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Anglo-Saxon Isle of Wight: 900 - 1066 AD

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Anglo-Saxon Isle of Wight | 400 - 900AD | 900 - 1066AD | Churches | Day-To-Day Life | Legends

Viking Invasion and Æthelred The Unready

From the rule of Alfred The Great until the rule of Æthelred II The Unready, the Kingdom of Wessex grew in strength and size. Under Alfred's son, Edward the Elder, and his grandson Athelstan, the Kingdom of Wessex started pushing north, conquering the old kingdoms of Mercia and Northumbria which had been under Danish rule. By the reign of Edgar the Peaceable, England was one nation with one King. Yet near the turn of the millennium, this was threatened by a series of Viking raids which grew in number and strength, until at last King Swein himself personally led his army in battle.

Coming of the Vikings

998 - Here the raiding-army turned eastward again, into the mouth of the Frome, and went up as widely as they wanted into Dorset. And an army was often gathered against them, but as soon as they should have come together something always started a retreat, and the Vikings always had the victory in the end.

And then another time they lay in the Isle of Wight, and meanwhile ate out of Hampshire and of Sussex.
- The Anglo-Saxon Chronicles1

At this time the Viking Raiders, instead of travelling to and from Denmark on each raid, based themselves locally. In the 990s, each winter - when the seas were too rough to risk crossing - they stayed in Normandy, home of their allies and ethnic cousins, the Normans. Richard I, Duke of Normandy (who reigned from 942 - 996) was far from fond of Æthelred the Unready, and in the 980s the Pope himself had been forced to negotiate a peace-treaty between them.

In 1002 Æthelred married Emma, daughter of Richard of Normandy. After the marriage, Normandy agreed to no longer shelter the Viking raiders. This made little difference in the end, the Vikings turning to the Isle of Wight as a base, as they had between 998 - 999. From there they were safe from any land army and in a perfect strategic position to raid much of the south coast of England, returning safely to the Isle of Wight, as the events of 1001 - 1009 show.

1001 - Here in this year there was great hostility in the land of the English race through the raiding ship-army; and they raided and burnt almost everywhere... And then Hampshire came against them and fought with them. And there Æthelweard, the King's high-reeve, was killed, and Leofric of Whitchurch and Leofwine, the king's high-reeve, and Wulfhere, the bishop's thegn, and Godwine of Worthy, the son of Bishop Ælfsige, and eighty one men in all. And there were many more of the Danish killed, though they had possession of the place of slaughter.

And then the Vikings went west from there until they came to Devon, and there Pallig joined them with those ships he could gather, because he had deserted King Æthelred, contrary to all the pledges he had granted him...

...And they went from there to the mouth of the Exe, so that they moved up in a single journey until they came to Pinhoe; and there Kola, the king's high-reeve, and Eadsige, the king's reeve, came against them with such an army of men as they could gather... as soon as they joined battle the English army gave way and they made a great slaughter there - and the Danish had possession of the place of slaughter. They then rode over the countryside, each succeeding occasion was always worse than the last; and they brought much war-booty with them to the ships, and turned from there into the Isle of Wight, and there travelled about just as they themselves wanted, and nothing withstood them. No raiding ship-army on sea nor land-army dared approach them, however far inland they went. In every way it was a heavy time, because they never left off their evil.

1006 - ...And then, after midsummer the Danish fleet came to Sandwich, and did all they were accustomed: raided and burned and killed as they travelled. Then the King ordered the whole nation from Wessex and from Mercia to be called out, and all harvest-time they lay away on a campaign against the raiding army, but it did not achieve any more than it often did before. Despite all this, the raiding army travelled just where it wanted, and the campaign caused the local people every kind of harm, so that neither the native raiding-army nor the foreign raiding-army did them any good!

Then when it drew near to winter, the army travelled home, and after Martinmas the raiding-army came to its secure base on the Isle of Wight and there provided themselves everywhere whatever they needed. And then towards midwinter they took themselves.. out through Hampshire into Berkshire at Reading; and they did, in their custom, ignite their war signals as they travelled... Then the army were assembled there at the Kennet, and there they joined battle; and the Danes soon brought that troop to flight, and afterwards carried their war-booty to the sea...

