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Conquest - 7: Eustace's Attack on Dover & Other Tales - English Rebellions Anger William

Updated on September 13, 2020

Despite the fracas in 1051, Eustace was asked by the men of Kent to help them take Dover's castle whilst Earl Odo and Hugh de Montfort were away

In the close quarters of Dover and its Norman castle cavalry were useless. The fight would have to be conducted on foot - and abandoned
In the close quarters of Dover and its Norman castle cavalry were useless. The fight would have to be conducted on foot - and abandoned

Eustace of Boulogne was keen to gain Dover...

The Norman chroniclers William of Jumieges, William of Poitiers and Orderic Vitalis each recorded a curious event that hppened shortly after William left for Normandy in March 1067. The kingdom was left to the devices of his half-brother Odo, now Earl of Kent, and William fitzOsbern the Earl of Hereford. William had granted Dover Castle to Odo with the proviso of guarding the south-east corner and putting down any rebellions by the Kentishmen. Hugh de Montfort was to give assistance to Odo where needed.

The old king Eadward's brother-in-law Count Eustace had fallen out with William on two separate accounts, both dating back to October 14th the year before. Firstly, he had refused William a spare mount after the duke's own mounts had been cut down from under him, and William had to borrow one from another of his nobles. Secondly, near the end of the battle Eustace, Hugh of Pointhieu and Walter Giffard had cornered the wounded King Harold and after tormenting him finally killed and mutilated him. Walter Giffard bragged of hacking off Harold's manhood and was sent home in disgrace.

A deputation of the men of Kent crossed to Boulogne to urge Eustace into an attack with them on Dover Castle. Eustace agreed only too willingly, the story went. This was an odd alliance in view of Eustace's actions at Dover in 1051 and in view of his part in the battle against the English in October 1066. However, the Kentishmen disliked the Normans more than they disliked him. William of Poitiers tells us,

"...they thought that if they were not able to serve any of their own countrymen, they would serve a neighbour whom they knew". [no matter how objectionable].

Why Eustace agreed to this undertaking has puzzled observers down the centuries, considering what he stood to lose in England. Their time was chosen well. Odo and Hugh were away from Dover with most of their knights and men-at-arms. They had been drawn away by a rising to the north of the Thames, leaving Dover poorly manned. The English of the whole area were armed and ready to take part in fighting. If Eustace's siege were to last for two days or more more Englishmen were willing to swell the numbers.

During the night Eustace crossed to Dover with a small fleet, accompanied by many knights. They took too few horses, however, probably expecting to take the castle with its depleted garrison off guard. Where or how the rebels launched their attack is unknown (the Norman chroniclers were not familiar with local geography), but Dover's Norman garrison was better prepared than expected. Some hours of hard fighting followed, setback on setback afflicted them and the attackers began to lose heart. Eustace lost patience with them and called off the attack.

Seizing on the attackers' plight the defenders threw open the gates and unleashed their own mounted attack. The call went out that Odo had come back at the head of a large force. It was untrue but in the mayhem that followed the feared earl's return was believed. The men at Eustace's rear scattered in panic and the garrison's Norman horsemen ran them down. With shouts of alarm and a great deal of bloodshed many were slain, others taken captive. More died when Eustace's followers fell down steep cliffs, to be dashed on the rocks below. Those able to reach the ships drowned in their hauberks (mailcoats) when the ships sank under their weight.

Better prepared than most, a fast horse readied for a possible flight from danger, Eustace fled the scene. A large number of the Kentishmen used local knowledge to flee overland. Eustace's nephew, a well-born young man - none of William's chroniclers could put a name to him - fell into the hands of Odo's knights. This unwarranted Anglo-Boullonaise attack on Dover Castle drew a veil across Eustace's ambition. At the Christmas court that followed William formally exiled him from England and took from him those lands in the kingdom that had been granted to him in reward for his part in the battle near Hastings. With the reputation Odo had for over-reaction, Eustace's nephew is likely to have been held captive indefinitely.

Elsewhere, Thegn Eadric 'the Wild' was first to take the fight to the Normans, taking and razing William fitzOsbern's wooden castle at Hereford with the help of Bleddyn ap Llewellyn and his younger brother Rhiwallon. There is a story that Godwin Haroldson and his brothers with men from the east helped Eadric sack the Norman garrison on their way to join their mother at Exeter.

