Tag Archives: 1066


The Beginning of the Dark Ages in Britain


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The ‘Dark Ages’ were ‘dark’ only because we lack extensive (or in some instances, any) historical material about the period between 407 AD, when the Romans marched away from Britain, and 1066, when William of Normandy conquered England.

TLP blog“Initially, this era took on the term “dark” . . . due to the backward ways and practices that seemed to prevail during this time. Future historians used the term “dark” simply to denote the fact that little was known about this period; there was a paucity of written history. Recent discoveries have apparently altered this perception as many new facts about this time have been uncovered.

The Italian Scholar, Francesco Petrarca called Petrarch, was the first to coin the phrase. He used it to denounce Latin literature of that time; others expanded on this idea to express frustration with the lack of Latin literature during this time or other cultural achievements. While the term dark ages is no longer widely used, it may best be described as Early Middle Ages — the period following the decline of Romein the Western World. The Middle Ages is loosely considered to extend from 400 to 1000 AD.”  http://www.allabouthistory.org/the-dark-ages.htm

For Wales, the time was no more or less bright than any other.  The relative peace the Romans brought was predicated on the brutal subjugation of the British people.  When the Romans left, the Britons faced the Irish from the west, the Scots from the northwest, the Picts from the northeast and ‘Saxons’ (who were Angles and Jutes too, not just ‘Saxons’) from the east.  To a certain degree, it was just more of the same.  The Britons had their lands back—the whole expanse of what is nowWales andEngland—for about five minutes.

From Gildas:

As the Romans went back home, there emerged from the coracles that had carried them across the sea-valleys the foul hordes of Scots and Picts. … They were more confident than usual now that they had learnt of the departure ofthe Romans and the denial of any prospect of their return. So they seized the whole north of the island from its inhabitants, right up to (i.e. as far south as) the wall (presumably Hadrian’s). A force was stationed on the high towers to oppose them, but it was too lazy to fight, and too unwieldy to flee. Meanwhile there was no respite from the barbed spears flung by their naked opponents, which tore our wretched countrymen from the walls and dashed them to the ground.

From contemporary accounts in 411:


They (the barbarians) reduced the inhabitants of Britainand some parts of Gaul to such straits that they revolted from the Roman Empire, no longer submitted to Roman law, but reverted to their native customs. The Britons, therefore, armed themselves and ran many risks to ensure their own safety and free their cities from the attacking barbarians. The whole of Armorica, [Emap (7)] and other Gallic provinces, in imitation of the Britons, freed themselves in the same way, by expelling the Roman magistrates and establishing the government they wanted. The revolt of the provinces ofBritain and Gaul occurred during Constantine’s tyranny because the barbarians took advantage of his careless government. …

Fastidius — letter to a widow in Britain

We see before us many instances of wicked men, the sum of their sins complete, who are being judged at the present moment, and denied this present life no less than the life to come. This is not hard to understand, for in changing times we expect the deaths of magistrates who have lived criminally, for the greater their power, the bolder their sins. … Those who have freely shed the blood of others are now forced to shed their own. … Some lie unburied, food for the beasts and birds of the air. Others have been individually torn limb from limb. Their judgements killed many husbands, widowed many women, orphaned many children, leaving them bare and beggared … for they plundered the property of the men they killed. But now it is their wives who are widowed, their sons who are orphaned, begging their daily bread from strangers.


It does seem that a ruler named Vortigern invited some Germanic ‘Saxon’ tribes to settle in eastern England, in hopes of creating a buffer zone between the Britons and the relentless invasions fromEurope.  This plan backfired, however, and resulted in the pushing westward of successive waves of ‘Saxon’ groups.  Ultimately, the Britons retreated into Wales, the only portion of land the Saxons were unable to conquer.

From the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle:

445:  In the fourth year of Vortigern’s reign, the English came to Britain.


449:  The British consulted what was to be done and where they should seek assistance to prevent or repel the cruel and frequent incursions of the northern nations. They all agreed with their king Vortigern to call over to their aid, from the parts beyond the sea, the Saxon nation. … The two first commanders are said to have been Hengist and Horsa.

