The Peel Tower

Dear Readers, whether ye be regulars or droppers-by,

I am now blogging at The Peel Tower. For some time I have been spreading my posts over two blogs, one mostly about poetry, and the other mostly about history, and I have decided to simplify and blog about both subjects, and some others too, in one blog.

I was always pleased with the name of my first blog “Sweettenorbull”, named after the opening lines of Basil Bunting’s Briggflatts, but I very rarely write about modernist poetry these days, so it is not much of a fit for the type of posts I am putting up. This blog has never picked up much as much of a following, and I always regretted the name. It took me a couple of years to think of a better one – but now I have, it’s time to move on. I have a few ideas about how to make The Peel Tower a bit more personalised and engaging too.

However, I will be leaving both blogs as they are in particularly to preserve the correspondence at the bottom of some posts, which is mostly from the same two people, the English poet John Looker and the, now sadly departed, American poet Cynthia Jobin.

So if you have enjoyed what you have read here in the past, please drop in at my new blog…


Robert and Rufus


I’ve developed something of an addiction recently to the Penguin Monarch’s series, which provides a 100 page biography for each of the monarchs of England, and later of Britain, from Athelstan to Elizabeth II. I’ve read about five so far, and there are 45 in all, about half of which have been completed and the other half yet to be released, so this addiction could be with me for a while. Most recently I read John Gillingham’s William II – subtitled The Red King, which I read partly through curiosity, partly embarrassment at my ignorance at this king, and partly out of a mis-remembered notion I had that he had been the king who founded the city where I grew up, Newcastle upon Tyne.

Actually, strictly speaking, the Normans did not found Newcastle; they simply fortified it and renamed it. That is why it is one of the few major cities in Britain which has a name with a readily understandable meaning (Bath is the other I can think of). You had better ask an etymologist what Liverpool or Edinburgh signifies, and even he might not be sure about London, but everyone knows that Newcastle is the where place a new castle was built. For the Angles it had been Monkchester, the Romans before them, who built a fortress there, Pons Aelius. Whether the Brigantines before them had a name for it is unknown, but the name of the river, the Tyne may be older than even they were. I digress, somewhat – the man who didn’t found the city, but did rename and fortify it was Robert Curthose – that is Robert “Shorty-pants” in modern English, Gillingham helpfully tells us (does anyone say “shortypants” anymore?) – the eldest child of William the Conqueror and elder brother to kings William II and Henry I. Curthose was given the conqueror’s ancestral Dukedom of Normandy, while the England that the father had fought hard and killed thousands for was passed to his more favoured second son, with the third instead inheriting a great deal of wealth. At the time, primogeniture was not the settled custom among Norman kings – its later adoption would save (at least some of) the sort of internecine fighting that periodically rocked Norman and Plantagenet England.

William – often known as Rufus (the Red, after his red hair), to distinguish him from his father – spent most of his reign defending his inheritance against rebellious subjects who had backed his brother, and sometimes against his brother’s forces directly, occasionally making forays into his brother’s Duchy. Their rivalry was complicated by the interference of the king of France, who naturally wanted to keep them both occupied, and by the third brother, who would switch sides, and had territorial ambitions of his own. Towards the end of William’s reign (although they did not know it was near the end), Robert rather sportingly removed himself from the scene to answer the pope’s call to arms in the First Crusade. A few years later, their elder brother still away in the Holy Land, the remaining brothers were enjoying a bout of hunting in the New Forest in Hampshire when King William was shot and killed by a stray shot. Suspiciously fortuitous for Henry, who was in the right place at the right time to claim the throne. For Robert, never to become king of England, somewhat harsh.

Harsher still for William, dead and, what’s more ,with no heirs to defend the memory of his reign, so successfully trashed in his younger brother’s reign, that it wasn’t until the 20th century that it was more positively reappraised. The rap sheet against William II is that he oppressed the church, milked the country for taxes and slept around a lot, perhaps with men. Gillingham explains why many of these failings are somewhat overcooked, obviously propagandistic or, in the cases where they are true (he did sleep around, though probably with women), not nearly as bad as the depredations of later kings. He did have his troubles with the church, it is true – as all the Norman and early Plantagenet kings did, but his feud with the great churchman Anselm was not on the scale of Henry II’s feud with Becket – no blood was spilt in William Rufus’s battles with the church. Still, many in the church never forgave him for his treatment of the archbishop, and unfortunately for him, most of the historical sources of the era were ecclesiastical. It may be significant that William was probably the last illiterate king of England.

