Category Archives: England
The possible discovery of the site of a 1069 “sequel” to the Battle of Hastings is a reminder that the Norman Conquest wasn’t just a case of 1066 and all that. In fact William the Conqueror faced repeated threats to his power from both inside and outside the kingdom during his reign.
Writer Nick Arnold claims to have identified the site of a battle in 1069 which marked the last major attempt of Godwine and Edmund, the sons of the Anglo-Saxon king Harold Godwinson, to regain power following their father’s defeat at the Battle of Hastings in 1066. Historical sources tell us that the 1069 encounter took place at the mouth of the River Taw in North Devon and, by combining this with scientific data, Arnold has narrowed down the location to a spot between Appledore and Northam. While an interesting piece of historical detective work in its own right, the potential identification of this site is a reminder that the Norman Conquest took years, not days.
Challenges to William’s rule
Admittedly, in the history of medieval military encounters, the Battle of Hastings was unusually decisive. This hard-fought battle resulted in the deaths of King Harold and a large portion of the English aristocracy. With the removal of much of the ruling elite, William the Conqueror and his Norman allies (in reality a mixture of men drawn from various regions of France and Flanders) took over the controls of a remarkably centralised Anglo-Saxon state.
But it would be wrong to think that the Norman Conquest ended there. While much of the population probably accepted that the country was, in effect, under new management, not everyone welcomed the change. The late 1060s and 1070s saw significant challenges to William’s rule in England, of which the attempted invasion by King Harold’s sons in 1069 was just one.
Our most reliable witness to events at this time, the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, tells us that in 1069 “Harold’s sons came from Ireland at midsummer with sixty-four ships into the mouth of the Taw”. The naval force mentioned was almost certainly supplied by the Norse kingdom of Dublin and reflects previous ties between King Harold and Dublin’s overlord, King Diarmait of Leinster.
This was the second attempt by Harold’s sons to mount an invasion and the second time that they had targeted the south-west. In 1068 they had attacked Bristol and ravaged Somerset, before being seen off by English forces under Eadnoth the Staller, who was killed in the encounter. They were repelled again in 1069, this time by a Breton lord, Count Brian, who seems to have taken over responsibility for defence of the area.
‘Harrying of the North’
The brief return of the Godwinsons in 1069, however, was a mere sideshow compared to the full-scale rebellion in the north later that year. This was led by English earls in support of Edgar the Ætheling, who claimed the throne as the closest male relative of William and Harold’s predecessor, Edward the Confessor. Like the attempted invasion by Harold’s sons, this rebellion was made possible through an alliance with a foreign power: in this case, King Sweyn of Denmark, who provided a fleet of 240-300 ships. William’s response was to gather his army and “utterly ravage and lay waste” to the region in what became known as the Harrying of the North, forcing the northern earls into a truce.
The Danes, meanwhile, remained a disruptive force in England until the following summer, when they left laden with plunder largely taken from the abbey at Peterborough. All of which underlines that the events playing out in England were part of political struggles in the context of her European neighbours. For the Normans, conquest was an ongoing campaign that lasted years, not something that was handed to them by virtue of Harold’s death at Hastings.
Although Arnold’s purported discovery of the 1069 battle site can be admired as an ingenious piece of detective work, only archaeologists will be able to prove his claims. In reality, this announcement adds only a limited amount to our current knowledge of historical events, which means any identification of the site in which the Godwinsons made their last great bid for power is probably of more significance to a local audience than to a national or academic one.
But if anything it should remind us of the turbulent years after 1066, when the Norman conquest was by no means assured – and it seemed as if Hastings’ immediate legacy had been to turn England itself into a battleground.
With their metal detectors and spades “detectorists” are a common sight in the British countryside. When their equipment bleeps, they start to dig in the hope of finding something old and valuable. They are often seen as figures of fun – in fact, the BBC shows a comedy series about a pair of such amateur archaeologists which has a cult following. But part-time treasure hunters do much of the heavy lifting when it comes to discovering antiquities buried in fields across the UK.
Two such detectorists, Lisa Grace and Adam Staples, recently uncovered a haul of more than 2,000 silver coins in Somerset in the south-west of England, dating back to the turbulent period following the Norman conquest of England in 1066.
In the years after William of Normandy defeated Harold II and took the throne, the Norman invaders were confronted by frequent rebellion. They responded by planting castles to subdue the population. The coin hoard found in the Chew Valley in Somerset dates from the years of unrest when William was establishing himself on the throne.