...Then the King and his councillors decided that, though it was hateful to them, tax must be paid to the raiding-army for the good of the entire nation. Then the King sent to the raiding-army and ordered it to be known to them that he wished there to be a truce between them, and that they should be granted tax and provisions; and they all accepted that, and they were provisioned throughout the English race.

1009 - ...Then when this ship-army had finished thus, there came to Sandwich immediately after Lammas the immense hostile raiding-army, and immediately turned their course to Canterbury and would quickly have taken the town if they had not the more quickly begged them for peace; and all the East Kentish made peace with them for £3,000. And then immediately after that the raiding-army turned about until they came to the Isle of Wight, and raided and burned, as their custom was, everywhere in Sussex and in Hampshire and also in Berkshire...

Invasion And Conquest

By 1013 things had changed. Instead of raids solely for the purpose of extortion, a planned invasion of England began, headed by King Swein. This proved successful, and Æthelred was forced to abandon England and abdicate. At first he fled to the Isle of Wight whilst his wife Emma of Normandy - known in England as Ælfgifu - and his sons Alfred and Edward2 left for Normandy. Æthelred joined them in Normandy later in the year, yet in early 1014 Swein died.

Æthelred returned to England as King, until his death in 1016. After his death his son Edmund Ironsides ruled briefly, but he too died in 1016. After his death Cnut, son of Swein, became King.

1013 - ..King Swein came with his fleet to Sandwich, and very quickly turned around East Anglia into the mouth of the Humber, and so upwards up the Trent until he came to Gainsborough. And then Earl Uhtred and all Northumbria immediately submitted to him, and all the people in Lindsey, and afterwards the people of the Five Boroughs... and he was granted hostages from every shire.

Then after he recognised that all the people had submitted to him, he ordered that his raiding-army should be provisioned and horsed; then he turned southward with his whole army, and entrusted his ships and hostages to Cnut, his son.

And after he came over Watling Street, they wrought the greatest evil that any raiding army could do, then turned to Oxford, and the inhabitants of the town immediately submitted and gave hostages - and from there to Winchester... then from there they turned eastwards to London, and a great part of his people were drowned in the Thames, because they did not look for any bridge.

Then when he came to the town, the inhabitants of the town would not submit, but held out against them because King Æthelred was inside... Then King Swein turned from there... and the whole nation had him as full king. And after that the town inhabitants in London submitted and gave hostages. ...Then for some time the King Æthelred was with the fleet in the Thames, and the Lady Ælfgifu Emma then turned across the sea to her brother Richard3... And the King sent Bishop Ælfhun across the sea with the Æthelings [Princes] Edward and Alfred in order that he should look after them. And then at midwinter the King turned from the fleet to the Isle of Wight, and was there for the season; and after the season turned across the sea to Richard [of Normandy], and was there until the happy event of Swein's death occurred.

Between Invasions:

After Æthelred's death, his wife Emma became Cnut's second wife. His son, Harthacnut, as well as Æthelred's sons by Emma, who was also Æthelred's second wife, were therefore related to the Dukes of Normandy. Cnut was King of England, Denmark, Norway and parts of southern Sweden until his death in 1035, after which his sons Harold I4 and Harthacnut5 ruled England briefly, after which time the throne returned to Æthelred's son Edward the Confessor, who ruled until 1066.

Cnut's was a sea-based Empire, one which was ruled on three separate peninsulas. Secure harbours, such as could be found on the Isle of Wight, were vital.

1022 - Here King Cnut went out with his ships to Wight.

Yet despite the end of the Viking attacks, England was still occasionally threatened by raiders. In 1048, the Isle of Wight was again raided - some believe that it was by rogue Viking raiders led by Lothen and Yrling, another view is that it was a raid organised by Flanders.

1048 - Here in this year was a great earth-tremor widely in England. And in the same year Sandwich and Wight were raided, and the best men that were there were killed; and King Edward [the Confessor] and the earls went out after them in their ships.

1066: End of the Anglo-Saxons

When the Norman Invasion of 1066 is considered today, it is viewed as a simple Anglo-Saxon versus Norman fight that arose in 1066. This is the view presented by the Bayeux Tapestry. Yet the events of 1066 were much more complex than that, and the start of the crisis of 1066 can, in many ways, be traced back to the events of 1051 - 1052.