From the limited alternative sources available, Gillingham brings to lights some of the more positive aspects of the king’s reign. Early in his reign, he wisely took a conciliatory approach to nobles who had supported his brother’s claim to kinghood, which had the effect of bringing more of them to his side. He was said to be a humorous fellow whose well timed jokes and bonhomie had the effect of diffusing tense moments at court – there were plenty of those, of course, with the court of the time often referred to as ‘hell’.  He can also be credited with bringing the code of chivalry into England, blunting the sharp edge of Norman ruthlessness: under his reign the practice of sparing royal and noble opponents captured in war was established. This was not extended to the lower ranks of course. Less to the peasantry, for eleventh century warfare could be savage on farmers and peasants, whose fields would be routinely ruined, and homes burned. But the chivalric code was at least a nod in the direction of mercy.

Until his untimely death, William was a great survivor. Despite William having won his father’s blessing, Robert had always been the favourite among the realm’s most powerful families. The Norman nobles wanted the same ruler either side of the channel because they owned lands on both sides, and didn’t want to lose them after wars. Why then, did Robert never press his advantage and invade England? Because Normandy and its environs was full of proud lords ever vying for advantage, even if that meant collaborating with the Duke’s enemies. One of the Conqueror’s shrewdest moves when he took the English crown was to parcel land out in such a way that no one had large territories within England from which to challenge his power, as they very much did in Normandy. And, more so than England, with the fractious Welsh Kingdoms on its western flank, and a Scotland more or less uninterested in conquering England south of the Tees, Normandy was threatened by powerful enemies on all sides.  Had Robert ventured across the channel, he may well have won the crown in England only to find he had lost his hereditary duchy to proud lords and unfriendly neighbours.

Robert, who had fortified Newcastle back in his father’s reign, never set foot in the place once his brother took the throne. Still, there is one mention of Newcastle and Northumbria in the book because of the proud and bloodthirsty figure of Mowbray – a Norman Earl of Northumberland before the Percys gained a monopoly on that title. Mowbray had secured the northern border, by killing the Scottish king and his son when they had invaded his realm. Imagining, as others have before and since, that the distance of Northumbria, Mowbray rebelled, but was defeated in a great battle at Bamburgh castle, the old coastal fort of the Bernician kings. Mowbray was executed – this being one of the few times that Rufus suspended his chivalric code – although one reason may have been that Mowbray himself had shown little mercy in his dealings with the Scots, to the shock of contemporaries. There was, as Gillingham’s short book shows, much of interest that happened in Rufus’s reign, and he comes away a more sympathetic character than his brutal father, or the younger brother who succeeded him.

Edward the Second

Edward II, courtesy of Wikipedia / The British Library

At some points when I was reading Christopher Marlowe’s Edward II I wondered, is this play a big gay joke?

(Not that there’s anything wrong with that)

Edward II is a young king, who has inherited the realm from his father Edward I, a great and brutal warrior, the hammer of the Scots (and Welsh, and the Jews etc.) Edward is married to the beautiful French queen Isabella, and they have a young son, a clever, noble young man, who will one day become Edward III. But Edward scorns his wife and son and instead lavishes his attentions on his ‘minion’, the young Frenchman Gaveston that is his favourite, and his homosexual lover. England’s nobles are not impressed – not only is the King’s behaviour unbecoming, but he is neglecting the important duties of kingship, and, especially, rewarding the arrogant young Frenchman with some of the greatest positions of state. The story of the play revolves around the protests, and eventually the full-blown rebellion of the nobles against their king.

There is a lot of humour in the situation, particularly in the earlier scenes of the play before the rebellion begins in earnest. One source of humour is the undignified slobbering of the king over his favourite, and Gaveston’s brazen and obsequious responses :


Edward: Welcome to thy friend!
Thy absence made me droop and pine away;  
For, as the lovers of fair Danae,  
When she was lock’d up in a brazen tower,  
Desired her more, and wax’d outrageous,  
So did it fare with me; and now thy sight  
Is sweeter far than was thy parting hence  
Bitter and irksome to my sobbing heart.  
  Gaveston.  Sweet lord and king, your speech preventeth mine,  
Yet have I words left to express my joy:  
The shepherd nipt with biting winter’s rage
Frolics not more to see the painted spring,
Than I do to behold your majesty.

Also to great comic effect is the pained reaction of his nobles, and particularly the pining of his wife who, for all he has neglected her, remains steadfast in her support for her husband (for a while, anyway):


Heavens can witness I love none but you:
From my embracements thus he breaks away.  
O that mine arms could close this isle about,  
That I might pull him to me where I would!  
Or that these tears that drizzle from mine eyes  
Had power to mollify his stony heart,  
That when I had him we might never part.

