Friday 13 August 2010

Normans, Saxons And Danes

The BBC has gone strong on The Normans. As ever the need to simplify and push a party line or two means that a lot is missed out. They give us Saxons, then Normans. The reality of the 11th Century is that it was very complicated and there are also The Danes as well. The fable below, 4600 words long, might explain it better than the BBC. But it is very rude in parts, has extreme stereotyping and is calculated to offend as many people as possible.


Eadric looked into the wooden bowl held between the knees of the man sitting beside him. He did not like it at all. The man evidently could not wait for a cut off one of the animals being turned on one of the several spits to be given the attention of the many cooks for spices and refinement, or the cold meats of the table and had resorted to a dish more commonly taken by the slaves or lepers.

Wulfnoth, looking up from his stirring and cutting, saw the corners of Eadric’s mouth turned down, and winked, not so much in an act of friendship but almost as a challenge. “Good old Saxon food this!” he declared, “None of your modern Danish muck.” He pulled out a piece of heavily chewed meat, rubbed it on his nose to check that the bristles were soft enough to ease between the teeth, and then put it back into the bowl to gather up some of the beaten oats and nettles that filled out the dish.

“All this smoking, curing, messing up, and spiced tastes. Get out into the forest and hold of a good wild pig. Then have the ears fried in goose fat for an hour and that’s what is fit for the King and Queen, and not all this other stuff. Ham off the bone indeed, and a rot gut called wine, and a Danish beer brewed from goats piss. Real food and Real Ale is what I want, this lot gives me an ache in the bladder.”

He began to eat again, and Eadric was grateful. The assembly had a number of large Danes, well equipped with swords and knives, and rather more dangerous, smaller ones with their double headed axes. Now that Knut had fastened his grip on England, one had to be pleasant to the Danes, it might be difficult, but it was safer. An unwise comment, as well as good ale, could leave you legless in the fullest sense of the word.

This was not an ordinary gathering, a hall feast for a marriage or to celebrate a temporary peace before the next round of battles and treachery amongst the nobles. It was a deeply religious occasion in the names of both the King and Queen. Knut and Ymme had come with a clutch of senior clergy to bestow offerings on the Abbey of the New Minster, the Blessed Virgin Mary and St. Peter, and had called all those of high rank, together with a token few brought in from the lower ones for form’s sake, to join in the celebrations.

A new extension had been built to house the Golden Cross of Knut, with two golden images of saints, both festooned with precious stones, and more relics of the holy ones. There were enough bones to fill a small ossuary. The Queen’s Chaplain, Reinbald, had been blessed by a visitation of a Moorish trader from Tripoli, where the bottom had fallen out of the market for the remains of saints, and who by great good fortune was offering two for the price of one.

The relics were all presented well in decorated caskets boxes of rare Asian woods, tastefully studded with the teeth of unknown martyrs. A seal of approval was attached asserting their authenticity from the Bishop of Atlantis. For only the active males of two Essex vills, deemed by Reinbald to have been Pagan in their beliefs, so marketable as galley slaves, the Abbey of the Minster would have best relic profile in the English pilgrim trade. Alnoth, the Abbot was out of his skull with joy, shared by the Archbishop of Canterbury, Aethelnoth, and even Aelwine, holy Bishop of Winchester.

The only sour face was sat on a lower bench with a group of impertinent Housecarls; Reinbald, who the Bishops detested as much as he envied them for their position and preferment. He had spent too much time in Rome for their liking, and spoke of strange ideas. They were all fervent in their loyalty to Rome, so long as the current Pope did not bother them too much with the odder notions coming from the East.

As the afternoon wore on it became clear to Eadric that Wulfnoth was too ready with wrong words. He held recondite views on religion and politics, as well as the proper relationships between the many tribes that resided in England. It did not seem to matter to him that this was a Moot of great moment, the occasion of confirming a new Royal Hall, built of stone, high and pillared, and featuring the latest conveniences, a stone floor, glass windows, and a tile roof that would never rot.

Wulfnoth did not like the modern building styles. They cost a great deal too much, were troublesome to maintain, and the great number that the Queen Ymme was giving to the Churches meant too much land was being taken from the warrior classes, one reason of many that explained why he was a subject of the Danes and no longer a Saxon landholder. Others, notably the fastidious Franks and Normans began to be restless at his complaints.

They were the Queen’s guests who should be given every courtesy so Eadric moved to calm them down. “He’s barking mad, spent too long in the Forest staring at pigs arses. Just pity him and take no notice.” The Kings Shield Bearer, who had moved close, winked his agreement with Eadric. This was a feast not a Saxon fighting free for all.

