Godwin, the Earl of Wessex, had a daughter Edith who married Edward the Confessor, King of England in 1043, but they were childless. Relations between the two families soured and in 1051 Godwin was exiled. Edward then appointed William, Duke of Normandy, as his successor. Earl Godwin died in 1053 and his son Harold inherited the earldom of Wessex. In January 1066, Edward the Confessor died and Harold asserted that he had been named as Edward’s successor on Edward’s death bed and claimed the throne of England.
Harold was crowned King of England in January 1066 at Westminster Abbey. William sent an embassy to King Harold Godwinson to remind Harold of his previous oath to support William's claim. Harold guessed that William would send an invading army so made preparations for defence. Harold assembled an army and a fleet to repel William's anticipated invasion force, deploying troops and ships along the English Channel for most of the summer.
For the previous two years, William had been assembling an army and an invasion fleet in Normandy, it was large and mostly built from scratch. The fleet eventually sailed from Valery-sur-Somme. The fleet carried an invasion force that included, in addition to troops from William's own territories of Normandy and Maine, large numbers of mercenaries, allies, and volunteers from Brittany, northeastern France, and Flanders, together with smaller numbers from other parts of Europe. Although the army and fleet were ready by early August, adverse winds kept the ships in Normandy until late September. There were other reasons for William's delay, including intelligence reports from England revealing that Harold's forces were deployed along the coast. William had sent a trusted aide to England two years previously to ascertain the possibility and mechanics of an invasion. William preferred to delay the invasion until he could make an unopposed landing. Harold kept his forces on alert throughout the summer, but with the arrival of the harvest season he thought of disbanding his army. Events in the north interfered with that intention.
Harold's brother Tostig and Harald Hardrada, who had been exiled, invaded Northumbria in September 1066. King Harold received word of their invasion, suspended thoughts of disbanding, and took his army north, defeating the invaders and killing Tostig and Hardrada on 25 September at the Battle of Stamford Bridge. William received news of the move of Harold’s forces through his spy and the Norman fleet finally set sail two days later, landing in England at Pevensey Bay on 28 September.
After defeating Harald Hardrada and Tostig, Harold left much of his army in the north, and marched the rest of them south to deal with the threatened Norman invasion. He learned of William's landing while he was travelling south. Although Harold attempted to surprise the Normans, William's scouts reported the English arrival to the duke. William had built a castle at Hastings and he led his army from his castle and advanced towards the enemy. Harold had taken a defensive position at the top of Senlac Hill (present-day Battle, East Sussex), about 6 miles from William's castle at Hastings.
This is the story of the spy,Robert de Ruette-sur-Avre, that Duke William sent to England, the invasion, the Battle of Hastings and subsequent events following William’s succession to the throne of England. His departure from England and his exploits with Robert Guiscard in Italy as he took on the might of the Byzantine Empire.
Ruette-sur-Avre AD 1040
“You are bringing your pregnant mistress into this house?”
“How old is she?”
“Who’s going to look after the bastard?”
“You are going to help her, unless you want to feel the back of my hand again?”
“Where’s she going to sleep?”
“In the room out the back, behind the smithy.”
“That was for my children.”
“But you haven’t had any.”
“When’s she coming?”
“I’ll fetch her tomorrow Now get me something to eat.”
Thinking that this pregnant girl has greatly weakened her position, Elaine decided, for her own security, she had best be compliant. She broke off some bread and placed it on the table. She cut off a lump of cheese and put it beside the bread. She took a wooden cup down from the shelf and put it beside the food. She fetched the pitcher, took off the muslin cover and poured the wine. He sat down on a stool and started to eat.
He harnessed the dray, threw a hay bale on it and walked the six kilometres to the next hamlet. Her father was standing by the door of his dwelling.
“I don’t have much, but take these two chickens. They’re young and if you let your cock amongst them they could give you many more.”
Robert put the crate on the dray.
Isabelle came out with a bundle of clothes. Robert helped her onto the dray and she sat on the hay bale, her eyes downcast. She wasn’t sure she wanted to leave home but she was given no choice. Her family could not afford to feed another mouth and her usefulness on the farm would be diminished with the advent of a child. She didn’t know Robert that well either.
He had come to the hamlet for the market and she had seen him looking at her whilst laying out his metalwork for sale. He was big and strong and had a winning smile. She went over to him and before long they were in the straw behind the stables. This happened only four times before she started to feel sick in the mornings and her belly started to swell. He mother knew instantly and next time she saw Robert she told him. He said she could come to live with him. All she knew was he was a blacksmith with his own smithy.