(Act 8, 15-20)

The tension in the play comes from the incongruity between the wants and whims of Edward as a man and his grave duties as a king. His English audience would have felt secure enough in the steadfastness of their Queen to be able to laugh. Elizabeth, after all,  really had put her realm above her own desires – unlike her famously incontinent father, who’d had six wives and a number of lovers; and unlike the king over the border, rumours of whose proclivities must have reached England by the 1590s.

Dramatic tension aside, it must be a very funny play to watch – and how much funnier, and camper, in the 1590s, when, we know, female roles were given to male actors: so a male Isabella  be competing with a male Gaveston for the King’s affections. I can imagine Marlowe sniggering backstage.

Marlowe was a great provocateur. His most famous play, Doctor Faustus, had some audiences screaming in terror, hallucinating real devils along with the dressed up ones on stage. His next most famous play, Tamburlaine, was controversial in another way – Tamburlaine comes closest to expressing on stage the atheism that Marlowe was rumoured to hold in private. Homosexuality was held to be abhorrent in Elizabethan times, so there is something provocative in putting a gay king on the stage; but he is not condoning the king’s affair – despite Marlowe’s own homosexuality,  it is depicted quite negatively. So on the surface, this seems like one of his less controversial plays, and one can easily imagine a performance playing it for laughs.

On the other hand, the very existence of such a ridiculous and flawed king is an embarrassment to the very institution of monarchy. The reformation was a mixed bag for monarchy in Europe – it set in motion forces that would eventually weaken the institution – indeed, that would cost a Stewart king his head the next century; but in 16th century England its initial development enhanced the power and glory of the monarch, making him or her the head of the church as well as state – effectively the next thing down from a deity. Unlike Shakespeare, Marlowe only wrote one play about an English monarch: why, of all England’s monarchs, did Marlowe choose such a bad one, such an embarrassing one? Edward II may be the butt of the joke in the play, but while his life may make the Virgin Queen look good in comparison, it hardly encourages faith in the institution she upholds. Perhaps Marlowe held a belief that was even more controversial than atheism back in the sixteenth century: he didn’t believe in the monarchy.

The Last Kingdom: Fun but Silly


I enjoyed reading Bernard Cornwell’s The Last Kingdom, all in all. Although I fancied the series, I hadn’t been intending on reading the book until Amazon offered it to me for free. It follows the Danish conquest of England, kingdom by kingdom, until it finally falters in the Wessex of Alfred the Great, following the main events with brio and with a great measure of historical accuracy (and Cornwell is decent enough in his afterword to explain where and why he deviated from the historical record slightly). Being a native of the North East, I was pleased to see the action develop from the old Northumbrian stronghold of Bebbanburgh/Bamburgh, with Gyrruum/Jarrow and Dunholm/Durham also featuring in the action. The period detail is convincing, with the description of a filthy Dark ages Lundene/London, infested with Kites, and half made up of crumbling Roman ruins, being quite thrilling. And all that war, and Viking marauding is quite fun too, if you don’t take it too seriously.

The more I read, the more the impression formed that Cornwell preferred the Danes to the English, which, for a series about the defence and (eventual) triumph of the English, is a bit odd. The protagonist, Utred, is fostered by a Danish lord after his father is slain at the siege of York, and he spends as much of the novel fighting for the Danish conquerors as for the English. This allows us to see the conquest from the point of view of both the Danish conquerors and their English enemies. And the Danes though brutal and often murderous, are drawn much more sympathetically than the English. They are stronger, more resourceful, better seafarers, better warriors and better builders than their English hosts. That makes sense, I suppose – after all, they did conquer a great deal of England, and it is only natural that a motivated warrior people fight better than a settled population of farmers and priests. But the Danes aren’t just better at war – often they are better people, more straightforward, more honest and more resolute than the dissembling, craven, priest-ridden English.

Sure, the Danes are shown to be murderous and greedy – but the narrator is not particularly disapproving of these traits, and while we see a lot of pillaging and marauding, the raping side of the whole pillaging business is kept in the background. When a vile deed is perpetrated by a Dane, they oft seem to be justified, either by their own warrior code, or because their victims deserved it: Utred’s foster father murders a village elder on the spot for lying about where treasure is hid, while he lets those who tell the truth live, and admires those, like Utred, who defy him; when a nunnery on the north bank of the Tyne is pillaged and its nuns raped (the likes of which which probably happened), it is said this is revenge for the monks of Jarrow molesting the women of a Viking settlement down river (which probably didn’t happen).

