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This is an exemplary piece of popular history which details – as you’d expect – the conquest of England by the Normans. It’s probably the defining event in English history.
But it doesn’t just provide an account of the fateful year 1066. There’s a lot of backstory to absorb. We get a lot about Edward the Confessor, the king before 1066, and his own trials and tribulations – he was only able to claim the throne after the death of the fearsome Viking Cnut and his sons. And about Earl Godwine, the over-powerful lord who may have effectively ruled England in Edward’s name, whose son Harold was briefly king. Poor old Harold is mainly known for losing the most famous English battle of all time.
The book continues after the Battle of Hastings and ends in 1086 with William’s death. The whole country wasn’t defeated in just one battle, and William the Conqueror was fighting rebellions of varying degrees of seriousness for the first part of his reign. He was also Duke of Normandy, and the story frequently takes us back there, where William had yet further problems. Being a medieval king doesn’t seem to have been much fun.
But it was better than being a peasant, who had next to no rights. Although the English seem to have resented their subjugation, the Normans seem to have been the better rulers on the whole – the English were prone to murdering their enemies and enslaving vast numbers of people. The Normans, apparently more committed to Christian values, didn’t do those things. Not so much, anyway.
In spite of having two of the most famous pieces of historical evidence survive – the Bayeux Tapestry and the Domesday Book – there are still huge gaps in what we know about the era. Marc Morris is very upfront about this, and admits when the evidence doesn’t allow him to be certain about what occurred, or why. This is occasionally frustrating – why did William lock up his powerful brother Odo? What was the Domesday Book actually for? But it still manages to bring the characters to life in ways that seem more or less convincing, but without treating them like characters in a novel.
Morris also keeps things from getting confusing, which is something books like this sometimes forget. Not everyone has a ready familiarity with, say, Norman land measurements, but the book never gets weighed down in esoteric detail. It provides a lively, well-written account of probably the most important event in English history.
It’s about 350 pages, plus notes, and has several photos, mostly of extant buildings and sections of the Bayeux Tapestry. At time of writing it’s about £6.50 on amazon, with the Kindle edition priced at about £4.
When did the Norman conquest of England start and end? This generous panoramic history takes a wide sweep of almost the whole of the eleventh century in England, although as the title indicates, the focal point is that pivotal date of 1066.
Marc Morris begins his narrative long before the conquest as we regard it. He takes his starting point at around the year 1000, a time when the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms were under threat from the Viking invasions from Alfred and Ethelred the Unready. Having long been vulnerable to raids from Scandinavia, England then had to contend with the same from France. If you were English and did not welcome foreign invaders, the eleventh century was evidently not a good time to be alive. The power struggles that followed the illness and death of the childless Edward the Confessor, who had nominated William of Normandy as his preferred successor in 1051, the apparent seizure of the English throne by Harold Godwinson who then had himself crowned with remarkable haste, the invasion led by Harold's brother Tostig and Harald Hardrada of Norway and the death of both the latter at Stamford Bridge, are dealt with in painstaking detail.
By this time, William's invasion fleet, numbering about 700 ships with around 7,000 men on board, was sailing for Pevensey Bay. It was a conquering army on a scale which the British had not seen since the days of the Romans. The battle of Hastings three weeks later, which ended in the death of Harold and the decisive victory of William, was only the beginning. It ushered in years of chaos and rebellion as the Anglo-Saxons put up resistance to Norman rule.
William had already long had a reputation in his native country for being a powerful fighter. He was a vassal of the King of France, but the latter had once suspected him of planning to extend his borders on the mainland by force. After a decisive battle in which the French attempted to overrun Normandy and were repelled in a battle which left several thousands of French dead, William was left well alone. He was clearly not a man to be trifled with.
Much of William's twenty-year reign was spent in subjugating the English, to an extent which even revolted the Norman chronicler Orderic Vitalis. His countrymen, he declared, had killed perhaps as many as 100,000 people in the persecution (we might regard this as an early example of ethnic cleansing) remembered as the Harrying of the North (1069-70), of having mercilessly slaughtered the English, 'like the scourge of God smiting them for their sins'. The Normans, he declared, were 'ignorant parasites, made almost mad with pride' and 'had subdued a people that was greater and more wealthy than they were, with a longer history.' Churches were rebuilt and castles were constructed for defence purposes, the old ruling class of England was virtually destroyed as the Normans imposed their own legal systems and language on the country.
Was the Norman conquest good or bad for Britain? It might be argued that progress was necessary, although there is no doubt that the invading force's treatment of the English was cruel in the extreme. After all, Harold's England had been on friendly terms with the Irish Vikings in Dublin, whereas the long story of Anglo-Irish strife began under the Normans. Moreover, it was French-speaking Kings who went to war in pursuit of dynastic claims on parts of France. If only William had not conquered, but lost...
Morris has done well to separate fact from fiction in shining a light on the dark corners of these hazy times. Any historian chronicling events and politics from so long ago is going to have to rely on a good deal of hearsay, propaganda (in this case pro-Norman and anti-Norman), and very little solid evidence. For example, how true is the old, old story that Harold was killed by an arrow in the eye? Has this merely come about after restoration of the Bayeux tapestry in the mid-nineteenth century, which suggests according to early drawings of the tapestry in its unrestored state that the figure of Harold is not trying to pluck an arrow from his eye but hurl a spear at his attackers instead? When sources offer two conflicting versions of events, both are given and the author argues in favour of what he considers to be the more likely, while he lets the reader make up his or her mind.
The book does not come to a finish with the end of the reign and the death of William, but also looks in some detail at the next few Norman and Plantagenet Kings, even briefly into the thirteenth century. In the last pages, the author suggests that it was not until the death of Stephen and the accession of Henry II that Englishmen could 'ponder afresh the question of national identity'.
Marc Morris, a historian and broadcaster, has also written a biography of Edward I, 'A Great and Terrible King'.
With around 350 pages of carefully referenced text, it does lean towards the more scholarly side. Nevertheless Morris has a lively style which will appeal to the more general reader who isn't after something too light, at the same time. The two sections of colour plates, including scenes from the Bayeux Tapestry, contemporary manuscripts and architectural works, are well chosen.
[Revised version of a review I originally posted on other review sites]