Her mother came out then. Wringing her hands, with her eyes all red from the crying she had done. Looking sorrowfully at her daughter as Robert led the horse and dray away from the dwelling.
Isabelle had no idea what to expect. She should have expected another woman to be there but she didn’t and it was a shock when they pulled up outside the smithy to see Elaine standing there. She didn’t look friendly. Robert helped her off the cart.
“Show her where to put her things.” Robert commanded.
Elaine stood where she was, glowering at the newcomer, waiting for her to come across with her meagre bundle.
“Follow me.” She said. She took her to the back room behind the smithy. “This is where you will sleep. You’ll be expected to work. You can start by cleaning this room, then come into the house and I’ll set out your chores.
She worked her hard. Household cleaning, cooking, tending the chickens, milking the two cows, baking the bread and making the butter and cheese. Isabelle was glad when her time came. It was a rest compared with her normal life. The baby was big. Too big for Isabelle’s slight frame. It took twelve hours for the baby to come out and Isabelle was never the same afterwards. She lasted eleven months, then passed away. Bringing up the child, named Robert after his father, was now left to Elaine.
The first thing she did was to procure a strip of hide that she hung on the back of the scullery door. She used this to beat the child. At first it was when the child did something she didn’t care for but soon developed into a regular habit. At three years, the child Robert, would run away into the forest to get away from her. He knew when he returned, there would be a beating waiting for him, but one at the end of the day was better than several all day. He had no friends, no company, so took solace in the nature of the forest. He played games with the animals, trying to get as close to them as he could before they were spooked and ran off. He discovered that if he rubbed pony or deer dung on his arms and legs he could get closer. It masked the smell of human. But his stepmother didn’t appreciate it and thrashed him and made him go outside and wash it all off. Several times she wouldn’t let him into the house until just before his father came in from the smithy.
At six years he was taken into the smithy and taught the trade. The work was hard but he was a big boy and the constant lifting of the hammers and heavy ironworking equipment made him strong.
On one particular day, he was nine years, she raised her hand with the strip of hide to beat him and he grabbed the hide as it came down towards his shoulders. He pulled it out of her hands.
“If you ever raise your arm to me again, I will break it. If you tell my father of this, I will break your face.”
He took the hide to his father and asked him to show him how to make a belt out of it. He wore it as a constant reminder of the harsh treatment that had been dished out by his stepmother.
Working in the smithy gave him the opportunity to become involved in the life of the hamlet. He got to know people and they acknowledged him as they passed by. One day a group of men, shepherded by guards, passed through.
‘Who are they, da?” He asked.
“They are going to fight. They have been rounded up by the pressgang to fight for the duke.”
“Where are they going?”
“They’ll go to his castle, then to wherever the other side are grouped. They’ll fight each other for a few hours, then all come home again.”
“Why don’t you go?”
“They need me to keep doing what I’m doing.”
“What about me?”
“You’re too young and anyway, I need you here.”
Robert watched them wend their way through the hamlet and dreamed of the adventures they were about to undertake. He couldn’t understand why some of them looked so miserable.
He saw more of these processions as he worked with his father and was filled with envy each time they past. At twelve years he decided to follow them. He was as big as most adults and would easily pass fro a youth older than his years. He wrapped his few belongings in a cloth, tied the corners and hung the bundle over his staff. During his time with his father, he had made two throwing axes and one larger one. He tucked the throwing axes behind him and the larger axe at his side. For his twelfth year, his father had made him a splendid dagger and he tucked this into the belt on the other side. He waited until he could hear no sound coming from the house, except his father’s steady snoring, and stealthily left his room and started down the track though the hamlet, following the direction the pressgang had taken.
He had no regrets leaving home and was filled with excitement about the new life that awaited him.
Falaise, near Caen, Normandy, France. AD 1064.
The noise of chatter around the table as they ate, was deafening. But at the head of the table, William, Duke of Normandy, was preoccupied. He got up, the babble stopped as everyone in the room looked at him. He walked down the side of the table and tapped Robert on the shoulder.
Robert wiped his dagger on his sleeve and followed William into an ante chamber.
