About Ellen Hawley

Fiction writer and blogger, living in Cornwall.

The Great Fire of London and the search for culprits

The 1666 wasn’t a good year to spend in London. First an outbreak of plague killed some 100,000 people–20% of the city’s population. Then, when the plague  was starting to wind down, the Great Fire devastated the place. You begin to wonder if England shouldn’t take out insurance against years that end in ‘66: 1066, 1666. I should be gone well before 2066, so someone else can deal with whatever happens, but if you’re still here, remember, I did warn you.

Before the fire, the part of London that lay inside the old Roman walls was, physically speaking, a medieval city. The streets were narrow and got narrower as you looked up, because the buildings jutted out over them, floor by floor, until you could have passed your across-the-street neighbor a beer from your upstairs windows to his or hers. If you liked your neighbor, had enough beer, and were in possession of long arms, because that description might involve just the slightest bit of exaggeration. But the space was, in all tellings, very narrow. A young and athletic fire could jump from house to house without much effort. 

Screamingly irrelevant photo: strawberry leaves after a frost.

But the fire had a lot more than narrow streets to help it along. London’s old buildings were made of wood, the walls of poorer houses were waterproofed with tar,  and what light people had at night came from candles and oil lamps. They cooked and warmed themselves with wood or coal fires. So they were rich in open flames.

And did I mention that they didn’t have fire brigades? Once a fire broke out, all people could do was form a line and pass buckets of water along so that whoever was closest could keep pouring. Unless–as happened once in Northampton when a pub caught fire–they passed barrels of beer from the cellar up to the roof.

Talk about your dedicated drinkers. They did save the pub, but they must’ve wept over the waste of good beer.

Some early water pumps did exist, but the streets where the fire started were too narrow for them to get through, they couldn’t squirt all that much water anyway, and their squirting range was so limited that they had to get dangerously close to the fire to hit it. 

And London’s water pipes were made of wood. According to a BBC article, they didn’t have enough access points, so people broke into them to put out the fire, making holes where the water drained out. In other words, the water supply disappeared just when it was most needed. By the time the fire was over, the city’s water supply system was one of the casualties.  

But if London was a fire trap–and it was–so were other towns and cities. In A Time Traveller’s Guide to Restoration Britain (that’s a book–remember books? they’re wonderful), Ian Mortimer provides a handy list of devastating fires that didn’t get as famous as London’s but that fed on much the same combination of problems.

The Great Fire of 1666 wasn’t London’s first. As early as the 1170s, William Fitzstephen wrote that London had two “pests,” by which he meant recurring problems: “The immoderate drinking of fools and the frequency of fires.” In 675, the first St. Paul’s Cathedral burned down, and it burned down again in 1087, taking a good chunk of the city with it. It burned a third time in the Great Fire, making me wonder if St. Paul isn’t the patron said of pyromaniacs.

As a fire safety measure, in the twelfth century the city ordered that thatched roofs be removed. But thatch wasn’t just traditional, it was also easily available and cheap, which made it hard to replace. We can pretty much assume that the order wasn’t effective, because thatch was banned again in the next century, after a fire in which 1,000 people died. Or 3,000. Take your pick. Either way, a lot of people. 

But neither ban was complete. A thatcher’s website cites instances of thatch being used, sometimes legally and sometimes illegally. Still, by 1666 there was less of it, and if you’re looking for something to blame the Great Fire on, thatch isn’t your culprit–or not your main one. 

You might try blaming a dry summer, although it will have lots of company as potential and partial culprits by the time we’re done. The fire broke out in September, when the city’s wood was tinder-dry. 

Or you can blame James I, because sixty years before the fire his order that l new London buildings be made of brick or stone was a partial measure. It only applied to new buildings, not existing ones. And the order was repeated several times, so we can figure it wasn’t a roaring success. And although he may have given some thought to fire, he also had his eye on the timbers that were used to build houses. He wanted them to build ships for the navy. 

But let’s put the search for culprits on hold and talk about the fire itself. It started in a building with a tiled roof–a bakery in Pudding Lane. Almost every tale about the fire mentions Pudding Lane. The baker was Thomas Farriner (or Farrinor, or Farynor–spelling was a liquid back then), who supplied biscuits for the navy. 

On the night of the fire, Farriner put himself to bed without tucking his fire in properly and singing it to sleep. Sparks ignited the firewood stacked beside the oven and the house caught fire. Or they ignited some flour sacks. Or–and this is the version I lean toward–no one knows exactly what they ignited or even whether it was his fault. What matters is that something caught fire. Farriner, his family, and (in some tellings) one servant escaped through an upstairs window and along a roof edge, but one servant (or in some tellings, a bakery assistant) died. In some versions, she was too afraid of heights to go out the window. I have no idea if that’s true, but since I’m useless with heights, I’ll try to remember the lesson tucked inside that story next time my city’s on fire.

Now back to Pudding Lane. According to History Extra and the Hearth Tax records that it quotes, the bakery wasn’t on Pudding Lane at all, it was on Fish Yard, which was just off Pudding Lane. But that’s not the kind of  name writers long to drop into a story, so we’re stuck with Pudding Lane. 

From the bakery, the fire spread to neighboring houses, including an inn, where it set the straw and fodder alight. You can get rid of all the thatched roofs you want, but horses still need food and bedding, and horses were the internal combustion engines of their day. No city could function without them. 

Or that’s the sequence one tale tells. Another talks about a 1979 excavation, which found that a house near the bakery had been storing twenty barrels of pitch (that’s tar–in other words, highly flammable stuff) in the basement, so even if you could have magicked all the horses, straw, and hay out of London, it would have still had plenty of stuff to burn.

It’s not that those two versions of the tale are at odds, just that you can follow a story in any number of directions. The one thing you can’t do is include everything. 

At this point, the people in either Pudding Lane, or in Fish Yard, were still dealing with a localized fire–something Londoners had plenty of experience with. They woke the neighbors, poured water, and did what Londoners always did, but this time it wasn’t enough. 

Standard procedure would have been to destroy houses around the fire to keep it from spreading, but the mayor wouldn’t act. Without either an order from the king or the permission of the owners, he’d have had to pay the cost of rebuilding them our of his own pocket.

I don’t know how many owners would’ve given permission when they could have withheld it and hoped that either the fire would miss them or the mayor would act without their permission and have to pay for the rebuilding, but it didn’t matter: Most people in the area were renters, whose permission didn’t matter, so the houses stayed in place, and they caught fire, and the mayor became a handy scapegoat–as did those first fire fighters who decided they’d lost the battle and abandoned it to save their families and whatever belongings they could gather.

From the Pudding Lane area, the fire spread to the warehouses along the river, with their stores of coal, lamp oil, tallow, rope, and everything else that could make a fire happy. 

Melted bits of pottery found in the basement that held the barrels of pitch led archeologists to say that the fire’s temperature reached 1,700 degrees Celsius. If you measure in Fahrenheit, that translates to insanely hot. More than hot enough to melt stone.

Eventually, the king issued an order and houses in the fire’s path were pulled down using the hooked poles that were standard for the job, but the winds were high and the firebreaks were too small to stop the fire.

Before long, people were fleeing in massive numbers. Some headed for the Thames to get away in boats, others filled carts with their belongings, and many left on foot. And as refugees poured out, sightseers poured in to watch and (some of them, anyway, ranging from the famous Samuel Pepys to an otherwise unknown fifteen-year-old schoolkid) leave written records of what they’d seen. 

St. Paul’s burned for the third time and lead melted off the roof and ran in the streets–or as Historic U.K. puts it, the acres of lead form the roof “poured down on to the street like a river.”  

Eventually, larger firebreaks were created by using gunpowder to destroy houses.

The fire burned for four days before it was contained. It left the ground hot enough to scorch people’s shoes, and some spots smoldered for months. Eight-nine parish churches had burned (or eighty-seven, but let’s not quibble), along with theGuildhall and assorted jails, public buildings, markets, and city gates, not to mention 13,000 houses. Hundreds of thousands of people were left homeless. Some 436 acres, containing 13,000 houses, was destroyed.

By some estimates, only six people died in the fire (or eight, or sixteen), but guesses run as high as several thousand.  Considering the number of homes destroyed, the higher number sounds convincing. Nobody sorted through the wreckage to count the dead. If you were poor or the middle-class, you died uncounted.

