Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Leofric's family...the events of 1065

With so little evidence the Historian is forced to fit what is available into which ever grand narrative he or she prefers. It’s the only way to make what is a scattered mess into a tidy story. The generally accepted master narrative of the 11th century is that the families of Godwin and Leofric vied for power, possibly at the expense of the Anglo-Saxon state and the unity and strength of the kingdom.

Richard Fletcher, who was after all writing a book about Blood Feuds, could write about the events of 1065: “ For Edwine and Morcar it was an opportunity not to be missed. Here at last was a chance to hit out at the hated sons of Godwin” (Bloodfeud. p161). Victor Head in his “biography” of Hereward wrote: “it is tempting to see in this [the exile of Hereward] evidence of the political intrigues that marked the years leading up to the Norman Conquest and to a large extent contributed to its success.”
Reading backwards family politics becomes a reason for the Norman success and for Edwine and Morcar’s recalcitrance in 1066 and later. That backward reading is supported, consciously or otherwise, by later medieval history where great families did split the kingdom all ends up and by earlier Anglo-Saxon history where Mercia and Wessex and Northumbria were kingdoms vying for political dominance. And by the assumption that two families, both alike in dignity, must have been each other’s throats.

Baxter suggests that the earls were in fact both powerful and vulnerable, hard working administrators who may not have been quite so geographically focussed as we would suspect and that the continued strength and prosperity and peace of the kingdom under the anointed king was in their best interests.

But not being an historian, I can indulge in some whatiffery. Is there any reason to suppose that the Godwinsons and Leofwinsons did hate each other? Or saw each other as rivals? If so for what?

But first a quick recap on what is known about the Northumbrian uprising in 1065.

After ten years or so, the people of Northumbria had had enough of Tostig. While he was away at the southern court they rose against him. The uprising was well-planned. The rebels entered York on 3rd October and killed Tostig’s retainers. Having declared Tostig an outlaw, they offered the “Vacant Earldom” to Morcar, the youngest brother of Eadwine and son of Aeflgar. Morcar accepted, and marched south with his new people, joined by his brother, the fighting men of Mercia and their Welsh allies. Harold Godwinson acted as an intermediary between the king and the rebels. Rather than bring them to heal by fighting, as Edward may have wanted, an agreement was reached which legalised what had happened. Morcar was confirmed as Earl of Northumbria, Edward agreed to follow the Laws of Cnut, and Tostig was isolated. Outraged, he claimed his brother had manufactured the uprising and Harold had to clear himself on oath. The rebels did a bit of Harrying around Northhampton where Tostig had estates, and then went home. The had entered York on the 3rd, the council finished its deliberations on the 28th and Tostig was offered a choice: accept or be exiled. He chose exile. Before speculating about skulduggery.

Edwine and Morcar's father was dead. So was their grandfather Leofric. But Godgifu wasn't. I wonder what Grandma G thought of all this.

1) The rebellion, which is usally simply narrated and explained, was outrageous. The Earl was the King’s appointed deputy in his earldom. To throw him out was an act of gross disobedience. In a top down society, no matter how interdependent the parts of the hierarchy, to overthrow your king’s appointed officer was novel. King’s had exiled earls, but not at the request of the people they were supposed to keep in line.

2) There’s nothing odd about the rebels' choice of Morcar. They obviously needed a candidate to replace Tostig. You don’t just rock up to Morcar’s front door in the aftermath of your rebellion and ask “how’d you fancy being earl of Northumbria’ to which he replies : ”Cor, I’d like that. Hey Edwin, bro, I’m marching south against the King, wanna get some homeys together in a posse and ride with me?”

Choosing a local replacement for Tostig was not a good idea for several reasons. Firstly it would isolate the northumbrians between the Mercians and the Scots; secondly, if Fletcher is correct, while there were candidates from old families in the area, they tended to have enemies who were candidates from other old familes; at least they could all regard an outlander with mutual suspicion and hostility. Morcar was the ideal choice: While planning the uprising they were hardly going to approach one of Tostig’s brothers; as a son of Leofric he had had what passed as training for Earling: secondly, his elder brother had an army.

3) Tostig’s actions after his exile suggest he was following a well known script without quite realising that the world had changed. He probably remembered his father’s banishment and had heard enough stories about it. The pattern, which Aeflgar had worked twice with minor variations, meant you went away, gathered an army, found an ally, roughed up the locals, then gathered enough supporters to make the King take you back. King Harald’s Saga is not a reliable historical source, but it’s interesting that in the dramatic confrontation between the two brothers before Stamford Bridge, Harold offers Tostig a third of England, including Northumbria. Tostig says it’s a pity he didn’t say this last year, and then asks what English Harold will give Viking Harald. The reply ”seven feet of ground” sums up the bind Tostig put himself in.

4) If Tostig was playing a well known script the context had changed in subtle but important ways. Godwin had been exiled for refusing to harry Dover. He had good will in the bank when he came back. Tostig had been evicted by his own people and they didn’t want him back. When he raided along the coast he was seen off by Edwin and Morcar. There was no popular rising in his favour. Godwin had faced Edward. Tostig now had to face his brother. And while Aelfgar had made treaties with the Welsh, Tostig went and made his with a man even the Vikings thought was a hard case, who wouldn’t be happy to see Tostig reinstated in York and then sail home. He wanted the crown of England. And that changed everything.
But the question that intrigues me, is did Harold “do his bother good and proper” in 1065? And does the concept of family feud obscure something else.

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