York, eating off silver plate especially brought up from Winchester. William then inconclusively pursued Teeside insurgents around the Cleveland hills. The devastation, however, forced the rebellion's leaders to pay him fealty, rather than outright submission, to avoid further destruction. William made his way back to York in atrocious conditions, seeking bands of Englishmen as he went, and suffering heavy losses amongst his own men. He re-erected the castles the Anglo-Norse had burned down and re-garrisoned them. He turned to Chester at the northern extremity of the Welsh Marches.

In January 1070, a Norman army including many mercenaries from France's northern provinces set off across the Pennines in bad weather through land that offered them no sustenance as they themselves had previously laid it waste. William's army suffered badly from bad weather and English attacks. Many of the mercenaries mutinied and William simply abandoned them to the enemy and the elements. With only Normans at his back, he reached Chester, which surrendered without a fight. He built castles to hold the North down. He also bought off the Danish leader Jarl Osbjorn.

Meanwhile, the Danes sailed south seeking both loot and assistance from relations in East Anglia who had benefited from Danelaw since before Alfred the Great's reign. They took to the Isle of Ely as a base in the marshy wetlands of the Fens, held by local landowner Hereward the Wake. In June 1070 William made peace with Sweyn and most Danes left. Sweyn looked away from England and concentrated on consolidating his own kingdom and siring half the royal dynasties of northern Europe through his string of concubines.

The revolt in the Fens had been strengthened by refugees from wasted Northumberland, including Earl Morcar. Hereward paid his remaining Danish allies by allowing them to sack Peterborough and its Cathedral, now controlled by a Norman abbot. William made at least two unsuccessful attempts to take the Isle of Ely. He eventually succeeded after local monks betrayed secret causeways across the marsh. Although Ely fell in 1071, Hereward escaped and, with a band of followers, continued a form of guerrilla warfare for several years.

In 1072 the main threat was from Scotland, where martial numbers were swelled by many English, including Edgar Æþeling. William took an army across the border and confronted King Malcolm at Abernethy. Malcolm made peace.

By 1073 William could feel that his conquest was complete and returned to Normandy to suppress a revolt in Maine. Many in his army were English who worked with a will to devastate the rebel region, just as their home counties had been devastated.

Back in England the 'Revolt of the Earls' erupted in 1075. The two Earls were both half English and half French, and both had supported William in his claim for the throne in 1066. Ralf, Earl of East Anglia, was English on his father's side and had been born in Norfolk, but grew up in Brittany. Roger, Earl of Hereford, English on his mother's side and born in Hereford, was Ralf's brother-in-law. They had both supported William's claim to the throne. Now they plotted to bring him down with Danish support. William crushed both their forces in turn. He then besieged Norwich, held by Ralf's new bride Emma, for three months. Her husband had gone to collect a Danish fleet, but the 200 ships arrived too late to lift the siege. Ralf and Emma made it to France, where they continued their fight against the Normans. Roger was captured and spent the rest of his life in prison. Earl Waltheof, having refused to take part in the revolt, had nonetheless also refused to betray the rebel earls. When that emerged William had him beheaded. The execution appalled the English and many Norman nobles. Waltheof's tomb became a place of pilgrimage.

In 1080 the men of Gateshead killed the Norman Bishop of Durham and 100 soldiers, and six years later Edgar Æþeling was again in revolt. These were suppressed in turn, but another invasion by the Danes remained a real threat throughout William's reign. That was mainly prevented by the lack of co-ordinated resistance by the English and their Danish cousins now settled in England. After Hastings there was no king to give leadership and the English nobles who survived Senlac were driven solely by their own personal interests, co-operating with each other on occasions, only to head off when it suited them. Without decisive leadership, no English army could take the field. And the ordinary folk were cowed by mighty castles, strong garrisons and the enforcement of feudal diktat. Slowly, the English and Normans came together through necessity and marriage.

It was the threat of Danish invasion which prompted the great survey now known as the Domesday Book. William needed to know the precise wealth of his realm in order to levy taxes to pay for an army of defence. Once the massive undertaking was completed with great speed, William summoned all his tenants-in-chief and major land-holders to a court at Salisbury and made them swear an oath of allegiance. His crown was secure. Ironically, that was largely due to fear of invasion.

Between 1066 and William's death in 1087 foreign incursions had been part of a civil war, inter-related dynastic struggles which crossed seas and borders, the inevitable consequence of the Conquest of a still-unformed nation. From then on William's Norman successors concentrated on consolidation of their lands either side of the Channel and extending their empire southwards to Aquitaine and Bordeaux

The immediate consequence of William's death was a war between his sons Robert and William over control of England and Normandy. After the younger William's death in 1100 and the succession of his youngest brother Henry as king, Normandy and England remained contested until Robert's capture by Henry at the Battle of Tinchebray in 1106. Norman rule in England fragmented when two of his grandchildren, Stephen and Matilda, engaged in civil war and created an era of turmoil known as 'The Anarchy.'

Nevertheless, the impact on England of William's conquest was profound and changes in the Church, aristocracy, culture, and language of the country have persisted into modern times. The Conquest brought the kingdom into closer contact with France and forged ties between France and England that lasted throughout the Middle Ages. Another consequence of William's invasion was the sundering of the formerly close ties between England and Scandinavia. William's government blended elements of the English and Norman systems into a new one that laid the foundations of the later medieval English kingdom. Historian Eleanor Searle described William's invasion as 'a plan that no ruler but a Scandinavian would have considered'.


Excerpted from Fortress Britain by Ian Hernon. Copyright © 2013 Ian Hernon. Excerpted by permission of The History Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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