Jan 062017
 

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This is a significant date when it comes to men styled king of England because both Cnut (the Great) and Harold Godwinson (Harold II) were crowned kings on this date – Cnut in 1017 and Harold in 1066 – and both have reasonable claim to being kings of England.  History is a queer duck, and how it is taught is even queerer. In the 1950s and 1960s I was taught bog standard Whig history – that is, the past is only of interest inasmuch as it leads to the present state of affairs.  Sellar and Yeatman lampooned this bad habit mercilessly in 1066 And All That – a volume I enjoyed as a youth for its overall wit, but completely missed their general point about what makes something in English history a “good thing” or a “bad thing.” More and more, also, I am of the opinion that 1066 was a crucial year in English history, but was not the be all and end all of things when it comes to defining the nation of England and its monarchs.

Whig history argues that the Norman kings, starting with William I (aka William the Bastard, Duke of Normandy), were the first REAL kings of England, because William unified England, and made himself king of the land that he unified. This is fair enough – up to a point – if you see England in terms of the present nation-state.  But what is England really?  Were its current borders set in stone from time immemorial? Or is England more of an historical mental abstraction than a permanent geographical reality?  In fact, do historians project back into the past a notion of “England” based on current reality?

There is no question in my mind that the Norman and Angevin kings of England saw England as a province of their territories in continental Europe, and would not have minded much if they had been called Count of England, or Duke of England – which is pretty much what they were. They took the title “king” from their Anglo-Saxon and Danish predecessors. They treated England as part of a much larger whole down to the time of King John, who is arguably the first real king of England in the Norman line – that is, the first king to see England as his predominant realm, rather than as a minor bit of a much larger realm. His brother, Richard I (the Lionheart), clearly had virtually no interest in England other than financial, and spent almost no time there. He was much more concerned with his French holdings and with the Crusades.  His fame as a legendary king of England comes directly from 19th century Romantic literature and 19th century historians, not from historical reality.

So who were the first kings of England? How do we make such an assessment? I’ll begin with Sellar and Yeatman:

Memorable among the Saxon warriors were Hengist and his wife (? or horse), Horsa. Hengist made himself King in the South. Thus Hengist was the first English King and his wife (or horse), Horsa, the first English Queen (or horse).

This is, of course, deliberate nonsense but it points up the historical problem of identifying the first “English” invaders and rulers. In his 8th century Ecclesiastical History, Bede records that the first chieftains among the Angles, Saxons, and Jutes in England were said to have been the brothers Hengist and Horsa. He relates that Horsa was killed in battle against the Britons [Celts] and was thereafter buried in East Kent, where, at the time of writing, a monument still stood to him. According to Bede, Hengist and Horsa were the sons of Wictgils, son of Witta, son of Wecta, son of Woden (i.e. the chief Norse god).

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Hengist is the Old English for “stallion” and Horsa for “horse.” Whether or not they were real men is unknowable at this point.

The 9th century Anglo-Saxon Chronicle states that in the year 449 Hengist and Horsa were invited to Britain by Vortigern to assist his forces in fighting the Picts. They landed at Eopwinesfleot (Ebbsfleet), and went on to defeat the Picts wherever they fought them. Hengist and Horsa sent word home to north Germany describing “the worthlessness of the Britons, and the richness of the land” and asked for assistance. Their request was granted and support arrived. Afterward, more people arrived in Britain from “the three powers of Germany; the Old Saxons, the Angles, and the Jutes”. The Saxons populated Essex, Sussex, and Wessex; the Jutes Kent, the Isle of Wight, and part of Hampshire; and the Angles East Anglia, Mercia, and Northumbria (leaving their original homeland, Angeln, deserted). These forces were led by Hengist and Horsa who were sons of Wihtgils, son of Witta, son of Wecta, son of Woden.

