Category Archives: Norman Conquest

The Norman Conquest – bibliographies

One of the consequences of the recent adjustment to the National Curriculum in England is the welcome return of the Norman Conquest to school classrooms. My teaching centres really on the Carolingians, but I’ve been running a course on 1066 for second-year undergraduate students at Sheffield since 2011 (with invaluable assistance from a couple of colleagues), and a few teachers have therefore been in touch for advice on what to read.

So I thought I’d make my course bibliographies available in case they’re of any use: one on primary sources (with recommended contextual reading for each major source) and one on secondary sources.

A couple of caveats:

  • these are bibliographies for an 11 week course, with a clear methodological focus on the sources for the Norman Conquest: its background, its course and its impact. That means lots of terrific work on late Anglo-Saxon, Norman and Anglo-Norman topics not directly relatable to the Conquest isn’t featured
  • they’re English-language only
  • they assume access to the University of Sheffield’s library (and its electronic resources)

If you spot any glaring omissions within the remit of the course’s focus on the Conquest, or have suggestions, please do let me know!

Norman Conquest Primary Sources Bibliography (pdf)

Norman Conquest Secondary Sources Bibliography 2017-18 (pdf)

Constantinople, Jerusalem and Canterbury: Joseph the monk and the Norman Conquest

The Norman Conquest is most often considered primarily in an English context, obviously enough given its immediate circumstances. Historians are increasingly minded to give 1066 a wider British context too, in the light of its immense consequences for Wales and Scotland over the decades that followed. But we shouldn’t forget that the Conquest also had a broader “international” impact. One of its most intriguing consequences was the establishment of a group of Englishmen in exile at the court of the Emperor of Byzantium in Constantinople, a group often known as the “Varangian guard”.

This blog is about one of the most important pieces of early evidence for that group. It’s a short text about the adventures of a Canterbury monk called Joseph, a text to my knowledge never translated into English before (my provisional translation is provided below). It records how, on his way back from a pilgrimage to Jerusalem, Joseph took a detour to visit Constantinople – modern Istanbul –  because of the quantity of holy relics stored there. By chance, he met some other English men, “in the emperor’s household”, some of whom he knew already. These men arranged for Joseph to obtain access to the imperial chapel, and one of them acted as an interpreter. Joseph used this interpreter to try to bribe the Greek guard, in the hope of acquiring relics of Saint Andrew for the newly reformed monastic community back in Kent at Rochester.

There the text unfortunately breaks off in its sole surviving manuscript (now stored in the Vatican)[1]: but it’s already given us lots to think about. We learn that the English were a community in Constantinople around 1090; we learn that they were the kind of people who might be acquainted with a wealthy Canterbury monk; we learn that at least one of them had learned Greek; we learn that they were integrated into the imperial court, with Byzantine friends there. For these men, presumably remnants of the pre-conquest English aristocracy, 1066 had been nothing short of a catastrophe; but they had managed successfully to reinvent themselves in a very different world, thousands of miles away.

In many ways, however, Joseph is the more interesting figure. For ultimately Joseph outdid his English friends when it came to cultural flexibility.  Like them, he was a seasoned and intrepid traveller, familiar with the Near East. Like them, he was English – and it is noteworthy how important that identity was to the text. When Joseph recognised his compatriots, he spoke to them “joyfully”. They in turn welcomed his visit, and helped him in his efforts to secure relics: they evidently considered him ‘one of them’. Yet documentary sources suggest that Joseph would later become close to Anselm, the Italo-Norman archbishop of Canterbury (1093-1109).

True, Joseph was determined to bring relics home to his English homeland, the patria he shared  with the Constantinopolitan exiles. But what specifically motivated him to obtain the relics was the recent reform of the cathedral community at Rochester, transformed from canonical to monastic: a change in line with an English tradition to be sure, but one pushed through nevertheless by the new Norman bishop there, Gundulf.

So, Joseph’s life had undoubtedly been affected by the Norman Conquest, but ultimately not nearly as much as those of his secular friends. He had managed to come to terms with the new order, and even to thrive under it: remaining English, but adapting smoothly to Norman rule, secure in the continuity of an enduring Christian order.

However, just a few years after Joseph’s return to Kent, another army, once again with a sizeable Norman contingent, would make another conquest. For in 1099, the original object of Joseph’s pilgrimage, the holiest city in his cosmology, the site of the central miracle of Joseph’s religion, astonishingly – providentially – fell to besiegers from the Latin west: Jerusalem. That conquest, we may suspect,  turned Joseph’s world view upside down far more than had the events of 1066.

Joseph of Canterbury’s visit to Constantinople: translation by Charles West [2]

“At the time when King William the Younger was in charge of the English people and the church of Christ at Canterbury was bereaved by the death of Archbishop Lanfranc [1089], there was a certain monk called Joseph from that church who went to Jerusalem for the sake of prayer. When he had fulfilled his wish and was returning directly with a large number of companions, he left the direct route and went with only a few of his own servants to Constantinople. For he heard that there was an incomparable treasury of relics there, to whose patronage he wished to commend himself in person.