Not long after the fire was contained, a French watchmaker, Robert Hubert, was charged with starting it. He pleaded guilty and was convicted, even though the evidence he gave in court was contradictory, the jury considered him deranged, and the Lord Chief Justice told the king he didn’t believe a word of the man’s confession. What the hell, they hanged him anyway and the crowd tore his body to pieces.

It’s important, in these situations, to have someone to blame–preferably a foreigner.

Once bit of business was taken care of, evidence emerged that he hadn’t gotten to London until after the fire started. A parliamentary investigation declared the fire an accident. Hubert, however, remained dead.

When the city began to rebuild, a law ordered that  “no man whatsoever shall presume to erect any house or building, whether great or small, but of brick or stone.” If anyone ignored the rules, their house would be pulled down.

The U.K. star count 2020

If you live in the U.K., you can help the Countryside Charity take a survey of how dark the nighttime skies are. They’re asking people to go outside after 7 pm between February 21 and February 28, wait till their eyes adjust to the dark, and report how many stars they see inside the Orion constellation. You don’t need binoculars or telescopes or anything other than yourself and the skies and a clear night.

That last part–the clear night–is going to be hard. I can’t remember the last one we had.

It’s as useful to report from a city where you’d be lucky to see a single star as it is to report from the darks of Bodmin Moor. It’s all information. Follow the link above and you’ll find the instructions (there aren’t many) and a way to report your count.

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As long the weather’s come into the conversation, I might as well tell you that as soon as Britain’s hit by a storm big enough to earn itself a name, it will be Storm Ellen. Batten down the hatches.

Alfred the Great: his world and his legend

King Alfred–who you might know as Alfred the Great–could reasonably have expected not to become a king. He was the fourth, or possibly the fifth, son–it’s all a little hazy when you’re looking back that far–of King Aethelwulf of Wessex. But King Alfred he became, although we could also call him Aelfred, or if you want to go completely Dark Ages about it, Aelfraed.

Anglo-Saxon spellings make my teeth ache.

In addition to all those sons, there was a daughter in there somewhere, but she was married off to another Anglo-Saxon king in a political marriage and history doesn’t pay much attention to her. Did you ever wonder why so many women develop a sharp edge? It’s not because of her particularly, but she’s not a bad example of what happens.

Irrelevant photo: A camellia, stolen from something I posted last year. This year’s are out, though.

Back to our point, though: Aelfred was the king of Wessex from 871 to 899 and nobody at the time called him the Great. King was plenty, thanks.

What kind of place did he grow up in and rule? To start with, Anglo-Saxon England was split into an assortment of kingdomlets. Don’t try to count them because the numbers keep changing, especially once the Vikings invaded. They swallowed one, then another. 

Pretty much anything you read about the period talks not just about the Anglo-Saxon kings but also about sub-kings. The sub-kings don’t actually come into our tale, but they’re worth a mention because it’s interesting to know that power was divided up in ways we’re not used to. A king had to move carefully, balancing out the sub-kings’ strength, interests, loyalties, tempers, competence, and possibly incompetence.

Now let’s set them aside and talk about Aelf’s family background, and you should feel free to make fun of the names here because (a) I will and (b) nobody speaks Anglo-Saxon English anymore, so you won’t be stomping on any sensitive toes. 

Aethelwulf (that’s Aelfred’s dad, in case you’ve lost track of him already) fought the Vikings and had a bunch of kids. Then his wife died and he married a twelve-year-old, Judith. Unlike the sub-kings, she’ll come back into the story.

AethelW went on pilgrimage, taking youngest son Aelfred, who’d have been four or five, with him and leaving older son Aethelbald in charge of the kingdom. When he came back a year later, AethelB said, “Sorry, Dad, but I’ve kind of gotten to like being king. Now butt out.”

Instead of starting a civil war, AethelW divided the kingdom with AethelB. Then he died, as people will. Son Aethelberht, not to be confused with Aethelbald–let’s call him AethelB2–took AethelW’s throne. Then AethelB1 married AethelW’s widow, who in our times still wouldn’t have been old enough to buy herself a beer. 

Yes, it was all very weird back then. 

Before anyone had time to say, “It seems perfectly sensible to us,” AethelB1 died and AethelB2 glued the two kingdoms back together. Then he died and brother Aethelred followed him onto the throne. 

This sounds like the fairy tale about the billy goats gruff and the troll under the bridge, doesn’t it? Except instead of the youngest brother coming first, the oldest ones did.

I’m happy to report that neither AethelR or AethelB2 married poor ol’ Judith. She went home and later married someone unrelated to either her first husband or this tale. I hope she was old enough to order a beer by then, but I wouldn’t put any money on it.

And we still haven’t gotten to Aelfred.

You may have noticed that Aelfred is missing a syllable that all his brothers got: He’s plain old Ael-Something while they’re Aethel-Somethings. It’s like that when you’re the youngest kid. By the time you get yourself born, your parents are tired. They don’t have the energy to hand out extra syllables. And in a lot of families, money’s tight. In this one, they didn’t seem to be, but they were running short on thrones. If Aethelred hadn’t died, Aelfred would’ve had to sit on a stool or a bench, just like everyone else.

By the time Aelfred got himself a throne, with a wooden back and arms and everything else that signaled his importance, the Vikings had taken over most of England. The Anglo-Saxons called the Vikings the Great Heathen Army, because (a) they weren’t Christian and (b) it’s a lot scarier to be slaughtered by someone of a different religion than by someone of your own religion.

Aelf’s first task was to fight the Vikings, and we’ll skip the list of battles. We don’t have space for enough detail to make them interesting, and without detail you wouldn’t remember them anyway, would you? 

Okay, maybe you would. I wouldn’t.

What matters is that Aelf lost, and by 878 he’d been pushed back to a corner of the Somerset Levels, where he and a small band of fighters hid in the marshes, working to gather reinforcements. Eventually he had enough warriors to go on the offensive, defeat the Vikings, and as part of the peace settlement demand that Guthrum, the Viking king, become a Christian. Religion doesn’t seem to have been about deeply held beliefs but about–well, it strikes me as being more like joining a football team and agreeing to follow its rules. 

The Vikings eventually all converted to Christianity. Did that bring peace between the Anglo-Saxons and the Vikings? Hell no. It just meant Christians were fighting Christians instead of non-Christians. It meant everyone who died was killed by a co-religionist. You can see how that was a great improvement.

The peace between Aelf (for Wessex) and Guthrum (for the Danelaw, which is what they called Viking England) held for a while, but it wasn’t a stable peace, and Aelf built up his military, fortifying towns, building up a navy to face up to Danish ships, and generally preparing for the time they’d be at war again.

Danish, by the way, was another way to say “Viking.” 

Aelf’s theory was that the Viking invasion of England was a result of Anglo-Saxon England’s moral failings, so he set out to remedy them, in part by focusing heavily on education. One step was to demand that anyone in government had to be literate. Another was to set up a court school for–okay, the article I’m working from here  says “noble-born children.” I haven’t found anything that says the wording only meant boys, but I haven’t found anything that says it didn’t. Women were freer under the Anglo-Saxons than they would be later, under the Normans, but that’s a relative freedom, not an absolute one. 

The school also welcomed “intellectually promising boys of lesser birth.” 

It was under Aelf’s rule that the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle was begun. This was a year-by-year account of events, and it continued to be written for some time after the Norman invasion in 1066. It’s one of our few sources of knowledge about the period and a remarkable piece of work.

Aelf also wrote an ambitious law code, which was a mix of new and pre-existing law, threaded through with bits out of the Bible. In it, he wrote, “Doom [meaning judge; it’s pronounced dome] very evenly! Do not doom one doom to the rich; another to the poor! Nor doom one doom to your friend; another to your foe!”

We can learn from this that he was even-handed and just and placed a high value on exclamation marks. Assuming, of course, that they weren’t added by the translator, because however antiquated that sounds, it’s not Anglo-Saxon English.

Aelf was either wise or canny enough to appoint a biographer, which is one reason he’s come down to us as perfect in all ways. Aelf’s biographer wasn’t independent; he worked for Aelf. That can’t help but color a writer’s work. So Aelf was pious, brave, learned, truthful, a man who ate not five but six helpings of fruits and vegetables every day. Even kale, which wasn’t in the supermarkets yet. Supermarkets weren’t even in the supermarkets yet.

And I say that without diminishing what his stature. He seems to have been a far-sighted guy, but let’s not get suckered into the propaganda.

In spite of all his wonderfulness, Aelf was never made a saint, and this meant he disappeared from sight for a while. When the Normans took over England, they played up their connections to the Anglo-Saxon kings, but they leaned toward the ones the Church had made saints of, ignoring the ones who were merely saintly. That meant they ignored Aelf.

