Archive for March, 2013

The early history and dating of the first lords of the barony of Greystoke in Cumberland is of interest not only in itself but also because it can help shed light on the governance of Cumbria both prior to the Norman Conquest of 1066 and in the years and decades which followed. This is the subject of this article. It is a very partial story of how a Norse-descended Cumbrian lord was able to survive and even thrive under the Norman yoke. As you will see the investigation leads us down several unexpected avenues.

Greystoke Castle

Greystoke Castle

The first Norman-recognized lord of Greystoke was Forne son of Sigulf. Forne’s own son Ivo started to build Greystoke castle in about 1129 at the time of his father’s death. What I’d like to explore is Forne’s likely date of birth, something of his career and his two known children: Ivo and Edith. Ultimately the question is whether Forne was one of King Henry 1’s ‘new men’, whether he was one of the men that the Anglo-Norman monk and chronicler Orderic Vitalis referred to as being ‘raised from the dust’, or as I and many other historians believe to be the case, maybe he was rather already a significant lord or even magnate before Henry made use of his services? Also was his father Sigulf also a power in the north of England, perhaps even in pre-Conquest days? Many of the contentious issues regarding these questions, while perhaps not being capable of being completely resolved, can at least be illuminated by a close attention to possible dates. Some historians of the North have paid little attention to mundane questions such as the likely births, deaths and ages of the people involved; things that are the stuff of genealogists and family historians.

Let’s start this exploration with Forne’s two known children.

William Rufus

William Rufus

As far as we know Ivo was Forne’s first son. After Forne’s death in about 1129/30, Ivo was reconfirmed by Henry I in his father’s northern estates – most importantly the barony of Greystoke in present-day Cumberland. The charter confirming this still exists. Although it is not an original thought, I have suggested elsewhere that Forne named his son Ivo after the first Norman ‘strongman’ sent by King William II (or as he is often called William Rufus) to try to subjugate Cumbria. His name was Ivo Taillebois. Ivo Taillebois was a Norman from lower Normandy and he probably arrived in Cumbria with or shortly after William Rufus’s captured Carlisle in 1092. This was the first time the Normans ‘arrived’ in Cumbria, although for quite a long time thereafter they were holed up in their new castles, from where they periodically sallied forth to pillage and rape. It seems that Norman Ivo didn’t last long; he died in either 1093 or 1094. If Forne, whose family all bore Norse names, gave his son the decidedly French name of Ivo, then this, I hazard to suggest, was quite possibly to ingratiate himself with Ivo Taillebois. And if so that would only have made sense if Ivo son of Forne was born while Ivo Taillebois were still alive in Cumbria, i.e. between 1092 and 1094. It could no doubt have been slightly later, ‘in remembrance’ of Ivo Taillebois, but I find this unconvincing. Such a date of birth is of course just conjecture, but I will suggest later that in terms of Forne’s likely age and Ivo’s death it makes sense.

But we can pin things down even more if we consider Forne’s daughter Edith Forne Sigulfson, who became King Henry I’s mistress. It is well established that Edith bore King Henry one son, called both Robert fitz Edith (son of Edith) and Robert fitz Roy (son of the king). There was probably also a daughter called Adeliza. When was Edith Henry’s mistress? I think the evidence indicates that it was in the early 1120s. As Ann Williams writes in her excellent essay Henry 1 and the English:

Henry was clearly playing away, though the aggrieved party was not Queen Matilda (Henry I’s first wife) but her successor Adeliza of Louvain.

Why is this dating of Henry and Edith Forne’s liaison likely? In about 1142 the Norman Robert of Torigny wrote that their son Robert was still young and unmarried. In fact the first mention of this Robert was in the Pipe Roll for 1130/31, ‘when his lands, which lay in Devonshire, were being administered by guardians (‘vigiles’)’. So Robert was clearly still a minor in 1130/31.

Robert fitz Edith (Robert fitz Roy) later supported his half-sister, the ‘Empress Maud’, against King Stephen at the siege of Winchester in 1141. Therefore, as Ann Williams rightly suggests, it’s probable that Robert was born in 1122/23.

Osney AbbeyRobert would also attest various charters in the period between 1141 and 1147, in which he was referred to as ‘Robertus filius Regis’ i.e. Robert the king’s son. When the empress Maud confirmed the  grant made to Osney Priory (later an Abbey) in Oxford, first made in 1129 by Edith Forne’s later husband Robert d’Oilley but at her instigation, the empress calls Robert ‘Robertus filius regis frater meum’, i.e. ‘Robert the son of the king, my brother’. Not only that but Edith also got her son Robert to make a grant to her beloved Osney, in which he is referred to as ‘Robertus Henrici regis filius’, and this grant was made with the consent of his half-brother ‘Henrici de Oleio fratris mei’, that is ‘Henry d’Oilley my brother’, the son of Edith by her later husband Robert d’Oilley. Robert fitz Edith (fitz Roy) was to marry the widowed Norman heiress Maud of Avranches, probably in the late 1160s, but possibly in the 1140s.Their only daughter Maud FitzRoy died in 1224, which might argue for a somewhat later marriage date for her parents. Robert fitz Roy himself in 1172, possibly aged around 50.

If all this dating evidence is in any way correct, and I believe it is, then it is possible, likely even, that Edith first met King Henry during his one and only visit to York and Carlisle in 1122. If Edith had been a relatively young woman at the time, perhaps only in her early twenties, then she could have been born either in the later 1090s or the very first years of the 1100s. If so when Edith died around 1157 she would have been roughly sixty.

All that's left of Wetheral Priory

All that’s left of Wetheral Priory

Let’s take stock. The evidence seems to indicate that Forne was having children in the 1090s. This narrows down his possible birth a bit. In the 1090s Forne could perhaps have been been in his twenties, thirties or maybe even in his forties. But to narrow this down even more let’s look at what else we know about him.

