All Roads Lead to Britain: Chapter IV (Part VII)




Loitering with intent

         Britain was one day a united country and the day after a collection of pieces of a jigsaw puzle. Egbert had achieved what history books call “the first union of England”. If there was a “first union”, it means that there was at least a “second union”; and if there was a “second union”, it means that at some moment after the first union there had to be a separation. The problems among the kingdoms had not concluded with this king. Northumbria, Mercia and Wessex still had their differences, and Wales and Scotland did not cease to give problems. Britain was still far from being well on its way to becoming what we can call a “nation”.
         And if all these things were not enough, some unexpected visitors turned up: the Danes and the Vikings, who had left their homes in Denmark and Norway respectively with the burning desire to find new cultures and broaden their minds. This “burning desire” would later turn into a “desire to burn” every little thing that they found on their way. They were adventurous, enterprising and eager to know new countries..., and bored with having to spend the winter in the freezing lands of Scandinavia. They wanted a change of scene and raided most of northwestern Europe between the 8th and the 11th centuries (it is even said that they arrived in America!). They explored the coasts of the neighbouring countries searching for the most convenient place to visit. And after studying carefully all the possibilities they were offered, where do you think they chose?... Of course, Britain, the magnet. The attractive and exciting qualities of the island could not pass unnoticed before the eyes of these tough sailors: the beauty of its landscape, the mildness of its weather, the kindness of its people (and their disorganization), the richness of its soil, its eggs and bacon... There were many aspects which made the scales tip in its favour. To make it easier to understand, what Vikings and Danes did is similar to what a tourist does when he goes into a shop; he may not have the intention to buy anything in particular, so he browses a while, picks up something, examines it and then puts it back in its place; then he picks up another thing, examines it and puts it back where it was... and keeps on doing so an indefinite number of times; then he realizes that the first thing he has picked would look nice in his living-room, next to mummy’s portrait, and he buys it. That is what these northern warriors did really: browse and choose, but with a slight nuance which makes it different from what the tourist does: they did not pay for what they had “bought”.
         Angles and Saxons were very... . Sorry. Angles, Saxons... and Jutes were very tall but these Norwegians and Danes were even taller; the Germanic settlers were blond but these Scandinavian people were blonder; the droves which invaded Britain in the 5th century were fierce and warlike, but they could not put these new hordes in the shade because the Norwegians and Danes were much more brutish. The Vikings, especially, have traditionally been regarded as ferocious terrible warriors, who were able to destroy, wipe out and raze vast lands to the ground and who really seemed to enjoy doing it. They are frequently depicted with a cup of wine in their hands and laughing stridently with no apparent reason. For these warriors, women counted for nothing, and they were basically useful to pour wine or beer into the cups of their enchanting partners. When Vikings were at a loose end, they got into a fist fight and they burst into laughter again; it did not matter if one had lost a couple of teeth in the mêlée or got a black eye.
They did not fear death, as long as it happened violently. This may sound amazing but if a Viking died in the course of a battle with a sword in his hand, that was a stroke of luck; incredibly nothing could be better for them than to have their stomachs pierced by the spear, knife or sword of their enemies since that meant that they would receive their eternal reward: a never-ending banquet in the company of their beloved Woden, the god of poetry and war, two things which are not very related perhaps, but there must have been scarcity of gods and probably they had to take several jobs. Women did not go to this “heaven” (or Valhalla, literally “hall of the slain”) because they did not fight in wars, so bad luck! The only women in Valhalla were the Valkyries, the maidens of Woden (or Odin). They ushered the heroes slain in battle into the presence of their celestial lord and served them with the most delicate and delightful dishes of the heavenly cuisine and with ale, which was poured into the skulls of the enemies defeated in battle. Revolting, isn’t it?
So these were the Vikings. Their fellows, the Danes, were much of the same kind, the only difference being that the former were fonder of having their long blond hair twisted in a couple of plaits and fonder of using metal helmets with a horn on each side. A Viking was, therefore, one of the few people who could wear the horns without being called a cuckold.
         And this pretty lot was wandering around the British shores by the end of the 8th century! At first they only raided. The first mention of them is recorded in The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle. According to this work, these Northerners disembarked at Portland, Dorset in 789; it was a short visit of only a few days, enough time to stretch their legs, kill some hundred Saxons and go back home; in 793 they returned, this time to the North, but people from Northumbria managed to expel them. Anglo-Saxons did not know what to think about these hordes of noisy warriors. For some of them, the Danes and Vikings were just hooligans who enjoyed disturbing the inhabitants of the British coast; for others, the incursions of 789 and 793 meant a straw in the wind, a warning of what might happen in the future if they did not put obstacles to stop these barbarians. And they were not wrong, for in 865 the great invasion started.

Raising Cain  (Run for your lives!)

