Saturday, November 22, 2008

Battles, Baileys and Blackpool: Part One

October the fourteenth 1066 is probably the most memorable date in British history, if only because the teachers at school used to beat it remorselessly into our heads using wooden rulers. (They wouldn’t be allowed to get away with that nowadays, of course, which might explain why most of the kids I run across are thick and ignorant.) 1066 (getting back to the article) was the occasion when the Saxon king, Harold, was defeated at Hastings by William of Normandy. Ever since, the descendants of the Norman victors, along with their allies (nowadays collectively known as ‘those thieving, inbred aristocrats’…or, alternatively, if you’re a flag-waving royalist, ‘Sir’ and/or ‘Ma’am’) have retained most of the power, land and financial wealth of this country.
Here’s what happened.

According to William the Conqueror’s own version of events, Edward the Confessor (the king of England prior to Harold, who’d died in January of 1066) had actually offered him the crown. Edward himself had spent a great deal of time exiled in Normandy, so it’s difficult to say what deals had been struck between them.

Harold, apparently, had even willingly signed a document allowing the throne to pass into William’s hands upon Edward’s death.


Anyhow, that was William’s story. What most scholars believe actually took place was that Harold had found himself shipwrecked in Normandy during a visit to France in 1065. William of Normandy, living up to his previous title of William the Bastard, took both Harold’s brother and nephew hostage, forcing Harold to sign over his future claim to the English throne before setting them free.

All matters considered, that seems the more likely story.

Not everybody, however, agrees with this latter version of events, especially those in Normandy. The statue in our illustration below, which can be found in Falaise, depicts William in a somewhat more heroic stance than you might expect.

To complicate matters, closer to home Harold was having problems with one of our own local lads.

Earl Tostig, Harold’s other brother, ruled over Amounderness from his castle at Halton, just up river from Lancaster. Tostig wasn’t very popular with the increasingly over-taxed locals. In 1064 two important Saxon thanes, Gamel and Ulf, went to him to complain about this (as they would) but, suitably unimpressed, Tostig immediately had them executed.

Not a good move.

Later that same year he followed up this minor faux pas with another by arranging the murder of a local nobleman named Gospatric.

Understandably this didn’t go down too well. In fact, in October 1065 two hundred thoroughly disgruntled thanes met at York and elected Morcar, brother of Earl Edwin of Mercia, as their own particular favoured despot. Tostig’s treasury was duly looted, two hundred of his followers were slain, and (feeling somewhat aggrandised by this victory) Morcar aimed his armies south with grander designs on the English throne.

Harold, still an earl at the time, sensed civil war in the air and went to intercept. Diplomatically (under the circumstances) he bought Morcar off by exiling Tostig, and handing over the control of Tostig’s lands to him.

Within the year, however, Tostig was back, and this time it was personal! By now he’d joined forces with the Norwegian king, Harold Hardrada, who himself had laid a claim to the English throne. (Seems that everybody and his wife reckoned they were in with a chance.) Together they sailed up the Humber, landed at York and successfully defeated Morcar.

By now Harold had decided that enough was enough. He marched his own armies north, fought a victorious campaign at Stamford Bridge against his brother, killing both him and Harold Hardrada, and then turned back for home thoroughly exhausted, just as William of Normandy landed in Britain.

Had Harold’s troops not just trudged the length of the country and back, and fought a deadly, hand-to-hand battle against Earl Tostig, British history might have been very different. Exhausted and weary, Harold famously (although inaccurately) bought it from an arrow in the eye and William of Normandy, whether rightly or wrongly, became the legal King of Britain.

Not that his new Saxon underlings particularly agreed. Riots and battles ensued, so in order to impress his newfound authority on the defeated Saxons, William erected numerous motte-and-baileys throughout Britain.

Motte-and-baileys were watchtowers or strongholds constructed on the summits of manmade hills and guarded by soldiers decked out in the attire shown in our illustration above.

The motte itself was simply the mound around which a defensive ditch had been dug. Most weren’t particular large structures, measuring, as a rule, less than five meters in height. Not all of them were artificially constructed, the Normans sometimes making use of existing tumuli, such as appears to have been the case in Blackpool. (Bet you were wondering when we’d finally get round to a spot of local history, weren’t you? We’ll come back to that one in a minute or so.)

