Maria Antonia Josepha Johanna is born in Hofburg Palace, Vienna, Austria, Holy Roman Empire to Francis I, Holy Roman Emperor and Maria Theresa of Austria.
Seven Years’ War starts between France & England. Austria & France join forces.
Seven Years’ War ends. The same year, to maintain the alliance between France and Austria, they arrange that Louis-Auguste, the Dauphin of France and King Louis XV’s grandson, marry Marie Antoinette.
Maria Antonia was married by proxy to the Dauphin of France at the Augustinian Church in Vienna, with her brother Archduke Ferdinand standing in for the Dauphin.
Maria Antonia met her husband at the edge of the forest of Compiègne. Upon her arrival in France, she adopted the French version of her name: Marie Antoinette.
A further ceremonial wedding took place in the Palace of Versailles and, after the festivities, the day ended with the ritual bedding.
King Louis XV of France dies of smallpox.
Louis-Auguste is crowned King Louis XVI of France at Reims Cathedral.
Marie Antoinette and King Louis XVI give birth to their first child, Marie Therese of France.
Empress Maria Therese, mother of Marie Antoinette, dies from pneumonia.
22 October 1781
Marie Antoinette and King Louis XVI give birth to their child child, Louis Joseph, Dauphin of France.
Marie Antoinette and King Louis XVI give birth to their third child, Louis Charles (later King Louis XVII of France).
Marie Antoinette and King Louis XVI give birth to their fourth child, Sophie Helene Beatrix of France.
Not yet a year old, Sophie Helene Beatrix of France dies from tuberculosis.
Beginning of the French Revolution.
Louis Joseph also dies from tuberculosis. The title Dauphin of France goes to his brother, Louis Charles.
An escape was ultimately attempted, but the entire family was arrested less than twenty-four hours later at Varennes and taken back to Paris within a week. The escape attempt destroyed much of the remaining support of the population for the King.
In a context of civil and international war, King Louis XVI of France, was suspended and arrested at the time of the Insurrection. One month later, the absolute monarchy was abolished.
The First French Republic was proclaimed.
King Louis XVI of France is executed on the guillotine
Marie Antoinette was tried by the Revolutionary Tribunal.
After being found guilty, Marie Antoinette was executed by guillotine at 12:15pm.
Her head was one of those that Marie Tussaud was employed to make death masks of. Her body was thrown into an unmarked grave in the Madeleine cemetery located close by in rue d’Anjou.
That was just a small taste of the life of Marie Antoinette.
Princess Charlotte of Wales, to me, isn’t a well-known royal like many others, but I do think her story is important. Because of her death during childbirth and being an only legitimate child of King George IV of England (still Prince of Wales during her lifetime), we wouldn’t have a Queen Victoria.
Charlotte’s death was felt among the British people, who went into deep mourning. They saw Charlotte as a sign of hope and a contrast to both her father and grandfather, King George III of England, who were both seen as mad.
Charlotte didn’t come from happily married parents, actually, it was the complete opposite.
George, Prince of Wales, in 1794 sought for a suitable bride. It wasn’t to secure the succession to the throne, nor to find love, it was because he was promised if he married his income will increase. He chose his cousin, Caroline of Brunswick, who he never met before, but when they did finally meet, both were repelled by each other. Even so, the marriage went ahead on 8 April 1795.
George later stated that they only had sex three times. Being separated within weeks, though they still lived under the same roof.
On 7 January 1796, one day short of nine months after her parents wedding, Princess Charlotte of Wales was born in Carlton House, London.
While Prince George was mildly unhappy that it wasn’t a boy, King George III was actually pleased, he also hoped that the birth of Charlotte would reconcile her parents. The complete opposite happened; Prince George made a will that his wife had no role in the upbringing of their child.
Caroline demanded better treatment after giving birth to the second-in-line to the throne, but Prince George not only gave all his worldly goods to his mistress, Maria Fitzherbert, and giving Caroline only one shilling, but he also would only let her see Charlotte in the presence of a nurse and a governess.
If it wasn’t for the sympathetic household who disobeyed Prince George, she wouldn’t have had the opportunity to be alone with Charlotte. She was even bold enough to ride through the streets of London in a carriage with her daughter, to the delight and applause of the crowds. Since Prince George never visited his daughter, this went all unnoticed to him.
On 11 February 1796, in the Great Drawing Room at Carlton House by the Archbishop of Canterbury, John Moore, she was christened Charlotte Augusta after her grandmothers, Queen Charlotte of England and Augusta, Duchess of Brunswick-Luneburg.
As Charlotte grew up to be healthy and happy, her parents continued to battle each other. In a time period where the English law considered the fathers’ rights to minor children paramount over the mothers, saw in August 1797 Caroline leaving Carlton House and her daughter, establishing herself in a rented home near Blackheath. She did visit Charlotte and the young child was allowed to visit her mother at Blackheath, even if she wasn’t allowed to stay overnight.
Prince George decided he wanted Carlton House to himself after his affections returned to his mistress, Maria Fitzherbert. Eight-year-old Charlotte was moved to Montague House, adjacent to Carlton House. Her new governess, Lady de Clifford, was fond of Charlotte and too good natured to discipline her, who had grown into an exuberant tomboy. Lady de Clifford even brought her grandson, George Keppel, three years younger than Charlotte, as a playmate.
King George III in 1805 began making plans for Charlotte’s education, with not only a large staff of instructors, but also the Bishop of Exeter, who instructed her in the faith that King George III believed one-day Charlotte would defend as queen.
Charlotte on the other hand, chose to learn only what she wanted to learn, which was piano taught to her by composer Jane Mary Gust. She became an exceptional pianist.
In 1807, Caroline was accused of adultery with artist Sir Thomas Lawrence and having a child with him. Interesting how a woman can be tried for adultery, but not the man…
Prince George hoped that “The Delicate Investigations”, as it was called, would uncover evidence of adultery that would permit him to a divorce.
Ten-year-old Charlotte was aware of it all, and was deeply saddened that she was not allowed to see her mother. Fortunately, this all changed when the investigators found no evidence of Caroline having a second child and having an affair with the artist who painted both Caroline and Charlotte in 1800.
During her teen years, Charlotte was a free spirit. Even though her father was proud of her horsemanship, the members of the court considered her behaviours undignified. Like allowing her ankle-length under drawers to show. She also identified herself a lot with Jane Austen’s Marianne in Sense and Sensibility.
Charlotte and King George III were very close and fond of each other. When in late 1810, she was deeply saddened to hear the news of his decline in health and sanity. This led to her father on 6 February 1811, sworn before the Privy Council as Prince Regent.
Prince George was raised under strict rules, which he continuously rebelled at, so there is no surprise that his daughter was exactly the same. At the age of fifteen, she was required to spend most of her time at Windsor with her maiden aunts. But Charlotte was at an age where she was interested in boys, and while at Windsor she became infatuated with her first cousin, George FitzClarence, illegitimate son of the Duke of Clarence. It was to be a short love, for George FitzClarence was to be sent to Brighton to join the regiment.
Not long after George FitzClarence leaving did Charlotte have eyes for someone else, Lieutenant Charles Hesse of the Light Dragoons. It is said he is the illegitimate son of Charlotte’s uncle, Prince Frederick, Duke of York and Albany.
Lady de Clifford was worried of Prince George finding out his daughter and Charles Hesse were secretly meeting each other. Caroline, on the other hand, was delighted by her daughter’s love. She even encouraged their romance by allowing them alone time in a room in her apartments. Besides Prince George, most people in the royal family were aware of this, but said and did nothing because they weren’t fond of the way he was treating his daughter. Unfortunately, the romance ended when Charles Hesse left to join the British forces in Spain.
In 1813, when Charlotte was seventeen, her father began to seriously consider her marriage. His advisors decided on William, Hereditary Prince of Orange, the son and heir-apparent of Prince William VI of Orange. If this marriage was to go ahead, it would increase the British influence in Northwest Europe.
At her father’s birthday party on 12 August, Charlotte was not impressed when she first met William. He was completely intoxicated, even though so was her father and many of the guests. Undeterred by this, on 12 December, Prince George had arranged a meeting between Charlotte and William at a dinner party. While the dinner party was still going, Prince George asked for her decision, she replied that she had liked what she had seen so far. Prince George took this as an acceptance and quickly called in William to inform him.