         These Scandinavian sea dogs had raided along the British coast and had not occasioned too much harm..., just a few churches burnt, a few villages demolished and a few hundred people killed..., nothing too serious; churches could be rebuilt, villages could be reconstructed, and dead people could... . Well, there were still many living people, so why worry? Not too much harm... for the moment, we should add. Those who had already experienced the Scandinavian rage knew very well that those kind of people would not content themselves with making a few raids. There was a period  of relative calm after the first incursions, providing that we can use the adjective calm to define a period during which only a couple of battles are worthy of mention: the defeat of a Viking force in 838 by King Egbert and the Anglo-Saxon victory won by Aethelwulf, his successor, in 851. But the Saxons knew that meanwhile thousands and thousands of Vikings and Danes were sharpening their swords in their home towns. That period of time was just the lull before the storm. In 865, one year before King Aethelbert died and was succeeded by Aethelred I, the Vikings and Danes invaded Britain.
         The Vikings preferred to attack the Irish and Scottish lands and set up encampments on the Orkney and the Shetland islands, north of Scotland, whence they moved southwards, conquering a vast territory in northern England; the Danes landed in eastern England, subdued central England and tried to do the same with Wessex. The real architect of this invasion was called Ivar, known as “the Boneless”, a nickname that he did deserve, not because he lacked these precious parts of the body, but rather because he enjoyed pulling them out from their victims...(not precisely the kind of chap you would go out with to have a cup of tea).
         King Aethelred I led the resistance to this invasion. The Saxons were down in the dumps; they needed some victories to cheer themselves up. The battle of Ashdown on the Berkshire Downs (871) was a boost to their morale, but very soon the Saxons suffered heavy defeats and the king himself died at the battle of Merton the same year.
         He was succeeded by a man who has been praised for long, not only for his warlike activities but also for his contribution to the revival of learning at a time when people were too busy fighting. He was a man who did not know the meaning of the word “fear”, one of the most esteemed British kings, a man who was in a class of his own, a hero from the cradle to the grave...: King Alfred, who, being worthy of all that string of virtues and glories, could not be known by any other name except the Great.

A Triton among the minnows

         Alfred made his “debut” as a military strategist at the battle of Ashdown, where he and his brother Aethelred I, still the king, won the day. When “the Great” became king, he promised himself that he would free his people from the hordes of Scandinavian invaders, and he threw himself wholeheartedly into this matter. At least he was able to drive out the Danes in 877. The following year they counter-attacked and this time it was Alfred who had to flee and lie doggo. He retired to Somerset and was sheltered by a farmer and his wife, but he kept his identity a secret during his stay there. Legend relates that one day he was sitting by the fire where some cakes were being baked; he was so lost in his thoughts while brightening up his arrows that he did not notice that the food was burning. Then the woman came down on him like a ton of bricks: ‘You idiot!’ (or something of the kind), ‘were you so busy gaping at your arrows that you could not spare a few seconds to watch the fire?’. This folk story does not prove much..., apart from the fact that the sentence “A cat may look at a king” may be true, but it shows that Alfred was not “half the man he used to be”..., or else he would have stood up and slapped her across the face. ...And what was he thinking about? ...About his return, and the shock that his reappearance would occasion, especially to those who believed him to be dead. He secretly assembled an army and marched towards Wessex. ‘Hello, everybody! I’m back in circulation!’, he probably said. He defeated the Danes, led by Guthrum, at the battle of Edington, Wiltshire (878), forcing them to withdraw from Wessex and retire into East Anglia, where they were allowed to settle. The area where they were confined was known as Danelaw, or land where Danish laws prevailed. The Treaty of Wedmore divided Wessex from the Danelaw along Watling Street (the ancient Roman road from London to Chester). Alfred was very clever: he had kept the best cities!
         The Danes had not got all that they had expected; they had come to Britain with the idea of conquering the whole island and now they were confined to a small piece of land. They were divided in their opinions. Some of them thought that the situation was not so bad and considered that a bird in the hand is worth two in the bush. A small group was not so happy about the idea and went to the northwest of France, where they founded the land which they called Normandy (the land of the man from the north). And some others considered that they could not let Alfred trample on them. The first group of Danes was rather happy and tried to enliven the others by saying things like: ‘It’s not so bad..., come one, boys! It’s not the end of the world! Please, cheer up!... Half a loaf is better than none... Oh, please....’. The second group could not stand the first group speaking so much nonsense and decided to pack their bags and head for France like a shot; these Danes learnt to speak French and ceased to wear helmets with horns. ‘Farewell, Britain. Our only consolation is that we won’t miss your cuisine!’. And the third group could not stand the stupidity of the first and the resignation of the second. They were angry..., very angry indeed, and supported the new attacks of Viking droves in 892-896... But Alfred had taken precautions; he had built fortresses all around the country to keep the invaders out and had organized a powerful fleet to defend its shores. These new invasions were mere skirmishes that did not have any lasting effect.
         Alfred had reinforced his country..., and he had done it not only from the military point of view. He devoted a great part of his time to spreading culture to the farthest corners of the island and to making it accessible to most of the people. That involved teaching the illiterate their own language and translating classical works into English. He himself took over as translator of several works originally written in Latin, and it is thought that he directed the compilation of The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle. He established numerous teaching centres for all the children to learn to read and write and encouraged scholars from other countries to come to Wessex, especially to Winchester, the capital of the kingdom, which became England’s cultural centre for some years.
When Alfred died, he was only fifty years old and was succeeded by his son Edward (the Elder).

A never-ending story...?

