Sunday, February 18, 2018

Editors Weekly Round-up, February 18, 2018

by the EHFA Editors

Never miss a post - British history across the centuries, with our round up for the week ending February 17 featuring:

Friday, February 16, 2018

In Search of Bannockburn

By Annie Whitehead

On a recent trip to Scotland I had, as is my wont, attempted to see as many historical sites as possible, and, looking at the map as we left Doune Castle (filming location for Outlander, and Monty Python and the Holy Grail) it seemed to me that a short drive would take us to Bannockburn, and since the place was marked clearly on the map, we'd be there in a matter of minutes.

I'll say no more about that, except that the words lost, minor roads, and divorce were uttered.

But, a roadside sign showed how close we were, for we had inadvertently found ourselves at the very edge of the battle site.

We had arrived on the eastern slope of Gillies Hill, where the servants, cooks, smiths - essentially the non-combatants - of Robert Bruce's army were placed for safety before the battle. It is assumed that at some point they went down the hill, nearer the fighting, but perhaps only to loot, sensing that the battle was all but won.

Bannockburn was a major engagement between the forces of King Edward II of England and Robert Bruce, thenceforth Robert I of Scotland. A short distance from Gillies Hill we could see the monument to Bruce, and we set off. Eventually we found the Visitors' Centre, down in the valley but not, necessarily, on the site of the battle.

For, although it is known that the battle commenced on 23rd and continued into 24th June, 1314, it has never been established exactly where the main fighting took place.

On 22nd June, Bruce had moved his men to the New Park, two miles south of Stirling Castle. There were trees beside the road to the castle which would make it hard for Edward II's cavalry to be deployed, while to the southwest, a place named Halbert's Bog, and rolling hills, would be protection from attack.

Stirling Castle, seen from Bannockburn
On the morning of 23rd, Edward's troops marched from Falkirk towards Stirling (a matter of some fourteen miles). Edward received word that Robert had blocked the road through the Park. Edward commanded his army to stop for a break, but, either through disobedience or confusion, the vanguard pressed on, only to be pushed back by the Scots.

Later in the day, two of Edward's knights attempted to take 300 cavalry to higher ground, but they were met by a schiltron*, which pushed them back.

Mindful of a possible night-time attack by the Scots, that night Edward decided to cross the Bannock Burn and set up camp on the far side, on the 'Carse', an area of lower ground.

This was no easy feat. They needed to erect makeshift bridges to get the horses across the water. It took a long time, with some having to wait until nearly dawn to cross.

Meanwhile, at dawn, Robert Bruce ordered an advance, as close to Edward's line as possible. First to engage were the archers, but it was the Scots who were forced to pull back first. The English cavalry lined up, as best they could in the unfavourable terrain.

The English cavalry could not get past the schiltron, led by the Earl of Moray. Unable to present more than a limited front, they could not take advantage of their superior numbers, and were further hindered by those who began to retreat, pushing them back. Sir Robert Keith successfully led the Scottish cavalry against the English archers, depriving Edward of his deadliest resources.

Hand-to-hand combat ensued, with many English soldiers being pushed back to drown in the Bannock Burn.

After the battle, Edward fled to Dunbar, and thence to Berwick. The fighting did not end there, with Scots harrying into England and Robert Bruce facing opposition still from the Balliols, in the form of John Balliol's son, Edward, but a plot against Robert in 1320 failed.

Edward II meanwhile, refused to accept Robert as king of Scotland, but in 1320 the Declaration of Arbroath , a letter (sealed by the nobles of Scotland) to Pope John XXII, asserted Robert's right to rule Scotland.

So, that's a potted history of the battle itself. But while the Visitors' Centre has a wealth of information about it, it cannot provide the answer to the question: where was the battle?

There is hardly any archaeological evidence for the battle. No human remains, no pieces of military or personal equipment, and no mass graves have been found. The fighting took place over a huge area, and this was subject to wholesale looting. The sources refer vaguely to 'the wood', the 'kirk', 'the great ditch' and even a 'dry field', hard to identify now without specific place-names.

It seems to have been agreed that the first day's fighting occurred round New Park, which roughly equates to the site of the Visitors' Centre, but argument continues about the second day, with many topographical features, such as the 'great ditch' still unidentified. Up to eight potential sites have been identified from written sources. These sources include: 
The Lancercost Chronicle, The Chronicle of Andrew of Wynton, Liber Pluscardensis, Chronica gentis Scotorum, Vita Edwardi Secundi, The Brut, or Chronicle of England, and The Anonimalle Chronicle
This is not even a complete list, yet still the site cannot be pinpointed with precision. One theory contends that the battlefield was specifically on the Carse, between the Pelstream Burn and the Bannock Burn. Another potential site is under a school and a modern housing estate. The Visitors' Centre was set up to preserve the general area, rather than commemorate a specific site, and there is a magnificent monument to Robert Bruce there.

In 2012 and 2013 an archaeological survey of the Carse was undertaken, yielding some medieval pottery which was of roughly the date of the battle, which suggests human settlement and thus reduces the weight of one argument which contends that the area was too boggy to be a battle site.

The best hope for identification lies in a technique known as LiDAR, a system of recording the landscape using lasers to create a computer model of the landscape, and then studying the possible routes taken by Edward's army.

Ironic, then, that we had initially been unable to find Bannockburn, for it transpires that there is nothing really to find.

As an Anglo-Saxonist, I am used to relying on written and archaeological evidence. Rarely am I able to visit a known battle site, or see a building which dates from the period. So it still surprises me that such a major battle as Bannockburn, one which marks, to all intents and purposes, Scottish independence from the Plantagenet kings, should have left so little trace of itself. A huge impact on history, yes, and a wealth of written material, too. But for the visitor to Bannockburn, all that awaits is - an admittedly impressive - 3D visual 'experience', a chance to view the monument, but no insight at all into where the fighting actually took place.

*Schiltron - a formation of tightly-packed spearmen (around 500-1000)

[all illustrations are photographs taken by and copyright of the author, except the Declaration of Arbroath, which is a Public Domain image via Wikipdedia]


Annie Whitehead is an author and historian, and a member of the Royal Historical Society. Her first two novels are set in tenth-century Mercia, chronicling the lives of Æthelflæd, Lady of the Mercians, who ruled a country in all but name, and Earl Alvar who served King Edgar and his son Æthelred the Unready who were both embroiled in murderous scandals. Her third novel, also set in Mercia, tells the story of seventh-century King Penda and his feud with the Northumbrian kings. She is currently working on a history of Mercia for Amberley Publishing, to be released in 2018.

Tuesday, February 13, 2018

Common Myths of the Wars of the Roses: Richard III: Victim of Tudor Propaganda? Part 1

by Derek Birks

In the past year, while writing my sixth novel set during the Wars of the Roses, I’ve had to confront directly in my research the legend that is Richard III. So much has been written about this king that it is in danger of simply deteriorating into ‘white noise’. Over a period of decades of examining the sources and reading the historians, I am still astonished not only by what is said but also the vehemence with which many assertions are made.

There are so many myths about Richard that it’s difficult to know where to start, but one view which endures is that Richard’s reputation was destroyed by Tudor propaganda.