Over several months, negotiations took place for the marriage contract. Charlotte did not want to leave Britain, and with the diplomats having no desire to see two thrones united, came to the agreement that Britain would go to the couple’s oldest son, while the second son would inherit the Netherlands. If there was only one son, the Netherlands would pass onto the German branch of the House of Orange. The marriage contract was signed by Charlotte on 10 June 1814.
It was a party at the Pulteney Hotel in London, Charlotte would meet her true love, even if she didn’t really know it yet. Lieutenant-General in the Russian cavalry, Prince Leopold of Saxe-Coburg-Saalfeld. Charlotte invited Leopold to call on her, an invitation he happily took up. They remained for three quarters of an hour together, longer than what was proper or normal. After, Leopold wrote a letter to Prince George, apologising for any indiscretion. Prince George was impressed by the letter, but probably saw nothing else in it since his daughter had signed her marriage contract.
Caroline was opposed of the match between her daughter and William, Prince of Orange. Even having the support of the public, who, while Charlotte was out in public, urged her not to abandon her mother by marrying William. Charlotte went to William and said that if they wed, her mother had to stay with them. William would not agree to this, leaving Charlotte to break the engagement.
After hearing the news his daughter had broken off the engagement, he ordered for her to remain at her residence of Warwick House, adjacent to Carlton House, until she could be conveyed to Cranbourne Lodge at Windsor, where she would only be allowed to see her grandmother the Queen. Hearing this, Charlotte escaped to her mother’s house. But it wasn’t long until her uncle, Duke of York, came with a warrant to escort her back to her father, with force if need be. Reluctantly, she concurred.
Despite her isolation in Cranbourne Lodge, Charlotte found life surprisingly agreeable, slowly becoming reconciled with her situation.
Towards the end of July 1814, Prince George visited his daughter to inform her, that her mother was about to leave England for an extended stay on the Continent. Charlotte was upset by the news, but knew that whatever she said to her mother, she wouldn’t change her mind. She was saddened even more by her mother’s last words before leaving; “For God knows how long, or what events may occur before we meet again”.
Unfortunately, Charlotte would never see her mother again.
In late August, Charlotte was permitted to visit the seaside. She had hoped it would be the fashionable Brighton, but Prince George refused sending her instead to Weymouth. Even though it was not her choice to visit Weymouth, while arriving in her carriage, Charlotte was received by adoring crowds. It showed that the people loved her, and knew one day they would see her as their queen.
Charlotte spent most of her time in Weymouth exploring and shopping. She must’ve had a clear of mind, for when she returned home in December, her father and herself reconciled any differences.
In the early months of 1815, Charlotte had eyes only for one man, Leopold. Or as she called him, “the Leo”. If she was to marry, she wanted Leopold as her husband. Prince George still had hope she would change her mind and marry William, Prince of Orange, but nothing would bend her will. Faced against his daughter and the Royal family, Prince George could not refuse.
Charlotte, through intermediaries, contacted Leopold, who was delighted by the news. Unfortunately, with Napoleon renewing the conflict on the Continent, Leopold was with his regiment fighting.
Shortly before returning to Weymouth in July, Charlotte formally requested her father’s permission to marry Leopold, but he refused. With the unsettled political situation on the Continent, he could not consider such a request. Charlotte of course was frustrated, especially when Leopold did not come to Britain after the restoration of peace. He was stationed in Paris, which she deemed to be only a short journey from Weymouth or London.
It wasn’t until January 1816 when Prince George finally gave in and summoned Leopold, who was in Berlin en-route to Russia, to Britain. In late February 1816, Leopold arrived in Britain and went straight to Brighton to be interviewed by Prince George. Charlotte was invited after, and after having dinner with her father and Leopold she wrote;
“I find him charming, and go to bed happier than I have ever done yet in my life…I am certainly a very fortunate creature and have to bless God. A Princess never, I believe, set out in life with such prospects of happiness, real domestic ones like other people”.
Prince George was again impressed by Leopold, but now saw him as a perfect husband for his daughter. On 2 March, Charlotte was sent back to Cranbourne. Fearful of a repetition like William, Prince of Orange. Prince George limited Charlotte’s contact with Leopold. Only seeing each other at dinner, but never alone.
On 14 March, an announcement was made in the House of Commons. Parliament voted Leopold £50,000 per year, Claremont House for the couple, and a generous single payment to set up house.
On 2 May 1816, Princess Charlotte of Wales married Prince Leopold of Saxe-Coburg-Saalfeld.
At nine o’clock in the evening in the Crimson Drawing Room at Carlton House, with Leopold dressing for the first time as a British General, and Charlotte in a £10,000 wedding dress, the couple were married. The only “mishap” was during the ceremony, Charlotte was heard giggling when Leopold promised to endow her with all his worldly goods. I don’t think this shows Charlotte as immature, more like fun and modern. This actually made me like her even more.
This could also mean that I’m actually immature, and that’s true.
The happy couple honeymooned at Oatlands Palace, the Duke of York’s residence in Surrey. Neither were well as the house was filled with the Duke of York’s dogs and the odour of animals. Nevertheless, love overpowered all of that, with Charlotte writing that Leopold was “the perfection of a lover”.
Two days after the marriage, Prince George visited the couple at Oaklands Palace. He spent two hours describing in detail of the military uniforms to Leopold, which according to Charlotte “is a great mark of the most perfect good humour”.
Charlotte and Leopold returned to London for the social season, when attending the theatre, they were treated to wild applause from the audience and singing “God Save the King” from the performers on stage.
When she was taken ill at the Opera, there was great public concern about her condition. It was later announced that she had suffered a miscarriage.
On 24 August 1816, they finally took up residence at Claremont House.
Leopold’s physician-in-ordinary, Christian Stockmar (later, as Baron Stockmar, advisor to both Queen Victoria and Prince Albert), wrote that in the first six months of the marriage, he had never seen Charlotte wear anything that was not simple and in good taste. He also noted that she was calm and in control of herself, which he attributed this to Leopold’s influence. Leopold himself later wrote, “Except when I went out to shoot, we were together always, and we could be together, we did not tire”. When Charlotte became too excited, Leopold would simply say, “Doucement cherie” (“Gentry, my love”). Charlotte both accepted the correction and began calling her husband, “Doucement”.
On 7 January, Charlotte’s 21st birthday, Prince George held a huge ball to celebrate, but Charlotte and Leopold did not attend. Instead, they stayed in Claremont and preferred to have a quiet celebration.
At the end of April 1817, Leopold told Prince George that Charlotte was expecting again, this time with high prospects she will carry the baby to term.
Charlotte’s pregnancy was the subject of intense public interest. Like today, betting shops quickly set up book on what the sex of the child would be.
Charlotte spent her time quietly, she ate heavily with little exercise. When her medical team began prenatal care in August 1817, they put her on a strict diet, hoping to reduce the size of the child when born. The diet, and occasional bleeding, would weaken Charlotte. Christian Stockmar, believed this treatment was outdated, and declined to join the medical team. As a foreigner, he believed he would be blamed if anything went wrong.
It was believed Charlotte was due to have her baby on 19 October, but as October ended, she had shown no signs of giving birth.
Much of Charlotte’s day to day care was undertaken by Sir Richard Croft, who was not a physician, but an accoucheur, much in fashion among the well-to-do. On the evening of 3 November, her contractions began. Sir Richard Croft encouraged her to exercise, but would not let her eat. He sent for the officials who were to witness and attest to the royal birth.
As the 4th November became the 5th, it became clear that Charlotte was unable to give birth, Sir Richard Croft and Charlotte’s personal physician, Matthew Baillie, decided to send for obstetrician, John Sims. However, Sir Richard Croft did not allow John Sims to see Charlotte, and forceps were not used.
At nine o’clock in the evening of 5 November, Charlotte finally gave birth to a large stillborn boy. Efforts to resuscitate him were in vain. Noble observers confirmed that it was a handsome boy, resembling the royal family. They were also assured that Charlotte was doing well, and took their leave.
Charlotte heard the news calmly, stating it was the will of God. She took nourishment and seemed to be recovering. Leopold, who had remained with Charlotte throughout, apparently took an opiate and collapsed into his own bed.
