Why I chose the late Anglo-Saxon period for Of the North

I planned to post Friday as normal, except that we had a blizzard and the internet was out for quite a while (so was the power, but we managed and we’re still alive and everything’s back on now). Then Saturday I had two days’ worth of paper-writing to fit into one. It’s winter in Minnesota in earnest now, which means I can’t get my sister to stop singing Christmas songs which are still out of season.


At my first SCA event somebody asked me, “So if you were to join the SCA, what era would you want your persona to be?” I said Anglo-Saxon without hesitation, which was odd because at the time I knew next to nothing about it except that it had ended about the time William the Conqueror sailed across the Channel. I’d always found Hastings, and the change of power, interesting in a vague sort of way; Hastings was one of the few dates that stuck in my mind, for some reason.

After finding out that I would be staying in the SCA for quite some time, I started researching, and learned a bit here and there about the reign of Edward the Confessor, and Harold Godwinson, and William of Normandy — all three of whom have different names, nicknames, and titles at various points and depending on who you’re talking to, which makes it confusing sometimes — and began to find out about the opposing claims to the crown, other claimants who got pushed out of the way and are rarely heard of, and the reasons each side gave. I found them pretty fascinating. Of course a moral dilemma is at the heart of the issue, which it probably is for every debate over the right to the throne there ever has been. It brings up pretty implications for the divine right of kings as well as rumours of the social contract which was to come.

Earl Godwin, who was one of the strongest men in England during Edward’s reign, got into a quarrel with his King and he and his family were exiled, but after a few years made peace and were brought back and their positions restored. Harold, one of Godwin’s sons, became one of the King’s foremost men as the Kin grew older and turned more to saints’ relics (some of which were definitely faked) than to men for protecting the borders (they were having trouble with the Danes and the Welsh at the time). On a journey Harold was shipwrecked and Duke William of Normandy rescued him. They got along very well until William made it tactfully clear that Harold was going nowhere until he promised the throne, after Edward’s death, to go to the Norman. Harold did. It was not until after he made his oath that William revealed that he’d sworn on the bones of the saints — which meant excommunication if he broke his word, as well as ordinary mortal dishonour. Then William very nicely let Harold go back home. During the time which passed between now and the King’s death, Harold went on being the favourite at court and taking care of things against the Danes and the Welsh.

When the King died his council met to decide the next ruler. Edward had no direct children; Edgar the Atheling was a grandnephew and young to rule, besides not having a mind for it; and Harold had already proven himself in service and was the people’s darling. So they put it to a vote and the people, predictably, chose Harold. Now once the council and the people had chosen him, Harold couldn’t have backed out if he’d wanted to. His oath to William was no good. He had lost his free will in the matter. It was rather reluctantly he went to Westminster to be crowned that January, Anno Domini 1066 according to the Julian calendar.

When William heard about it he was not happy. He got his friend the Pope to excommunicate Harold, and helped spread the word throughout Normandy and England that the English king was outside the church. Then he prepared his enormous fleet and army to cross the Channel and take the throne. It was his after all.

William was the illegitimate son of Robert of Normandy (who was also known as Robert the Devil for his loose ways and wild life). He’d spent most of his life avoiding or killing the people who wanted him dead. He was crafty though a fairly devout Catholic. But the thing the English hated most about him, besides that he was simply strutting in and declaring himself their king, even more than the fact that he was illegitimate, was that he was a foreigner. The Normans were descended from Rolf the Ganger, a Norseman who took over land in northern France and settled down there. William’s claim to the throne was that once, before Harold grew in usefulness to Edward, he mentioned giving the throne to William. Then, of course, there was Harold’s sworn oath on the saints’ relics and in the sight of William’s chief men.

Harold defeated Harald Hardrada,a Norse pirate, and Tostig (also spelled Tosty) Godwinson (yes, his own brother) at the battle of Stamford bridge in September. The next battle was at Hastings, in October, where Harold was famously (or infamously) shot in the eye by a random Norman arrow. No one could identify his body, it had been so mutilated, so his family sent for Edith Swanneck, his sweetheart whom he had given up for a marriage the English people approved of. She identified his body, sources disagree as to what sign she saw that only she knew, and went to ask William for it. He refused the plea of two monks, and the pleas of Harold’s few surviving thegns, but it is said that he could not refuse Edith. Where Harold’s body is buried we also don’t know.

William was crowned at Westminster that Christmas. Archbishop Stigand, who had crowned Harold that same year, declined the honour of doing the same for William, and it was  Archbishop Ealdred, of York, who ended up doing it. The church was accidentally set on fire during the ceremony, causing a panic, which both Normans and Saxons took as an omen for the king’s reign — the former as a bad one, the latter as a good one.

Of the North turned out not to be as much about these things as I’d originally thought; not as much of a large-scale thing or even doing much with the Conquest, but coming in before and after, showing things on a small scale away from the fighting and courts and main action, with the small people who weren’t immediately affected. For a really good book about the Conquest and what led up to it, if you don’t mind an old-fashioned writing style and the fact that the book is out of print and hard to find, I recommend Harold, Last of the Saxon Kings, by Sir Edward Bulwer-Lytton. It has a good preface that explains the differences between history, historical fiction, and historical romance. He knew how to do research too, even with the handicap of living in the nineteenth century, when we hadn’t yet unearthed many of the things we have today. The writing style is sometimes pedantic, but I’d still take Harold over Henty’s Wulf the Saxon any day — though they were set at the same time and were about the same people and events.


About Nolie Alcarturiel

Creative Writing major and Philosophy minor, contemplating a Master's degree in Medieval History. I enjoy practically anything to do with medieval history, including the domestic arts, with an especial emphasis on the Anglo-Saxon Era. In my spare time I read endlessly, do medieval living-history, hold philosophical debates at the drop of a hat, and write books on even slighter provocation.
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One Response to Why I chose the late Anglo-Saxon period for Of the North

  1. I appreciate the backstory. It is a fascinating time in history. Various reasons for this fascination come to mind. The list is too involved for finger typing on a phone, however. Maybe later. As a related note, many years ago I thought I might some time write a story about Siward, Earl of Northumbria (1041-1055), the ruler Shakespeare writes of as the conqueror of MacBeth. It was not from hubris I had the desire, but because of a supposed family connection to the Earl. When rechecking the dates on Wikipedia (for what that’s worth), I noticed the writer alludes to the Earl’s marriage to one AElfflaed, and also to his successor as one Tostig Godwinson. And then my rambling thoughts jumped to the Magna Carta. Anyway, thank you for the post.


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