When he resumed his place on the bench they had been joined by Aelgar, the Kings Minstrel. “Shouldn’t you be telling tales or singing?” asked Wulfnoth. The Minstrel shifted about and looked at the roof, “Later perhaps, the Queen has other ideas. But I am preparing a great Saga, it will last for many hours. It will tell of the old Gods, of the Rhinegold, The Valkyries, Siegfried and his sword Nothung, and then the Fall of the Gods. They will be held in thrall.”

Eadric gave him a soft smile, “Aelgar, don’t bother, you will be wasting your time. They only want this Frankish twittery plinky plonky, romantic, song and dance stuff. All soppy love and fondling, not a good old tale of blood and bare backed swiving with strong women.” “Ha,” Wulfnoth gave him a blow on the back, knocking the breath out of his lungs, “True all true, and now I go to show what I think of all these fool Danes and fancy Franks.” He went to the wall and relieved himself, paused, and then for good measure added a few stools, by a long way the smelliest that Eadric had encountered for some time.

The many fires in the Hall had added heat to an already warm and sultry day. The air hung heavy enough outside and had become still. Wulfnoth, a man who had a great deal of flesh on him beyond ordinary human needs was sweating very heavily. But Eadric saw that while the drink was warming his temper, his mind remained crafty. Doors had been opened to let out smoke, but the air that came in was beginning to stir and becoming damp.

Wulfnoth moved his head about, and began to grin like an ass. He stood, and it seemed that his belly almost propelled him forward into the centre of the Hall. “Oh, this a fine place,” he roared, “A very fine place, very pretty, and it cost many a penny. But it will not stand as our Saxon Halls stand, it is foreign stone, weak and shaky and it will fall.” “Villa Regalis they call it! What’s that then? It sounds like something nasty you get from a randy monk!” Some Housecarls began to laugh, but the frozen look of the Queen did not encourage the others to join them.

“This is not a place for the King to rule from, it’s a harlot’s house where the priests can tell you when and where to piss and poke.” The clatter of talk fell away, this was not good to hear, it was insulting to the High Table. But Wulfnoth went on, “I call on the ancient god of my tribe, Donner, grandson of Not, daughter of the Giants, to bring his hammer to rest here and tell us that this is a great wrong.”

The Hall was now silent, but then a buzz of anger rose. As men began to rise, the storm broke, the lightning hit a corner of the roof, shattered a part and blew some of the stonework out of the wall, leaving a wide crack jagged though the masonry.

Reinbald was quick to see that there was the possibility of affairs going badly wrong. With the many warriors from different lands, together with a mob of thirsty monks. A battle could ensue and the inevitable casualties lead to recriminations and feuds for generations. For the Great King of a Christian Empire to have a bloodbath on the occasion of the sanctification of his New Hall would not only impair Reinbald’s prospects of preferment, but lead to a collapse in the political structure of a shaky collection of fiefdoms.

He strode to the centre of the dais, ignoring the proprieties of deference to the King’s Table, lifted his arms and began to preach the Word of God, calling on the storm to cease. As he hoped, the thunder abated as the storm moved on and then he made a quick calculation as to the time of day.

Crossing the fingers at the end of his upraised arms Reinbald moved to a spot under the hole in the roof, did his trance thing, and began to chant. A break in the clouds, as happens in storms, delivered a shaft of light right on cue. Reinbald could calculate as well as preach. He was bathed in a beam of light. The assembly were held in awe, but now he needed someone to blame for this terrible event.

The advice he had given to the King about employing building workers from amongst the local population had been all too correct, but this was not the time to enter into a discussion about the appalling standards of Saxon and British builders, a scapegoat was needed within the minute before the glow of sanctity moved on in the heavens.

Wulfnoth gave a disrespectful long belch. It drew Reinbald’s eye and he recalled that Wulfnoth had told him in no uncertain terms that in his experience stone buildings were made to fall down, the Downs and many other places were littered with the remains of the old Romans. Wood and thatch were far more reliable. Reinbald, still affecting his trance, gave a loud cry of pain and pointed to Wulfnoth. For a moment Eadric thought it was him who had been fingered and shifted well away from the priest’s gaze.