Discontent grew at the imposition of a 'geld', moneys last demanded early in the reign of King, Eadward in order to pay off the fleet and for the new king's campaigns against old enemies within the kingdom. The first William knew of the growing resentment was when Exeter closed its gates to him.

William landed on the Feast of Saint Nicholas (December 6th), 1067 back in his new kingdom after almost a year away in Normandy, showing off his English hostages with their luxuriously long hair, beards and hairy upper lips. Christ Church Canterbury was burnt down, and this was taken as an ill omen, even though the event was not directly linked to any rebellion as such. William mustered his forces - including English fyrdmen - and marched on to Exeter in mid-winter. His men suffered badly, camped under canvas in the bitter cold, and Exeter's defences were of a sufficiently high standard for the defenders to be confident of withstanding a long siege.

In the end the siege lasted eighteen days, during which William led his men in assaults and sapping the defences. Yet the king's army was unable to force its way in and only gained entry thanks to a number of thegns suing for peace, fearful of losing their holdings when he did finally find his way in. In this way they escaped the great burh being sacked and gained generous terms from William. The curtailment of the siege meant William was able to strike out across the West Country, subduing Devon and Cornwall before returning to hold Easter Court at Winchester.

Harold's mother Gytha and his common-law wife Eadgytha 'Swan-neck', along with others of Harold's family aside from Queen Eadgytha had been in Exeter before William gained entry. They fled to Steepholm, a hilly island in the Bristol Channel off the coast of Devon. From there they were taken by ship to Flanders. To ensue the townsfolk's ongoing obedience William had a castle built within the walls, entrusting its upkeep to Baldwin de Menles (son of his murdered guardian Gilbert of Brionne). Despite giving assurances to the thegns to the contrary, a number of the townsfolk were also splayed on the outside of the walls, as a reminder to the other, less rebellious of their fellows.

In AD1068, when Matthilde was crowned queen at the West.Minster, Earl Eadmund and his younger brother Earl Morkere slipped away when all attention was off them. They made for Mercia, and then slipped further into the northern mists, out of sight of their Norman overlords.

During the summer Godwin Haroldsson, with his brothers Eadmund and Magnus landed near Avonmouth with a fleet of around three score ships and an army of Dublin Danes supplied by King Diarmuid of Leinster. They tried to take Bristol but were beaten off and turned westward along the coast to Somerset where Godwin had land from his father. He thought he might have support from the local fyrdmen, but they gave battle instead, led by Eadnoth 'the Staller'. although Eadnoth was slain Godwin, his brothers and men were driven off. We hear no more from them... for a while.

William meanwhile demanded the submission of the northern nobles and they tried to talk him out of his demands. He would not have any of this and made his way north. Advancing through the western and into the eastern Midlands William built temporary castles such as at Warwick, where Henry de Beaumont was entrusted with its care. This was a move to keep Earl Eadwin in check. Next, across the lower 'spine' of England came Nottingham, where William Peverell was appointed castellan. It was at Nottingham where King William was given the keys of York in submission, as well as hostages. Again, at York now, William had a castle raised near where the River Fosse entered the Ouse, and Robert fitzRichard was appointed its castellan, with William Malet as Sheriff of Yorkshire. On his return the king invested Lincoln with a castle and Turold as its castellan. There were two more castles thrown up at Huntingdon and Grantchester (Cambridge).

Some stipendiary knights (mercenaries) in his service were dismissed at this point, and some Normans who were relieved to be on their way home at last. William plainly thought he had secured the North. Gospatric, Earl Waltheof's kinsman had left for Scotland when the king stopped at York, too close for comfort (he had found he did not have the gall to demand the tithes and taxes the new king demanded for crown and church. At this stage he was replaced by the arrogant Fleming Robert de Commines, whose company of five hundred knights had made themselves as unwelcome as he had. They set about despoiling their surroundings, exploiting their standing as the king's law enforcers. Bishop Aethelwin tried to warn the haughty Robert about an impending disaster but was waved away.