One of the largest hoards ever recovered from the years around 1066, it includes more than 1,000 coins minted in Harold’s name and a similar number in William’s. Harold had been king for only ten months at the time of his defeat and death in battle, so all the coins of Harold date from no earlier than January 1066. Some may have been minted in his name after his death, as a desperate measure by survivors to hold the regime together in the two months that elapsed between the Battle of Hastings and William’s coronation. Funds were very important at moments when the succession to the throne lay in doubt.
It is certain at any rate that whoever concealed the hoard was a person of high rank, probably one of the nobility – a circle of no more than 150 landed aristocrats, many of whom were related. A coin hoard of this size may have been to pay for an army. But we might only guess whose army or whether the hoarder was a supporter or opponent of the Norman regime.
Historians have long disputed whether Harold succeeded to the throne with the approval of his predecessor and brother-in-law, the childless Edward the Confessor, or seized the throne in haste to prevent it falling to another candidate. The strongest claimants in the latter camp were Edward the Confessor’s great-nephew Edgar and William of Normandy, his second cousin, who argued that Edward had promised the throne to him.
Money and power
Coin evidence assists in this debate by showing the extent to which Harold was able to control mints up and down the country. Regimes which had only a shaky hold on power were unable to control all the mints, some of which struck coins in the names of their rivals. This happened in the early years of Harold I’s regime (1035-7), when mints in southern England struck coins in the name of his rival Harthacnut.
In the case of Harold II, though his legitimacy was in doubt, his control of the mints suggests a strong hold on power from the outset. Indeed the hoard is likely to provide specimens of coins minted at unrecorded mints and by previously unknown moneyers.
Historians also debate the extent to which the invasion of 1066 disrupted the operations of the Anglo-Saxon state. The presence in the hoard of a large sample of coins issued by William at the start of his reign will help shed new light on the era.
The portrait, design and text on William’s coins, moreover, reveals how he wanted his subjects to see him. A coin is not only a unit of currency – it is a tool of propaganda. Harold’s coins, ironically, bore the legend “PAX” (peace). It was a signal of his aspirations on becoming king.
Today Harold’s coins are keenly sought by collectors, being rare and evocative our nation’s story. Hoarded coins are often in fresh condition and each should command a high market value.
Since the advent of the hobby of metal detecting in the 1970s, most hoards and single finds have been located by detectorists. Their painstaking efforts have resulted in the discovery of great treasures of recent years, including the Staffordshire Hoard and the Winfarthing pendant.
On most outings, detectorists find little or nothing. Most spend years in the hobby and never find a hoard. Thanks to a system of recording in place since the launching of the Portable Antiquities Scheme, more and more of their discoveries are now being reported.
The law requires that all finds of treasure be reported to the coroner within 14 days of discovery or of the finder’s realisation that the find might be treasure as defined by the Treasure Act of 1996. Any item of precious metal more than 300 years old, any two or more gold or silver coins, or a group of base metal coins, and any associated artefacts, such as a pot in which coins are buried, is treasure as defined by the Act.
All reported treasure items are entered in the online database of the Portable Antiquities Scheme. Their details are thereby captured for the nation, even if the finds are often returned to the finder. No hoard of Norman Conquest coins on the scale of the Chew Valley hoard has come to light for many years.
It is a reminder that the passions of hobbyists frequently turn up great benefits for everyone. And it is also a reminder of England’s turbulent past.
Hidden women of history: Eleanor Anne Ormerod, the self taught agricultural entomologist who tasted a live newt
In this series, we look at under-acknowledged women through the ages.
Insects have always been intimately connected with agriculture. Pest insects can cause tremendous damage, while helpful insects like pollinators and predators provide free services. The relatively young field of agricultural entomology uses knowledge of insect ecology and behaviour to help farmers protect their crops.
One of the most influential agricultural entomologists in history was an insatiably curious and fiercely independent woman named Eleanor Anne Ormerod. Although she lacked formal scientific training, Ormerod would eventually be hailed as the “Protectress of British Agriculture”.
Eleanor was born in 1828 to a wealthy British family. She did not attend school and was instead tutored by her mother on subjects thought to increase her marriageability: languages, drawing and music.
Like most modern entomologists, Eleanor’s interest in insects started when she was a child. In her autobiography, she tells of how she once spent hours observing water bugs swimming in a small glass. When one of the insects was injured, it was immediately consumed by the others.
Shocked, Eleanor hurried to tell her father about what she had seen but he dismissed her observations. Eleanor writes that while her family tolerated her interest in science, they were not particularly supportive of it.
Securing an advantageous marriage was supposed to be the primary goal of wealthy young women in Eleanor’s day. But her father was reclusive and disliked socialising; as a result, the family didn’t have the social connections needed to secure marriages for the children. Of Ormerod’s three sisters, none would marry.
