Saxon England: the first English mercenaries

Breton Light Cavalry

The Saxons had conquered England from the Romano-British in the fifth and sixth centuries, effectively eliminating them as a factor in language, religion and government, leaving behind only the semi-mythical stories of King Arthur to commemorate the long and bitter struggle. The Saxons in their turn fell victim to the Vikings in the ninth and tenth centuries, but with less dire results; when Danes and Norwegians overran most of the British Isles, they only forced the Saxons, Scots and Irish to pay tribute.

The most important Viking physical presence was in eastern and central England, in the Danelaw, where they gave new vigour to the economy, especially to the town of York. Saxon resistance to the Vikings in the west led to a union of the petty kingdoms under King Alfred (871–99), who hired the first English mercenaries, Frisian sailors who had their own reasons for disliking Danes and liking regular pay; later kings hired professional guards called housecarls. Eventually all Saxons accepted Danish sovereignty as long as the king remained far away. King Canute (1016–35) is remembered more for his self-deprecating wisdom than his empire stretching all the way to Estonia.

When the Saxons achieved independence again, they did not dismantle the fiscal apparatus for collecting tribute money. This income made the Saxon king rich despite England being a comparatively poor country. Similarly, the Northmen who gave their name to Normandy made that region more important than its natural resources should have allowed.

The Norman Conquest of Saxon England began with a dispute about which of six men would be the successor of Edward the Confessor (1042–66); only three, however, had the military resources to be serious contenders–William the Bastard, Harold Godwinson and Harald Hardrada, who had become King of Norway in 1047.

The saintly king’s vow of chastity had disrupted the smooth transfer of power that was the chief virtue of hereditary succession. The three leading candidates had equally good claims on the crown. However, Harold Godwinson, earl of Wessex, was at Edward’s deathbed. According to Snorri, Harold bent over Edward’s mouth, then stood up to call on all witnesses to testify that the king had named him his successor. There were many sceptics, men who were used to politicians’ wiles; among them was Harold’s own brother, Tostig.

Harold was the son of Godwin, who had governed England for Canute. Godwin had selected Edward as king during the last succession crisis, and had dominated the compliant ruler with one significant exception, when Edward had exiled him temporarily. Godwin returned, but died in 1053 before he could guarantee the succession to his son Harold. This son was the favourite of the Witan, the Saxon assembly, which was actually in session when Edward passed away. Harold Godwinson was known to most of the thanes, as the Saxons called the landed warrior class, because he had carried out many of the tasks associated with daily governance after his father’s death, and his sister had been Edward’s chaste and loyal wife. He met two of the four characteristics set by the Witan for the next ruler: he was a man of character and ability, and he was English. Forty-four years of age, he was at the height of his physical and mental powers. However, he was not of royal blood and the king had not indicated his wishes, not even on his deathbed, except perhaps in Harold’s ear.

Awkwardly, Harold’s brother, Tostig, the eldest of Godwin’s five sons, thought that he had the better claim to be head of the family and, hence, king. Edward’s favourite, Tostig had been sent north to defend the borderlands against the Scots in 1065, but his men had provoked a rebellion among the very people they were to protect. The rebels killed his closest associates, seized the treasury, and marched south to demand that the king give them a better governor. Tostig, who had been hunting when the crisis arose, accused Harold of provoking it. Harold, in the presence of the king, swore that he was innocent of any involvement. Edward, unable to raise troops to put down the rising, reluctantly ordered Tostig into exile. This was a mistake.

Tostig went to first to Denmark, hoping to persuade King Sven II (Canute’s grandson, king 1047–76) to support his cause; but that monarch said that he too old and feeble for such an enterprise (he was forty-six). Then Tostig sailed to Norway and approached King Harald Hardrada. For fifteen years Harald had been making annual raids into Denmark, but recently he had made peace with King Sven. Now Harald was bored. Moreover, he was touched to the quick by Tostig’s taunt that he had fought hard to possess Denmark, but would not accept England when it was being handed to him. More to the point, Harald’s warriors were probably short of cash after two years without an opportunity to loot somebody. Still, many Vikings were aware that one Saxon housecarl would be equal to two Norwegian yeomen, and that there were many of them, all wearing mail armour and wielding large axes. Others scoffed at this – Vikings were unbeatable, they boasted, and they had almost always bested the English.

Tostig’s original plan was to become king himself, but King Harald was not willing to undertake such a venture for only a little money. Besides, he probably enjoyed taunting the petitioner (his nickname means ‘hard bargainer’); for a Viking a bare-knuckles negotiation was almost as much fun as a brawl, and it could last longer, without anyone being actually killed. When Harald asked Tostig why Norwegians should fight to make one brother king of the English rather than another, when no Englishman could be trusted for anything, Tostig changed the argument: he said that Harald should become king himself; for his part, Tostig was ready to settle for the governance of Northumbria, with perhaps an appointment to rule England whenever Harald would be absent (which would be most of the time). Harald, satisfied with this proposal, soon had an army ready to sail.

King Harald entered the tomb of St Olaf, trimmed the holy corpse’s beard and nails, then threw away the key. When he joined the fleet of 200 warships and more supply vessels, an aged woman saw ghostly carrion birds perched on every prow; she remarked that they were awaiting the prince’s feast. The old troll had it right in at least one respect: the warriors on board had an appetite for a rich meal of human flesh and bones. She was also right in suggesting that Harald would be the chief course. But Harald, certain of his ‘luck’, was unmoved. He was turning his back on Norway; his future was in England, at least what would be left of it by the time his warriors were sated. He was fifty years old, plenty of time left for more adventures, for greater ambitions.