The fragmentary evidence we have about Richard is often seriously flawed. So when we talk glibly about Richard, or Henry Tudor for that matter, being ‘popular’ or ‘unpopular’ we are basing our assessment on tiny shards of evidence. That alone is reason enough to question our conclusions.

In this post, I am focusing on how Richard’s actions were perceived by others in 1483.

Richard III [Wikimedia Commons]
Before 1483, even most of the political classes would never have met Richard, Duke of Gloucester – or any other important lord. Their world was their manor, or perhaps at most, their county. They would know the leading men of the land only by reputation – by stories of what they were said to have done. It was wholly subjective and unreliable, but it was pretty much all they had.

There were no newspapers or social media, so they must glean snippets out of personal letters from friends at court, or others they knew. Everything was hearsay – informed hearsay - from the tiny few who witnessed any events of importance. News was spread by word of mouth and opinion filtered downwards since every lord in each stratum of society would have his own clients – his political, social and economic dependents.

You can imagine how the information received – and passed on - by these clients, changed with the telling and retelling. What started out as: “did Richard have a hand in the death of the ‘Princes’?” might well end up as: “Richard murdered them!”

But surely this is a case of a man whose reputation was tarnished after his fall by a vengeful victor?

There is no question that before the summer of 1483, Richard was generally held in high regard as: the loyal brother of the late king, a brave soldier, the successful general of the recent Scottish war, the good lord and supporter of his clients and tenants.

That Richard was still revered even at the end of his reign by many in the north is suggested by an entry in the York Records for 23rd August 1485 – the day after Bosworth: “King Richard, late lawfully reigning over us, was… piteously slain and murdered to the great heaviness of this city.”

Nevertheless, the battle over Richard III’s reputation began well before 1485. 

Richard’s image with some folk was pretty tarnished long before Bosworth. In a matter of months during summer 1483, the good opinion of Richard changed drastically. By October 1483 there was an unsuccessful rebellion against Richard which alone is evidence of discontent among at least some the ruling classes of the southern counties. Since it also involved the betrayal of Richard by his closest ally, the Duke of Buckingham, it could not have given people much confidence.

More striking still is that those who supported Henry Tudor’s first bid for the throne formed a rather unholy alliance of die-hard Lancastrian exiles and loyal servants of the Yorkist Edward IV. In fact most came from the latter group who should have been Richard’s natural supporters.

Such a significant shift in opinion could not have been caused by Henry Tudor alone – or his mother, Lady Margaret Stanley, née Beaufort. Indeed few men in England were in direct contact with Henry when the first rebellion occurred.

So, why did some Yorkists choose to support Henry Tudor rather than Richard III? The answer lies not in Tudor propaganda, but in the events between April and July 1483.

In April 1483, en route to the coronation in London, Richard arrested Anthony Woodville, Earl Rivers, and several other members of Edward V’s household. This caused some political shockwaves and did not promote an atmosphere of calm. Though the Woodvilles are usually presented, rightly or wrongly, as unpopular, Anthony Woodville, the queen’s brother, might be seen as among the best of them.

I have seen it written countless times that Rivers “hated” Gloucester, so let me be clear on this point: there is no evidence whatsoever that Rivers and Gloucester resented, or disagreed with, or were hostile to - each other before the moment of Rivers’ arrest.

Nor is there any credible evidence that Rivers was plotting against Gloucester, who expected to be confirmed as Protector by the King’s Council when he arrived in London. As the maternal uncle and governor of the Prince of Wales, Rivers was closer to the new boy king than any other leading nobleman. Rivers was not arrested because of what he had done, but because of what he might do. It was a pre-emptive strike and pre-emptive strikes unsettle people.

Gloucester might, in part at least, have been responding to letters from Lord Hastings – the close ally of young Edward’s father – urging him to weaken the power of the queen’s family lest they should dominate the new reign. Hastings, though rightly viewed by many - both then and since - as a ‘reliable pair of hands’, panicked in April 1483. Why? Because he, unlike Gloucester, was wary of the queen and especially hostile to her eldest son, Thomas, Marquis of Dorset.

All the same, when Gloucester arrested Rivers and the others, many in the Council, and beyond, accepted his explanation that there was a Woodville plot against him, though they had no intention of allowing Gloucester to take complete control of the government. In the ensuing weeks councillors worked in two groups: one discussed arrangements for the coronation, while another met separately with Gloucester.

What little evidence we have hints that this division of the council caused mutterings. What, some wondered, was Gloucester discussing with his small group of councillors? Though such thoughts do not constitute opposition to the Protector, they do at least suggest some unease.

Few could have been aware that in mid- June Richard sent letters north calling urgently for troops.

If they had been, they might have been more concerned, because in London they would have seen little evidence of the continuing plot which Richard claimed as the justification for it. The queen was in sanctuary at Westminster, so hardly ‘on side’ but she had little opportunity and no resources to challenge Gloucester.

Then, on 13th June 1483, a singular event occurred: Lord Hastings, loyal stalwart of the previous regime, and apparent ally of the Protector, was dragged from the council chamber and brutally beheaded at Gloucester’s command.

Also, John Morton, Bishop of Ely and Lord Thomas Stanley, among others, were summarily arrested. Lord Stanley, like Hastings, was a key figure in the kingdom and not to be trifled with lightly.

It is often suggested that opinion hostile to Richard was confined to the southern counties where the October rebellion broke out, but the power base of Lord Thomas Stanley – released by Gloucester on good behaviour – was in the north-west. Whatever views Lord Stanley, or his many clients, held about Gloucester before 13th June, I doubt he was their best friend afterwards.

This is the pivotal event of the summer. Why? Because if William Hastings, staunch Yorkist and close supporter of Gloucester, could be treated thus, then no man could feel safe.

From that moment on, there was an atmosphere of suspicion and fear at court. When it did become known that Gloucester had sent for a northern army, that only accentuated the alarm. Since the death of Edward IV, Gloucester had imprisoned or executed three of the half dozen most influential magnates in the kingdom and a fourth, Henry Stafford, Duke of Buckingham, appeared to be his most trusted ally. What conclusion would any experienced courtier draw from that?

This, remember, is before any suggestion of Gloucester taking the throne, let alone killing his nephews, but we can be pretty sure that the question on everyone’s mind at court was: what is Gloucester going to do next?

Then, as if by magic, several claims were made questioning the legitimacy of King Edward V. People at court were not stupid – influenced by rumour and self-interest, yes – but not stupid. The fact that these allegations surfaced only days after Hastings’ execution was not lost on anyone. Let us not forget that there were far more men of influence in London than usual because of the impending coronation. Such men wrote letters to their relatives, or to their clients in the country which support the conclusion that opinion of Gloucester was shifting. Where there had been confidence, now there was, at best, confusion and at worst, suspicion.

Then there was the coronation...
The royal arms of Richard III [Creative Commons license
in the Public Domain]
When Gloucester first postponed the king’s coronation, most would have agreed with him. Time was too short for the arrangements to be made and a delay until June 22nd seemed sensible. But when the coronation was postponed for the second time, it caused only consternation and confusion. The accusations that the new king was illegitimate might need to be investigated but that did not mean that Richard had to be crowned king at once in his nephew’s stead. But the momentum was with Gloucester and he pushed ahead regardless of opinion amongst the political classes.