Earl Godwine

During the reign of Cnut, the only substantial change that Cnut had made was to change how England was ruled locally. Instead of the Ealdormen which had existed previously, Cnut had introduced a system in which England was ruled locally by a few powerful Earls. Under Cnut, this system worked perfectly, yet by the time of Edward the Confessor, Godwine, Earl of Wessex, was the most powerful of these, and many of his sons also enjoyed extensive power and earldoms in their own right. He had been brother-in-law to Cnut's brother-in-law, and had married his daughter Edith to Edward the Confessor. During much of Edward the Confessor's reign, Godwine had tried to dominate Edward the Confessor, yet in 1051, his power was threatened.

Godwine In Exile

In 1051, Eustace II, Count of Boulogne, who had married Edward the Confessor's sister Goda, arrived in Dover, which was part of Godwine's Earldom. There a riot started, in which many of Godwine's men were killed. Earl Godwine sought revenge for this, and he and his two eldest sons Earl Swein and Earl Harold, who was later to become King Harold II, gathered an army and demanded that Eustace and his men were given to them. Edward also gathered an army, yet neither side wished to fight, fearing to weaken England needlessly.

Edward managed to encourage many of Godwine's troops to defect, and Godwine and his family, were sent into exile and declared Outlaw. Edward's wife was sent to a convent. It was during this time that the childless Edward nominated William of Normandy as his successor in England - William was Edward's cousin, and Edward had spent much of his life in exile in Normandy. However, in 1052, Godwine returned to power:

1052 - And soon Earl Harold came from Ireland with his ships to the mouth of the Severn near the borders of Somerset and Devonshire, and raided there a lot... And then King Edward had 40 cutters embarked which lay at Sandwich. They were to look out for Earl Godwine.... however, he [Godwine] came to the country first before they knew about it, and while he was there he enticed to him all the Kentish and all the boatmen from Hastings and everywhere along the sea-coast, and all Essex and Surrey and much else in addition. Then they declared that they would live and die with him.

Then when the fleet that lay in Sandwich learnt about Godwine's expedition, they set out after him, and he escaped them, and that fleet turned back to Sandwich and so homeward to London town. Then when Godwine learnt that the fleet which lay at Sandwich had turned home, then he went to Wight, and lay thereabouts along the sea-coast until they came together - his son Earl Harold and he. And they did no great harm after...

...And Godwine kept moving towards London with his fleet.. then they veered with the ships as if they wanted to circle around the king's ships. The King also had a great land-army on his side in addition to his shipmen, but it was abhorrent to almost all to fight against men of their own race, because there was very little else of any great value except English on either side; and they also did not want that this country should be the more greatly laid open to foreign men, should they themselves destroy each other. It was decided then that wise men should be sent between them and arrange peace on either side; and Godwine landed and Harold... and then there was a council meeting; and Godwine was clean granted his earldom as fully and as completely as he ever owned it, and all his sons all what they earlier owned.

As a result, Godwine's family was restored to power, although Godwine's oldest son Swein had died in exile in 1052. In 1053 Godwine died, and his son Harold Godwinson became Earl of Wessex. His brothers also enjoyed high positions, Tostig became Earl of Northumbria, and in 1057 Gyrth was Earl of East Anglia and Leofwine was Earl in the south-east Midlands. Goda, Edward's wife, returned from the convent to become Edward's Queen once more, and by the end of the 1050s Harold was in essence acting as 'Under-King'. In 1057 Edward appointed Edgar Ætheling as heir to the throne. William's rights to succession had been forgotten, and not mentioned even by Edward himself, until 1064.

Harold In Normandy

In 1064, Harold is believed to have sailed to Normandy. How and why he travelled there is a matter of debate, one version is that he had been fishing off the coast of the Isle of Wight when he was caught in a storm and wrecked on the Normandy Coast, where he was forced to swear that William would inherit the crown.

Tostig and Harold

In 1065, Tostig faced a rebellion in his Earldom. He was accused of having 'robbed God first, and then despoiled of life and of land all those he had power over.' Edward the Confessor gave in to the people of Northumbria, and appointed Morcar to the Earldom, despite Harold's objections. Tostig became outlawed.