Anglo-Saxon Chronicle

449:  Martian and Valentinian assumed the Roman empire(actually in 450) and reigned seven winters. In their days Hengest and Horsa, invited by Vortigern, king of the Britons to his assistance, landed inBritainin a place that is called Ipwinesfleet; at first to help the Britons, but later they fought against them.


453:  But Hengest was an experienced man, shrewd and skilful. Sizing up the king’s incompetence, and the military weakness of his people, he held a council, and said to the British king “We are a few; if you wish, we can send home and invite warriors from the fighting men of our country, that the number that fight for you and your people may be larger.” The king ordered it be done, and envoys were sent across the sea, and came back with sixteen keels, with picked warriors in them. In one of the keels came Hengest’s daughter, a beautiful and very handsome girl. When the keels had arrived, Hengest held a banquet for Vortigern, and his men and his interpreter, whose name was Ceretic, and told the girl to serve their wine and spirits. They all got exceedingly drunk. When they were drinking Satan entered Vortigern’s heart and made him love the girl. Through his interpreter he asked her father for her hand, saying “Ask of me what you will, even to the half of my kingdom”.


It’s important to point out that Welsh literature, language, and culture flourished during the Dark Ages.  Much of the material in the Red Book of Hergest, the White Book of Rhydderch, and the Black Book of Camarthen date to this time.


The Normans in Wales (Chepstow Castle)


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William the Bastard (William the Conquerer, William the Norman) won his first battle for the conquest of England at Hastings in October of 1066.  He defeated the army of King Harold Godwinson, who’d force-marched his men from Stamford Bridge after defeating an invasion by King Hardrada of Norway.  Harold’s forces almost held, but in the end, his discipline did not and he himself died on the battlefield.  http://www.middle-ages.org.uk/william-the-conqueror.htm

That was only the beginning, however, and it would be another six years before England was truly conquered.  http://www.britannia.com/history/monarchs/mon22.html

Wales, however, took a bit longer.  The Welsh fought what amounted to a guerilla war for over 150 years against the Norman/French aggressors.  Although the documentation of this war is mostly on the English side, it is interesting reading from the perspective of the Welsh.

In the Chroncile of the Princes (from the Red Book of Hergest), it becomes clear that there is a form of schizophrenia  at work when the authors discuss the coming of William the Bastard in 1066, his claiming of the kingship, and then his subsequent reign.  On one hand, the Chronicle states:

“And that William defended the kingdom of England in a great battle, with an invincible hand, and his most noble army.” (1066)

“And then, the Bastard, prince of the Normans, and king of the Saxons, the Britons, and the Albanians, after a sufficiency of the glory and fame of this transient world, and after glorious victories, and the honour acquired by riches, died; and after him William Rufus, his son reigned.” (1085)

In between these entries, the Chronicle states:  “the French ravaged Ceredigion and Dyfed” (1071); “a second time the French devestated Ceredigion” (1072) These notes indicate the conquering of south Wales by that same king.  Things start to really get bad, however, in the years after William of Normandy’s death.

“One year and one thousand and ninety was the year of Christ, when Rhys, son of Tewdwr, king South Wales, was killed by the French, who inhabited Brecheiniog; and then fell the kingdom of the Britons.  . . . two months after that, about the calends of July, the French came into Dyved and Ceredigion, which they have still retained, and fortified the castles, and seized upon all the land of the Britons.”

Even at this point, I was still wondering ‘did the French (meaning other than the Normans) sail from France and conquer Wales? How did I miss that?’ And then I realized that by ‘French’ the authors did mean ‘Normans’, who’d conquered England–the same group whose king they’d eulogized three pages before.

For in 1095, the Chronicle states: “And then, the second time, William, king of England, assembled innumerable hosts, with immense means and power, against the Britons. And then the Britons avoided their impulse, not confiding in themselves, but placing their hope in God, the Creator of all things, by a fasting and praying and giving alms, and undergoing severe bodily penance. For the French dared not penetrate the rocks and the woods, but hovered about the level plains. At length they returned home empty, without having gained anything; and the Britons, happy and unintimidated, defended their country.”

Thus begins the long, unhappy saga of the ‘French’ conquest of Wales.


