In my last blog we looked at the Battle of Carham in 1018 and the victory of the Scots over the Saxon Northumbrians. This resulted in the loss of Lothian to the Kingdom of Scotland (the territory between the Rivers Forth and Tweed). The intervening seventy-five years between 1018 and the Battle of Alnwick in 1093 constituted some of the most rapid and tumultuous change ever experienced in our history. I think it is important, albeit concisely, to summarise this transition before we discuss the subject of this blog. I have focussed primarily on the events which took place in or that affected the north of England.
The realisation of Alfred the Great’s dream of a united, Saxon, England was first achieved in 927 in the reign of Alfred’s grandson Æthelstan (927–939). However, Saxon hegemony was short lived, and in 1016 the fledgling kingdom was conquered by Danish invaders. Cnut the Great and his successors ruled England along with Denmark and Norway as a powerful North Sea Empire until it came to an abrupt end in 1042 when Cnut the Great’s son Harthacnut died. He was succeeded by his half-brother Edward. Edward’s father was Æthelred the Unready (who ruled England until 1016) and his mother was Emma of Normandy, who married Cnut the Great after the death of Æthelred (yes, she married the man who invaded her husband’s kingdom). Known to history as “the Confessor” owing to his piety, Edward was a Christian Saxon of the House of Wessex. It looked as though Alfred’s vision would finally be fulfilled. Alas, it was not to last.
Across the English Channel, the Dukes of Normandy had established a powerful dynasty in north western France. They were, however, vassals of the French Crown, following King Charles III granting the Duchy to a Viking named Rollo in 911. By 1035 the Dukedom had passed to William II known as “the Bastard”. Edward the Confessor had close links to Normandy through his mother (her father was Duke Richard the Fearless) and he spent a lot of time there throughout his life. It may have been that Edward, who was childless, had discussed naming Duke William as his successor to the English crown when he visited England in 1051. Following Edward’s death in January 1066 it seems the succession was far from clear. William considered himself the rightful heir to the English throne but when the Witan gathered to choose who the next King of England should be, they chose the powerful English Earl, Harold Godwinson. Harold was from a prominent Anglo Saxon family and he was crowned King of England at Westminster Abbey soon after Edward’s death. Upon hearing of this news, it can be presumed that William was not impressed, and he began to draw up his plans to invade England, take the throne by force of arms and earn his more noble soubriquet “The Conqueror”.
William was not the only one with designs on taking the crown by force. Across the North Sea, Harald Hardrada, King of Norway, was invited by Harold Godwinson’s troublesome brother Tostig to invade England and take the throne. Tostig was the Earl of Northumbria and as a result of his poor governance and general misbehaviour had been exiled by his brother. Bent on revenge, he joined forces with Hardrada. Shortly after landing in Yorkshire, the invading army was hastily met by King Harold and defeated at the Battle of Stamford Bridge, just outside York, on 25th September 1066. Both Hardrada and Tostig were killed in the battle. Not long after this victory Harold heard that the Normans were preparing to invade the southern shore of his kingdom. Force marching his army south, Harold met William three weeks later at the Battle of Hastings on 14th October 1066. It is safe to assume most readers will know the outcome of that particular battle. William’s victory ended Saxon kingship and England was to be under Norman rule.
The Norman conquest of England amounted to a huge and rapid shift in power and William and his army brutally put down any resistance to the new regime. Unlike the Viking invaders of two centuries earlier, the Normans did not want to settle their conquered lands. England was seen by many Normans as a land to be exploited for the benefit of their continental possessions. As such they wanted to subjugate the population but not replace them. This allowed Danish and Saxon culture to survive although under the strict Norman yoke.
To make up for their deficiency in numbers in a hostile land, the Normans imported the idea of castle building as a means of amplifying and projecting their power. The Saxons had used fortified towns or burghs for defence, but nothing like this. Norman castles were as offensive as they were defensive and were sited in strategically important places meant to dominate their conquered land. Initially wooden structures, following the motte and bailey style, they were quickly rebuilt in stone. They served as fortified homes for the local Norman lords as well as housing garrisons of loyal soldiers ready to sally forth to enforce their will. It was the beginning of the feudal system in England. In the North East, castles built in the early Norman (pre 1100) period include: Barnard Castle (1097), Newcastle (1080), Alnwick Castle (1096) and Durham Castle (1072).