It was after midnight that things started to take a turn for Charlotte, waking up vomiting violently and complaining of pains in her stomach. Sir Richard Croft was quickly called, and was alarmed to find Charlotte cold to the touch and breathing with difficulty. The accepted treatment at the time was to place a hot compress on her, but the blood did not stop. He called Christian Stockmar and urged him to bring Leopold, but he found him difficult to rouse, and went to see Charlotte, who grabbed his hand and told him, “They have made me tipsy”. He left the room, planning to try to rouse Leopold again, but was called back by Charlotte’s voice, “Stocky! Stocky!”, but as he entered her room again, he found that Charlotte had passed away.
Charlotte’s death was felt throughout the country. A former MP and future Whig Lord Chancellor, Henry Brougham wrote of the public’s reaction, “It really was as though every household throughout Great Britain had lost a favourite child”.
The shops closed for two weeks, as did the Royal Exchange, the law courts and the docks. Even the poor and homeless tied armbands of black on their clothes. This was a princess well loved.
Prince George was in deep grief, that he was unable to attend her funeral. Caroline heard the news from a passing courier, and fainted in shock. She later stated, “England, that great country, has lost everything in losing my ever-beloved daughter”.
The greatest effect fell on Leopold, who later wrote to artist, Sir Thomas Lawrence:
“Two generations gone. Gone in a moment! I have felt for myself, but I have also felt for Prince George. My Charlotte is gone from the country – it has lost her. She was a good, she was an admirable woman. None could know my Charlotte as I did know her! It was my study, my duty, to know her character, but it was my delight!”.
Leopold truly lost his one true love.
On 19 November 1817, Charlotte was buried, her son at her feet, in St. George’s Chapel, Windsor Castle. A monument was erected, by public subscription, at her tomb.
Just like Christian Stockmar predicted, it wasn’t long before the public began to pin blame on someone for the tragedy. The Queen and her son, Prince George, were blamed for not being with Charlotte while she was giving birth, although Charlotte had specifically requested that they were to stay away. Even though the postmortem was inconclusive, many blamed Sir Richard Croft for his care of Charlotte. Even though Prince George refused to blame him, it wasn’t until three months after Charlotte’s death and while attending another young woman, that Sir Richard Croft snatched up a gun and fatally shot himself. The “triple obstetric tragedy” meaning the death of child, mother, and practitioner, led to significant changes in obstetric practice. With obstetricians who favoured intervention in protracted labour, including in particular more liberal use of forceps, gaining ground over those who did not.
So, even though the story of Princess Charlotte is devastating, it also saw change in childbirth and the care of the mother.
Charlotte’s death also left King George III without any legitimate grandchildren, this led the newspapers urging the King’s unmarried sons towards matrimony. One such leading article reached the King’s fourth son, Prince Edward, Duke of Kent and Strathearn, at his home in Brussels. Edward quickly dismissed his mistress, Julie de St Laurent, and proposed to Leopold’s sister, Victoria, Dowager Princess of Leiningen. Their daughter, Victoria, would later become Queen of the United Kingdom in 1837.
Deciding on who/what to post about next can sometimes be hard. Not because I don’t know who/what to post, but because there are too many to choose from.
This gentleman, however, kept popping up everywhere I looked. In history magazines, #OnThisDay posts, etc.
So, who is this Alfred and what makes him so “Great”. I need to know.
Alfred was born to King Æthelwulf of Wessex and his first wife, Osburh, in the village of Wanating, now Wantage, in 849, the exact date is unfortunately unknown.
Alfred was the youngest of 5 siblings, 4 of them brothers. So, it seems very unlikely for him to one day become king.
In 853, Alfred is reported by the Anglo-Saxon Chronicles (a collection of records in Old English chronicling the history of the Anglo-Saxons), to have been sent to Rome where he was confirmed by Pope Leo IV who anointed him as king. Later, Victorian writers interpreted this as an anticipatory coronation in preparation for his eventual succession, but this seems unlikely since he still had surviving elder brothers.
A letter of Pope Leo IV shows that Alfred was made a “consul”, a misinterpretation of this appointment, deliberate or accidental, could explain later confusion.
It may also be based on Alfred accompanying his father on a pilgrimage to Rome around 854-855, where he spent some time at the court of King Charles the Bald of the Franks.
There is no record of his mother, Osburh. When I mean there is no record, I mean we don’t know if she died in 854 or she was rejected… What a time to be a woman.
I’m not sure when, but definitely before 854, Bishop Asser tells the story of how as a child Alfred won as a prize a book of Saxon poems, offered by his mother to the first of her children able to memorize it.
I’m not sure if this shows how smart he was, and maybe some bond with his mother. Or am I making something romantic out of nothing?
When Alfred and his father was returning from Rome, on 1 October 856, King Æthelwulf of Wessex married the daughter of the King Charles the Bald of the Franks’ daughter, Judith, who was aged 12 or 13 at the time.
The marriage was considered extraordinary by modern historians, as Carolingian princesses rarely married (especially foreigners), and were usually sent to nunneries. Judith was crowned queen and anointed by Hincmar, Archbishop of Rheims. This was also another odd thing, for West Saxon custom was a wife of a king was only that, the king’s wife and no other title.
When they arrived home, was deposed by his son Æthelbald. With civil war looming, the lords of the realm met in council to negotiate a compromise. Æthelbald would rule the western shires (i.e. historical Wessex), while his father, Æthelwulf, would rule in the east.
On 13 January 858, King Æthelwulf dies and was buried at Steyning in Sussex, but his body was later transferred to Winchester, probably by Alfred. He had no children with his second marriage to Judith.
Æthelwulf was succeeded by Æthelbald in Wessex and Æthelberht in Kent and the south-east. The status of a marriage with a Frankish princess was so great, that Æthelbald married his step-mother Judith, who was 14 or 15 at the time. Don’t worry if you find that wrong, Asser, who later became Bishop of Sherborne in the 890s, was said to have called it a “great disgrace”, and “against God’s prohibition and Christian dignity”. No mention on marrying a 12-year-old though…
However, two years later on 20 December 860, Æthelbald dies at Sherborne in Dorset. His brother, Æthelberht, becomes King of Wessex as well as Kent. This is because his two younger brothers, Æthelred and Alfred were too young to rule, but agreed that on his death, the younger brothers would inherit the whole kingdom.
After the death of Æthelbald, Judith sold her possessions and returned to her father, but two years later she eloped with Baldwin, Count of Flanders. Their son, also called Baldwin, marries Alfred’s daughter, Ælfthryth.
Alfred is not mentioned during the short reigns of his older brothers, Æthelbald and Æthelberht. In 865, with the accession of his brother, 18-year-old Æthelred, the Anglo-Saxon Chronicles describes the Great Heath Army. An army of Danes landing in East Anglia with the intent of conquering the four kingdoms that constituted Anglo-Saxon England.
With public life also beginning with Alfred at 16-years-old, Asser applied him the unique title of “secundarius”, which may indicate a position similar to the Celtic “tanist”, a recognised successor closely associated with the reigning monarch. This may have been endorsed by their father or by the Witan, a political institution assembled of the ruling class whose primary function was to advise the king. Its membership was composed of the most important noblemen in England. It was to guard against the danger of a disputed should Æthelred fall in battle. It was well known among other Germanic people to crown a successor as royal prince and military commander, such as among the Swedes and Franks, to whom the Anglo-Saxons were closely related.
In 868, Alfred married Ealhswith, daughter of a Mercian nobleman, Æthelred Mucel, ealdorman of the Gaini. The Gaini were probably one of the tribal groups of the Mercians. Ealhswith’s mother, Eadburh, was a member of the Mercian royal family.
Also in 868, Alfred and his brother Æthelred, were recorded in battle in an unsuccessful attempt to keep the “Great Heathen Army”, led by Ivar the Boneless out of the adjoining Kingdom of Mercia.
At the end of 870, the Danes arrived in his homeland and nine battles were fought in the following year, with varying outcomes. Though the places and dates of two of these battles have not been recorded.
31 December 870, a successful skirmish at the Battle of Englefield in Berkshire.
5 January 871, a severe defeat at the siege and Battle of Reading by Ivar’s brother, Halfdan Ragnarsson.
9 January 871, the Anglo-Saxons won a brilliant victory at the Battle of Ashdown on the Berkshire Downs, possibly near Compton or Aldworth. Alfred was credited with the success of this last battle.