Traveling on Medieval Roads

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What roads medieval people used to cross England and Wales is a fascinating question and one that has occupied me for some time.   The Ordnance Survey maps at multimap.com can show you the Roman roads.  I also bought the Ordnance Survey’s Roman Britain map, precisely for this reason.

The Lancashire Antiquarian argues quite strongly for the notion that the Roman roads were used well into later periods.  He writes: “It has been estimated that when the Domesday survey was taking place a minimum of 10,000 miles of usable Roman roads were still in existence in one form or another.” He states that what fell into disrepair were the bridges and river crossings, resulting in a deviation from the Roman road to a usable ford.  New roads were built from medieval towns, resulting in roads that were more ‘natural’–meaning not straight or metalled.

Roman roads, together with Roman aqueducts and the vast standing Roman army (in the 2nd century, ca. 30legions plus around 400 auxiliary units, totalling ca. 400,000 troops, of which ca. 50,000 deployed in Britain), constituted the three most impressive features of the Roman Empire. In Britain, as in other provinces, the Romans constructed a comprehensive network of paved trunk roads (i.e. surfaced highways) during their nearly four centuries of occupation (43 – 410 AD). This article focuses on the ca. 2,000 mi (3,200 km) ofRoman roads in Britain shown on the Ordnance Survey‘s Map of Roman Britain.[1] This contains the most accurate and up-to-date layout of certain and probable routes that is readily available to the general public.

The pre-Roman Britons used mostly unpaved trackways for their communications, including very ancient ones running along elevated ridges of hills, such as the South Downs Way, now a public long-distance footpath. By the first century BC, they had begun engineering roads.[2] After the Roman invasion, the road network was expanded. Roman roads were surveyed and built from scratch, with the aim of connecting key points by the most direct possible route. The roads were all paved, to permit even heavy freight-wagons to be used in all seasons and weather.

Most of the known network was complete by 180 AD. Its primary function was to allow the rapid movement of troops and military supplies, but it also provided vital infrastructure for trade and the transport of goods.

Roman roads remained in use as core trunk roads for centuries after the Romans withdrew from Britain in 410 AD. Systematic construction of paved highways did not resume in England until the 18th century.”  http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Roman_roads_in_Britain

The earliest map of England that we have is the ‘Gough map’, dating to 1360.  You can see it online, here.   “This map of Britain was produced in C1360 and is thought to have been an official map for government use, possibly by a Royal courier, royal officer or judiciary. The distances shown are thought to be the distances following former Roman roads between the towns that where still in use during the mediaeval period. The total of the distances shown approximate to 3,000 miles, and 40% of which lie along the routes of known Roman roads” (Lancashire Antiquarian).

At the same time, David Harrison in his book, ‘The Bridges of Medieval England’ argues that this reversion to fords, beginning in the Dark Ages means that, “A road map of the eighteenth or even the early twentieth century may provide a more accurate picture of the routes of late Anglo-Saxon England than the Roman roads which are usually depicted.”   (For more discussion of this book and medieval bridges, see here)

Other possibilities for discovering medieval roads in Britain are:








Viking Raids

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Last year a story came out about 51 headless Vikings unearthed at a site in Weymouth, England.  http://www.cnn.com/2010/TECH/science/03/12/viking.olympics/index.html

“On Friday, officials revealed that analysis of the men’s teeth shows they were Vikings, executed with sharp blows to the head around a thousand years ago. They were killed during the Dark Ages, when Vikings frequently invaded the region.”

Researchers have dated the remaines to the period between 890 and 1030 AD, postulating that it was a raiding party that was executed once it was caught too far from its boats.

During this period, the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms were well established in England.  Weymouth would have been in Wessex, one of the primary and most powerful kingdoms at the time.  http://www.dailymail.co.uk/sciencetech/article-1257333/Decapitated-Viking-skeletons-Weymouth-ditch.html

Kings of the period include Alfred the Great (871-899), Edward (899-924), and Aethelstan, credited with being the first King of England.

