Friday, 14 October 2011

The Norman Invasion and the release of The Forest Dwellers

Today, the 14th October, is the anniversary of The Battle of Hastings, one of the most pivotal moments in British history. Like the Battle of Bosworth in 1485, it was the end of an era, a battle that forced Britain along a new path and forged new allegiances. If the events of those two battles could be altered, England and those living in it would be very different today.

Prior to the Battle of Hastings the country’s political influence was Scandinavia. Harold himself was half Danish and, although the Normans stemmed from the same Scandinavian branch, their outlook and ideas were very different.

With the Normans came new methods of kingship and rule, new traditions and social conduct. Most of the Saxons that survived the battle were either forced into hiding or to assume subservient roles. Despite recent historical revisionist theories the impact of the invasion must have been severe. The Saxons maintained a lengthy resistance against Norman rule, burning towns, sacking cathedrals and conducting a guerilla style campaign against William and his ilk. The Norman’s name for these people was ‘silvatici’ or forest dwellers.

Within the next few weeks my second novel, The Forest Dwellers will be published. It is set in the land of Ytene, which today is better known as The New Forest. It is so named because when William the Conqueror saw its potential he immediately claimed it for the crown, expanding Cnut’s existing hunting grounds and dispossessing thousands of people who had previously made their living beneath the rich canopy of woodland and expanse of heath. It is the imagined resentment of these people that inspired my novel.

Indeed, resentment for the invaders was widely recorded and although I could not find any
contemporary poetry from the Hampshire area I did find some from St David’s in
South Wales.
The Poet, Rhigyfarch (d. 1099), was the son of Bishop Sulien of St. David's.
The poem is rich with sorrow and a fierce resentment at the enforced changes the Normans
brought to the British way of life. I imagine feelings would have been similar in the Royal Forest.
Sorry it is a little long but poets of the day were notoriously long winded; please feel free to skip it.
From "The Welsh-Latin Poetry of Sulien's Family" _Studia Celtica_8,
1973, trans. by Michael Lapidge, pp. 89-93.
"Alas!  that the present time led us into this state of things,
where a cruel power threatens to drive away by its authority
those who are duly reading this poem.
Why have the blind fates not let us die?
Why does the earth not consume us, nor the sea swallow us?
Now an unheard-of rumour comes to our ears:
it says that free necks are subjected to the yoke.
Nothing is of any use to me now, but the power of giving:
neither the law, nor learning, nor great fame,
nor the deep-resounding glory of nobility,
not honour formerly held, not riches, not wise teaching, not deeds nor
not reverence for God, not old age;
none of these things retains its station, nor any power.
Now the labours of earlier days lie despised by the word,
heart and work of the Normans.
For they increase our taxes and burn our properties.
One vile Norman intimidates one hundred natives with his command,
and terrifies them with his look.
Alas the fall of the former state, alas the profound grief:
The people become debased, naked of limb;
each man ploughs the earth,
for with curved foot the nobleman as well as the poor man
turns over the soil.
Now the pomp of the mighty falls from the heights;
and each company is sad, the court is sad:
there are continual sorrows and fears.
Families do not now take delight in offspring;
the heir does not hope for paternal estates;
the rich man does not aspire to accumulate flocks.
No youth takes delight in pleasantries,
there is no pleasure in hearing the poems of poets.
But instead the broken spirit falls,
weighed down by lethargy, and immersed in shadows,
does not know that it is day.
Why shall I enumerate more, or rehearse this further?
Our limbs are cut off, we are lacerated,
our necks condemned to death, and chains are put on our arms.
The honest man's hand is branded by burning metals.
A woman now lacks her nose, a man his genitals.
More dire losses of our faculties follow,
And prison shuts us in for many years.
Sefdom is brought to the neck with a meathook,
and learns that nothing can be had at will.
Alas the heap of crimes of this evil race,
alas the diseased hearts of this sinful race!
Alas the full weight of these crimes which have prevented
the raising of arms against this enemy by its very weight!
Are you, British people, at enmity with God?
You, Wales, do not carry the quiver of arrows
on your shoulder, nor stretch the bow with tight bow-string,
nor gird your loins with broadsword,
nor raise the shield on your left shoulder.
Nor does the lance vibrate in the open fist.
Devoid of armament you waste away exhausted.
O unhappy and lamentable fate:
slothful in seeking peace, slothful in taking up arms.
O Wales, you are afflicted and dying,
you are quivering with fear, you collapse, alas,
miserable with your sad armament.
Nothing is joyful now, nothing pleasant.
Your beard droops, your eye is sad.
An alien crowd speaks of you as hateful.
See how ignominy fills the open face with disgrace.
Alas, the evil plague:  for the diseased mind depicts its condition in
the flesh,
just as the healthy mind shows its joys to the field.
O deserted by God, O transient glory!  What is now left for you,
Why do you rehearse these things?
It would be appropriate to weep excessively,
to weep throughout the countryside:
let every field lament, let it weep, I say.
Why would you cease watering the fields with your tears?
Why would you cease filling the stars with your lament?
Patriotism and the hope of self-rule flee;
liberty and self-will perish.
Seek now your everlasting home,
whose never-fading flowers, the lilies,
burgeon perpetually in golden fields.
Now, now, you reluctant ones, look upon heaven's heights,
which first you hated, inspired by Hades.
These things I, Rhigyfarch, sadly lament;
and, weeping over the losses of a miserable people,
I have carefully tried to depict the penalties for sins.
But, Omnipotent Father, have mercy on me who weeps over such things,
confined among them:  the asperities of life
shall not shatter me, and the sweetness
of this fragile existence shall not elevate my spirit--
let it not be either the left or the right way,
but a royal way between these two,
whereby I might ascend to the heavenly kingdom.