This last event is all of a part with a seam of anti-clericalism that runs through the book. Priests are lisping, giggly, pedantic and, needless to say, cowardly. In Cornwell’s world it seems that Christianity had weakened the fibre of the English spirit, because he very much likes the pagan Danes better. The East Anglian King Edmund, for example, is shown not as a martyr for Christianity in England, as the church teaches, but the victim of his own vainglorious boasting about miracles, an episode told not without relish. Alfred himself always has his clerics in tow, and his guilt at having sinned through adultery is mocked by the narrator. When a young East Anglian girl joins the Danish retinue, and becomes Utred’s companian and lover, she tells a story of how the local prelate molested her, and she is glad to hear of his death. Of course, it is possible – even likely – that there were such instances of clerical abuse back then – as some instances abuse of the vulnerable by those who care for them has no doubt happened in every palce and era, sadly, – but rape by a marauding Viking must have been a much bigger threat in East Anglia in that period. Cornwell ‘s animus against Christianity is focused through these somewhat anachronistic figures – paedophile priests from recent church scandals and giggly, hypocritical monks a la the late middle ages – but for his protagonist Utred, the complaint against the church is that at every turn they want to restrain his freedoms, stick him behind a desk to study when he wants to be out fighting and sleeping around – it is a curiously modern, post-sexual revolution form of anti-clericalism.

Utred likes the Dane’s approach to religion. They have no organised worship, and simply pray to their Gods Odin and Thor on the eve of battle. Some of the more sympathetically drawn English characters share the old faith of the Danes, though showing outward loyalty to the Christian faith. One is the blacksmith he grew up with in the Castle of Bamburgh. It is well known that the Christian faith had not penetrated every corner of England by the Viking invasions, especially in the case of out of the way areas, such as Matlock, in which Utred meets a pagan family at one point (though I wonder if such areas may still have been semi-Celtic back then); but it stretches credulity that the heirs of Saint Oswald, at the Capital of England’s most Christian Kingdom, a short row away from its most impressive monastic community would have among them adherents of Wotan and Thor.

When the English do win a victory, Cornwell has it so that they owe this victory to lessons learned from the Danes. In the decisive battle of the book, the English pull off a shock victory – not through the wisdom of their leaders, who have led them into an ill-advised siege on a barren hill, but through the ingenuity of the Danicised Utred and his daring mission through the enemy camp.

All this does the dark ages English a disservice, I think. It depicts the English as a pallid and enervated next to their stronger Danish cousins, in hoc to a prudish Christianity, divided and bickering among themselves, and unable to stand up against the invaders. While aspects of Danish culture and life are described with relish, the English are indistinct by comparison. Whatever it was that in their culture that enabled them to eventually turn the tables on their conquerors is not apparent. In the same way, the story hardly reveals anything Great about Alfred – he is said to be clever,  though something of a teetotaller and a pedant. But in reality he must have been a great man to have inspired the victories he did.

As this is book one of a long series, I guess the protagonist could change his tune down the line, and discover a love for his own country and a fierce hatred of its enemies, but it seems unlikely; the narrator, after all, is already speaking many years in the future, and he shares the same prejudices as his young self. As I read, though- as I’ve said- I quite enjoyed it, I started to wish there was a book out there that told the story from a viewpoint more sympathetic to the English, as the survival and unification of a great people in the face of a ruthless enemy, a story charged with an appreciation of the English and their customs, and their religion… but this isn’t that book.


A little after thought on the TV series

I wrote the lion’s share of the above blog post over a year ago, before succumbing to blogger’s ennui and neglecting to post it, and at the time I had not seen the TV series of the same name. Since then, I have watched the first five or six episodes on Amazon Video, before getting bored and giving up. I thought it would be at least as interesting as the book, but in fact in was a good deal slower – which I guess shows Cornwell’s talent for well-paced story-telling as well as the programme-makers lack of it. One of the things I had most enjoyed about the book was seeing 9th century England described as the marauding Vikings headed south from Bamburgh to York, Nottingham, Bury Saint Edmunds, London and Winchester. The description of the wild kite-haunted London, a kind of Anglo-Danish border town, was particularly well done. In the series, however, this is mostly edited out: it does a decent job of Bamburgh, which then – as now – is basically a castle and a village, and it captures some of the grandeur of the walled city of York, but the rest of the places are hardly shown –and the scene in London is edited out altogether. Most of the urban scenes take place in a kind of generic muddy medieval village, which is supposed to be Winchester I think. I realize it’s expensive to make sets, or even decent CGI, of medieval cities, but still. There was a general lack of a sense of place that could have been heightened in cheaper ways – they could have given the Northern characters Northern accents, the Southern characters Southern accents, for example, but the accents were all over the place. The acting was pretty good – there were some big name actors involved – but nothing to write home about. Oh, and the opening music was pretty damned awful – like something you might hear in one of those ‘alternative clothing shops’ by the hippy green in Newcastle, if they’re still there.