In the entry for the year 455 the Chronicle details that Hengist and Horsa fought with Vortigern at Aylesford and that Horsa died there. Hengist took control of the kingdom with his son Esc. In 457, Hengist and Esc fought against British forces in Crayford “and there slew four thousand men”. The Britons left the land of Kent and fled to London. In 465, Hengest and Esc fought again at the Battle of Wippedesfleot, probably near Ebbsfleet, and slew twelve British leaders. In the year 473, the final entry in the Chronicle mentioning Hengist or Horsa, Hengist and Esc are recorded as having taken “immense booty” and the Britons having “fled from the English like fire.”

Was Hengist, therefore, the first king of England?  He did not really rule a whole lot of what is now the nation of England. On that score Alfred the Great, king of Wessex, is often thought of as the first king of all England (although his kingdom was much smaller than modern England). While Alfred was not the first king to lay claim to rule all of the English, his rule represents the first unbroken line of kings to rule the whole of England (as it then was) – the House of Wessex.

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Arguments are made for a few different kings who controlled enough of the ancient kingdoms of the Anglo-Saxons to be deemed the first king of England. For example, Offa, king of Mercia, and Egbert, king of Wessex, are sometimes described as kings of England by popular writers, but not by all historians. In the late 8th century Offa achieved a dominance over southern England that did not survive his death in 796. In 829 Egbert conquered Mercia, but he soon lost control of it. By the late 9th century Wessex was the dominant Anglo-Saxon kingdom. Its king, Alfred the Great, was overlord of western Mercia and used the title King of the Angles and Saxons, but he never ruled eastern and northern England, which was then the Danelaw. His son Edward the Elder conquered the eastern Danelaw, but Edward’s son Æthelstan became the first king to rule the whole of England when he conquered Northumbria in 927, and he is regarded by some modern historians as the first king of England.

So, what about today’s coronations of Cnut and Harold II? Both are recorded as taking place on Christmas Day, which in Old Style is 25 December, but in the Gregorian Calendar is today. Cnut the Great (c. 995 – 12 November 1035), also known as Canute, was king of Denmark, England and Norway, together often referred to as the Anglo-Scandinavian or North Sea Empire. After his death, the deaths of his heirs within a decade, and the Norman conquest of England in 1066, his legacy was largely lost to history. He is still chiefly remembered for the falsely re-told legend that makes him out to be so boastful that he claimed he could command the tide and got wet feet in the process. The actual tale is much more kind to him. In it his lords try to flatter him by saying that he is so mighty as to be able to control the elements, and he proves them wrong by showing that he cannot control the tide.

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Cnut’s father was Sweyn Forkbeard, king of Denmark (which gave Cnut the patronym Sweynsson, Old Norse Sveinsson). As a Danish prince, Cnut won the throne of England in 1016 in the wake of centuries of Viking activity in northwestern Europe. His accession to the Danish throne in 1018 brought the crowns of England and Denmark together. Cnut maintained his power by uniting Danes and English under cultural bonds of wealth and custom, as well as by sheer brutality. After a decade of conflict with opponents in Scandinavia, Cnut claimed the crown of Norway in Trondheim in 1028. The Swedish city Sigtuna was held by Cnut. He had coins struck there that called him king, but there is no narrative record of his occupation.

The kingship of England lent the Danes an important link to the maritime zone between the islands of Great Britain and Ireland, where Cnut, like his father before him, had a strong interest and wielded much influence among the Norse–Gaels. Cnut’s possession of England’s dioceses and the continental Diocese of Denmark – with a claim laid upon it by the Holy Roman Empire’s Archdiocese of Hamburg-Bremen—was a source of great leverage within the Catholic Church, gaining notable concessions from Pope Benedict VIII and his successor John XIX. After his 1026 victory against Norway and Sweden, and on his way to Rome for this coronation, Cnut, in a letter written for the benefit of his subjects, which only now exists in two twelfth-century Latin versions, deemed himself “King of all England and Denmark and the Norwegians and of some of the Swedes.” The Anglo-Saxon kings used the title “king of the English.” Cnut was ealles Engla landes cyning—”king of all England.” In this respect he was king of England in the same way that the Norman kings were – that is, England was a province within a much larger realm.

