The next reign was short, and devoid of interest so far as Northumbria is concerned; in that of ETHELRED the UNREADY, England reached the lowest depths of its degradation, and for more than thirty years, there is one sickening record of barbarian warfare or foul and bloody treasons. Fresh hosts of Northmen from Norway and Denmark, under Olave and Sweyn, invaded the country; and "there was muckle awe of the host, that no man could think how man could drive them from this earth or hold this earth against them; for they had cruelly marked each shire of Wessex with burning and with harrying." Sweyn next transferred the field of his operations to the north, and landing in the Humber in 1013, he ravaged the country on both sides of the river. He then proceeded to York, and encamped on the banks of the Ouse, where "Earl Uchtred and all the Northumbrians bowed to him." Sweyn died the following year at Gainsborough and the host chose his son Cnut, or Canute, for their king. Being obliged to return to Denmark, the English during his absence recalled their exiled king, Ethelred, who carried on a desultory war with the intruders for two years. The Northumbrians under Earl Uchtred declared for Ethelred, but were opposed by Canute on his return, and then, finding resistance useless, they gave in their submission to the Dane. The earl was summoned to attend the court of Canute at Wiheal, and was there perfidiously murdered by Thurebrand and a body of assassins whom the Dane had concealed behind a curtain. Forty of his retainers shared his fate. "The history of Uchtred and his family," says Lingard, "afford striking proofs of the barbarism of the times. When Malcolm, King of Scotland, laid siege to Durham, Uchtred assumed the office of his aged father, the Earl Waltheof, and defeated the enemy. After the victory he selected the most handsome of the slain, whose heads by his orders were cut off, washed in the river, and, with their long braided hair, fixed on stakes round the walls of the city. To reward this service Ethelred appointed him earl, and gave him his daughter Elfgiva in marriage. His former wife Siga was the daughter of the opulent thane Styr. With her he had espoused the quarrels of the family, and engaged to satisfy the revenge of his father-in-law by the death of that nobleman's enemy, Thurebrand. But Thurebrand frustrated all his machinations, and at last, as appears above, obtained the consent of Canute to inflict on his foe the punishment which had been designed for himself. The murderer, however, fell soon after by the sword of Aldred, the son of the man whom he had murdered. The duty of revenge now devolved on Ceorl, the son of Thurebrand. The two chieftains spent some years in plotting their mutual destruction: by the persuasion of their friends they were reconciled; and the reconciliation was confirmed by oaths of brotherhood, and a promise of making together a pilgrimage to Rome. Aldred visited Ceorl at his house, was treated with apparent kindness, and then treacherously assassinated in the forest of Ridesdale. Ceorl escaped the fate which he merited; but at the distance of many years his sons, while they were feasting at the house of the elder brother, near York, were surprised by Waltheof, the grandson of Aldred. The whole family was massacred with the exception of Sumerlede, who chanced to be absent, and Canute, who owed his life to the pity inspired by his amiable character. The hereditary feud, which had now continued for five generations, was at last extinguished by the Norman Conquest. From it the reader may judge of the disunion, mistrust, and treachery which prevailed in armies composed of the retainers of chieftains, bound, by what they considered a most sacred duty, to seek the destruction of each other."
EDMUND IRONSIDE succeeded his father in 1016, and, after vainly trying for seven months to retrieve the lost fortunes of his house, died by the treachery of Canute, it is said, who then became sole monarch of England. Little is recorded of Northumbria during the remainder of his reign, and in the reigns of his two Danish successors. The earldom was held in succession after the death of Uchtred, by Hircus, Eadulf, Aldred, and Eadulf II., but little more is known concerning them than their names. Siward, a Dane, the next earl, is a conspicuous figure in history, and after Godwin, Earl of Kent, was the most powerful nobleman in the kingdom, when Edward the Confessor ascended the throne. His earldom extended from the Humber to the Tweed, and within these limits he ruled with almost regal sway. But our chief interest in Siward centres in his connection with Malcolm of Scotland, whose contest with the usurper, Macbeth, has been immortalised by the genius of Shakespeare. Duncan, the Scottish king, fell by the hand of Macbeth in 1039, and for fifteen years the murderer usurped the throne. Malcolm, son of the murdered Duncan, fled to England, where he found an asylum with his uncle Siward, Earl of Northumbria. At length Macduff, the Thane of Fife, raised the standard of the royal exile, and Malcolm, accompanied by Siward and a powerful force of Northumbrians, hastened to join the insurgents. The two hostile armies met at Lanfannan, in Aberdeenshire; Macbeth fell in the fight, and Malcolm was restored to the throne of his fathers. Siward's son also perished in the action; and when the old warrior learned that his darling boy had died fighting valiantly in the front, he exclaimed that he was satisfied, and wished for himself no better fate. Truly did Malcolm exclaim, -
"Gracious England hath lent us good Siward and ten thousand men,
An older and a better soldier, none that Christendom gives out."
Shortly after his return he was attacked with disease, and, finding his end drawing nigh, he declared that he would die as he had lived - a warrior. Ordering his arms to be brought, he sat upright in bed, and breathed his last leaning on his spear. He died in 1055, and was buried in the monastery which he had founded at York and dedicated to St. Olave, the Danish king and martyr, afterwards St. Mary's Abbey. The title was not hereditary in those days, and Waltheof, his son, being too young to exercise his father's authority, the earldom was given to Tosti, son of Godwin, the powerful Earl of Kent, in whose veins ran both Danish and Saxon blood.
