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Tales from the Tower of London
By Daniel Diehl, Mark P. Donnelly
The History PressCopyright © 2012 Daniel Diehl and Mark P. Donnelly
All rights reserved.
THE AXE, THE ARROW AND THE WAILING MONK
William the Conqueror and Brother Gundulf 1066–80
King Edward, the great-great-great-grandson of King Alfred the Great, had reigned over Anglo-Saxon England for nearly a quarter of a century. With the exception of paying a massive annual tribute to the Viking Danes who controlled the northern half of England his reign had been a relatively peaceful one. The English channel had always been so effective at preventing any large-scale invasion of England that Edward had confidently devoted much of his later years to building churches and cathedrals rather than the massive stone fortresses which were appearing all over continental Europe.
The king was perceived as being so gentle and pious that his people respectfully dubbed him Edward the Confessor. The grandest monument to Edward's earnest faith in God was the massive new church, the Abbey of Westminster, which stood just yards beyond Edward's palace near London's west gate. By the end of December 1065 the Abbey Minster was nearly finished, but so was Edward the Confessor. On 27 December the 63-year-old monarch suffered a stroke and drifted in and out of consciousness for days. Confused and near death, the king clutched at his bedclothes, mumbling incoherently about 'devils that shall come through all the land with fire and sword and the havoc of war'.
For all his piety the dying king had good reason to worry about the future. He was leaving behind a kingdom with no direct heir to the throne, which amounted to a disaster of monumental proportions in the turbulent eleventh century. Over the years he had probably dangled the promise of the throne in front of many friends and enemies as a means of keeping them on his side. Now there was no time left to play politics. On 5 January, just hours before he died, Edward named his young brother-in-law, Harold Godwinson, Earl of Wessex, as his heir and successor. Even if there had been other legitimate contenders for the throne, in Anglo-Saxon England a deathbed request from the monarch had the strength of law. The following day, 6 January 1066, King Edward was laid to rest in his new cathedral at Westminster and Harold was crowned King of England.
If the coronation seemed rushed, there was more than ample reason for haste. The noblemen of England may have supported Edward's choice of Harold, but there were others across the Channel who were less than pleased. Harold was not the late king's only brother-in-law. Like his brother Harold, Tostig was also a brother of Edward's widow Queen Edith – giving him equal claim to the crown. The fact that he had been stripped of his title as Earl of Northumbria and sent into exile only the year before didn't seem to matter to Tostig.
Then there was Harald III Hardrada, King of Norway. As ruler of the Viking Confederation Harald had clawed his way to the throne through pure brute force. He now ruled Norway, Sweden and Denmark, and commanded vast portions of northern England known as the Danelaw. With no legitimate heir to the English throne, there was no reason why the rest of England should not come under Viking rule. And Harald had an ally. Tostig knew he was not strong enough to seize the country alone, and so had thrown in his lot with that of Harald. Their combined armies posed a serious threat to the security of the British Isles.
Finally, there was William, 'the bastard' Duke of Normandy, who, at forty years of age, was as hard and strong as a younger man and a brutally determined master of military strategy. Not only did England and Normandy have strong political and blood ties, William insisted that he had personally been promised the throne of England. Depending on which story you believe, Edward the Confessor may indeed have promised it to William and then changed his mind shortly before he died. If he had promised the crown to William, it is also possible he had sent his brother-in-law Harold Godwinson (now King Harold) to Normandy with verbal confirmation of this promise. Or Harold may have been taken prisoner on the continent, been rescued by Duke William and, in a fit of gratitude, offered to lay aside all claim to the throne and support William when the time came. William insisted that one or more of these stories were the truth. Conversely, Harold argued that it was all rubbish and that even if it were not, the king's deathbed request legally superseded all previous agreements.
Whatever the claims, whatever the truth, Tostig was unhappy, Harald Hardrada of Norway was unhappy, William of Normandy was unhappy and King Harold was in deep and immediate trouble.
Comprehending the full scope of the threat facing him and his kingdom, Harold immediately began assembling an army. The nobles were instructed to call into service every able-bodied man, and the navy was made ready for war. Then, just before Easter 1066, a strange and frightening omen appeared in the skies over northern Europe. Day and night a blazing ball of light ripped through the sky for more than a week. The cyclical nature of Haley's Comet was not yet understood and its appearance seemed an ominous portent. The more superstitious spread tales about hails of fire and strange and unnatural births as rumours of impending disaster rumbled through England. Disregarding the fears of his credulous people, King Harold continued to prepare for war.
By midsummer the English army was, according to the Anglo-Saxon Chronicles: 'larger than any king had assembled before in the country'. Because the English Channel had been storm-tossed since early spring, Harold knew the first wave of invasions would come from the north, sweeping southward through the Danelaw, towards free England. Accordingly, late in August he began moving his army north towards York.