So, as for the TV series, it was not bad, but not that good either, which isn’t much of a recommendation.


Athelstan, Tom Holland, Penguin, 2016

Last week I posted on the most popular names among baby boys in England. The name Athelstan, one of the great Kings of England, was not one of them.  I’ve never met an Athelstan, and I don’t think I’ve ever heard of anyone of the name. The fact is, you rarely hear Anglo-Saxon names at all. I have an old school friend called Edwin, though we usually shortened this to Ed, and another friend whose great shame was his middle name – Edrick – the name of an 11th century rebel against Norman rule. There seems to have been a trend in England in the seventies for reclaiming some of these old Anglo-Saxon names as opposed to the Biblical names that had dominated since the Norman conquest, and a parallel movement in Wales with old Welsh Gruff, Rhys, Rhodri and the like. But most Anglo-Saxon names sound rather clumsy on the modern English tongue: Edred, Ethelweard, Osric, for example, more so, strangely, than their mellifluous Celtic counterparts; and that is why you will meet more Connors, Calumns and Morgans in an average English primary school than even Edmunds, Oswalds or Edgars. (Talking of Celts, however, there are two notable Scottish poets of the 20th Century called Edwin. I wonder why. Could it be because the realm of the Northumbrian King Edwin encompassed much of the south east of present day Scotland, and he can thus be considered a kind of honorary Scot? Probably not…)

There are exceptions to this Anglo-Saxon name cringe, however. Two in particular are Edward and Alfred. Edward was the name of a number of Anglo-Saxon kings, but has survived to the modern age because of the Plantagenets: Henry III was a devotee of Saint Edward the Confessor, and named his son after him – that was Edward I, (who was, of course, not really the first) the warlike king who kick-started a line of three Edwards in a row, with England racking up seven in total across the centuries. So it is thanks to a French speaking descendent of the Normans who displaced the Anglo-Saxon kings that Edward sounds like a ‘normal English name’, and has remained in popular usage. Alfred is of course the one pre-Norman king that everyone knows, and his name has deservedly survived 11 centuries or so. Most people of my parents’ generation could tell you at least one thing about him: he once burned some cakes! And many would know that he once camped out in the marshes of Somerset at the lowest ebb of his campaign against the Vikings.  More importantly, some might have been able to tell you – though these things are barely taught nowadays – that Alfred was resolute in Christianising Wessex and Mercia, and that his reign turned the tide against the Vikings and began the process of turning the Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms into the single realm of England.

But the war against the Danes, the union of the Kingdoms and the Christianisation of the realm was not the work of a single reign. Alfred’s reign had seen the first major pushback against the Vikings, and the beginnings of cross-country cooperation between the different kingdoms of England. But at the end of Alfred’s reign, the country was still divided between a resurgent Wessex (which had swallowed up Sussex and Kent), combined with a tenuously English chunk of western Mercia, which stood against a huge ‘Dane Law’ stretching across eastern England from the Tees to the Thames. The lands north of the Tees were, like Wessex, ruled by the English – Angles rather than Saxons – but seem to have been under a kind of Danish suzerainty, and London at that period, though large and important, was no English capital, but rather a kind of giant Anglo-Danish border town. Far from being the first part of an inevitable roll out of English power across the land, Alfred’s successes were hard-fought, and could be easily reversed – in fact there were those even in Wessex who would work with Alfred’s enemies to try to do just that.  Alfred’s son Edward, the real Edward I, later dubbed Edward the Elder, did much to consolidate his father’s wins, bringing London, East Anglia and much of eastern Mercia into the Wessex camp. His son, Athelstan (sometimes written Aethelstan) took the fight to north of the Humber to the heavily Danicised lands of Viking Northumbria (modern day Yorkshire and most of Lancashire), and even to bring the non-Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms of the far north under heel. It was he who faced a decisive battle at Brunanburgh to make his own kingdom of England the dominant power of the whole island of Britain, defeating a coalition of Gaelic-speaking Scots, Welsh speaking Strathclydians and Norse Vikings invading from Dublin.

