Leader of Battles (V): Medraut by David Pilling

Friday, 22 September 2017

Hereward returns

A piece I wrote recently for  The History Geeks, a popular Facebook history forum. The subject is Hereward the Wake, the English legendary hero of the 11th century, and a new project at his hometown of Bourne, Lincolnshire to restore his fame and name.


“Shall Hereward die like a wolf in a cave? Forward, all the Wake men! A Wake! A Wake!”

- Charles Kingsley, Hereward the Wake
Hereward was an 11th century English thegn, mercenary and outlaw, destined to live forever in legend as Hereward ‘the Wake’, a heroic leader of native resistance against William the Conqueror. Elements of his story inspired tales of similar medieval outlaw figures such as Fulk Fitzwarin, Eustace the Monk and of course Robin Hood, who replaced Hereward in the English popular imagination.   

In reality Hereward seems to have been a local thegn or landholder, holding various estates in Lincolnshire from the abbeys of Peterborough and Crowland. Two sources, the Gesta Herewardi and Historia Croylandis, claim Hereward was the son of Earl Leofric of Mercia, while the Victorian novelist tried to pass him off as the son of Leofric of Bourne and Lady Godiva (she of the famous nude ride through Coventry). However the historian Peter Rex has recently suggested that his father was really one Asketil, a local thegn of Danish descent. The details of Hereward’s tenancy, preserved in Domesday Book, suggest he was more than a mere man of the abbey. In contrast to lower-ranking thegns, whose rents were largely dependent on their ecclesiastical lords, Hereward negotiated his with the abbot. This might elevate Hereward to the status of a king’s thegn, one who attended upon the king in person and led troops in time of war.

Contemporary references to Hereward, sparse as they are, tend to support the legend. Domesday Book records that he ‘fled the country’ shortly after 1062, which accords with his first period of outlawry and exile in the tales. According to the Gesta Herewardi, one of the earliest versions of the legend, Hereward was shipwrecked off the coast of Guines and served for a time as a mercenary in Flanders. Remarkably, one ‘miles Herivvardi’ - ‘Hereward the soldier’ - appears on a charter at Cambrai, dated 1065. This is the only surviving instance of the name in the area from this time, and could well be a passing reference to the Englishman in exile. Shortly afterwards, the Gesta tells us, Hereward travelled to St Omer and there met Torfrida, who became his wife. Sadly, there are no certain references to Torfrida, though there is nothing unlikely about Hereward getting married.

The Gesta tells other stories of Hereward’s adventures in exile, some more plausible than others. He is said to have travelled to Cornwall and Ireland as well as Flanders, fought and slew an enormous bear, and rescued a Cornish princess from an unwanted marriage. In Flanders he supposedly joined an expedition against ‘Scaldemarilad’ (probably a series of islands in the Scheldt estuary); this tale may be consistent with the campaigns of Robert the Frisian on behalf of his father Baldwin, Count of Flanders, in the early 1060s. Again, there is nothing unlikely about a wandering exile and sword-for-hire taking military service with a local nobleman.

After 1066, and William of Normandy’s successful invasion of England, Hereward returned to his native land. The Gesta tells us he came home to discover his father’s lands had been taken over by the Normans, who had killed his brother and nailed the boy’s head over the doorway of the hall. Hereward went berserk, stormed into the hall and slaughtered every Norman he found inside. He then went to Peterborough Abbey, where he was knighted ‘in the English fashion’. He briefly returned to Flanders to cool his heels, before returning again to England in September 1067 to lead a revolt against the Normans.

A few of Hereward’s exploits against the Normans can be pieced together. The Gesta, the Liber Eliensis (another early version of his legend), and the Hyde or Warenne Chronicle record his killing one Frederick, brother-in-law to William de Warenne, first Earl of Surrey. Hereward is said to have ambushed Frederick in his house and killed him on the spot; it may be that Frederick was serving in the Norman army against the Ely rebels, and Hereward slew him in what could be termed a medieval commando raid. Thanks to this deed, a breach was opened between Hereward and de Warenne that nothing could mend. Hereward is also supposed to have shot an arrow at the earl himself, who was saved when the missile ricoheted off the nose-bar of his helmet.

By 1071 the Isle of Ely had become the last bastion of native resistance to the Conqueror. Hereward and his band, probably local men, chose to plunder Peterborough Abbey and take away the‘red gold’ stored there. This, they claimed, was to prevent the new Norman abbot from having the treasure, and use it to pay off Danish troops sent to help the English by Sweyn II, King of Denmark. The Danes promptly betrayed Hereward and sailed home with the gold; justice was done when a storm blew up at sea and sent their entire fleet to the bottom. Hereward’s failed effort to recruit Danish aid may hint at Danish ancestry, and perhaps his desire to see a King of Denmark on the English throne in place of William or the Godwinssons.

