Tying the Knot.
The elder of the two de Tosny brothers, who were now somewhat reluctantly residing in England, was glaring moodily at the scattered collection of wattle and daub huts in the river valley below. He was pacing an open catwalk behind the make-shift battlements on the upper storey of his timber-framed keep.
The newly built, frontier castle was perched on its earthen motte above the town like a hungry, expectant bird of prey ready to swoop down, tear and claw any unwary Saxon serf, who was fool enough to show his face on this unfortunate day.
Raoul de Tosny leaned languidly against the Standard Post that flew the Family Banners. He was enjoying the weak warmth of an April sun that had finally managed to breach the seemingly eternal, British drizzling rain. He patiently waited for his brother to vent his furious frustration in speech. Eventually the Norman/French words spewed out like molten lava from an erupting volcano. A somewhat free translation is, as follows:
“What it boils down to is that those sodding, sodden Saxon serfs suppurating on the banks of their messy, mucky, river just don’t appreciate what I’ve been trying to do for them, or what I’ve been trying to save them from ...’
Brother Raoul nodded; he’d heard it all before, but it wasn’t his place, as the youngest member of the family, to open his mouth and offer an opinion at such a contentious time. ‘A still tongue in a wise head’ was the only safeguard against later recrimination, if things went badly wrong; and the events of that fore-noon had demonstrated that things were going very badly wrong with Norman and Saxon relationships.
Duke William had given Robert de Tosny, second son of the Feudal Lord of Tosny, a canton of High Normandy, some private instructions concerning his overall plans for gaining working control of the country he intended to rule. He had undertaken the premature briefing, even before his invasion fleet had crossed the English Channel.
De Tosny and his brother Raoul were blood relatives of the soon-to-be Conqueror of England, bred from the same Viking stock. They had also been his close childhood companions. Francis de Tosny, the eldest sibling and heir to the fiefdom, stayed safely at home with his Father. Although ‘the Bastard of Normandy’ (Duke William’s unappreciated nick-name) did not keep friends, he tolerated Raoul; but trusted Robert more than he trusted any other man:
“After dealing with the area around London, I want to immediately pacify the Midlands.
First, we’ll try kindness; but if that doesn’t work, I’ll turn those central areas of what was once Mercia, into such a wilderness that for the next century, we’ll gallop through the dreams of future Saxon generations like fiends riding nightmares. That is always supposing that there are any Saxon generations left, when I’ve finished with that area.”
With any other man, this would have been counted as braggart talk. However, with William of Normandy, it was ‘realpolitik’. Unlike the future Cesar Borgia he did not have to consult some Machiavelli, he was his own consigliore:
“We cannot afford to have civil unrest stabbing into our backs, when we’re about the business of defending our borders against those sly Welshmen across Offa’s Dike and the cantankerous Scots behind Hadrian’s Wall.
You, Robert, will march your men north along the road built by the Romans over five hundred years ago, and find a strategic location to build a Keep. There you will use your strong right arm and, I hope. a wise head, to hold the centre of England for me. The surrounding lands will become part of your fiefdom, and will be registered in an Account Book for the whole country, which I intend to have compiled, as soon as I have been crowned King.”
William had a long list of border-line precedents to back up his claim to the British throne, and he meant to press them by force de majeure
In October, 1066, the first and last invasion fleet from France to England successfully crossed the Channel. Harold, the pro tem Saxon King, was killed and his army defeated at the Battle of Hastings, near Dover.
On Christmas Day of the same year, William of Normandy was crowned King of England at Westminster Abbey in London; and the Conqueror’s henchmen dispersed to claim their designated spoils – more often than not, by more force of arms. Thus, by local skirmishes, was the full subjugation of England achieved; and by 1072, even King, Malcolm III of Scotland had been forced to pay homage to William I of England.
Robert de Tosny, at the head of a hundred battle-seasoned men-at-arms, began his march North on the first day of January, 1067. The old Roman Road, which had become known as Watling Street, possibly because the ‘road’ ran through the land of some local notable carrying that name, was little more than a muddy track – its only virtue was that it did not meander, and aimed straight for the location that local Saxons identified as the centre of the country that had formerly belonged to them:
This was the village of Meriden, squatting on the flattest piece of real-estate de Tosny had ever encountered and quite unsuitable as a command centre for the Midlands.
Lord Robert turned East in search of the places, which would be featured under his name in the ‘Domesday (Account) Book’ that his King had already started to compile. His future domain covered most of the former Western Mercia, and included such notable towns as Barlaston, Bradley and Staith Ford (Stafford), the capital town of Saxon Mercia. It was here on highland to the east of the town that De Tosny started to build his ‘motte and bailey’ castle to protect a solid gravel ridge crossing the extensive marshland surrounding the confluences of the Sow, Penk and Trent Rivers. It was the only place where an army could safely and expeditiously move from Southern to Northern England, without using a tortuous Eastern coastal route.