Athelstan should really be a more widely-known name, even if it is unlikely to catch on in 21st century England. He can credibly be described as the first king of the whole of England, perhaps even the first overlord of the whole of Britain. It is for this reason that Penguin start their Penguin Monarchs series with him. The writer, Tom Holland, starts with a lurid description of the battle of Brunanburgh, before tracing back the roots of the Wessex resistance and the gains made through Alfred and Edward’s reigns, describing Athelstan’s own trials growing up in Wessex and Mercia and finally the great challenges of his own reign. During the first chapter, about Brunanburgh, I wasn’t sure I was going to enjoy the book – Tom Holland has some literary talent, I think, besides his merits as a historian, but if he had kept up this sort of throughout the whole book, it could have got somewhat wearying:

Beyond the world of men, in skies and lonely forests, the shudder of the looming battle was also being felt. As the King of the English rode northwards, the number in his train swelling with his advance, ravens and warriors began to follow in his wake. The birds were notorious creatures of ill omen: clamorous, untrustworthy, hungry for human flesh. (page 6)

Actually, the more fantastical descriptions are used sparingly, but are entirely appropriate to describe an age with few written sources, which takes a little more imagination to evoke than better recorded eras. In any case, Holland adopts a more relaxed (and more strictly factual) style for most of the book and ably weaves the complex infightings of the house of Wessex and the relations between the kingdoms of Britain into a compelling narrative, while exploring in surprising depth (for such a short book) the running of his kingdoms, including his far-reaching foreign policy.

I came away from the book with a great appreciation of the achievements of Alfred, Edward and Athelstan. They were masters not just of war, but statecraft too – England was, in a way, their own creation. England was not a homogenous entity that, save for the interference of outsiders, would inevitably and naturally coalesce into a single realm. Even before huge swathes of Mercia, East Anglia and Northumbria became effectively Anglo-Danish, the Kingdoms that would comprise England had been separate entities – Wessex, Essex and Sussex were Saxon; Kent and the Isle of Wight were Jutish; East Anglia, Mercia and Northumbria were Anglian – all with varying admixtures of Celtic and Roman blood and cultural influences . Northumbria and Kent had been most resolutely Christian, with pagan elements stronger the further one travelled from Canterbury or Lindisfarne, Mercia being the great backslider. These Wessex kings’ England was a resolutely Christian one – their view of Kingship was formed as much by the examples in the Bible, some of which Alfred translated into Old English, as in the stories of their pagan forebears. And, as Holland details, Christianity informed Athelstan’s kingship in very significant ways – he was the first ruler to bring in a kind of poor law, forcing the better off to provide for the poor to prevent starvation; and, inspired both by Old Testament Law makers and the words of Jesus, he took frequent measures to reduce murder and robbery in his realm, while acting with clemency towards criminals, the young in particular. These kings’ strong faith tied them to what was, geographically, the furthest English realm from Wessex. One of Edward’s most significant acts was the capture of the relics of the 7th century Northumbrian King and saint, Oswald, from Danish territory to be interred reverently in Wessex-controlled Gloucester. Oswald was a king reared in the far northern Gaelic kingdom of Dal-Riata, before returning home to reign Northumbria, a realm recently made from the joining together of Deira and Bernicia. He was killed by Mercian pagans, and so it is significant that he could still be revered by an army that included many Mercians. Certainly kinship was one of the elements of this imaginative forging of the English nation, but Christianity, not ethnicity, was the glue that bound that glorious past to the present and the kingdoms of the north to those of the south.

Oliver, Harry and Muhammad

Oliver Cromwell, aged 2 (no warts at all)

The ONS published the most popular baby boys’ names of 2016 a week or so ago, and, in fitting with this blog’s interest in history, I thought it interesting to speculate on some of the historical echoes of the most popular names.

Oliver was the most popular baby boy’s name of 2016 in England and Wales as a whole, and in seven out of ten regions – that is the south-west, the south east, the east Midlands, East Anglia, Yorkshire, the north west and Wales.

I think the most famous English Oliver, at least for educated people is the 17th century politician, victorious Civil War general, king-killer and Lord Protector (i.e. dictator) of England, Oliver Cromwell. I might be wrong, but let’s run with that, and assume that most parents who chose the name either knew of and admired Cromwell, or don’t dislike him enough not to choose the name.

