Welcome to Withenay’s Wednesday Word: a wandering, wondering dip into the dictionary. The topics are always varied and rarely predictable!
in Anglo-Saxon England, a king’s companion or noble of low rank
in Scottish, a hereditary (not military) tenant of the Crown, often a clan chief
from Old English thegn servant, follower, courtier, nobleman; or Old Norse thegn a man, warrior
Unusually, I have chosen a word this week that is not likely to crop up in everyday conversation (nor even be forced in: in our family we score points if we manage to squeeze in words such as discombobulation or indubitably, were the correct opportunity to arise). By definition, thane is Old – be it the Anglo-Saxon definition or the Scottish. However the word has not become defunct, as it describes a certain class of person that will be found in historical records, and as soon as we tell at tale from a thousand years ago we must include these important people.
So why this word, and why today?
My son has come home from school with history homework: to list the reasons why a particular person should be king of England, specifically William or Harold or Harald. He did the beautiful thing of arguing why Harold (Godwinson) should become king, knowing that in the end he did. Though he didn’t reign for long: William (the Conqueror) took care of that at the Battle of Hastings.
At the front of his history book is a sheet with some target questions that he is to be able to answer at the completion of the topic. First question: Why did William win at the Battle of Hastings?
“Because of the Battle of Stamford Bridge!” I scream at my son. (This disconcerting outburst didn’t really help him with his homework.)
Everyone knows 1066: The Battle of Hastings. Immortalised in the book 1066 and All That, it is one of the two dates that any child should know. (According to the book, the other is 55BC, when the Romans invaded Britain.) (And really, honestly, if you possibly can, if you have even a vague interest and knowledge of British history and a sense of humour, you should read the book.)
Yet little is ever spoken about The Battle of Stamford Bridge. Fought on 25 September 1066, Harold had marched his army up to York having heard that Harald Hardrada (the other claimant to the throne) and his Viking fleet had invaded. The march from London took just 4 days, surprising the Norse contingent. Caught unawares, and on a sunny day, many were without armour and killed instantly. There is a lovely story of one Norseman obstructing progress across the River Derwent by standing on a bridge, killing any of Edward’s men that dared challenge him. This Goliath-like man was uprooted, though, by some ingenious Saxons who got in a barrel, floated downstream and then shoved a sword up between the planks of the bridge – a particularly painful way for a man to die I suspect!
The battle was bloody, with many hundreds of men dying on both sides…but Harold was victorious. It was a turning point in our history as the last major invasion by the Vikings in Britain. Three days later, William landed from Normandy, attacking England from the South. Edward had no choice but to gather up his men, march 250 miles south to Hastings and fight. Exhausted, depleted in numbers (particularly in thanes – the leaders who would have been close to the king), Harold lost his second battle within a month – killed by an arrow in the eye.
The Battle of Stamford Bridge: 1047 years ago today.
Everyone in Stamford Bridge, including me
Has gone down in history
Just because of one small fight
England fought with all its might
(Poem written by me, aged 8.)
(Never destined to be poet laureate.)