The Anglo-Saxons themselves had a long history of raids, which is how they settled in Britain in the first place.  Britain was relatively free of raids from 600-800 AD, once the Anglo-Saxons conquered all but Wales and portions of Scotland.  A new wave of Vikings (from Sweden, Norway, and Denmark) began with the raiding of Lindisfarne, England in 793 AD, however, and continued up until the Norman conquest in 1066.  http://www.thenagain.info/webchron/WestEurope/VikingRaids.html

One of the reasons that King Harold Godwinson lost to William the Norman was because he’d had to fight off a raid by Harald Hardrada (Norway) at the Battle of Stamford Bridge in late September, and then had to march his exhausted men to Hastings to face William, who’d landed unopposed on September 28.

It is important to note that the Normans (or ‘Northmen’) were also Vikings–just ones that had settled for a generation or two in Normandy after conquering it in the 10th century.


How did Latin get into English?


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It was the Romans right?

Well, ultimately, but not necessarily because they conquered Britian in 43 AD.

The Romans controlled Britain from 43 AD to when they marched away in the beginning of the 5th century.  During that time, they built roads, towns, forts, and established a government.  Upon their departure, the ‘dark ages’ consumed Britain, with the assistance of several invading groups (Angles, Saxons, Jutes, plus Picts, Scots, Irish).

The people who lived in Britain at the time were Celtic and spoke a language that eventually became what we know today as Welsh.  As the story goes, these invading groups pushed the Britons into Wales until a real wall (Offa’s Dyke) permanently created a barrier between them.

Latin had been spoken by the Romans, of course, and had entered the Welsh language as a result.  “These borrowed words are usually for things foreign to the British before the conquest, such as ‘pont’ (in Latin ‘pons’, a bridge), ‘bresych’ (‘brassica’, a cabbage), and ‘eglwys’ (‘ecclesia’, a church).”  http://tinyurl.com/74lgnl4

Percent of contribution of other languages to English

Latin had been the language of writing.  With the departure of the Romans, that also abated, until the coming of the Christian Church (first) and then the arrival of the Normans in 1066 (second).  The Normans were descendants of the Vikings but had adopted French as their language.  Thus, when William conquered England, he brought the language with him.  French is a ‘Romance’ language–a language derived from Rome, and thus, Latin.

For several hundred years afterwards, French was the language of the nobility, laid over a Saxon peasantry.  The Saxons spoke “English” (though interestingly, the Welsh still refer to the English as ‘Saxons’).  Over time, the Saxons adopted French words (and thus Latin words) into their vocabulary.

The French words didn’t necessarily replace the English ones, but coexisted alongside the Saxon ones or were adopted whole cloth:  “A lot of basic French vocabulary will look familiar to you: le restaurant (restaurant), la table (table), l’âge(age), lefruit (fruit),  l’hôtel (hotel),  l’animal (animal),  and so on. However, don’t be fooled by some words that may look or sound exactly the same as an English word, but don’t have the same meaning. For example, le collège is roughly equivalent to middle school in the United States, not university. Also, sale in French means dirty, and has nothing to do with discounts, and blessé(e) means wounded, not blessed.”    http://www.fodors.com/language/french/

30% of English words have a French origin with another 30% from Latin.  The borrowing from Latin (and Greek) is clear.  From a rap song I found on line:

“aqua” means water, “ami” means love
“bio” means life, “hemo” means blood
“geo” means earth, and “vita” means life

“pre” means before, and “fix” is to attach
“anti-” means against, “inter-” means between
“poly-” means many, while “homo-” means the same
“pseudo-” means false, and “trans-” mean across

“-ology” means study of, “-ism” is belief in
“-cide” means killing, and “-or” and “-er” mean demonstration
“-phobia” means fear of, “-kinesis” means movement


The Saxon, however, endured too.  For example, we have two words for ‘eat’:  ‘eat’ which is Saxon, and ‘dine’ which comes from the French word ‘to dine=diner’.  Another example is ‘go’, obviously Saxon, and ‘voyage’ from French.  “Many [Saxon] words had a single syllable, and compounding was a common practice. Most words with more than one syllable were characterized by a stress accent on the first syllable.”  http://www.ibiblio.org/lineback/words/sax.htm

Here is a list of English words of Anglo-Saxon origin:  http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_English_words_of_Anglo-Saxon_origin


Anglo-Saxon Law (to 1066)

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Anglo-Saxon law didn’t come to an end with the coming of William of Normandy in 1066, but it was definitely changed.