Opinion was shifting amongst many who had served Edward IV.

Some wondered about the reason for Hastings’ death – few at court could have taken seriously the allegation that he was plotting with the queen against Richard. They watched Richard take the throne and they joined the dots. When the sons of the late king ceased to be seen in the Tower gardens, they joined the dots again.

It matters little now – as it mattered little then - whether Richard was guilty or not. Enough men of substance were incensed by the events of the summer of 1483 and the likelihood [unproven, of course] that the sons of Edward IV were dead.

Many did nothing, preferring – in the light of bitter past experience – to see where events took them - but others wanted action and very likely it was a distraught and embittered dowager queen, Elizabeth Woodville, who fanned the flames.

The strength of their opinion is shown by their willingness to support an exile about whom they knew nothing and whose claim to the throne could not have been weaker.

Their outrage was a lifeline for Henry Tudor languishing, penniless, in Brittany. His mother, Margaret Beaufort, was determined to engineer his return to England and lost no time in apprising him of the changed situation. Thus, even before his 1485 invasion, Henry was referring to Richard as an “unnatural tyrant” and an “enemy of nature”.

Were these phrases propaganda? Yes, for such words made the assumption that Richard was guilty of having the ‘Princes’ killed. But they were also the sort of remarks routinely flung out to rally potential supporters and Richard delivered comparable slurs about Henry as a would-be ‘usurper’.

The shift in opinion in the summer of 1483 did not ensure that Henry Tudor would be successful but it did mean that Richard’s regime, which depended on a small number of very powerful men, lacked a groundswell of support. Rumours circulated – not only in England, but abroad – which undermined Richard’s credibility.

Although many might not, in the end, take up arms against Richard III, they might not fight for him either.

In the next post on this theme, I shall address the issue of Tudor propaganda after 1483.


Derek Birks was born in Hampshire in England but spent his teenage years in Auckland, New Zealand, where he still has strong family ties.

For many years he taught history in a secondary school but took early retirement to concentrate on writing. Apart from his writing, he spends his time gardening, travelling, walking and taking part in archaeological digs at a Roman villa. Derek is interested in a wide range of historical themes but his particular favourite is the late medieval period. He writes action-packed fiction which is rooted in accurate history.
His debut historical novel was Feud, which is set in the period of the Wars of the Roses. Feud is the first of a now complete four-book series, entitled Rebels & Brothers, which follows the fortunes of the fictional Elder family from 1459 to 1471.
A new series, The Craft of Kings, picks up the story of the Elders in 1481 in its first book, Scars from the Past. In February 2018, the violent events of 1483 are played out in the sequel, The Blood of Princes.

Connect with Derek through his Website, Twitter (@Feud_writer), and his author sites through Amazon UK and Amazon US.

Sunday, February 11, 2018

Editors Weekly Round-up, February 11, 2018

by the EHFA Editors

Every week, visit English Historical Fiction Authors for posts on various aspects of British history. Enjoy this week's round-up!

Hugh O'Neill - The First Irish Nationalist
by Arthur Russell

Ælfgyva: The Mystery Woman of the Bayeux Tapestry
Part VI - Part VII
by Paula Lofting

by Maria Grace

Friday, February 9, 2018

Coffee, Tea and Chocolate: A cup for every purpose

by Maria Grace

During the regency era, there were three particular luxury drinks: tea, coffee and chocolate. They were in high demand, but expensive to acquire and, in the case of chocolate, difficult to make. Now of course luxury drinks needed accessories to go with them, just like our iphones need fancy cases—gotta show off the bling, right?  
Proper hostesses would do exactly that with specialized cups and pots for each beverage. The differences between the pieces were not random though, they were based on the way the drinks were created and enjoyed. Rather scientific, if you think about it. 

Drinking chocolate was often prepared in a large saucepan and then poured into special pots, known in France as a chocolatière, designed just for serving it. At first, when chocolate was a luxury limited to only the most elite, chocolate pots were made exclusively of silver with fine hardwoods or ivory used for the finials. In the early 1700’s, porcelain chocolate pots were made in China for export to Europe. Later, sturdier (and less expensive) pots were made of pewter or earthenware. Chocolate pots tended to be tall and relatively slender, looking a lot like coffee pots, but with a few significant differences in the lid, the spout and the handle. 

Drinking chocolate was very thick and tended to settle, so it was essential to continue whipping it with the molinet. To accommodate the molinet, a chocolate pot had a very distinct lid. The top of a chocolate pot had a hole for the molinet handle to extend from, allowing the hostess to stir the chocolate without splashing herself or her guests. The hole might remain uncovered, but in many cases a special hinged or swiveling finial would cap the hole and help preserve the heat in the chocolate. Sometimes the finial might be attached by a chain to the pot so it would not get lost.

Spouts on chocolate pots were wide and set high on the pot. Both qualities relate to the froth on the top of the chocolate. Since the froth floats on top of the chocolate, locating the spout high helps to capture the foam. Similarly, a wide spout facilitates getting it into a serving cup. A high spout also helps to keep the undesirable sediments that settled to the bottom out of the serving cups. 

The earliest chocolate pots had handles set at right angles to the pot. Usually these were made of wood, with a bit of a knob at the end. After the later part of the 1730’s, chocolate pots with looping handles in line with the pouring spout were produced. 

Drinking chocolate was thick, even syrupy, very different from tea or coffee. Its thickness, and the need to preserve the froth on top meant that special cups were required to properly enjoy sipping the chocolate through the milky froth. Here's where it gets particularly interesting--to me at least.

Chocolate cups were taller and narrower than coffee or tea cups. This would force the foam into a thick layer on the top and keep it from dispersing so quickly. Their unique shape also gave them a high center of gravity, which in English means it made them more likely to spill, especially if one's hands were less than steady.

That problem gave rise to a whole new style of china. 

The trembleuse or tasse trembleuse originated in Paris in the 1690's and was designed to allow those with trembling hands to drink with greater ease. It consisted of a cup, often with a lid and two handles, and a saucer with ether a deep well or a raised rim that steadied the cup and kept it from tipping. 
In contrast, teapots tend to be short and stout (remember the kids’ song?)  The round shape allows room for the tea to move in the pot, allowing it to steep more effectively. Their short spouts come from the center of the pot and sometimes have a grate behind to keep the tea leaves from clogging the spout.  The short length makes them easier to clean if leaves get trapped inside the spout. 

Because tea steeps near boiling, it must be slightly cooled before drinking. A tea cup has a wide open rim that tapers down to a smaller base and a handle designed to hook a single finger, all purposed to help cool the tea and prevent burns.

In many ways, coffee serving pieces do the opposite. Coffee pots are designed to help maintain the heat of the beverage, which preserves its flavor. The taller, narrow shape helps minimize heat loss. The longer, low-mounted spout helps keep cool air from circulating into the pot.

Coffee tastes best when served hot. Since it brews at around 180F, burns are not as much a concern as keeping the beverage hot. So coffee cups have a more vertical, cylindrical shape and bigger handles to accommodate two or three fingers which helps them conserve the beverage's temperature.

