Wednesday, 17 October 2018

The 1066 Surrender of London was at Westminster, not Berkhamsted

I have been thinking much of Berkhamsted, having presented last month to the Military History wing of the Dacorum U3A.  It was a full house, which was very encouraging as I was debuting a new lecture on the 1066 Siege and Surrender of London, and also launching the full colour and larger format new book: Carmen Widonis – The First History of the Norman Conquest.  The topographic maps look fantastic in colour!

Folks in that part of the world like to think that the surrender of London and the northern earls took place at Berkhamsted in Hertfordshire in 1066.  This sad confusion came about because of careless association of an entry in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, Manuscript D, which says King William came to Beorhhamstede where London surrendered.  Beorh means noble or grand, ham means home, and stede means settlement, so together they mean ‘noble home settlement’.  In 1066 the only royal palace settlement for King Edward the Confessor was near Westminster, where he had built a grand Gallic palace next to the refounded  and papally privileged Abbey of St Peter. Both buildings were constructed on the model across the Channel at Fecamp in Normandy, where the abbey was next to the ducal palace during Edward's youthful residence there.  Edward also took some inspiration from other Gallic abbeys and courts he visited during his 28 years of living in Gaul in exile. 

King Edward modelled his royal lifestyle on Gallic comforts and his royal administration on Gallic methods.  The palace had apartments for King Edward's retainers, mostly Gauls and Franks he had recruited to his service from abroad.  The Abbey had a library, archive, treasury and school for royal administration.  The clerics too were mostly Norman, Gallic or Frankish.  He left his young cousin the perfect set up for taking command of England's royal administration.

English historians don't like being reminded that King Edward was far more Gallic than Anglo-Saxon, and that he had reason to love Duke William better than the Anglo-Danish earls that surrounded him in England.  They conveniently forget that Edward, as senior royal at the Norman court, was a foster-father to Duke William from the death of his cousin Duke Robert the Magnificent in 1035 until his departure for England in 1041.  William of Poitiers styles King Edward as dominus or lord or master to the young duke, perhaps indicating that Edward had help teach the young duke such arts of royal administration as he himself had acquired.

The Carmen says that King William settled at ‘a royal palace of surpassing beauty’ at line 666 and that the rebels and Londoners went there ‘to the palace’ to surrender at line 743.  Manuscript E of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle confirms that the place of surrender is Westmynstre, but that didn’t settle the matter for some Victorian historians.

Edward Augustus Freeman is justly famed for his mammoth effort in compiling The History of the Norman Conquest of England from 1867 to 1879, but Freeman was a man of his time and very carefree about making assumptions that suited his personal biases.  He was a racist, misogynist, imperialist, Protestant bigot, and that comes through in his work.   My own view is that everything he wrote should be reinterrogated by modern historians. Freeman despised Scots, Irish, Welsh, and Cornish equally.  All Danes were little better than pagan thugs.  The French were, of course, beneath contempt and damned to perdition by their Catholicism.  No wonder Freeman was so popular with English historians and schoolteachers for generations and remains one of their favourite authorities!  

Freeman’s careless speculation with geography is particularly irritating to me.  He got so much wrong by being ignorant of ancient place names and equating whatever name he came across with its 19thcentury English homonym.  He ignored the obvious fact that successive invasions of Romans, Saxons, Frisians, Angles, Danes and Normans all had given different names for the same places.   For Freeman Peunessellum becomes Pevensey, despite Pevensey being founded in the 14thcentury by a charter that says the old place was abandoned due to siltation of the port.  Hastinge portus becomes Hastings, despite there never being a town there before the conquest and never a port there at all, and the Elizabethan Richard Camden saying the old Hastings was ‘swallowed up by the sea’.  For Freeman the surrender of London in December of 1066 at beorhhamstede must be Berkhamsted, not the ‘royal palace settlement’ at Westminster where King Edward had just built a magnificent new palace to Gallic standards of comfort so convenient to besieged London.  

Obviously, Berkhamsted likes thinking the surrender of London and the northern earls happened in their neck of the woods as a local claim to fame.  In 2016 a bronze bust of William the Conqueror was unveiled to mark the 950th anniversary of the conquest and London's surrender.  Freeman would be pleased.

Recorded as Berchehamstede in Domeday Book, ‘birchtree home settlement’, the town was sited on a hillside above a navigable watercourse northeast of London.  Styled as a Burbio, indicating early establishment of an Anglo-Saxon market, it was likely a convenient place to trade for supplying London, which could be reached from there by navigation.  This is suggested by 52 burgesses and £4 thelony recorded in Domesday. 

However pleasant as a market town, Berkhamsted was far too remote for a sensible siege camp, being 26 miles distant. 26 miles was two days march or a long horse ride in 1066.  Siege warfare requires being close by.  We know King William was not shy of battle, and he had vast experience leading sieges against walled towns from his many campaigns in Gaul. He wouldn't hide out in Hertfordshire while his army surrounded London's walls.  He would have been leading the siege during each day, and retiring to the comforts of his foster-father's royal palace every night.

Moreover, Berkamsted Castle was built after the Conquest, not before.  The only reason it is dated as 11thcentury now is Freeman’s specious attribution of the surrender there.  No archaeological evidence exists of pre-conquest fortification.   

Reading the Law of Wihtred reinforced my confidence that Beorhhamstede was an Anglo-Saxon term for a royal estate.  A council of Witans gathered at Berghamstyde in 695 according to the preamble to the Laws.  Since King Wihtred was king only of Kent, it makes sense that Berghamstyde is a royal estate in Kent.  The king of Kent wouldn't travel to remote Hertfordshire to enact his laws in 695, and neither would a conquering King of England when besieging London in 1066.

So where was the royal palace in 1066?  Probably pretty much where it is today.  What is now Buckingham Palace was recorded in Domesday Book as the Manor of Ebury, belonging to King Edward and Queen Edith in 1066 and Geoffrey de Magnaville, port reeve of London, in 1086.  It seems King William gave the port reeve the palace as a further boon after the port reeve delivered London to him in surrender in 1066.  By 1086 the king had a magnificent new castle to move to next to the city, now the Tower of London. Geoffrey left the land at Westminster to the Abbey of Saint Peter, and after the dissolution of the abbeys the land fell into private ownership.  What is now Buckingham Palace was reacquired as a royal residence by King George III in 1761.

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