Much later, when England broke away from the Catholic Church, finding a saintly-but-unsainted king who just happened to have had a good biographer came as a gift to a country struggling to redefine itself. And there Aelfred was, unsullied by Catholic approval. They dug him out, turned him from Aelf (or Alf, by then) into Alfred the Great, and used his writings and translations to prove that the Anglo-Saxon church had been pure before the Normans came along and made it Roman Catholic. As Barbara Yorke puts it, “With a bit of selective editing, [the Anglo-Saxon church] came to bear an uncanny resemblance to Elizabethan Anglicanism.” 

The Tudors weren’t the only folks to do some selective editing. In later centuries, Aelf was rewritten in an assortment of ways no one would have predicted. The Victorians held him up as an example to kids–the perfect, and probably deadly dull, person they should all model themselves on. (Go hole up in a swamp and eat kale, children, until you’re strong enough to defeat the Vikings.) He was also dragged into racist arguments to demonstrate how great the Anglo-Saxons were and how inferior everyone else was. 

How did Alfred feel about all this? He was past caring–or at least past letting us know his feelings and opinions. I mention it to remind us all that historians aren’t impartial reporters of history. Some start with the story they want to tell then choose their facts to fit it. Others play fair, but even they shape the story. 

And I do the same thing. If you don’t shape the story, you don’t have one, you have a scrambled mess of facts.

Besides, I’m not a historian, I just play one on the internet.

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My thanks to the Tiny Potager’s oldest kids for suggesting both this topic and next week’s.

Coronavirus, British quarantine, and the Eyam plague village

As we watch the spread of coronavirus, it’s sobering to remember that when the bubonic plague swept through Europe–this was in the middle ages and later–people (understandably) fled, and some number of them (inevitably) carried it with them to new cities, towns, and villages, helping it meet new people and (in many cases) kill them.

Silly people, you’ll think, even as you wonder if you’d have the strength to take your chances in a plague-hit town. (You’ll notice how neatly I tell you what you think. So neatly that you barely notice I’m doing it.)

Isn’t it good that we’re wiser these days? Because what did countries that were free of the corona virus do when they understood the danger it carried? Why, they evacuated their citizens–or as many of them as they could–along with whatever germs they were carrying. 

And what did Britain do about the possibility that they’d brought the virus home with them? Its first move was to tell them to self-isolate–in other words, to stay home. 

Marginally relevant photo: Pets are wonderful germ vectors. You pet them, you leave your germs on their fur, then–faithless wretches that they are–they go to your nearest and dearest to get petted, because one person is never enough, and they bring your germs with them. This particular germ vector, in case you haven’t met him, is our much-loved Fast Eddie. You’re not seeing him at his fastest.

Could they go out to buy groceries? Well, people do need to eat. But after that, seriously, people, no contact. Except with the people they live with, of course. And with the person who delivers that pizza they ordered, who’ll only be at the door a minute. And of course anyone their families, roommates, and the pizza person come into contact with. 

In fairness, figuring out whether to impose a quarantine isn’t an easy call, and I’m grateful that it’s not mine to make, but if you wonder why the virus has spread you might start your wondering with that decision.

The country moved to more serious quarantine measures not long after, but a newspaper photo of a bus that took plane passengers to a quarantine center shows one person dressed like an astronaut to prevent contagion and right next to him or her (or whatever’s inside the suit) a bus driver dressed in a red sweater, a white shirt, and a tie, without even a face mask–the effectiveness of which isn’t a hundred percent anyway.

As for the tie, I’ve never worn one or figured out how they’re tied, but I do know that germs aren’t afraid of them. Contrary to common belief, they weren’t invented to prevent the spread of infection. Breathe in a germ and your tie won’t be tight enough to keep it from reaching your lungs. 

So what have we learned since the medieval period? A lot about how diseases work, but less about how to contain them than we like to think. The coronavirus isn’t the plague and doesn’t seem to be the flu epidemic of 1917 either, but it’s instructive to see ourselves flounder.

So let’s talk about a village that, when it was struck with the plague, did exactly what it should have done. Heroically.

In 1665, a tailor in the village of Eyam (pronounced eem; don’t ask), in Derbyshire (pronounced something like Dahbyshuh, at least in the Cambridge online dictionary’s audio clip, although I’m sure other accents take it off in different directions; ditto). Where were we before I got lost in pronunciation? A tailor received a bale of cloth from London. It was damp, and his assistant, who was only in Eyam to help make clothes for an upcoming festival, hung it in front of the fire to dry. That woke up the fleas who’d hitched a ride from London.

The plague had already taken root in London and the fleas were carrying it. The assistant, George Vickers, was the first person in Eyam to come down sick.

Between September and December, 42 people in Eyam died of plague. That’s out of a population of somewhere between 250 and 800. Whichever number’s closest to right, that’s a lot of people in a small place, and a lot of them were getting ready to do what people did in the face of the plague, which is flee. The local museum estimates the population as at least 700.

Enter William Mompesson, the village rector, who felt it was his duty to contain the plague. He’d been appointed only recently, and he wasn’t popular. To make the least bit of sense out of that, we have to take a quick dive into English history and religion. I’ll keep to the shallow waters, so stay close.

Charles II–the king who followed England’s brief experiment with non-monarchical government and anti-Church of England Protestantism–introduced the Book of Common Prayer to the English church, and the Act of Uniformity dictated that ministers had to use it. Most of Eyam, though, had supported Cromwell and his vein of Protestantism. In other words, they were anti-royalist, anti-Church of England, and anti-Act of Conformity. So Mompesson represented everything that pissed them off, politically and religiously. 

And Mompesson must have known that, because he approached the man he’d replaced, Thomas Stanley, who was living on the edge of the village, “in exile,” as Eyam historian Ken Thompson puts it. The two of them worked out a plan and in June they stood together to present it to the village: They would, all of them, go into voluntary quarantine. No one would leave. No one would come in. The earl of Devonshire, who lived nearby in the obscenely lush Chatsworth House (although it may not have been quite as overwhelmingly overdone at the time), had offered to send food. 

Mompesson’s wife, Catherine, wrote in her diary about the day they presented the idea to the village: “It might be difficult to predict the outcome because of the resentment as to William’s role in the parish, but considering that the Revd Stanley was now stood at his side, perhaps he would gain the support necessary to carry the day.”

People had misgivings, she wrote, but they agreed. 

August was unusually hot that year, meaning the fleas were more active, and five or six people died per day. The husband and six children of Elizabeth Hancock died within a space of eight days and she buried them near the family farm. And “buried” here doesn’t mean she stood by the grave demurely, wearing clean black clothes while someone else shoveled dirt in. It means that she dug the graves, dragged the bodies to them, and tipped them in single handed. People from a nearby village, Stoney Middleton, stood on a hill and watched but didn’t break the quarantine to help.

Most of the dead were buried by Marshall Howe, who’d been infected but recovered and figured he couldn’t be reinfected. He was known to pay himself for his work by taking the dead’s belongings. Or he was said to, anyway. Village gossip worked the same way then as it does now. There are no secrets, but there’s a hell of a lot of misinformation.

Mompesson wrote that the smell of sadness and death hung over the village. He assumed he would die of plague, describing himself in a letter as a dying man, but it was Catherine, his wife, who died of it. She had nursed many of the sick. Mompesson survived.

By the time the plague burned itself out, 260 villagers had died, giving Eyam a higher mortality rate than London’s. No one can know how many people the quarantine saved, but the guesswork is “probably many thousands.”

Mompesson was later transferred to another parish, where his association with the plague terrified people and initially he had to live in isolation outside the village.

Meanwhile, in our enlightened age, a couple of British-born brothers of Chinese heritage shared an elevator with someone who announced, “We’ll be in trouble if those guys sneeze on us.” Other people who are either of Chinese heritage or who assumed to be report having eggs thrown at them, having people move away from them, and being harassed on the street and online.

The Anarchy, or what happens when everyone’s named Matilda

The Empress Matilda–or Maud, if you like; she’s called both–was born in 1102. She was the granddaughter of William the Conqueror and formed one half of Henry I’s small clutch of legitimate children. That matters, so keep track of it. Henry had 22 illegitimate kids, so a busy boy was he, and that also matters, but in the spirit of the times, not as much.