A proper regency hostess would have had all three sorts of china in her collection and been able to identify these pots at just a glance. In all likelihood, she would not have considered serving chocolate from anything but a chocolate pot. For the rest of us though, chocolate served from another sort of pot would still be chocolate, right? And that has to be a very good thing indeed.


Deitz, Paula. "Chocolate Pots Brewed Ingenuity." The New York Times. February 18, 1989. Accessed May 24, 2017.
Kane, Kathryn. "Regency Chocolate:   The Correct Accoutrements." The Regency Redingote. August 02, 2011. Accessed May 24, 2017. 
Righthand, Jess. "A Brief History of the Chocolate Pot." February 13, 2015. Accessed May 24, 2017.


Though Maria Grace has been writing fiction since she was ten years old, those early efforts happily reside in a file drawer and are unlikely to see the light of day again, for which many are grateful. 

After penning five file-drawer novels in high school, she took a break from writing to pursue college and earn her doctorate. After 16 years of university teaching, she returned to her first love, fiction writing.

Click here to find her books on Amazon. For more on her writing and other Random Bits of Fascination, visit her website. You can also like her on Facebook, or follow on Twitter.

Ælfgyva: The Mystery Woman of the Bayeux Tapestry – Part VII

By Paula Lofting

Wecome to the concluding part of Ælfgyva: The Mystery Lady of the Bayeux Tapestry.

Imagine someone wants to tell you some gossip about your neighbour Joe Bloggs, something quite scandalous and outrageous. Imagine that person has already heard it from someone else and perhaps that person has heard it from some other person. Imagine that somewhere along the line, facts have become distorted or left out. Perhaps someone has mistaken Joe for a different Joe – or for a John, who looked a lot like a Joe? Imagine that by the time the rumour reaches you, the whole episode has been scrambled into something  slightly different, but with a similar concept? Perhaps the story is entirely the same, but the it is the identities of those involved that are morphed. Well, this is what I believe has happened in the Bayeux Tapestry with the Aelfgyva tale.

After studying the tapestry, the possible candidates and the possible links to the story quite thoroughly, I can come up with no other explanation other than it is a case of mistaken identity where a certain lady’s story has been wrongly attributed to another. One can imagine it would not have been that difficult to mistake one person for another when there were so many women with the same name around at the same time. Especially if you were a Norman, hearing scandalous tales passed from one person to another like a Chinese whisper.

So what are the implications of such a suggestion? This is what I believe, could be… what the Bayeux Tapestry is trying to convey. It is not a hypothesis that can be proven, but merely a suggestion and an interpretation of what this scene might signify. I am not in any way stating that I have cracked the mystery, or that I have finally found the answer. I am however presenting you with a possibility, having been unable to discover any other indisputable explanation for the woman’s role embroidered into the legend with the hints of scandal that have been attributed to a particular woman of that name.

So, here is the story, as I imagine it:

Harold embarks from his home in Bosham to Normandy with his personal guard.

The woman in the scene with the cleric, is Ælfgifu of Northampton, and the priest touching her face is doing so to signify some sort of collaboration with her.  In the scene before, Harold and William are discussing the earl’s reasons for coming to Normandy.  The scene in which Ælfgyva and the priest are portrayed is part of their conversation also. Harold is explaining to William that he has come to negotiate the release of his brother and nephew, hence the man that Harold appears to be almost touching with his finger, is presented with a beard in the English style of facial fashion, and not the Norman clean-shaven manner, as all the others in the scene are – apart from Harold, of course. It seems quite reasonable to me that this bearded fellow is Wulfnoth, Harold’s brother who was one of the hostages he has come to negotiate the release of. 

But William, overwhelmed by the earl’s presence and its implication for him, understands some other reason for Harold’s visit. He is convinced that Harold has come to declare his fealty to him and assure him that when Edward dies, he will support him as his successor. Why else would he come with such gifts of wonder to offer him? Could William’s mindset have been so focused on the crown of England that he cannot not hear the words Harold is trying to say to him? 

Harold mentions, carefully – very carefully – because Edward, the king, has told him to be so,  that King Edward has declared his great nephew, Edgar, grandson of the courageous Edmund Ironside, as the atheling, which means that the boy is someone who is throne-worthy, therefore a future candidate to the throne. Harold knows that William has never been named atheling, but he is very careful how he presents his case. William listens, shows interest in what the Englishman has to say, after all he is going to need him when Edward dies. Nonetheless, he is undaunted by what Harold is telling him.  He has already dismissed Edgar, having heard the scandal of Edmund Ironsides’ mother Aelfgyva, who it was said, had tricked her husband into believing her sons were his when they were really the sons of a priest and a workman. He laughs at Harold’s suggestion that the Witan should prefer a boy over a man such as him, a boy descended from dubious lineage. Is he not (the duke) a man who has cheated death many times and earned the respect of his enemies?

Harold tries to put him straight about Ælfgyva, desperately trying to make him understand that he is mistaken and that the woman in the scandal he was referring to was not Edmund Ironside’s mother, but Harold Harefoot’s mother, wife of Cnut. Yes, Aethelred’s wife was also called Ælfgifu, but there was no such scandal about her and Edgar’s lineage is indisputably of the true line of Wessex. 

Still William does not listen. He interrupts, rebuffs and insists – all in the best nature and good spirits, of course. Harold is having problems pressing home his point because William has made his mind up. It is a game that only William can win. Harold, William declares, will support him in his quest for the English throne, and consider allying himself closely to him by marrying a daughter of his. William suggests this proposition in such a way that if Harold should refuse, he may inflict great insult upon his most congenial host, who has saved him from the humiliation and torment of being held as the Count of Ponthieu’s prisoner... and in Harold’s mind, he is thinking that if he wants to leave there alive, he will have to play the game that William has already won. Perhaps it is then that Harold realises what a terrible mistake he has made. Why, oh why, did he not listen to his king when he warned him that “no good will come of it”?

William knights Harold and makes him his vassal

So any attempt that Harold might make to put right the error that William has made in identifying the correct scandal with the incorrect Ælfgifu, is from then on thwarted. Wiliam will change the subject or offer a distraction. He does anything not to talk about the subject again. And by the time he gets home, with only one of the hostages being released, Harold is ridden with anxiety, having been made to swear an oath on holy relics, that he has basically handed the English crown on a plate, to the Norman duke. The first thing he does is seek out his relative, Ælfric, who was once a monk at Canterbury, and in earnest, divulge to him what he has done. It is then that Harold learns that according to canon law, a man who gives oath under severe duress, can later recant without detriment to his soul. With this knowledge, Harold can later go on to forgo the oath he made to William, to take the crown for himself. Which he does, indeed, later in 1066.

Did the artist who designed the tapestry know the secret of the conversation that happened between Harold and William? Were they trying to convey the story that led to the mis identity of Ælfgifu and coerced oathtaking that meant the end of Anglo-Saxon rule? We shall never know, but this is the possibility that I have come to believe. How I wish I had a time machine, so that I could take you back with me to that year, 951 years ago when it all happened. 