The Saxons were defeated at the Battle of Basing on 22 January 871, and again on 22 March 871 at the Battle of Merton (perhaps Marden in Wiltshire or Martin in Dorset).
Shortly after, Æthelred died on 23 April 871 and leaving Alfred, not only succeeding to the throne, but the burden of defence. Even though Æthelred left two under-age sons, Æthelhelm and Æthelwold, it was in accordance with the agreement that Æthelred and Alfred had made earlier that year in an assembly at “Swinbeorg”. They had agreed that whichever of them outlived the other, would inherit the personal property that King Æthelwulf had left jointly to his sons in his will. Æthelred’s sons would receive only whatever property and riches their father had settled upon them, and whatever additional lands their uncle had acquired.
Given the ongoing Danish invasion, and the two boys being so young, Alfred’s accession probably went uncontested.
While preoccupied with the burial ceremonies for his brother, the Danes defeated the Saxon army in his absence at an unnamed spot, and then again in his presence at Wilton in May 871. The defeat at Wilton shattered any hope that Alfred could drive the invaders from his kingdom, forcing to make peace with them. It is not clear on what the terms were, but Bishop Asser claimed that the pagans agreed to vacate the realm and made good their promise.
The Viking army did withdraw from Reading in autumn of 871 to take up winter residence in Mercian London. Although it was not mentioned by either Asser, or the Anglo-Saxon Chronicles; Alfred probably also paid the Vikings gold to leave, much as the Mercians were to do in the following year.
Archaeological discoveries dating to the Viking occupation of London in 871-872, have been excavated at Croydon, Gravesend, and Waterloo Bridge. The findings hint at the cost involved in making peace with the Vikings. For the next five years, the Danes occupied other parts of England.
The Danes under their new leader, Guthrum, slipped past the Saxon army and attached and occupied Wareham, Dorset in 876. Even though Alfred blockaded them, he was unable to take Wareham by assault. Thus, he negotiated a peace which involved an exchange of hostages and oaths, which the Danes swore on a “holy ring” associated with the worship of Thor. However, the Danes broke their word and, after killing all the hostages, slipped away under cover of night to Exeter, Devon.
Alfred blockaded the Viking ships in Devon and, with a relief fleet having been scattered by a storm, the Danes were forced to succumb, withdrawing to Mercia.
In January 878, the Danes made a sudden attack on Chippenham, Wiltshire, a royal stronghold in which Alfred had been staying over Christmas. Most of the people were killed, leaving Alfred and a band of people to escape their way into the woods and swampland. After Easter, they made a fort at Athelney in the marshes of Somerset.
From his fort at Athelney, Alfred was able to mount an effective resistance movement, rallying the local military from Somerset, Wiltshire and Hampshire.
There is a legend originated from 12th century chronicles, tells of how Alfred first fled to the Somerset Levels. He was given shelter by a peasant woman who, unaware of his identity, left him to watch some wheaten cakes she had left cooking on the fire. Preoccupied with the problems of his kingdom, Alfred accidently let the cakes burn. When the woman returned, she scolded Alfred for his neglect.
Whether this story is true or not, it’s fascinating none the less.
In the seventh week after Easter, 4-10 May 878, Alfred rode to Egbert’s Stone east of Selwood where he was met by the people of Somerset, Wiltshire and west of Southampton Water, who were rejoiced to see him.
Alfred’s emergence from the marshland stronghold was part of a carefully planned offensive that entailed raising the fyrds of three shires. This meant not only that Alfred had retained the loyalty of ealdormen, royal reeves and king’s thegns, who were charged with levying and leading these forces, but that they had maintained their positions of authority in these localities well enough to answer his summons to war. Alfred’s actions also suggest a system of scouts and messengers.
Alfred won a pivotal victory in the Battle of Edington, which may have been fought near Westbury, Wiltshire. He then pursued the Danes to their stronghold at Chippenham, starving them to submission. One of the terms for their surrender was that Guthrum to be converted to Christianity.
Three weeks later, Guthrum and 29 of his chief men, were baptised at Alfred’s court at Aller, near Athelney, with Alfred receiving Guthrum as his spiritual son.
According to Asser; “The unbinding of the Chrisom took place with great ceremony eight days later at the royal estate at Wedmore”.
While at Wedmore, Alfred and Guthrum (now christened Æthelstan after he converted), negotiated the Treaty of Wedmore (which some historians have termed), but it was to be some years after the cessation of hostilities that a formal treaty was signed. Under the Treaty of Wedmore, Æthelstan (Guthrum) was required to leave Wessex and return to East Anglia.
Consequently, in 879 the Viking army left Chippenham and made its way to Cirencester. The formal Treaty of Alfred and Guthrum, preserved in Old English in Corpus Christi College, Cambridge (Manuscript 383), and in a Latin compilation known as “Quadripartitus”, was negotiated later, perhaps in 879 or 880, when King Ceolwulf II of Mercia was deposed.
That treaty divided up the kingdom of Mercia. By its terms the boundary between Alfred’s and Æthelstan’s (Guthrum) kingdoms was to run up the River Thames to the River Lea, follow the Lea to its source (near Luton), from there extend in a straight line to Bedford, and from Bedford follow the River Ouse to Watling Street.
In other words, Alfred succeeded to Ceolwulf’s kingdom consisting of western Mercia, and Æthelstan (Guthrum) incorporated the eastern part of Mercia into an enlarged kingdom of East Anglia (henceforward known as the Danelaw). By terms of the treaty, moreover, Alfred was to have control over the Mercian city of London and its mints, at least for the time being.
The disposition of Essex, held by West Saxon kings since the days of Egbert, is unclear from the treaty though, given Alfred’s political and military superiority, it would have been surprising if he had conceded any disputed territory to his new godson.
With the signing of the Treaty of Alfred and Æthelstan (Guthrum), around 880 when Æthelstan (Guthrum) people began settling in East Anglia, Æthelstan (Guthrum) was no longer a threat. The Viking army, which had stayed at Fulham during the winter of 878-879, sailed for Ghent and was active on the continent from 879-892.
Even though Æthelstan (Guthrum) was no longer a threat, Alfred was still forced to contend with a number of Danish threats. A year later in 881, Alfred fought a small sea battle against four Danish ships. Two of the ships were destroyed and the others surrendered to Alfred’s forces.
Similar small skirmishes with independent Viking raiders would have occurred for much of the period, as they had for decades.
In 883, which is a debatable date, because of Alfred’s support and his donation of alms to Rome, received a number of gifts from Pope Marinus. Among the gifts was reputed to be a piece of the “true cross”, a great treasure for the devout Saxon king. According to Asser, because of Pope Marinus’ friendship with Alfred, the pope granted an exemption to any Anglo-Saxon residing within Rome from tax or tribute.
I wonder if he was “rewarded” because of his push of Christianity against the pagans. Forcing people to change their religion… I always find something wrong with this, but even though I can argue and fume, this did happen a very long time ago.
In 885, there was another skirmish with the Vikings in Kent, an allied kingdom in South East England. It was also quite possibly the largest raid since the battles with Æthelstan (Guthrum).
Asser’s account of the raid places the Danish raiders at the Saxon city of Rochester, where they built a temporary fortress in order to besiege the city. Alfred’s response was to lead an Anglo-Saxon force against the Danes who, instead of engaging the army of Wessex, fled to their beached ships and sailed to another part of Britain.
Supposably, the retreating Danish force left Britain the following summer.
Not long after the failed Danish raid in Kent, Alfred dispatched his fleet to East Anglia. The reasons for this are unclear, but Asser claims that it was for the sake of plunder. After traveling up the River Stour, the fleet was met by Danish vessels that numbered between 13 and 16, and battle ensued.
The Anglo-Saxon fleet were victorious, but while leaving the River Stour, was attacked by a Danish force at the mouth of the river. The Danish fleet defeated Alfred’s fleet, which might’ve been weakened in the previous battle.
The following year in 886, Alfred reoccupied the city of London and set out to make it habitable again.
He entrusted the city to the care of his son-in-law, Æthelred, ealdorman of Mercia. He was the husband of Alfred’s first daughter, Æthelflæd.
The restoration of London progressed through the latter half of the 880s and is believed to have revolved around: a new street plan; added fortifications in addition to the existing Roman walls; and, some believe, the construction of matching fortifications on the south bank of the River Thames.