         Alfred had tried to make peace with the Danes and had ceded part of England to them. He could have massacred them to a man after his victory at Edington, but however, following the Christian doctrine, he forgave them and even called Guthrum his son. Instead of “the Great”, he could have been called “the Saint”. But he was a daydreamer. The Vikings and Danes broke their oath of peace and the years which followed Alfred’s death could be summed up in a few pairs of words: “conquest and reconquest”, “attacks and counter-attacks”, “victories and defeats”, “revolts and suppression of revolts”.
Alfred had two children: one son, Edward, who succeeded him at the age of twenty-two, and a daughter, Aethelflaed, who married the Mercian leader called (of course!) Aethelred. Both of his children became the sovereigns of their respective kingdoms and fought together to crush the new rebellions of their restless neighbours. At Tettenhall, Staffordshire, Edward managed to crush the Danes (910) and started the advance into the Danelaw from the south. His sister did the same from the north. The Danes in the middle understood what a piece of cheese must feel like in a sandwich.
         In 925 Athelstan succeeded. He joined forces with the Mercians against the Northumbrians, who had rebelled (again), supported by Danes from Ireland. Athelstan’s victory at Brunanburgh (937) was a milestone in this eternal war. After his victory, he called himself Rex totius Britanniae (“King of all Britain”) and stamped that title on his coins. He was even accepted as such on the Continent and his three sisters married continental princes.
         For a time everything seemed uneventful, but that could not last long. Things changed when Olaf of Dublin seized Northumbria and part of Mercia. Edmund I, who had succeeded his half-brother Athelstan, got lumbered with the task of having to subdue the terrible Viking leader. Later, his brother Eadred occupied the throne, and during his reign appeared the most fearsome Viking king of all times: Eric, who had the impressive and well-deserved nickname of Bloodaxe (imagine what he was able to do with his axe). He had come from Norway to raise the Vikings from Northumbria against the king, but Eadred put them to flight after the battle of Stainmore (954). Northumbria was again brought under control.
         Eadwig (or Edwy) succeeded his uncle Eadred. He was not a king much loved by his subjects, who in fact preferred his brother Edgar on the throne. Edgar became king of Wessex in 959, when he was only a teenager, and king of England when he was thirty years old. Incredibly (and do believe what you are about to read), his reign was calm... ‘You are kidding!’, you might say. But it is true. ‘Come on, pull the other one!’, you might add. But although it is a really surprising fact, there were no battles or violent deaths during the sixteen years he was on the throne. The Vikings and Danes had taken some “sabbatical years”. As there was no one to fight against, Edgar devoted most of his reign to reviving monastic life and learning, the task which had been commenced by his great-grandfather Alfred the Great. Edgar counted on the inestimable support of Dunstan, archbishop of Canterbury, who had acted as treasurer of his uncle Eadred and his brother Eadwig. Dunstan was banished by the latter because the clergyman had caught the king red-handed on his coronation day while he was “having fun” with two women at the same time, that is to say, while he was “killing two birds with one stone” (or at least, so the story goes). But he was restored by Edgar, who made him Bishop of Worcester and London in order to compensate him for having “arrived at the most inopportune moment”. Archbishops Dunstan in Canterbury, Aethelwold in Winchester and Oswald in Worcester, and abbots Aelfric and Wulfstan were the main directors of the improvement in education during the Dark Ages, which at least lived a short moment of “illumination”.
         Edgar married twice. His first wife was called Aethelflaed, like approximately fifty per cent of the women in those days, and she gave birth to a child who was called Edward. When she died, Edgar married again. His new wife, Aelfthryth, bore him another son, who was called Aethelred, like approximately fifty per cent of the men in those days. Both Edward and Aethelred became kings; the former only for three years, the latter for thirty-eight. Aethelred’s mother had much to do with this numerical difference.

On the way out, on the way to heaven

         King Edgar’s elder son, Edward, was known as Edward the Martyr. Martyrs are people who are killed because of their religious or political beliefs. Martyrs become admired and respected and executioners become despised. You may become one of them by being burned at the stake, by being hanged, by being tortured to death or by being obliged to watch stupid programes on the television for hours...; there is a wide range of possibilities for everyone. Those who make you become a martyr are normally people who belong to other political or religious groups, but not usually to your own family. However, there are exceptions, especially if there is a throne in the way, as in the process of Edward becoming a martyr. Edward was murdered by order of his stepmother Aelfthryth. There is no proving evidence concerning this matter, but most of the historians point the finger at her as responsible for her young stepson’s death. As we can see clearly, the traditional belief of stepmothers being wicked is not only reflected in children’s stories such as Cinderella or Snow-White; history itself also has good examples of it.
         Edward came to an early grave. He did not have time to enjoy the pleasures of being a king, since he was killed in cold blood at the age of fifteen. This tragic event took place on the 18th of March, 978, while he was visiting his stepmother and half-brother Aethelred at their castle in Corfe, Dorset. No sooner had he dismounted from his horse, so it is said, that Aelfthryth’s servants dispatched him in a few seconds...Poor boy! Perhaps he had gone to visit his family at the weekend after a long time away from them! Perhaps he had been longing for that moment to arrive for the whole week!. Perhaps he wanted to tell his stepmother that he had been a good boy and had got good marks at school that week! Perhaps he was feeling on top of the world when he saw her waiting for him at the drawbridge beside her servants while he was galloping towards her!:

         ‘Mummy, mummy..., sorry..., stepmummy, stepmummy! Look at my marks! I’ve got three A’s this week: Maths, French and Geography...! And I am especially proud of the last one because it is National Geography!’
         ‘OK, boy, that’s great..., but get down from your horse first. My servants will help you...’
         ‘I’m overjoyed, stepmummy. I am very happy. I am... Ouch!!!... But..., but..., stepmummy..., what’s the meaning of this?’
         ‘It means: bye, boy, bye... And excuse me...,one last thing..., I’ll take the crown from your head before you fall down.’

         Edward was buried. Aelfthryth and Aethelred shed crocodile tears. One month later, Aethelred was crowned.

A blind leader of the blind  (Are you ready...?)