All historians of the north of England in the period agree that Forne was one of King Henry’s trusted officers in the region in the 1120s. He witnessed many important charters during this time. His co-signatories being the few other members of Henry’s locally important men, including Robert de Brus and King David of Scotland. Also, between about 1106 and at the very latest 1112, Forne was a witness to the foundation charter of Wetheral Priory in Cumbria. In addition, at some point between 1115 and 1122, King Henry confirms that he has given ‘Forne son of Sigulf’ land in Thornton-le- Moor in Yorkshire:

H(enricus) rex Anglorum Turstino archiepiscopo et Nigello de Albini et Ansch(etillo) de Bulmer et baronibus de Euerwicsira salutem. Sciatis me dedisse Fornoni filio Sigulfi terrain de Torentona que est de feodo Robert! Malet, unde Alueredus filius Ilvingi reddit xx.s. per annum pro omnibus illis consuetudinibus quibus tenet aliam terram suam; et Walterus Espec eum inde seisiri faciat. Testibus: cancellario Ranulfo et Pagano filio Johannis, apud Windesor.

Dr. Hugh Doherty of Oxford University has also rediscovered the confirmation of Forne in his lands made by Henry I.

All this establishes without too much doubt that Forne was already a significant force in the North before King Henry visited Carlisle in 1122. This is strongly confirmed by the fact that Forne appeared ‘at the gathering in 1121 of the ‘chief men’ (principales vires) who heard the claim of the community of St. Cuthbert to Tynemouth Priory’. ‘Forne is listed alongside Robert de Brus, Alan de Percy, and Walter Espec (who precede him) and Robert de ‘Witeleven’ and Odard sheriff of the Northumbrians (‘vicecomes Northymbrensium’), who follow him, with the unnamed maiores of the shire and many others.’

Forne may also have been a witness to the charter for Scone Abbey in 1120, although the authenticity of this attribution is still somewhat contentious.

What all this makes abundantly clear is that Forne, the ‘first’ lord of Greystoke, who had children in the 1090s, was already a major player in Cumbria and in the north in general by at least the early 1100s.

Nunburnholme Church

Nunburnholme Church

Yet we can go further back to the Domesday survey of 1086 ordered by William the Conqueror. Here we find a Forne in possession of some pretty decent lands in Yorkshire. Remember the vast bulk of Cumbria and all of Northumberland were not included in the Domesday survey because they were yet to come under Norman control and thus we don’t know if he possessed lands there as well. In Domesday Forne is mentioned as one of the ‘taini regis’ of the East Riding of Yorkshire holding a manor at Nunburnholme. The critical relevance of Nunburnholme is that this estate was in later years always an integral part of the barony of Greystoke! Forne also held other lands in Yorkshire in 1086, in Millington and Biebly for instance, which were also later parts of the barony of Greystoke. This is all, I suggest, no coincidence. All historians who have seriously looked at the question agree: the 1086 Yorkshire Forne and Forne Sigulfson were one and the same.

Putting all the evidence together it would appear that Forne, the ‘first’ Norman lord of Greystoke, was probably a youngish man in 1086, had children in the 1090s and was later a powerful northern officer of King Henry until his death in about 1129/30. So we might tentatively conjecture that he was born in or around the period 1060 to 1065, just before the Conquest. This would mean that at the time of his death he was about 65 to 70. This seems reasonable.

Taking their lead from William Farrer in his Early Yorkshire Charters of 1915, several historians have suggested that Forne was one of King Henry’s ‘new men’; that he was ‘raised from the dust’. Farrer himself put it thus:

Of Sigulf, the father of Forne, nothing whatever is known. Possibly he was the son of an unnamed sochman of the East Riding contemporary with the Domesday Survey. Forne, his son, comes into prominence during the second decade of Henry I’s reign as a trusted minister of the crown in Yorkshire.

Note the supposed simple ‘sochman’ Farrer conjured up was not Sigulf but his father (if we take ‘he’ to refer to Sigulf and not Forne). In his wonderful 1979 book The Norman Conquest of the North, William E. Kapelle contends that Forne was ‘in reality, a Northumbrian new man’.

I believe all the available evidence suggests that this was not the case.

Certainly Henry wanted to put his own men in charge in the North, but this doesn’t mean that they all came from nowhere, that they were very simple and relatively unimportant men. They were in fact mostly already ‘noble’ Normans or Anglo-Saxons, perhaps not great magnates but significant people nonetheless. I can’t help but agree with Ann Williams:

It is likely… that Forne was rather more than a sokeman’s son or even a minor thegn. He seems in fact to have been one of the local magnates of Cumbria, ‘where title to their land’ (as Professor Barlow has observed) ‘went back well before the Norman annexation’.

King Henry 1

King Henry 1

Remember the Norman annexation referred to was of Carlisle in 1092 by William Rufus.

There are two other indications that this was the case. First, Forne’s daughter Edith became King Henry’s mistress and the mother of maybe two of his children. I’ve suggested this liaison followed Henry’s visit to Carlisle in 1122. To me it goes against the grain of all the available historical evidence that a king such as Henry would form an enduring sexual liaison with a simple sokeman’s daughter; a woman whom he later married off to an important man and also gave  to her a significant estate in her own name. Henry himself had more mistresses and concubines than perhaps any other king of England. But all of Henry’s numerous other known mistresses were members of quite powerful families; they were not peasants or anything approaching it. Some historians, with absolutely no evidence whatsoever, have suggested that Forne’s rise to power was due to his daughter’s relationship with Henry.  It no doubt helped, but as Henry 1’s greatest biographer Charles Hollister put it:

The mother of a recognized bastard (and Edith’s son… was recognized) would usually have been a woman of at least minimal social status.

Cutting though the academic caution and understatement, I think we can get the point. Forne was in all probability already a northern magnate when Henry came to Carlisle in 1122. It’s quite possible, though we can’t prove it, that Henry and Edith first met in that year in either Carlisle or York. It was his only visit to the North if we exclude his reputed Yorkshire birth.

As Ann Williams says:

Since he (Forne) is addressed in a royal writ of 1121, he must already have held some office in Yorkshire and Northumbria and would therefore have been present to greet the king on his arrival in the north.

