How does it go?
I’ll tell of the Battle of Hastings,
As happened in days long gone by,
When Duke William became King of England,
And ‘Arold got shot in the eye.
Well that’s how Stanley Holloway begins the tale, in one of his ‘Monologues’.
If you don’t remember him, then you may have read Sellars and Yeatman, ‘1066 and All That’, the frustrated History teacher’s way in, to the imagination of the disaffected, or uninterested, child. We all know the date, 1066, if we know of no others in the whole of English History. We all know that the ruthless, Normans defeated the brave Anglo-Saxons and shot good King Harold in the eye. They wore odd looking helmets and were swathed in chain mail. Unkillable. They took over, not only England, but huge tracts of the rest of Britain as well.
We all know that. And they were bad!
But who actually won the war? How did the Norman PR machine brainwash the survivors and their heirs? Because it did.
There is no doubt, whatsoever, who won the, blood-soaked , battle fought on 14th. October, 1066. Between 20 000 and 30 000 warriors faced each other, many, too numerous to mention, to perish, horribly, in the slaughter. Those on the top of the hill, the Saxons, the local team, the men of Wessex, had, recently, marched from the South, to York, fought a victorious, pitched battle, against the invading Vikings, and Harold’s, rebellious brother, Tostig, on the 20th. September, 1066. They, then, marched all the way south again, after precious little rest, to face the fresh Norman troops, ranged at the bottom of the hill, in mid- October. Quite a task! Their confidence was buoyed up by the victory at Stamford Bridge, but they had slaughtered a woefully under-prepared Viking force, who had been taken by surprise. Caught, if not with their trousers down, a least with their armour off. A bit of a mismatch, after a long walk by the Saxons, and a tempestuous North Sea cruise, by the Norsemen.
Countless numbers of Saxons were to die, at Hastings, their bodies stripped, robbed and mutilated, ‘au facon Normande’. The battle was a complete orgy of blood-letting and savagery. Par for the course, for the course of eleventh century warfare, and certainly par for the Norman course. Savagery is what they did, and did well. Some years before, William had been besieging Mortain, in Normandy. The defenders put up such a stubborn show that William left the siege, travelled to nearby Alencon, where the locals were not so ‘up for it’. He took the town, and removed the hands, and feet, of the men that he captured. He then returned to Mortain, and informed the inhabitants that much the same fate awaited them, if they didn’t ‘do the right thing’ and surrender. Unsurprisingly, the tactic, of a little Norman arm twisting, worked.
But, it is what followed the victory at Hastings that points the way to the actual victor, the one whose legacy, if I dare use that, post-Olympic word, lives on.
These issues, of ‘Who won the war, not just a battle?’ were foremost in my mind, when, on a recent trip to the UK, I went for a walk, in the area around Winchester, along the River Itchen, and the Itchen Navigation Canal. At the time of the Conquest, Winchester was a major Saxon, indeed major English, town. The walk began by ascending the, steep-sided, St. Catherine’s Hill. This bore all the marks of an early British earthwork. Here was a tribal centre. When the Romans arrived these hill forts had to be neutered. The culture had to be eradicated. The Romans knew that successful conquests needed the ‘agreement’ of the conquered, they had to ‘buy in’ to the Roman way. The tribal framework was dismantled. The Druids were attacked and destroyed on Anglesey. The Iceni, under Boudicca, were beaten from their bases in East Anglia. Many native English accepted the Roman culture, or fled to the perimeter. This was a conquest of the hearts and minds, as well as by naked steel. All that remains in Winchester, of its Roman inheritance, is the town’s name and a, pathetically, tiny, piece of wall, by the canal, easy to miss if you don’t know that it’s there! All that conquering for such a small result.
The Romans withdrew, back to Rome! Leaving us with some roads, some villas and farms, a bit of wall in Winchester, a central heating system that we ignored for centuries, and plenty of buried material for modern metal detectorists, and ‘TimeTeam’ to search for.
Between 500 A.D. and 750 A.D., the, so-called, Dark Ages, the Angles, Saxons and Jutes invaded and sent the, despised, Celts scurrying, even further, into the fastnesses of the island, which they still inhabit. Strange how little attitudes change. They founded their own little countries in Cornwall, Wales and Brittany, joining their brothers in Ireland and Scotland. The Celts had virtually ignored Roman culture, and took on precious little Latin. Similarly, the Anglo-Saxons took on little Celtic. Why should they? An inferior language, the language of the defeated. Spoken, quietly, in the corners of the island, as it still is! But, when Christianity arrived on our shores, Latin became the language of the intellectual. Then, in our own time, it became the language of the public schoolboy, hardly an intellectual! But there you go!