         Aethelred was weak..., he was a man of straw. It had been thanks to his mother’s ambition and evil that he had become a king, but she did not know what was needed to rule a country in times of war and her son did not have the makings of a king at all. Aethelred was, not to put too fine a point on it, feeble and inept, ...dead from the neck up..., a puppet whom his mother had led by the nose. And now a paper tiger had to govern a country which was continuously menaced by fierce invaders.
         When he was crowned, he was only a teenager tied to his mother’s apron-strings and unable to give orders or to gain respect. It is not hard to imagine that Aelfthryth was the power behind the throne. Aethelred was called the Unready, which derived from the Old English Redeless, or “ill-counselled”, but the present meaning of the adjective, as the opposite of “ready”, is more appropriate for him than the old one. He was never ready to rule the country and he should have never done it. The main problem he had to face (sorry, we cannot say the main problem he had to “solve”) was, to keep up the tradition, the struggle to resist invasion. After a relatively long pause during the reign of his father, the raids were resumed in 980, and they increased in intensity and regularity from 991 on under the leadership of Olaf Tryggvason, later King of Norway, and Sweyn Forkbeard, King of Denmark.
         In his day Aethelred’s great-great-grandfather, Alfred (we’d better not mention his nickname to avoid too much reiteration), had used a curious method to content the invaders. He had bought their retreat and their promise not to attack with money: “Now be good boys, stop shouting, sheathe your swords and move a couple of miles backwards. Here, have a few coins; buy something nice or go to a barber’s and have a shave... All right?”. We all know what one is capable of doing for money; even a Viking would stop practising his favourite hobby for a pretty penny. This system had had good results with Alfred, but it did not work with the weak king.
         A leopard can never change its spots, and after some years on the throne Aethelred kept on being “unready”. He made excessive use of this wild-beast-soothing method, which was also known as Danegeld. Money had been a powerful ally for Alfred but money is also the root of all evil. There was something that Aethelred had not foreseen: if he started to offer money to the Danes, there could come the moment when they asked for more. And that is exactly what happened. The tribute to be paid increased more and more month by month, year by year: ‘If they can pay 20,000 pounds of silver, they can pay 24,000’, they probably thought. England had become a paradise where one could get money for old rope, and the Danegeld was the goose that laid the golden eggs... And who really footed the bill? Who were bled dry by taxes with which to pay a gang of hooligans who could not be expelled by an inefficient king...? The villagers. The country was going to the dogs and it was too late to ask the Danes and Vikings to go away peacefully. Even an inept king like Aethelred realized that and then adopted a different tactic. Once more, violence was used. On the 13th of November, 1002, (St Brice’s Day), Aethelred ordered the massacre of the Danes who lived in England. That was a big mistake because it would provoke the Danish invasion of 1003, one which would change the course of British history and the royal line of succession.
         Let’s have a look at these changes we have mentioned:

 Sweyn, King of Denmark and Norway;
       King of England (1013-1014)

 m. Emma of Normandy = Canute (1016-1035) = m. Aelgifu

 m.Elgiva = Aethelred II = m. Emma of Normandy

 Hardicanute (1040-1042)

 Harold (Harefoot) (1035-1040)

Godwine, Earl of Wessex

 Edmund II    

Edward the Confessor

m. Edith
   Harold II

A hand-changing crown

         The massacre of St Brice’s Day was nothing compared with the revenge that Sweyn took on Aethelred. Most of the Danes in the south of England had been cruelly slaughtered, among them Gunnhild, Sweyn’s sister. The king of Denmark just wanted to square accounts with the saxon king. He left his country quick as a flash. ‘I’ll tear you limb from limb, he could not stop muttering while his fleet was sailing across the North Sea towards the English coast and while he was imagining Aethelred’s face smashed against a wall. Some eyewitnesses to his rage declared that from time to time his threat changed into ‘I’ll dust your jacket for you, but this happened only a couple of times.
As soon as Sweyn’s army landed on British soil, the carnage started. Aethelred stopped the Danes by paying them a great amount of money, as usual, but that left the country in the most absolute poverty. Sweyn went back home (perhaps to spend the money he had got) but returned some years later, now accompanied by his son Canute, so that the father could instruct the child in his future job: ‘Listen, son. Very soon you’ll meet the people I’ve been talking to you about for so long..., those who killed Auntie Gunnhild..., our source of income...; when you see them, don’t get nervous; always stay behind me and do as I do. With a little bit of luck, this time we’ll get the land we have been fighting for. And I’ll be the King of England... And some day that kingdom will be yours...’. Sweyn was not wrong. That incursion was effective indeed. In 1013 the English were tired of having to be continuously alert and even more tired of having their precious money thrown down the drain.
So they finally accepted Sweyn as King of England; Aethelred and his second wife, Emma, had to seek asylum in Normandy, where Richard, Emma’s brother, welcomed them. Aethelred was not very happy; he had lost a country and now he had to live next to his brother-in-law, and not everyone enjoys having to live with their in-laws. But that did not last long. Sweyn died one year after he had been proclaimed king. Then all the eyes turned again to Aethelred. There were not many options for the English; who could be king..., anyone who laid claim to the throne..., or the inept king they had always had...? The answer was quite clear: better the devil you know than the devil you don’t know. Aethelred was asked to return to his country: ‘Come on!, there is an empty throne here... Oh, please, don’t get cross with us...! We did not want you to go. It was just a joke...’. And Aethelred swallowed the tale, hook, line and sinker.
Canute had not disappeared from the scene. He remembered quite well the words that his father had told him once: ‘Some day that kingdom will be yours’. He wanted his father’s wish to come true, and when Aethelred died he saw it was his chance. He renewed the invasions, but now there was a new adversary opposite him: Edmund II Ironside, Aethelred’s successor and son by his first marriage. Edmund was heavily defeated at Ashingdon (October 18th, 1016) and had to cede Canute all of England except Wessex. But before the agreement was implemented, Edmund died and the Danes obtained the rest of the country as well. Canute was crowned shortly after. ‘Daddy, you were right’, he is believed to have said.
         Canute had finally “caught” what his ancestors had been trying to “catch” for a couple of centuries and he could not let go of it. He needed a way to ensure the continuity on the throne for his descendants. And he thought of Emma. She was now a widow and had two sons, Alfred and Edward. They were a menace to the Danish permanence in England and were not allowed to live on the island; so they were sent to Normandy. We don’t know what kind of tricks Canute used in order to convince Emma to marry him; we don’t know if it was his sex appeal, or if Emma, having been a queen for so long, simply accepted because she wanted to continue to be a queen, it didn’t matter who the king was. Whatever the case may be, they married.
         Canute’s reign was not so bad as anyone could expect. In fact he allowed other people to have power too, a really commendable show of generosity from him. The Saxon earls enjoyed certain privileges and some of them became very powerful, especially Leofric, Earl of Mercia and Godwine, Earl of Wessex. The first is famous because of his wife, Lady Godiva, who rode in her birthday suit through the streets of Coventry in order to convince her husband that he should free the town from some heavy taxes; the second because of his son Harold, who would be the last Saxon king in England some years later, ...and because of himself, since he ordered the imprisonment of Alfred, the elder son of Aethelred and Emma, and possible claimant to the throne.
         Canute and Emma had one son: Hardicanute (or Harthacnut). Canute had one more son by another marriage, Harold Harefoot. Both of them were also kings of England after his death: Harold from 1035 to 1040 and Hardicanute from 1040 to 1042, but their reigns were very unpopular. When they died without leaving any descendants, the Danish presence in Britain came to an end.
         There was only one possible candidate for the throne, but he was in France. He was the one the Witan had elected: Edward, Aethelred’s second son by Emma. With this decision, things returned to normal. There had been an interruption in the royal line of succession but now it had been restored: a legitimate son of the previous Saxon king was on the throne.
Edward was known as the Confessor because of his liking for religion; he was a little more worried about God than about his people and lived an ascetic life. He did not even like war, so many considered him to be a weirdo. He built Westminster Abbey and moved the court from Winchester to Westminster, where nowadays it still is. He had spent most of his life in Normandy and he only spoke French. When he came to Britain, he brought with him his Norman friends in order to put them in the highest offices (that’s what friends are for!), which some Saxon nobles disliked, particularly Godwine, whose son Harold was starting to be known in high places.
There was someone who preferred to stay in Normandy: William, Edward’s cousin. But one day he paid a visit to the new king and found Britain “quite interesting”. It was the year 1051:

‘What a nice country you’ve got, cousin Edward...! If only I could have a whole  island for myself... Oh, cousin, you are so lucky!’
‘Do you want it? I have no children to succeed me. You are my cousin, so...’
‘Are you kidding? Will you give it to me?...Yes? Say you will, yes, say you  will, oh please!’
‘Yes, it will be yours. I promise.’
‘OK, it’s a deal! Let’s shake on it!’

         For the Witan, however, Harold, who had succeeded his father as Earl of Wessex, was a better candidate for the throne. He did not have blue blood in his veins  but he had proved to be brave and powerful. Ill luck made a ship Harold was sailing in be driven on to the coast of Normandy in 1065; the castaway was brought before William, who did not want to release him until Harold promised him something:

         ‘I’ll only let you go when you promise me that you won’t claim the throne of England’
         ‘Well..., I hadn’t thought of claiming it, but now that you mention it...’
         ‘Swear that you won’t try to get it... Will you recognize me as the only heir...?
  Yes?... Say you will, yes, say you will, oh please!’
         ‘OK, don’t insist. It will be yours. I promise.’

         So Harold was freed and he returned to England, all the way thinking about how he would forget about the promise he had just made. King Edward died in January 1066 and now there was an empty seat at Westminster. The late king himself had also forgotten about the promise he had made to the Norman pretender and had named Harold to succeed him. Everybody seemed to have gone back on their word and William felt they had pulled a fast one on him.
         Harold was crowned, but he joined the list of the kings who were in power for less than one year. His reign started in January and ended in October. While he was in the north of England trying to suppress a new Danish rebellion, William and his men were landing in the south of England. They had caught him with his pants down: he was too far and the south was practically unprotected. Harold rushed to meet him, not to welcome him but to tell him that he would be very pleased to see the back of him. But  Harold’s army was exhausted after the campaign in the north..., and it was much more poorly equipped than the powerful Norman army.
         The two contenders met at Hastings on the 14th of October, 1066. Harold was slain in the battle from an arrow through the eye (that is what it is called making a  bull’s eye), and William was crowned King of England in Westminster Abbey on Christmas Day. That was the end of the Saxon dynasty. Six hundred years had gone by since Angles, Saxons and Jutes first arrived in Britain..., six centuries which had witnessed many important events. They had ruled the country for a long time, but now the ball was in some other folk’s court. The battle of Hastings meant the beginning of a new age: the Norman period. There were good things in it..., and there were bad things. Some things changed..., and some stayed the same... But that..., dear reader, that’s  another story!.

Chapter IV: Exercises

1.- A well-deserved epithet
         Well is very often the beginning of some compound adjectives. Complete the following sentences with the compounds in the box:
 1.1.- someone who is sensible and does  not have emotional problems is a __________ person.
 1.2.- someone who wears smart or elegant clothes  is a __________ person.
 1.3.- someone who is wealthy is __________.
 1.4.- something that has existed for a long time and is successful is __________.
 1.5.- something that is intended to be helpful but it has unfortunate results is __________.
 1.6.- someone who belongs to an upper-class family is a __________ person.
 1.7.- if someone behaves in a way that is considered correct, they are __________ people.
 1.8.- someone who has good manners is a __________ person. A synonym is “well-mannered”.
 1.9.- someone who is admired and respected is a __________ person
 1.10.- a room which is always neat and tidy is a __________ room.
 1.11.- if you have been working hard, you may take a __________ rest.
 1.12.- someone who is strong and muscular is __________.
 1.13.- someone who has influential relations or friends is a __________ person.
 1.14.- someone who gets food regularly is __________.
 1.15.- an old person who still looks young is __________.
 1.16.- someone who has a lot of books and has learnt a lot from them is a __________ person.
 1.17.- an action which is done at the most appropriate time is a __________ action.
 1.18.- someone who knows much about a particular subject is __________ in it.
 1.19.- if you are willing to take part in an activity, you are __________ to it.
 1.20.- someone who receives a good salary is __________.