If you have a significant strain of Irish blood in you, you would surely think twice before naming your son Oliver. During the Civil War, Cromwell would not afford “Irish troops” the same courtesies as he did his English enemies, and would slaughter captured prisoners after defeating them. Actually, there were very few Irish soldiers in the English Civil War because the parliamentarian-supporting navy successfully stopped them reaching Britain, but both English troops fighting in an Irish regiment (i.e. English troops who had been occupying Ireland) and Welsh fighters were often assumed to be Irish and killed accordingly. Cromwell’s actions in Ireland itself, particularly the slaughter of the populations of Drogheda and Wexford are infamous to this day. Any Catholics in fact – “papists” as they were known – were often afforded the same treatment, even in England.

The Scottish fought hard with the Parliamentarians against the Royalists – without them, Cromwell’s victories at York and Naseby would have been scarcely possible, but there was a great atmosphere of mistrust between them. When they grew disenchanted with the extremism coming from their English colleagues and turned against Cromwell for the King and his heir, Cromwell defeated them definitively. During his reign, he subjected Scotland to a level of English domination the reach of which had simply been unknown in earlier eras.

It was Cromwell who broke the taboo of (non-royals) killing a king – indeed he pushed the act to do so through a parliament that had been denuded of all moderates and had little of the accountability to the public that had provided the parliament with their casus belli in the first place. No Royalist could truly admire Cromwell, and nor could any traditionalist for the way that he set about liquidating the last vestiges of Merry England – from Maypoles to Christmas celebrations – that he thought remnants of popery and paganism (and that were welcomed back so gladly at the Restoration). On the other side of the fence, those who see in the parliamentary cause and its more radical fellow travellers the beginnings of the left as a force in England, must recognise Cromwell as the man who defeated and killed the king, only to rule with little regard for parliament and who cast aside the egalitarian concerns of the Diggers and the Levellers he had fought beside. So, by my count, those of Irish, Welsh, or Scottish descent, Catholics, Royalists, democrats, Jacobites and radicals should have second thoughts before choosing Oliver as their son’s name.

By all accounts Cromwell was a great general – as able as Napoleon, though fighting on a smaller scale. And even I (a half-Irish, baptised Catholic with Jacobite tendencies) am always struck by the great power and eloquence of the man’s words. So I am not saying there was nothing noble about Cromwell, only that, given his controversial legacy, it is surprising that so many people would choose his name for their son.

So maybe they’re not thinking of Cromwell at all… Perhaps the real inspiration is Jamie Oliver and parents are subconsciously yearning for a son who will cook them something nice every so often. God knows my poor old mum has had nothing fancier from me than spag bol or shepherd’s pie.

I am happy to report, however, that my own region was one of the three in which Oliver did not prevail. Harrys, in the north east, outnumbered Olivers. Harry began life as a nickname for Henry, and so many of our eight King Henrys were, in the reigns or afterward, known as King Harry. Among them were usurpers (VII and IV), tyrants (at least I,II VII and VIII), one befuddled weakling (VI) and one wife-killer and despoiler of abbeys (VIII), but nowadays most of them are remembered as Henry. The one who is, thanks to Shakespeare, remembered as Harry – Hal for short – is Henry V. Shakespeare’s Henry IV parts one and two, and Henry V tell the story of a carousing prince with the common touch – Prince Hal – who so nobly vanquished the great northern Harry – Harry Hotspur – and grew up into that flower of chivalry, Henry V before defeating the French at Agincourt, and then dying young without ever soiling his legacy. He has from his own era to our own stood as the symbol of an almost perfect English king (notwithstanding our current friendship with France!), all the more likeable for his wayward earlier days – perhaps this figure lives on in our own Prince Harry.

Could it be that in a nation of republicans, the north east remains fiercely loyal to their sovereign? Or is it rather that we have been enchanted by childhood visits to Alnwick Castle to name our children after Harry Potter? It surely can’t be because of that handsome young cherub, Harry Styles, can it?

Harry has only the one region to its name, mind. The most popular name in the west Midlands and London, reflective of the ethnic mix in England’s two biggest cities, is Muhammad. There is no question of who this name refers to – it is the name of the founder and sole prophet of Islam. And it is certain that the parents of these boys feel a stronger attachment to the figure of Muhammad than other parents feel for Oliver Cromwell, or King Harry, or Harry Styles. There has of course been no major figure in British history with the name Muhammad; although, given the demographic shifts that these statistics portend, perhaps there one day will be.

The Conqueror

william the conqueror

William I: England’s Conqueror (Penguin Monarchs): Marc Morris

Is William the Conqueror one of the villains of English history?