This is also the period in which almost all chroniclers agree that the Saxon people of pre-unification England submitted to Alfred. But, this was not the point at which Alfred came to be known as King of England. In fact, he would never adopt the title himself…
Between restoration of London and the resumption of large-scale Danish attacks in the early 890s, Alfred’s reign was rather uneventful. The relative peace of the late 880s was marred by the death of Alfred’s sister, Æthelswith, while she was en route to Rome in 888. That same year, the Archbishop of Canterbury, Æthelred, also died.
One year later, Æthelstan (Guthrum), Alfred’s former enemy and king of East Anglia, died and was buried in Hadleigh, Suffolk.
Æthelstan (Guthrum) passing changed the political landscape for Alfred. The resulting power vacuum stirred up other power-hungry warlords eager to take his place in the following years. The quiet years of Alfred’s life were coming to a close a war was on the horizon.
In the autumn of 892 or 893, the Danes attacked again.
Finding their position in mainland Europe precarious, they crossed to England in 330 ships in two divisions. Majority of them entrenched themselves at Appledore, Kent, while the rest under Hastein, to Milton, also in Kent. The invaders brought their wives and children with them, indicating a meaningful attempt at conquest and colonisation. Alfred, in 893 or 894, took up a position from which he could observe both forces.
While he was in talks with Hastein, the Danes at Appledore broke out and struck north westwards. They were overtaken by Alfred’s eldest son, Edward, and were defeated in a general engagement at Farnham in Surrey. The took refuge on an island at Thorney, on the River Colne, between Buckinghamshire and Middlesex, where they were blockaded and forced to give hostages and promise to leave Wessex. They went then to Essex, and after suffering another defeat at Benfleet, joined Hastein’s force at Shoebury.
While Alfred was on his way to relieve his son at Thorney, he heard that the Northumbrian and East Anglian Danes were besieging Exeter and an unnamed stronghold on the North Devon shore. Alfred at once hurried westward and raised the Siege of Exeter. The fate of the other unknown stronghold was not recorded. Or was, and is lost, for reasons we will not know.
The force under Hastein set out to march up the Thames Valley, probably with the idea of assisting their friends in the west. When they arrived, they were met by a large force under the three great ealdormen of Mercia, Wiltshire and Somerset, forcing to head off to the northwest, being finally overtaken and blockaded at Buttington.
An attempt to break through the English lines was defeated. However, those who escaped, retreated to Shoebury.
After they gathering reinforcements, they made a sudden dash across England and occupied the ruined Roman walls of Chester. The English did not attempt a winter blockade, but contented themselves with destroying all the supplies in the district.
Early in 894 or 895, lack of food obliged the Danes to retire once more to Essex. At the end of the year, the Danes drew their ships up the River Thames and the River Lea, fortifying themselves twenty miles (32km) north of London.
A direct attack on the Danish lines failed, but later in the year Alfred saw a means. Obstructing the river to prevent any way of getting to the Danish ships. Realising they were outmanoeuvred, the Danes struck off north-westwards and wintered at Cwatbridge near Bridgnorth.
The next year (896 or 897), they gave up the struggle. Some retired to Northumbria, some to East Anglia. Those who had no connections in England, withdrew back to the continent.
I’ve talked a lot about Alfred’s accomplishments against the Danes, but nothing about his appearance and character.
Asser wrote in his book, Life of King Alfred;
Now, he was greatly loved, more than all his brothers, by his father and mother—indeed, by everybody—with a universal and profound love, and he was always brought up in the royal court and nowhere else. … [He] was seen to be more comely in appearance than his other brothers, and more pleasing in manner, speech and behaviour … [and] in spite of all the demands of the present life, it has been the desire for wisdom, more than anything else, together with the nobility of his birth, which have characterized the nature of his noble mind.
He also mentioned that Alfred did not learn to read until he was twelve-years-old or later, which he described as “shameful negligence” of his parents and tutors.
Alfred was an excellent listener and had an incredible memory. Retaining poetry and psalms very well.
Alfred is also noted to be carrying around a small book, probably a medieval version of a small pocket notebook. It contained psalms and many prayers that he often collected.
Asser writes; “He collected in a single book, as I have seen for myself; amid all the affairs of the present life he took it around with him everywhere for the sake of prayer, and was inseparable from it”.
He was also described as an excellent huntsman, against whom nobody’s skills could compare.
Maybe because he was the youngest, he was very open-minded, being an early advocate for education. His desire for learning could have come from his early love of English poetry and inability to read or physically record it until later in life.
I also mentioned a couple of his children, but in total Alfred and his wife Ealhswith had five or six children; Edward the Elder, who would succeed his father as king; Æthelflæd who became Lady (ruler) of the Mercians in her own right; and Ælfthryth who married Baldwin II the Count of Flanders.
On 26 October 899, Alfred died. How he died is still unknown, although he suffered throughout his life with a painful and unpleasant illness. Asser gave a detailed description of Alfred’s symptoms and this has allowed modern doctors to provide a possible diagnosis.
It is thought that he had either Crohn’s disease, a type of inflammatory bowel disease, or haemorrhoidal disease. His grandson, King Eadred, seems to have suffered from a similar illness.
Alfred was originally buried in the Old Minster in Winchester, but four years after his death, he was moved to the New Minster (perhaps built specially to receive his body).
When the New Minster moved to Hyde, a little north of the city, in 1110, the monks were transferred to Hyde Abbey along with Alfred’s body and those of his wife and children, which were presumably interred before the high alter.
Soon after the dissolution of the abbey in 1539, during the reign of Henry VIII, the church was demolished, leaving the graves intact.
The royal graves and many others were probably rediscovered by chance in 1788, when a prison was being constructed by convicts on the site. Prisoners dug across the width of the alter area in order to dispose of rubble left at the dissolution. Coffins were stripped of lead, and bones were scattered and lost. The prison was demolished between 1846 and 1850.
Further excavations in 1866 and 1897 were inconclusive. In 1866, amateur antiquarian John Mellor, claimed to have recovered a number of bones from the site which he said were those of Alfred. These later came into the possession of the vicar of nearby St Bartholomew’s Church who reburied them in an unmarked grave in the church graveyard.
Excavations conducted by the Winchester Museums Service of the Hyde Abbey site in 1999 located a second pit dug in front of where the high altar would have been located, which was identified as probably dating to Mellor’s 1886 excavation. The 1999 archaeological excavation uncovered the foundations of the abbey buildings and some bones. Bones suggested at the time to be those of Alfred proved instead to belong to an elderly woman.
In March 2013, the Diocese of Winchester exhumed the bones from the unmarked grave at St Bartholomew’s and placed them in secure storage. The diocese made no claim they were the bones of Alfred, but intended to secure them for later analysis, and from the attentions of people whose interest may have been sparked by the recent identification of the remains of King Richard III.
The bones were radiocarbon-dated, but the results showed that they were from the 1300s and therefore unrelated to Alfred.
In January 2014, a fragment of pelvis unearthed in the 1999 excavation of the Hyde site, which had subsequently lain in a Winchester museum store room, was radiocarbon-dated to the correct period. It has been suggested that this bone may belong to either Alfred or his son Edward, but this remains unproven.
Alfred commissioned Asser to write his biography, and as you’ve seen in his comments, obviously to emphasize on his best attributes.
Later, medieval historians, such as Geoffrey of Monmouth, also reinforced Alfred’s favourable image. By the time of the Reformation, Alfred was seen as being a pious Christian ruler who promoted the use of English rather than Latin, and so the translations that he commissioned were viewed as untainted by the later Roman Catholic influences of the Normans. Consequently, it was writers of the sixteenth century who gave Alfred his epithet as ‘the Great’ rather than any of Alfred’s contemporaries. The epithet was retained by succeeding generations of Parliamentarians and empire-builders who saw Alfred’s patriotism, success against barbarism, promotion of education and establishment of the rule of law as supporting their own ideals.
I find that fascinating, because I have always wondered who gives the title of “Great”.
A number of educational establishments are named in Alfred’s honour. These include:
The University of Winchester created from the former “King Alfred’s College, Winchester” (1928 – 2004)
Alfred University and Alfred State College in Alfred, New York. The local telephone exchange to Alfred University is 871 in commemoration of Alfred’s ascension to the throne.
In honour of Alfred, the University of Liverpool, created a King Alfred Chair of English Literature.
