William was totally fed up. Not only did they keep being rude about his mother but they kept spelling his name wrongly. William might have been the son of the unmarried Duke Robert of Normandy and his mistress Herleva but it was cruel of everyone to call him William the Bastard and remind him at every opportunity.
In the middle of the 11th century, despite his total lack of interest in all things political, William was part of a power struggle for the throne of England, held by his relative Edward the Confessor (who had been given his name because of his habit of turning up at sheep dog trials and confessing,) who named the powerful English earl Harold Godwinson as the next king on his deathbed in January 1066.
William didn’t much care. He and Harold had long been rivals but in another, far more interesting sphere: fighting with marrons.
Marrons came in two varieties in England and in what is now called Continental Europe, edible and inedible. The edible type, sweet and nutty, could be used in many different ways in the kitchen and for many communities the marron was the sole source of carbohydrate. Aunt Bessie’s oven chips had not yet been invented and the potato was still an unknown root vegetable in an unknown part of the world. William and Harold did not fight with the edible variety – both of their mother’s had separately put a stop to the boys fighting with food many years before – but they fought with the inedible variety of the humble marron.
The game was itself was simple: two players, each with a marron threaded on a thong of rawhide, take it in turns to hit each other’s marron, until one marron is destroyed. The first player holds out their marron at arm’s length, hanging down, ready to be hit, the thong wrapped around his hand to stop it being dropped.
The opponent, the striker, also wraps his marron string round his hand, then takes his marron in the other hand and draws it back for the strike. Releasing the marron he swings it down by the string held in the other hand and tries to hit his opponent’s marron with it.
But this year, William was despondent. Harold across what he called the Sūð-sǣ (South Sea) was busy being king and wouldn’t play with him, his courtiers kept being rude about his mum and the marrons were small and hardly worth playing for.
Harold, however, was equally fed up. Marron season was here and what fine huge conkers they were and here was he stuck at the head of an army somewhere in Geordie land fighting some Danes to ensure that his kingdom did not become overrun with chubby Danish comedians called Sandi.
Harold’s ministers were adamant that their new king could not have time off, so Harold hatched a plan and calling for his scribe sent a quick parchment to his old adversary William the Bastard, challenging him to a marron fight on the south coast in a couple of weeks time and upon it’s receipt William gathered the usual band of mates he took on stag parties and they set sail.
Historians have made much of William gathering an army to cross the water and Harold leading his war band to the area, but the truth was far less blood thirsty. It was just a friendly meeting between two groups of young men, intent on having a good time with old mates; the usual, wine, women and song, with marron fighting thrown in.
After carousing through the south eastern coastal villages full of good ale and mead, the two groups of men met at Senlac Hill. (Senlac later gave its name to a laxative tablet made of Senna. If you have trouble with constipation, please do not rely on laxatives for long periods as dependency can develop. Seek advice from your doctor about retraining your bowel. This is a public service announcement.) Anyway, as I was saying, the drunken, carousing groups of young men met at Senlac Hill and there, after more mead and ale had been consumed, the marron battle started, William against Harold.
It was Harold’s turn to aim first, but shock and horror! Live footage embroidered rapidly at the scene shows that Harold was cheating. He had two marrons!
William’s men saw red. They saw other colours too, but predominantly red and furiously angry and totally tanked up on the alcohol, they broke every marron championship rule in the book and beat the shit out of Harold and his friends. In the affray Harold got a red hot poker shoved in his eye and William lost some of his clothes and damaged his ring. Then one of William’s friends took things too far, (there is always one), and skanked Harold with a broken mead jar.
The party broke up after that and the hung-over men slunk away to vomit behind bushes and sleep off the effects of the day.
William woke up later with the horrid, horrid memory of what had happened. Oh MERDE! What could he do? As hastily as his pounding head would allow he opened an eye and then, much later, another. Groaning he sat up. Bodies were all around him, dead, dying, sleeping, groaning, spewing Saxons, Normans. All a great jumble of stinking hungover men. It looked like a battle field.
As fast as his inebriated brain would process it, he realised that was the answer. Deny it was a stag party and insist that it had been an intentional invasion. The murder of the king could then be passed off as him having been killed in rightful combat!!
He tried to smile. It didn’t work. Some hangovers are like that. Not smiling he called the embroiderers to him and with a hefty pay off he got them to tweak a few bits of their tapestry interpretation of the day showing him not as William the Conkerer, but William the Conqueror.
William became king, but forever mourned the best marron fighting partner he had ever had. Under Norman rule, Angle-land became très Frenchified, altering the language forever although here in England we now call marrons ”conkers”
A bit of old hessian I found in the garage
A small square of calico
I read a few books too.
© Jeff Jefferty Jeff 6th October 2015