The Anglo Saxons called the month of May ‘tri-milchi’ - because it was the time of year that they could begin to milk their cows three times a day. Their May Day festivities celebrated Spring-time fertility and growth. Bonfires were lit, people danced and sang, and effigies of the Virgin Mary were crowned with flowers and paraded in the streets. The downside to this tradition, of course, was that it also marked the beginning of the raiding season.
Around this time, right now, 950 years ago, after the ‘long-haired star’ shone bright over England for a week, the prophecies bore fruit. The first blow of what became known as the ‘Norman Conquest of England’ was struck. From his base across the channel in Flanders, the recently exiled Earl of Northumbria raided the Isle of Wight. The battle for the Crown of England that led to the cataclysmic defeat of King Harold at Hastings had begun and Earl Tostig, Harold’s estranged brother, was out for revenge.
Three years previously Tostig and Harold had combined their efforts as Earls of Northumbria and Wessex respectively to defeat the Welsh King, Gruffyd ap Llewellyn - bringing Wales under the control of King Edward the Confessor. So what had happened to brotherly love?
The chroniclers point to Tostig’s harsh rule and heavy taxation in the north, which in October 1065 led to 200 armed men from Yorkshire descending on York, killing guards and looting Tostig’s treasury. The following day, just south of York, they attacked and killed 200 of Tostig’s men and sparked an uprising involving ‘all the thegns of Yorkshire’. The thegns declared Tostig an outlaw and elected Morcar as Earl of Northumbria, brother of Earl Edwin of Mercia – the grandsons of the great Earl Leofric who had died in 1057.
Leofric had featured in a primary role in Charles Kingsley’s novel Hereward the Wake (1866) – widely regarded as the benchmark of Hereward literature. Kingsley, holding the post of Regius Professor of Modern History at Cambridge University at the time, postulated that Hereward was the son of Leofric and the legendary Lady Godiva – she who rode naked on horseback through the streets of Coventry. While this literary union has been roundly discredited it should be noted that, however unlikely, it cannot be wholly ruled out – as a close association between Hereward and the House of Mercia is clearly evident in the sources. It was Edwin and Morcar after all, who joined Hereward’s rebellion at Ely in 1071. Following on from Tostig’s deposition, as autumn closed into winter in 1065, their actions put the country on the brink of civil war.
Morcar led an army south into Northamptonshire where he was joined by Edwin whose army also held a strong Welsh contingent. There they were met by Harold and the king’s army. They demanded that Morcar be recognised as earl by the king and while Harold went to King Edward with their message they laid waste huge tracts of Northamptonshire. They burned houses, killed many, and took hundreds captive before marching them north with thousands of cattle. Tostig supporters were executed without trial. Edward’s hesitation in granting the earldom to Morcar saw them then advance to Oxford. Aware that a civil war was about to break out and with Harold as diplomatic envoy, Edward relented and Tostig, blaming his brother Harold for instigating the rebellion, was exiled by the ailing king in late 1065.
On arrival at the court of Baldwin V, Duke of Flanders, Tostig was made Castellan at St. Omer. It was during this time period that the Gesta Herwardi informs us that Hereward, plying his trade as a mercenary soldier after being exiled at the behest of his own father, met his future wife Torfrida, who came from the same town. Historian Elizabeth van Houts considers that Hereward may have been employed by Tostig at some point, although if he did join in his raiding party on the Isle of Wight the sources mention nothing of it.
After harrying the south coast looking for support Tostig attacked Sandwich. Harold had come in to Winchester in mid-April and this action put his army on full-alert. According to the Anglo Saxon Chronicle, Harold ‘gathered so great a ship-force and land-force as no king ever had before’.
Eventually, after buffering East Anglia, Tostig made his way into the mouth of the Humber and landed in Lincolnshire. There he was met by Edwin and Morcar and soundly thumped. With a depleted force he fled to King Malcolm in Scotland before teaming up with Harald Hardrada the King of Norway.
Curiously in this episode of English history Earl Alfgar, father of Edwin and Morcar (and brother of Hereward according to Kingsley) disappears from the face of recorded history. No source explains why, but it is clear that he died because by 1064 Edwin appears as the Earl of Mercia. It tantalisingly suggests that Tostig may have been complicit in Alfgar’s death.
In 1063 when he headed a land-force into Wales against Gruffyd ap Llewellyn he had to ride through Mercian territory to get there. Alfgar and Gruffyd, on the other hand, had close connections. In 1058 after Alfgar had been outlawed for a second time it was Gruffyd who provided military support for him to come back into the country. On the evidence we have it seems extremely unlikely that Alfgar would step-aside and allow Tostig to attack Wales, had he still been alive. If we are to look as to why both Edwin and Morcar as well as his own brother, the future king, would turn against Tostig, then involvement in Alfgar’s death should be high on the list of probability.
Given the close relationship between Morcar and Hereward at Ely in 1071 it then seems unlikely that Hereward would have joined Tostig’s band of raiders in the prelude to the Battle of Hastings. Hereward, however, was a mercenary soldier and to a mercenary, cash is king.
Tostig’s role in the events that unfolded in 1066 cannot be understated. His actions meant that Harold had to call out his standing army, which stretched the resources of the country to its limit long before he returned with Hardrada in the September. Much favoured by King Edward his fate was to be determined at Stamford Bridge by his brother Harold, but not before he had got his revenge over Edwin and Morcar at the Battle of Fulford some days earlier.
(Artwork of Tostig Godwinson courtesy of Paula Lofting - Web: PaulaLofting.com).