About 15 September the 200 Viking longboats carrying Harald Hardrada's invasion force landed on the north-east coast of England. Thousands of warriors slipped ashore to meet up with the forces of Tostig, who had fought their way across the length of England. The confederates then marched on York where they slaughtered the local militia and laid down terms of surrender to the city, retreating about 10 miles eastward to the village of Stamford Bridge to make camp and await an answer from the city fathers of York.
On 25 September, even before the Vikings had established a defensible camp, the English army appeared, seemingly out of nowhere, and fell on the invaders with a vengeance. Hour after hour the two sides hacked at each other with swords, spears and vicious long-handled axes that could split a man from collarbone to pelvis with a single blow. By the end of the day, thousands lay dead or dying on the blood-soaked field. Among the dead were both Hardrada and Tostig. The first threat to Anglo-Saxon England was over, and centuries of terror at the hands of Viking raiders were effectively ended. Having lost more than a quarter of his army in that single day, King Harold moved the survivors to York to rest and regroup. But as the clouds of battle still hung over Stamford Bridge, the weather cleared over the English Channel.
Just three days after the disastrous defeat of the Vikings at Stamford Bridge, William of Normandy landed on the Pevensey coast of southern England near Hastings. With him were seven thousand men, more than two thousand horses and five portable wooden forts. It did not take long for word of this second invasion to reach the English army.
To King Harold's credit, after weeks of marching and intense fighting, the remains of his army was still largely intact. Hurriedly, he reassembled his men and sent out messengers to plead for more volunteers to join him in London. In a feat of incredible stamina the already beleaguered army marched the 250 miles between York and London in just eighteen days. Pausing only five days in London to collect his volunteers and supply his forces, Harold then pressed on southward towards Hastings, 40 miles away. As impressive as the feat was, before they encountered the Normans the English were exhausted from their long ordeal.
Even before the English had arrived in London, a messenger in the employ of one of William's relatives in England reached the Norman camp with news that the English king had: 'given battle to his brother and the king of Norway, killing both of them and destroyed their mighty armies. He now hastens towards you. ...' Duke William's commanders urged him to set up defensive positions and wait for the English. Confident in his cause and his men, William refused: 'I have no desire to protect myself behind any rampart, but intend to give battle to Harold as soon as possible.'
In a clever ploy to deprive his adversary of food, shelter and any hiding place, William began laying waste to the farms, forests and villages north of Hastings. He also sent out messengers to make contact with the English king. When a Norman envoy caught up with the English army south of London, he offered Harold an opportunity to surrender his crown and kingdom. King Harold's sentiments were much the same as William's had been when advised to dig in. According to one chronicler, he replied, 'We march at once, we march to battle. May the Lord decide this day between William and me, and may He pronounce which of us is right.' The stage had been set for the most pivotal battle of the early Middle Ages.
Just after nine o'clock in the morning on 14 October, the two sides came within sight of each other about 7 miles north-west of the town of Hastings. Hurriedly positioning themselves near the top of a low rise, the English took up battle formation. What the Normans were doing seemed to make no sense.
Like most armies of the day, many of the English rode to battle on horseback, but before taking up attack formation they dismounted. A man could not swing a war axe from horseback and horses were too awkward, and too valuable, to be ridden into battle. The Normans did not seem to understand this. Fascinated with all the latest technology and tactics of warfare, William of Normandy had long since incorporated the use of stirrups to enable mounted cavalry to hold their position in the saddle while fighting. He had also picked up the concept of using massed contingents of archers as a force separate from either cavalry or infantry. In his drive to make his army the most modern and efficient in western Europe, William had also incorporated a new weapon called a crossbow into his archery units.
The Norman archers stood in units at the front of their battle lines; the infantry positioned behind them, while the cavalry waited at the rear. The English arrayed themselves in the accepted manner of the period, with warrior nobility at the centre of the line flanked by units of levied commoners on either side, with a few archers scattered randomly among the ranks.
Norman archers opened the battle by unleashing volley after volley of arrows and crossbow bolts into the English line – the deadly missiles slamming through the shield wall protecting the front ranks of soldiers. To their credit, despite this horrific punishment the English line held. Next, William ordered a massive infantry charge. If the English could be kept too confused to regroup, the Norman cavalry could move in and destroy them before a counter-attack could be organised. But the English stood their ground and mowed down the Norman infantry with a hail of spears. The few survivors were then cut to pieces with swords and long axes. According to the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, the battle was so terrible that 'the noise of the shouting could barely be heard over the clash of weapons and the groans of the dying'. William of Normandy now saw that the English would not collapse as easily as he had hoped. To urge his men forward in the face of this punishing defence, William and some of his cavalry rode into the thick of battle, shouting and exhorting his men to greater effort.
Somehow, in all the confusion, William's horse was killed. Word spread among the Normans that Duke William himself had been slain. Confused and apparently leaderless, the Norman line began to falter and fall back. Seizing their advantage, the English pushed forward, heedless of the safety of maintaining a solid defensive line, driving the frightened Normans before them.