“I have my eye on new pastures. Across the sea. I have received reports from traders and spies, but I want to be sure. Edward is sickly and has no heirs. Edward promised me the throne, even named me his successor, but I don’t trust Harold. His father is sickly too, and soon Harold will be the Earl of Wessex, a powerful position to launch a claim for the throne of England. If things work out as I suspect, and I am cheated, I will take the throne by force. I need someone I trust to go and look for me.”
“You want me to go?”
“Go to Brittany, mix with the traders there, buy a passage and learn some of the language. The voyage will take you to Cornwall, at the south western tip. You will not be viewed with suspicion, as all nationalities are to be found there. Travel north east and survey the coast nearest to us. Look for safe harbours and, most importantly, defences. Here is enough silver to last you for two years, that should be long enough. Come back and tell me what you find. If favourable, I will raise an army and go there myself.”
“When I return, the information will be fresh. By the time you have raised your army and built your ships, it will not be so. Things may have changed.” Robert said.
“What are you suggesting?”
“Form the nucleus of your army whilst I am away. Use the time to train them to fight. Develop strategies and practice them. Build your ships. Once I return, you will then be ready to leave.”
“You have a fine head on your shoulders. I knew there was something special about you when I first saw you laying into Guy of Burgundy’s forces with your axes. Leave tomorrow. Send me news when you have any. May God prosper you.”
Robert took two horses with him, hoping to complete the journey in under ten days. He arrived in St Malo in eight. It was a bustling port with goods being loaded and unloaded from ships travelling to all parts. He went to the local inn and booked accommodation and then to the dock area to find a berth. He came across a Spaniard who was due to sail to Cornwall within a few days. They negotiated a fare and when the time came, Robert and his two horses went on board at high tide and settled in for the three-day journey. The crossing was without incident and he stepped off the ship onto the wharf at Helford in Cornwall. They disembarked the horses using slings and winches and the three of them left the wharf and headed for the main street. The horses stepped gingerly over the timber wharf but soon settled, once they hit terra firma.
It was just as busy as St Malo and Robert couldn’t remember when he had last seen so many cut throats in such a confined place. Many looked at him, but he suspected that his size and weaponry would put off the chancers. He was now almost two metres tall, had wide shoulders and his arms were as thick as many other men’s legs. His long brown hair was tied behind his head. He wore a brown tunic with a belt around the waist carrying his weaponry, straw coloured woollen breeches and brown leather boots. He had his hide deer hide cloak wrapped around his shoulders. He found the lodgings the Spaniard had recommended, and asked about security for his horses. The Landlord spoke a mixture of Spanish, French, Saxon and Celt, as did most people in this outpost. Just a few words of each but he made himself understood. Robert thought he would take the same approach and learn a few words in the languages he needed. In the main part, it appeared that Saxon and Celt were the most frequently used, but the official language was Saxon, Celtic only being spoken by the few original inhabitants, amongst themselves.
“The stables are locked up at dusk and reopened at dawn so if you want in or out at night you are out of luck. Besides, I put three dogs in with them and they are always hungry. A would be thief might get one, he might be really lucky and get two, but he won’t get three. Never lost a horse all the time I’ve been here. How long you staying?”
“I want to get to Wessex. No particular hurry.”
“On your own?”
“Good luck with that. You’ll be dead within a few days. I can see you’re a big bloke and well armed and I assume you know how to use those, pointing at hi sbelt, but there are gangs out there that will outnumber you and have a go.”
“I travelled on my own from Falaise to St Malo, eight days and met a few that thought they could take advantage, but here I am.”
“It’s your funeral. Do you want supper here tonight?”
“No. I’ll take a walk around the town.”
“Can you pay me now for two nights? You might not come back.”
“Then you can sell the horses, can’t you.? I’ll pay you when I know I am leaving.”
The inn was up a side street off the main thoroughfare. Ruffians were loitering everywhere but without his horses he didn’t seem such a good target, so all he got were looks and stares. Once in the main street, however, he came across several who had been in the ale houses for too long and had developed a false sense of bravado. Robert thought he would nip this in the bud and at the same time assess what powers of retribution the authorities had. He suspected none and it would be up to the family and friends of the victims to seek justice or retribution.