William wanted men he trusted to maintain order and enforce his will. He did this by granting large tracts of land to his Norman nobility. Interestingly there is evidence of William showing clemency towards the pre-conquest aristocracy. Edgar Ætheling, the last male of the House of Wessex, was named King by the Saxon Witan following the death of Harold in 1066, but he was never crowned. Although uprisings in his name occurred regularly in the early years of Williams reign, the matter was ultimately resolved peacefully.
One example of where a native Saxon noble was executed by William was Waltheof, Earl of Northumbria. Waltheof was the great grandson of Uhtred the Bold (no less) and was a troublesome subject for William. He was too young to inherit the Earldom when his father, Siward, died in 1055 and this was the reason why Harold Godwinson’s brother Tostig had taken the position. Following the Battle of Hastings Waltheof submitted to William but involved himself in a failed Danish invasion in 1070. He was pardoned by William, allowed to marry the King’s niece and was made Earl of Northampton and Northumbria in 1072. Following William’s instruction, it was Waltheof who began the construction of Durham Castle in 1072. Despite all this, in 1075 Waltheof once again was embroiled in a rebellion of which he was one of the ring leaders. This was the last straw for William and in 1076 he was executed. He was replaced as Earl of Northumbria by the Norman William Walcher, the first Prince Bishop of Durham, who had been appointed in that role by William the Conqueror himself in 1071.
The King of Scotland at the time of the Norman conquest was Malcolm III, known as Canmore (Gaelic for “Great Chief”), who had reigned since 1058. Malcolm acknowledged his new southern neighbour and, in the words of the Anglo Saxon Chronicle “became his man” (referring to Malcolm recognising William’s overlordship). Malcolm even handed over his eldest son to William as a hostage and guarantee of his loyalty. He was, however, a shrewd character and he had no intention of passing up the chance to expand his territory if an opportunity presented itself. Unsurprisingly, peace between England and Scotland did not last and it was not long before Malcolm was raiding Northumbria.
In 1079 Malcolm was allowed to pillage and plunder Northumbria for three weeks without opposition. The man who should have resisted him was William Walcher. As Prince Bishop, Walcher (who was also Earl of Northumbria by this time) enjoyed almost regal power in his territory. Walcher was a Norman but he had a Saxon named Ligulf of Lumley, who was from an established Northumbrian family, as one of his councillors. It may have been that Walcher decided not resist Malcom’s incursion or that he was incapable of organising resistance. Whatever the reason it angered Ligulf and he was vocal in his criticism of the Bishop. Two of Walcher’s men took matters into their own hands and they attacked Ligulf’s hall in the middle of the night, killing him and most of his household. This caused uproar among the local Northumbrians and there was a real threat of rebellion. To try and calm matters, Walcher agreed to meet with Ligulf’s kinsmen in Gateshead, bringing with him a substantial body of men for protection. The Northumbrians presented Walcher with a list of the grievences which Walcher summarily dismissed. Enraged, the Northumbrians attacked. Walcher and his men fled to a nearby church, which was set on fire by the Northumbrians. Escaping the flames, Walcher was captured and hacked to death by the mob.
To deal with the Scots William sent his eldest son, Robert Curthose, north with an army to raid Lothian and Malcolm once more bent the knee and agreed to keep the peace. It was probably at this time that Robert instructed the building of the castle at a strategic crossing point on the River Tyne called Monkchester. After the new castle was built, Monkchester would imaginatively be renamed Newcastle upon Tyne.
