IN A YEAR that witnessed three kings (two Saxon and a Norman), a legendary battle, and a successful invasion of this sceptred isle, it is little wonder that 1066 is one of the defining years in our history. So to coincide with the Bugle publishing its 1066th edition, we have taken a step back 947 years to try and imagine what life was like for our ancestors here in the Black Country at a time when a foreign duke crossed the Channel from Normandy and won the Battle of Hastings, a victory that brought the established Anglo Saxon society to an abrupt and final end.
Understandably, a great deal of the information needed to try and create a picture of the Dark Region nearly a thousand years ago comes direct from the Normans themselves via one of William the Conqueror's greatest achievements, the Domesday Book of 1086, which provides a snapshot of life in England, and reveals how sparsely populated the Black Country was at the time. Twenty-one recognisable Black Country villages appear in the Domesday Book, and using the formula based on every recorded household being occupied by an average of five individuals, the total population would have been around 2,090.
The Anglo Saxons arrived in this country from Denmark and north Germany following the departure of the Romans (circa 383 AD), and gradually spread throughout the land, a successful invasion that ultimately forced the indigenous British population out into Wales and Cornwall. And although the region that became known as Mercia wasn't the most ideal place for settlement and putting down roots, the pioneering Saxons seemed to like what they saw and nearly all the place names we have inherited today in South Staffordshire and North Worcestershire are Anglo Saxon in origin. They established homes where there were meadows, Segleslei (Sedgley) and Cradder's Lea (Cradley), Dudder's Lea (Dudley), Hryeg Lea (Rugeley) and Ruh Leah (Rowley); and also where there were valleys, Willa's Halh (Willenhall), Cod's Halh (Codsall), Wals Halh (Walsall) and Halh (Hales, later to become Halesowen).
They began to stamp their culture and language throughout the area we now know as the Black Country, and their legacy of place names and the local dialect remain with us to this day.
Before the reign of the Saxon king Athelstan (925- 39), now recognised as the first true king of all England, the country was split into a number of smaller kingdoms, the most famous of which was Wessex. But by far the largest was Mercia, which included the whole of the West Midlands, and in its heyday it was governed by kings such as Penda (Pendeford near Wolverhampton is named after him) and Offa, a ruler whose name is still mentioned when reference is made to the earthen fortification called Offa's Dyke in the Welsh Marches, built to keep the Welsh Britons at bay.
During Offa's reign Mercia was the most dominant kingdom, but after his death this dominance waned and its rulers became less powerful.
By 1066 Mercia was ruled by an earl rather than a king (one of the most famous had been Leofric, the husband of the legendary Lady Godiva), and it was Edwin, Earl of Mercia and grandson of Leofric, who together with his brother Morcar, Earl of Northumberland, joined forces to try and stop an invasion led by Harald Hardrada of Norway and Harold II's banished brother Tostig. The two armies met at Fulford Gate near York on September 20 1066, and after a savage encounter the Vikings won, but the two earls survived.
Five days later Harold Godwinson fought the same invading force and claimed victory at Stamford Bridge near York. But within three weeks he had lost both his crown and the nation to William at the Battle of Hastings and the Anglo Saxon dynasty had gone forever. .
When the first dawn of 1066 broke over a cold and bleak Mercian landscape, Eadwyn, a simple peasant, and his wife Eldfreda, were trying to keep themselves warm in front of the dying embers of an open fire, not knowing what was happening in the next village, let alone who was in charge of the country. Eadwyn would have had no interest in such matters because all he was concerned about was growing enough food to keep his family alive and keeping a thatched roof over his head.
He was a member of the peasantry, a ceorl in the service of a thegn (Lord of the Manor).
There were three main classes of ceorl, the geneatas, the cottar and the gebur, and because the villages in the Black Country were of such a small size and therefore probably very poor, the majority of the peasants may well have fallen into the category of cottar or gebur. A gebur held a virgate of about thirty to forty acres and his duties were considerable. Two days in every week of the year, and probably three at harvest time, he would have to work for the thegn.
(This is only half the story. Catch up with the rest in Bugle 1066, available at Bugle House and most newsagents here in the Black Country, from Thursday January 31st.)