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Harold Godwinson or Harold II (Old English: Harold Godƿinson, pronounced [hɑroɫd ɣodwinzon]; Old Norse: Haraldr Guðinason) was the last Anglo-Saxon king of England although his reign consisted entirely of fending off contenders for the throne. Harold reigned from 6 January 1066 until his death at the Battle of Hastings on 14 October, fighting the Norman invaders led by William the Conqueror.

Harold was a powerful earl and member of a prominent Anglo-Saxon family with ties to Cnut the Great.  In 1051 Harold’s boat in which he was perhaps fishing or traveling for some reason was driven across the Channel by an unexpected storm. There is general agreement that he left from Bosham, and was blown off course, landing at Ponthieu. He was captured by Guy I, Count of Ponthieu, and was then taken as a hostage to the count’s castle at Beaurain, 24.5 km up the River Canche from its mouth at what is now Le Touquet. Duke William of Normandy arrived soon afterward and ordered Guy to turn Harold over to him. Harold then apparently accompanied William to battle against William’s enemy, Conan II, Duke of Brittany. While crossing into Brittany past the fortified abbey of Mont Saint-Michel, Harold is recorded as rescuing two of William’s soldiers from quicksand. They pursued Conan from Dol-de-Bretagne to Rennes, and finally to Dinan, where he surrendered the fortress’s keys at the point of a lance. William presented Harold with weapons and arms, knighting him. The Bayeux Tapestry, and other Norman sources, then record that Harold swore an oath on sacred relics to William to support his claim to the English throne. After Edward the Confessor’s death, the Normans were quick to point out that in accepting the crown of England, Harold had broken this alleged oath.

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At the end of 1065 Edward the Confessor fell into a coma without clarifying his preference for the succession. He died on 5 January 1066, according to the Vita Ædwardi Regis, but not before briefly regaining consciousness and commending his widow and the kingdom to Harold’s “protection”. The intent of this charge remains ambiguous, as is the Bayeux Tapestry, which simply depicts Edward pointing at a man thought to represent Harold. When the Witenagemot convened the next day they selected Harold to succeed, and his coronation followed on 6 January, most likely held in Westminster Abbey, though no evidence from the time survives to confirm this. Later Norman sources point suspiciously to the suddenness of this coronation but some modern historians suggest that all the nobles of the land were present at Westminster simply for the feast of Christmas and not because of any usurpation of the throne on Harold’s part. This seems quite dubious to me. Christmas was not a major feast in those days.

Hearing of Harold’s coronation, Duke William began plans to invade England, building 700 warships and transports at Dives-sur-Mer on the Normandy coast. Initially, William could not get support for the invasion but, claiming that Harold had sworn on sacred relics to support his claim to the throne  William received the Church’s blessing and nobles flocked to his cause. In anticipation of the invasion, Harold assembled his troops on the Isle of Wight, but the invasion fleet remained in port for almost seven months, perhaps due to unfavorable winds. On 8th September, with provisions running out, Harold disbanded his army and returned to London. On the same day Harald Hardrada of Norway, who also claimed the English crown joined Tostig and invaded, landing his fleet at the mouth of the Tyne.

The invading forces of Hardrada and Tostig defeated the English earls Edwin of Mercia and Morcar of Northumbria at the Battle of Fulford near York on 20 September 1066. Harold led his army north on a forced march from London, reached Yorkshire in four days, and caught Hardrada by surprise. On 25 September, in the Battle of Stamford Bridge, Harold defeated Hardrada and Tostig, who were both killed.