King Alfred’s Academy, a secondary school in Wantage, Oxfordshire, the birthplace of Alfred.
Okay, as you can guess, there are a few places named after Alfred. If you want to know more, just Google it…
As well as establishments naming after him, there are many statues dedicated to Alfred the Great. They are located at;
For whatever reason, since the day Marie Antoinette and the future King Louis XVI of France married on 16 May 1770, the marriage was never consummated. However, that all changed seven years later in August 1777.
Eight months later, in April 1778, it was suspected that the Queen was pregnant, which was officially announced on May 16.
On 19 December 1778, Marie Antoinette gave birth to their first child, a daughter named Marie Therese.
Her second pregnancy ended in a miscarriage early in July 1779, as confirmed by letters between the Queen and her mother, although some historians claim this may be because of irregular menstrual cycle that she mistook as a miscarriage.
In March 1781 it was confirmed she was pregnant, and on 22 October 1781 she gave birth to a son, Louis Joseph Xavier Francois, Dauphin of France.
Marie Antoinette suffered another miscarriage on her 28th birthday on 2 November 1783.
On 27 March 1785 she gave birth to another son, Louis-Charles. Who would later become Dauphin of France after his elder brothers’ death on 4 June 1789.
There was a lot of controversy around the legitimacy of Louis-Charles, the fact that the birth occurred exactly nine months after Swedish diplomat Count Axel von Fersen, returned from America and was accepted into the Queen’s private society. There were claims that the two were romantically involved, but since most of their correspondence has been lost or destroyed, there is no conclusive evidence.
A second daughter, and her last child, Sophie Helene Beatrix was born on 9 July 1786.
Unfortunately, she died a month short of her first birthday on 19 June 1787.
Upon the death of King Louis XV of France on 10 May 1774, Louis-Auguste ascended the throne as King Louis XVI of France and Navarre and Marie Antoinette became Queen of France and Navarre.
It would seem at first that the new Queen of France had limited political influence with her husband, who with the support of his two most important ministers, Chief Minister Jean-Frederic Phelypeaux, Count of Maurepas, and Foreign Minister Charles Gravies, Count Vergennes, blocked several of her candidates from assuming important positions, including Etienne Francois, Duke of Choiseul, who was an advocate for the marriage between the new King Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette.
However, she did play a decisive role in the disgrace and exile of the most powerful of Louis XVI’s ministers, Emmanuel-Armand de Richelieu, Duke of Aiguillon.
Two weeks after the death of King Louis XV of France, on 24 May 1774 Louis XVI gave Marie Antoinette an estate, the Petit Trianon, and free rein to renovate it. Not long after, rumours started to circulate that she had plastered the walls with gold and diamonds.
She would come to the Petit Trianon not only to escape the formality of court life, but also to shake off the burden of her royal responsibilities. At Versailles, she was under considerable pressure and judgement from both her family and the court, and the Petit Trianon was her place of ease and leisure where she could rest from those trials.
Though the country was facing a grave financial crisis and the population was suffering, Marie Antoinette spent heavily on fashion, luxuries and gambling.
Rose Bertin, celebrated French fashion designer, created dresses for her, and hair styles such as poufs up to 90 cm high, and the panache, a spray of feather plumes.
She and her court also adopted the English fashion of dresses made of indienne (a material banned in France from 1686 until 1759), percale and muslin.
By the time of the Flour War of 1775 due to the high price of flour and bread, a series of riots had damaged her reputation among the general public. Likewise, her reputation was no better than that of the favourites of the previous Kings. In fact, many in the country were beginning to blame her for the degrading economic situation, suggesting the country’s inability to pay off its debt was the result of her wasting the crown’s money. Through correspondence, Marie Antoinette’s mother, Empress Maria Theresa, expressed concern over her daughter’s spending habits, citing the civil unrest it was beginning to cause.
As well as spending lavishly, in early 1774 Marie Antoinette began to befriend some of her male admirers, such as Pierre Victor, Baron of Besenval, Francois-Henri de Franquetot, Duke of Coigny and Count Valentin Esterhazy, and formed deep friendships with various ladies at court. Most noted was Marie Therese Louise of Savoy, Princess of Lamballe, related to the royal family through her marriage into the Penthievre family. On 19 September 1774, she was appointed her superintendent of her household, and appointment she soon transferred to her new favourite, Yolande Martine Gabrielle de Polastron, Duchess of Polignac.
Also, in 1774 Marie Antoinette to under her patronage her former music teacher, the German opera composer Christoph Willibald Gluck, who remained in France until 1779.
After the Seven Years’ War (17 May 1756 – 15 February 1763), and the Diplomatic Revolution of 1756, Empress Maria Theresa decided to end hostilities with her long-time enemy, King Louis XV of France.
Their common desire to destroy the ambitions of Prussia and Great Britian, and to secure a definitive peace between their respective countries, led them to seal their alliance with a marriage between Empress Maria Theresa’s daughter, Maria Antonia, and King Louis XV of France’s eldest surviving grandson and heir, Louis-Auguste, Duke of Berry and Dauphin of France.
On 19 April 1770 Maria Antonia married by proxy to the Dauphin of France at the Augustinian Church in Vienna, with her brother Archduke Ferdinand of Austria-Este standing in for the Dauphin.
It wasn’t until the 14 May 1770 that she finally met her husband at the edge of the forest of Compiegne. Upon her arrival in France, she adopted the French version of her name; Marie Antoinette.
On 16 May 1770 a ceremonial wedding took place in the Palace of Versailles an, after the festivities, the day ended with the ritual bedding. However, the lack of a marriage consummation will plague both Louis-Auguste and Marie Antoinette for the next seven years.
The initial reaction to the newlyweds, particularly Marie Antoinette, was mixed.
There were people who believed the Dauphine to be beautiful, personable and well-liked by the common people. It was proven after her first successful official appearance in Paris on 8 June 1773
Then there were others who were opposed to the alliance with Austria, and others for personal reasons.
There was one, Madame du Barry, King Louis XV of France’s mistress and someone who had considerable political influence over him. In 1770 she was instrumental in ousting Etienne Francois, duc de Choiseul, who had helped orchestrate the Franco-Austrian alliance and Marie Antoinette’s marriage, and also exiling her sister, the duchesse de Gramont, on of Marie Antoinette’s ladies-in-waiting.
Louis-Auguste’s aunts persuaded Marie Antoinette to refuse to acknowledge Madame du Barry, which some saw as a political blunder that jeopardised Austria’s interests at the French court. Austrian ambassador to France, Florimond Claude, comte de Mercy-Argenteau, was sending Empress Maria Theresa secret reports on Marie Antoinette’s behaviour. After word of how she was refusing to acknowledge Madame du Barry, they pressured Marie Antoinette to change that, which she grudgingly agreed to do on New Years’ Day 1772.
Even though all she said was, “There are a lot of people at Versailles today”, it was enough for Madame du Barry, who was satisfied with this recognition, and the crisis passed.
Two days after the death of King Louis XV of France (who died on 10 May 1774), the new King Louis XVI of France exiled Madame du Barry to the Abbaye de Pont-aux-Dames in Meaux, pleasing his wife and aunts.
However, two and a half years later at the end of October 1776, Madame du Barry’s exile ended and was allowed to return to her beloved chateau at Louveciennes, but she was never permitted to return to Versailles.
On 2 November 1755 at the Hofburg Palace in Vienna, Austria, Maria Antonia was born to Empress Maria Theresa, ruler of the Habsburg Empire, and Francis I, Holy Roman Emperor.
She had many siblings before her. In total, Empress Maria Theresa gave birth to sixteen children, thirteen of whom survived to adulthood.
Maria Antonia’s godparents were King Joseph I of Portugal and his wife, Mariana Victoria. Archduke Joseph and Archduchess Maria Anna acted as proxies for their newborn sister.
Shortly after her birth, Maria Antonia was placed under the care of the governess of the imperial children, Countess von Brandeis. She was raised together with her three-year older sister, Maria Carolina, with whom she had a lifelong close relationship.
She might’ve had a difficult relationship with her mother, but they both did love each other.
Maria Antonia spent her formative years between the Hofburg Palace and Schönbrunn, the imperial summer residence in Vienna, where at the age of seven on 13 October 1762, she met Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, who was two months her junior.
