steersman

Latin, stirman, stirmanus, stiremannus.

Great Domesday records 5 steersmen, or ships' masters: Edric, Hugolin, Stephen, Thorkell, and Wulfheah. In addition, Little Domesday names an 'Edric, steersman of King Edward's ship', who had been outlawed and had fled to Denmark after the Conquest (NFK 10,76-77). This was evidently a different Edric from the Worcestershire master who had held land from the bishop of Worcester in return for his service as steersman (WOR 2,52). Thorkell (WOR 8,1) and Wulfheah (BDF 53,15), both 'steersman of King Edward', had also held small
manors before 1066. Unsurprisingly, none of these men survived the Conquest, their estates all being in the hands of Normans in 1086; their fates are not recorded.

Two Norman steersmen are named, both better endowed than their Anglo-Saxon counterparts. Hugolin held a small
fief in Berkshire; nothing further is known of him. Stephen the steersman, however, is one of the few minor landowners documented outside Domesday Book. He was the master of the Conqueror's ship in 1066 and probably until William's death in 1087. It has been plausibly suggested that he may originally been in the service of William's queen, Matilda. According to the twelfth-century chronicler, Wace, Matilda presented her husband with the ship in which he sailed in1066, naming it the Mora (perhaps an anagram of amor, love). Stephen presumably came with the Mora.

Another twelfth-century chronicler, Ordericus Vitalis, records that the master of William's ship was 'Stephen son of Airard', evidently the Domesday landowner Stephen son of Erhard (Stefanus filius Eirardi). This identification enables us to see that the steersman who had modest holdings in the boroughs of Southampton (HAM S3) and Warwick (WAR B2) was a prosperous landowner under his second name elsewhere in those counties, as well as in Bedfordshire and Northamptonshire, confirming the chronicler's story that the Conqueror had showered him with gifts and honours: he was among the 300 wealthiest landowners of 1086 in Great Domesday. This same story tends to undermine that told by William of Poitiers, according to whom the Conqueror's ship sped across the Channel, outstripping the remainder of the fleet, inviting disaster. Poitiers does not comment on the seamanship, or sense, of those involved; but since the story is employed to illustrate the superlative qualities of the Conqueror, its veracity is open to question. Had it been true, Poitiers might have employed it to glorify the enormous magnanimity of the Conqueror in showering wealth on the man who risked sinking his enterprise (William of Poitiers, Gesta Guillelmi, edited by Marjorie Chibnall and R.H.C. Davis (1998), pages 112-13).

Ordericus told his story in the context of events nearer his own day, the shipwreck of the 'White Ship' in 1120, when the only legitimate son of Henry I was drowned, consigning the country to 20 years of Anarchy after the death of the king. The master of the 'White Ship' was Thomas, son of the Conqueror's ship-master. According to Ordericus, the shipwreck was in large part due to the reckless seamanship of this Thomas in racing to overtake other ships while 'his judgement was impaired by drink'. Only two of the 300 on board survived. Thomas himself surfaced near the survivors, clinging to a spar; but, on hearing that the king's heir, one of his illegitimated sons, and all their noble companions had drowned, chose 'to sink on the spot rather than to die beneath the wrath of a king enraged by the loss of his sons' (Ecclesiastical history, edited by Marjorie Chibnall, vol. 6, pages 296-301). Stephen and his son thus each played a critical role in what were perhaps the two most fateful events of their day, both with dire consequences for England.


For more detail, see Elizabeth van Houts, 'The ship-list of William the Conqueror', Anglo-Norman Studies, vol. 10 (1988), pages 159-84; and Nicholas A. Hooper, 'Some observations on the navy in late Anglo-Saxon England', Studies in medieval history presented to R. Allen Brown, edited by C. Harper-Bill, C.J. Holdsworth and J.L. Nelson (1989), pages 203-13.

See also
boatman.
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