No one could refuse the Earl of Hereford anything, that is what Earl Swein thought. The son of the powerful Earl Godwin, King Edward needed him to keep an eye on the troublesome Welsh.
So, when his eye fell on the beautiful young abbess of Leominster, he did not hesitate, nothing came from hesitation. Swein and his bodyguard swooped on the abbey, carried off Abbess Eadgiva and soon persuaded her that she would be better off in his warm bed than in the cold abbey. To him it seemed the perfect plan, because now he could pay his men with the lands belonging to the abbey.
But he had miscalculated. He had forgotten that King Edward loathed the Godwinnson clan and would seize any opportunity to weaken them. Now Swein had given him the opportunity. A messenger came with a decree that Swein could no longer call himself Earl, the abbess must be returned to her abbey and Swein leave England before the next full moon, otherwise he would be declared a wolf’s head and any man could kill him with impunity and receive a reward if they delivered his head to Westminster.
This had the backing of Edward’s guard, more numerous and better armed than anything Swein could muster. He had no choice but to comply and leave England for ever, an exile made more bitter by imagining the laughter coming from the hated court.
No man is indispensable and Edward already had a replacement before Swein had reached the coast; his nephew Ralph, son of the Count of the Vexin, a border region in the south of Normandy and therefore one used to dealing firmly with border raids. Edward did not trust those Saxons. He could well believe that they welcomed the Welsh raids because then they had an excuse to return the favour and plunder the Welsh. Ralph and his Norman companions would be harder.
Ralph could hardly believe his luck, so quickly had he obtained what men came to these islands for – land, and with the land wealth and with the wealth power. From just another hanger on at court, now he was a man that other men were prepared to follow because he was lucky and would make them rich.
But Herefordshire was a very different place to the borderlands he was used to. The peasants were surly, but that did not bother him, he could ignore that, but so were the local nobles, who laughed in his face when he told them he was going to build castles to protect the land in the Norman fashion and that he wanted them to fight on horseback, the way a proper knight fights. They had been trained in the shield wall, where brother fights beside brother, they knew that way, and saw no value in trying to learn something new.
All too soon the test came, before Ralph was ready for it. Gruffydd, Gruffydd ap Llewellyn, lord of north and south Wales whose eyes turned to the rich farmland of Herefordshire, land, his poets told him, that had once been Welsh land.
October is the blood month, when the harvest is in and men, freed from their labour, think of the riches in other men’s barns. In October they came, not just the Welsh, but also men from Dublin, Vikings, intent on plunder and also some English, men of Mercia, who hated the Normans who behaved like lords in the land and who now came to kill them and anyone who stood with them.
Ralph assembled his army, insisting the local nobles came with their horses. He made them exchange their round shields for the Norman kite shape, better for a man fighting on a horse. They were an impressive sight and Ralph felt a grim confidence. How could they be beaten?
Ralph had wanted to meet the Welsh at his new castle at Burghill, but it was already too late for that, it had taken too long to assemble the Hereford men and now the Welsh were approaching Hereford, so they rode out and faced them, barely a mile outside the city. It was flat land and so, Ralph reasoned, would give his horsemen the advantage.
At the head of his forces Ralph looked at the disordered rabble that was the Welsh alliance and knew he could beat them; this would be easier than the Vexin. The air steamed around them with their stench, their rough shouts offended his ears and he looked forward to killing them.
But then he became aware of shouting behind him. The Hereford men’s horses were not trained for war. They were used to being ridden to the fight and then led back to a place of safety. Now they found themselves with the smell of fear all around them, shouts and crash of metal. Some stood rooted to the spot, trembling and not moving even when their rider beat them, others turned and galloped fast away, running until their rider fell off. Others, disorientated, galloped in the direction of the Welsh, their riders forced to jump off before they found themselves confronting a battle crazed Dane on their own.
Gruffydd had made himself king of north and south Wales through the art of war and he knew that disorder among the enemy was better than numbers, better than high ground. He ordered his men forward and the sight of the horde bearing down on them destroyed what little order that was left in Ralph’s army.
Ralph was not a coward but he knew there was no advantage in dying in an already lost battle, an insignificant skirmish that would soon be forgotten. He turned his horse around and, ordering his men with him, headed for the only safety left to him, the castle of Hereford. For this reason he would forever be known in history as Ralph the Timid.
Now the slaughter began. This was the time in a battle when the real killing was done, when one side was broken and running. The Welsh killed with impunity and that made them fearless. Those English who could still control their horses must flee in which ever direction they could, otherwise they were quickly surrounded and killed and their horse taken by a Welshman or a Dane to ride down another fleeing man.
But there was little plunder here. Where the Welsh were heading was the town of Hereford, that was where the riches lay. The townspeople had watched their army leave with confidence, such men could not be beaten, but now, as the remnants rode back with fear in their eyes, the few words they would utter being those of defeat and approaching death, the contagion passed to them, women began gathering their children around them and men looked around for which of their possessions they could carry.