The case for the prosecution goes something like this. When the Normans invaded England in 1066, they were being true to their barbaric Viking roots, however their long tenure in northern France had inured them to the more civilised ways of the countries to the south: the Norman invasion of England, though justified by a dynastic claim (itself won through an act of extortion), was another Scandinavian raid inspired by lust for land, gold and power. William, the brutal duke of Normandy, a bastard son of the last duke, had maintained his title through violence and intimidation; often achieving his conquests through the razing and pillaging of enemy lands, the taking – and where necessary murdering – of hostages, and the execution or mutilation of those who had crossed him.

Once he had won his battle – rather fortuitously, given that he was facing an English army tired out after repelling a vicious and unexpected invasion of Norwegians in the north, he was brutal and merciless with the defeated English, stripping most of the higher classes of their land and parcelling it out among his Norman and Breton followers, who then constituted an alien occupying power that was consolidated into a new ruling class, speaking a different language from the inhabitants and treating them as inherently inferior. Indeed, it was centuries before the kings of England spoke English as a second language again, by which time the language of the occupiers, Norman French, had changed the vocabulary and grammar of Anglo-Saxon into an entirely new language. The aristocracy and much of the gentry of England were of Norman descent for centuries after the conquest, and it is at least arguable that the stratified classes of modern England can be traced back to the conquest. It’s a bit more of a stretch, but it can also be argued that the expansionist ambitions of the English state and its aggression towards its Celtic neighbours is at root Norman.

The greatest stain on the conqueror’s reputation is the so-called ‘Harrying of the North,’ a sustained and brutal campaign to put down resistance in the restive north that would not accept his kingship, and that actively plotted with Scandinavian rulers to bring him down. So devastating was the campaign of reprisals and destruction, that the region was said to have lost a great proportion of its inhabitants – perhaps more than half. So great was the devastation on the region that when the Domesday Book was compiled at the end of the conqueror’s reign, many areas of Yorkshire were designated simply ‘waste’, while the lands north of the Tees were not even included in the survey.

All put, that’s a fairly convincing case for William the Conqueror – the Bastard, as his enemies termed him – being designated a villain, especially to an Anglo-Celt like myself, born and raised in the north east of England.

Nevertheless, reading Marc Morris’s William I in the Penguin Monarchs series, has very slightly increased my sympathy for the first Norman King, or at least lessened my dislike for him – and it has certainly enriched my understanding of the conqueror, his motives and his methods. Of the ‘case for the prosecution’ put above, much, perhaps most, is true, but needs to be understood in an eleventh century context, and there are some things about the Normans, and even about William himself that we should be thankful for.

He really was a bastard. This, it is explained, was not looked upon as a great problem in Norman culture, but was sniffed at in the rest of France and across Europe, including England. This aside, however, William the conqueror was not very much like the Viking warlords (and his own Norse ancestors) who had conquered and brutalised much of Western Europe over the previous two centuries. He was motivated by a genuine belief that he was the rightful heir to the throne of England, and that he had been cheated out of it by Harold. Harold, nominated heir by the previous king, had apparently promised the throne to William, under somewhat straitened circumstances. He was anxious to win papal backing for his enterprise, and keen to be acting properly according to Norman law and, once he was king of England, English law.

He was brutal, and often merciless, bit not more than the other rulers of his age, and, as Morris points out, he was never described as cruel. In his personal life he was more chaste than most contemporary and later monarchs. Even in his violence, he was certainly no worse than the Danish and Norwegian raiders who threatened to return England to Viking rule, and he was probably not much more brutal than the English themselves.  In one way, he was certainly an improvement: it was William and the Normans who ended the practice of slavery in England, and in Wales too, most likely at the urging of his archbishop, Lafranc.

Marc Morris’s short biography of the first Norman King is focused and well-paced. The sources for the era are somewhat sparse, but Morris always informs the reader of the likely bias of the source, and we get a good sense of the king as a ruler and a man. Morris himself seems perfectly unbiased – whatever your opinion of the conquest, you can enjoy the book. For all Morris’s qualifications, I still rue the conquest and dislike the king. My favourite parts of the book are the coronation of the king and, particularly, his death, both grotesquely bad augurs of his reign and legacy. When the king died, ‘the great men who had been at his bedside rode off to protect their own lodgings. When the monks and clergy of Rouen eventually arrived […] they found the king’s naked body lying abandoned and half naked on the floor.’ At the funeral ‘the king’s body turned out to be too big for its sarcophagus and the monks’ attempt to force the issue caused his swollen bowels to burst, filling the church with such a stench that once again all except the officiating clergy fled.’