Despite the private tutoring she received, the results of her schooling were less than satisfactory. At the age of ten, she could not write correctly in German or in any language commonly used at court, such as French and Italian, and conversations with her were stilted.
However, under the teaching of Christoph Willibald Gluck, she developed into a good musician. She learned to play the harp, the harpsichord and the flute. She sang during the family’s evening gatherings, as she also had a beautiful voice.
In 911 Charles III, also called “the simple”, King of West Francia and Lotharingia allowed a group of Vikings, let by Rollo, to settle in Normandy. Their settlement proved a success, with the Vikings quickly adapting to the indigenous culture, renouncing paganism and converting to Christianity, and intermarrying with the local population. Over time, the boundaries of the duchy extended to the west.
King Æthelred II “the unready” of England married Emma of Normandy, sister of Richard II, Duke of Normandy, in 1002. Their son, Edward the Confessor, spent many years in Normandy, then in 1042 he finally succeeded to the throne of England. Edward drew heavily on his former hosts for support, bringing in Norman courtiers, soldiers, and clerics, appointing them to positions of power, particularly in the Church.
On 23 January 1045, Edward married Godwin, Earl of Wessex’s daughter, Edith, but their union would be childless. Edward would also embroil in conflict with Godwin, Earl of Wessex and his sons. There is dispute that at this time, especially with no children, Edward encouraged William of Normandy’s ambitions for the English throne.
On 5 January 1066 Edward died leaving no clear heir, this led to several contenders to lay claim to the English throne. After the death of Godwin, Earl of Wessex on 15 April 1053, his eldest son Harold, the now Earl of Wessex was Edward’s immediate successor. Harold was the richest and most powerful of the English aristocrats.
Harold was elected King by the Witenagemot of England and on 6 January, was crowned by Archbishop of York, Ealdred, although Norman propaganda claimed that the ceremony was performed by the uncanonically elected Stigand, Archbishop of Canterbury. Probably to say that his coronation didn’t “technically” happen.
At once, Harold was challenged by two powerful neighbouring rulers.
William of Normandy claimed that he had been promised the throne of England by Edward, and that Harold had actually sworn agreement to this.
Harald III of Norway, commonly known as Harald Hardrada, was the other contender. His claim to the throne was based on an agreement between his predecessor, Magnus I of Norway, and the earlier King of England Harthacanute, whereby, if either died without heir, the other would inherit both English and Norway.
William of Normandy and Harald Hardrada immediately set about assembling troops and ships for separate invasions.
In early 1066 Harold’s exiled brother, Tostig Godwinson, raided south-eastern England with a fleet he had recruited in Flanders, later joined by other ships from Orkney. Threatened by Harold’s fleet, Tostig moved north and raided in East Anglia and Lincolnshire. He was driven back to his ships by the brothers Edwin, Earl of Mercia and Morcar, Earl of Northumbria. Deserted by most of his followers, he withdrew to Scotland, where he spent the middle of the year recruiting fresh forces.
Harald Hardrada invaded northern England in early September, leading a fleet of more than 300 ships carrying perhaps 15,000 men. Harald Hardrada’s army was further augmented by the forces of Tostig, who supported the Norwegian King’s bid for the throne. Advancing on York, the Norwegians occupied the city after defeating a northern English army under Edwin, Earl of Mercia and Morcar, Earl of Northumbria on 20 September at the Battle of Fulford.
The English army was organised along regional lines, with the fyrd, or local levy, serving under a local magnate – whether an earl, bishop, or sheriff.
The fyrd was composed of men who owned their own land and were equipped by their community to fulfil the king’s demands for military forces. For every five hides, or units of land nominally capable of supporting one household, one man was supposed to serve. It appears that the hundred was the main organising unit for the fyrd. As a whole, England could furnish about 14,000 men for the fyrd, when it was called out. The fyrd usually served for two months, except in emergencies. It was rare for the whole national fyrd to be called out; between 1046 and 1065 it was only done three times, in 1051, 1052, and 1065. The king also had a group of personal arms-men, known as housecarls, who formed the backbone of the royal forces. Some earls also had their own forces of housecarls. Thegns, the local landowning elites, either fought with the royal housecarls or attached themselves to the forces of an earl or other magnate. The fyrd and the housecarls both fought on foot, with the major difference between them being the housecarls’ superior armour. The English army does not appear to have had a significant number of archers.
Harold had spent mid-1066 on the south coast with a large army and fleet waiting for William to invade. The bulk of his forces were militia who needed to harvest their crops, dismissing them and the fleet on 8 September, Harold dismissed the militia.
Learning of the Norwegian invasion, he rushed north gathering forces as he went. On 25 September at the Battle of Stamford Bridge, Harold took the Norwegians by surprise and defeating them.
Both Harald and Tostig were killed, leaving the Norwegians with such a great loss that only 24 of the original 300 ships were required to carry away the survivors. The English victory came at a great cost, as Harold’s army was left in a battered and weakened state. Perfect for William.
William spent almost nine months preparing and assembling a large invasion fleet and an army gathered from Normandy and the rest of France, including large parties from Brittany and Flanders. It took him this long because he had to construct a fleet from nothing.
According to some Norman chronicles, he also secured diplomatic support, although the accuracy of the reports has been a matter of historical debate. The most famous claim is that Pop Alexander II gave a papal banner as a token of support, which only appears in William of Poitier’s account, and not in more contemporary narratives.
Whatever Williams prerogative was, he mustered his forces at Saint-Valery-sur-Somme and was ready to cross the English Channel by 12 August. However, the crossing was delayed, either because of unfavourable weather or to avoid being intercepted by the powerful English fleet.
A few days after the Battle of Stamford Bridge, the Normans crossed to England and landed at Pevensey in Sussex on 28 September. A few ships were blown off course and landed at Romney, where Normans fought the local fyrd. After landing, William’s forces built a wooden castle at Hastings, from which they raided the surrounding area. More fortifications were erected at Pevensey.
The exact numbers and composition of William’s forces are unknown. A contemporary document claims that William had 776 ships, but this may be an inflated figure. Figures given by contemporary writers are highly exaggerated, varying from 14,000 to 150,000. Modern historians have offered a range of estimates for the size of William’s forces, either 7,000–8,000 men, 1,000–2,000 of them cavalry, or 10,000–12,000 men, or 10,000 men 3,000 of them cavalry, or 7,500 men.
William’s army consisted of cavalry, infantry and archers or crossbowmen, with about equal numbers of cavalry and archers and the foot soldiers equal in number to the other two types combined.
The main armour used was chainmail hauberks, usually knee-length with slits to allow riding, some with sleeves to the elbows. Some hauberks may have been made of scales attached to a tunic, with the scales made of metal, horn or hardened leathers. Headgear was usually a conical metal helmet with a band of metal extending down to protect the nose. Horsemen and infantry carried shields. The infantryman’s shield was usually round and made of wood, with reinforcement of metal. Horsemen had changed to a kit-shaped shield and were usually armed with a lance. The couched lance, carried tucked against the body under the right arm, was a relatively new refinement as was probably not used at Hastings, the terrain was unfavourable for long cavalry charges. Both the infantry and cavalry usually fought with a straight sword, long and double-edged. The infantry could also use javelins and long spears. Some of the cavalry may have used a mace instead of a sword. Archers would have used a self bow or a crossbow, and most would not have had armour.
You can see in the picture to the left of a tapestry of what the soldiers looked like.
After the victory of the Battle of Stamford Bridge, Harold let much of his forces in the north including Edwin, Earl of Mercia and Morcar, Earl of Northumbria, and marched the rest of his army south to deal with the Norman invasion. Harold stopped in London and was there for about a week before arriving in Hastings. On the night of 13 October, Harold camped at Caldbec Hill near what was described as a “hour-apple tree”. This location was about 8 miles (13 kilometres) from William’s castle at Hastings.
Although Harold was hoping to surprise the Normans like he did the Norwegians, William’s scouts reported the English arrival to William. The exact events preceding the battle are obscure, with contradictory accounts in the sources, but all agree that William led his army from his castle and advance towards Harold. Harold had taken a defensive position at the top of Senlac Hill (present-day Battle, East Sussex), about 6 miles (9.7 kilometres) from William’s castle.
