Songs and History

Look I have to admit this here and now: I’m a bit of a geek. Seriously. There is a reason I’m admitting to this.

I was listening to Frank Turner’s album ‘England Keep My Bones’ the other day. The song ‘English Curse’. I like it, don’t get me wrong, but there were so many historical inaccuracies that I couldn’t resist taking it apart and pointing them out. It’s a disease I tell you!

So, because I can’t really write out the whole song I’ll pick out phrases and make my points.

‘From the shores of Normanday King William came

To Albion fair King Harold to slay

With greed in his heart and a scurrilous claim.’

(1) William the Bastard

William’s claim to the throne was unlikely, rather than scurrilous. He claimed, after his successful invation, that King Edward had promised him the throne when he died and that Harold had accepted in when he was a ‘guest’ in Normandy. Yet this makes no sense. When Edward was in Normandy he was a young man and it looked unlikely that he would inherit the throne. And even if he did, he would have his own heirs, of Alfred’s line. And then when he did inherit the throne and married there were already heirs, nephews and cousins, available whether he had his own sons or not. Neither in English law nor Norman law did William have a claim to the throne.

Scurrilous is an adjective which means:

making or spreading scandalous claims about someone with the intention of damaging their reputation: a scurrilous attack on his integrity

(Oxford English Dictionary)

So in a sense (that Harold had gone back on his oath) William was making a scurrilous claim, but that wasn’t his entire reason. Greed, and envy, however were. He never admitted to it, as far as anyone knows, but there is a hypothesis that William wanted to bee a king in order to make himself an equal to his nominal overlord in France, the king of France. This greed resulted in a false claim, illegal invasion and then centuries of warfare as the Kings of England and France tried to assert control over each other.

In the years after the invasion there were several rebellions. An early rebellion in the west country (in 1066/67) was incited/financed by King Harold Godwinson’s mother Gytha of Wessex. There was Hereward the Wake in the Fenland around Ely and the brutally repressed risings in the earldom of Northumbria. William didn’t feel comfortable enough in his new kingdom until the 1070’s. There is no doubt however that many evil deeds were done.

‘Now John was a blacksmith, an honest old man

He raised up his children and he worked with his hands

In his family’s forge and a patch of land’

(2) Anglo-Saxon men’s names

John is an unlikely name to find among the English in the pre-Norman era. Possibly among foreign priest or merchants but not among the English lower classes. Names such as John, William and Henry came to dominate in the decades after the Norman conquest, when new fashions and politcal expediency made it prudent to discontinue the older names.Within a couple of generations it was extrmely unlikely to find a man named Harold or Godwin. But if William was riding through his New Forest in the 1080’s and came across an old blacksmith, the blacksmith wouldn’t have introduced himself as John.

It is also unlikely that he would have owned his own land. While land tenure in Anglo-Saxon England was different to that of Norman England. most open land still belonged to the upper classes. If the smithy was in a town or village, as is most likely, then it is possible that the blacksmith would own the building it was situated in.

‘In the dark of the new forest……..

For hunting grounds in the Wessex trees

He took the land for his own.’

(3)The New Forest

The New Forest was established in 1079 as the king’s ‘new hunting forest’. It is a mixture of open pasture, pools and oak/beech woods, and includes towns and villages. A ‘forest’ did not denote a wooded area but an administrative area belonging to the king who had all the hunting rights within that area. It can hardly be described as ‘dark’.

GO visit the New Forest; they claim it hasn’t changed much in 900 years; they have there own breed of pony! You can see bats. And deer. there’s a really well presevered Roman villa.

‘Your first born son’s warm blood will run upon the english earth.

Now king williams son was Rufus the red………………

But John’s curse it called out and and lord Tirel fired low

His arrow struck Rufus with a sickening blow

And he fell from his horse to the ground below.’

(4) William II Rufus – his life and eath in brief

William II Rufus was William I’s third son. He was born in approximately 1056 in Normandy. William II was called Rufus because he supposedly had a red face and yellow hair. He became king in 1087 and died in 1100. He was buried at Winchester and was succeeded by his brother Henry.

Most of his reign was spent fighting his elder brother Robert Curthose for control of Normandy. His barons eventually rebelled because they couldn’t afford to keep paying for his war. During his reign he had to deal with further rebellions in Northumbria and along the Welsh Marches.

William was killed while out hunting at Brockenhurst in the New Forest on 2nd August 1100. He was with GIlbert de Clare, his younger brother Robert de Clare, Walter Tirel (their brother-in-law) and William’s younger brother William Beauclerc. During the hunt Tirel shot at a stag and hit the king in the chest. He died within minutes. When Walter Tirel realised he’d killed his king he jumped on a horse and escaped to France.

People expected Robert Curthose to become king, however Henry Beauclerc was on the spot, as it were, and he decided he wanted the throne. He rode to Winchester, where the kings gold was kept and claimed the throne. He was crowned on the 5th August 1100. His claim was supported by the Clare family, who were generously rewarded, and although Tirel never returned to England his son kept the family’s land.

Robert II Curthose threatened to invade but was paid off with an annuity of £2000.

It has been suggested that the barons, angry at the taxation William imposed, frustrated that their rebellions had been unsuccessful, and with the blessing of Henry I Beauclerc, organised William’s murder. It is a possibility, however it ignores the fact that hunting accidents were common. Tirel’s flight can equally be explained, killing a king, even accidentally, was severely punished.

It’s a good song, it can be chanted, a proper rabble rousing song. Here’s what jumped out at me when I listened to it.

Okay, I’ll stop now. I’m being pedantic, I know I am. I can’t help it.

Bye for now



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