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Viking Longships at WarToday the word ‘Gentleman’ is fairly regularly used most people understand what is meant by the word; but if we look back in Britain’s history Celtic Britain was totally devoid of what we would recognise as Gentlemen.

There were soldiers, tradesmen and artists, all of whom had, then as now, their own reasons for evading categorisation as Gentlemen.  

When one Celtic tribe captured another, it would line all the men up and, one by one, cut off their heads. The line could be hundreds long. Then, the victors would kill any children who were not useful; the winners would then rape and enslave the wives and daughters.  

William the Conqueror partially revived this practice, shortly before he arrived in England.  Wishing to provoke an early end to a siege, he took the leading townspeople, who had unwisely fallen into his hands, sat them on a row of logs facing the city walls, then had his men cut off his prisoners’ hands and feet. The city capitulated. William sacked it anyway, authorizing his men to rape and kill its occupants. It did not set an encouraging precedent for any proto-gentleman in Britain in the summer of 1066.

Arguably, there was one such person: Harold Godwinson, King of England. Harold faced two enemies, William and Tostig, Harold’s own brother, who chose to invade England with Harald Hardrada, the 6ft 5 inch, King of Norway and the most-feared warrior in Europe. They came with 18,000 confederates, the largest Viking force ever to do so.

Harold headed to the North, covering nearly 200 miles in a handful of days. His first priority was to persuade his brother to come back to the side of right, as he saw it and then to deal with the Viking threat. He was a brother first and a politician second, but, above all, he was compassionate.

We can divine in this the early articulation of a moral code that was different from William or Hardrada’s. Harold feared the shame that Tostig’s action would bring down upon his family. Shameful actions were not uncommon in the era but then neither was fatricide. Brothers, since Cain and Abel, had killed one another, with or without kingdoms and the lives of innocents at stake.

Harold arrived in Yorkshire, unexpectedly early, surprising Tostig and the Vikings, who were getting up for breakfast.  Harold, joined by another of his other brothers, Gyrth, galloped over, unarmed and without an escort, to meet their brutal foe and  their brother.

This would have been suicide under any normal considerations but Harold did two things that saved his life. The first was to smear his and his loyal brother’s face with mud so that they looked like lowly foot soldiers rather than the two most powerful men in England, the second was to talk ‘man to man’ to his errant brother.

Harold, pretending to be a messenger with a muddy face, opened the negotiations: “Harold asks you, his brother, to abandon this disastrous course and return to his family. You shall be forgiven. Come home.”

Tostig could see full well that it was Harold under the thin disguise. He also knew that Hardrada, if he knew, would butcher the two men on the spot. Rather than give his brothers away, Tostig asked  Harold a question: “What will Harold give my friend, the King of Norway?”

Harold sized up his monstrously-sized opponent and said: “He offers him seven feet of English soil.” Tostig replied, “It shall not be said that I brought a king to these shores, only to betray him.”

Harold, seeing that his brother was ‘voting for the other side’, turned his horse and rode away. Watching him go, Hardrada turned to Tostig: “He rides well for an ordinary man.” Tostig replied, that it was no ordinary man, that it was Harold, the King of England. Harald, astonished and contemptuously, shouted that, had he known, he would have butchered Harold and Gyrth, there and then, diplomatic status notwithstanding.

I would argue that both Tostig and Harold displayed early gentlemanly values in this exchange, while the King of Norway did  not. Harold displayed compassion, abiding principles, moral strength and great personal courage. These were all virtues his followers appreciated.

In the ensuing battle, the largest Viking force ever to invade England was annihilated and the Viking threat to Britain ended after nearly two-hundred years of brutal pillaging. Tostig was also killed. When Harold found his brother’s body, he wept and gave him an honourable burial. He did not decapitate the body, despite the claim made after the event by William.

When dealing with the Norman threat, Harold had less scope for moral choices or those prompted by his humane principles. William was a notorious butcher of men, women and children. Instead of waiting to build a larger army, Harold raced South and attempted to surprise William’s sleeping army at night. In this he failed and in a battle that he subsequently very nearly won by a fresh display of discipline, courage and fine personal example, Harold and all his surviving brothers were killed, along with the flowers of English soldiery.

William embarked upon an orgy of killing, in which he particularly singled out the unarmed, the female and the under-age.  It took him four years of sustained butchery to subdue the country, at the end of which, he took his knights to Winchester so that they could ask God for forgiveness.

William died of an accidental wound, sustained in a hunt, when he punctured his stomach with the pommel of his saddle. It took him five days to die of a gangrenous infection, at the end of which struggle, he fully believed he was going to hell for his accumulated sins.

Somewhere, in all of that misery and honour, a code of acceptable behaviour was beginning to emerge. In fact, the Normans discovered that an element of good behaviour was more effective in calming the natives than in indulging in routine murder and destruction.
It might be argued, that what subsequent ages learned to call ‘manners’, became a valuable diplomatic and political tool for dividing and ruling. Just as the British were to discover in India later on, good manners could be infectious. It became easier to deal with people who wanted to be invited round for dinner.

In fact, the whole of England was divided up between 200 Norman families. Even with a limited structure of lesser Norman families below them, this was hardly enough to run a whole country by brutal repression alone. What were required was an efficient taxation system and a functioning set of universal laws.

The two initiatives had an equalizing effect over the population. Most matters could and would be solved by reasonable discussion, albeit backed up by the prospect of execution. Soon, men fell to talking things through, rather than murdering one another.  

To read part 2, please go to  

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