The exact number of soldiers on Harold’s side is unknown. Of course, contemporary records do not give reliable figures. Some Norman sources give 400,000 to 1,200,000 men on Harold’s side, while the English sources generally give very low figures, perhaps to make the English defeat seem less devastating.
Recent historians have suggested figures of between 5,000 and 13,000 for Harold’s army at Hastings, and most historians argue for a figure of 7,000-8,000 English troops. These men would have been a mix of the fyrd and housecarls.
Few individual Englishmen are known to have been at Hastings, about 20 named individuals can reasonably be assumed to have fought on Harold’s side, including Harold’s brothers, Gyrth and Leofwine, and two other relatives.
Harold’s army consisted entirely of infantry. The core of the army was made up of housecarls, full-time professional soldiers. Their armour consisted of a conical helmet, a mail hauberk, and a shield, which might be either kite-shaped or round. Most housecarls fought with the two-handed Danish battle-axe, but they could also carry a sword. The rest of the army was made up of levies from the fyrd, also infantry but more lightly armoured and not professionals. Most of the infantry would have formed part of the shield wall, in which all the men in the front ranks locked their shields together to block the opposition from advancing. Behind the shield wall would have been axemen and men with javelins as well as archers. You can imagine what they do. It is also possible that some of the higher-class members of the army rode to battle, but when battle was joined, they dismounted to fight on foot.
With many of the primary accounts contradicting each other, it is impossible to provide a description of the battle that is beyond dispute. It is known that the winning side can exaggerate and the losing side can down play an event.
The only undisputed facts are that the fighting began at 9am on Saturday 14 October 1066, and that the battle lasted until dusk.
On the day of this battle, sunset was at 4:54pm, making the battlefield mostly dark by 5:54pm and in full darkness by 6:24pm. Moonrise that night wasn’t until 11:12pm, so once the sun set, there was little light on the battlefield.
William of Jumieges, one of the earliest writers on the subject of the Norman Conquest, reports that William of Normandy kept his army armed and ready against a surprise night attack for the entire night before.
The battle took place 7 miles (11km) north of Hastings at the present-day town of Battle, East Sussex, between two hills – Caldbec Hill to the north and Telham Hill to the south. The area was heavily wooded, with a marsh nearby.
The name traditionally given to the battle is unusual since there were several settlements much closer to the battlefield than Hastings. The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle called it the battle “at the hoary apple tree”. Within forty years, the battle was described by the Anglo-Norman chronicler, Orderic Vitalis, as “Senlac”, a Norman-French adaptation of the Old English word “Sandlacu”, which means “sandy water”. This may have been the name of the stream that crosses the battlefield. However, by 1087, the battle was referred to as “bellum Hasestingas” or “Battle of Hastings” in the Domesday Book.
Sunrise was at 6:48am that morning, and reports of the day record that is was unusually bright. Unfortunately, the weather conditions are not recorded or found. Also, not to our knowledge is the which route that the English army took to the battlefield. Several roads are possible, one could be an old Roman road that ran from Rochester to Hastings, has long been favoured because of a large coin hoard found nearby in 1876. Another possibility is a Roman road between London and Lewes and then over local tracks to the battlefield.
Some accounts of the battle indicate that the Normans advanced from Hastings to the battlefield, but the contemporary account of William of Jumieges, places the Normans at the site of the battle the night before.
Historians have gone back and forward to what was exactly true. We might know 100%, until then, only the men from then will only know.
Harold’s forces deployed in a small, dense formation at the top of steep slope, with their flanks protected by woods and marshy ground in front of them. The line may have extended far enough to be anchored on a nearby stream. The English formed a shield wall, with the front ranks holding their shields close together or even overlapping to provide protection from attack. And of course, sources differ on the exact site that the English fought on. Some sources state the site of the abbey, but some newer sources suggest it was Caldbec Hill.
However, more is known about the Norman deployment. William appears to have arranged his forces in three groups, or “battles”, which roughly corresponded to their origins. The left units were the Bretons, along with those from Anjou, Poitou and Maine. This division was led by Alan the Red, a relative of the Breton court. The centre was held by the Normans under the direct command of William, and with many of his relatives and kinsmen grouped around the ducal party. The final division, on the right, consisted of the Frenchmen, along with some men from Picardy, Boulogne, and Flanders. The right was commanded by William fitzOsbern and Count Eustace II of Boulogne. The front line was made up of archers with a line of foot soldiers armed with spears behind. There were probably a few crossbowmen and slingers in with the archers. The cavalry was held in reserve, and a small group of clergymen and servants situated at the base of Telham Hill was not expected to take part in the fighting.
William’s disposition of his forces implies that he planned to open the battle with archers in the front rank weakening the enemy with arrows, followed by infantry who would engage in close combat. The infantry would create openings in the English lines that could be exploited b a cavalry charge to break through the English forces and pursue the fleeing soldiers.
The opening of the battle saw the Norman archers shooting uphill at the English shield wall, to little effect. Shooting at an uphill angle meant that the arrows either bounced off the shields of the English or overshot their targets and flew over the top of the hill. Since the English lacked archers this in turned effected the Normans archers, as there were few English arrows to be gathered up and reused.
After the attack from the archers, William sent the spearmen forward to attack the English. They were met with a barrage of missiles, not arrows but spears, axes and stones. Since the infantry were unable to force openings in the shield wall, the cavalry advanced in support. Just like the infantry, the cavalry also failed to make headway, and a general retreat began, blamed on the Breton division on William’s left.
A rumour started that William had been killed, which added to the confusion. However, when the English forces began to pursue the fleeing invaders, William rode through his forces, showing his face and yelling that he was in fact still alive. William then led a counter-attack against the pursuing English forces.
It is unknown if the English pursuit was on the orders of Harold or if it was spontaneous.
The Bayeux Tapestry depicts the death of Harold’s brothers, Gyrth and Leofwine, occurring just before the fight around the hillock. This may mean that it was the brothers who led the English pursuit.
However, in the Carmen de Hastingae Proelio (Song of the Battle of Hastings), it tells a different story of the death of Gyrth. It says the William slew Gyrth in combat, perhaps thinking that Gyrth was actually Harold.
Another theory is from William of Poitiers, who states that the bodies of Gyrth and Leofwine were found near Harold’s, implying that they died late in the battle. However, if they did die early in battle, their bodies could’ve been taken to Harold, thus accounting for their bodies being found near his body after the battle.
Whenever they died, the known fact is, they died.
Just like his brothers, the exact moment of Harold’s death is also up for debate. It appears that he perished late in the battle, although accounts in the various sources are contradictory. William of Poitiers only mentions his death without giving any details on how it occurred. The Tapestry isn’t helpful, as it shows a figure holding an arrow sticking out of his eye next to a failing fighter being hit with a sword. Over both the figures is a statement, “Here King Harold has been killed”. That’s great, but which one, one or the other or both?
The earliest written mention of the traditional account of Harold dying from an arrow to the eye, dates to the 1080s written by an Italian monk, Amatus of Montecassino.
However, the means of Harold’s death, the fact remains, Harold’s death left the English forces leaderless so they began to collapse. Many of them fled, but the brave soldiers of the royal household gathered around Harold’s body and fought to the end.
The Normans began to pursue the fleeing troops, and except for a rearguard action at a site known as the “Malfosse”, the battle was over. Exactly what happened at “Malfosse”, or “Evil Ditch”, and where it took place, in unclear. It occurred at a small fortification or set of trenches where some Englishmen rallied and seriously wounded Eustace of Boulogne, before being defeated by the Normans.
Two days after the battle Harold’s body was identified, either by his armour or marks on his body. His personal standard was presented to William, later sent to the papacy. The bodies of the English dead, including some of Harold’s brothers and housecarls, were left on the battlefield, although some were removed by relatives at a later date. The Norman dead were buried in a large communal grave, which has not been found.
There is one story of Harold’s mother, Gytha, offered William the weight of Harold’s body in gold for its custody, but was refused. It is also said that William ordered Harold’s body to be thrown into the sea, but whether that took place is unclear. Another story states that Harold was buried at the top of a cliff. Waltham Abbey, which had been founded by Harold, later claimed that his body had been secretly buried there. And of course, there are legends that Harold didn’t die at all, but escaped and became a hermit of Chester…
On 25 December 1066, William was acclaimed King of England and crowned by Ealdred, Archbishop of York.
Despite the submission of the English nobles, resistance continued for several years, but that’s is another story.