If you ever wanted to be a princess, scrub that thought from your head. It wouldn’t have been all floofy little dresses and as many desserts as  you wanted. Matty was betrothed at 8 and married off at 12 (give or take a few months) to the Holy Roman Emperor, who just to confuse things was also named Henry. 

Did I mention that Matilda’s mother was also named Matilda? It’s beyond me how anybody know who anybody was talking about, or even who anybody was. 

We’ll skip over the marriage: the dispute with the pope, the excommunication, the arrests of people you’ll never keep track of anyway. Aren’t most marriages like that? He –that’s Henry-the-husband; her Henry–died, they had no kids, someone else became the Holy Smoke Emperor, and Matilda was shipped back to her father’s court in a UPS van. 

Irrelevant photo: apple blossoms–a photo I stole from last spring. I’d tell you it was to remind us all that spring is coming, but really it’s because I’m low on photos and who’ll notice?

What were the choices for a rich widow then? She could remarry or she could become a nun. During some part of the medieval period, a rich widow was pretty much the only woman who could own land and have a bit of power in her own right, but this may not have been that time. Or it may not have held true if you were a king’s daughter, which is to say a useful piece in dad’s game of checkers. One source I read claims those were her choices. We can trust it or we can treat it with caution. I’m short on reliable sources about Matilda. The solid ones–the BBC, Britannica, things like that–get to the point but don’t have much fun along the way. I’m not sure how far to trust the ones that are willing to dish the dirt.

Anyway, home Matty went. She was now in her early twenties and her brother–the legitimate one, the one who was Henry-the-father’s heir–had died in a drunken shipwreck (that’s the crew and passengers who were drunk, not the ship), leaving Henry-the-father with one official daughter, scores of illegitimate kids, and no heir who matched the qualifications listed in the job description. There was no precedent for either a woman or an illegitimate son to inherit the throne.

Except of course for William the Conqueror, a.k.a. William the Bastard, but he didn’t inherit his father’s throne–dad was a duke, not a king–he snatched one for himself, which is a whole ‘nother undertaking.

Henry chose his daughter as his heir (keeping open the possibility that he might yet have a legitimate son) and had his barons swear (more than once) that they’d support her. Then he married her off to a French count, who at least brought a new name to the story: Geoffrey.

The marriage didn’t sit well with either of them. Geoff was fifteen (or fourteen, or possibly thirteen; dating either events or people doesn’t seem to have been an exact science at the time) and a mere count. And after an emperor, who has time for a count?

But Geoff’s father’s lands–which were soon his–bordered Normandy, which belonged to Henry. So jump into bed, kids, and think of England (or Normandy, or Anjou), because that’s what matters here. The marriage, from Henry’s side, was all about protecting Normandy’s borders.

I’m not sure what Geoffrey’s objections to the marriage were, but he and Matty seem to have hated each other on sight. Matilda was said to be arrogant and hard to like, but I’m not sure how much to credit that. It’s often said about women in power when it wouldn’t be said about men who behaved the same way. On the other hand, a woman–especially in that period–who hoped to wield power would have had to come on much stronger than any man if she hoped to get heard. So she could easily have overshot the target.

On the third hand, she could also have been a nasty human being. It happens.

Whatever was behind it, she pissed people off. 

Matty’s new sister-in-law had been married to Matty’s brother–the brother who died. Her name was also Matilda, so we’ve got two Matildas who are sisters-in-law twice over. That has nothing to do with the story, but I thought that was worth mentioning.

But I’m taking too much time with this. Mattie and Geoff had kids, in spite of not liking each other. Henry-the-father died (a surfeit of lampreys, which his doctor had warned him not to eat; bad king; see what you’ve gone and done?). And now we get a second person with a new name: Stephen, cousin of Matty, who popped up with the claim that on his deathbed Henry had changed his mind and named him (Stephen) his (Henry’s) heir.

Are you with me?

All this happened in France, so everyone who hoped to claim the English throne had to rush back to England. Except Henry. Being dead excused him from that. 

Stephen, not being pregnant, got there first. Matty, being (a) pregnant and/or (b) along with her husband caught up in some fighting in Anjou, didn’t. Different sources cite different reasons for the delay. One mentions (c) Henry’s entourage having to take time to bury Henry. Take your pick. Or choose several. Stephen got there first and had himself crowned while Matty was still stuck in Normandy. 

Those were the first steps toward civil war. Scotland invaded, since the Scottish king just happened to be Matty’s cousin. Matty’s half-brother Robert rebelled, backing his sister’s claim to the throne. The Welsh rebelled. Parts of the southwest rebelled. 

This might be a good time to mention that Stephen’s wife was also Matilda–Queen Matilda, not to be confused with Empress Matilda or the empress’s mother Queen Matilda. 

Stephen sent Queen M.–that’s his Queen M., not the previous Queen M.–to face down the rebels in Kent. I mention this because a lot is made of women during the period not being able to lead armies, leaving Empress Matilda having to work through proxies. I don’t know that Queen M. she rode with the army, but she was in charge of it.

From here on, we’ll simplify things. Matty and Geoffrey held most of Normandy (which was in English hands, in case you’re not confused enough yet) and in 1139 they invaded England itself–only Geoff stayed home to keep Normandy safe and warm. It was Matty and brother Robert and whatever troops they had who invaded. 

Stephen besieged Matty in Arundel castle. Then, mysteriously, he let her go and had her and her knights escorted to  the southwest so she could join up with Robert. They built a power base across the southwest. 

Matilda captured Stephen and was on the verge of being crowned queen. Stephen released his subjects from their oath to him. But she demanded taxes and refused to negotiate and London rebelled.  Or maybe that’s not what happened at all. “Sources are vague,” one somewhat vague source says. And here we have a second long-delayed link. I should’ve put a few in earlier, but this paragraph’ll do. Just to prove I don’t make this stuff up.

Whatever happened, a rebellion broke out and Matty and her supporters barely got out of London in one piece.

Matilda was besieged twice more. Once she escaped across the frozen Thames, camouflaged in white. The second time, according to one source, she escaped disguised as a corpse. (“She was dressed in grave clothes and tied with ropes onto a bier, and carried thus as a corpse to the safety of Gloucester.”) I haven’t found another source to confirm that, so I’d recommend a grain of salt to go with it. 

In spite of the setbacks, barons defected to her side. They held land in both England and Normandy, and backing Matilda meant Geoffrey wouldn’t seize them. But don’t get excited about it. Lords changed sides multiple times as the war went on. 

Queen Matilda (that’s Stephen’s Matilda) led the forces against Empress Matilda, eventually capturing Robert-the-brother and trading him for Stephen-the-king and three baseball cards. 

Robert died. Matty’s son Henry (yes, really) got old enough to join the fighting and the war swung back and forth at varying levels of intensity, with lords used it to settle feuds of their own, just in case it wasn’t chaotic enough.

Eventually, Stephen recognized Matty’s son Henry as his successor, edging out his own son William. (Matty’s brother–the one who died–had also been a William.) 

Stephen died before anything could upset the arrangement.

The period’s known as the Anarchy. It lasted almost twenty years, from 1135 to 1154.

Let’s give the last word to the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, whose description is more or less contemporary. It takes a minute to drop into the style, but it’s worth the bother, because gives a flavor of what it was like to live then.

“When King Stephen came to England he held his council at Oxford, and there he took Roger, bishop of Salisbury, and Alexander, bishop of Lincoln, and the chancellor Roger, his nephews, and put them all in prison till they surrendered their castles. When the traitors understood that he was a mild man, and gentle and good, and did not exact the full penalties of the law, they perpetrated every enormity. They had done him homage, and sworn oaths, but they kept no pledge; all of them were perjured and their pledges nullified, for every powerful man built his castles and held them against him and they filled the country full of castles.

“They oppressed the wretched people of the country severely with castle-building. When the castles were built, they filled them with devils and wicked men. Then, both by night and day they took those people that they thought had any goods – men and women – and put them in prison and tortured them with indescribable torture to extort gold and silver – for no martyrs were ever so tortured as they were. They were hung by the thumbs or by the head, and corselets were hung on their feet. Knotted ropes were put round their heads and twisted till they penetrated to the brains.

“They put them in prisons where there were adders and snakes and toads, and killed them like that. Some they put in a ‘torture-chamber’ – that is in a chest that was short, narrow and shallow, and they put sharp stones in it and pressed the man in it so that he had all his limbs broken. In many of the castles was a ‘noose-and-trap’ – consisting of chains of such a kind that two or three men had enough to do to carry one. It was so made that it was fastened to a beam, and they used to put a sharp iron around the man’s throat and his neck, so that he could not in any direction either sit or lie or sleep, but had to carry all that iron. Many thousands they killed by starvation.