This brings us to the hoary question of the status and the dates of Forne’s father Sigulf. That his father was called Sigulf is certain. All historians agree. In the foundation charter of Wetheral Priory, perhaps dating from as early as 1106 but definitely not later than1112, he is called Forne son of Sigulf, as indeed he is elsewhere.

The Kingdom Of Cumbria -  Strathclyde

The Kingdom Of Cumbria – Strathclyde

As I discussed in my article The Normans come to Cumbria, Sigulf is mentioned in ‘earl’ Gospatric’s famous writ, written in English, which granted, or more likely reconfirmed, Thorfinn Mac Thore in his estates in Allerdale, in northern Cumbria. Let me reproduce this writ or letter again in full:

Gospatric greets all my dependants and each man, free and dreng, that dwell in all the lands of the Cumbrians, and all my kindred friendlily; and I make known to you that my mind and full leave is that Thorfynn  MacThore be as free in all things that are mine in Alnerdall as any man is, whether I or any of my dependants, in wood, in heath, in enclosures, and as to all things that are existing on the earth and under it, at Shauk and at Wafyr and at Pollwathoen  and at bek Troyte and the wood at Caldebek; and I desire that the men abiding with Thorfynn at Cartheu and Combetheyfoch be as free with him as Melmor and Thore and Sygulf were in Eadread’s days, and that (there) be no man so bold that he with what I have given to him cause to break the peace such as Earl Syward and I have granted to them forever as any man living under the sky; and whosoever is there abiding, let him be geld free as I am and in like manner as Walltheof and Wygande  and Wyberth and Gamell and Kunyth and all my kindred and dependants; and I will that Thorfynn have soc and sac, toll and theam over all the lands of Cartheu and Combetheyfoch that were given to Thore in Moryn’s days free, with bode and witnessman in the same place.

The Sigulf mentioned here is now generally accepted as being Forne Sigulfson’s father. It also seems clear from the wording that Sigulf was already dead at the time Gospatric wrote this writ. This touches on many hotly debated issues regarding the dating of the writ itself and on Gospatric’s own life and status at the time.

As the writ was written in ‘old’ English, in Anglo-Saxon, it has been suggested that it dates from the 1050s or even the 1040s. I will return to the evidence for such a dating at another time. Others have dated the writ later. Ann Williams writes: ‘Charles Phythian Adams has recently suggested that his (Forne’s) father was the Sigulf (the name, incidentally, is not common) named as a tenant of land in Cumbria in a writ issued by Gospatric of Allerdale, which Phythian-Adams further argues should be dated 1067-69.’ In fact Forne’s parentage was mentioned by numerous historians years ago. Regarding the dating of Gospatric’s  writ, the Rev. James Wilson wrote in 1904:

The date of this charter may be assigned to some period before the conquest of 1092, but perhaps after 1067 when Gospatric purchased the earldom of Northumberland from William the Conqueror, or more probably after 1072, when King Malcolm of Scotland gave him Dunbar and the adjacent lands in Lothian.

If Forne Sigulfson was born as I am suggesting around 1060 to 1065, then the earlier datings of Gospatric’s writ seem suspect. Sigulf must have been alive at the time of his son Forne’s birth or at the very least nine months before?

There is much more to be explored and said about Gospatric, (who was certainly a former earl of Northumbria and, given his name, probably of Cumbric descent), and his unique writ. I will return to this matter another time.

But let’s return to the subject of this article: Forne Sigulfson. As we have seen, he was already a Yorkshire land holder in 1086. His holding in Nunburnholme, for example, was held in ‘King Edward’s (the Confessor’s) time’ by Morcar. This is without any doubt the Northumbrian earl Morcar. As this is so then who held Morcar’s ‘manor’ of Nunburnhome between 1066 and 1086 when Forne surely held it? We don’t know. Although Earl Morcar didn’t die until 1087, after his participation in the rebellion against William the Conqueror initiated by the Abbot of Ely in 1071, he had been captured and imprisoned by the Conqueror. Morcar had already ‘forfeited’ (had been robbed of) his lands, including those in Yorkshire and Northumbria. It seems that by 1067 earl Morcar’s earldom had already been granted to Copsi. But Copsi himself was soon killed by Osulf, and he in turn was also soon killed. The earldom of Northumbria passed in 1068 to none other than our Gospatric. Sigulf was undoubtedly Gospatric’s ‘man’, and Sigulf’s son Forne held Nunburnholme in 1086. Gospatric was finally (for a second time) stripped of the earldom of Northumbria in 1072. Perhaps it was in 1072, or even back in 1068, that Nunburnholme was granted to (or maybe even already held by) Forne’s father Sigulf? Sigulf was most likely Gospatric’s man when he was earl of Northumbria. This is all conjecture and I really shouldn’t go further down this hazy route.

Simeon of Durham

Simeon of Durham

This thought does however lead to another one. The almost contemporary chronicler Simeon of Durham mentioned a local magnate called Forne filius Ligulfi in his Historia Regnum. The suggestion has on occasion been made that Simeon’s Forne son of Ligulf was the one and the same as Forne Sigulfson, and that this Ligulf was the one who was will killed in a very important clash in Durham in 1080 which sparked a northern rebellion against the Conqueror. While discussing Edith Forne, medieval historian Horace Round once speculated, ‘if the bearer of so uncommon a name was identical with the Forne Ligulfson (“Forne filius Ligulfi”), who is mentioned by Simeon of Durham, in 1121, as one of the magnates of Northumbria, and if so, whether the latter was son of the wealthy but ill-fated Ligulf, murdered near Durham in 1080. Should both these queries be answered in the affirmative, Edith (Forne) would have been named after her grandmother “Ealdgyth,” the highly born wife of Ligulf.’

Personally I don’t, yet, find this identification convincing, although I acknowledge that it could be the case. We shouldn’t put too much store on the spellings of Ligulf and Sigulf. The letters S and L have often been conflated or confused. In later times in Cumbria even Forne’s father Sigulf was quite often written as Ligulf. But Ligulf, unlike Sigulf, was a pretty common name in the North at the time. There are many examples. I’ll have to put this question aside for the time being. As I have said, at present I can’t support the identification of the ‘Cumbrian’ Sigulf and the Northumbrian Ligulf who was killed at Durham in 1080, but I admit the dates and some other facts look tempting.

