Just Finished Reading: 1066 – A New History of the Norman Conquest by Peter rex (FP: 2009)
The Battle of Hastings in October 1066 – a mere 950 years ago – is arguably the most important battle to take place on British soil and (at least in my opinion) can be ranked with the Battle of Britain in 1940 in significance. If either battle had gone the other way the whole world would (again arguably) be a very different place. But, as the author rightly reminds us 1066 was the year of THREE battles rather than just one.
Any change of leadership in a country is potentially troubling especially in an age of powerful monarchs. Smooth transitions, when they happened, were normally through close kin or by agreement long before the event. Less than smooth transitions were the result of a lack of a direct heir or, worse, where a number of possible contenders for the throne exist and who are willing to prove their claim at the point of a sword. This was, it was claimed by the Normans at the time and by later Norman historians, the situation in 1066 after the death of Edward the Confessor. Despite naming Harold Godwinson as his legal heir rival claims from Norway and Normandy had to be dealt with. First came an invasion from Harald Hardrada, victorious when he met English forces at the Battle of Fulford then beaten roundly by Harald Godwinson at Stamford Bridge. Then, just as Harold was catching his breath Duke William of Normandy (who the author amusingly refers to by his earlier nickname of ‘the Bastard’ throughout his narrative) arrived off the south coast and landed his forces unopposed. Racing back from his earlier victory Harold gathered men on route and met William in Battle not far from Hastings. After an epic 9 hour battle, which was apparently a very close run thing, the English shield wall collapsed and Harald lay dead. With a single stroke (of luck?) William had not only defeated the English army but had also eliminated most of the potential leaders of any fightback.
Of course we learnt this well-trodden tale in school history class. We learnt a little of the controversy regarding the succession – who promised what to who - briefly discussed the battle itself (along with the much talked about feinted retreats) and then moved on to consolidation, castle building and the Doomsday Book. What we tended not to do it talk about what happened next which is often the most interesting bit. Now, even after all this time emotions surrounding the battle and 1066 in general can run rather hot. Even today there are those in the history profession who call each other names over which side they ‘support’. This author is most definitely not a Norman apologist. No reading between the lines is required to understand who he feels lost the war and who the illegitimate successor was. The language the author uses is most instructive and very modern. The deposing of Harald and his replacement by William was ‘regime change’, those in the upper echelons of Saxon society who accommodated to the new reality (mostly members of the Clergy) were ‘collaborators’, the Saxons who fought and rebelled for the next ten years were ‘insurgents’ or simply ‘resistance fighters’ not unlike the French Resistance under German occupation. One of the most famous, and most effective, was Hereward (wrongly called ‘the Wake’) who became a very painful thorn in William’s side for a considerable time.
All this, and more, was covered in the final 2/3 of the book dealing with the inevitable aftermath of invasion a defeat at the hands of the Normans who did not take any opposition to their rule lightly. Any resistance, and rebellion or uprising was crushed with terrible consequences for the people or area involved. A northern rising was dealt with so severely – the Harrowing of the North – that it took generations to recover anything like the productivity it once had and became a lawless wasteland for decades. The Normans were determined to hold what they had taken no matter the cost to the local population. I guess that this generally doesn’t get taught to children in school because they certainly don’t want to teach too much about rebellion unsuccessful or not. Nor do they want to delegitimise (even superficially) the idea of Monarchy or royal succession. After all where would such thinking possibly end?
This is a book full of information regarding the lead up to the battle, the battle itself (in quite graphic detail) and, more importantly, what happened next. I found it to be very well told and, despite reading several books on the subject and era before, I learnt new stuff too – which I always enjoy doing. One fact which particularly struck me was that the word ‘Murder’ came from the Norman French for killing by stealthy means and they had to introduce the word into English law because so many Norman’s were being killed in out of the way places or simply ‘disappeared’ as they went about their business. Whole villages were heavily fined in an attempt to stamp out the practice which took years to subside. Whatever else you can say about the Saxon population they certainly didn’t just roll over once the battle was over. Overall an excellent read for anyone interested in the period and I’ll be following this up with more from the author and from others on this most famous battle.