Eventually William himself came with an army to besiege Ely and build a fortress on the edges of the fens. Matthew Paris says the remains of this structure could still be seen in the early 13th century and was known as Hereward’s stronghold. At one point William is said to have procured the services of a witch to curse the defenders from the top of a wooden tower; this came to naught when Hereward set fire to the tower, witch and all. On another occasion William sent his army in a frontal attack on the isle, and an entire column of soldiers was drowned when their pontoon bridge overturned and tipped them into the black waters. It was said their skeletons were still being dredged from the fens sixty years later.

Whatever the truth of all these heroic tales, William had his way in the end. The isle was stormed, apparently after the monks of Crowland had betrayed their countrymen and showed the Normans a secret path to the rebel camp. Most of the defenders surrendered, to be imprisoned or mutilated, with the exception of Hereward: the Anglo-Saxon chronicle records that he refused to submit and ‘led his men out valiantly.’ His fate afterwards is a mystery. Some accounts claim he made his peace with William, like many others, and died of a peaceful old age. Others say he was betrayed and murdered by a band of Normans. By the time of Domesday Book in 1085, he was certainly no longer in Lincolnshire, for his lands were in possession of Ogier the Breton. It may be Hereward had died, or was murdered as the tales claim, or perhaps he joined the exodus of Englishmen who chose to leave Norman-ruled England and seek a new life in the East. According to the Historia Croylandis, he was buried at Crowland Abbey.

Happily, the Wake lives again. In recent times a local society has been formed, the Wake Hereward Project, devoted to restoring the memory of Lincolnshire’s great folk hero and inspiring further research into his life and times. For those interested in joining the quest, a link to the website and Twitter account can be seen below:


Wednesday, 20 September 2017

King's Knight reissue

One of my older stories from 2013, King's Knight, has just been reissued with slightly tweaked text, book and author information. The Kindle version is now available on Amazon.


In the last days of King Arthur's reign, the elderly Sir Kay recites the tale of his life before darkness falls. Hated by his fellow knights for his arrogance and bullying, Kay reveals the harsh truths behind Arthur's glorious reign. 

Kay is the most loyal of Arthur's followers. From the moment Arthur pulled the sword from the stone, through savage wars against rebel lords and invading barbarians, Kay has remained loyal to his foster-brother, and struggled to keep order among the Knights of the Round Table.

In this, the first of his tales, Kay describes the beginning of the war against the Saxons, his passionate love for a Northumbrian princess, and his adventures in the distant northern land of Thule, home to bloodthirsty warriors, insane witches and a monstrous man-eating cat…

Based on Welsh traditions as well as English and French versions of Arthurian legend, the King’s Knight stories are a fantastical version of the age-old story, told from the perspective of a complex and neglected character.





Sunday, 17 September 2017

Medraut review

A goody-good review for Leader of Battles (V): Medraut from Amazon:
'David Pilling`s books for me are sublime having read all his work, this series has a as much brilliance as Bernard Cornwall`s Arthur Trilogy and come highly recommended to fans of `Arthuriana` that respect legend, history and theorum, there is certainly much knowledge and respect of the period gone in here.
Having enjoyed the development of all the characters in the previous books, this is still able to be read as a stand alone if this is your first without backtracking too much.'

Thank you, HS Tibbs!


Saturday, 26 August 2017

Book review

As a change of tack from my usual fiction-related mutterings, here is my review of Dr Caroline Burt's 2013 study of the governance of Edward I:

Dr Caroline Burt’s monograph seeks to reposition Edward I as one of medieval England’s most capable, effective and forceful rulers. Her focus is domestic government rather than military or foreign policy and how Edwardian government operated at a local level. To this end Burt selects three counties, Shopshire, Warwickshire and Kent, and analyses how Edward’s legislation affected these localities. Burt’s particular expertise is 13th century law, and she has a happy knack for explaining complex legal processes via plain, economic language.

Burt begins by explaining the ideas and arguments that underpinned European kingship in this era, with emphasis on the development of ‘the common good’ as the particular responsibility of kings. The language of this concept was influenced by roman and Canon law initially claimed by popes and emperors to expand their authority. In England these ideas, transferred from the continent, meshed with the rise of common law and the Montfortian reforms introduced via the crises of the 1250s and 60s. Thus Edward’s political education was steeped in the language of reform, and many ideas endured despite his destruction of their promoter, Simon de Montfort. One of his first acts as king was to address a major grievance of 1258, that Henry III’s subjects found both the king and royal justice inaccessible. The Statute of Westminster I, enacted in 1275, made improvements to the provision of access to royal justice, increasing the number of options available to litigants. In addition freemen were encouraged to bring formal or unwritten complaints to the government, while the number of commissions of oyer and terminer increased fourfold from 1273-1275. In 1278 Edward directly addressed another of the grievances of 1258, that more local men should be appointed to the shrievalty, and this policy remained generally consistent thereafter.