When therefore he arrived there with God’s guidance, and asked where the treasury was stored, he found certain men from his own homeland (patria) and his own friends, who were part of the emperor’s household. When he suddenly recognised them and joyfully spoke with them, he learned that these relics were in the imperial chapel, and that it was difficult for anyone to gain entry there. For the emperor, wishing carefully to guard these incomparable jewels, had installed many guards, including one in particular who was in charge of the others in guarding them. But since the friends of the already mentioned monk were known to the guard and were his friends, it was arranged that by their intervention the guard would introduce the monk into the chapel, and show him the greater part of these relics.

When the guard had displayed various relics to him, and the monk had humbly venerated each one, it happened that the guard pointed out certain bones of Saint Andrew the Apostle to him, among the other relics. When the guard said that these relics were of that apostle and confirmed it, the monk venerated his relics with even more devotion, because he had always loved this apostle in particular. As soon as he saw them, he very devoutly prostrated himself on the ground, and amongst other things prayed for this, “May it be pleasing to Almighty God that I shall hold these relics in the place I want to keep them”. The guard heard this but because he was Greek, did not understand it at all, and he asked one of the monk’s friends, who was their interpreter, what it was that the monk had said.

The interpreter however, since he did not dare to reveal this kind of wish to the guard, first asked the monk whether he wanted him to tell the guard, and when he had received permission to tell him, then finally he laid bare to the guard that the monk had wished for these things. Hearing this, the guard said to the monk through the same interpreter “What price would you pay to the person who carried out the desire you have indicated?”. He replied “Little money remains to me for my journey, and there is still a long journey for me to travel. But if someone carried out the wish I hope for, I should give him as much of my money as I can manage to spare.  And I would take those relics to a place where the very greatest reverence would be shown to them. For there is in my homeland a certain episcopal see [Rochester], in which there is founded a church in honour of St Andrew the Apostle, where a group of monks, recently gathered together, very devoutly serves God. If God deigns to fulfil my wish, I wish to take some of these relics of the Apostle to that church.”

Then the guard replied “Go, and return to your lodgings, and then send this our interpreter and your friend back to me, and indicate your wish to me through him. For it is not convenient for us that you should return, lest anyone notice about this matter…” [text breaks off].

Update 9 December 2017
An excellent article putting Joseph’s trip into a wider context is provided by D. Pelteret, ‘Eleventh-century Anglo-Saxon Long-Haul Travelers: Jerusalem, Constantinople and Beyond’, in The Maritime World of the Anglo-Saxons, ed. S. Klein, W. Schipper and S. Lewis-Simpson (2014), 75-130. This article mentions a translation of Joseph’s Latin text by Alexander Vasiliev in 1937; I have not yet laid my hands on this work.

Update 10 March 2018
Another piece of early evidence for the Anglo-Saxon ‘Varangian guard’, in the form of the embassy of Wulfric of Lincoln, is discussed in this excellent blog (with an extensive bibliography) by Caitlin Green: Wulfric of Lincoln and the English Varangians


[1] Vatican Lat. 4951 (s. XII), f. 220, now available online here

[2] Based on the edition by C.H. Haskins, ‘A Canterbury Monk at Constantinople, c. 1090’, English Historical Review 25 (1910), pp. 294-5. See also S. Kuttner, ‘Reliquie di sant’Andrea: un testo poco conosciuto’, Rivista di Storia della Chiesa in Italia 36 (1982), pp. 105-110, who notes that Joseph the monk is also mentioned in the inscription of another 12th-c. manuscript, British Library Royal MS 5 E i, f. 2r (I have not yet been able to follow up this reference).

A shorter version of this blog was first posted at

Revenants revisited

Last week, the Medieval and Ancient Research Centre at Sheffield held an event marking the Norman Conquest.[1] I offered to speak about a peculiar case of vampires or revenants in the Derbyshire villages of Stapenhill and Drakelow (which I’ve touched on before elsewhere in a different format), and to explore its connection to the Norman Conquest. As I started to put the talk together, I briefly regretted my decision. After all, what can a ghost story about events in the 1090s, as told in the 1130s, have to do with 1066 and all that? Happily enough, a little preliminary research has showed that it’s rather more than one might imagine, shedding fresh light on this very mysterious episode.

For those unfamiliar with the tale, the story goes something like this (you can read a translation of the original text here). Around 1090, two villagers from Stapenhill, owned by the abbey of Burton, fled to the neighbouring village of Drakelow, which was owned by a prominent Norman aristocrat called Roger. Roger helped them out by plundering the abbot’s lands, but desisted after his men were (miraculously) beaten in battle by the abbot of Burton’s forces. Meanwhile, the two troublesome villagers mysteriously died. They were immediately buried at Stapenhill. But…

…. The very same evening of their burial, they reappeared at Drakelow, carrying their coffins on their backs. The pair proceeded to haunt the village over the next few weeks, until hardly anyone was left living there. Eventually their corpses were disinterred and ceremonially mutilated, which put an end to the nightly visitations, though Drakelow itself was nevertheless abandoned as a settlement.