At this point, in order to fulfil King William’s commands, Robert was supposed to ‘gently’ wean the Saxon population away from its former native allegiances, and shepherd the ‘sheep/mouton’ into a Norman fold …
First of all, he changed his name: Overnight, ‘Robert de Tosny’ became ‘Robert de Stafford’. This move was supposed to create a ‘brotherly bond’ between him and the towns-people. Then, he started to learn the Saxon language, under the tutelage of the Saxon ‘bed-wench’ he had acquired during his march north.
In fact, the ‘bed-wench’ in question was Lady Adelais of the blue-eyed, blonde, Saxon aristocracy; but during a three day, snowed-in stay-over at her father’s Manor House at Belvoir, she had allowed the darkly handsome, hawk-featured Norman to seduce her. They had not bothered with such amenities as ‘the benefit of clergy’. When he moved on, she moved with him, despite the lamentations of her aged father. Her mother, of Welsh stock, had been much more practical and understanding. Indeed, it was she who had brought up the mythical ‘law’ of ‘droit de seignior’ during the first meal that Conqueror and Conquered ate together; and neither the Norman nor her daughter had been slow on the up-take.
During the ‘stabilization of Stafford’ period, the new Lord of the Manor did not go down into the town himself; but instructed his visiting soldiers to use only moderate force to establish a Norman presence. On no account were the men-at-arms to take anything from a local without politely asking: ‘s’il vous plait’. Afterwards, they had to say a grateful ‘merci’ and offer some token payment for any items or favours they may have received, especially if the local concerned was a woman. Married women were off-limits, but single women were fair game, if they could be ‘persuaded’ to the retainer’s will and not forced.
De Tosny/Stafford had the makings of a very ‘gentle’ overlord.
Some four months after his arrival, he decided it was time to make an official visit to the township to accept official oaths of allegiance from all and sundry; and explain in detail what were the roles of serfs and Lords of the Manor under the new Norman Feudal System. His command of the Saxon language had been expanded, so that he could differentiate between Saxon pigs, sheep and oxen; and Norman pork, mutton and beef. Additionally, his love-making had been considerably spiced by the introduction to his vocabulary of several ‘interesting’ Anglo-Saxon words and phrases.
Nevertheless, the meeting in the Stafford Moot Hall was not a success. No one was impressed by the Lord of the Manor’s new name or his rationalisation of the Feudal System, when it was explained to them through the mouth of an incompetent translator. A Norman was a Norman, and would always be a Norman to Saxon eyes; and any kind of ‘honouring’ was definitely out of the question. Although, when questioned about Oaths of Allegiance, the People’s Alderman did make it abundantly clear that the only personage to whom his fellow townsmen had ever pledged their loyalty was Lady Aethelfaed, daughter of King Alfred the Great. She had founded the Royal Burrh (Borough) of Stafford as a fort to defend Mercia against the onslaughts of the Vikings in the 10th Century.
The local leader then proceeded to further emphasize that despite current changes in the local pecking order, the Saxons would continue to follow Aethelfaed’s last orders. She had symbolically bound the people together to watch each others’ backs with a sash from her gown. They held their Saxon Kingdom against Danish invaders and now they would battle the new Norsemen – to the death if necessary – a Dane was a Viking, was a Norseman, and was therefore a Norman!
The Alderman was bold because he thought he was speaking on neutral ground, as an immune, time-honoured herald and leader of his people. He only discovered his mistake, when he pointed to Aethelfaed’s girdle, a tattered, knotted relic of soot-blackened cloth hanging from the rafters of the Moot Hall.
Robert of Stafford flashed his broad-sword, and the Saxon permanently lost the power to point at anything with his right hand.
Mercifully, but yet contemptuously, the Lord of the Manor snatched a flaming torch from a bracket on the wall of the Moot Hall, and held it to the blood-spurting stump of the Alderman’s arm. When the rough and ready cauterization seemed complete and the stench of burning flesh was choking the room, the Norman held the same torch to Aethelfaed’s former girdle, which fell to the earthen floor like a blazing, writhing serpent.
There was no further Norman retaliation, even though the retinue from the Keep was pelted out of the town with handfuls of over-ripe ‘mud’ snatched from any convenient privy. No allegiances had been sworn.
An hour later the Brothers de Tosny began their one-sided conference on the battlements of Stafford Castle. Robert knew that he was impaled on the horns of a dilemma; caught between the devil and the deep, blue sea; damned if he did nothing and probably done-for, if he did. The King would undoubtedly hear the whole story of his humiliation by the end of the week, and the heavy unflinching machinery of full Royal Norman retaliation would be set in motion. Stafford and its surrounds were set to become waste-lands, and all the Saxon inhabitants were living on borrowed time.
Outside humanitarian concerns that he may or may not have had, Robert de Tosny/Stafford was a pragmatic realist concerning his new fiefdom. He already knew that the area had extensive mineral resources: clay for pottery; salt for food preservation; iron for smelting into tools and weapons and coal/charcoal to fuel the smelting furnaces. Unfortunately, if the labour force vanished into the grave, the local resources that might make him into a very rich Lord of the Manor could not be worked.