Half way down the street was an alehouse that had the smell of cooking meat. He went in and there was a pig roasting on a spit over the fire. He went up to the counter and ordered an ale and some food. His silver denier was accepted as currency. He was given a wooden platter with a hunk of bread and told to go and cut himself a piece of pork. He found a table, put his ale down and took his plate to the spit. He took his dagger from the sheath fixed to his belt and sliced off a generous helping. He was lucky, there was still a piece with crispy skin left. He went back to his table. There was someone sitting in his seat, drinking his ale. He stood there looking at the man who had three friends with him. Summing him up, he was a ruffian, not quite as big as Robert but a gut that hung down over his breeches. He had a dagger and a sword at his waist but Robert guessed the only time the dagger came out was to carve up some meat. The sword had probably never seen the light of day since he bought it, or more, likely stole it. Robert surmised he was no threat. The fact there were three the same also didn’t bother him. He tried French.
“Get out of my seat.”
The ruffian looked, either pretended not to understand, or chose to ignore Robert. There was no doubt in Robert’s mind he knew what was intended. Robert sat down beside him and started to eat his supper. Encouraged by this apparent back down, the ruffian started talking with his friends and slurping on the ale, making a show of particularly enjoying it. Robert ignored him until he put his hand across and reached for a piece of Robert’s meat. Robert already had his dagger out, he was using it to eat, and with a flash he plunged it into the ruffian’s hand with such force that it drove it onto the table and pinned it there. He screamed. Patrons looked around to see what was happening, saw who it was, then went back to their own business.
Robert took out his axe and raised it as if to cut the ruffian’s hand off at the wrist. His friends disappeared, the ruffian blubbered for mercy. Robert pointed to his glass and raised his eyes. The ruffian understood but pointed to his hand, pinned to the table by Robert’s dagger. Holding his axe hovering over the ruffian’s wrist, he pointed at he ruffian’s dagger and sword, again raising his eyebrows. The ruffian said something Robert couldn’t understand. Robert raised his axe. With his free hand the ruffian took out the dagger and placed it on the table. Robert indicated his sword too. He took that off and placed it on the table by the dagger. Robert pointed at his belt. The ruffian shook his head then changed his mind and took it off. Robert released the man’s hand from the table, wiped his dagger on the man’s clothing, lifted him up and kicked him out of the ale house, throwing what was left of the ale over him. He went back to the counter, handed over the dagger, sword and belt and was given two tankards of ale. He knew he had been cheated but he didn’t care.
Robert anticipated that if the ruffian had any friends at all they would be waiting outside for him to leave the ale house. The street was crowded but just opposite were a group of five or six eyeing where he had just come from. Robert walked over to them. They stayed where they were.
“Problem?” He asked.
They replied in a language he didn’t understand, so he repeated himself. They came nearer, threatening. A behaviour that had probably scared many they had come across before, but it didn’t bother Robert. He had his axe out in no time and swung the flat of it at the nearest person. It caught him square in the face and without stalling it came back and caught another. They rushed him then, and he turned the axe and sliced through the shoulder of a third. His scream was louder than those of the two before and the remainder stopped. This enabled Robert to dig at both of those with his sharp axe, cutting into the arm of one and the thigh of the other. The thigh was intentional, to immobilise. He did the same to another three who could not defend themselves due to Robert’s previous attacks. That put four on the ground. He left them and went back to his inn.
Over breakfast Robert told the innkeeper he would be setting off that day and asked if he could give him some pointers to Wessex, apart from heading due east.
“There’s a trade route to Bodmin, from there ask for the way to Okehampton. That’s in Wessex.
“You’re well versed in the geography of the place.”
“It’s what you learn when you have such an itinerant population. You don’t need to travel the world when you live here in Helford.”
“Let me ask you this then. If I want to find a port in Wessex to take my leave of this country, where should I head?”
“There are any number of places on the south coast. You won’t need me to tell you where they are. You will find them easily. There will be signs.”
Robert climbed the hill along the way that led out of Helford and looked back at where he had just come from. Such a peaceful sleepy place, on the bank of the twisting river but hiding a nest of vipers. He was glad to be out of it, although he had no indication of just how much he would miss company and conversation. He met fellow travelers along the way, but all were wary, some friendly, some not so. The best he got was an acknowledgement of his greeting. Labourers in the fields looked up if they saw him or heard his horses. More to stretch their backs than to acknowledge his presence. It was the overnight stays that were the worst. Out in the country, no one spoke French nor Saxon, only the local language. He made himself understood for the necessities, but conversation was out of the question. Until he reached Okehampton, in Wessex.