On the summits of the mottes stood the ‘castles’, some of which were stone constructions such as the one illustrated below that can be found at Wiston in Wales. (The Wiston motte and bailey is often regarded as one of the best preserved of its type in the country.)

Other mottes housed fortified wooden buildings. The materials used depended largely on what was available at the time and on how much the defences were required. Whether Blackpool’s motte-and-bailey was made of stone or wood nobody seems to know, because, as far as we can tell, it’s never been excavated. Stone, however, seems the most likely building material, eyewitness testimonies suggesting that the structure was later incorporated into a manor house.

At the base of the mottes stood the baileys, or enclosed courtyards. These were generally round and made of wood, although rectangular enclosures (along with rectangular mottes) have also been discovered in Scotland.

All of which brings us, by a circuitous route, back to Blackpool.

Or rather it doesn’t, because I’ve wasted too much time on all this historical background and we’ve run out of space.


John said...

People complain today about television rotting everyone's brains, but maybe if there was telly around the early 1000's, people would have stayed home more instead of running around fighting so much. All that marching around and killing people is upsetting to the locals whose farms get trod on, their chickens get et, and sheep, well... you know.

Nice illustrations, and a nice historical overview, so thanks!

I do want to hear more about and see illustrations of,the tumuli you mention. I assume it's a neolithic burial mound later made Motte and Bailey? And does Motte share the same meaning as Moat, perhaps?

Looking forward to part II!

JOHN the Cartoonist :0)

PS I really was hoping you were talking about Bailey's, the bottled bit of goodness from Ireland, but history is fun too. :0)

Brian Hughes said...


All will be revealed in Part Two. (Now there's an unpleasant mental image.)

Anonymous said...

only because the teachers at school used to beat it remorselessly into our heads using wooden rulers. (They wouldn’t be allowed to get away with that nowadays, of course, which might explain why most of the kids I run across are thick and ignorant.)

Whooah! Hold the horses there Brian. There's all this new science and maths stuff that has to be allocated space in our memory too.

Having said that, I'm not I can't account for my thick-headedness or lack thereof.

Brian Hughes said...


I'm not sure that advanced mathematics and quantum physics should take the place of basic communication skills. Unfortunately, it seems, most kids' heads are filled with Big Brother and Amy Winehouse and stuff nowadays. (Not all of 'em, of course.) Having said that, our own heads were probably filled with rubbish equally inane when I was a kid, and it's doubtful whether a ruler round the back of the skull would improve matters any. It's just that I'd like to see some of the little loud mouthed sods round here treated to a good whack from time to time.

Jayne said...

I say we bring back Mottes, baileys and the iron maiden for all town louts.

Thought you'd enjoy this finding which anyone with commonsense could have predicted anyway!

Anonymous said...

You might get a whack back, if these incommunicable kids are, as you say they are, unable to communicate. Alternatively, they might further misread what you said and...erm...well...{insert graphic depiction of nasty thing here}.

Andrew said...

It is not going to be as simple as, the Blackpool Tower was built on the site of the motte and bailey is it?
Word verification, barsup!

Brian Hughes said...

Reuben and Jayne,

On reflection I don't reckon bringing back the cane/ruler would be a good idea. A surprise cricket bat delivered dextrously down a dark alley's a better idea.


Not quite...although that wouldn't surprise me considering how much the planning departments round here like to build on our heritage.

Jayne said...

I always said the game of Cricket taught much more than just the ability to rub grass stains on trousers :P

Brian Hughes said...


It's also an excellent cure for insomnia.

Jayne said...

Not when you've got this scrumptious bit of crumpet to ogle ;)

Brian Hughes said...

So that's what Al Jolson looks like without his shirt on.

Anonymous said...

Swift Justice, as one particular alien race on a earth hospital on the moon once said during Dr. Who.

Brian Hughes said...


"There is no justice, just us," as Death once commented in some Terry Pratchett book or other.

Colin said...

Bring back the stocks I say, humiliate the buggers!!

Brian Hughes said...


It'd also be a good way of getting rid of that bag of old spuds I've got in my kitchen.

Jayne said...

Tossing a few rotten tomatoes at the little buggers will learn 'em :P

Brian Hughes said...

Tomatoes are too expensive...especially when there are pebbles on the beach for nowt.