May 20th, 2009


I've been watching Channel 4's drama doc 1066: the Battle for Middle Earth over the past two nights- and it's got me thinking about a standing quarrel I have with a friend of mine who believes the Norman Conquest was the worse thing ever to happen to this country- and that we need to purge the language of its Frankish and Latinate accretions and go back to talking like Swedes. Yes, I tell him, but we couldn't do that without cancelling Shakespeare.

You might suppose he's some sort of white supremacist. In fact he's an old-fashioned socialist who works for Social Services in a predominantly Afro-Caribbean quarter of the city. I've never understood how he makes sense of his various views- but isn't it nice that people can be so complicated?

The Battle of Hastings isn't dead history. It continues to niggle. The issues are live and demand that we take sides. The Channel 4 film backs the Saxons of course.  It would be perverse, morally obtuse not to.  Duke William was an invader, an oppressor, a mass murderer. The bad guys won.  And yet if they'd been chased back into the sea we'd never have had Durham cathedral, Chaucer, Henry V, the British Empire or the Great War.  The Normans cut us off from Scandinavia and linked us to France- and through France to the European heartland or- to put a different spin on it- reclaimed us for the Roman Empire. They enriched our culture and made sure our history was important, not marginal. England wouldn't be England without them.

And then there's the question of who was actually in the right. It's easy enough to paint Harold as a flaxen haired patriot, but he was also a grabby warlord with no moral right to the throne. William's claim was better. Edward the Confessor had named him as his successor and- no small matter in those days- he also had the backing of the Pope.  William repaid this debt by handing over a quarter of his new kingdom to the Church- thus setting up a struggle between church and state that wasn't resolved until the 16th century.

The story of the year 1066 is thrilling, heroic, tragic- and lies at the root of our national identity- but the only great work of art it has ever inspired is the Bayeux tapestry. Why isn't it the subject of a national epic?  Why didn't Shakespeare write The Tragedy of Harold, King of England? What were our great poets thinking of,  to miss out on such an opportunity? But, then again, perhaps the wounds are too raw.  The Conquest laid the foundation for our politics and our class system. According to Channel 4- and I've no reason to doubt it- descendants of William's Norman knights still own one fifth of England- which is roughly as much- perhaps a little more- than their ancestors took possession of after the Conquest.  Again, as the root cause of everything that has happened to us since, perhaps the story is just too full of implications, too challenging, too big.

It's the best known date in our history- and arguably the most important-  and yet we shuffle round it.  How strange that a battle fought on a Sussex hillside nearly a thousand years ago should still have such power to embarrass and confuse.  

File:Normans Bayeux.jpg

The Bastard

Following on from the last entry, here's my poem about William the Conqueror. Its age can be gauged by the reference to Britannica. My set of battered, rabbit-eaten encyclopaedias- inherited from my grandfather- went to Oxfam a while back- long after I had abandoned them for Wikipedia. 



When William the bastard bust his gut

In a riding mishap (his war horse burned

Its foot in the smoking ashes of Mantes-

A town he’d had a  problem with)

They took him to his abbey in Rouen-

And there he may or may not have seen

A spectral procession of those he’d had

Chopped up, chopped down, burned out and raped-

And thus he may or may not have confessed

To having been a hard, cruel man-

“May God forgive me and may the monks

I’m funding here pray hard for my soul.”

But anyway he died- and his barons,

Remembering important engagements elsewhere,

Tootled off. And his servants poked him,

Cautiously, to be sure he was harmless,

Then stripped him of his rings and fled

And left him on the floor of the Abbey,

Naked- where he putrefied.


I thought I’d better check the facts

In Britannica. His married life,

It says, "was singularly pure".

O right, so he was a good guy then...