It was as if he had entered a different country. The landlord spoke some French, his wife a little more and both spoke fluent Saxon, the country of their birth. The first night, the inn was busy and Robert did not have much chance of conversation with them. He passed greetings with other guests but was unable to go much further than that. The next night was quiet and Bordan, the landlord and Wilda his wife came and sat with him.
“Where are you going?” Bordan asked.
“I came in through Helford in Cornwall and wanted to see Wessex. I intend to look for some land here. A close friend of mine has a desire to come here.”
“How long will you stay?”
“I would like to stay long enough for me to learn enough of the Saxon tongue to get me by. It is rare to find someone like you that knows both their own and my tongue, so I am keen to learn, if you will teach me.”
“The quickest way is to only speak Saxon. If you don’t understand us, we will give you a clue in your language and you can take it from there.”
“That is most kind. I think a month then.”
A room filled for a month plus all the meals. He was a gift sent to them. They were determined to help him and maybe keep him here a little longer.
“There seems to be a clear distinction between Cornwall and Wessex, not found in other places. Why is that?”
“How much of that can you say in Saxon?”
By changing the format of the sentence he managed two words. They repeated his question in French to make sure they had understood what he was trying to say.
“There is a story behind it. We don’t know if it is true but the locals assure us it is.”
“Can you tell it?”
“Why don’t we wait until you have a better grasp of our tongue? It will be a good test for you.”
Wilda thought the promise of a good story might also keep the Norman here longer.
During the day, Robert made forays into the countryside, exploring the land. He knew he was on the extremities of Wessex but even so, it was an opportunity to meet the people which may have advantages later on. The land was good grazing and several fields had been ploughed and sown. The locals were friendly, most of them Saxon, but there were some who had farmed here for several generations. In some isolated cases, their Saxon was worse than his. He was viewed with suspicion by all at first, because of the amount of weapons he was carrying and his giant size, but his friendly smile and manner put most at their ease eventually.
After a month of coaching by Bordan and Wilda and speaking amongst the locals on his ventures, he was proficient in speaking. He had also discovered much about the geography of Wessex by talking to travelers who had been to all parts. He had already decided the route he would follow. He had been at the inn for seven weeks and announced he would be leaving in two days’ time.
“What about my story?” He asked.
“You have earned it. I’m astonished how well you speak. We shall miss you when you go. Will you come back with your friend if he decides to settle here?” Wilda said.
“If you are near, come and see us.”
“I will try.”
Wilda began. “The story goes that a Celtic woman warrior came from the spirit world to lead the native people to a land of their own. She chose Cornwall. She rode a horse and carried a spear and her head was covered in flames that flew behind her and became mixed with the horse’s mane that was also on fire, when she rode. She had two wolves as her companions. The Saxon invaders were driving them westward and she made her first stand here, but then moved across the river. She formed a large army to fight the Saxons by combining the forces of two Cornish chiefs to face the Saxons, but at the battle site they betrayed her and turned on her. First one, then the other.
She had a different way of fighting and had taught her people the ways of the Roman soldiers. They only resorted to close quarter fighting at the last minute, choosing to keep the enemy at bay by using archers. It is said her archers could fire twice as far as any other, with complete accuracy. In this way she was able to defeat both armies in the same day and keep her own army intact.”
“What were the Saxons doing during all this?” Robert asked.
“They were waiting for the Cornish armies to weaken each other, then they would move in and finish off whoever was left. But it didn’t happen that way. The Celtic warrior queen was still strong after defeating the second Cornish army and she turned and faced the Saxons defiantly. The Saxons didn’t attack. She made a pact with the Saxon noble, that if he stayed on his side of the river, she would stay on hers.”
“And did they?”
“They did and no army has ever invaded Cornwall in five hundred years. They say if any army crosses the river into Cornwall, she will come back from the spirit world and reek her vengeance on them.”
“Do you believe it?”
“Bordan has spent time in Cornwall. Ask him.”
“The local people I have spoken to are convinced it is true. They have ancestors that saw her and knew her. She spent much time at Launceston and families who have lived there for generations remember the stories they were told round the fires.”
“Coming from the spirit world, though. That must be an invention?”
“No, people saw her coming out of the ground, mounted on her horse, carrying her spear, wearing her wolf cloak, with her two wolves running with her horse. Those that saw it, all tell the same story, to every detail. If it were invented, the story would change with each telling, but this one stays the same.”
“Do you believe it?”
“I can’t believe all of it. You never can, but there must be a lot of truth buried there somewhere for it to be so strong with the Cornish people.