2.- They knew which side their bread was buttered on
         Note the use of the preposition at the end of the sentence. This is not strange in English. For example:
                   I am afraid of something + What? =  What are you afraid of?
Now do as in the example:
         2.1.- I am looking at something + What...? = ____________________?
         2.2.- I’m fed up with something + What...? = ____________________?
         2.3.- I’m getting married next week + Who...? = ____________________?
         2.4.- I’m getting into trouble + What kind of trouble...? = ____________________?

Sometimes the preposition can be placed at the beginning of the clause, but this is more common in a formal style. So To whom were you talking? is more formal than Who were you talking to?.

Now make the following sentences a bit more formal:
2.5.- The house we live in is quite old: _________________________
2.6.- I need an assistant to work with: _________________________
2.7.- Who was penicillin discovered by?: _________________________
2.8.- I wanted to know whose side he was on: _________________________
2.9.- I don’t remember which shelf I left my book on: _________________________
2.10.-That is the firm I worked for in 1989: _________________________

3.- In two shakes of a lamb’s tail
         Lamb, as many other words which refer to animals, is used in a few expressions in English. So for example, someone who acts like a lamb does things obediently without causing any trouble. One more expression which uses this word is mutton dressed as lamb, but what does it mean? Choose one of the following options:
         a.- a person who pretends to be a friend but who wants to cause you some harm or trouble
         b.- a promise which is unrealistic
         c.- a person you go to for help when there is urgent need or great difficulty
         d.- someone who tries to look younger than they are in order to appear attractive to other people.
                            The correct answer is: ...........................
         The other expressions which do not correspond to the correct definition above are any port in a storma snake in the grass and a pie in the sky. Could you now connect them with their correct definition?
         1.- any port in a storm:
         2.- a snake in the grass:
         3.- a pie in the sky:

4.-  The down-and-outs
         The phrase down-and-out consists of three words which are joined by hyphens. There are other substantives in English which are formed in the same way. In the following examples there is always one missing word. Complete the compound nouns with them.
         4.1.-  son-___-law          4.2.-  forget-___-not                4.3.- love-___-a-mist
         4.4.-  lady-___-waiting             4.5.-  toad-___-the-hole           4.6.-  ___-islander
         4.7.-  passer-___                     4.8.-  ___-licence                     4.9.-  drop-___
         4.10.-  ___-goat                       4.11.- hanger-___           4.12.-  looker-___
         4.13.-  runner-___

by    in    in    in    in   off    off    she    up    on    on    me    out

5.- Red tape / To catch some red-handed / To roll out the red carpet
         Expressions with colours are very frequent in English and you have found many examples of them in this book. Red is one of the many colours used in these set phrases. Connect the following ones with their meanings:

a.- to see red
b.- to see the red light
c.- a red-letter day
d.- a red herring
e.- to paint the town red
f.- to be in the red
g.- like a red rag to a bull
h.- the red-light district
1.- to owe money to one’s bank
2.- an important or joyful occasion in one’s life
3.- the area of a city where prostitutes work
4.- provocative, which makes you extremely angry
5.- to become suddenly angry
6.- to celebrate something noisily in the street or other public
7.- to recognize danger
8.- an unimportant matter which is introduced into a discussion in
     order to distract attention from the important matter being

6.- Birds of a feather
         This phrase can be followed by some more words in order to form a proverb. The second part of it rhymes with the first. Try to guess what the ending of the proverb is.

Birds of a feather...

...stay together
...fly for ever
..are at the end of their tether
...flock together
...don’t change the weather


7.- He turned a deaf ear to their grief
         Here you have other phrases with the word ear. Complete them with the words in the box.
         7.1.- To __________ music by ear
         7.2.- To have a __________ ear for something
         7.3.- To be __________ ears
         7.4.- To be __________ to the ears in something
         7.5.- To be wet __________ the ears
         7.6.- Something goes in one ear and out the __________
         7.7.- To keep/have your ears to the __________
         7.8.- To listen to something/someone with only __________ an ear

half    other    all    behind    good    ground    up    play

8.- In deep water / To go through fire and water
         Now here are some other idioms with the word water. They have been split into two parts and mixed in the box below. Put their beginnings and endings together.

the bridge        to get into         to pour oil          on an idea
         like water         water under       to keep one’s         hot water
    to pour cold water                   to spend one´s money
  run deep        still waters      head above the water      on troubled waters           

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9.- A nine days’ wonder / Number one / Two’s company, three’s a crowd
         Below there are some common expressions in which numbers from one to ten appear. Complete them with the number that you consider appropriate. (Note: some of these numbers must be written in their plural form, that is, fivessixes, etc...)

         - a _____-armed bandit            - a _____-letter word               - Number _____ (an address)
         - a ____-man band                  - a _____-faced person            - the ____ senses
         - a rule of _____                      - _____-o’clock shadow                   - a _____-point turn
         - to be at _____ and sevens     - to look out for number _____         - to be on cloud _____
         - _____ to one                        - to dress yourself up to the _____
         - the _____ corners of the earth         - _____ of one and half a dozen of the other        

(The meanings of these expressions appear in the GLOSSARY)

10.- Grave
         This word has appeared in four expressions in this chapter. In the previous chapter, there was one more which also used it. Let’s check if you remember all of them. You are given some help below.

 10.1.- One of them means “to do something foolish or dangerous which will cause your own failure”.
           That expression is to dig ____________________ grave.
 10.2.- Another expression refers to a hypothetical situation. If someone who is dead knew something
           very shocking which is happening now perhaps they would turn _____________ graves.
 10.3.- When someone is about to die, you can say that they have _________________ grave.
 10.4.- If someone dies when they are very young, they come ___________________ grave.
 10.5.- And the last of them is used when you want to refer to something which happens throughout one’s
           life. Then you can say that something happens from _________________ the grave.