I believe that this is the basis for the artist’s insertion of the scene with Aelfgyva and the priest. Whether or not my theory is right, the creator wanted to convey to the viewer that this particular scandal had some link to the conversation that William and Harold are having. The small, crude images in the border further enforces the story of Aelfgifu of Northampton’s scandal leaving me with no doubt that they represent the labourer and priest who were supposed to have fathered the children said to be Cnut’s sons. I cannot, although I have tried to, locate any other evidence that would identify a believable rationale for this scandal to have been placed in the tapestry.  

If I were a contemporary of it, I may have been privy to the tittle-tattle and also that perhaps William had wrongly identified the woman and would not have had to use my imagination to work out the innuendo of the illustration. But this is my interpretation. Unfortunately I have no way of knowing I am right, however I do not think this has been a pointless study, for it has identified the woman and shed some light on some other mysteries of the tapestry also. I hope that you all have not been disappointed. 
I would love to know what you think.


Bridgeford A. (2004) 1066 The Hidden History of The Bayeux Tapestry, Harper Perennial, London.
Eadmer Eadmer’s History of Recent Events in England
Eadmer  Historia Novorium in Anglia 
Eric Freeman in his Annales de Normandie 
Harvey Wood H, (2008) The Battle of Hastings: The Fall of Anglo Saxon England, Atlantic Books, Chatham.
 McNulty J.B. (1980) The Lady Aelfgyva in the Bayeux Tapestry, Medieval Academy of America, vol 55 (4) pp 659-688.


Paula Lofting is an author and a member of the re-enactment society Regia Anglorum, where she regularly takes part in the Battle of Hastings. Her first novel, Sons of the Wolf, is set in eleventh-century England and tells the story of Wulfhere, a man torn between family and duty. The sequel, The Wolf Banner is available now. Paula is currently working on the third book in the series, Wolf's Bane

Read the rest of this blog series:

Thursday, February 8, 2018

Ælfgyva: The Mystery Woman of the Bayeux Tapestry – Part VI

by Paula Lofting

In this final examination of this mystery, I do not aim to prove,what the image of Alfgyva and the priest represents. It would be impossible, because there is no evidence to draw on – at all – that is irrefutably connected to the scene. Mind you, if there was, I’m sure it would have been discovered years ago. So, my mission is to explain, and perhaps persuade,  my theory of who she is and what the scene could be portraying. We will never know the full truth behind the image and what the artist was trying to convey, the real message has been lost down the tunnel of time and has died with those who have long since lived those events.

I imagine that in the same way one might glance at the front page of a modern newspaper, read the first line of a headline story and know exactly what the author was referring to, so the contemporaries of the Tapestry would also know about the well-known scandal of the time. The people of the 11thc may not have needed any more explanation than the image of Alfgyva and the priest for them to know who the artist was referring to – or – it might be that there was some secret underlying message linked to the woman and the priest contained within the borders of the tapestry that reports something else only known to certain people. No one can be sure. One could also say (and some have), that the images in the borders could be there for decorative purposes only, and have nothing whatsoever to do with the message the Tapestry is trying to send.

So to summarise, we discovered earlier on who the lady in question is and to my mind this is as indisputable as it can get. She was Ælfgifu of Northampton, handfastened wife of King Cnut, and it was J Bard McNulty (1980) who first identified her. She was sent by Cnut to Norway to govern there with their eldest son Swein, however her heavy handed rule did not endear her to the Norwegians and they eventually ousted her and her son. Poor Swein died in Denmark where they had both sought refuge. Nothing was heard about her after 1040, but she had become the subject of a scandal years before, when she was accused of presenting Cnut with two sons that were actually neither hers nor his. One was rumoured to be the son of a priest and a serving maid and the other was the son of a workman and perhaps herself or the same servant maid.

William secures the release of Harold from the Count of Ponthieu and brings him to his palace where they discuss the woman in the next scene.
Regarding her connection to the Bayeux Tapestry, what could she possibly have had to do with the story of Harold’s sojourn in Normandy? As I explained previously in  Part V, J.McNulty Bard (1980) states in The Lady Ælfgyva in the Bayeux Tapestry that the scene depicting Ælfgyva and the priest is not what happens next in the story, but what Harold and William are  discussing in the previous scene. This is highly possible, for it is the only scene that doesn’t follow the previous one. But with the absence of speech bubbles, it is still pretty much conjecture, though I can say with confidence that of all the theories, this one has substance to it.

William returning with Harold to his palace in Normandy
In order to reach the point where we can deliberate the conversation between Harold and William, we need to discuss the scene with the two men in detail. This is the one before the Aelfgyva scene. William and Harold have just arrived at William’s court from having ridden from Ponthieu where Harold had been kept, probably for ransom, by the young Count after washing up on his shore with his personal guard. According to Eadmer, somehow, a huscarle of Harold’s, escaped and called upon William for his help in releasing his lord from the clutches of Count Guy. William was the count’s overlord and demanded that Guy hand Harold over immediately, which he did. 

Now, we move on, William sits on his throne in his hall with a Norman guard standing behind him with a spear. This man appears to be pointing at Harold. The viewer can differentiate between the Normans and the English by their hairstyles. There is little disparity with the English and Norman clothing of the day, but their hair styles are very different with most Normans wearing their hair short and shaved at the back to just above the ears. The artist has obviously marked these out to give a clear distinction between the two races. The image of Harold is shown with his hair covering his ears and just above collar length. Curiously, the guard standing directly behind him as he converses with William, is not shown as a Norman. 

This man is also sporting an English style hair cut and a beard. The Normans are generally shown as being clean shaven. The English either have beards or moustaches. As we can see, the rest of William’s household guards are looking very Norman-like in contrast to the one that Harold appears to be indicating to. 

As stated by Eadmer in his History of Recent Events in England, Harold had travelled to Normandy with the intention of negotiating the release of his brother Wulfnoth and his nephew Hakon. These two particular Godwinsons had been taken into Edward’s care as hostages to ensure the good behaviour of their patriarch, Godwin, in 1051, when had Godwin found himself in trouble with Edward. His refusal to punish the people of Dover for their ‘maltreatment’ of the king’s brother-in-law, Count Eustace of Bologne and his retinue, had been the cause of this discontent between the earl and his king (Barlow 2002). 

Godwin had rallied his supporters to side with him against the king. At that time, the great nobles of the day were reluctant to support a civil war and so Godwin had no choice but flee into exile, leaving his son Wulfnoth and grandson Hakon behind as hostages. It is not exactly clear how Wulfnoth and Hakon, both young boys at the time, came to find themselves in Normandy, but it was quite possible that the Archbishop, Robert Champart took them with him when Godwin forced his way back to England from exile a year later. Champart had helped to engineer Godwin’s fall from grace and so feared for his life and fled back to Normandy. 

It is believed that he used the boys to shield him from those who would stop him leaving the country and brought the boys with him to present to William as surety for Edward’s promise of the crown. This might have been with Edward’s agreement, but must have been a decision that Edward later wished to forget, for he was eventually to sanction a mission by Bishop Ealdred to go abroad to look for Edward’s nephew, known as Edward the Exile, son of his brother, Edmund Ironside. 