So what is the conclusion regarding Forne the first lord of Greystoke?

Ivo fitz Forne (to use the new Norman naming pattern) was the man who first started to build Greystoke castle in about 1129, around the time his father died. In fact at first this was more of a simple defensive ‘peel’ tower than the classic Norman castle it would later become. Forne his father was already a magnate in the north of England in 1086 before becoming one of Henry 1’s key northern officers. And Forne’s father Sigulf was, at the very least, a powerful Cumbrian land holder in the days before the Norman Conquest. Whether he was also a magnate in Yorkshire and Northumbria is open to question.

When the Normans invaded and conquered England the vast majority of the English, whether magnates, thegns or simple people, lost their land and were reduced to de facto feudal serfdom. Some however, particularly in the North, were able to make an accommodation with the hated French conquerors and even prosper. Forne’s Norse family was one of these. As Ann Williams puts it:

It was by securing the cooperation of such native lords in Cumbria that the Norman kings fixed their authority in the region.

The Norman Conquest was a disaster for the English people

The Norman Conquest was a disaster for the English people

This we can understand. Local rulers have always tried to hold onto their power and privilege when new rulers arrive. Only when they can’t do so do they resist and usually perish. The historical examples are legion. But for the people of the north of England, as for England in general – be they of Cumbric (northern British), Scandinavian, or Anglo-Saxon stock – the advent of the Normans was a disaster. The English people suffered under their yoke for centuries. It doesn’t much matter that the Normans themselves were the descendants of northern Vikings, Normans means North Men, or even that Normandy itself was settled almost two centuries earlier by Vikings from the east of England and by the Norse-Irish from both Ireland and Cumbria. What matters is that present-day England and the English people were brutally and unequivocally reduced to servile status by a French invader and conqueror. Some see this as a good thing for England’s future development, and we all have to interpret history, I however do not. The question is: ‘Whose side are you on?’ I’ll state the point quite clearly: I’m on the side of the majority, the vast bulk of English people who have been repressed and exploited ever since 1066.

I don’t want to engage in counter-factual history, although it is, I admit, nice to dream of what might have happened if King Harold had defeated William the Bastard at Hastings or the kings of Denmark had managed to dislodge the Conqueror. But sticking to real history, what did the Norman invasion mean for the people of England? First, it meant brutal repression and reduction to servile status. There was even genocide in the North. Second, it meant being a source of taxes for the French-speaking ‘English’ Plantagenet and Angevin kings. Third, England was a pool of soldiers, who later became ‘cannon fodder’, for these French kings’ of England; for their rampages in France against their French cousins, or in the Holy Land. And then, later on, English people were dragged all over the world to fight in meaningless wars, to conquer untold countries, which became the British Empire; to die in a parts of the world that were ‘forever England’. England, and Britain, might have become a world power, but what did it ever mean for the majority of the English or British people? Answer this yourself.

Sources and references:

William E. Kapelle, The Norman Conquest of the North, 1979; Ann Williams, Henry 1 and the English, 2007; James Wilson, An English Letter of Gospatric, SHR, 1904; William Farrer, Early Yorkshire Charters, Vol 2, The Fee of Greystoke, 1915; John Crawford Hodgson , The House of Gospatric, in A History of Northumberland, Vol 7, 1901; James Wilson, A History of Cumberland, in William Page (ed) The Victoria County Histories; W G Collingswood, Lake District History, 1925; Edmund Spencer, The Antiquities and Families in Cumberland, 1675; John Denton, An Accompt of the most considerable Estates and Familes in the County of Cumberland (ed R S Ferguson, 1887); Sir Archibald C. Lawrie, Early Scottish Charters Prior to AD 1153, 1905; Marc Morris, The Norman Conquest, 2012; Roy Millward and Adrian Robinson, The Lake District, 1970; Richard Sharpe, Norman Rule in Cumbria 1092 – 1136, 2005.

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‘Lament the grief and suffering of the wretched people’

The Battle of Hastings

The Battle of Hastings

At the time of the Norman Conquest in 1066 present-day Cumberland and Westmorland (‘Cumbria’) were remote and little developed regions of northwest England. The area was peopled by a mix of Cumbric-speaking Britons, Norse-Irish settlers and, mainly in the low-lying fringes, English-speaking Anglians. There were certainly local strongmen, or lords; what were called thegns in Anglo-Saxon England, but life for ordinary people was mostly peaceful and, as long as the people paid their dues to their lords, there wasn’t much violence or repression. Though the magnates themselves loved to plot and murder each other. The English didn’t have and didn’t need castles; a fact that is of extreme importance in explaining how it was that the brutal Norman-French invaders were able to maintain their grip on the resentful and hostile country they had conquered in the face of persistent resistance and rebellion.

In the years immediately following the Battle of Hastings, Norman Duke William ‘the Bastard’ and his henchmen moved swiftly to cow the native English, who they despised, and dispossess them of their lands. William declared that all the English who had fought at Hastings would forfeit their estates, which he then divvied up between his French followers, whether they had been with him at Hastings itself or had arrived in England soon after. But William’s policy of suppression and dispossession went further. With a few notable exceptions (we shall see at least one such in Cumbria) the vast bulk of England was soon wrenched from the English and passed into French control. The English Church was also robbed to pay for William’s mercenaries.

A Norman French Conqueror

A Norman French Conqueror

Although I will occasionally use the word ‘Norman’, because William was after all the duke of Normandy, I tend to avoid the misleading construction ‘Anglo-Norman’. The invaders were French and that is what they called themselves in all their documents from the time of the Conquest onwards. They spoke French and continued to do so for several hundred years. ‘Anglo-Norman’ is a euphemism which tends to obscure the brutal reality of foreign invasion, repression and exploitation.

