The Revolt of the Earls

Quote from the contemporary Anglo-Saxon Chronicle

"A.D. 1075. This year King William gave Earl Ralph the daughter of William Fitz-Osborne to wife. This same Ralph was Breton on his mother's side; but his father, whose name was also Ralph, was English; and born in Norfolk. The king therefore gave his son the earldom of Norfolk and Suffolk; and he then led the bride to Norwich. There was that bride-ale. The source of man's bale. There was Earl Roger, and Earl Waltheof, and bishops, and abbots; who there resolved, that they would drive the king out of the realm of England. But it was soon told the king in Normandy how it was determined. It was Earl Roger and Earl Ralph who were the authors of that plot; and who enticed the Britons to them, and sent eastward to Denmark after a fleet to assist them. Roger went westward to his earldom, and collected his people there, to the king's annoyance, as he thought; but it was to the great disadvantage of himself. He was however prevented. Ralph also in his earldom would go forth with his people; but the castlemen that were in England and also the people of the land, came against him, and prevented him from doing anything. He escaped however to the ships at Norwich. And his wife was in the castle; which she held until peace was made with her; when she went out of England, with all her men who wished to join her. The king afterwards came to England, and seized Earl Roger, his relative, and put him in prison. And Earl Waltheof went over sea, and betrayed himself; but he asked forgiveness, and proffered gifts of ransom. The king, however, let him off lightly, until he came to England; when he had him seized.

Soon after that came east from Denmark two hundred ships; wherein were two captains, Cnute Swainson, and Earl Hacco; but they durst not maintain a fight with King William. They went rather to York, and broke into St. Peter's minster, and took therein much treasure, and so went away. They made for Flanders over sea; but they all perished who were privy to that design; that was, the son of Earl Hacco, and many others with him. This year died the Lady Edgitha, who was the relict of King Edward, seven nights before Christmas, at Winchester; and the king caused her to be brought to Westminster with great pomp; and he laid her with King Edward, her lord. And the king was then at Westminster, at midwinter; where all the Britons were condemned who were at the bride-ale at Norwich. Some were punished with blindness; some were driven from the land; and some were towed to Scandinavia. So were the traitors of King William subdued."

The ASC speaks of Earl Ralf's origins in some detail. It omits to say that the lands held by his Breton mother were much richer than those of his English father. Ralf grew up in Brittany and inherited his mother's estates and thus was known as Ralf Gael. He, like his co-plotter Roger of Hereford, fought for William the Bastard at Hastings.

Earl Roger of Hereford was English on his mother's side and born in Hereford. He was Ralf's brother-in-law. Other versions of the ASC say that, rather than King William giving Roger's sister to Ralf in marriage, he actually forbade it, assumably because it would have united two very powerful land holders whose holdings would enable them to literally cut England in two, should they wish to do so.

The plot, that was formulated at Ralf's bridal ale (wedding feast) involved not only the two earls. In addition to bringing in Danish support, they also appear to have tried to bring in both Edric the Wild and Earl Waltheof. Waltheof declined to be involved in the plot, but also declined to betray them. If successful, the simultaneous rising of the Earls would have cut England in two. Somehow the timing got out of alignment and William was able to crush Roger, before dealing to Ralf. The only memorable event was the defence of Norwich by Ralf's new bride, Emma, where she withstood siege for three months after her husband had left to seek aid from the Danes. The fleet of 200 ships arrived too late to lift the siege.

Of the Earls: Ralf made it to his Breton holdings to be joined by his wife, and there he continued his fight against the Normans. His punishment was loosing all right to his English lands. Earl Roger was also disinherited. Unfortunately for him he had been captured and spent the rest of his life in prison. Earl Waltheof, having refused to take part in the revolt, had none-the-less to swear an oath of secrecy. Taking the advice of Lanfranc, the Archbishop of Canterbury, he revealed the whole plan to King William. At first the king accepted Waltheof's protestations of innocence but, some say on the information given to him by his niece Judith, Waltheof's wife, he later charged the Earl of Northampton with treason and had him beheaded. The English and many Normans were aghast at the execution. Soon miracles were reported at Waltheof's tomb and it rapidly became a place of pilgrimage. Many contemporaries said that King William's luck changed from then onwards as a result of Divine judgment.

There is no hard evidence that Edric the Wild took part in the revolt. The Mortimer family appear in the Domesday book as owning much of Edric's land. There is no record of his land being confiscated, so they may have obtained it through marriage. One of the reasons for thinking that Edric would not have taken part, is that he had been in arms against Roger of Hereford in 1067. Mind, he had spent a lifetime fighting the Welsh, and yet was content to have them as allies against the Normans.

Return to Geoff Boxell's Page on the English Resistance to the Norman Conquest

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