Category Archives: Normans
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.