Miniature d'Edmond Côte-de-Fer dans une généalogie royale du XIVe siècle

So, Eadmer, a monk and chronicler of Canterbury, has in his writings, Harold travelling to Normandy on a mission to secure the release of his kin with a stark warning from Edward that this may not be a good idea and that he will be inviting trouble for himself and ‘the whole kingdom’ if he does indeed embark on this journey.  Edward warns Harold that the duke is ‘not so simple’ as to give the hostages up without getting something in return. Edward apparently also states, as Eadmer tells us, that he wanted no part in Harold’s plan. 

And yet Harold still went, frivolously, one might think, considering Edward’s warning about the nature of his second cousin. This story reveals that not only was Harold possessed of a stubborn nature, it also shows that the king’s power over his subordinate was weak, for he was unable exert his kingly influence over him and persuade him not to go. But whatever Harold’s determination to ignore his king’s advice, he must have been disturbed by the plight of his brother and nephew, languishing in Normandy long after the need for them to be hostages. The original purpose for their detention had been to ensure Godwin’s good behaviour and the patriarch of the family had long been dead. Harold, I am sure, wanted only to bring them home. 

The Norman sources tell a totally different tale. They insist that Harold had been sent by Edward to confirm the succession upon him (Harriet Harvey Wood 2008). I prefer Eadmer’s version, for it holds more weight. He was said to have had access to people who might have had first hand information about Harold’s intentions when he went to Normandy. It is a plausible suggestion and upon studying the images of the Tapestry, I have not seen anything that might not support this idea; having said that, the Tapestry does support both the Norman and Eadmer’s version. 

So now, what are my conclusions? Well, you will have to wait until tomorrow to hear the rest of the story in the final concluding episode of this long, twisted journey back to the past.


Paula Lofting is an author and a member of the re-enactment society Regia Anglorum, where she regularly takes part in the Battle of Hastings. Her first novel, Sons of the Wolf, is set in eleventh-century England and tells the story of Wulfhere, a man torn between family and duty. The sequel, The Wolf Banner is available now. Paula is currently working on the third book in the series, Wolf's Bane

Read the rest of this blog series:

Wednesday, February 7, 2018

Hugh O'Neill - The First Irish Nationalist, Part II

by Arthur Russell

Continued from yesterday's post: Hugh O'Neill - The First Irish Nationalist, Part I

The Nine Years War

O’Neill played a double game until 1595, but found he had to constantly answer to accusations from his enemies in Dublin. These were led by his brother-in-law Bagenal. The final straw coming when Bagenal intercepted letters addressed to the Queen proclaiming yet again, his loyalty. When he was declared a traitor by Dublin, an army was sent north to confront him. O’Neill defeated the English at Clontibret.  A year earlier O'Donnell of TirConnell had relieved Enniskillen the stronghold of the Maguires and was successfully campaigning to gain control of Connacht in the West.
O'Neill was finally confirmed with full traditional rites with the Gaelic title of “The O’Neill” at the ancient crowning stone at Tullyhogue in 1595. Having allied himself with O'Donnell it was a Rubicon moment for him. There was no going back, despite several peace overtures over the next 2 years to restore the status quo. From now on, neither side could trust the other.

The early years of the war demonstrated the value of O’Neill’s preparations. The Gaelic alliance defeated every English force sent against them. Their biggest success was the battle of the Yellow Ford in August 1598, where the Gaelic alliance defeated a large army under the leadership of O’Neill’s nemesis, Sir Harvey Bagenal who was determined to relieve the besieged English held fort at Portmore. O’Neill’s tactics were perfect while unfortunately for the English, Bagenal was killed when he was hit in the forehead by a stray bullet as he surveyed what was already total disaster for his army.

The Yellow Ford defeat was almost (but not quite) a fatal blow to the conquest project, and prompted a countrywide Gaelic revolt. The Munster plantation was overturned in a matter of days as the beneficiaries were forced to fly to Dublin and other walled towns, with many returning to England where they swore to have nothing more to do with Ireland and its “barbarous ways”. The victory “shaked the English Government in this kingdom, till it tottered and wanted little of fatal ruin”. The aging Queen Elizabeth was apoplectic with anger not only that she was continuously receiving “naught else but news of fresh losses and calamities”, but also at the ruinous cost of the campaign in terms of soldier lives and military materiel.

Elizabeth dispatched her current court favourite, Robert Devereaux, second Earl of Essex to Ireland with a clear mandate to engage and defeat the Ulster rebels. Essex left a cheering London with a huge well equipped army of 12,000 foot and 5,000 cavalry. On arrival in Dublin, instead of marching north to engage the Ulster rebels as directed, he marched South to try to save what was left of the failed plantation. His progress was beset with endless difficulties; the weather, terrain and most of all from harrying attacks of local Gaelic rulers who refused to engage in open battle but were content to make life miserable for the army passing through. Having achieved little or nothing and with much reduced numbers, he and his dispirited army arrived back in Dublin and set out northwards to meet O’Neill. His purpose was not to fight but to parley with O’Neill. The two met at a ford on the River Lurgan called Ballaclinth (now called Aclint) where a peace of sorts was concluded which neither saw as anything more than respite in the terminal struggle for the future of Ireland.

Essex returned to England to face the wrath of his Queen and immediately fomented a failed rebellion which saw him captured, convicted of treason and executed. One of the charges against him was conversing at length with the “arch traitor Tyrone”.

If ever there was a “right time” for strong unified action to end English domination in Ireland, the final years of the 16th century was surely that time. After all his victories, O’Neill launched a campaign for island wide support in his war for Ireland and the Catholic religion. He formed a Catholic Confederation to which he felt emboldened to invite even the Catholic Anglo Irish Lords of the Pale. To the embarrassment of the Queen, the Irish war was attracting much attention and support from Continental Europe. O’Neill and O’Donnell made urgent appeals to the Catholic monarchs for military support and were promised this would be forthcoming.

O’Neill had no illusions about the inherent weakness of the support he was getting from his Irish allies, much of which was of the “fair weather” kind. Nor did he underestimate the resources that the English could muster in spite of all the reverses they had sustained in the war. Well he knew that Protestant England could hardly allow an independent Catholic nation to develop to the west. It worried him that King Philip while offering moral encouragement and little else to the Irish, his Catholic Majesty was infuriatingly slow to commit Spanish resources to the prosecution of the war. The loss of the Armada, both militarily and economically was a much too recent and painful memory; prompting Philip to exercise extreme caution in embarking on further adventures. Spanish procrastination had become one of the biggest problems facing the Irish Alliance.

Charles Blount, Lord Mountjoy
The new century began with the Alliance at the height of its power. During 1600 and 1601 a different strategy was employed by the English. After the failures of Essex, the Queen handed responsibility for the prosecution of the Irish war to the resourceful and much less flamboyant Charles Blount Lord Mountjoy who had seen enough of O’Neill’s military prowess to engage in conventional military engagement. He determined to wear him down through a scorched earth policy. In tandem, he managed to establish forts behind enemy lines which seriously impacted on the ability of O’Neill’s people to sow and harvest.

The Kinsale Disaster

Spanish aid finally arrived in the form of ships, men and arms under the leadership of Don Juan Del’Aquila which sailed into and invested the southern port of Kinsale in the Autumn of 1601. Mountjoy immediately marched south to surround them. This necessitated O’Neill and O’Donnell to march all the way from Ulster in the dead of Winter to assist the long awaited Spanish aid. Kinsale was set to be the key battle which would finally decide the future of Ireland. If the English lost, it would arguably put an end to English power; so much was at stake.

