The Siege of Ely

Yes, I haven’t had much to say lately.  The most recent cause is that I had company in the house; last Monday was my father’s 80th birthday, and my brother flew up from Florida to celebrate with Dad, Leive and I.  Well, he went back yesterday, so life is returning to normal.  I’ll probably tell more about Dad’s birthday and my brother’s visit in the next message.

Yesterday I added a couple of paragraphs to Chapter 8 of my European history about the Norman conquest of England.  You’ve probably heard that 1066, the date when it happened, is the most important event in British history.  There is a good reason for that; before 1066 England was one of the most backward countries in Europe, but since the conquest it has been one of Europe’s most advanced nations.  However, it took William the Conqueror five years to subjugate the country after the battle of Hastings, and I did not know the details until now.  Here, as Paul Harvey used to say, is the rest of the story:

For William the most dangerous part of the conquest ended with the battle of Hastings, but another five years were required to bring all of England under his authority. First he captured the ports along England’s southeast coast, allowing reinforcements to come in. Meanwhile in London, Edgar, the previously overlooked teenage prince, was crowned when news arrived of Harold’s death. London was too big to take in a single charge, so William surrounded and isolated the city. In late December the local earls and the archbishops of Canterbury and York surrendered the kingdom; Edgar was exiled and William was crowned. In truth, however, he still only had the southeast quarter of England. The most serious challenge came from the northeast, where the people were still largely ethnic Scandinavians and some Danish invaders landed there, using the war as an excuse to do some pillaging. William ended up bribing the current Danish king, Sveyn II, to make Denmark stop supporting revolts in northern England.

The last resistance to William’s rule came from the Isle of Ely. This was not a real island but an area in the northeast, surrounded by swamps called the Fens; like Ravenna in Dark Age Italy, Ely was easy to defend because of the wetlands. Here the local leader was one Hereward the Wake, a Saxon noble who had been in revolt against the king even before 1066. Going into exile, Hereward returned in 1069 to find his father and brother slain, and his land confiscated, so he joined the anti-Norman opposition at once. The Normans first tried to take Ely with a frontal assault, by building a mile-long wooden causeway across the Fens, but it sank under the weight of armored men and horses; archaeologists have found skeletons wearing chainmail in the Fens, showing that some knights drowned when the causeway collapsed. The Normans then tried a tactic that only made sense because this was the Middle Ages–they built a wooden tower and put a witch on it to curse Ely’s defenders! When the witch got done with the black magic, she "mooned" the Saxons, and one of them took advantage of the moment to shoot an arrow at her "target"–ouch! Some more arrows were shot, and these were flaming arrows, which brought down both the tower and the witch. Finally, one of the knights bribed the monks of Ely to show them a safe path across the Fens, once the Normans agreed to spare the local abbey. Ely was captured, but Hereward escaped with a few followers. The only Norman record mentioning Hereward is the Domesday Book (see below), so it looks like he and William made peace, after William restored his land to him. Next, King Malcolm of Scotland tried his luck by invading the northernmost counties, getting as far as Jarrow before William arrived and forced him to acknowledge his supremacy in England (1070-72).

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