The Norman monk Orderic Vitalis, who was born in England five years after the invasion of an English mother and Norman father, and therefore can be said to be ‘Anglo-Norman’, wrote about the consequences of the invasion during Williams’s six-month absence in Normandy in 1067:

Meanwhile. The English were groaning under the Norman yoke, and suffering oppressions from the proud lords who ignored the king’s injunctions. The petty lords who were guarding the castles oppressed all the native inhabitants of high and low degree, and heaped shameful burdens on them. For Bishop Odo and William fitz Osbern, the king’s vice-regents, were so swollen with pride that they would not deign to hear the reasonable pleas of the English or give them impartial judgement. When their men at arms were guilty of plunder and rape they protected them by force, and wreaked their wrath all the more violently upon those who complained of the cruel wrongs they suffered.

Things didn’t improve when William came back to England. The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle is terse: ‘When he came back he gave away every man’s land.’

In the early years William and his French, Breton and Flemish followers didn’t yet feel secure in England. English resistance and rebellion was rife. The remaining family of the defeated King Harold made several unsuccessful incursions in the West Country, Eadric the Wild and his Welsh allies were continuing to resist and fight back in the borderlands of England and Wales, while William’s grip on the north of England (Northumbria, Yorkshire and Durham) remained very tenuous. Northern English earls such as Morcar, Waltheof and Gospatric made accommodations with Duke (should we now call him King?) William, but were always plotting revolts to remove the French curse from England.

Eventually in 1069, with the support of the Danish king Swein, the north of England rose against the invader.

Earl Robert Cumin and his mercenaries are killed

Earl Robert Cumin and his mercenaries are killed

The initial spark for this venting of northern English resentment occurred in early 1069 when William replaced Gospatric as earl of Northumbria with a Fleming called Robert Cumin (or de Comines). Cumin arrived in the North with a band of between 500 and 900 Flemish mercenaries. The chronicler Simeon of Durham tells us, to use historian Marc Morris’s words, that ‘the new earl advanced leaving a trail of destruction, allowing his men to ravage the countryside by pillaging and killing’. People started to flee their homes. But, writes Simeon: ‘Suddenly there came a heavy fall of snow and such harsh winter weather that all possibility of flight was denied.’

‘With their backs to the wall’ the local English decided on resistance – they would ‘kill the earl or die trying.’ Robert Cumin was warned not to enter the town of Durham but he ‘spurned the advice’. Once in Durham ‘his men continued their killing and looting in their quest for quarters’. But the next day Simeon tells of the English revenge:

At first light the Northumbrians who had banded together burst in through all the gates, and rushed through the whole town killing the earl’s companions.

The streets were ‘choked with blood’. The English massacred Earl Cumin and all his mercenaries. Flushed with success the English of the North rose up. Orderic wrote: ‘The English now gained confidence in resisting the Normans, whom they saw as oppressors of their friends and allies.’ They attacked York where a Norman garrison was holed up. William heard of the revolt and, says Orderic: ‘Swift was the king’s coming’, with ‘an overwhelming army’. Norman massacres ensued and William ravaged York and its church. Many of the English magnates escaped, hopefully to fight another day.

William left a Norman called William fitz Osbern in charge at York and returned south. But knowing the precariousness of the Norman grip on England he sent his wife back to Normandy ‘away from the English tumults’.

Northern resistance was in no way over. Yet for the English the worst was still to come. English envoys had been sent to Denmark to ask King Swein to come to their aid and throw out the French. He finally agreed, seeing his main-chance in a part of England that was heavily Scandinavian. In the summer of 1069 a huge Danish fleet, numbering between 240 and 300 ships, arrived in the Humber estuary where they joined forces with their English allies led by Maerleswein, Gospatric and Edgar the aetheling (the English claimant to the throne). The writer of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle at the time was ecstatic. The leaders set out, he wrote, ‘with all the Northumbrians and all the people, riding and marching with an immense host, rejoicing exceedingly’. Historian Marc Morris writes in his excellent The Norman Conquest: ‘The days of Norman rule in England appeared to be numbered.’ Unfortunately it was not to be. The Norman yoke was to be around English necks for centuries to come.

The Harrying of the North

The Harrying of the North

Cutting a rather long story short, William came back with an army to confront the Anglo-Danish force, but had then to retreat south to deal once again, as Orderic tells us, with the resistance of ‘Eadric the Wild and other untameable Englishmen’. On returning to the North the only way William could find to defeat the Anglo-Danish army was to buy off the Danish. The Danish war leader Earl Asbjorn was offered a large sum of money to stop fighting, which, ‘much to the chroniclers’ disgust’, he accepted. Yet the Danish army spent a desperate winter in England awaiting the arrival of King Swein in 1070. The latest threat to French occupation was over, but William wasn’t yet finished with these pesky and truculent north-country men. He began what has become known as The Harrying of the North, which is a pretty innocuous name for what amounted to a regional genocide. He started to seek out the rebels, ‘slaying many’, but, writes Orderic:

In his anger he commanded that all crops and herds, chattels and food of every kind be brought together and burned to ashes with consuming fire, so that the whole region north of the Humber might be stripped of all means of sustenance.

He wanted to make sure there was no more northern opposition to his rule. In this he was, it has to be said, only very partially successful. Orderic continued:

As a consequence, so serious a scarcity fell on England, and so terrible a famine fell upon the humble and defenceless people, that more than 100,000 Christian folk of both sexes, young and old alike, perished of hunger.

Orderic, usually a supporter of the Norman cause (though no Norman apologist like William of Poitiers) added: ‘For when I think of the helpless children, young men in the prime of life, and hoary greybeards perishing alike of hunger, I am so moved to pity that I would rather lament the grief and suffering of the wretched people then make a vain attempt to flatter the perpetrator of such infamy.’

Simeon of Durham also described the consequences of the Harrying of the North:

There was such hunger that men ate the flesh of their own kind, of horses and dogs and cats. Others sold themselves into perpetual slavery that they might be able to sustain their miserable lives. It was horrible to look into the ruined farmyards and houses and see the human corpses dissolved into corruption, for there were none to bury them for all were gone either in flight, or cut down by the sword and famine. None dwelt there and travellers passed in great fear of wild beasts and savage robbers.

