It’s the fourth day of my tour of Southern England. As my entourage leaves the Manor of Tring and heads down the Icknield Way, I think to myself that I really am a fortunate young man. Who would have thought that someone who was born a bastard to a washing maid could become a bishop and the court favourite of William Duke of Normandy? But then William is a bastard too, indeed that’s what some of his so called friends name him behind his back.
You may wonder why William chose me to be Bishop of Bayeux two years ago when I was only seventeen years old. The answer is that William’s mother is that same washing maid, our mother Herleva, so we are half- brothers. And William is someone who – with good reason – trusts few members of his court but seems to trust me. And at the moment he is right to do so; he has given me so much power at such a young age that I would be a fool to betray him, at least for the time being.
William has been the Duke of Normandy for the last sixteen years, after his father Robert died after returning from a pilgrimage. William was then only eight years old. Since then there have been many attempts by the feudal barons to take control but somehow, with the support of his late father’s trusted advisers, he survived and established his power over the region. Now that most of those advisers have passed on, his dominating personality and his determination to crack down on lawlessness have ensured that there is no longer anyone to challenge him.
It is quite ridiculous for me to be a bishop at only nineteen years of age. I didn’t realise this when I was appointed two years ago but the role of bishop is not so much about religion as about power. The Bishop of Bayeux is known to be the Duke’s right hand man and I enjoy getting things done, issuing orders, hearing supplicants, making judgments on my brother’s behalf. Of course I do have to attend the church services and I read out the Latin text that my staff give me, trying to look as holy and sincere as possible.
It has been good to get out of Normandy and travel to another country for the first time. I pleaded with William to let me come with him and he finally gave in. He told me that his purpose in coming to England is to meet with his cousin King Edward. Robert is hoping that Edward is going to make him the successor to the English throne because there is no direct heir. I have told him it’s too good to be true; he should not believe a word that comes from an Englishman’s mouth. But there is obviously a close personal link between the two cousins and this may be clouding his judgment.
While William has been having his meetings, I’ve been touring the area, looking for the most fertile ground and the villages that seem to have plenty of riches. William suggested this because, once he has taken over as king, he will divide the territory up between his favourite people at court, with his half-brother at the front of the queue of course.
I have been reasonably impressed with what I have seen as I have toured the South of England; nothing like Normandy of course but better than expected. Lots of isolated farms, hamlets and tiny villages scattered over the cultivable land. There are relatively few castles compared to Normandy and most of the buildings are timber with walls of wattle and daub, and thatched roofs. This is a big contrast to the Norman stone that we use these days.
In some areas there is a lack of information and control over the population, compared to what we have in Normandy. Not all the county administrators have reliable records of who lives where and how much they have paid in taxes. I plan to tell William that one of the first things he must do if he becomes King, is set up a system of recording each house and the assets of each person living there, so that we know where to go to get their taxes.
I look at the rough map and ownership information given to me by one of the King’s courtiers when we met them last week and identify the next village on my route. The map tells me that, near the intersection of Icknield Way and Akeman Street, is Puttenham, also in the County of Hertfordshire. I see from my information that this village it is owned by Leofwin, son of Edwin of Carrington.
As I arrive and look around at this village, I like what I see. It seems more tidy and well-kept than most I have seen so far. I look on the list of valuations on the ownership information and see that it values at 4 pounds. There are apparently 10 families with two slaves, four hides, two mills and arable land for four plough teams. It is described as a fertile enclave, watered by a network of streams.
The Church and the Manor House are in the centre and numerous small one-room timber cottages are scattered around this centre. The Manor House looks to be small by the standards we are used to in Normandy, only two rooms by the look of it. But the overall appearance of the village is pleasant compared to many I have seen on my travels.
I say to myself;
‘Tough luck Leofwin; when William is King and I am his Bishop – no even better Archbishop – this and the rest of Hertfordshire will all be mine’.
Just as I am about to enter the village, I see a horse galloping towards me with a rider holding out a message. It is from William. It reads:
‘Come to Dover urgently my brother. Edward has indeed agreed to make me King of this godforsaken country when he dies. What an opportunity for us to dominate Europe. I want to get back to Normandy before he changes his mind’.
As I make my way back to Dover, I decide that I must persuade William not to be so trusting. I have a feeling that, if we want to control England, we will have to take it by force.
This style of presentation is intended to bring the history of the period to life by combining known historical facts with assumptions and imagination about the thinking behind the actions of this controversial historic figure. Where there are different versions of the history of the time, we have taken the version that fits most closely to this style of presentation.
Episode 2 next week