Monday, February 28, 2011

Medieval Keep Built By A Fairy In The Night

Medieval history is full of legend and myth. Some argue that the stories handed down over the centuries must have had an element of truth in them to have withstood the test of time. Others argue that fiction was as popular in medieval times as it is now. There is no clear answer.

What is clear, however, is that there is tangible history associated with medieval legend. Take for example, the Melusine Tower - a medieval castle keep in Vouvant in the Vendee SW France. According to local legend, it was built by the fairy Melusine in a single night. In actual fact (and that's all historians can talk about!) it was built by the powerful Lusignan family - heirs to the realm of Guy de Lusignan who was a medieval knight and fought at the side of Richard The Lionheart.

We were lucky enough to visit Vouvant and here are 2 video clips of footage we took ...

Melusine Tower, Castle Keep
This clip is a distance shot showing the tower in its context within the village

Melusine Tower and medieval curtain wall
This clip is a close up and pans across the medieval curtain wall showing its height above the village.

Visit our medieval castles channel on YouTube.

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Sunday, February 20, 2011

Chevauchée - Medieval King David's Scottish Invasions 1138

In 1138 the largest and most serious medieval raids from Scotland into England began. To quote a chronicler of the time:

"The root and origin of all evil arose in that part of England called Northumbria to produce plunder and arson, strife and war".

There were three separate raids during January, April and July that year which left the whole area in a constant state of war.

It is important to understand the state of England at the time. King Stephen had come to the throne three years previously to usurp the anointed successor, Henry's daughter Matilda.

Unfortunately for him Matilda was well connected and married to Geoffrey of Anjou, one of the most powerful French magnates. She also had King David of Scotland as her uncle and he had invaded the North in 1136. However, on that occasion he was forced to negotiate and the first treaty of Durham granted Carlisle and Doncaster to the Scottish King.

The first invasion in January centred around the siege of Wark and ravaging the area nearly as far south as Durham. He then crossed the border into England again on 8 April and again at the end of July. These campaigns saw an escalation in brutality and the devastation of the North barely some 70 years since William the Conqueror had undertaken the "Harrying of the North".

As always it is difficult to separate the truth from the hyperbole. We have testimony from Richard of Hexham; he was the canon of the Abbey at Hexham and later became the prior there. He wrote that the Scots took great sadistic pleasure in their grisly work. Their second and third invasions targeted the areas they had previously missed and there was more than one report of a group of schoolboys having been burnt alive in their school.

It is interesting to note that slavery was still practiced on the fringes of Celtic society and whilst the English might take captives for ransom, with the Scots it could be much worse.

The tradition of devastating the countryside and forcing your foe to negotiate without actually meeting in battle has come down to us as "Chevauchée" (a medieval French term) and these raids into Northumbria were not the first or indeed the last we would see of this practice.

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Saturday, February 12, 2011

Chevauchée - William The Conqueror's Harrying of the North

William the Conqueror was one of the most successful and ruthless military commanders of the medieval era. Although he won the Crown of England with his victory at The Battle of Hastings it took him rather longer to truly conquer the Kingdom.

During the winter of 1069/70 he headed North in response to the threat of insurrection with the support of King Sven of Denmark who had arrived with some 240 ships and took the city of York on 20 September 1069.

William's response has come down to us as the "Harrying of the North". He utterly devastated the surrounding lands, burnt the crops and destroyed all food sources for the rapidly approaching winter. This strategy isolated the Danes and cut them off from any supplies which might have come from the countryside. The Danes came to terms and left but the impact on the country as far north as Northumbria was terrible. Hunger and famine was everywhere and killed more people than those put to death by the sword.

Basically William targeted the rural population. He wasn't fighting an army or attacking medieval castles but destroying the countryside and denying food and sustenance to the people. This wasn't the first or indeed the last time that such tactics were used in medieval times. Terrible though they were their impact was undeniable.

References: Harrying Of The North on Wikipedia
"By sword and Fire". Sean McGlynn. Pub Phoenix.

Image from the Bayeaux tapestry of William 1st

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Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Chevauchee - King John's Medieval Winter Campaign

The pressures and problems which led to the signing of Magna Carta were years in the making. England had already been heavily taxed under Richard 1st, with both the Saladin tithe to pay for the 3rd crusade and then the money needed to pay the ransom when Richard was captured on his way home from Palestine.

King John (grandson of Matilda) carried on using the tax system ( as it then was) to pay for expensive failures such as occurred at the Battle of Bouvines. However, with the First Barons War open hostility broke out in England. Leaving half his army under William Longsword to subdue the south he set off with the remaining army to confront the rebellion in the North of England.

His progress was swift and by 8 January he had reached Durham and then on hearing that Alexander II of Scotland has set Newcastle alight he burned and destroyed Berwick-upon-Tweed.

Reading the accounts from these times it is evident that this was an expedition to raise money as well as destroying the opposition. John was known for employing mercenaries and some of the stories of brutality are shocking. However, did this actually bring any long term benefits? It is debatable as some of his enemies simply fled over the border into Scotland. In the south the City of London held firm against him and in quick succession Magna Carta was signed, John died and Louis of France who was seen as a potential replacement saw his support die after the Battle of Lincoln.

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