Only a few weeks later the rebels struck at de Commines, who tried to hold out in the bishop's house but was burnt out and killed in the same manner as Copsig had met his fate at Newburn on the Tyne, less than two years earlier. The rebellion spread to York, where the castellan was killed offering battle. William Malet was left to hold the fortifications, sending out a rider to the king (in Nottingham at the time) for help. The urgency was pressed home when it was known the rebels chose Eadgar 'the aetheling' for their new king.with support from King Maelcolm III 'Canmore', the Scots' king and now Eadgar's brother-in-law. William's kingship was under threat - again. His reaction was swift, his progress to York took the rebels off-guard. When he attacked and dispersed the rebels, some escaped with Eadgar back to Scotland. King William had the castle by the Foss rebuilt and added another, to be commanded by Gilbert de Ghent - another Fleming - on the opposite bank of the Ouse (the ruin of the stone replacement stands on a low rampart at the eastern end of Skeldergate). The Fleming was unable to retake Durham, a story told by the folk of Bernicia - the land north of the Tees - telling that Saint Cuthbert drew a thick fog over the area, confounding the outsiders.

The king held his Easter court at Winchester again, sending his queen back to the safey of Normandy with their seventeen-year-old son Robert, nicknamed 'Curthhose'.

In mid-summer AD1068 Godwin Haroldson showed with sixty-four ships, landing in the mouth of the River Tavy in South Devon, seeking to seize the strategically positioned Tavistock Abbey. The Breton Count Breon/Brian had been given Eadnoth's lands and the Devon fyrd took Godwin's men unawares, killing so many that only a few got away. Magnus was so badly injured he seemed at death's door and was reportedly taken to his grandfather Godwin's lands on the South Saxon coast to die. Another story has it that he 'took the cloth' and died an old man in monastic seclusion.

The rebellion in the north received fresh impetus in late summer 1069 with the arrival of the Danes under the command of King Svein's brother Jarl Osbeorn. Earl Waltheof, Gospatric, Siward 'Bearn' and the leaders of York called Eadgar back. The castle garrisons, unnerved by the arrival of so many enemies set fire to the buildings in the immediate area of the castle on the east bank of the Ouse [this was where the York Archaeological Trust excavated the Coppergate site]. The larger part of York including much of Saint Peter's cathedral went up in flames with it. The Norman defenders were now marked men. When that castle was stormed two days later on September 21st the garrison was slaughtered but for the castellan and his family. They were kept alive to be ransomed.

There had also been rebellions in the south and west. Montacute Castle was besieged until relieved by Geoffrey de Coutances, who controlled Bristol. Exeter was also attacked, but was stiffly defended by its now loyal citizens. Caught between the defenders manning the walls and a relief force led by William fitzOsbern the besiegers scattered.


*Some of the action in this Hub-page is reflected in the 'RAVENFEAST' series. Eadric 'Cild' appears in 'OUTCAST - Storm in the Kingdom' and Harold's sons appear in 'OVERTHROWN - The Dream Fades' to 'BETRAYED - The Net Tightens', 'OUTCAST - Storm in the Kingdom' and 'BETRAYED - The Net Tightens'. See the 'RAVENFEAST' Hub-page

The Normans were here to stay, although not all that went before was discarded. Only the size of earldoms changed

Dispositions of the English earls up to 1066 - after Harold and brothers Gyrth and Leofwin were slain on Caldbec Hill near Hastings there were only Eadwin, Morkere and Waltheof. Oswulf/Osulf and his kinsman Gospatric ruled north of the Tees
Dispositions of the English earls up to 1066 - after Harold and brothers Gyrth and Leofwin were slain on Caldbec Hill near Hastings there were only Eadwin, Morkere and Waltheof. Oswulf/Osulf and his kinsman Gospatric ruled north of the Tees
See description below
See description below | Source

The Normans in England, a time of enforced change. True William ended slavery, but introduced something even worse for the lower orders, of villeins who were tied to the land and could be severely punished if caught trying to leave it for town (where they would remain free if they stayed undiscovered for a year). Many of the Anglo-Saxons or Anglo-Danes were removed from their lands even after taking the oath to William, few kept their station. Even being an abbot didn't guarantee a future.with the Church, as the king brought his priest Lanfranc to replace Stigand and reform the establishment in 1070..

This would be how England was sub-divided in future, counties replacing the broken-up larger earldoms. York retained a larger area than most.

England after 1066 - years later, once all opposition within William's kingdom was crushed before he started on Wales and Scotland. It would not be before his grandson Henry II became king that Ireland would enter the Norman/Angevin rulers' s sights
England after 1066 - years later, once all opposition within William's kingdom was crushed before he started on Wales and Scotland. It would not be before his grandson Henry II became king that Ireland would enter the Norman/Angevin rulers' s sights

Next - 6: The Danes Are Coming!

© 2012 Alan R Lancaster


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