English began to take form. The beginnings of an ‘English’, or, at least,
Anglo-Saxon, culture began to appear. By the time of King Alfred the Great, the language had been mobilised, as a rallying call (a la Winston Churchill!), to unite the English against the Vikings. There was a base of literature, ‘The Anglo-Saxon Chronicles’, the histories of the Venerable Bede and the epic poem describing the Battle of Maldon, for instance. Winchester had become a publishing centre for English literature, spoken in a Wessex accent. There was a distinguishable form of Anglo-Saxon Christianity, worshipped in buildings, recognisable as Anglo-Saxon constructions. Simple buildings for supporting the religion of a devout people. This was the greatest civilisation in the West. They minted their own money, bearing the King’s image. They had a standing army, the fyrd, loyal to the King. There were courts and a legal system. There was an aristocracy and, an accepted, social structure. These were not, by any manner of means, barbarians, in fact, they were considerably more ‘civilised’ than the Normans.
The forebears of the Normans, the Vikings, invaded the country, and England was split in two, the south, Wessex, governed by the King, and the Danelaw, in the north, the province of the invaders. Here we have the beginnings of a, major, current issue, the North/South divide. It wasn’t to London that the ‘southerners’ looked though, it was to Winchester. The Vikings would not destroy the Anglo-Saxon civilisation, that wasn’t their reason for conquest. They were very ‘short termist’ in their thinking. But they added to the native culture. Today the strongest regional accents are to be heard in the Danelaw, Cumbrian, Geordie, Northumbrian, the dialects of Lancashire and Yorkshire. Bits of Old Norse can still be heard. Cumbrians don’t ‘Go home’ they ‘ Gan yam’. Lancastrians aren’t ‘wet’ they’re ‘witchit’. There were about 25 000 ‘English’ words in general usage, a handful had Celtic origins, 200, or so, came from Latin and 150 were Viking. Today the easiest examples can be seen in town names:-
Latin -‘ caster’, ‘cester’, ‘chester’ meaning ‘ a camp’, ‘street’ meaning ‘road’.
Saxon – ‘ing’ meaning ‘people of’, ‘ton’ meaning ‘village’, ‘worth’ meaning
‘enclosure’ and ‘ham’ meaning ‘farm’.
Viking – ‘by’ meaning ‘farm’, ‘thorpe’ meaning ‘village’, ‘toft’ meaning
‘ homestead’, ‘dale’ meaning ‘valley’ and ‘thwaite’ meaning
‘Portion of land’.
Norman – generally named after their owners, Cleobury Mortimer or Kings
Langley and Langton Maltravers.
English culture was a secure culture. The Danes owned the land, but the English owned the culture. That’s where we were in 1065. The country had been invaded regularly, but each invasion had been assimilated, and used to strengthen the local identity. You can see it in our names. Surnames that echo crafts or place of origin. Forenames that also echo origins or biblical references. The natives may have been defeated, militarily, but their identity was secure. They were English. The Romans, the Angles, the Saxons, the Jutes and the Vikings were primarily interested in land, military conquest and booty. Now Edward the Confessor,an English King, was on the throne. The English lived alongside a succession of invaders. Then, along came the Normans, and the rules of engagement, dramatically, changed.
Orderic Vitalis, a Norman chronicler, summed up the situation succinctly, ‘they ( the Normans ) had forgotten that the country they had conquered was far older and richer, in its achievements, than their own.’
William wanted the throne of this rich kingdom across the Channel, and, with it, the land and ‘the cash’! His greed was legendary. The story, or ‘fable’, is famously, told in the stitches of the Bayeux Tapestry, an artwork of exquisite beauty, but the reality is harder to understand. Harold Godwinson had been crowned King. This was the English way, the throne was an elected post, not a dynastic one. He who could rule the country efficiently, was elected, and Harold had been. But he made one grave error, when faced with danger in 1066. He thought that his army could deal with the Vikings in one set piece battle, at Stamford Bridge, which it did, and, then, deal similarly, with the Normans, which it did not. The flower of the southern English aristocracy, and the might of the Housecarls, and the Fyrd, were assembled on one hilltop, at the same time, for a ‘winner takes all’ battle. This is, most of, the whole of the top tier of English society, its standing army, and the army levied by the King. All together in one place. Big mistake. They were annihilated.
Those who were not at Hastings, offered spirited, but, in the end, token resistance. Hereward the Wake, in East Anglia, and the Northern Earls were brushed aside. William’s deeds in the North still resound. The ‘Harrying of the North’ remains one of the great acts of medieval savagery. Chroniclers who would forgive William most things, would not forgive this;
‘In his anger he commanded that all crops and herds, chattels and food
of every kind should be brought together and burned to ashes with
consuming fire, so that the whole of the region north of the Humber might
be stripped of all means of sustenance…. a famine fell upon the humble and
defenceless populace, that more than 100 000 Christian folk of both
sexes, young and old alike perished of hunger. … I would rather lament the
griefs and sufferings of the wretched people than make a vain attempt to
flatter the perpetrator of such infamy.’
His ‘success’, in the North, can be seen in his great attempt to screw every penny out of the people. Government doesn’t change. The Domesday Book was a cynical exercise, to ensure that he didn’t miss out on a single penny of taxation. There are precious few entries for the areas of the North where his troops had indiscriminately murdered, mutilated and laid waste. It was not for nothing that the area became known as ‘The Desert of the North’. We don’t forget! Perhaps the miners of Yorkshire could have some fellow feeling with their forebears, who also felt the ire of a tyrant.