O’Neill’s instinct was to tighten the siege on the English and to starve them into submission. O’Donnell and De’Aquila both wanted a quick conclusion and succeeded in persuading O’Neill to attack Mountjoy. Unfortunately for the Irish, the plans for the attack was made known to Mountjoy who was well prepared when the joint Irish and Spanish attack came. The attack failed and the English were able to break out from the stranglehold. The dispirited Irish retreated back to Ulster to plan the next phase of the war. Del’Aquila made his own peace with Mountjoy and was allowed to return to Spain with his ships and arms intact.

In the months after the Kinsale disaster, O’Donnell travelled to Spain to try to persuade King Philip to mobilise another expedition. Within months he was dead, reputedly having been poisoned by an English agent named Blake. 

Treaty of Mellifont

O’Neill carried on the campaign for another 2 years, but with many of his allies deserting him to make their own peace with the English, and without credible prospect of foreign aid; the outcome of the war was never in doubt. Finally in 1603, Mountjoy was instructed by the Queen to initiate peace talks to end the costly war in return for a full pardon and restoration of O’Neill’s title. It was the best terms that O’Neill could hope for, but it was not the victory hoped for just 2 years before. The Treaty of Mellifont was signed at the Cistercian monastery at Mellifont, County Louth. As he signed the Treaty document, O’Neill was totally unaware that Queen Elizabeth had died 6 days earlier and that he was submitting to a new monarch, James Stuart of Scotland who was on his way to London to succeed to the crown.

Under the terms of the treaty, O’Neill resumed the earldom of Tyrone. Life should have continued with a now compliant Gaelic aristocracy who would henceforth acknowledge the primacy of the English Crown. It was not to be, as the same enemies who had helped to force O’Neill into insurgency in 1595, were still determined to destroy him. 

Flight of the Earls - the end of Gaelic Ireland

Hugh O'Neill's grave in Monteiro, Rome
After several years of incessant intrigue and counter intrigue, O’Neill could see no hope of ever being left in peace in his earldom. Along with the O’Donnell successors of neighbouring TirConnell, a party of 99 of Gaelic nobility fled from Ireland in an event since called “The Flight of the Earls” in September 1607. O’Neill planned an invasion of Ireland with the help of European allies to resume the war he had just lost. While the fugitives were well received in European courts, including a meeting with Pope Paul V in Rome; Europe had more pressing issues than Ireland to worry about. O’Neill was given a home in Rome where despite unceasing efforts to enlist help to return to Ireland, he was destined to live the rest of his life. Sick and blind, he died in July 1616 and is buried in the Franciscan church of San Pietro in Montorio, Rome.

Plantation of Ulster

Meanwhile back in Ireland, the fugitive earls were declared traitors and their lands confiscated to be reassigned at the pleasure of King James I, who ordered what was once the most enduring of Gaelic provinces to be planted by people from southern Scotland and Northern England.

The rest (as is often said) is history.

Quoting the Ulster historian Jonathan Bardon: "The flight (of the Earls) in 1607 sent shock waves reverberating down the centuries, stoking the fires of a conflict which convulsed Northern Ireland for more than 300 years."

It still does, but hopefully not with the same deadly intensity as before the conclusion of the Good Friday Agreement.

To give a final word to Sean O’Faolain from his masterly book The Great O’Neill: “He (O’Neill) was the first step that his people (the Irish) made towards some sort of intellectual self criticism as to their place and their responsibilities in the European system”.

Further Reading:

The Great O’Neill by Sean O’Faolain
A History of Ireland (Volume 1) by Eleanor Hull


Arthur Russell is the author of Morgallion, a novel set in medieval Ireland during the Invasion of Ireland in 1314 by the Scottish army led by Edward deBruce, the last crowned King of Ireland (an earlier “what if moment” in Irish history). It tells the story of Cormac MacLochlainn, a young man from the Gaelic crannóg community of Moynagh and how he and his family endured and survived that turbulent period of history. Morgallion has been awarded the indieBRAG Medallion.

Tuesday, February 6, 2018

Hugh O'Neill - The First Irish Nationalist

by Arthur Russell

Hugh O'Neill, 2nd Earl of Tyrone
For many, Hugh O’Neill (1550-1616), popularly called the Great O’Neill, is regarded as the first to make a credible effort to develop a unified Gaelic alliance to achieve Irish independence. Most of his life coincided with the reign of Queen Elizabeth I, the last of the Tudor monarchs who dominated 16th century English history, and who oversaw the transition of England from feudal kingdom to modern nation state.

It would take 3 centuries more for Ireland to arrive at its own sense of nationhood.

Since the 12th century Norman invasion of Ireland; Irish chieftains and local kings never quite grasped the potential of the incursion of this latest wave of foreigners into Ireland and Irish affairs. It never occurred to most that it would ultimately see an end to their own mastery of the island. Their failure to see the “big picture” was to cost them dearly. During most of the late medieval period, they resisted the invader only when he appeared to threaten the borders and integrity of their own territories. As often as not, they were happy to parley, even to form alliances with the interlopers to gain temporary advantage in their own localised squabbles with neighbouring chieftains. This meant that between the years of 1170 – 1600, there was an ever changing ebb and flow of the extent and reach of English power and influence against that of indigenous Gaelic chiefs and clans. From the English side, the conquest was not completed because English monarchs rarely had the resources to see it done. Several times during those centuries; a determined unified effort by Gaelic chieftains could have ended the occupation once and for all. Had this happened, it could have prompted the start of a process of nation state building, in line with what was evolving across Europe. There was no concept of an Irish nation or nationality except in the minds of Gaelic poets and bards. Much less was there any idea of developing strong centralised leadership to which all Irish/Gaelic people and chieftains could invest their allegiance.

As Sean O’Faolain, observed in his definitive work The Great O’Neill where he made reference to medieval Gaelic poets’ and bards’ vision of Ireland as a separate nation:
“Such men (poets & bards) were speaking in effect, to an audience of shadows, not to a solid national phalanx. There was a Gaelic people. There was not a Gaelic nation.”
The uneasy and constantly changing dynamic between English and Gaelic power in Ireland began to shift inexorably once the Tudor dynasty managed to finally establish themselves more firmly on the English throne. First under Henry VII and increasingly under his son Henry VIII during the early part of the 16th century, the English presence in Ireland became more pronounced. Gaelic chieftains found they had to find individual ways to accommodate to the reality of a strong unified political entity that England and the English presence in Ireland was becoming under the Tudors.

Henry VIII’s introduction of the policy of “Surrender and Regrant” fundamentally changed the relationship of Gaelic chieftains with the Crown. He had already declared himself King of Ireland and was more demanding and determined to command universal allegiance. He was also prepared to use force where diplomacy did not succeed in establishing his authority. What the O’Neills and most Irish chieftains failed to realise fully was that by acceding to Henry’s latest policy, they were declaring themselves subject to English rather than their own ancient Brehon laws. What many saw as a short term stratagem giving them security of lands and titles, carried serious risk that sooner or later would place them at odds with both the King’s authority as well as their own ancient tribal customs and laws. Increasingly many chieftains found themselves caught in an impossible legalistic trap that saw them facing the prospect of losing their newly granted royal titles and lands, at the same time losing support from their own clansmen who considered the clan, not any English King, to be the ultimate source of power in determining who should be chieftain. The consequence of disloyalty to the English Crown (treason) was that all lands and titles were automatically subject to confiscation and reassignment at the King’s pleasure.