To deal with the constant insurrection of his northern subjects, William’s response was brutal – in what became known collectively as the “Harrying of the North”. William had already waged a savage series of campaigns from the winter of 1069 and throughout the early 1070’s in Yorkshire. Following his outrage at the death of his man Walcher, it was begun again with renewed vigour and he sent his bellicose half-brother Bishop Odo of Bayeux to lay waste to the lands between the Rivers Tees and Tweed. His scorched earth tactics were implemented on a huge scale across the northern counties of England in what is now Northumberland, Durham, Yorkshire, Lancashire and Cumbria. The destruction of land and property alongside the wholesale murder and displacement of people amounted to a genocide of the local Saxon and Danish population. William did not just want to put down rebellion, he wanted to be sure that it could never happen again. Records from Williams post conquest survey of his kingdom, the Domesday Book, show that around 75% of the population in the northern counties may have died or never returned. It would take centuries for the north to recover, with some scholars postulating that the effects were not truly undone until the Industrial Revolution of the nineteenth century. Writing around fifty years after William’s death, the monk and chronicler Orderic Vitalis, had this to say:
“The King stopped at nothing to hunt his enemies. He cut down many people and destroyed homes and land. Nowhere else had he shown such cruelty. This made a real change. To his shame, William made no effort to control his fury, punishing the innocent with the guilty. He ordered that crops and herds, tools and food be burned to ashes. More than 100,000 people perished of starvation.
I have often praised William in this book, but I can say nothing good about this brutal slaughter. God will punish him.”
When William the Conqueror died in September 1087, he specified that his eldest son, Robert Curthose, should succeed him as Duke of Normandy, but not as King of England. The Conqueror declared that his second surviving son, also named William (nicknamed Rufus, possibly due to a ruddy complexion), should be crowned as King William II of England. Suffice to say that this did not sit well with Robert, who thought that that England was rightfully his to rule. This caused a problem for those nobles who held lands in both Normandy and England as there was no clarity on who their leader truly was, and some decided to side with Robert. Soon after he was crowned in 1088, a group of barons began a rebellion against William II with the goal of putting Robert on the throne. To the north Malcolm III was biding his time and wisely decided not to intervene during the ensuing conflict.
One of the nobles who joined the rebellion was Geoffrey de Montbray, Bishop of Coutances. He had accompanied the Conqueror in 1066, fighting alongside him at Hastings. Geoffrey’s nephew, Robert de Mowbray (Mowbray was the anglicised version of Montbray), joined with his uncle. The family name derives from Montbrai in Manche, Normandy.
Whilst I am sure you found the above incredibly interesting, you may be wondering what all this has to do with the subject of this blog. Well, it is important to set the scene and introduce Robert de Mowbray, as he is the pivotal figure of our story.
Robert de Mowbray had been appointed as Earl of Northumbria in 1086 and was the constable of Bamburgh Castle. By all accounts, Robert was not a particularly likeable person. Orderic Vitalis tells us that he was “Powerful, rich, bold, fierce in war, haughty, he despised his equals and, swollen with vanity, disdained to obey his superiors. He was of great stature, strong, swarthy and hairy. Daring and crafty, stern and grim, he was given more to meditation than speech, and in conversation scarce ever smiled”. When the rebellion in 1088 ultimately failed, Robert was magnanimously pardoned by Rufus, who allowed him to retain his lands and title.
The Battle of Alnwick, 1093
At this time the border between the two Kingdoms was not fixed and the Scots’ regularly sought to exploit historical territorial claims in Northumbria and Cumbria. Following over a decade of peace, Malcolm III sensed weakness following the Harrying of North and the conflict between William Rufus and Robert Curthose. His ability to attack Cumbria was thwarted by the bolstering of English defences in the region and the construction of Carlisle Castle. This in itself probably enraged Malcolm due to its proximity to his lands. In response Malcolm invaded Northumbria, besieging Durham and Newcastle upon Tyne in 1091. Malcolm’s incursion was enough to draw William II back from Normandy where he had been fighting his brother, Robert. The English army chased the Scots back over the border and a short -lived truce was agreed. However, following a meeting between the two kings in Gloucester in 1092, talks broke down and Malcolm returned to Scotland to prepare for war.