“I have neither the ability nor the power to tell all the horrors nor all the torments they inflicted upon wretched people in this country; and that lasted the nineteen years while Stephen was king, and it was always going from bad to worse. They levied taxes on the villages every so often, and called it’ ‘protection money’. When the wretched people had no more to give, they robbed and burned the villages, so that you could easily go a whole day’s journey and never find anyone occupying a village, nor land tilled. Then corn was dear, and meat and butter and cheese, because there was none in the country. Wretched people died of starvation; some lived by begging for alms, who had once been rich men; some fled the country.

“There had never been till then greater misery in the country, nor had heathens ever done worse than they did. For contrary to custom, they respected neither church nor churchyard, but took all the property that was inside, and then burnt the church and everything together. Neither did they respect bishops’ land nor abbots’ nor priests’, but robbed monks and clerics, and everyone robbed somebody else if he had the greater power. If two or three men came riding to a village, all the villagers fled from them; they expected they would be robbers.

“The bishops and learned men were always excommunicating them, but they thought nothing of it, because they were all utterly accursed and perjured and doomed to perdition.

“Wherever cultivation was done, the ground produced no corn, because the land was all ruined by such doings, and they said openly that Christ and his saints were asleep. Such things too much for us to describe, we suffered nineteen years for our sins.”

Happiness, depression, drunks, and codpieces. It’s the news from Britain.

Let’s start with Brexit, since January 31–the day this post goes live, in case you’re getting here late–is the last day that Britain is still a member of the European Union.

To mark the occasion, Boris Johnson announced a fundraising campaign to rush the repairs on Big Ben so it could ring out when Britain crosses that wild Brexit frontier. The cost was estimated at £500,000. He called it “bung a bob for a Big Ben bong.”

Don’t expect me to give you a word-for-word translation of that into American. Basically, it means “give money” and “I’m cute.”

Then, without the alliteration, a government spokesperson said there might be, um, problems in accepting public donations. Cue assorted forms of confected outrage. The newspaper I deliver to a neighbor (nice neighbor, godawful paper) ran a headline about a Remainer stitchup over Big Ben’s bongs. Because that’s what remainers are about: keeping that clock from ringing.

The headline didn’t get the clock ringing but it saved a bit of Johnson’s alliteration.

The aforesaid hapless government spokesperson was asked if Johnson would apologize to the people who’d already contributed to the crowdfunding campaign. He declined to say either that he would or he wouldn’t. Several times over.

But maybe church bells could ring out all over Britain.

Well, as it turns out that ringing bells, or not ringing them, is governed by church law. Who knew? And  only parish priests get to decide when and whether to ring them. A quick survey by the Guardian didn’t indicate much enthusiasm for it, either on the part of the clergy or the bellringers.

An Exeter Cathedral spokesperson said, “The Church of England in Devon is the church for everyone, whether they voted leave or remain. Church bells are first and foremost a call to worship and, in line with the Central Council for Church Bellringers, we do not feel, in principle, they should be rung for political purposes.”

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Rumor has it that Boris Johnson has banned the word Brexit from 10 Downing Street as of January 31. It’s not clear why. Maybe it’s his way of addressing people’s Brexit exhaustion: Let’s just not talk about it anymore.They’ll also stop talking about negotiations with the EU and pretend everything’s taken care of. Maybe that’s what people really voted for: not to fix anything, just to stop hearing about it.

So what does the new 50p Brexit coin say? “Peace, prosperity and friendship with all nations.”

Seriously. An earlier edition of 1 million was melted down because it had an exit date that Johnson, in a fit of enthusiasm, promised but then changed–October 31. How much did that cost? Nobody’s saying, although a fair number are asking. In an trial run, a thousand were minted with an earlier date that Theresa May missed.

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One last bit of Brexit news: Bloomberg Econmics estimated that since the referendum the cost of Brexit has been £130 billion, and if expects another £70 billion to be added to that by the end of the transition period. But hey, it’s only money, right?

If you’re interested in how Brexit is likely to affect business or in the issues around regulation and what alignment with EU regulations means, check out the Brexit Blog.

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The Church of England’s House of Bishops has issued advice saying that sex should be for married heterosexuals only. Which makes sense. If god had wanted anyone else to have sex, he would have given them sexual desires and clearly he didn’t.

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Designers have introduced high heels to men’s fashion. One said they made her customers feel “more powerful and sexy.”

The last pair of heels I ever owned–or ever will, and this was back in 1804 or thereabouts –made me feel like I was going to fall down the stairs. That was a split second before I did fall down the stairs. It was sexy as hell. And very powerful. In spite of which I doubt the trend will transfer from the catwalk to the allegedly real world, but if it does, guys, you’re welcome to my share of the damn things, although you’ll probably need a larger size.

I also read that designers are reintroducing the codpiece. You know the codpiece? It’s “a pouch attached to a man’s breeches or close-fitting hose to cover the genitals, worn in the 15th and 16th centuries,” according to Lord Google. A highly exaggerated pouch. Henry VIII wore one. He would have had room to stuff his falconer’s gloves in there, and the falcon along with them. One paper said they’re intended to induce awe. I’m sure they will if you can only get people to stop laughing.  

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Irrelevant photo: A camellia blossom. In January.

A study of UK students reports that focusing on happiness could leave a person depressed. The students who valued happiness most registered as more depressed.

There’s a lesson in there somewhere.

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Let’s shift countries for a few entries: An octopus escaped a New Zealand zoo by breaking out of its tank and slipping down a drain to the ocean. A zoo spokesperson said the octopus wasn’t unhappy at the zoo–they’re solitary creatures–just curious. 

I’d need to hear that from the octopus before I feel certain of it, but it didn’t designate a spokesperson before it left.

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In the US, a drop-down menu on the Department of Agriculture’s website listed Wakanda, the imaginary country in the movie Black Panther, as a free-trade partner. What do the US and Wakanda trade?  Ducks, donkeys, and dairy cows. Possibly more, since those all start with D and I’d hope they’d trade up and down the full alphabet. I’d check but once it hit the papers, someone erased the evidence.

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A chef in France lost one of his three Michelin stars because a Michelin inspector claimed he’d substituted that English horror, cheddar, for good French reblochon, beaufort, or tomme in a souffle. That threw the chef into a deep depression (he might want to focus less on being happy; I’m told it helps), which in turn threw everybody involved into court.

He lost. Not because anyone proved that he’d used the dread cheddar but because he couldn’t demonstrate that losing the star had hurt his business. A “degustation” menu at his restaurant costs 395 euros.

Me? I like cheddar. Think how much money I’m saving.

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Coming back in the UK, a five-foot corn snake named Allan broke out of his vivarium (no, I never heard of one either; it’s a bit like an aquarium but without the water) when his people were making one of those Christmas trips that no sane person would make without a five-foot snake in the back seat. 

I’m not sure why they noticed that Allan had gone slither-about, but when they did they pulled off to the side of the motorway (if you’re American, that’s a freeway) and started pulling the car apart. Not figuratively: literally. They pulled out the seats and assorted other parts until they found him curled around the gear shift, trapped. They buttered it but he still couldn’t get loose.

This is sounding more and more like I’m making it up, isn’t it? I’m not. 

They ended up with the Fire and Rescue Service and the Royal Society for the Protection of Animals on the scene, one group cutting through a bit of metal and the other using a damp towel to protect the snake from the heated metal the first group was cutting. 

Allan is fine. There’s no report on how the car is.

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After a contestant on a British quiz show, Celebrity Mastermind, misidentified Greta Thunberg simply as Sharon, Thunberg changed her Twitter handle to Sharon. 

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Gardeners in at the Cambridge University Botanical Garden spent years trying to get the Bulbophyllum phalaenopsis orchid to blossom. It finally did in December, and it smells like rotting cabbage. Or a mix of dead rats and smelly socks. Or rotting fish. Choose one randomly, since it didn’t bloom for long and we’ve all missed the chance to describe it ourselves.

Isn’t that sad?

Try not to focus so much on being happy and you won’t feel as bad about it.

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Dominic Cummings, who as far as I can tell is Boris Johnson’s brain, placed an ad inviting weirdos and misfits (the two nouns are quotes, but I don’t like littering a paragraph with quotation marks around a bunch of bitsy words) to apply for jobs at Number 10 Downing Street, where both Boris and his brain work. Cummings has also (a) called for civil servants to be tested regularly to make sure they’re up to doing their jobs and (b) said he regularly makes decisions that are “well outside” his “circle of competence.”