The Ormerod daughters were relatively fortunate; their father gave them enough money to live comfortably for the rest of their lives. Their status as wealthy unmarried women gave them the freedom to pursue their interests free from domestic responsibilities and the demands of husbands or fathers. For Eleanor, this meant time to indulge her scientific curiosity.
Foaming at the mouth
Ormerod’s first scientific publication was about the poisonous secretions of the Triton newt. After testing the poison’s effects on an unfortunate cat, she decided to test it on herself by putting the tail of a live newt into her mouth. The unpleasant effects – which included foaming at the mouth, oral convulsions and a headache – were all carefully described in her paper.
Omerod’s first foray into agricultural entomology came in 1868, when the Royal Horticultural Society asked for help creating a collection of insects both helpful and harmful to British agriculture. She enthusiastically answered the call and spent the next decade collecting and identifying insects on the society’s behalf.
In the process, she developed specialist skills in insect identification, behaviour and ecology.
During her insect-collecting trips, Ormerod spoke with farmers who told her of their many and varied pest problems. She realised that farmers were in need of science-based advice for protecting their crops from insect pests.
Yet most professional entomologists of the time were focused on the collection and classification of insects; they had little interest in applying their knowledge to agriculture. Ormerod decided to fill the vacant role of “agricultural entomologist” herself.
In 1877, Ormerod self-published the first of what was to become a series of 22 annual reports that provided guidelines for the control of insect pests in a variety of crops. Each pest was described in detail including particulars of its appearance, behaviour and ecology. The reports were aimed at farmers and were written in an easy-to-read style.
An early form of crowdsourcing
Ormerod wanted to create a resource that would help farmers all over Britain. She quickly realised this task would require more information than she could possibly collect on her own. So Ormerod turned to an early version of crowdsourcing to obtain data.
She circulated questionnaires throughout the countryside asking farmers about the pests they observed, and the pest control remedies they had tried.
Whenever possible, she conducted experiments or made observations to confirm information she received from her network of farmers. Each of her reports combined her own work with that of the farmers and labourers she corresponded with. The resulting reports cemented Ormerod’s reputation.
Ormerod was invited to give lectures at colleges and institutes throughout Britain. She lent her expertise to pest problems in places as far afield as New Zealand, the West Indies and South Africa.
In recognition of her service, she was awarded an honorary law degree from the University of Edinburgh in 1900 – the first women in the university’s history to receive the honour. Such was her fame that acclaimed author Virginia Woolf later wrote a fictionalised account of Ormerod’s life called Miss Ormerod.
While she undoubtedly contributed to the rise of agricultural entomology as a scientific field, Ormerod’s legacy is complicated by her vocal support of a dangerous insecticide known as Paris Green. Paris Green was an arsenic-derived compound initially used as a paint (hence the name).
Although Paris Green was used extensively in North America, it was relatively unheard of in Britain. Ormerod made it her mission to introduce this new advance to British farmers. So strongly did she believe in its crop-saving power, she joked about wanting the words, “She brought Paris Green to Britain,” engraved on her tombstone.
Unfortunately, Paris Green is a “broad spectrum” insecticide that kills most insects, including pollinators and predators. The loss of predators in the crop ecosystem gives free rein to pests, creating a vicious cycle of dependence on chemical insecticides.
Paris Green also has serious human health impacts, some of which were recognised even in Ormerod’s day. The fact that arsenic was a common ingredient in all manner of products – including medicines – may partly explain why Ormerod seems to have underestimated the danger of Paris Green to human and environmental health.
Ormerod’s steadfast promotion of Paris Green seems naïve in retrospect. But the late 1800’s was a time of tremendous optimism about the power of science to solve the world’s problems.
Paris Green and other insecticides allowed farmers to cheaply and effectively protect their crops – and thus their livelihoods. In fact, less than 50 years after Ormerod’s death, chemist Paul Muller won a Nobel Prize for his discovery of the infamous (and environmentally catastrophic) insecticide DDT. When viewed in light of the “pesticide optimism” of her time, Ormerod’s enthusiasm about Paris Green is easier to understand.
Interestingly, Ormerod wasn’t just an insecticide evangelist. Her reports gave recommendations for a variety of pest control methods such as the use of exclusion nets and the manual removal of pests. These and other environmentally friendly techniques now form the core of modern “integrated pest management”, the gold standard for effective and sustainable pest control.
Eleanor Ormerod was devoted to the cause of protecting agriculture at a time when few “serious” entomologists were interested in applying their knowledge to agriculture. She recognised that progress in agricultural entomology could only happen when entomologists worked in close partnership with farmers.
She continued working and lecturing to within weeks of her death in 1901; in all of her years of service, she was never paid.