11.- Let’s strike a happy medium / To seek asylum
         Medium and asylum are words which come from Latin. The ending –um was typical in that language. Classical languages have had influence on English in the course of its history. A proof of that is the endings of some words and the plural forms that they take. So the plural of medium is media, except when medium refers to a person who is able to contact and speak to dead people, in which case the plural form is mediums. As we can see, these foreign plurals and the regular ones are both possible, although their use is different.  Formula is another example of this: its plural form is formulas when we are speaking in general, but  formulae when we are studying Mathematics. Could you now give the plural forms of these Latin/Greek words which are used in English? (Note: some of them accept both types)

   Word                Regular plural        Foreign plural            Word                 Regular plural        Foreign plural


12.- On second thoughts / Third time lucky / Love at first sight
         Ordinal numbers from first to seventh have been dropped in the following expressions. Their meanings are given so that it can be easier for you. Could you complete them?

 12.1.- the Press: the _______ estate
 12.2.- something that seems as if it is part of your character: one’s _______ nature
 12.3.- to know absolutely nothing about a matter: not to know the _______ thing about something
 12.4.- the wife of the president of a country: the _______ Lady
 12.5.- to be told about something by other people rather than learn it directly:  to learn something at
            _______ hand
 12.6.- to lose a competition: to come off ______ best
 12.7.- the cheapest and least comfortable section on a ship or train: _______-class
 12.8.- something beyond the limits of normal experience: the _______ dimension
 12.9.- someone who supports the enemies of the country, a traitor: a _______ columnist
 12.10.- to be extremely happy: to be in the _______ heaven
 12.11.- the earliest profitable results of an activity: the _______ fruits
 12.12.- to be tortured: to be given the _______ degree
 12.13.- to have supernatural powers: to have a _______ sense
 12.14.- one whose tastes and opinions are practically the same as yours: one’s _______ self
 12.15.- to do one’s job better than anyone else having the same job: to be _______ to none

13.- A wolf in sheep’s clothing / To put the cat among the pigeons / The birds and the bees
         These three phrases combine two animals in each of them. There are more expressions in which the same occurs. Which two animals for each of the following sentences are correct? Choose from the box below.
13.1.- to play _____ and _____ with someone
         13.2.- to rain _____ and _____
         13.3.- to lead a _____-and-_____ life
         13.4.- a _____-and-_____ story
         13.5.- the early _____ catches the _____
         13.6.- when the _____’s away, the _____ will play
         13.7.- to separate the _____ from the ____
         13.8.- to set a _____ to keep the _____

fox   worm   cats   cat   cat   cat   bird   bull   dog   dogs   mouse   mice   goats   geese  sheep   cock

14.- The green-eyed monster / Red-handed
         The words eyed and handed can be called “false participles” because they are nouns with an ending which is typical of verbs. Using this structure, how could you call the following items?

         14.1.- a girl who has red hair: ____________________
         14.2.- a woman who has long legs: ____________________
         14.3.- a baby with blue eyes: ____________________
         14.4.- a man with only one arm: ____________________
         14.5.- a shirt with long sleeves: ____________________
         14.6.- a house with a flat roof: ____________________
         14.7.- a plane with four engines: ____________________

15.- The black sheep of the family / A black eye
         The word black is used in short phrases such as a black boxthe black marketa black spota blacklegblackmaila black lista black-letter dayblack iceblack money, etc..., and also in some longer expressions as the ones which appear below. They have been split in several parts and put in the boxes. Write them correctly, but take into account that two boxes belonging to the same phrase can never be in contact with each other.

so black as
something in
to be in
to have
to be
someone black
to beat
and blue
someone’s black
and white
to be not
one is

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16.- The Holy Grail
         After having read about the search for the Holy Grail, we know many expressions which are related to the fact of looking for something which seems impossible. There is one more which could be added to the list. The words which form it are below, but they have been shuffled. Order them.

the   the   is   thought   to   wish   father

17.- They worked their fingers to the bone / Most of the historians point the finger at her
         More expressions with the word finger appear below, but they have been mixed with their meanings. Do as in the example:

Example:     to to have a be finger involved in in the one pie activity
                   to to have a be finger involved in in the one pie activity
         The phrase is: to have a finger in the pie
         The meaning is: to be involved in one activity

 17.1.- to twist to someone get them round to do anything one’s one wants little them to finger do
 17.2.- to have a to be finger involved in in many every activities at the pie same time
 17.3.- one’s to be very fingers clumsy when you are trying to are do something with all your thumbs
 17.4.- to keep to hope that one’s everything will fingers happen as you crossed want it to
 17.5.- to to wish them keep luck in one’s a difficulty fingers they crossed have to for someone go through
 17.6.- to put to tell the the police that finger they have done on something against someone the law
 17.7.- to get to suffer because one’s something you fingers did was burnt a mistake
 17.8.- to have to be very green good at fingers gardening
 17.9.- something you fail slips to get something through when it your has been fingers next to you

18.- Similar expressions
         The following expressions have appeared in this chapter. We can put them in pairs so that there is a connection in meaning between both of them. Match one expression in the first group and one expression in the second.