He has not been tested to see whether he’s up to doing his job, and the weirdos and misfits ad may have been outside his circle of competence, because a few days later Number 10 announced that Cummings won’t be doing any recruiting outside of the usual procedures.

Security may also be outside his circle of competence, because he was using a gmail address in his ad instead of the secure government address he’s supposed to be using. Gmail’s known for reading users’ emails, and in some situations for making them available to third parties. 

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In January, a 26-year-old Plymouth man denied wounding with intent to cause bodily harm after allegedly throwing a seagull at someone’s head. He didn’t enter a plea to the charge of attempting to injure a wild bird. 

You’d think you could find out more about a story like that, but I haven’t  been able to. Except that it happened in a cafe, that he’s due in court in April, and that he was wearing a smart suit at his bail hearing. You know: the stuff that really matters.

My thanks to Phil Davis for this one. I can’t begin to tell you how much poorer my life would have been if he hadn’t let me know about it.

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My last news roundup included a story about mysterious packets of money appearing in the village of Blackhall Colliery. The people who left the  money have now outed themselves, but anonymously. Just enough to reassure everyone that the money was meant to be found and that the finders are welcome to keep it.

The two people who left the money aren’t related, aren’t married, aren’t local, and seem to have started out separately before joining forces. They made a point of leaving the cash where it would be found by people who most needed it.

The search for Robin Hood

Almost everyone in the English-speaking world (she asserted on the basis of no evidence whatsoever) grew up on stories about Robin Hood, that dashing outlaw of Sherwood Forest who fought the Sheriff of Nottingham and assorted other medieval baddies, who stole from the rich to give to the poor, and who did it all while looking fabulous in green tights and a nifty little hat with a feather. 

Yeah, that Robin. You’ve met him in movies, in comic books, in novels. His arrow never missed its target, his tights never bagged at the knee, and his merry men never got cold or hungry or even wet, living out there in the forest. 

Was he a real person?

Hmm. Probably not–or at least there’s no evidence that he was. The giveaway is those tights that never bagged or sagged. Who thought that was possible? 

But let’s take a quick run through the legends and see what we’ve got. 

Irrelevant photo: no idea what this is called, but it adds some color to the winter.

The first mention that’s come down to us is in a 1377 manuscript that’s now in the British Museum, In this version he was born around 1160 in South Yorkshire, in Lockersley, which might well be modern-day Loxley. 

But don’t get too attached to that. In another manuscript, he’s from Wakefield and fought in Thomas of Lancaster’s 1322 rebellion. The manuscripts do at least agree that he’s a northerner.

When you go into documents from the period, you’ll find an assortment of outlaws called Robin Hood, or called variations on the name. There’s one to be had in 1226 and another in 1354, and that seems to be a fairly random selection. It may have been a name many outlaws called themselves. Probably after watching too many movies, or possibly listening to too many ballads, because Robin may have been someone troubadours sang about. In Piers Ploughman (written in the late fourteenth century, a bit before The Canterbury Tales), a character says he knows the rhymes of Robin Hood.

We, unfortunately, don’t.

In the fifteenth (or sixteenth; I’ve seen both cited) century–and for all we know, earlier (or later; don’t ask me)–a Robin Hood-like figure showed up in May Day celebrations and took on an almost religious cast. Whatever that may mean. I couldn’t find anything more than a passing reference to that, and an assertion that it was the May Day games that kept the legend alive so that it came down to us. 

In his earliest form, Robin wasn’t a disaffected aristocrat but a commoner–a yeoman, which meant he was higher than a peasant but lower than a knight–and he treated the rich and powerful the way they treated the poor and powerless, which is to say he beat them, robbed them, and killed them. This wasn’t a sentimental era. Doing that would’ve made him an attractive figure.

It’s also in the fifteenth century that Robin starts to rob from the rich and give to the poor. In the Geste of Robin Hood, he says, “If he be a pore man, / Of my good he shall have some.” He makes rules about who can be beaten, robbed, and killed (bishops, archbishops, the Sheriff of Nottingham) and who can’t (peasants, yeomen, virtuous squires).

In this century, Robin not only kills the Sheriff of Nottingham, he: 

  • Version A: shoots him with an arrow, then cuts his throat.
  • Version B: kills him, then mutilates his corpse, using a knife–an act which, I’m sorry, would have spattered his clothes and mussed his tights.

Like I said, it wasn’t a sentimental time.

Why was Robin an outlaw? In early versions of the tale, he just was. It may have been so easy to transgress the law that no explanation was necessary. It’s only later that explanations start to turn up. For what it’s worth, just by living in Sherwood Forest, he would have been breaking the Law of the Forest, which kept people from putting the woodland to any productive use so the nobility could hunt in it. Acts forbidden to commoners included (but weren’t limited to) hunting, carrying a bow or spear (gotcha there, Robin), and cutting wood. 

Scholars can have all kinds of fun aligning Robin with assorted breakdowns of order and conflicts in English history: the conflict between the Anglo-Saxons and the Normans; the twelfth-century civil war later known as the Anarchy; or the fourteenth-century Black Death, Hundred Years War, and Peasants’ Revolt (it was a tough century). Not being scholars and not having to convince anyone that we know what we’re talking about, we can nod sagely at all of that and go on our merry way. Or we can write novels setting Robin in the middle of any of it and still sit safely at home eating ice cream.

In early versions of the tale, Robin grew old enough to become ill and went to Kirklees Priory, where his aunt was the prioress, to be treated, but Sir Roger of Doncaster–whoever he may have been–convinced her to kill him and instead of just bleeding him (which was a respectable way to treat the sick) she bled him to death. As loving aunties sometimes will with inconvenient nephews. 

You have  been warned.

By the sixteenth century, Robin had been domesticated by the nobility, although they weren’t in a position to offer him ice cream, so you should be able to outbid them if you want him in your novel. All they could offer was a promotion from yeoman to noble–something they must’ve felt they had to do if they were going to keep company with him.

And keep company with him they did. In 1516, Henry VIII and Catherine of Aragon’s May Day festivities featured a couple of hundred men dressed in green and one dressed as Robin Hood to lead them to the feast. 

This is when other characters start to appear: Maid Marian, Friar Tuck, all those folks. One article speculates that Maid Marian was introduced after the Reformation to make up for Robin’s devotion to the Virgin Mary having been edited out.

It doesn’t make a lot of sense but that’s not to say it’s impossible.

What does it all mean? An outlaw hiding in the wilds (Robin in the forest, Hereward the Wake in the fens) and wreaking vengeance on the arrogant and powerful is a powerful part of English lore. It’s natural enough that it would resonate commoners, especially peasants, who had little enough outlet for their frustrations. They couldn’t take vengeance themselves, so bring on the lurid tales.

Why it was taken up by the nobility is anyone’s guess. This is pure speculation, but I wonder if by Henry’s time they hadn’t tied themselves up with so much protocol and good manners that pretending to be an outlaw living wild and unwrinkled in the forest, answering to no one, bound by no one’s rules, and never missing a shot would have appealed to them.  

In recent times, Robin’s been played by everyone from Errol Flynn to Daffy Duck and Kermit the Frog.  That at least needs no explanation.

Hereward the Wake fights the big bad Normans

We’ll get to Hereward toward in the end. We need some background first, so let’s start at a key point in English history: 1066, host year for the Battle of Hastings. It cost less than London’s 2012 Olympics and had a more significant impact, even once you allow for the Olympics’ legacy of gentrification.

What happened? The Normans–descendants of the Vikings who’d settled in Normandy, which shared a name with them, however reluctantly–invaded and defeated the English king, and along with him all the king’s horses and all the king’s men. 

Anglo-Saxon England (which for our purposes, however illogically, includes the heavily Scandinavian parts of England; I want us to remember that they’re there) now had a new proto-king (he hadn’t been crowned yet), William, who hung around Hastings for a while, picking bits of eggshell off the beach where King Humpty had shattered while waiting for the English nobility to come bow before him.

Irrelevant and out-of-season photo: A red hot poker. Not an actual one, you understand. A flower called that.

So far, so familiar to anyone who read a history textbook as a kid–or at least one that covered British history. The ones in my school never got around to 1066. It all happened so long ago and on the other side of a big damn ocean. They figured they could skip it and devote more space to–.

Um.

