[Here is a review of Marc Morris’ recent The Norman Conquest The Battle of Hastings and the Fall of Anglo-Saxon England (Pegusus, 2013)–originally published in the Gulfport Public Library site and Steven Till’s medieval blog steventill.com]
This book is the result of monumental research and careful interpretation, a combination that through Morris’ clear writing style, gives us a distinctly nuanced historical book readable for the general public. Morris iterates many historians when he says that “the invasion is the single most important event in English history. It altered what is meant to be English.”
He offers what he calls a “justified narrative,” reconstructing what probably happened from scant contemporary accounts, most of them slanted toward the English or the Norman side. That’s the case of the famous Bayeux Tapestry, 230 feet of embroidery that tell the story cartoon-style, highlighting the role of William’s half brother Odo, bishop of Bayeux.
“The story of the Conquest is full of dramatic reversals of fortune and often quite despicable deeds,” Morris writes. “In several instances, the key players in the drama sought to justify their actions by commissioning what are essentially propaganda pieces … it is often difficult, and sometimes impossible, to say exactly what happened.”
In part this is a detective story, and the historian must proceed by inference, indirection and deduction. There are huge holes in the narrative — stretches of years in the life of William the Conqueror, for example, where nothing is known.
He begins his account of the Norman Conquest and with an overview of the troubled times in English history of Viking raids and warrior conflicts and the ramifications with the death of the last Anglo-Saxon kings, Edward/later also designated as The Confessor in 1066. Added to English conflict is the inter-Norman conflict in France that was reaching a more than unusual intensity because of the question of successor. William, the right gender and oldest, but he did not have a sufficient traditional “right” due to the requirement of legitimate birth. (Interestingly, in French language histories he is called Guillaume le Batard (the Bastard) , and in English accounts, William the Conqueror.) Political turmoil in England from Edward’s death was profound on succession, for which William has a possible right.
The actual pages of the reality of the Conquest are filled with power struggles, bloody conflicts for decades, wanton destruction of churches, property, and the thousands of the unprotected. Mixed in with all of this was the Roman church, gradually turning itself to an institution in this new land. All of this is fully documented with a clarity of language that is a delight.
The devil of truth speaks in tangential details — for instance in the signatures on a charter issued the day in 1068 that William’s wife Matilda was crowned at Westminster.
“The content of the grant is unimportant,” Morris observes, “but its witness-list allows us to see the composition of William’s court at this particularly crucial juncture.” Far from being a distraction, this scrupulous examination of the record provides balance and perspective in a narrative crowded with names and events, and on many points still controversial today — for instance in the notorious “Harrying of the North” in 1069, when as many as 100,000 English starved under William’s campaign to suppress rebellion.
Naturally, a lasting effect of William and the Norman Invasion is William’s having to spend the next 40 years subduing rebellions, usually very bloody and vicious, in England after granting Norman warriors large estates. Another effect is the idea of English “rights” in Normandy and France since William spent considerable time there after the Conquest. The Hundred Years War springs immediately to mind.
There are two important areas that Morris gives little attention though: (1) economics (where did they get the actual “geld”?). Morris does point out (p. 25) that “slavery was a widespread institution and one of the main motors of the economy” but does not explain it historically. And (2) in spite of the close association with the Church, a kind of proto-secular history as the antithesis of the teachings of Jesus, which, as recent historical unearthings tell us, carried itself on simultaneously, is not given enough space.
William’s organizational ability centered on the Doomsday Book, a monumental undertaking, a sort of Census taken every ten years. In just one short year, the entire country had been catalogued for ownership, size of estates, towns, churches, people. Historians argue about the purpose, but whatever it was, it became a basis for taxation and recognition of what was there.
To Morris, the Book “set the feudal system in place,” and ensconced it for hundreds of years to come.A profound social effect of the Book was that it established, almost in stone, the aristocratic hierarchy, a social organization that exists to this day, much reduced of course, but for almost 700 years it defined English society. And in that society, Normans replaced the English in the controlling aristocracy.
A side effect of the Book was the rapid development of Common Law to deal with and hopefully settle disputes. The Book was a tremendous help here because there was now data for to support claims.
England was literally rebuilt. Normans established their power centres with hundreds of barricaded castles, destroying existing ones if necessary. The Tower of London of later political infamy was built during this time. Morris points out that the Normans destroyed dozens of existing churches and cathedrals and rebuilt them in their own style.There was a close alliance between the ruling Normans and the Catholic Church, an alliance that strengthened both, ultimately leading to a schism with Henry VIII.
The French influence continued much further than the political and economic life. Language was a primary change in that French and Latin became the lingua franca in England especially in those powerful areas of politics and social superiority. Existing languages became the “people’s tongue.” It would remain, and then eventually become part of what we know today as English.
True, the Normans brought feudalism, Romanesque architecture and the French language to England, but they were themselves originally Norsemen, first plundering and then settling at what became French Normandy. Several untimely invasions by Scandinavians figure significantly in this history, and the character list is heavily Norse: Godgifu, Cnut and his son Harthacnut, Eadric the Wild, Oswulf (nephew of Gospatric), Edith Swan-Neck (of whom one longs to learn more) and King Harold’s three brothers, Tostig, Leofwine and Gyrth.
And yes, Scotland’s King Macbeth makes an appearance — surviving Dunsinane to live on in exile — and his successor, Malcolm, turns out not to have been such a sterling lad after all, but did his own share of harrying the English.
While the Conquest continued a bloody history of conflict, the other effects would create an entirely new life on an island that would influence so much of earth’s history.