Perhaps the most relevant recent historian of the Norman conquest of the north of England, William Kapelle, rightly states that to keep control of England William had resorted to genocide in the north of England.

So far I haven’t yet touched on events in Cumbria. All the forgoing happened in Yorkshire, Northumberland and Durham. The dreadful Harrying of the North, so far as I’m aware, didn’t extend to the north-western region of Cumbria.

Unlike across the Pennines, Cumbria didn’t really start to come under the Norman yoke until a quarter of a century after the Conquest. To be precise in 1092 when the Conqueror’s son King William II (Rufus) arrived with an army in Carlisle, threw out the local lord Dolfin (Gospatrick’s son), occupied the town and ordered the construction of the ubiquitous Norman castle. Prior to the Conquest Cumbria had for a long time been part of the earldom of Northumbria. Although the designations Cumberland and Westmorland had already appeared they were not yet ‘shires’ and there was no local earl. It was the earl and great magnates of Northumbria who held sway, very often owing allegiance to the king of Scotland.

Bamburgh Castle

Bamburgh Castle

As the French suppression and repression of Northumberland and Yorkshire continued (it didn’t end by any means in 1069) and while the majority of the English, thegns and otherwise, were being dispossessed of their lands and replaced by French, some northern magnates fled to Scotland and some to their estates in Cumbria. One such was the former earl of Northumbria, Gospatric, who I have already mentioned. He was a scion of the powerful Northumbrian family who had controlled Bamburgh Castle in Northumberland and held lands throughout the north of England. William had stripped him of the earldom of Northumbria (to replace him by the short-lived Robert Cumin) and he had been one of the leaders of the 1069 uprising. Yet somehow, still being in possession of Bamburgh, he had submitted himself to William and been able to make peace. William regranted him the earldom, which he held until 1072 when the king took it away for a final time. He fled to Scotland, then briefly to Flanders, before returning. It’s possible he found refuge in his Cumbrian estates, as Cumbria at the time ‘belonged’, it is generally believed, to the Scottish King Malcolm Canmore. I wouldn’t go into more detail here about this fascinating man. The important thing for this Cumbrian story is that there is an extant letter, or writ, written by Gospatric in English (Anglo-Saxon) sometime between 1072 and the capture of Carlisle in 1092. It is addressed to all his ‘dependants’. It concerns Cumbria where he seems to have been not only a great landowner but also perhaps the de facto ruler of post-Conquest Cumbria.

I will quote the letter in full using James Wilson’s translation:

Gospatric greets all my dependants and each man, free and dreng, that dwell in all the lands of the Cumbrians, and all my kindred friendlily; and I make known to you that my mind and full leave is that Thorfynn  MacThore be as free in all things that are mine in Alnerdall as any man is, whether I or any of my dependants, in wood, in heath, in enclosures, and as to all things that are existing on the earth and under it, at Shauk and at Wafyr and at Pollwathoen  and at bek Troyte and the wood at Caldebek; and I desire that the men abiding with Thorfynn at Cartheu and Combetheyfoch be as free with him as Melmor and Thore and Sygulf were in Eadread’s days, and that (there) be no man so bold that he with what I have given to him cause to break the peace such as Earl Syward and I have granted to them forever as any man living under the sky; and whosoever is there abiding, let him be geld free as I am and in like manner as Walltheof and Wygande  and Wyberth and Gamell and Kunyth and all my kindred and dependants; and I will that Thorfynn have soc and sac, toll and theam over all the lands of Cartheu and Combetheyfoch that were given to Thore in Moryn’s days free, with bode and witnessman in the same place.

James Wilson explains the meaning and significance of this rare post-conquest Anglo-Saxon writ in his article An English Letter of Gospatric published in 1904. For our purposes I think two things are important. First, that Cumbria prior to 1092 was ruled by an indigenous northern English magnate, owing allegiance to the King of Scotland, who was granting or reconfirming a border ‘fief’ to the wonderfully named Thorfynn MacThore. Wilson puts it as follows:

It may be inferred from the general tenor of the document that Gospatric held a high position in the district beyond that of a great landowner, for it is most improbable that he should have used such a style of address to the men of Cumbria had he been only the lord of Allerdale. Subsequent events, such as the position of his son Dolfin at Carlisle in 1092, and the succession of Waldeve to the paternal estates in Allerdale, appear to warrant the belief that Gospatric ruled the district of Cumbria south of the Solway as the deputy of King Malcolm.

Second, Gospatric refers to pre-Conquest days by mentioning the  Northumbrian Earl Siward and the names of several obviously pre-Conquest (‘in Eadread’s days’) Cumbrian landholders: Melmor and Thore and Sygulf. And this Sygulf (or Sigulf) was none other than the father of Forn ‘Sigulfson’, the first Norman appointed lord of the barony of Greystoke. A man who, as I will discuss later, named his son Ivo after the first Norman ‘enforcer’ in Cumbria, Ivo Taillebois, and indeed the father of Edith fitz Forn Sigulfson who was to become a mistress of King Henry I. Unlike so many others, this northern Norse family managed to hang on to its possessions after the conquest and even thrive. Forn became a trusted servant of the Norman kings in the north of England and his  ‘Greystoke’ family, as it became known, continued to be lords of Greystoke in a direct male line until 1306, when more distant relatives succeeded to the title: first the Grimesthorps, then the Dacres and then, in 1571, the Howards – the Dukes of Norfolk.

During these years following the conquest the native lords of Cumberland and Westmorland owed allegiance, as I have mentioned, to the Scottish crown. It is precisely because of this fact that most of modern-day Cumbria was not included in King William’s Domesday survey of 1086. Cumbria was not yet controlled by the Normans. This was soon to change.