Burt challenges Michael Prestwich’s long-established view that Edward’s legislative reforms were largely the work of lawyers, with minimal input from the king. She highlights the interventionist nature of Edwardian government, especially in the localities, where the king’s personal choice and promotion of officials had considerable influence on government and public order. Edward’s appointment of capable soldier-administrators to the shrievalty in Shropshire, for instance, both ensured adequate government and the defence of this volatile region. Royal commissions sent to individual counties, along with Edward’s intervention in local disputes, combined effectively to suppress crime and the threat of private war. In this context, Edward’s humiliation of the Earls of Gloucester and Hereford in 1290 was not simply an exercise in ‘masterfulness’, as Professor Rees-Davies put it, but part of a conscious ongoing policy to bring peace and order to the March. Edward’s policy was necessarily dictated by varying conditions: in Warwickshire, for instance, there were many tensions left over from the crises of the previous reign. Each area of the kingdom had its own weak spots and were remedied in different ways. In Kent, ad hoc commissions were set up to deal with local grievances, while the Warden of the Cinque Ports was given a specific brief to deal with crime. In Warwickshire Edward exercised a hands-off policy, relying instead on greater access to royal courts to reduce the level of disorder.

The overall affect of policy, coupled with vast swathes of new legislation, made the first twenty years of Edward’s reign remarkably successful. In 1286 he felt secure enough to leave England for three years to attend to affairs on the continent. His departure coincided with a general rise in domestic crime, a pattern that was repeated in future years as Edward became increasingly embroiled in foreign wars. The notion of ‘great men’ influencing events is unpopular these days, yet Burt provides compelling statistical evidence of the importance of the monarch’s personal presence and intervention in government. Put simply, whenever Edward was distracted from domestic affairs, the level of crime and disorder went up. When he devoted his energies to goverment, it went down again. Part of this may have been due to the fear and respect of his subjects for Edward’s tough attitude towards lawbreakers; or simply that in time of peace he was able to direct his full resources to tackling crime.

No ruler, however tough or capable, could shoulder the burdens of governance alone. Burt pays due tribute to Edward’s advisors, especially his Chancellor, Robert Burnell, and the chief justice Ralph Hengham. Burnell in particular forged a close working relationship with the king, and from 1274 to Burnell’s death in 1292 the two men seem to have barely spent a day apart. Burt speculates, as others have, how this relationship worked: the most likely interpretation is that Edward provided the drive and energy for political reform, while Burnell supplied the creative and technical detail. After Burnell’s death the pace of new legislation slowed, but this doesn’t mean Edward was suddenly bereft of ideas. His government after this date could prove surprisingly sophisticated. Burt notes that the proclamation Edward issued on August 12th 1297, justifying prises taken for the French war, drew on recent scholarship: the language deployed was almost a facsimile of De Regimine Principium by Thomas Aquinas. It seems scarcely credible that Edward spent his spare time reading Aquinas, but someone in his administration was clearly aware of the work and alerted the king to its usefulness.

From 1294 onwards, Edward’s rule ran into serious difficulties. The king’s military commitments rapidly increased until he found himself at war on three fronts: Scotland, Gascony, and Wales. This in turn had the inevitable effect on public order as nobles were called away to fight and increasingly oppressive taxes imposed. Edward declared the poor of his realm should not be prised, but the burdens of prise and purveyance were clearly felt by all classes of society. By 1297 the crisis was acute and Edward faced the prospect of civil war; at the same time his armies were defeated in Gascony and Scotland. His military fortunes improved when he signed a peace treaty with the French and defeated the Scots at Falkirk, but he remained obdurate against domestic opposition. His displays of bad faith at this time recalled the worst days of his youth, and suggest that in some respects the leopard had not changed his spots: at one point he sneaked out of London with the minimum of dignity, simply to avoid signing a charter of concessions. In the end Edward swallowed his pride and signed the Confirmatio Cartarum, which brought a swift end to the crisis. The protests against his rule were specific, rather than an expression of general dissatisfaction, and might have been dealt with much earlier if Edward himself was not so inflexible in the face of opposition.