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According to Snorri Sturluson, before the battle a single man rode up alone to Harald Hardrada and Tostig. He gave no name, but spoke to Tostig, offering the return of his earldom if he would turn against Hardrada. Tostig asked what his brother Harold would be willing to give Hardrada for his trouble. The rider replied “Seven feet of English ground, as he is taller than other men.” Then he rode back to the Saxon host. Hardrada was impressed by the rider’s boldness, and asked Tostig who he was. Tostig replied that the rider was Harold Godwinson himself.

So that’s our kings for today. Today is also Epiphany which in many countries is called Three Kings because it marks the arrival of the “kings” (or magi) in Bethlehem. We have only two kings but we can celebrate in traditional way with a king cake.  What counts as a king cake varies enormously from culture to culture and throughout history.  The Victorians are legendary for their highly decorated efforts.  These were pretty solid fruit cakes, much like Christmas cake.

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New Orleans king cakes go on sale now and are regular features until Mardi Gras, perhaps a remnant of the fact that in the Middle Ages the Christmas season extended until Lent.

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For my king cake I’ve made an Anglo-Italian hybrid – a zuppa inglese (a version of panettone) topped with mincemeat and whipped cream.

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Jan 062015
 

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Today is Epiphany. In Western Christianity, the feast commemorates principally (but not solely) the visit of the Magi to the Christ child in Bethlehem. Eastern Christians commemorate the baptism of Jesus in the Jordan River, seen as his manifestation to the world as the Son of God. These differences are reflected in the ways in which the feast is celebrated in East and West, liturgically and secularly. In some traditions Epiphany represents the start of the Carnival season (sometimes called the Epiphany season) as an extension of Christmas, lasting until Ash Wednesday

Although the Magi are often referred to as “kings,” as in the carol “We Three Kings”, a better translation of the original Greek, magoi, is magician. In this case, given that they were following a star to Bethlehem it may be better to think of them astrologers. The story of their journey (Matthew 2:1-12 https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=Matthew%202&version=ESV ) makes no mention of their number. The assumption that there were three of them stems from the fact that they brought three gifts – gold, frankincense, and myrrh (assigning one gift to each). But there could have been 2 or 10 of them bearing the gifts jointly. They are usually given the names Balthasar, Melchior, and Gaspar, with increasingly elaborate tales told about their lives. Of course, none of this is Biblical.

On the Feast of the Epiphany in some parts of central Europe the priest, wearing white vestments, blesses Epiphany water, frankincense, gold, and chalk. The chalk is used to write the initials of the three magi over the doors of churches and homes. The letters stand for the initials of the Magi, and also the phrase Christus mansionem benedicat, which translates as “may Christ bless the house”.

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Today in Eastern Orthodox churches, the emphasis of this feast is on the shining forth and revelation of Jesus Christ as the Messiah and Second Person of the Trinity at the time of his baptism. It is also celebrated because, according to tradition, the baptism of Jesus in the Jordan River by John the Baptist marked one of only two occasions when all three Persons of the Trinity manifested themselves simultaneously to humanity: God the Father by speaking through the clouds, God the Son being baptized in the river, and God the Holy Spirit in the shape of a dove descending from heaven (the other occasion was the Transfiguration on Mount Tabor). Thus the holy day is considered to be a Trinitarian feast.

Epiphany is celebrated with a wide array of customs around the world. There are way too many traditional customs for me to recount here, so I’ll mention a few.

In much of Latin America (including Argentina), the day is called “Día de los Reyes” (The Day of Kings) or some variant, commemorating the arrival of the Magi to confirm Jesus as son of God. The night of January 5 into the morning of January 6 is known as “Noche de Reyes” (The Night of Kings) and children leave their shoes by the door, along with grass and water for the camels. In the morning of January 6, they get a present, usually sweet things filling their shoes. In times past, Día de los Reyes was the day for presents and not Christmas Day. My sisters and I used to do this as children in Buenos Aires, and so I did it when I lived there even though I am an adult. Even now gift giving is not a major element of Christmas in Argentina. But the tradition of Santa at Christmas in Latin American countries in general has slowly become more common. On January 6, a version of “Rosca de Reyes” (a ring-shaped Epiphany cake) is eaten. These are more commonly bought at bakeries rather than made at home.