1.- to disappear from the face of the earth             a.- a pretty penny        
2.- to take it in turns                                    b.- to make both ends meet
3.- a king’s ransom                                     c.- men of the same kidney
4.- to wrangle for an ass’s shadow                        d.- a tall story
5.- to tighten one’s belt                               e.- to vanish into thin air
6.- to be at death’s door                             f.- to make a mountain out of a molehill
7.- to breathe one’s last                               g.- to rise from the ashes
8.- to have an account to settle with someone        h.- the ball is in someone’s court
9.- to get a second wind                              i.- to have one foot in the grave
10.- an old wives’ tale                                 j.- to square accounts with someone
11.- birds of a feather                                  k.- to kick the bucket

1- e
2 -
3 -
4 -
5 -
6 -
7 -
8 -
9 -
10 -
11 -

19.- A blind leader of the blind / A man of straw / A paper tiger
         King Aethelred has been described using a series of expressions which refer to a weak man who is not suitable for the job he is undertaking. One more could be added. It is in the box below. You need seven words which must be taken from it and ordered. There are two possibilities.

 big    round        square     in   coin     by   of   foot
     with     a     hammer   off   pocket    a   nail
 peg       small       hole      huge    out    clock   shoe


20.- The end of the Anglo-Saxon period and the beginning of the Norman period
         In this chapter we have seen how the feudal system started to be born. This system reached its peak, as we have read, during the Norman times. There is an expression which represents quite well the general idea of feudalism: the idea of giving something in return for another thing which is given to you by the other person. Try to find it by choosing one word or group of words from each column.

you can’t
you can’t
one door
scratch my
back and
an old
a will
cake and
dog new
eat it
a way
scratch yours

The expression we are looking for is: ________________________________________

The other expressions you get are: _________________________________________





Chapter 4: Angleland,Saxonland, Juteland, Vikingland

1.1.- well-balanced;   1.2.- well-dressed;  1.3.- well-off;   1.4.- well-established;   1.5.- well-meant;  1.6.- well-born;   1.7.- well-behaved;   1.8.- well-bred;   1.9.- well-thought-of;   1.10.- well-kept;  1.11.- well-earned;   1.12.- well-built;   1.13.- well-connected;   1.14.- well-fed;   1.15.- well-preserved;   1.16.- well-learned;   1.17.- well-timed;   1.18.- well-versed;   1.19.- well-disposed;   1.20.- well-paid
2.1.- What are you looking at?;   2.2.- What are you fed up with?;  2.3.- Who are you getting married to?;   2.4.- What kind of trouble are you getting into?   2.5.- The house in which we live is quite old;   2.6.- I need an assistant with whom to work;   2.7.- By whom was penicillin discovered?;   2.8.- I wanted to know on whose side he was;   2.9.- I don’t remember on which shelf I left my book;   2.10.- That is the firm for which I worked in 1989
3 The correct answer is: d.
   1-c;   2-a;   3-b
4.1.- son-in-law;   4.2.- forget-me-not;  4.3.- love-in-a-mist;  4.4.- lady-in-waiting;   4.5.- toad-in-the-hole;   4.6.- off-islander;   4.7.- passer-by;   4.8.- off-licence;   4.9.- drop-out;   4.10.- she-goat;  4.11.- hanger-on;   4.12.- looker-on;   4.13.- runner-up
5 a-5;   b-7;   c-2;   d-8;  e-6;   f-1;   g-4;   h-3
6 ...flock together
7.1.- play;   7.2.- good;   7.3.- all;   7.4.- up;   7.5.- behind;   7.6.- other;   7.7.- ground;   7.8.- half
8 water under the bridge;   to pour cold water on an idea;   to keep one’s head above water;   to get into hot water;   to spend one’s money like water;   to pour oil on troubled waters;   still waters run deep
9 a one-armed bandit;   a four-lettered word;    Number Ten;   a one-man band;   a two-faced person;  
the five senses;   a rule of three;   five-o’clock shadow;   a three-point turn;   to be at sixes and sevens;
to look out for number one;   to be on cloud nine;   ten to one;   to dress yourself up to the nines;   the four corners of the earth;   six of one and half a dozen of the other
10.1.- your own;   10.2.- in their;   10.3.- one foot in the;   10.4.- to an early;   10.5.- the cradle to


12.1.- fourth;   12.2.- second;   12.3.- first;   12.4.- First;   12.5.- second;   12.6.- second;   12.7.- third;  12.8.- fourth;   12.9.- fifth;  12.10.- seventh;  12.11.- first;  12.12.- third;   12.13.- sixth;   12.14.- second;   12.15.- second
13.1.- cat, mouse;   13.2.- cats, dogs;   13.3.- cat, dog;   13.4.- cock, bull;   13.5.- bird, worm; 
13.6.-cat, mice;   13.7.- sheep, goats;  13.8.- fox, geese
14.1.- a red-haired girl;   14.2.- a long-legged woman;   14.3.- a blue-eyed baby;   14.4.- a one-armed man;  14.5.- a long-sleeved shirt;   14.6.- a flat-roofed house;   14.7.- a four-engined plane
15 to be not so black as one is painted;   to have something in black and white;   to be dressed in black;   to beat someone black and blue;   to be in someone’s black books

16 the wish is father to the thought
17.1.- to twist to someone get them round to do anything one’s one wants little them to finger do
17.2.- to have a to be finger involved in in many every activities at the pie same time
17.3.- one’s to be very fingers clumsy when you are trying to are do something with all your thumbs 
17.4.- to keep to hope that one’s everything will fingers happen as you crossed want it to
17.5.- to to wish them keep luck in one’s a difficulty fingers they crossed have to for someone go
17.6.- to put to tell the the police that finger they have done on something against someone the law
17.7.- to get to suffer because one’s something you fingers did was burnt a mistake
17.8.- to have to be very green good at fingers gardening
17.9.- something you fail slips to get something through when it your has been fingers next to you
18 1-e;  2-h;   3-a;   4-f;   5-b;  6-i;   7-k;   8-j;   9-g;   10-d;   11-c
19 a square peg in a round hole (...or a round peg in a square hole)
20 The expression we are looking for is: you scratch my back and I’ll scratch yours
      The other expressions are:
-         you can’t have your cake and eat it
-         when one door shuts another opens
-         you can’t teach an old dog new tricks
-         where there’s a will there’s a way



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