I’ve forgotten what they gave the space to. Something memorable. But never mind. What I want to talk about is what happened next, which wasn’t the Domesday (pronounced Doomsday) Book–that inch by inch and cow by sheep record of everything William was now the king of–but a series of rebellions. Which you’re  not likely to hear about unless you get interested enough to do some reading on your own.

I’m working here largely from David Horspool’s The English Rebel, which opens with English resistance to the Norman conquest, and also from a small but unwieldy stack of other books on English and British history. That means we’ll go linkless today. It’s the blogger equivalent of dreaming you’re on the bus naked: No harm’s done but it is disturbing.

What Horspool argues is that the rebellions shaped the conquest. It’s an interesting way to think about it. The rebels didn’t manage to get rid of William, but that doesn’t mean they had no impact. Even if it wasn’t the impact they wanted.

The first rebellion came together before William got to the capital. Its plan was to put Edgar the Aetheling on the throne, edging William out. Planting yourself on the throne and going through the ceremonies of being crowned were nothing more than symbolism, but that didn’t make they any less powerful. People believed in them.

Edgar the Aeth was the nephew of Edward the Confessor (that’s the king whose death set this mess in motion). He hadn’t been considered as a successor because of his age. He was born in 1051 or thereabouts, making him fifteenish in 1066. Or in John O’Farrell’s version (An Utterly Impartial History of Britain: or 2000 Years of Upper Class Idiots in Charge), he was thirteen. You noticed the “thereabouts” when I gave the year he was born, right?

Either way, he was young. On the other hand, it was strongly in his favor that he was still alive. And not a Norman.

The rebels gathered in London and waited for William. They included the archbishops and York and Canterbury; a couple of earls named Morcar and Edwin, and if that sounds like a BBC sitcom, it isn’t; “the citizens of London”; and a crowd of warriors so large that London couldn’t accommodate them.

Or so said a contemporary source, the Gesta Guillelmi. Detail and fussbudgetty stuff like accurate numbers weren’t the strong points of of medieval writers. Take it for what it’s worth. 

William encircled London and sat there till the rebels gave up and swore their loyalty to him. End of the first rebellion.

Two months after the Battle of Hastings, William was in firm enough control to have himself crowned in Westminster Abbey, and he just happened to surround it with his men. In a break with tradition, the crowd inside was asked, in English and French, if they acknowledged his right to be king. Everyone shouted their approval (it wouldn’t have been wise not to), and the shouting convinced the men outside that a rebellion had broken out. They did the only reasonable thing they could think of and set fire to the surrounding buildings. 

Who wouldn’t?

The fire spread and pretty much everyone fled the ceremony except for the terrified handful of people who had to finish consecrating and crowning. William stayed–no ceremony, no kingship–but was said to be shaking badly. A contemporary chronicle cites the event as the reason the English never again trusted the Normans.

Let’s assume from this that William and his men had reason to be on edge. As they spread their rule across their new country, they built castles, which worked as pegs to hold down the tarp they’d spread over the land. When Will went back to Normandy in 1067, he took the primary former rebels with him to make sure they didn’t get up to anything while he was gone. 

Will’s initial strategy was to rule the north of England–which he hadn’t conquered yet–through English appointees, but they tried raising taxes for him and that set off rebellions. In Northumbria alone, two of Will’s English proxies were killed and one changed sides. 

End of strategy. 

In his first five years, rebellions broke out in Dover, Essex, Hereford, Nottingham, York, Peterborough, and Essex, and most of them had the Aetheling (it means prince) as their focus, although a few focused on Danish royals or Eustace of Boulogne. 

No, I never heard of him either. 

Interestingly enough, Will didn’t have the Aetheling killed. He seems to have been far more forgiving of rebels from the nobility than from the everybody-else class. Take the Edwin of Edwin and Morcar. After his first rebellion, he was given “authority over his brother and almost a third of England.” But he was also promised a marriage to Will’s daughter and it didn’t materialize, which led him and Morcar to rebel again.

Horspool argues that a lot of the rebellions were a result of private discontents rather than what he calls patriotic ones, by which (I think, and I could easily be wrong here) he means more widespread discontents that might have united the rebels. He figures that the lack of unity cost the rebels their fight. O’Farrell, on the other hand, argues that England was still a fragmented place, with divided loyalties, which would have made a united resistance impossible.

That leads me to say that I have no idea what Morcar’s motives might have been and that I don’t know if his involvement in the next rebellion was a case of a couple of earls rallying people to rise up or a couple of earls riding on an uprising they did nothing to create. When Ed and Morcar gave up, though, Will accepted back into the fold again.

Having given up on sending English proxies into the north, he sent a Norman into Northumbria. On his first night in Durham, he and his retinue (somewhere between 500 and 900 men, according to contemporary sources, but I’d treat the numbers with caution) were killed. Then the rebels besieged the castle at York and killed Norman who’d been put in charge of it, along with many of his men. 

This was the turning point. 

“Swift was the king’s coming; he fell on the besiegers and spared no man,” according to the English monk Orderic Vitalis. 

At this point, the Danish king sent his sons, with a fleet made up of Danes, English, Poles, Frisians, Saxons (the kind from Saxony, not the English kind), and Lithuanians. They worked their way up the eastern coastline, eventually joining forces with some of the rebel groups, but after some initial success they retreated when William showed up in person. 

Horspool attributes that to a fear of facing down an annointed king. Annointing was the ceremony in which the church gave its oil-based blessing to a king, and people took it seriously. A king wasn’t just a pawn who’d gotten to the far side of the board and said, “King me.” He was church-approved and -tested. That’s where he got his divine right.

On the other hand, kings had been overthrown before and had slaughtered each other cheerily. Why that should have been an issue now I don’t know.

I can’t help wondering if the rebels were simply refusing to meet William on his ground, but that’s speculation. Don’t take it too seriously. It’s not like I have some hidden stash of information about this. 

Whatever the reason, they retreated, and when Will couldn’t find any Danes to fight in York, he lost it and “utterly laid waste and ravaged the shire,” according to the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle. He burned crops, killed livestock, destroyed villages and farms, and broke farm implements. Basically, he destroyed everything people needed to farm the land. Some sources reported that starvation drove people to cannibalism or to sell themselves into slavery just so they could eat. There was death on a massive scale. It was ten years before the north even began to recover.

It’s known as the harrying of the north.

And William again pardoned some of the leading rebels. You know–the ones with titles. 

That brings us to 1071, when Edwin and Morcar, the earls who never got a BBC sitcom named after them, joined a minor Anglo-Saxon noble (or gentleman in some versions), Hereward, in one of the last rebellions against Will. 

At roughly this same time, Will was reading through a printout of senior clergymen, crossing out the Anglo-Saxon names and penciling in Norman ones. It didn’t matter that printouts hadn’t been invented yet, or pencils: Will couldn’t read. You could hand him a piece of blank vellum and he’d get just as much out of it.

The point is that he sent a Norman to replace the Anglo-Saxon abbot of Peterborough, and we can safely guess that the new abbot came expecting trouble, because he brought 160 of his closest friends with him, and all of them were armed. Presumably he brought a prayer or two, but maybe I’m falling for a stereotype there.

Before he got there, though, Hereward joined forces with the Danes to sack Peterborough Abbey (probably–contemporary sources are hazy, remember). The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle says the rebels claimed they were doing out of loyalty to the minster, to deny it to the Normans.

Hereward used the fens–boggy, nearly impenetrable marshland–as his base and fought a guerrilla war. Then William paid off the Danes and they dropped out of the story, leaving Hereward on his own. He fought for over a year. 

Will eventually bribed some monks to betray (according to O’Farrell’s version of the tale) the route through the fens to Hereward’s stronghold, leaving us with one defeat and conflicting versions of what happened to Edwin and Morcar, although all the versions end with one betrayed and killed by his men and the other imprisoned for the rest of this life. 

Hereward disappeared, as any good legend should. Get slaughtered and you can become a saint. Disappear and you get a shot at legendhood.

The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle says next to nothing about Hereward’s rebellion and doesn’t mention him by name at all. We could argue about how significant the rebellion was or wasn’t, but let’s not. We weren’t there. We can agree (see how neatly I slip you the opinion you’re supposed to take?) that it took on importance as legend–the bold Anglo-Saxon holdouts, using the land itself as a weapon against the invaders.