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The Dutch and Flemish call this day Driekoningen, while German speakers call it Dreikönigstag (Three Kings’ Day). In the Netherlands, Belgium, Luxembourg and neighboring Germany, children in groups of three (symbolizing the three kings) proceed in costume from house to house while singing songs typical for the occasion, and receiving a coin or some sweets at each door. They may each carry a paper lantern symbolizing the star. In some places, especially Holland, these troops gather for competitions and present their skits/songs for an audience. As in Belgium, Koningentaart (Kings’ tart), puff pastry with almond filling, is prepared with a black bean hidden inside. Whoever finds the bean in his or her piece is king or queen for the day. A more typically Dutch version is Koningenbrood, or Kings’ bread. Another Low Countries tradition on Epiphany is to open up doors and windows to let good luck in for the coming year.

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In England Epiphany, where it is still celebrated, has adopted the customs once traditional for Twelfth Night (see http://www.bookofdaystales.com/twelfth-night/ ) The Twelfth Cake has migrated, for example. Unique to English tradition is that other items were sometimes included in the cake besides the bean and pea. Whoever found the clove was the villain, the twig, the fool, and the rag, the tart. Anything spicy or hot, like ginger snaps and spiced ale, was considered proper Twelfth Night fare, recalling the costly spices brought by the Wise Men. Another English Epiphany dessert was the jam tart, but made into a six-point star for the occasion to symbolize the Star of Bethlehem, and thus called Epiphany tart. The discerning English cook sometimes tried to use thirteen different colored jams on the tart on this day for luck, creating a dessert with the appearance of stained glass.

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In France people share one of two types of king cake. In the northern half of France and Belgium the cake is called a galette des Rois, and is a round, flat, and golden cake made with flake pastry and often filled with frangipane, fruit, or chocolate.

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In the south, in Provence, and in the south-west, a crown-shaped cake or brioche filled with fruit called a gâteau des Rois is eaten. Both types of cake contain a charm, usually a porcelain or plastic figurine, called a fève (bean in French). The cake is cut by the youngest (and therefore most innocent) person at the table to assure that the recipient of the bean is random. The person who gets the piece of cake with the trinket becomes “king” or “queen” and wears a paper crown provided with the cake. This person has a choice between offering a beverage to everyone around the table (usually a sparkling wine or champagne), or volunteering to host the next king cake at their home. Originally this custom was performed every Sunday until Lent.

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In parts of southern India, Epiphany is called the Three Kings Festival and is celebrated in front of the local church like a fair. Families come together and cook sweet rice porridge called Pongal. This day marks the close of the Advent and Christmas season and people remove the cribs and nativity sets at home. In Goa Epiphany may be locally known by its Portuguese name Festa dos Reis. Celebrations include a widely Panjim. Other popular Epiphany processions are held in Chandor. Here three young boys in regal robes and splendid crowns descend the nearby hill of Our Lady of Mercy on horseback towards the main church where a three-hour festival Mass is celebrated. The route before them is decorated with streamers, palm leaves and balloons with the smallest children present lining the way, shouting greetings to the Kings. The Kings are traditionally chosen, one each, from Chandor’s three hamlets of Kott, Cavorim and Gurdolim, whose residents helped build the Chandor church in 1645.

Epiphany, The THree KIngs arrive in Salcete, Goa, India

In the past the kings were chosen only from among high-caste families, but since 1946 the celebration has been open to all. Participation is still expensive as it involves getting a horse, costumes, and providing a lavish buffet to the community afterwards, in all totaling some 100,000 rupees (about US$2,250) per king. This is undertaken gladly since having son serve as a king is considered a great honor and a blessing on the family.