Carlisle Castle of a later date

Carlisle Castle of a later date

When did the Normans actually ‘arrive in Cumbria’? It is possible, although there is no real evidence for it, that a Norman warrior, a so-called ‘strongman’, had already been sent to Cumbria before 1092. But much more likely it was in that year that the Norman French first made their appearance. As mentioned, the Conqueror’s son King William II (Rufus) brought an army north in 1092 and captured Carlisle. The local lord of Carlisle, Dolfin, the son of Gospatric, was expelled. The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle reported:

In this year King William with a great army went north to Carlisle and restored the town and built the castle; and drove out Dolfin, who ruled the land there before. And he garrisoned the castle with his vassals; and thereafter came south hither and sent thither a great multitude of [churlish] folk with women and cattle, there to dwell and till the land.

William Rufus had stationed a garrison in the town, ordered the repair of the Roman town walls and the building of a castle – no doubt the locals were pressed into helping with its construction. He also ordered that settlers be brought from Lincolnshire to help maintain and defend his new conquest. The French occupation and seizure of Cumbria had begun.

The castle was key. As I alluded to earlier, it was the fact that the Normans built castles and knew how to use them while the English knew almost nothing about them that more than anything explains how William and his successors were able to hold on to their newly conquered lands. As Orderic Vitalis wrote:

The fortifications the Normans called castles were scarcely known in the English provinces, and so the English – in spite of their courage and love of fighting – could put up only a weak resistance to their enemies.

The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle groaned: ‘… they built castles far and wide throughout the land, oppressing the unhappy people, and things went ever from bad to worse. When God wills may the end be good!’

Historian Marc Morris in his excellent The Norman Conquest tells us what castles were for:

(They) served as bases for soldiers and knights who would ride out each day to cow the surrounding countryside into submission, indulging in acts of plunder, rape and violence.

There is little doubt that this is what the French garrison at Carlisle did in the years following the seizure of the town. The people of Cumbria started to experience the grim and brutal reality of what foreign invasion and occupation actually meant, as their compatriots elsewhere in England already had.

William Rufus

William Rufus

The first Norman strongman, or perhaps better said enforcer, we know about in Cumbria was a certain Ivo Taillebois, who was given extensive estates by William Rufus, probably shortly after Carlisle was taken in 1092. (Taillebois itself is a village in lower Normandy is an area amusingly called today Swiss Normandy). Ivo had married the Lincolnshire heiress Lucy, and it was no doubt because of this connection that William Rufus ordered  that settlers be brought from these Lincolnshire estates to colonize Carlisle. Ivo died in 1094, but, as Oxford historian Richard Sharpe comments in his Norman Rule in Cumbria, 1092 – 1136, Ivo can probably be regarded as ‘the first Norman lord of Cumbria’.

While the local people started to suffer, were probably forced to build the new castle at Carlisle and were increasingly taxed and pillaged, what became of the local English and Norse lords? Many were simply dispossessed, as had happened so often elsewhere in England. Others tried to reach an accommodation with the Normans. One who succeeded was Forn Sigulfson, the son of local lord Sigulf mentioned in Gospatric’s writ. As I have stated, he was to become the first ‘Norman’ lord of Greystoke in Cumberland. It’s likely that Forn wanted to hold onto his family estates in Cumbria as well as in Yorkshire and sought an accommodation with the conquerors. It’s also probably not a coincidence that he named his son Ivo. I would conjecture that this was to ingratiate himself with the Norman strongman Ivo Taillebois. Forn Sigulfson was of Scandinavian descent, as his name and that of his father bears witness. Ivo on the other hand was a decidedly French name. The connection seems obvious though can never be proved.

After Ivo Taillebois’s death in 1094 we know nothing more about how Norman rule in Cumbria progressed until William Rufus appointed Ranulf Meschin as a type of colonial ruler over Cumbria. This was probably in 1098 or shortly thereafter. Ranulf was neither an earl nor a sheriff (though much later he was made Earl of Chester by Henry I), but he was clearly given full power to rule Cumbria as he saw fit. During his over twenty years as Cumbria’s Norman ruler he created two new lordships for Frenchmen and it is quite likely that he, at least implicitly, confirmed some local lords such as Forn Sigulfson in their existing possessions. These were, in Forn’s case at least, later to be reconfirmed by King Henry I (William Rufus’s younger brother) during that king’s one and only visit to Carlisle in 1122.

All that's left of Wetheral Priory

All that’s left of Wetheral Priory

Ranulf Meschin remained the effective French ruler of Cumbria until about 1122 when Henry I made him Earl of Chester, probably during his fleeting visit to Carlisle. He relinquished his duties in Cumberland and Westmorland. During his time ‘in office’ the castle at Carlisle had been fortified more and other castles were built at, for instance, Appleby. The priory of Wetheral was founded before 1112 and the machinery put in place to start to ‘farm’, or better put, to milk the surrounding countryside and the newly discovered silver mine near Carlisle. Increasing numbers of French, Flemish and English settlers were enticed to the area and their settlements can still be pinpointed by their settlements names – for instance Johnby, to take just one example among many.

And there, rather abruptly, I shall end. The Norman French subjugation of Cumbria, as in much of the rest of northern England, took many years to complete. In fact in 1136, under King Stephen, it reverted to the Scottish crown where in was to remain until 1157.

Cumbria never was, and still isn’t, an economically very important part of England. Events there never much impinged on subsequent English history, except as the setting for the interminable border wars between England and Scotland. Perhaps it is precisely because of its remoteness and unimportance that Cumbria to this day remains, to my mind, one of England’s most authentic regions. Brutally exploited over the centuries to be sure, but still retaining a wonderfully strong streak of Norse, Celtic and English belligerence and cussedness.

In early 1944 young Flying Officer Robert James Grisdale from Winnipeg was still undergoing flying training in Canada. Becoming a pilot in the RCAF was only for a select few. A later squadron colleague of Robert called Cameron Clare Campbell, who became an Air Gunner, wrote that after basic training ‘there were tests in math, morse code and then we had to appear before a Selection Board where they determined whether you were to train as pilots, navigators, wireless operators or gunners. By this time in the war, your chances of going through for a pilot were very slim unless you were outstanding in math and science, which I was not. The majority of the group were classed as straight air-gunners, including me’. Robert Grisdale was selected for pilot training.