Maybe it was from Robert’s own, savage, ancestral Viking past, the same forefathers, who had tortured King Edmund of East Anglia into Christian martyred sainthood, that an answer to his problem manifested itself. Then again, perhaps the horrifying solution to his quandary came to mind from a cruel Druid ‘wiccan’ entity still lurking in an archipelago that it had once controlled.
Although Brother Raoul again refrained from making any comment, when Brother Robert outlined his plans for the next day, there was a definite greenish tinge to his habitual, accomplice’s smile; and when rehearsals began, he was conspicuously missing.
The next morning was the first day of May; and at about one hour after sun-rise, the same retinue from the Castle that had previously visited the Royal Borough, but now reinforced with five more archers and five more axe-men, came riding into Stafford through the Green Gate. Two heavy draught-horses without riders were also included in the entourage.
The Normans had nothing to say to anyone in the town or to each other; and the Saxons, who gathered outside the Moot Hall, spoke in whispers, if they spoke at all.
One of the men-at-arms produced a roll of heavy rope, and handed it to his Lord. Very deliberately, almost ceremoniously, Robert uncoiled the rope, and tied a loose knot at its centre. He held the rope high above his head, so that everyone could see that the knot was a replica of the one that had been in Lady Aethelfaed’s famous girdle.
The townsfolk relaxed. It looked as if the Normans had come to make some kind of reconciliation for the events of the previous day. After all, this was May Day – a time for celebration and festivities.
They were soon disillusioned …
Without a word de Tosny/Stafford made another gesture, and two more men-at-arms led the draught-horses to places in front of the Moot Hall. They were ten feet apart, and were positioned hind-quarters to hind-quarters. The horses’ attendants then attached the ends of the knotted rope to the horses’ harness-collars, and then stood to the horses’ heads. The rope was about thirty feet long, and the knot hung slackly between the two animals.
Silently, Lord Robert dismounted from his horse, and flanked by two axe-men with weapons drawn, walked through the Saxon crowd. He pointed imperiously and randomly at three of the townsmen, who were immediately seized by the remaining men-at-arms, hustled in front of the Moot Hall, and tied hand and foot.
The mesmerized crowd now had some good idea of what was about to happen, but the people could not move or look away, as Norman executioners fitted the three loops of the Stafford Knot around the necks of three Saxon scape-goats.
The men at the horses’ heads slowly led their charges in opposite directions and the rope tightened.
For the first time that morning the silence was broken – women were crying out, men were groaning and three victims, with empurpled faces and protruding tongues, were gasping for their last lungsful of air.
Another almost imperceptible sign was made by the hawk-faced Norman. The horses halted and backed up to their former positions. He remounted his own horse, and rode over to survey the three men writhing on the ground. The crowd held its breath – perhaps the Norman was going to be merciful.
The Norman Over-Lord wheeled his horse towards the Castle Road; raised his right hand above his head and brought it down with a sharp chopping motion. The men at the horses’ heads ran to the horses’ flanks; pulled daggers from their belts, and used them to urge the huge chargers to a gallop.
There was a smash and crash of egg-breaking sound; and then it was as if three bloody peas had been flicked out of three bloody pea-pods by a giant’s bloody thumb to land in the bloody laps of Stafford’s Saxon population.
There was a Mercian rebellion against King William in 1077, but Stafford and its surrounding villages did not participate, although the borough did supply the salt with which the Normans later ploughed the rebels’ fields. Thus, Staffordians escaped the implementation of a Norman ‘scorched earth’ policy, the results of which plagued the rest of the region for the next hundred years.
Robert de Stafford did become a very rich and influential nobleman with salt mines, coal mines, blacksmithing forges and rich arable land; but he lost the companionship of his brother Raoul, who ‘lost his stomach for conquering’ and returned to Normandy. Robert removed himself to Belvoir, and left an esquire in command of Stafford Castle. He married his bed-wench and accepted the Manor of Belvoir as her dowry.
Here, the ‘devoted’ couple built an abbey; but Lady Adelais knowing everything that had transpired in Stafford on the first of May, 1067, for ever after bore in mind that she was a Saxon:
Robert de Tosny/ Stafford had seven heirs – three boys and four girls. All the children had Saxon fathers.
A Children’s Song celebrates ‘The Reformation’; King Henry VIII’s 1536-41 dissolution of the monasteries and convents in England and a Land Commissioner, who kept one of the Title Deeds for himself:
“Little Jack Horner sat in his corner,
Eating his Christmas Pie.
He pushed in his thumb and pulled out a plum,
And said: ’What a good boy am I!”
Another Nursery Rhyme remembers the Black Death, a bubonic plague that decimated the population of London and its surrounds between 1665 and 1666:
“Ring-a-ring of roses;
A pocketful of posies –
Atishoo, atishoo – we all fall down!”
However, Stafford’s Communal Recall goes back much further:
“Stay from the Castle Bank in the deadly month of May –
De Tosny with his Knot could ride that bloody way!”