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The Saint Thomas Christians of Kerala State, Epiphany is known by its Syriac name Denha. Saint Thomas Christians, like other Eastern Christians, celebrate Denha as a great feast to commemorate the Baptism of Jesus in the river Jordan. The liturgical season Denhakalam (“Weeks of Epiphany”) commemorates the second revelation at the Baptism and the subsequent public life of Jesus. Denha is celebrated on January 6 by the Syro-Malabar Church, the largest Church of the Thomas Christians, in two ways – Pindiperunnal (“Plantain trunk feast”) and Rakkuliperunal (“Feast with a night bath”).

The Irish call Epiphany the Feast of the Epiphany or traditionally Little Christmas or “Women’s Christmas” (Irish: Nollaig na mBan). On the feast of the Three Kings, women traditionally rested and celebrated for themselves after the cooking and work of the Christmas holidays. The custom was for women to gather on this day for a special meal, but on the occasion of Epiphany accompanied by wine, to honor the Miracle at the Wedding at Cana.[citation needed] Today, women may dine at a restaurant or gather in a pub in the evening. They may also receive gifts from children, grandchildren or other family members on this day. Other Epiphany customs, which symbolize the end of the Christmas season, are popular in Ireland, such as the burning the sprigs of Christmas holly in the fireplace which have been used as decorations during the past twelve days.

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These are king cakes of the type locally called “French style” on display at the chain bakery/restaurant “La Madeline” branch in Carrollton, New Orleans. They come with cardboard “crowns” to be worn by whoever gets the slice with the token and becomes monarch of the event.

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In Louisiana, Epiphany is the beginning of the Carnival season, during which it is customary to bake King Cakes, similar to the Rosca mentioned above. It is round in shape, filled with cinnamon, glazed white, and coated in traditional carnival color sanding sugar. The person who finds the doll (or bean) must provide the next king cake. The interval between Epiphany and Mardi Gras is sometimes known as “king cake season”, and many may be consumed during this period. The Carnival season begins on King’s Day (Epiphany), and there are many traditions associated with that day in Louisiana and along the Catholic coasts of Mississippi, Alabama, and Florida. King cakes are first sold then, Carnival krewes begin having their balls on that date, and the first New Orleans krewe parades in street cars that night.

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Tarpon Springs, Florida is known for elaborate religious ceremonies related to the Greek Orthodox Church, the most notable being the Epiphany celebration. The Metropolitan of Atlanta usually presides over the blessings, sometimes joined by the Archbishop of America. The blessings conclude with the ceremonial throwing of a wooden cross into the city’s Spring Bayou, and boys ages 16 to 18 diving in to retrieve it. Whoever recovers the cross is said to be blessed for a full year. Following the blessings, the celebration moves to the Sponge Docks where food and music are made part of the festivities. Tarpon Springs has given itself the nickname Epiphany City.The celebration attracts Greek Americans from across the country, and the city’s population is known to triple in size for that day.

In Manitou Springs, Colorado, Epiphany is marked by the Great Fruitcake Toss. Fruitcakes are thrown, participants dress as kings, fools, etc., and competitions are held for the farthest throw, the most creative projectile device, etc. As with customs in other countries, the fruitcake toss is a sort of festive symbolic leave-taking of the Christmas holidays until next year, but with humorous twist, since fruitcake (although the traditional Christmas bread of America, England and other English speaking nations) is considered in the United States with a certain degree of derision, and is the source of many jokes. I do understand why, however. U.S. fruitcake is vile. Not unlike U.S. beer, also vile –pallid and tasteless.. No one in the U.S. who has tasted my (English) fruitcake objects. Don’t get me started.

I gave a recipe for Twelfth cake yesterday which can be used for an Epiphany cake too.  In most countries I know of people buy them from bakers.  So here’s a little gallery.

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