October marked the 950th anniversary of the Battle of Hastings. Author Teresa Cole’s latest book, The Norman Conquest: William the Conqueror’s Subjugation of England, looks at the events, key figures, and sources that brought Harold Godwinson (1022-1066) and William I (1028-1087) to this pivotal turning point in English history.
Was William’s Claim Legitimate?
Some of the more intriguing parts of the book touched on the legitimacy of William’s claim that he was promised the crown by Edward the Confessor (1003-1066) in 1051. William’s claim to England’s throne, according to Cole, ‘Was tenuous in the extreme’. (p.99). Cole recounts the unlikely trip made by William to receive that promise in the autumn of 1051. The search for the relations of Aethelred the Unready (968-1016), such as Edward the Exile (1016-1057), also seems to undermine William’s claim to the throne. Edward the Exile died under extremely mysterious circumstances two days after arriving in England. Rumour had it that he was murdered, but to this day, no one knows who was responsible if this was indeed the case, nonetheless, this was extremely fortunate for William.
“I was schooled in war since childhood.” ~William the Conqueror
Who Was William the Conqueror?
Cole looks at William’s upbringing and his claim to throne from the Norman perspective. Once he became of age, legitimate relations, such as Guy of Burgundy, a nephew of William’s father, Duke Robert I (1100-1035) started to challenge his claim to the throne because he was illegitimate. There was even an attempt on William’s life. He managed to escape to safety under the protection of Henry I of France (1008-1060). William had ten children with Matilda of Flanders (1031-1083), and according to contemporary accounts, they seemed to have a genuinely affectionate relationship. William respected and trusted her as regent because gave her the care of his duchy when he was away. William was also well known for cruelty and ‘was not a man to trifle with.’ (P.160). He purportedly hacked off the hands and feet of thirty-two citizens of Alençon after his opponents taunted him about his family background.
Post-Conquest England: The Normanizing of the Anglo-Saxons
William had problems taming the land once he won at Hastings. He had numerous rebellions crop up in the years that followed, it was definitely not a smooth or happy transition. In retaliation for this belligerence, William decimated the north. The horrific campaign came to be known as the ‘Harrying of the North’. According to English chronicler Oderic Vitalis (1075-1142), “He levelled their places of shelter to the ground, wasted their lands and burnt their dwellings with all they contained…” (p.210-211). The resulting famine killed thousands in the north, finally subduing the populace under William’s yoke.
Cole makes an interesting comparison between Cnut (995-1035) and William’s conquests. While Cnut’s was far more brutal, unlike William, Cnut was respected and took on English customs. The Normans were “Frenchified” and unlike the Danes, their customs and language were wholly alien to the English. Much of the English nobility was lost after Hastings, and the treatment of the English by the Normans perpetuated reoccurring violence violence for years after the conquest.
“There would be little comfort and, certainly in the early years, very little mingling with the local population. Indeed, in most areas no Norman would venture outside the walls of his castle without and armed guard” (p. 219).
The English church was ‘Normanized’. English church officials and bishops were removed and replaced with Norman ones. English became a second language and transactions were now carried out in Latin or French. Buildings, and castles built of stone flew up quickly and the landscape that was once recognizable to the English, was fundamentally changed.
“The land, the Church, the language itself, in every way the Englishman was reminded he was now a conquered subject, while around him in the form of castles, churches and fortifications the Conquest was Day by day being built in stone.” (P.230)
Cole actively dispelled the myth that Anglo-Saxon army were untrained, disorganized peasants and details the make-up of Harold’s army, huscarls, thegns, and the like who were far from undisciplined
William’s entire campaign was a magnificent stroke of luck: luck that his opponents on the continent had died a few months before so he could launch an attack on England without worry or interference, luck that he landed unopposed, luck that the English forces were depleted after two fierce battles in the north before Hastings, and lucky that Harold and his brothers were killed during the battle.
I liked that Cole took on incorrect assumptions about the Anglo-Saxons that have been perpetuated since Victorian times and still linger today. Victorian textbooks depicted a “civilized” society coming to the rescue of a backwards people when this was far from the truth. The Anglo-Saxons had a vibrant, and complex written language, a great number of saints, and they were renown for jewellery and embroidery. Cole stated,
“Once again we see the myth that the Normans brought an advanced level of civilization to backward England. Not only did they have nothing comparable to this rich flow of language and imagination, but their coming and the down-grading of the native tongue to a second-class language meant that nothing similar would be produced for centuries until once again Geoffrey Chaucer made writing in English acceptable.” (p.259)
The Anglo-Saxons were far from ignorant barbarians, in fact, they gave far more to Norman culture than the reverse.
“The claim has traditionally been made that England benefitted from the conquest by way of a more advanced civilization and culture, beautiful buildings, Church revival and a more ordered way of life. Clearly these things were present already in the conquered land, and by and large the benefits flowed the other way. It is much more likely that the English civilized the barbaric Normans, while the development of their culture was stopped in its tracks.” (p.260)
The Appendixes are well worth a read, don”t skip them, because they contain several interesting tales, such as: Did Harold Die at Hastings? A fascinating legend that states Harold survived the Battle of Hastings to become the Hermit of Chester. Another Appendix looks at the evidence questioning the current location of the Battle of Hastings, did it actually happened where it is re-enacted today? Recent archaeological digs in 2011 and 2012 failed to find anything from 1066 to definitively prove it. Other potential battle sites were put forward: Crowhurst, Caldbec Hill, and The Battle Roundabout. It’s an interesting speculation.
Lastly, Cole provides generous notes in the Appendix about the primary sources she used, such as The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, John of Worcester, William of Jumièges’ ‘Gesta Normanorum Ducum’, and Roman de Rou by Wace to name but a few.
If you are interested in the Norman Conquest, this book should be added to your “to-read” list. The Norman Conquest: William the Conqueror’s Subjugation of England offers a well rounded look at William’s life and times. It’s not just focused on the Battle of Hastings, but also examines its aftermath, devoting several chapters to William’s reign and the effects of the Domesday Book on England. It provides insights into key players who helped (and thwarted) William’s journey to the throne, as well as dispelling myths and long held ideas about Anglo-Saxon society before the Norman Conquest.
Teresa Cole has been a teacher for thirty years and has written several law books and a historical biography by Amberley, Henry V: The Life of the Warrior King & the Battle of Agincourt 1415
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Read an excerpt from: The Norman Conquest: William the Conqueror’s Subjugation of England
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