“There is the creature of Satan who has brought this upon us.” Reinbald gave a few cold shivers, “He and his demons have sought to destroy the Holy Hall of the King, he is a foulness of utter horror who is the enemy of God and us all.” Eadric did think that Reinbald had a point about the foulness, but did not care to argue about the general interpretation. As the Housecarls moved towards Wulfnoth to take him, he lurched towards the bench snatching an axe from a stupefied Dane.

It was a brief and nasty encounter. Wulfnoth showed himself surprisingly adept for one now a churl taking out three Housecarls before the remainder cut him down. The body was picked up and carried before the King, Queen, and Reinbald. “Ah.” said Knut, who preferred to leave decisions on these matters to others. “What is he?” asked the Queen, who liked to have the social niceties observed when events like this occurred.

Reinbald needed no help, “He is a man of Pagan Evil, filled with heresy, and he and his familiars have done all the evil that has ever been done against you and the Holy Rule of our noble King and Queen.” Knut thought for a moment, and decided on a positive approach, “Yes, well, I suppose we must do something.”

Reinbald pointed to a fire at the end of the hall, burning well, with the spit unused. “The only way is to burn him, and then cast him and the embers into the river. This will bear him away to the ocean. The seas will bear him to the end of the Earth, where he will fall over the Edge and into Hell where he will spend Eternity in the flames.” King Knut hesitated, wondering, Reinbald had spent a lot of time persuading him that the Earth was round, but this was religion and not science.

Knut turned to his Queen, “Sound’s fair enough to me, dear, what do you think?” “It must be; our priest has spoken for God.” replied Queen Ymme, clutching hard at the small gold box that contained a finger bone of St. Eadburga to give her purity, strength, and a reduction on the time to be spent in Purgatory . The remains of Wulfnoth were taken to the fire where they soon provoked a fine sheet of flame. “It’s always the same with a fat one.” muttered Aelgar the Minstrel to Eadric, “Go up like a torch they do.”

While they were watching Knut, ever curious, repeated the Queen’s question, but this time it was Aelgar The Minstrel on whom the King’s eyes rested. He had heard enough from Reinbald for the moment. Aelgar had been at Court for a long time and knew that boldness was the only way to deal with Knut, for all his studied politeness he would have your balls off in a trice.

“Wulfnoth was once a Freeman Warrior, one of the Shield Wall of Aeldorman Osgod who fought valiantly for his King Aethelrede, and a Hundred Man of Doddington in Worcester. Taken in battle, injured, and then given into slavery to a man that was not worthy of him, he went into the Forest as Wolf’s Head with others. He was here to seek the King’s mercy on such a Feast Day when wrongs are put right and sins forgiven.” Eadric was worried, Aelgar was not only trying his luck, this was a challenge to Reinbald in the implications that the Laws of Hospitality had been broken, a grave sin in itself.

The priest was prepared already. “Yea, the Minstrel speaks truly, and by God’s miraculous intercession a wonderful and holy mercy has been done. The heretic has died quickly and at the hands of noble Christian men, and has been spared the agonies of age, or being flung into a pit of dogs, or being blinded and starved, as can be with those who deny the Lord.”

The Housecarls were content that justice seemed to have been done, but for Reinbald to call them noble Christians was a new one. At least Wulfnoth once had been a Free Warrior, which explained his abilities with an axe, so the bad business had a smack of honour about it, unlike dealing with impertinent slaves.

The rain had ceased, the air had freshened; there was the feeling of a rebirth. The remains of the fire and Wulfnoth were shovelled into a tub and carried down to the edge of the river, and the assembly followed to make sure of his departure. The tub was emptied and washed out, ready to be filled with ale, and Reinbald took himself onto a hillock to pray again at the Queen’s behest. Purification was necessary.

Reinbald positioned himself carefully so any rays of the sun would appear over his right shoulder and launched into yet another diatribe against sin. Amongst the Housecarls there were whispered wagers made on how long he was good for. The sky did indeed begin to clear, and as the assembly turned congregation looked beyond Reinbald they saw the clouds begin to lift and chase. Suddenly a dozen clumps appeared together in motion flickering along at speed.

The whispers turned to one secret word. “Valkries!” As the clouds lifted further and the light played around the sky a great square of piled cumulus rose high and white, and far away. The word became “Wallhalla!” As Reinbald went into high fervour he was delighted to see the rapt attention of the assembly, as was Queen Ymme, just behind him. Knut was not so certain, looked back over his shoulder, and understood.

The clouds had told the Housecarls that Wulfnoth was a Hero amongst the Gods, even a Wolsung child of Wotan. So by this token Reinbald was a dwarf man and a smart tongued Nibelung whose tongue would make a meal for a river rat. He saw that his warriors had instinctively moved into the form of the Shield Wall and their eyes had begun to stare. Their stillness and silence was deafening.