On January 5th 1066, Edward the Confessor died. At this point, the succession was far from clear, for their were many claimants to the throne, not just two as is often assumed. The obvious successor, appointed by Edward himself, was Edgar Ætheling, grandson of Edmund Ironside, King in 1016. However, he was still a child, and after the last child king, Æthelred the Unready, he was not a popular choice. Other options included Swegn Estrithson, King of Denmark and King Cnut's nephew, Harald Hardrada, King of Norway, Tostig Godwinson, Harold's brother, as well as William and Harold. Yet it was Harold who became King, and in the just over 40 weeks that he ruled, he faced threats of Invasion not only from William, but also from Harald Hardrada and his own brother Tostig.

Tostig was the first to attack, and the first to come to the Isle of Wight. Both he and his brother used the Isle of Wight as a base - Tostig using it to attack, and Harold to defend - similarly to how their father, Godwine, had used the Isle of Wight in 1052.

1066 - In this year King Harold came from York to Westminster at the Easter which was after the midwinter that the King passed away; and Easter was then on the 16th April. Then throughout all England, a sign such as men never saw before was seen in the heavens. Some men declared that it was the star comet, which some men call the haired star, and it appeared first on the eve of the Greater Litany, 24th April, and shone thus all the week.

And soon thereafter came Earl Tostig from beyond the sea into Wight, and with as great a fleet as he could get, and there was given both money and provisions; and then went from there, and did harm everywhere along the sea-cost he could get to, until he came to Sandwich. And King Harold, his brother, gathered a greater raiding ship-army and also raiding land-army than any King here in the land had ever done before, because he was informed that William the bastard6 wanted to come here and win this land, just as afterward it came to pass.

Then when Tostig found out that King Harold was on his way to Sandwich, he went from Sandwich, and took some of the boatmen with him, and went North into Humber, and there raided in Lindsey and killed many good men there. ...And then he went to Scotland - and Malcolm III the King of Scots7 gave him safe-conduct and helped him with provisions - and lived there all summer.

Then King Harold came to Sandwich and waited for his fleet there, because it was long before it could be gathered. And then when his fleet was gathered, he went into Wight, and lay there all the summer and the autumn; and a land army was kept everywhere by the sea, although in the end it was to no avail. Then when it was the Nativity of St. Mary, the men's provisions were gone, and no-one could hold them there any longer. Then the men were allowed to go home, and the King rode inland, and the ships were sent to London, and many perished before they came there.

Then when they came home, King Harald Hardrada from Norway then came by surprise north into the Tyne, with a very great raiding ship-army - and no little one, it could be 300 ships or more and Tostig submitted to him and became his man, and they went into the Humber until they came to York, and there Earl Edwin and Earl Morcar8, his brother, fought against them, but the Northmen had the victory. Then Harold, King of the English, was informed that this had come about there - and this fight was on the Vigil of St Matthew. Then Harold our King came upon the Northmen by surprise, and encountered them beyond York at Stamford Bridge with a great raiding-army of English people; and there was that day a very hard fight on both sides.

There were killed Harald Fine-Hair and Earl Tostig, and the Northmen who remained there were put to flight...

Harold had managed to defeat the combined forces of Tostig and King Harald Hardrada, which in many ways was a threat more serious than that of Duke William. Certainly the army was larger than William's. Yet soon after the Battle of Stamford Bridge, William invaded, and at the Battle of Hastings, won.

After the Battle of Hastings, Anglo-Saxon Britain had come to an end, and the Isle of Wight as well as the rest of England entered into the Norman era.

Anglo-Saxon Isle of Wight

1All quotes in this entry are from Swanton, M (2000) The Anglo-Saxon Chronicles (New Edition) London, Phoenix Press.2Edward later became King Edward the Confessor3Richard II, Duke of Normandy 996 - 10264King of England 1035 - 10405Son of Emma and Cnut, King of England 1040 - 10426William, Duke of Normandy, was the illegitimate child of Robert I of Normandy. At the time 'bastard' was a French loan-word term that had not yet come into the English language fully, and was not the insult it later became.7King of Scotland 1058 - 1093 after King Macbeth 1040 - 1057, mentioned in Shakespeare's play 'Macbeth'.8Who had replaced Tostig in 1065 as Earl of Northumbria. Perhaps Tostig was more willing to aid Harald Hardrada in order to get revenge on Morcar and the people of York for exiling him.

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