So much for the story. As it happens, we have a very good idea of what the two villagers had been running away from, because the abbey of Burton produced an estate survey listing the dues of the peasants in Stapenhill around the 1130s. The dozen or so residents that this survey names must have heard of, and some might even have remembered, the peculiar events of a generation earlier. What’s more, the estate survey was organised by the very same person who wrote the ghost story for us, Abbot Geoffrey of Burton. This raises all kinds of methodological questions (which I hope to explore in greater detail on another occasion).

But what has all this got to do with the Norman Conquest? At first sight, not much. The Normans did not introduce the kinds of obligations that the Stapenhill peasants were fleeing (weekly labour for their lords, dues in kind, etc), though they might perhaps have helped intensify them. Nor did they introduce ideas about ghosts or revenants. Both these things were present in England before as after 1066 (as John Blair, for instance, has explored).

However, the plot thickens if we look at the history of the villages concerned. Domesday Book tells us that before the Conquest,  Drakelow had been owned by an Englishman named Alric. Most of Stapenhill was owned by the monastery of Burton, but another Englishman, Godric, owned a parcel of land there as well. He may well have been a retainer of the monastery, or linked in some way, since his lands intersected with the monastery elsewhere too. After the Conquest, however,  a Norman named Nigel de Stafford somehow ‘inherited’ the lands of both Godric and Alric. And it seems that these consolidated rights passed onto Roger, who was a real mover and shaker in early Anglo-Norman England.

That means that, as a direct consequence of 1066, there was in 1090 a very powerful aristocrat whose rights overlapped with those of the monastery’s at Stapenhill, and who also owned outright another estate just next to it, Drakelow. This is probably why the villagers fled from Stapenhill to Drakelow: something our story doesn’t itself explain. Either the peasants were taking advantage of the situation to negotiate a better deal with a plausible patron who might have relished the excuse to take on the monastery; or they were innocently caught in the cross-fire as Roger and the abbey squared off (who knows, maybe they really were Roger’s tenants).

Ghost stories and revenants can often be connected with social tensions of some kind or other: in this specific case, they are associated with stress caused by the face-off between two powerful landowners, stress that was an indirect result of the slaughter of Hastings, which had created a tenurial shake-up (Domesday mentions that the abbot of Burton was involved in disputes over land at Derbyshire, providing further context). This makes the story a good illustration of how political events at the “top” could trickle-down with unexpected implications for the “bottom”. Medieval society was more integrated than it might sometimes seem.

But there’s another Norman Conquest dimension to the tale. Why did our author, Abbot Geoffrey of Burton, record it in the first place? The answer is that it was proof of the power of Saint Modwenna, whose relics Burton housed. Saint Modwenna is a shadowy figure, about whom we know very little (though we assume that she was an obscure Anglo-Saxon saint).  But not much more was known in the twelfth century either. When Geoffrey arrived as abbot at Burton c. 1114, no one seems to have known anything about these relics. That was why Geoffrey set about establishing Modwenna’s cult, not least by writing down her life – in reality mostly copied from an Irish text (!) – and including some more recent miracles.

It seems to have bothered Abbot Geoffrey, in other words, that his monastery’s Modwenna was so mysterious. This doesn’t however seem to have bothered earlier Burton abbots.  Maybe information about her had been lost as the monastery “Normanised”. More likely, Modwenna had always been fairly shadowy, but this was more of a problem for “incomers” than it had been for incumbents, for whom the relics had always been there and therefore didn’t require any explaining.

So, just as the events that Abbot Geoffrey documented were in some way linked to the tenurial reshuffle indirectly caused by the Conquest, so his eagerness to record them (and our knowledge of them) might reflect an attempt to plug a “cultural gap” that had opened up as a consequence of the changes the Normans imposed on the Church, at least in personnel terms.

This isn’t the only evidence in the story for a cultural gap, though. As it happens, the name Drakelow actually means “Dragon’s Mound”: an extremely ominous place name. [2] The peasants themselves would surely have known this – they were after all English-speakers – so we may imagine that their own interpretation of events might have been different from the abbot’s. Did Abbot Geoffrey not mention this fact because, as a French-speaker, he didn’t realise – or did he simply prefer a different spin on things? Further research will help to elucidate this and other puzzles.

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Update: you can see a page of the British Library’s copy of the Modwenna text here

The text itself is translated and edited by Robert Bartlett, Geoffrey of Burton: Life and Miracles of St Modwenna (Oxford, 2002). For further work on the social context of “strange happenings” in the Middle Ages, see M. Innes and C. West, ‘Saints and Demons in the Carolingian Countryside’, in Steffen Patzold and Bernhard Zeller (eds.), Kleine Welten. Ländliche Gesellschaften im Karolingerreich (forthcoming).

[1] Impeccably organised by Alyx Mattison and James Chetwood.

[2] Thanks to Matt Innes for pointing this out to me.  See for the details.