The implications worried Knut, and if any of his Housecarls had noticed as they slipped into the Trance of War, he was not now in a good mood. By the time Reinbald had finished, and the winner of the wager was the one who had made the most pessimistic forecast of the time taken by the sermon, the clouds had moved on and the sky was quiet.

Aelgar whispered to Eadric, “Perhaps it is time for music to sooth the minds of men, a tale of an Enigma and its variations in the mind, something to make them wonder?” “Just bloody shut up, you would only make matters worse,” was Eadric’s terse reply.

The King turned to his Queen and Court, and told them he needed a few words with the men, to ensure that nothing else untoward would happen to spoil the remains of the day, there as still much to eat and drink. As the rest of the company drifted back to the Hall, King Knut cast a cold eye on the men, and in a moment changed from the diplomat and courtier to the war leader and commander.

It came as a relief to the Housecarls, they could understand this, as opposed to the business of words with flourishes, and the hypocrisies of politics. “Right, you lot, stand up straight for once and listen to me, I know what was going on and I understand why. If I’ve told you once I’ve told you a dozen times, we are now Christian believers, all of us, baptised, for life, and we are told the life after death. Walhalla is out of the question in spite of all the obvious attractions.

More important, there is only one God, and it is his Church that makes the rules. Any objections, or any other ideas, and that means trouble, and a great deal of it. Now the Queen is very particular about God and the Church, so we all, I said all, so that means me as well, have got to be very, very, careful. My Queen is a most noble person, but she has brought many priests and monks from over the water whence she came, and where they go, their brothers and cousins follow. Believe, if that lot get into power and start to run things, none of you will have a team of oxen to call his own, let alone a spear and shield. And there will be heaps of stone in every Parish and Manor, and who will pay for it?”

The King paused for a moment, there were few enough silver pennies about for them to want to give more of them up for religion. The King lifted his voice, “The next thing will be one of them for King after I am gone, and only a mad man would want that. So you lot just watch it, I don’t want to have to send you on your way because of religious technicalities. Got it? The Queen has sons with others who might succeed One, the Prince Eadweard is over the water running with the Norman warlords and the Queen is the daughter of the Duke of Normandy.

If it goes badly the Normans will be over here and they will have all their relations with them. You don’t want that, if you have any sense, they have a greed for land that surpasses all understanding. So as to what went on today you keep it in your hearts, and not in your mouth. I do not, repeat not, want The Queen or the bishops, or that holy son of a whore, Reinbald, to find out. Now have you got that, and got it clearly?”

He took breath, and there was the edge of venom in his voice, “Now I have been trying to get our friend Reinbald a bishopric in his home land, but they do not seem to want him. Nor does anyone else over there. The one thing the Pope may agree is that he goes to Ireland on a Mission to remind them again of their errors about the date of Easter and other theological things they think they know best about, but don’t. So any of you make a mistake and then you are one of his body-guard, whether you like it or not, now do you understand me?”

The Housecarls stood very still, this was no mean threat, the King was always as good, or as bad, as his word. There had been talk. It was difficult to believe, but it was that Ireland was worse than the Welsh Marches. They all wanted to stay in Hampshire. The food supplies were better and more reliable, the property values enhanced, and the odd cross channel plunder a useful source of income. The Housecarls and others beat their shields and cried “Aye”. Knut was the King they had, they did not want another; at least while he kept winning.

The King turned to Eadric and Aelgar, it was a deeply worrying moment for both of them, not least because the King had beckoned to his Writer and other advisers, as well as motioning the Kings Shield Bearer to remain in his place. The King sniffed, called Aelgar forward and offered his hands, Aelgar placed his within them, and bowed, very deeply. “The Queen has a great interest in music, but not alas, yours. In these matters, I bow to her, out of husbandly love, and not because, as the mean minded suggest, it keeps her nose out of my affairs. I honour your craft, but it is time for you to move on, and I fear a little distance away, as our great friend Reinbald has taken a dislike to you. Your praises of male carnality and the Ancient Sagas are a little too forward for his taste. You will be made Free, but for what there is the question.”

