Tuesday, 11 September 2012

The Battle of Hereford

October 24th 1055 was a date I am sure would stick  in the minds of many of the people who lived in the Earldom of Herefordshire and in those of the people of Wales, for many years to come. For the poor, unfortunate survivors of Hereford, the names of Gruffydd and Alfgar would most likely invoke terrible memories of burning buildings and blood strewn streets. As for the Welsh people, the Cymry, they would remember it as one of their great successes, a victory over the Saes invaders who had stolen their land. These days, the ravaging of Hereford is a little known battle and mostly, only those who have an interest in this period of history, would be able to admit that they knew of it. It certainly wasn’t a fight on the scale that the Battle of Hastings was and it wasn’t a hard won victory for the vanquishers; but it was a devastating blow to the Franko-Norman Earl of Hereford, who, in his effort to pre-empt the Welsh King Gruffydd and the outlawed English Earl Alfgar from sacking his burgh, lost both his reputation and his standing in English affairs, when he and his guard, left the field of battle leaving many of his mounted army to die. 

Photo Attributed to Len Howell

            Gruffydd, self-proclaimed King of Wales, became so after he had won his bid to become supreme leader over the other Celtic kingdoms of Wales. He had been King of Gwynedd and Powys and had fought successfully against a Mercian army c 1040, killing Edwin, Alfgar’s paternal uncle. He soon began to harbour ambitions of uniting Wales against her enemies and so set about ridding himself of any impediments to realising his goal: Gruffydd ap Rhydderch, ruler of the South was one of them. This he did, probably with the aid of the exiled Alfgar of Mercia.    
          Alfgar had washed up on the shore of the River Conwy at Gruffydd’s palace at Rhuddlan, Northern Wales after being found guilty of uttering treasonable offences toward his King, Edward the Confessor. With him he brought a fleet of mercenaries from Dublin. It would be the second time that Gruffydd had used a renegade outlaw exiled from England to assist him. The first was Swegn Godwinson, the scandalous older son of Godwin, outlawed for bad behaviour. This shows that Gruffydd was not above taking advantage of the discord that often went on at the English court. He was an astute and ruthless ruler, and to the Welsh, he was the Shield of the Britons. Unfortunately for him, he was to be betrayed by his own people some years later when  murdered, they sent his head to Harold, Earl of Wessex.          
           Alfgar, son of Leofric, Earl of Mercia and the legendary Godiva of naked horse ride fame, appears to have been an unruly, truculent man, envious of the success the Godwins were  having. The Anglo Saxon Chronicles don’t go into a lot of detail but  he was banished from England after some angry outburst which could have been treasonous. He was stripped of all his wealth and lands. Like the Godwinsons before him, he was determined to return and first went to Ireland to gather a force before approaching Gruffydd, his family’s natural enemy.          
           The King’s nephew Ralph was made Earl of Hereford around 1052. Ralph was the son of Edward’s sister Goda and her deceased husband Drogo de Mantes who had been the Count of Valois, the Vexin and Amiens. His older brother Walter, became the Count after Drogo and appears to have died along with his wife in tragic circumstances. Ralph may have been raised at the court of  Normandy and travelled to England either with Edward or perhaps arriving shortly afterwards. He was most likely to have been in his mid to late twenties at the time of the battle. Ralph wanted to introduce Norman style tactics into English warfare and although it was probably not unheard of for English troops to fight on horseback, it was not the usual preferred method. 
           The mounted warrior would have looked very different to previous warriors who fought on foot. The maille that was being worn by this time was becoming longer than the usual byrnie that had formerly graced the bodies of 11thc warriors. The byrnie (or haubergeon) was more of a maille ‘shirt’ where as the hauberk generally well covered the thighs and groin areas. Kite shields were also becoming popular as we see in the Bayeux Tapestry and they were more practical for using on horseback as the kite shield gave greater coverage to the unprotected side of the warrior’s body. He could hack or spear with his weapon-hand which would defend his other side from his shoulder down to his foot whilst he was horsed. He would also wear a conical shaped helmet like these spangenhelm wearing warriors.