Realising what had happened, William tore off his helmet, grabbed another mount, raised himself up in his saddle and shouted that he was unharmed. In a desperate attempt to regroup the cavalry for a concerted charge, William and his mounted knights withdrew slightly. Thinking a rout was in progress, the English drove deeper into the sea of Normans. There was no longer any order on the field. When the Norman cavalry had reassembled, they rode headlong into the midst of the enemy. Only minutes before the cavalry engaged the English, Norman archers unleashed a final, massed volley of arrows. In less than two hours the hopes for a free Anglo-Saxon England were shattered.
Nearly all the English nobility lay dead, including two of the king's brothers and the king himself; his body was so horribly mangled that his men could not identify him. Leaderless and defeated, the Anglo-Saxons surrendered to William of Normandy, now the Conqueror of England.
After the battle, King Harold's mother and his mistress, the beautiful Edith Swansneck, managed to identify the king by sorting through the mountain of corpses one at a time. Among his many other wounds, it is likely that King Harold had been shot through the eye with an arrow during the final volley from the Norman archers. Despite the women's pleas, and the queen mother's offer of gold equal in weight to her son's body, William would not give them the dead king for a decent Christian burial. There would be no martyrs to stand between William and the throne of England.
William, Duke of Normandy, may have become William I, Conqueror and King of England, but he had made no friends in his new realm and he knew it. His next job was to 'pacify' the land and control what William referred to as 'the fickleness of the vast and furious population'. But William understood the art of domination as thoroughly as battlefield tactics. Like most early medieval princes, he ruled essentially by terror. To consolidate his power, he devastated the land of anyone who might even conceivably put up resistance, systematically destroying the ancient Anglo-Saxon kingdoms and duchies and wiping out remaining Viking strongholds in the Danelaw, so recently freed by King Harold's victory at Stamford Bridge. Anglo-Saxon noblemen were stripped of their titles and nearly all land was confiscated to be divided among the Norman lords.
Rather than waste time and resources trying to take London in a straight assault, he simply devastated the surrounding land for miles in every direction and sat down to wait for the city to capitulate. His tactics were so brutal, even by the standards of the day, that one of his closest supporters, Ordericus, was appalled by the devastation: 'William in the fullness of his wrath ordered that the corn and cattle, with all the farming implements and provisions, to be collected on heaps and set on fire.' For months, the Normans laid waste to such vast tracts of land that the resultant famine would not subside in some areas for seventeen years. The compiler of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle prayed 'may God will an end to this oppression'.
If all this were not enough, to make certain his new subjects did not forget who controlled their country, William began a programme of castle building that would last for the rest of his life. Most of these early castles were little more than one or two wooden buildings inside a series of wooden palisade walls, which could serve as supply depots and redoubts for army patrols. Thanks to all the free Saxon labour he now commanded and an average construction time of only three to four months apiece, within a few years there were somewhere in the neighbourhood of eighty castles dotting the English countryside.
But above all, William knew, as had the Romans and Anglo-Saxons before him, that the key to controlling England was controlling London. It not only guarded the mouth of the Thames estuary, but major roads from every point on the island converged on the capital. London alone boasted three of the new wooden fortresses. William chose the best situated of these London strongholds as his base of operations.
When the Romans moved into Britain in the first century AD they made London, which they called Londinium, the administrative centre of the province. Surrounding the city with more than 3 miles of stone wall 8 feet thick and 20 feet high, they constructed a massive fortress in the south-east corner to protect the town and the Thames harbour. Although the Romans abandoned Britain in the fourth century, many of their fortifications remained and William set about repairing the surviving sections of wall around London, building his timber castle on the foundations of the ancient fortress.
Excerpted from Tales from the Tower of London by Daniel Diehl, Mark P. Donnelly. Copyright © 2012 Daniel Diehl and Mark P. Donnelly. Excerpted by permission of The History Press.
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Table of Contents
Plans of the Tower of London, twelfth to twentieth century,
Part I: Building a Castle and a Kingdom (1066–1485),
The Axe, the Arrow and the Wailing Monk: William the Conqueror and Brother Gundulf,
Dangerous Liaisons: Wat Tyler and the Peasants' Revolt,
A Family Affair: The Princes in the Tower,
Part II: State Prison of the Tudors (1485–1603),
The Warden, the Wolf and the Woman: John Wolfe and Alice Tankerville,
Treason in the Bedroom: Queen Katherine Howard,
Nine Days a Queen: Lady Jane Grey,
The Devil's Dancing Bear: Bishop Edmund Bonner and Cuthbert Symson,
The Spymaster: Francis Walsingham and Anthony Babington,
Part III: Turmoil and Treason (1603–1800),
Gunpowder, Treason and Plot: Guy 'Guido' Fawkes,
A Right Royal Heist: Colonel Thomas Blood,
The Bloody Assizes: The Duke of Monmouth and Judge Jeffreys,
The King Over the Water: William and Winifred Maxwell Lord and Lady Nithsdale,
The American (P)Resident: Henry Laurens,
Part IV: A Home for Spies and Tourists (1900–1950),
The Black Book: Sir Roger Casement,
The Weatherman: Josef Jakobs,