The local population resented the Norman rule enough to believe that the death of his sons, Richard and William Rufus, in the forest was divine justice.

As I delved further into the period I became absorbed into the age-old mystery of ‘who killed William Rufus’. Much ink has been wasted on speculation but it is undeniable that the truth died with the king in August 1100.

For many years it was believed that Walter Tyrell was responsible, and that belief has become legend. Historians have reconstructed the hunting scene, investigated the main protagonists and pieced together a patchwork of evidence so faded with age as to be indecipherable.

Today, most historians agree that the king’s brother, shortly to become King Henry I and the man to benefit most from the king’s death, was the probable person behind the deed and I tend to agree. It is more than probable that whoever fired the arrow was merely a paid assassin. That is not to say I believe it was Tyrell for not only did he not benefit personally from the killing but the denial that he upheld until his death was supported by Abbot Suger who reported in his Life of Louis VI that he ‘had often heard Tirel, at a time when he had nothing to hope or fear, affirm on the solemnest oath that on the fateful day he neither went into that part of the wood where the king was nor even caught sight of him in the wood[1]’.

The Anglo Saxon chronicle state that ‘The King was shot by one of his men.’ Geoffrey Gaimer stated, ‘We do not know who shot the king.’ And Gerald of Wales wrote, ‘The King was shot by Ranulf of Aquis.’ Clearly it was as much a mystery at the time as it is now, possibly a mystery encouraged by the new monarch and it will unfortunately have to remain so. However, a mystery does provide splendid scope for the imagination.

The Forest Dwellers is the story of Alys and Aelf, forest dwellers who's lives are blown apart by the arrival of the Normans. Armed with very different weapons the narrative follows their bitter fight for survival from the early days of conquest to the death in the forest of William Rufus. I stress that The Forest Dwellers is a work of fiction and hope my readers will enjoy discovering the world of the forest dwellers as much as I enjoyed creating it. I will update details of the publication date as soon as I have them.

The Forest Dwellers is a fiction of oppression, sexual manipulation and vengeance.

[1] Abbot Suger, Vie de Louis VI le Gros, edited and translated by H. Waquet, (Paris, 1929,1964), p.12


  1. This is a very appealing topic for a book. If not for fiction on the subject, the topic could be all but forgotten, relegated to a few lines in history books. Fiction brings it back to life and allows us to "live it". It also lights a fire in the reader's imagination. The forest would be an amazing place to live, and though I wouldn't trade it for my warm house and hot shower, it makes for great daydreams.

  2. What a compelling concept for a book!!!

  3. Thanks for sharing this wonderful overview with it's quick and easy overview of Normans versus Saxons and the advent of Norman rule.