              Most likely he would go into battle with a few javelins to project at the enemy, or a spear to skewer them with. His sword or hand axe would be for closer hand to hand fighting when proximity to his opponent made the longer arms too difficult to use. If he was able to afford them, he would no doubt be wearing some maille chausses on his legs to protect them whilst he was in the saddle.           
             Ralph had been working on his Norman style defences too, building wooden structures with palisades, the pre-runner to castles. These would have consisted of a motte, a mound of earth with a towered structure within an inner bailey. The wooden fencing would have contained ramparts and lookouts. These were posted around the marcher borders and in Hereford itself. Ralph was obviously out to impress his uncle the King and may have considered himself worthy of being his successor, although there is no evidence to believe that he ever did, apart from the fact he was of the Royal bloodline through his mother. This might have been one reason why he was never declared an atheling, because he came from the distaff side of the House of Wessex. A great resounding defeat against the Welsh might have brought him the adulation and respect that he desired. Perhaps it would have gained him the title atheling. Unfortunately for Ralph, it was not to be.   

            On October the 24th, the two armies faced each other across the plain. Here is what the D version of the AS Chronicle said about it

".....And soon after that, Earl Alfgar, son of Earl Leofric,
was outlawed well-nigh without fault; but he turned to
Ireland and Wales and there got himself a great band ,
and travelled thus to Hereford; but there Earl Ralph came
against him with a great raiding party, and with a little
struggle they were brought to flight, and many people
killed in that flight, and then turned into Hereford market
town and raided it, burned down the famous minster which
Bishop Athelstan built, and killed the priests inside the min-
-ster, and many others as well, seized all the treasures in
there and led them away with them. And then when they had
done most harm, it was decided to reinstate Earl Alfgar, and
give him back his earldom and all that was taken away from
him. This raid was made on October the 24th....."

           The Abingon Manuscript elaborates a little more and states that after Alfgar was outlawed, he went to Ireland and raised an army and then sought asylum with King Gruffydd of Wales. The allied forces then go into Hereford and Earl Ralph comes against him with a 'great army'. "But before a spear could be thrown, the English people fled because they were on horse; and great slaughter was made". The Manuscript also states about 400-500 English were slaughtered and the enemy lost none. It has  also been suggested that Ralph and his men left the field leaving the English to die. Hence he is later known as Ralph the Timid. As there is little evidence of a full eyewitness account of what happened that day, one has to imagine how this might have occurred. Whatever happened, the day belonged to a victorious Gruffydd and Alfgar. Alfgar, we see was reinstated and Gruffydd most likely given Lordship over the lands around Archenfield. Harold Godwinson had come with a great army to chase the Welsh and their allies back into the mountains but there was no return match and Gruffydd’s Welshmen and Alfgar’s Hiberno-Norse made away with slaves, livestock and treasures from the church they had sacked.
          The people of Hereford were left to lick their wounds and Harold rebuilt the defences that seemed to have been neglected by Ralph. The fact that Alfgar was never called to account for this outrage shows how brutal and non-consequential life could be in these days. The fact that he got away with it shows how little regard there was for the ordinary people concerned. The razing and ravaging of lands was often a punishment levelled at the nobility but although it is an absurd notion for us to protest the irony of it with our 21st century outlook, the lower echelons of life in medieval times mattered only to their immediate lords for what they were worth in economical terms. A simple local thegn may have been devastated at the loss of his ‘people’ but for the major nobility it was more of a financial disaster than an emotional one. As for Ralph, it seemed he may not have ever got over the disgrace and he disappears from the pages of history until he dies in 1057. The Earldom of Hereford later passed to his son Harold, after the Conquest.


Barlow F (1997) Edward the Confessor (2nd ed) Yale University Press, US.  
Stenton F (1971) Anglo Saxon England (3rd Ed) Oxford University Press, Oxford.
Swanton M (2000) The Anglo Saxon Chronicles (2nd ed) Phoenix Press, London.

This Battle features in my novel Sons of the Wolf and was part of the research I did for it.


paulalofting said...


Gerald said...

Warfare is a fascinating subject. Despite the dubious morality of using violence to achieve personal or political aims. It remains that conflict has been used to do just that throughout recorded history.

Your article is very well done, a good read.

Paula Lofting said...

Thank you kindly