Book Review: 1066
by Peter Rex
Amberley Publishing, 2011
Generations of school children – and the history teachers some of them become – have invested certain dates with an aura of inevitability. The Ides of March. 1492. 1776 .., they sit in the memory like the cliffs of Dover, dead-certain, unchallengeable. On this list of dates, somewhere near the top, is 1066, the year of the Norman Conquest, when the troops of William the Bastard of Normandy crossed the English Channel and, on the 14th of October, beat the forces of King Harold II and won the crown of England for their red-faced leader. It all seems pre-ordained from the beginning of time.
The greatest merit of Peter Rex’s new book 1066: A New History of the Norman Conquest is its clear-headed reminders that things could have gone very differently. When Duke William invaded, he very likely had no idea that King Harold was also facing a second invasion – this one from King Harald III of Norway. Harold’s army prevailed at the ensuing Battle of Stamford Bridge on the 25th of September, but it was badly mauled in the process, and now it had to pull up stakes, wheel around, and march south at best speed virtually the entire length of the country, to meet the invading Norman forces at Hastings only two weeks later. Had William faced Harold evenly, the two armies equally fresh, it’s entirely possible the Battle of Hastings would have looked a lot like Stamford Bridge.
Even so, it was a close-run thing. Rex’s account, though carefully researched, is also consciously shaped to capture the drama:
The attack went on until the Normans had exhausted their arrows and missiles and were driven back by the severity of the English response. They then retired, giving way to the advance of the heavy infantry, who composed in fact the largest part of the Norman army. They came pounding up the slope, shields locked together, in group formations, seeking to engage the English frontline, but impeded by the rough nature of the terrain. Their job was to open a gash in the shield wall to enable the Knights to penetrate it. They failed repeatedly. The Norman troops clashed bloodily with the shield wall, meeting the response of the Housecarls wielding the dreaded Scandinavian-style two-handed battle-axe, capable of cleaving a man in two. The English issued their battle cries: Out! Out! Out! Holy Cross! Holy Cross! and God Almighty! To which the Normans replied with ‘Dex Aie! Dex Aie! (God helps!)
William won and Harold died and English history took a right-angle turn, and murky questions precede it all, questions involving saintly old King Edward, and the succession, and promises made in secret. Rex discounts any legitimacy in William’s action, ruling out both blood-claim to the throne and any kind of binding private assurance made by the old king:
That the king nominated Harold as his successor was never denied, even by the Duke. The Normans simply chose to ignore the binding nature of ‘verba novissima’, claiming that Edward’s alleged promise to the Duke took precedence because of his kinship (as Edward’s great-nephew) and that the Earl [Harold], as allegedly the Duke’s vassal, should have refused the nomination. There is no evidence that King Edward ever made any public proclamation in favor of the Duke, other than Norman assertions, and, had he done so, it would surely have been recorded in the Chronicle. Nor was there a written will, since, had it existed, William would surely have produced it.
(as Rex elsewhere points out, that ‘great-nephew’ status was entirely illusory; William was actually got his ‘great nephew’ status through Queen Emma and was therefore of no real descent from Edward)
And of course the violence didn’t end in 1066, as Rex knows quite well (he’s written books on the subject): William faced serious and potentially deadly revolts led by the more disgruntled of his new subjects and their opportunistic foreign allies. Unlike the version too often seen in historical overviews, Rex’s William doesn’t kick off his boots immediately after Hastings and start writing thank-you notes; he’s constantly on the move, fighting hard to retain the prize he’d so luckily won. It took him years; the last vestiges of organized rebellion were stamped out in Rex’s own neighborhood of Ely (the text has some lovely full-color photos of the grassy meadows and gentle fens where freedom died) only in 1071.
That process of pacification was necessarily ruthless, and Rex never lets his readers forget it. “King William took over a country in which well-trained officers were in charge of both local and central government,” he tells us, referring to the relatively stable sub-governing superstructure already taking shape in English society. The new king made use of that superstructure to facilitate his own rule. But he was only interested in the muscles and arteries of his new political body – he promptly set about lopping off the hands, as he had the head:
But Duke William did not only make himself King, as others had done before him, nor did he merely add yet another cohort of nobles to the ranks of those already in power, instead he virtually eliminated the whole of the existing governing glass and transferred the ownership of their estates to his own somewhat mixed collection of followers, Bretons, Flemings, Poitevins, and above all, Normans.
By the time Rex’s dense, perfectly paced account is over, even readers familiar with the subject and the era will have learned things, had assumptions pleasantly challenged, been given fascinating new angles to think about. Many first-rate volumes have been written on these pivotal years in English history (including fantastic volumes by Frank McLynn and David Howarth), and Rex duly lists them all in his Bibliography. With little fanfare and no excessive rationalizing (a good job is its own defense, after all), he has produced a volume to join the very best. His 1066 is very highly recommended.