Tosti's administration was both oppressive and cruel, and after patiently enduring it for ten years, the people rose in revolt, and surprised the city of York. Tosti effected his escape, but his guards, to the number of 200, both Danes and English, with their commanders, Amund and Ravensworth, were captured, and massacred in cold blood outside the walls of the city. The insurgents unanimously chose Morcar, grandson of Leofric, Earl of Leicester, for their earl. Harold, Tosti's elder brother, who had succeeded his father in the earldom of Kent, met the Northumbrians, now augmented by Morcar's men from Lincoln, Nottingham, and Derby, and the men of Leicester under his brother Edwin, at Northampton, and attempted to effect a reconciliation. But compromise was impossible; they declared their unalterable determination to submit tamely no longer to oppression, and further, demanded a confirmation of the laws of Canute, and the appointment of Morcar to the earldom of Northumberland. The king granted all their requests, but before their departure the old spirit of Danish lawlessness displayed itself; they plundered the country, burnt the villages, and carried away several hundreds of the inhabitants into slavery, until they were ransomed by their friends. Tosti, with his wife and family, withdrew to Flanders, to the court of Earl Baldwin, whose sister he had married.
In deserting his brother's cause, Harold acted from motives of prudence as well as of self-interest. The insurgents were a numerous and powerful body who were likely to prove stubborn opponents; the king was childless and fast hastening to the grave; and the earl, with a view to the succession, though his only connection with royalty was through his sister's marriage with Edward, deemed it the wisest policy to secure the friendship of his northern neighbours, and hasten to London, where he would be in readiness to carry out his ambitious project. The Confessor died about a month afterwards, and the witan, overlooking the claims of Edgar the Atheling, grandson of Edmund Ironside, and last male of the line of Cerdic, unanimously chose HAROLD as the successor to the throne. The southern counties cheerfully acquiesced in the selection, but the allegiance of the Northumbrians was a matter of doubt and perplexity. To win their friendship Harold married Editha, the sister of the powerful earls Morcar and Edwin. But he was scarcely in possession of the crown before he found a powerful competitor for the royal diadem; and, to add to his troubles, his brother Tosti, who had neither forgotten nor forgiven Harold's desertion of his cause, in conjunction with Harald Hardrada, King of Norway, and a fleet of three hundred sail, after sacking and burning the town of Scarborough, sailed up the Humber as far as the village of Riccall, where they landed and marched towards York. The Northumbrian levy under Edwin and Morcar encountered the invaders at Fulford, but after a severely contested battle were defeated. Hardrada then advanced with his army to York, which opened its gates to him. Harold, the English king, who was at this time busily engaged completing his defences against the expected invasion of William, Duke of Normandy, his rival for the throne, hastened to the north, and surprised the enemy in the neighbourhood of York. They retired to Stamford Bridge, on the Derwent, and prepared for battle. The Norwegian drew up his warriors in a compact but hollow circle. The royal standard, called very appropriately, "The Land Ravager," occupied the centre, and the spearmen were ranged around the circumference. Surrounding the whole was a line of spears, firmly fixed in the ground, and pointed outward in an oblique direction. Harold, desirous of accomplishing his object without the hazards of a battle, if possible, sent a message of conciliation to his brother, offering to reinstate him in the earldom of Northumberland, if he would withdraw from the field. "Last winter," replied Tosti, "such a message might have saved much bloodshed, but it now comes too late; and were I to accept it what terms do you offer to the king, my ally?" "Seven feet of English ground," was Harold's answer. Tosti scorned to abandon his friend, even though by so doing he might have regained possession of all his broad lands. The battle began, and for a time the enemy in their firm array withstood the onslaught of the superior numbers of the English. Had they maintained their compactness, they might have foiled, even with their lesser force, all the tactics of Harold, but a feigned retreat of the English seduced them to break their ranks and give pursuit. They were out-manoeuvred, - the English immediately re-formed and fell upon them, killing Hardrada in the first attack. The passage of the narrow bridge, say the northern Chronicles, was for three hours defended by a stalwart Norwegian. In vain did they hurl at him their javelins; he still maintained his position, until he was pierced from beneath the bridge by the lance of an English soldier, driven upwards through the wooden structure. Tosti soon after fell, with the flower of the Norwegian and Flemish army, and so great was the slaughter, that, fifty years afterwards, the ground was still whitened with the bones of the slain.
Harold tempered his victory with mercy, and Olave, the son of Hardrada, who accompanied the fleet to England, was permitted to return to Norway, taking with him the remnant of the Norwegian army, in twenty vessels allotted to him out of his father's fleet. But this act of apparent clemency and generosity was dictated by deeper motives of policy. The invasion of William of Normandy was hourly expected, and prudence suggested the speedy and peaceable removal of one enemy before commencing hostilities with another.
Harold repaired with his army to York, where the victory was celebrated with feasting and rejoicing; but ere the banquet ended, a messenger, in hot haste, brought news of the arrival of Duke William, with an army of 60,000 warriors, collected from the various provinces of France. Harold immediately broke up the feast, and marched with his army to oppose the Norman. Of the battle which followed we need speak but briefly, as it is a matter of general rather than of local history. The hostile forces met at Senlac, near Hastings, on the 14th of October, 1066; the English weakened by losses at Stamford Bridge, and also by numerous defections, were defeated, Harold the last Saxon King slain, and the crown transferred to William the Norman. The Conqueror erected an abbey on the spot, which he richly endowed, and enjoined the monks to offer up prayers for ever, for the souls of those who had fallen in the battle. The ruins still bear the name of Battle Abbey.
Data transcribed from:
Bulmer's East Riding
Scan, OCR and html software by Colin Hinson.
Checking and correction by Peter Nelson.