The King turned to his Shield Bearer. “Well?” “Sad, my King, he’s no use as a warrior, but can keep the churls happy.” The King conferred with the others. “So, it seems that Wulfnoth’s former lands given to Gorm of Samso are available again, the Manor of Leigh with Bransford, and a few other pieces in the Hundred.” “What happened; did Wulfnoth’s family take revenge?” asked the Shield bearer. “No, they went off to serve the Scots and have carved out lands there, and the waters seem to have made them mad. Gorm was fool enough to go to a feast at the Hall of the Prince of Powys in Wales, and did not return. Well bits of him did but not quite all, so the land needs a master.” The King spoke, “Aelgar can be given Holy Orders and a dispensation to marry, so fix him up with a wife and some pennies and get him on the road as fast as possible. And make sure that if he has no sons to inherit, then the writ makes it clear that the lands revert to the Crown.”

For once Aelgar know when to keep quiet, he made his obeisance and retreated into the furthest corner possible before the King changed his mind. Now it was Eadric’s turn, he looked the King in the eye, then bowed, and went on to bend a knee. “Well, what about this friend of Wulfnoth?” The Shield Bearer smiled, “He’s a Good Man, loyal to his King and his family, he can wield sword or axe, but is best with the spear. He tried to control Wulfnoth, and gave his honour to all your guests, but no man could have done better. Wulfnoth was too far gone.”

The King looked his Shield Bearer for a full minute, but he did not flinch. Knut offered his hands to Eadric who took them. “So?” asked the King, asked the question of his scrivenors, the talk went on for a while in a dog Latin that others did not understand. The King then turned back to Eadric, “Ulf our brave and loyal Thane has lands in Cambridge that are lordless, the locals have been at each other’s throats again. Book reading always causes trouble. He needs a man with a steady mind and a strong arm. You will be Free and hold lands of Ulf under my writ. We will give a wife and slaves, and as many pence as necessary.” The King turned to the Shield Bearer, “Well?” The twist to the smile gave the clue to thing Kings thoughts.

The Shield Bearer nodded firmly. The King continued; he was prepared. “Tolig of Suffolk has daughters to spare. Young Gunnor is a fine one, built for duty and bedding, for suckling the young, and not too holy. You will be Eadric the Spear Shaker, and your seed shall be many and fruitful.” Eadric could not believe his luck, he had been much affected by the loveliness of Gunnor every time she bent forward. “So?” said the King to Eadric, who was now on both knees, “I am the loyal warrior and a man of my King and of Ulf, for all my time and word” he said and the business was finished.

“Well, it won’t be the same, but I might get some peace and quiet.” Said Aelgar relieved that he was still in possession of his vital organs. “With luck, and a good marriage, you could be one of upper classes, and even have a horse,” responded Eadric, who was voicing his own hopes. Given the rate of attrition in the wars, a survivor on the right side could go far. But Aelgar could not help reverting to his trade, “Yea, and I could write a tale of chivalry, of our mighty past, and great matters of the noble knights and their ladies, a tale of Arthur the King, and all the wonders of his age.”

Eadric winced, “Just forget it, what happened on this sod patch many moons ago will be of no interest to anyone. And if your are thinking of using our Anglo-Saxon tongue, forget that as well, the only languages that will be known in the far future will be Latin, the Norse, Frankish, and whatever they speak in the distant places. How many of our rulers speak it now? It is only us poor fools who cannot wrap our mouths round the sounds of others.” Aelgar did not like what Eadric had said, but he was always right.

They walked back to the Hall, a little reluctantly, but they were both thirsty. Silent at first, it was Aelgar who was the first to speak. “Now Caracatus; that might make a song of love and duty.” Eadric shook his head. “Well, something holy, a piece on The Apostles?” Eadric made the same motion and this time pulled his face. “About being young, a Wand of Youth”, “Age? A Dream of Gerontius?” “For the warrior shipmen, Sea Pictures?”

Eadric almost shouted, “No, no, no, your minstrelsy is past, it is over, ended, finished! You are now a landed Freeman in service to your Lord. Go to your holding, take a wife, and a few other women in service, raise crops, brew ale, rear livestock, breed children, and forget the past, it is done with.”

Aelgar walked quietly for a little way, but could not resist a last voicing of his thoughts. “Just a long poem? About ordinary men and women?” he muttered. Eadric the Spear Shaker stopped for a moment; raised his hands and said with a threatening but kindly tone of finality, “Aelgar, Aelgar, you are becoming too silly, so what is this tale to be?” The reply was slow in coming, “All’s well that ends well?”

Eadric the Spear Shaker shook his head gave Aelgar a light tap on his shoulder with his fist, and they moved on into the gathering darkness together, humming an old tune.

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