The third candidate was William, duke of Normandy (1035–87). The Norman nobles were descendants of Viking immigrants, but their blood had been mixed with that of French counts and knights and they had enthusiastically adopted the language and customs of their subjects. In a way the Normans combined the best and worst traits of both their ancestral culture and their adopted one. Most importantly, they could never stay quietly at home. War was their natural environment, and when a feud was not available locally, they sought a conflict out abroad.

Some wild young Norman knights had already gone to Italy in 998 as mercenaries. William’s father, Robert the Devil, had encouraged more of them to go south, out of his hair and into somebody else’s. Just as well. When he became a pilgrim and set off for the Holy Land, he named his illegitimate son William his successor, hardly anticipating that he himself would die on the journey. That the seven-year-old William survived to adulthood was a miracle. His upbringing must have been the most arduous training in statecraft on record, and even at age eighteen, when he announced that he would assume the government personally, he had to subdue a dangerous revolt by his vassals. Henceforth he kept his knights employed at foreign wars, encouraging even more to go to southern Italy. The most prominent of the Normans there – Robert Guiscard (†1085) – made himself master of Naples and assisted his brother, Roger (†1101), in conquering Sicily. They became the protectors of the Papal States against the Holy Roman emperor and provided many volunteers for the First Crusade. The ties with Normandy would remain important for several generations; this gave French monarchs excuses to intervene there from the thirteenth century on.

William’s claims to the Saxon throne were shaky. Once in the past, he said, Edward had promised to name him king. Sometimes William suggested this was in 1042 before Edward had left Normandy to become king himself, when William was a teenager; sometimes it was during a meeting in 1051, when William visited the king during Godwin’s exile – there were many Normans at the court at that time. William’s claim was reinforced in 1064, when Harold found himself in Normandy, either on a diplomatic mission or driven ashore by storms. According to William, Harold swore to become his ‘man’ (the act of homage from the Latin homo) and then to do all that he could to assure that William would be elected king. Storytellers disagree as to where this oath was given and of what it consisted.

What might have happened was that Harold used this promise to secure his pre-eminent position in the government just as Tostig had done with Harald Hardrada – a oath of fealty that cost nothing but would secure him from disaster should Edward recommend William to the Witan as the next king. In the meantime, William could boast of his future prospects: he was now only a duke, but soon enough he would be a king.

Strangely, when William heard of Edward’s death, he had only one question of Harold: would Harold marry William’s daughter as he had promised? Harold, however, had both a long-term mistress and an intended bride. He was not willing to give up either for an under-aged fiancée. Instead, Harold moved quickly to obtain election by the Witan and be crowned. When he heard of the mobilisations in Norway and Normandy, he ordered his army to assemble.

The core of Harold’s force were the housecarls, professional soldiers equipped with mail armour, shields and axes. The mass of troops came from the militia, called the fyrd, most of which was composed of thanes, landowners who were willing to fight enthusiastically in defence of their homes; warriors of the lower classes were meagrely armed and of indifferent spirit.

William called an assembly of his vassals in the spring. His proposal to build a fleet to transport the army to England was not well received. Vikings had never hesitated to board ships to attack enemy lands, but Vikings were foot-soldiers. Normans fought in mail armour from horseback, hurling spears and slashing with swords; no one had experience in transporting large numbers of warhorses in Viking-style vessels. The lack of space meant that there would be too few rowers to guarantee reaching the English coast if the winds were not favourable; any contrary breeze would drive many vessels far off course, which would not have been a disaster for an ordinary merchantman, but no merchantman was ever loaded with knights and their mounts. Also, by the time a fleet could be ready to sail, it would be autumn, and the weather would be unpredictable. If a summer crossing of the Channel was a daunting prospect, an autumn crossing was positively frightening.

William tried to persuade his vassals not only to agree that his cause was just, but also to promise to bring twice as many men as their feudal contracts stipulated. They balked at that. They were willing to perform their feudal duties, but they made it clear that it was up to him to recruit the army.

The duke’s efforts to recruit his peers failed equally miserably. Neighbouring counts and dukes saw no advantage in assisting him to become even more powerful; already he was a regional bully, a menace to everyone. He had more success with the pope, who was eager to ‘reform’ the English church, that is, to force it to accept recent doctrines that increased papal authority. The pope declared William’s venture holy (the term ‘crusade’ was still unknown), with spiritual benefits for everyone. This may have been meant as a warning to the German emperor, who was extending his authority over the Holy Roman Empire by using church resources, but the pope was not ready to tip his hand there yet. First England, which paid the lucrative ‘Peter’s Pence’ to the pope, then the rest of Christendom.

Last, William sent out a call for volunteers. Warriors flocked in from all parts of the French kingdom, mostly young knights, probably younger sons who had little chance of inheriting enough land to maintain their noble status. In lieu of pay, he promised to give them estates now held by Saxons – as it was often put, ‘to rely on the duke’s generosity’. When that news reached England, the Saxon thanes realised that they had to stand by Harold or lose everything.

Most notable among William’s allies were Bretons. They composed an entire wing of his army at the battle of Hastings. Brittany was a major breeding ground of mercenaries from that time on.

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