The reality of this had already been demonstrated in the O’Moore lands in the midlands where the two counties of Laois and Offaly were confiscated and became subject of a newly devised policy of Plantation whereby lands were taken from the existing occupiers and assigned to colonists drafted in from England, Scotland and Wales. Some of the ejected native Irish were allowed to remain to work as servants and labourers (“drawers of water and hewers of wood”) for the newly endowed owners. The “surplus population” was simply forced out to make their own way in the world as best they could. These were the first land settlements (Plantations) that provided the template that came to be applied elsewhere in Ireland over following decades; first in Munster, later in Ulster, and finally in the comprehensive Cromwellian settlement of the mid 17th century; all of which effectively transferred the ownership of Irish land to non-Irish landholders. Colonisation was henceforth the follow-on solution ensuring the success of conquest, and would continue to be adopted elsewhere in the world as the British Empire expanded over following centuries.

To compound things, the 16th century witnessed religion entering the already complex dynamic between Ireland and its neighbour. The Reformation of the 16th century effectively split Continental Europe, and pulled England, Scotland and Wales, but not Ireland, away from the old faith and allegiance to Rome. It is tempting to speculate that had this vexed issue not intruded into Anglo-Irish relations, the evolution of a United Kingdom of the two North West European islands might well have progressed along a much different and possibly (?) more harmonious path. This was not to be and the two islands continue to live with the consequences of processes and events that originated during that troubled time.

Who was Hugh O’Neill?

It was into this paradigm of incomplete conquest, conflicted loyalties to opposing legal systems, and the more recent strains imposed by conflicted religious affiliation, that Hugh O’Neill was born in 1550. As an O'Neill, Hugh was a descendant of the ancient High Kings of Ireland who ruled at Tara during the previous millennium.

At the tender age of 12 years he was given the title Baron of Dungannon with the possibility of succeeding to the earldom of Tyrone in succession to his kinsman, Con Bacach (= the Lame) O’Neill who had been given the title First Earl of Tyrone by King Henry VIII in 1542 under the terms of “Surrender and Re-grant”. Under this, Con had surrendered the O’Neill lands to the English King and had immediately received them back with his new title, on condition that he recognise the Henry as his rightful King. The young Hugh was destined, and with English support; to become Con’s successor to the title of Second Earl of Tyrone. To prepare for this, teenager Hugh was sent first to the Hovenden family in North Co Dublin and then to several aristocratic houses in England where he learned English mores and manners with a view to becoming thoroughly Anglesized. Ulster had for centuries been the most difficult region for English influence to penetrate, so it was hoped young Hugh would change this in due time. English policy followed a “divide and conquer” approach in favouring or opposing claimants to Gaelic titles, thereby keeping them weak, divided and (if possible) dependent on their support.

While Hugh was supported by the English to succeed to the title, and was duly inaugurated Second Earl of Tyrone, it was not until 1595 that he was recognised as “The O’Neill” under ancient Brehon law. Meantime, he had to walk a precarious line between two opposing legal systems, in turn favouring one over the other, with a view to keep both satisfied. He joined the English in their suppression of the Desmond rebellions in Munster during the 1580’s, and helped the Lord Deputy supress the neighbouring Maguire chieftain of Fermanagh. He visited the Elizabethan court in 1587 to declare his continuing loyalty to the Queen and was a regular attendee at the Dublin Parliament. His contacts afforded valuable insights of the machinations and capriciousness of Tudor policy in relation to all Gaelic chieftains, making him wary and increasingly nervous of the ultimate objectives of English policy in Ireland.

O’Neill had many enemies in the Dublin government, who looked at Ulster in a most acquisitive way, and who continually accused him of playing a double game in contravention of his responsibilities to the Crown in spite of his declarations of enduring loyalty. He had acquired the undying enmity of Sir Harvey Bagenal after he eloped and married Mabel Bagenal, a lady of 20 years, who became 40 year old Hugh’s third wife after the death of his second wife, Ineen Dubh O’Donnell. Bagenal objected to his sister’s liaison with a member of “a rebellious race which he and his father had spilled their blood in repressing”. He had recently been appointed President of Ulster in just the latest measure imposed by the English to contain O’Neill’s power. His antipathy was fuelled with Mabel’s desertion of O’Neill to return to him with loud complaints about the “barbarous” Dungannon court. She died one year later.

The brutal suppression of the Desmond rebellion in Munster, followed by the wholesale settlement and plantation of Desmond lands, was a stark warning of the dangers that lay in resisting English authority. Hugh’s sense of security was further assailed by the massacre of 500 MacDonnell clanspeople on Rathlin Island by the Lord Deputy. Other incidents included the treacherous slaughter of the O’Byrnes of Wicklow after they had responded to an invitation to parley at Mullaghmast in Kildare. In 1593, Lord Lieutenant Sir John Norris attacked the Ulster territory of the McMahons in Monaghan and hung Hugh McMahon who had gone to Dublin to seek support for his claim to the McMahon territories. The supplicant was treacherously hung in front of his own house.

All such events made O’Neill realise that a net was progressively being tightened around him, making him determined to make some preparations for an eventual, final and largely unlooked for break with the English. He rebuilt his castle at Dungannon and procured lead for this purpose which included a surplus for casting into bullets for firearms he also procured from the Continent, notably King Philip II of Spain, the Pope and many Scottish allies. He trained O’Neill clansmen and subsidiary clans in modern warfare, creating a large reserve force that could be fielded at short notice.

Crucially he formed a friendship and alliance with the young Red Hugh O’Donnell in nearby Tir Connell (Donegal). The O’Donnells and O’Neills were traditional enemies, so the English authorities in Dublin worried what this might portend for the future. O’Donnell was a man who had his own recent negative experience of English rule after he was abducted and lodged in Dublin Castle as a hostage to ensure the good behaviour of the O’Donnells. After several unsuccessful attempts, he had managed to escape, but the experience reinforced Red Hugh’s undying enmity towards England and English policy in Ireland. On assuming the chieftainship of TirConnell (Donegal) he approached O’Neill to form an alliance, but initially O’Neill prevaricated, hoping to stay true to his oath of fealty to the Queen.

This post will continue tomorrow with The Nine Years War.

Further Reading:

The Great O’Neill by Sean O’Faolain
A History of Ireland (Volume 1) by Eleanor Hull


Arthur Russell is the author of Morgallion, a novel set in medieval Ireland during the Invasion of Ireland in 1314 by the Scottish army led by Edward deBruce, the last crowned King of Ireland (an earlier “what if moment” in Irish history). It tells the story of Cormac MacLochlainn, a young man from the Gaelic crannóg community of Moynagh and how he and his family endured and survived that turbulent period of history. Morgallion has been awarded the indieBRAG Medallion.