I have just read Carol McGrath’s excellent novel ‘The Handfasted Wife.’ The later part of her novel concerns how the people of Exeter defied the might of King William forcing him to lay siege to the city. Carol’s focus is on the defiance of the women within the city, led by Gytha, the redoubtable mother of King Harold.
This is an extract from ‘The Lost King: Resistance’ where I also write about the siege but from outside the walls.
Four days later we approached the walled town of Exeter. To my joy I saw the flag of Wessex flying bravely from its walls.
‘A gold purse to the soldier who brings me that rag,’ William announced. Then he sent forth a herald to parlay with the defenders while he sat at ease with Odo and Roger de Montgommery.
There was much calling to and from the walls but eventually a small sally door opened and out rode two men, both in fine robes and riding handsome horses. One held aloft a white flag as sign of truce.
When they got close the two Englishmen dismounted and approached on foot.
William stared at them in silence while Roger spoke.
‘What foul disobedience you show to your lord and master,’ he said. ‘Explain yourself and hope that the king has cause to show you some mercy.’
‘We do not come to plead,’ said one of the men, calmly. ‘We come to find out the reason why this army is camping outside our city.’
‘The cause should be apparent to even the most simple of an Englishman,’ sneered Odo. ‘But perhaps they have sent the lord of simpletons to parlay with us.’
The man turned to look at Odo. ‘I am neither simpleton nor Bishop,’ he said. ‘I am Athelstan, thegn of the lands you are camping on.’
‘These lands belong to King William,’ said Roger. ‘You owe him your fealty.’
‘I owe nothing to a man whose lordship I do not recognise,’ said Athelstan quietly. ‘Had I lands in Normandy I would bend my knee to him. But not in England.’
The other man looked at Athelstan with queasy alarm, his hands gripping tighter on the flagstaff.
‘You impudent serf,’ cried Odo.
‘Thegn,’ said Athelstan, ‘I would be called a baron in your land.’ His grey eyes held Odo’s unwaveringly, until the Bishop cursed and looked away.
‘Your title is immaterial,’ said de Montgommery. ‘The matter under discussion is why the citizens of Exeter have risen up against the king and why you have chosen to give sanctuary to the mother of Harold Godwinson, the usurper of the throne.’
‘Gytha Torkelsdotter is an old lady who has chosen to spend her last days in this city. She has not sought sanctuary.’ Athelstan gave a questioning look. ‘Is there any need for her to do such a thing?’
‘Forget the old bitch,’ cried Odo. ‘We want to know why Exeter has risen up against the king.’
‘Ah,’ said Athelstan. ‘That is simple. We do not recognise him as king. We will pay him the tribute that we used to pay to the rightful kings of England but we will not give him fealty and nor will we allow him to enter our walls.’
There was a silence which lasted for a long, long moment.
‘I will enter,’ cried William. His voice was as quiet as snow falling on fields. ‘I will enter when you throw your gates open.’ He smiled at Athelstan, almost like a father smiles indulgently upon his son.
‘Or,’ William continued, ‘if you persist in defying me, I will enter marching through the guts of your people.’
The quiet menace hung in the air like a stench.
‘I think that this audience is at an end,’ said Athelstan.
William stared at him for a moment, almost as though he had not understood his words.
‘By God,’ he exploded. ‘I will decide when this audience ends and no other. Seize them.’
At this a dozen of his knights sprang at the two heralds. Athelstan drew his sword and fought back fiercely, slaying one of the knights and wounding two. The other herald wailed in terror and fled, leaping upon his horse and galloping like the wind back to the city.
In a moment Athelstan was overcome and lay prostrate before William who was speechless with fury.
‘Force will gain you nothing,’ said Athelstan. ‘We do not recognise you.’
‘You do not recognise me,’ William choked out at last. ‘Then recognise nothing more.’ His face worked fearsomely. ‘Kill him,’ he cried.
‘Hold,’ cried Montgommery. The knights hesitated at the word.
He turned to William. ‘My lord, this man is a herald and a brave man at that. I beg you, do not harm him. I will pledge good conduct for him.’
William held Montogommery’s gaze for a moment his eyes bulging from a face as red as sunset. Then he nodded curtly. ‘As you wish. But I will teach these rebels a lesson they will not forget,’ he said. ‘Bring me one of the hostages.’
Two of the knights hurried off and ran back, half dragging the fattest of the hostages with them.
‘Blind him,’ cried William.
The hostage shrieked as he was thrown to the ground. One of the knights held his head firm while a second raised a dagger above his head. But he paused and then turned to look at William. ‘Do it,’ he cried, striking one clenched fist into his palm.
The knight shuddered but plunged the blade into the right eye-socket, worked it back and forth, slashing and cutting until the shredded eye slid out. Then he drew out the blade and did the same to the left eye.
The hostage’s screams echoed over the army and the walls of the city.
I turned away in horror, struggling not to vomit.
‘He was a hostage,’ I heard Athelstan say, coldly.
‘And so are you,’ said William curtly. ‘Remember it.’
From the walls of the city came a huge cry of disgust at what the Normans had done. I glanced back at the rest of the hostages who stood looking on aghast. ‘I expect they think they will be next,’ I whispered to Godwin.
‘I don’t care about them,’ he muttered. ‘I care about us.’
‘I think we are safe,’ I said.
Godwin turned and looked at me as if I was mad.
The Handfasted Wife and The Lost King: Resistance are available at most major retailers. Readers in the UK can get my books on Amazon by clicking on the pictures in the sidebar to the right.