Hereward became known as the Wake only later, in one version because a family of that name wanted to claim him as an ancestor and in another version because it means the watchful

Hereward wasn’t, in Horspool’s telling, William’s most powerful opponent, but his legend is the one that took hold, and it cycles through English literature from the twelfth century on. He wrestles bears. He sacks abbeys. (Okay, one abbey, and hey, we all have our faults.) He disappears instead of dying. He doesn’t have a happy ending, but he has a habit of embodying whatever qualities the country wants to believe in at the moment.

Horspool’s interpretation of all those rebellions is that they broke any trust Will might have put put in the existing English aristocracy, leaving him no choice but to replace them with Normans. He doesn’t explain–or ask, if the information that’s available doesn’t allow for an answer–what drove this cycle of rebellion, so I’ll raise the question. When you get a pattern like this, selfish motives and bad temper don’t cut it as an explanation. Something was going on that didn’t allow everyone to settle down, plow the land, gather the rents, and do whatever it was people had been doing  before William landed. Because most people, given the chance to stay home and do what they’re used to, will do that.

Horspool considers it a legend that pre-Norman England was a land of freedom, but that belief fueled many a rebellion in the coming centuries. The shorthand for it is “the Norman yoke,” and if he’s not impressed with it as fact, he does pay tribute to its power as legend. 

The other historians in my small stack of books are more convinced. Women were freer, they say. Local courts were made up of small landowners, creating a grass-roots kind of justice. You didn’t end up bringing a dispute with the local lord to that same local lord, hoping for justice, as people would have had to under the Normans if they’d been silly enough to try.

On the Horspool side of the scales, however, the Anglo-Saxons did have slavery, and tenant farmers don’t sound, at least as I read it, like they were entirely free. Compared to the feudalism the Normans imposed, though, it might have looked like heaven, and not just to those who were higher up the social ladder. 

*

My thanks to John Russell for suggesting Hereward as a topic. Sorry I went on so long. I couldn’t find a place to split it in two.

Early British consumer co-ops

The British co-operative movement is usually traced back to the Rochdale Pioneers, a group of textile mill workers who set up a consumer co-op in 1844, but let’s go back to 1761, when sixteen (or fifteen–it depends who’s counting) Scottish weavers and apprentices “manhandled a sack of oatmeal into John Walker’s whitewashed front room and began selling the contents at a discount, forming the Fenwick Weavers’ Society.”

Weavers worked at home–this was before weaving was industrialized–and the co-op they formed wasn’t just, or even mainly, about oatmeal. They bought food in bulk and sold it affordably, plowing whatever profits they made back into the society, but the society was also, or maybe primarily, about setting the price they’d pay for their yarn and accept for their cloth. Its members pledged to be “honest and faithfull to one another . . . and to make good & sufficient work and exact neither higher nor lower prices than are accustomed.”

Irrelevant photo: Davidstow Moor, near the ruins of a prehistoric village (notice the line of stones)

They set up a fund to lend money to members and to give money to the poor–and they kept records, which means their history has come down to us in a way that the stories of earlier co-ops haven’t.

They also set up a library and in 1812, along with the Freemasons and a friendly society, built a school. Schools and libraries weren’t free yet, and schooling was anything but universal. Creating them so working people could educate themselves and their children was radical.

In the early 1800s, they created the Fenwick parliament–open meetings to debate local issues. The meetings were held at the village water pump, and someone would keep watch, because local landowners were hostile to–well, whatever it was the local working class might be getting up to. The meetings weren’t exactly secret, but they weren’t exactly not secret either.

In 1839, they set up an emigration society, which speaks to the limits of what any co-op can fix, and in 1846, “as members of the Secession Church” (in a small village, everybody who fills any role at all fills more than one) they brought the anti-slavery campaigner and escaped slave Frederick Douglass to Fenwick to speak. 

Fenwick’s population these days is a bit over 1,000. At some earlier point, it had 2,000 residents, then it dipped to 500, but at any of those sizes they were bringing an internationally recognized figure to a village at, roughly, the end of the earth, to speak about an issue that, however important, affected the town only indirectly. Or directly, but only if you had the vision to see how. It speaks to the organization’s connections and breadth of vision, not to mention Douglass’s generosity in speaking someplace so small and out of the way.

That the co-op survived as long as it did marks it as a surprisingly stable organization. It was killed not by internal problems but by the collapse of hand weaving in the face of industrialization. In 1873, it had only three members and they wound up the society, but its emigration policy had planted co-operators in the U.S., Australia, New Zealand, Canada, and South Africa, and at least some of them would have carried its ideals with them.

I’ve focused on Fenwick, but other co-ops and friendly societies came and went. See all those little dots flickering at the edge of your vision? There’s nothing wrong with your eyes. What you’re seeing is the spirit of an age: the co-op model answered a need, even if not many of the coo-ops lasted. It strikes me as important to remember the ones that didn’t last as well as the ones that did. 

Now let’s pick up the tale of the Rochdale co-op. It started in 1844. The industrial revolution was chewing up all those skilled, small-scale crafts, pushing their practitioners first out of work and then into factories. Working conditions were somewhere between abysmal and worse than that–child labor, inhuman hours, early death, industrial scale poverty–and a year before the Rochdale co-op was founded (that would be 1843; I’m unreliable with numbers, but I can subtract 1 from any number you throw at me and be reasonably sure of getting the right answer)–

Where were we? In 1843 a strike failed and mill workers were looking for some other way to improve living standards. Enter the 28 Rochdale Pioneers. (Trumpet fanfare here, if you please.) What they settled on was creating an alternative to the company store. 

I haven’t found any information specifically on Rochdale’s company store–or stores: I don’t even know how many we’re talking about. What I can tell you is that company stores in general were known for high prices and bad–often adulterated–merchandise. They were run by the same companies that their customers worked for, making a secondary source of income for the owners and a secondary point of exploitation for the workers. They stayed in business because their customers had nowhere else to go. Often no other store was within reach, and workers could often buy on credit (that’s the thing about working for lousy wages–you’re always broke) or were paid in company scrip (or chits–same thing, different word), a form of money issued by the company instead of actual cash and accepted in no other place else on the planet.

This was a time when store owners in general were known for adulterating their goods. We can’t blame company stores alone for that. But gee, everybody was free of all that pesky regulation and red tape that annoys us so today. And if people ended up buying tea that included recycled tea leaves from someone else’s brew along with a bit of new tea and some leaves picked from the hedge and colored in imaginative and occasionally poisonous ways? What the hell, it’s the price of freedom, right?

The Rochdale co-operative store (which opened, memorably, on Toad Lane) started out with about £16 worth of goods: flour (6 sacks), oatmeal (1 sack), sugar (44 pounds), and butter (22 pounds), plus 24 tallow candles because the gas company refused to supply them, so they lit the place with candles and sold whatever was left to their customers. 

The store was only open two nights a week, but within months it was keeping a five-day week. Before long they’d added the luxuries of working-class life, tea and tobacco.

The founders were conscious of the problems other co-ops had run into and set out some founding principles, which went on to form the basis of the co-operative movement in Britain and elsewhere. The business would be owned by its members, who would control it democratically. It wouldn’t sell on credit. Profits would be first plowed back into the business and then, when possible, returned to the members. It would be politically and religiously neutral. It would promote education.

This was radical stuff. No woman had the vote yet and neither did 6 out of 7 men–and mill workers would have been among the 6, not the 1. But here was an organization opening its membership up to everyone and giving them a say in how the thing would work. And religious neutrality signaled an openness to everyone, because religion was still an important dividing line. 

By 1854, over 1,000 co-operative stores were basing themselves on those principles. Ten years later, the North of England Co-operative Society had formed. 

In 1872, the society formed a division for loans and deposits. This eventually became the Co-operative Bank, which–well, it’s still going but during the years that led up to the credit crunch it decided to stop being so boring and it got crunched when the markets crashed. In 2013, only 30% of it was still customer owned. The rest was owned by private investors and–ouch–hedge funds. So yeah, there’ve been a few hiccups here and there.

But long before all that happened, the co-ops branched out in other directions as well. In many towns and cities, you can still get yourself co-operatively funeraled, pharmacied, or (regardless of your town) insured. 

In 1917, the Co-op formed a political arm, the Co-operative Party, which became a sister party to the Labour Party. How that sits with political neutrality I can’t begin to explain. What I can say is that you’ll find a Co-op store in just about every town near where I live, even though Cornwall wasn’t the heart of the co-op movement. They’re still governed by members, who elect area boards, which in turn elect regional ones and so on up the ladder. 

The stores maintain some of their community spirit and are known as good places for local organizations to turn if they need a donation or a stack of mince pies for a Christmas event.