In November 1093 Malcolm once more invaded Northumbria and proceeded to besiege Alnwick. As Earl of Northumbria it fell to Robert de Mowbray to organise the English response. He did not have enough troops to engage the Scottish in open battle, so he prepared an ambush with a small number of his knights. Malcolm had his army disbursed around Alnwick, which left him exposed. He had encamped around ¾ of a mile to the north of Alnwick and on 13th November (St. Brice’s Day) the small English force managed to bypass the main Scottish army and attacked Malcolm’s personal guard. The ensuing attack caught Malcolm completely by surprise and both he and his son were killed. Malcolm’s Cross, near Alnwick, is said to mark the spot where he fell. The present cross was erected in 1774 by Elizabeth Percy, Duchess of Northumberland. It sits next to the base of an older medieval cross which has long since disappeared. On its western face the new cross bears the inscription “MALCOLM III KING OF SCOTLAND BESIEGEING ALNWICK CASTLE WAS SLAIN HERE NOV. XIII AN MXCIII”. On its eastern face it carries “MALCOLM’S CROSS DECAYED BY TIME RESTORED BY HIS DESCENDANT ELIZ. DUCHESS OF NORTHUMBERLAND MDCCLXXIV”. It is an interesting point to note that the inscription on the cross suggests that Malcom besieged Alnwick Castle. All the sources I can find point to the castle being first built in 1096. If so, it is presumed that Malcolm may well have besieged the town and disrupted the early construction of it. Leaderless, the Scottish army disbanded and a succession crisis for the Scottish crown ensued.
Before the Battle of Alnwick in 1093 Robert’s uncle Geoffrey had died and he inherited his uncle’s estates making him one of the most powerful nobles in England. In 1095 Robert expanded his power further when he married Matilda, who was the niece of Hugh d’Avranches, the first Earl of Chester.
It perhaps reinforces Orderic Vitalis’ summation of Robert’s character that in 1095 he once again betrayed his King and joined a rebellion with the goal of usurping the throne in favour of a man named Stephen, Count of Aumale. Stephen was a cousin of William Rufus and Robert Curthose. The rebellion was lukewarm and most of the baronial support evaporated leaving Robert and his co-conspirator William of Eu exposed. Matters came to a head when Robert confiscated a number of Norwegian vessels which were lying at anchor in the River Tyne. Following complaints made to William Rufus by the Norwegian merchants, Robert was summoned by the King. He refused to attend, and Rufus mustered an army to march north and confront him. Mowbray retreated to his stronghold of Bamburgh Castle. Rufus laid siege to the castle. The fortress at Bamburgh had a reputation for its strength and taking it by force was no easy task. William invested heavily in the attack and even built a temporary siege castle alongside the fortress calling it “Malvoisin” (Bad Neighbour). At some point during the siege, Robert managed to escape and fled south leaving his wife Matilda to continue to resist. He was pursued to Tynemouth, where, after being wounded in the leg, he was captured by the King’s men. Robert was bought back to Bamburgh in chains. Matilda still continued to hold out, only ending the siege when Rufus threatened to blind her husband.
Following his capture, Robert had his lands and title forfeited and he was taken to Windsor Castle as a prisoner. He remained incarcerated for many years “growing old without offspring” according to the chronicler Florence of Worcester. He would eventually become a monk at St. Albans Abbey and died around 1125. Whilst this may seem like an ignoble end it could have been worse. When William of Eu was captured, he was castrated and blinded and other conspirators were put to death.
Robert’s wife, Matilda, was granted a divorce from Robert on the grounds of consanguinity (claiming they were too closely related). She went on to marry Nigel d’Aubigny. Nigel divorced her in 1118 and went on to marry Gundred de Gournay, having a son with her, Roger, who inherited Robert’s lands. Roger was told by the new King of England, Henry I to adopt the name Mowbray (even though he was no blood relation to Robert), founding the House of Mowbray. Famous as Dukes of Norfolk the Mowbray family would go on to play an important role in British history. Roger himself was a famous knight who died in the Holy Land during the Second Crusade at the Battle of Hattin.