A decade of war had an inevitable effect on the state of order in the localities. By the early 1300s Edward was obliged to react to the crime-wave sweeping across England, probably a consequence of bands of soldiery turning to robbery and homicide between campaigns.The king’s solution was the trailbaston commissions, so-called after the clubs or ‘bastons’ that many of the lawbreakers carried. These new commissions were authorised to investigate all crimes committed in England since 1297. In cases where no private accuser could be found, suspects would be tried at the king’s suit. As Burt states, this last measure was unprecedented and a prime example of Edward’s personal intervention in law and law enforcement. Trailbaston was accompanied by a typically forceful public statement from the king, in which he declared his intention to wreak vengeance on those who ‘flouted’ his lordship and whose ‘outrages were like the beginning of civil war.’ The commissions proved successful, at least in the short term: record numbers of criminals were rounded up, long-running disputes ended, violence and lawlessness reduced to manageable levels. As an added bonus, the crown benefited from revenues brought by forfeiture of land and property.

Edward’s finances also benefited from improved relations with the papacy, which permitted him to exploit the revenues of vacant bishoprics and money from crusading taxes. In his last years the king’s cash-flow was also supplemented by a loan from the Frescobaldi, who had replaced the Riccardi as his chief source of borrowing. Much of this debt was repaid, but other debts were not, and Edward’s finances were in a parlous state by the time of his death. These debts appear to have had little practical consequence, however, and Edward II experienced no difficulty obtaining a general grant to taxation in 1308. The recent popular notion that Edward went 'bankrupt' during his reign as a result of massive expenditure on castle-building in Wales is incorrect.

The book does have flaws. Burt’s grip on affairs in Wales, the war of 1282 in particular, is sometimes tenuous: in the index she refers to Dafydd ap Gruffudd as ‘Dafydd ap Llywelyn’, and elsewhere misdates the death of Llywelyn ap Gruffudd and the Battle of Maes Moydog. The war of Madog ap Llywelyn is better represented, and provides an interesting example of what Edward could achieve when driven to compromise. Madog’s revolt, Burt argues, demonstrated to the king that he could not hope to keep his gains in Wales without a measure of conciliation. To that end Madog was permitted to live, albeit in prison, and his son Maredudd recruited into the King’s Welshmen (a supplementary unit of the royal bodyguard). Morgan ap Maredudd, leader of the Welsh resistance in Glamorgan, was not only pardoned but knighted and became one of Edward’s chief captains in Scotland. Elsewhere, the weakness of Burt’s statistical arguments is that greater access to royal courts led to an increase in litigation, which in turn generated more documentation. Thus the statistics, based as they are on the frequency of surviving memoranda, are potentially misleading. The author acknowledges this problem and seeks to contextualise whenever possible.


Wednesday, 19 July 2017

Medraut review

The first review of Medraut is in, and 'tis a goodie:

'As usual with a David Pilling novel, blood and ale flow freely and the reader lives through the terror of battles as they must have been with characters who feel real enough to call friends or enemies. With his Arthurian saga, Pilling has put his scholarship and research to good use in reconstructing a rousing, conflicted world of fifteen centuries ago where the most civilized legacies of Roman Britain are gradually eroded by new conquerors and the failures in men's hearts. In this final installment, as Arthur grows old, making provision for the future of his kingdom, he faces the last great challenge to his vision of a strong, unified British federation against the Saxon invaders. As we so often find today, the ruin of a great nation is bred not without but within and Pilling unfolds the tale of Arthur's final days with grace and finality, bringing the fairy tales of old back to Earth but hanging on to just enough magic to keep the story's timeless resonance. Recommended.'





Friday, 14 July 2017

Monday, 10 July 2017

Medraut on pre-order

The Kindle version of Leader of Battles (V): Medraut is now available on pre-order and will be released on Friday 14th July. Paperback version to follow...




"All the world's wonder, no grave for Arthur..."

Britannia has been at peace for six years. With his enemies defeated, Artorius reigns as High King over a golden era of peace and prosperity. Yet his doom is near. A new generation of young warriors has reached manhood, who care little for the victories won by their fathers. To them Artorius is a relic, an ageing symbol of a bygone era.

These restless young men find a leader in Medraut, the High King's youngest son. Since his return from the East, Medraut has bided his time at Caerleon. Now he steps out of the shadows to take advantage of the growing resentment and unrest against his father. When the Yellow Plague hits Britannia, a lethal sickness that sweeps across the land and spares neither young nor old, Medraut seizes the chance to make his bid for power. All the while, the ever-present threat of the Saxons under their formidable leader, Cerdic, looms in the background.

Leader of Battles (V): Medraut is the fifth and last installment in the Leader of Battle series. A lonely figure, surrounded by enemies, Artorius will ride out to battle one last time and leave the memory of a deathless legend...'