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John of Worcester
 Recording the events of September 1066
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John of Worcester

also knows as Florence of Worcester

John was a monk based in Worcester who died circa 1140 when his chronicle also ends. John is now accepted as the author of the ‘Chronicon ex Chronicis’ or Universal Chronicle. The work was formerly attributed to a monk who was known as ‘Florence of Worcester’. But Orderic Vitalis records ‘John’ as the scribe when he visited Worcester circa 1124.[i] This does not prove that others did not work in compiling the chronicle but modern scholarship favours John as the primary author.

Like all historians, the chroniclers of the time were relying on other sources including perhaps a lost version of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle and other documents. We suspect this because William of Malmesbury includes some similar material for which the source cannot now be identified. Some of the leaves were removed from ASC D and remained at Worcester but were later restored; This conjours a wonderful image of early scholars 'borrowing' sections of precious texts. Modern scholars believe that such a lost section that somebody failed to return was a source for some of John’s writing.[ii] 

The job of modern historians is to find and then assess the credibility and accuracy of material before synthesizing its contents. If something is not mentioned by near contemporary chroniclers, the challenge for scholars is to work out if one writer has made up a story which later historians have repeated. This uncharitable view is not taken here. The chroniclers might be accused of occasionally providing some favourable spin, especially on ecclesiastical matters, but the evidence is that they were slaves to the available written records. Therefore John’s record of the battle should be taken seriously.

“1066. …. On Thursday the eve of our Lord’s Epiphany, in the Fourth Indiction, the pride of the English, the pacific king, Edward, son of King Ethelred, died at London, having reigned over the English twenty-three years six months and seven days.  The next day he was buried in kingly style amid the bitter lamentations of all present.  After his burial the under-king, Harold, son of Earl Godwine, whom the king had nominated as his successor, was chosen king by the chief magnates of all England; and on the same day Harold was crowned with great ceremony by Aldred, archbishop of York. 

“On taking the helm of the kingdom Harold immediately began to abolish unjust laws and to make good ones; to patronize churches and monasteries; to pay particular reverence to bishops, abbots, monks and clerks; and to show himself pious, humble and affable to all good men. But he treated malefactors with great severity, and gave general orders to his earls, ealdormen, sheriffs and thegns to imprison all thieves, robbers and disturbers of the kingdom.  He laboured in his own person by sea and by land for the protection of the kingdom. On 24 April in this year a comet was seen not only in England but, it is said, all over the world, and it shone for seven days with an exceeding brightness.

“Shortly afterwards Earl Tosti returned from Flanders and landed in the Isle of Wight, after making the islanders pay tribute he departed and went pillaging along the sea-coast until he came to Sandwich.  As soon as King Harold who was then at London heard this, he assembled a large fleet and a contingent of horsemen, and prepared himself to go to Sandwich. Tosti, learning of this, took some of the shipmen of that place (whether willing or unwilling) and set his course towards Lindsey [North Lincolnshire], where he burnt many villages and put many men to death.

“Thereupon, Edwin, earl of the Mercians, and Morcar, earl of the Northumbrians, hastened up with an army and expelled them from that part of the country.  Afterwards he [Tosti] went to Malcolm, king of Scots, and remained with him during the whole of the summer. Meanwhile, King Harold arrived at Sandwich and waited there for his fleet.  When it was assembled, he crossed over with it to the Isle of Wight, and, inasmuch as William, count of the Normans, was preparing to invade England with an army, he watched all the summer and autumn for his coming.  In addition he distributed a land-force at suitable points along the sea-coast.  But about the Feast of the Nativity of St. Mary [8 September in 1066] provisions fell short so that the naval and land forces returned home.  After this Harold Fairhair [Hardrada], king of the Norwegians and [half] brother of St. Olaf, the king, arrived unexpectedly at the mouth of the river Tyne with an extremely powerful fleet of more than five hundred great ships. 

“Earl Tosti, according to previous arrangement, joined him with his fleet and, on a swift course, they entered the mouth of the river Humber and sailing up the Ouse against the stream landed at Richale. On hearing of this, King Harold marched with speed towards Northumbria. But before his arrival the two brother-earls, Edwin and Morcar, at the head of a large army fought a battle with the Norwegians on the northern bank of the river Ouse near York [in boreali ripa Vse fluminin juxta Eboracum] which was the vigil of the Feast of St. Matthew the Apostle on [Wednesday 20 September in 1066] and fighting manfully at the start that many enemy were overthrown. After a long contest the English were unable to withstand the attacks of the Norwegians and not without some small loss they turned to flee and many more were drowned in the river than fell in battle.  The Norwegians remained masters of the place of carnage, and having taken one hundred and fifty hostages from York and left there the same number of their own men as hostages and returned to their ships.”[iii]

This is the second mention of the ‘northern bank of the river Ouse’ in the surviving histories and follows Symeon’s information, although John does not record the source of this information. Worcester was, in 11th century terms, a long way from York. But there were ecclesiastical connections which might explain why two authors record that Riccall was the landing place for the invading fleet and also place the battle on the northern bank. Symeon was writing at least a decade before John took up his quill in the more distant Worcester, so John could have copied this information from Symeon. (John’s Chronicle also has Harold arriving ‘with many thousands of well armed men’ in York on Monday en route to Stamford Bridge, which matches Symeon.)

[i] Introduction to Oxford Medieval Texts version of John’s chronicles. R Darlington & P McGurk (0198222610 1995)

[ii] Ian Howard ‘Swein Forkbeard’s invasion and the Danish Conquest of England 991-1017’Appendix 2

[iii] Henry of Huntingdon. The author’s assisted translation, following P McGurk, derives from the Corpus Christi Oxford MS 157.


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The author of the content is Charles Jones - fulfordthing@gmail.com   Last updated April 2015

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