William had started with, almost, a clean sheet. He started a campaign to erase ‘Englishness’. But, in trying to erase it, he didn’t realise that, in many cases, he wasn’t erasing anything, just exchanging ‘like for like’, in a different language. The people were used to having a lord to serve, he, now, just did not speak their language. They were used to being taxed, but not so heavily. William put justice beyond the ordinary man, by substituting the Norman tongue for English. That is where the law still is, in a foreign language, and beyond the reach of the ordinary man. The greed of lawyers, and their serpentine practices, survives. Interestingly the word ‘murder’ originates from the Normans. A landowner was responsible for the apprehending of criminals who committed crimes on his land. If he did not, then he was expected to pay a tax called, the ‘murdrum’, until the perpetrator was brought to book. An easy, and cost-effective, way for the King to devolve the dispensing of justice!
The language of prayer became the Latin of the Roman Catholic Church, beyond the comprehension of the illiterate common people. Devotion in English they knew, and understood. William had no interest in their understanding, just their subjugation. The vocabulary of command became Norman. But Hodge, in his cottage, still spoke his native tongue, English. Before the Conquest, the English Earls had spoken the same language as everyone else. The ‘upper classes’ were, now, being reconstructed, with their own language, Norman French, and Norman mores. The Danes had given us the North/South divide, but the Normans gave us ‘the Class system’. Rule by fear and ignorance.
Within fifty years of Hastings, there were no English Earls, Bishops or Abbotts. William of Malmesbury noted that; ‘England had become the residence of foreigners and the property of strangers that prey upon the riches and vitals of the country.’ In the present day this emotion has a familiar ring, UKIP are into the same agenda. Money disappeared back to Normandy to finance their estates or expensively endowed abbeys, the Norman passport to the after-life, after slaughtering their way through this Life. Money going overseas, to finance family life in their country of origin?
Sound familiar? It still seems to pertain today, but we’re now talking about Asia and Eastern Europe, rather than Normandy.
In reality, 50 000 Normans ruled 2 000 000 Saxons. This had a strange effect, in that, although the leaders were Norman, the parish priests, apothecaries and clerks were English. The workaday world was still English.The sub culture was never destroyed.
Sir Frank Stenton summed up the alien invaders;
‘The Normans who entered into the English inheritance were a harsh and
violent race. ( elsewhere he described them as being ‘a rude and somewhat
barbarous people…’) They were the closest of all the western peoples to the
barbarian strain in the continental order. They had produced little in art or
learning, and nothing in literature, that could be set beside the work of an
Englishman, but politically they were masters of the world….’
The Norman culture, in Normandy, had been based on the appearance of power, and the cultivation of terror. They used slave labour to construct motte and bailey castles. These huge stone buildings began to tower over the English countryside of ‘wattle and daub’, symbols of military power and strength. “Don’t mess with us!”
The Saxons had built in wood, rather than stone, so the Norman inheritance can still be seen at the Tower of London, Dover, Rochester and many other places, a thousand years later. They had built stone cathedrals and abbeys, Bec, Jumiege, Caen, Hambye all still stand. In England the pattern was repeated, at Durham, Ely, Peterborough, Winchester, shrines to the
all-powerful and terrifying God of Vengeance, were all constructed of, imported, Caen, stone. Beautiful as they are, these were not houses of prayer, but engines of control. The monasteries became economic powerhouses, the oil companies, and Bankers, of their day. Populated by businessmen, rather than hermits and monks in holy orders. The Normans certainly understood the power of architecture. The smaller, wooden Saxon minsters were swept away. At Winchester, to return to my walk, the Minster was not only destroyed, it was built over, physically crushed.
The graves of Saxons were destroyed. St. Swithin, a Bishop of Winchester, King Alfred the Great, Queen Emma, wife of two Kings and mother of three, were desecrated, all had to go. Anglo-Saxon England must be destroyed. These great cathedrals and abbeys still stand, in various degrees of ruin, but now serve the function of ‘tourist attractions’ and part-time theatres, or,
far more usefully, the stone was taken, in the sixteenth century, to build local farms. So William eventually failed. We are amused, and, mildly interested, by his buildings, ‘somewhere to take the kids’, but they do attract income to English coffers and keep English farmers warm and dry. Good result.
And Williams’s dynasty? His family had disappeared, in disarray, within a century of the Conquest, able to fight but not breed! Able to squabble, but not rule! Able to induce fear but not respect! They were replaced by the Angevins and a new era of, particularly, literature, music and style was opening up. Alright, there were French influences, but, importantly, it was English literature, not Norman English literature, it was early English music not French music Today the vast majority of the globe can understand the English language, rather than French or Latin. Mmmm.
The English may have suffered a bloody reverse in 1066, but whose culture survives and flourishes? Which culture has the confidence to accept the vocabulary, and customs, of others, for its own development?
And whose, more barbaric, culture was subsumed, and used to strengthen that of the defeated? Where is the great Conqueror of the English buried? Back home, that’s where! I rest my case.