RCAF Recruiting PosterHaving successfully qualified as a RCAF pilot he was shipped to England to convert to bombers at RAF Wombleton in North Yorkshire. Training, with No 1666 Heavy Conversion Unit, took several months.  ‘Aircrew who were originally trained on twin-engined aircraft such as Wellingtons or Whitleys received conversion training on heavy four-engined bombers such as the Halifax or Lancaster.’

Aircrews were formed here that would often stay together. Robert was a pilot and his crew at Wombleton comprised: Flight Engineer – Sergeant Walter Alfred James Thurston RAFVR of Southwark, London; Navigator – Flying Officer Isaac Buck Zierler RCAF of Sarnia, Ontario; Bomb Aimer – Flying Officer – William Gordon McLeod RCAF of Port Arthur, Ontario; Wireless Operator/Air Gunner – P/O Joseph Michael Hirak RCAF of Elphinstone, Manitoba; Air Gunner – P/O Francis Gerald Seeley RCAF of Trenton, Canada and Air Gunner – P/O David William Roberts RCAF.

Towards the end of their bomber training we hear of an incident involving this crew flying Halifax LL131, piloted by Robert Grisdale:

On 27th November 1944 this Halifax was landing at Wombleton airfield in bad weather and it missed the runway. On touching down it slewed sideways onto a dispersal pan and, possibly after the undercarriage collapsed, it came to a halt, the aircraft was damaged but the crew escaped injury.

Lancaster of 433 Squadron at Skipton on Swale

Lancaster of 433 Squadron at Skipton on Swale

Despite this mishap the crew all completed their training and were ready to become operational. They were posted together to 433 Squadron based at Skipton-on-Swale, near Thirsk in Yorkshire.

No. 433 (Porcupine) Squadron was formed at Skipton-on-Swale on 25 September 1943, with a nucleus of 5 crews from 429 Squadron. Their Motto was “Qui s’y frotte s’y pique” meaning “Who opposes gets hurt”. Throughout 1943 no 433 Squadron was continuously operational flying Halifaxes over the Continent by night. In January 1945, 433 Squadron was re-equipped with Avro Lancaster Mk Is.

It’s likely that Robert and his crew first flew Halifaxes and then converted to the heavier Lancasters. Campbell wrote in his diary: ‘On the 13th of March 1945 we began converting to Lancasters and by the 18th we were again operational.’ On that day the squadron took part in a diversionary raid over France. March 20 saw their first raid; they bombed an oil installation in Germany near the Danish border called ‘The Heide’. Over the next two weeks the squadron made several more bombing trips to Germany. Of the raid on 8 April Campbell tells us:

On 8 April 1945, we bombed Hamburg and this was probably our scariest raid. All went well until we were almost over the target on our bomb run. Just as we were about to drop I looked up above our plane and there was a Halifax with his doors open and as I watched he let his bombs go. They dropped one by one and missed the rear turret by a few feet short. He then dropped down and almost collided with our plane but must have seen us at the last minute and flew parallel with us for a couple of minutes. He was that close that I could see their tail gunner not more than one hundred feet away. On the way into the target the fighters had dropped the flares that hung on parachutes on either side of our route. The main fighters would stooge above the flares and dive down and pick off bombers almost at random. As we were leaving the target, I saw a Ju 88 dive down and chase a bomber slightly to our left, we were very pleased to get out of there unscathed.

Mosquitos of 105 Squadron 'Return from Leipzig' by Anthony Saunders

Mosquitos of 105 Squadron ‘Return from Leipzig’ by Anthony Saunders

Just two days later on 10 April 433 Squadron was back in the air. They were part of a huge formation of 134 Lancasters from eight squadrons and 90 Halifaxes from six other squadrons, accompanied by 6 Mosquitos from 105 Squadron at RAF Marham. The target was the railway marshalling yards at Engelsdorf and Mochau, near Leipzig. Robert Grisdale, with his usual crew, was flying Lancaster P3-903 with the markings BM-F (or ‘Freddy’).

The weather on their day flight from Skipton was, we are told, good. Approaching the target the bombers were taking a lot of flak. They went over the target at between 15,500 and 19,000 feet and released 1.5 million pounds of high explosive bombs, causing, reports say, ‘severe damage’. But Robert Grisdale and his crew didn’t quite make it. Almost over the target their Lancaster was hit by flak. The RCAF says: ‘According to witnesses, this Lancaster was hit by flak, the starboard inner (engine) was seen to be feathered. Then a small explosion was seen, the aircraft flipped onto its back and spiralled to the ground. No parachutes were seen.’

Leipzig Railwayy Yards being Bombed 10 April 1945

Leipzig Railway Yards being Bombed 10 April 1945

Campbell tells us a little more:

On the 10th April 1945 we did a day light raid on Leipzig. This was a good raid but we were towards the rear of the formation and took a dreadful pounding from slip streams all the way to the target. There was heavy predicted flak close to the target. With predicted flak, the Germans would fire a burst and from observing the blast could make a correction on the next shot which would be closer, then make a correction on the second burst and usually the third burst had your number on it. The secret was to change your height or heading after the first blast.

Just as we were about to drop our bombs, I heard Chris ask the bomb-aimer who was flying F Freddy because he was on fire. Just as Plaskett answered him telling him it was Grisdale’s crew, the bombs and the plane blew up. I never saw the explosion as it was slightly ahead of us and to the right but we felt the blast and saw the debris as we passed.

RCAF Graves in Berlin War Cemetery

RCAF Graves in Berlin War Cemetery

All the crew of Grisdale’s ‘Freddy’ died; they were the only Lancaster of 433 Squadron not to return that day. They are buried in the Berlin War Cemetery. RIP.

Who was Robert James Grisdale? He was born in Winnipeg, Manitoba, in 1923, the son of real estate agent and salesman Robert Chaplin Grisdale and Alice Mary Fraser. His paternal grandfather was none other than the Bolton cotton-bleacher who had become a Canadian Bishop – John Grisdale – who I wrote about in another article.