Some of the militia did their duty. They armed themselves and ran to the town defences. But here, on the west side, where the Welsh were approaching, they were in a poor state. The last few years had been good to Hereford, a time of peace and prosperity. Men had said, why bother with the walls? They only interfere with trade and cost money to repair. They will not be needed again. So the ditch was filled with rubbish and the timber walls rotten. They did not delay men intent on wealth long and those who came to defend it died quickly. Some people ran to the castle, but the great oak doors were bolted shut and no pleading would make it open. Inside Ralph lay on his bed, deaf to the shouts and screams outside, only wondering how he could explain this to King Edward. How could he blame the English? The only other building that was safe was the wooden cathedral. Surely here they would be protected? There was smoke in the air now, smoke from their burning homes. Men, women and children ran into it. But that was also where the treasures of Hereford were stored. It was where the Welsh were heading.
Tremerig was a Welsh bishop, more used to a wandering life than having care of a diocese. But his friend Athelstan, bishop of Hereford, had been ill and had asked Tremerig to look after his duties. It had seemed an easy thing to do at the time but now he found himself in the crowded cathedral, acrid smoke in his nostrils, the normal quiet place filled with crying and shouting. He saw that the canons of the cathedral were gathering at the shrine to St Ethelbert. He forced his way towards them.
“We must end this. Fetch our best vestments. We will go out and tell them to stop.”
He spoke with authority and in these times men needed authority, someone to tell them what was to be done. So Tremerig, wearing Athelstan’s best robes, which he had never been comfortable in but now wore as if they were his everyday clothes, walked out of the west door of the cathedral, from the darkness of the building into the light of the afternoon. Behind him the great, golden processional cross glinted in the sunlight and the canons, dressed as they would for a solemn mass, walked silently with faces stiff, hiding their fear. The panic-stricken people stood still and went silent. Some even knelt in prayer; others got out of the way and made a path for them.
The first marauders were coming through the entrance to the graveyard, but, seeing the solemn procession coming towards them, they stopped, awed. All of them were Christian and, seeing this holy group, they felt the power of the church and none were prepared to risk challenging it. Gruffydd, as befits a leader, was not far behind. He pushed through the first rank but then he too stopped. Tremerig came straight towards him. The king and the bishop stood face to face, behind one blood drenched warriors, breathing hard after their exertions, behind the other a quiet group of resplendently dressed priests, hardly daring to breathe and, all around the terrified townspeople.
“Get out of my way bishop. My men will kill you if you stay there.”
Tremerig held up his hand. He took a deep breath and shouted so that all could hear him. “Stop this killing. Go back to your own land that God has given you. You commit a terrible sin, killing the poor and the weak that Our Lord sought to protect.”
Gruffydd grasped his sword tighter. Gladly he would have killed this man but feared the consequences. But his men wanted paying and the means to do that handsomely were in that church. Their chief’s indecision made the Welsh nervous. They had been baptised as children and, seeing the cross held before them, many felt the desire to kneel down and pray before it.
But the men of Dublin, they had been baptised only a few short years ago and that because their chief thought it was a good political move at the time. They were not so intimidated by the silent group in front of them. They looked and they saw only men.
One of the Vikings gazed intently at the canon nearest him, standing still like a statue. He saw a cross hanging from the man’s chest, the amethysts glinting in the gold and he thought of all the ladies of Dublin he could impress with those jewels. Without thinking his hand went out to the cross and he lifted it up to get a better look. Angrily the canon knocked the man’s arm away. Instinctively the sword came up and cut into the priest’s belly.
The canons were not battle trained. Seeing one of their number slaughtered they could do nothing but turn and flee. Seeing them running cleared a fog in the minds of the Welsh. They too started to run forward.
Gruffydd held onto Tremerig’s robe, although the bishop fought desperately to be free. “I’m saving your life old man.”
Tremerig pulled himself from the king’s grip. “You will regret your actions here today.” He gave the king such a look of reproach that it took away all Gruffydd’s joy in victory.
A few of the canons, recollecting themselves, tried to bar the great west door of the cathedral, but were cut down quickly. Others ran to the High Altar to make a last prayer, where they too were soon hacked down. Now a second slaughter began, this time of the refugees that had hoped to find a place of safety here. The raiders were desperate to find the gold and silver communion vessels, the books inlaid with jewels and ivory. The people were just getting in the way. In their search they destroyed the shrine of St Ethelbert, scattering his bones, although some say a young priest managed to escape with the saint’s head.
Soon fire broke out and the great wooden building that Athelstan had only recently built to the glory of God was burnt to ashes. Tremerig sat alone, contemplating his failure. Before Christmas he was dead, as was bishop Athelstan, who, when the news of the destruction of his cathedral was brought to him, never spoke again.
Fearful that, when news reached Edward, he would send an avenging force, Gruffydd ordered his men to return back over the border. And an avenging force did come, headed by Earl Harold Godwinnson, Swein’s brother, who pursued Gruffydd to his own hall of Rhuddlan, burning that to the ground.
Gruffydd fled, Tremerig’s look always in his mind, to where he thought he would be safe, Dublin. But the Vikings had heard of Harold, they admired him. They sent Harold a peace offering, Gruffydd’s head. Harold took it to Westminster, threw it in front of Edward and gave the Normans standing behind him a smile of disdain. A smile they would remember a few years later, when they came to another battle, at Hastings.