Norman law was based in feudalism and heavily influenced by the Church.  Anglo-Saxon law had been developed over a long period of time and while influenced by Christianity in later centuries, was more egalitarian.  It was based on a system of courts, the main one being the ‘hundred court’.  “The hundred court met every four weeks, in the open if possible and usually at a prominent local landmark that gave its name to the hundred. The king’s reeve usually presided over the court. It had many functions, and was a mixture of parish council business meeting, planning enquiry, and magistrates’ court.  . .

Edward the Elder decreed that the hundred courts were to judge the worthiness of every law-suit and to appoint a day for it to be heard and settled. They did not have to hear the case there and then. Above the hundred court was the shire court which met twice a year, usually about Easter and Michaelmas (29th September), and was presided over by the ealdorman, the bishop and the king’s senior reeve in the area, the shire-reeve (or sheriff), with all the major landowners in the shire, or their reeves, present. Law-suits made up only a small part of the shire court’s time, which was filled up with all the other business essential to the smooth running of the shire. Law-suits could be passed up to the shire court from the hundred court, though we are not sure why this would be necessary. Presumably, it would occur in cases where the hundred court was unable to reach a judgement, or where disputes crossed the boundary between two hundreds.”  http://www.regia.org/law.htm

As to the specifics of the laws, compared to the laws in Wales, this following pages have extensive lists of what they actually entailed:  http://www.fordham.edu/halsall/source/560-975dooms.html

In general, like in Wales, crimes were punishable by fines, more than death or dismemberment (hallmarks of Norman law).  Similarly to Wales, women in Anglo-Saxon England had rights:  “The Law of Cnut stated: “neither a widow nor a maiden is to be forced to marry a man whom she herself dislikes, nor to be given for money, unless he chooses to give anything of his own free will.”  Cnut’s law also specified that if a woman’s husband died before they had any children, she was entitled to one-third of his land (called “dower,” under common English law,) plus her morgegifu (gifts at the time of marriage).  Despite religious expectations, divorce laws were considered lax: Anglo-Saxon King Ecelbert passed specific laws that gave women the right to abandon a marriage if she found it “displeasing.””  http://research.uvu.edu/mcdonald/Anglo-Saxon/Anglo-Saxon%20Women/mindyMain.html

From my reading, I am unsure as to the actual status of illegitimate children and their inheritance (unlike in Wales, where illegitimate children inherited equally with legitimate ones).  William of Normandy himself was a bastard, but yet inherited in Normandy (and then conquered England), so laws on the subject are not always set in stone.

“The Anglo-Saxon legal system rested on the fundamental opposition between folkright and privilege. Folkright is the aggregate of rules, whether formulated or not, that can be appealed to as an expression of the juridical consciousness of the people at large or of the communities of which it is composed. It is tribal in origin and is differentiated on highly localized bases. Thus, there was a folkright of East and West Saxons, Mercians, Northumbrians, Danes, and Welshmen, and these main folkright divisions persisted even after the tribal kingdoms disappeared in the 8th and 9th centuries. The responsibility for the formulation and application of the folkright rested, in the 10th and 11th centuries, with the local shire moots (assemblies); the national council of the realm, or witan, only occasionally used folkright ideas. . . .

Before the 10th century an individual’s actions were considered not as exertions of his own will but as acts of his kinship group. Personal protection and revenge, oaths, marriage, wardship, and succession were all regulated by the law of kinship. What began as a natural alliance later became a means of enforcing responsibility and keeping lawless individuals in order. As the associations proved insufficient, other collective bodies, such as guilds and townships, assumed these functions. In the period before the Norman Conquest, much regulation was formalized by the king’s legislation in order to protect the individual. In the area of property, for example, witnesses were required at cattle sales, not to validate the sale but as protection against later claims on the cattle. Some ordinances required the presence of witnesses for all sales outside the town gate, and others simply prohibited sales except in town, again for the buyer’s protection.”   http://www.britannica.com/EBchecked/topic/25121/Anglo-Saxon-law#

(updating and posting again 9/11/11)