I have always loved history, and I majored in it at Bristol University in England back in the day. Today, September 28th, happens to be the anniversary of one of the most momentous events in human history and, although it happened 957 years ago, it has been key in shaping the direction and character of Western Civilization as we know it – the Norman Conquest of England in 1066 AD. So how do I cover such a massive historical event that has had thousands of books written about it in just a single newspaper column? Here goes.
For the 500 or so years after the disintegration of the Roman Empire across Europe but before the Norman Conquest in 1066, Europe was for the most part ruled by feudal kings. The Normans, whose name derives from the words Northman and Norsemen, were descendants of the Vikings. These barbarian pirates from Norway, Iceland and Denmark, were pagan and violent seafaring invaders who raped and pillaged their way across Europe from the 8th to 11th century.
In the year 911, the ruler of the area today we would generally call France was King Charles III, later more commonly known in history as Charles the Simple. After being attacked by a group of Norsemen, he was pressured to sign the Treaty of Saint-Clair-sur-Epte which gave the invaders the land today known as the Normandy region in Northwestern France. The document also appointed Rollo, a Viking warlord and the Norse leader of that particular group, as the first Duke of Normandy. In exchange, Rollo and his men promised to provide protection along the coastline against further Viking invaders which, by most historical accounts, they did. Despite this deal, Rollo was a proud and obstinate fellow and, according to the book The History of the Normans, when tradition required him to kiss the King’s foot to formalize the treaty, Rollo refused. He instructed one of his warrior aides to do this in his place, and the sidekick grabbed Charles’ foot, pulled it into the air toppling King Charles III on to the ground, then kissed it with the monarch flat on his back.
140 years later, the great-great-great grandson of Rollo was William the 1st, who had inherited the title of Duke of Normandy. He had visited King Edward of England, known as Edward the Confessor, in 1051. Edward was to be the last unopposed king of the old Anglo-Saxon royal line, and William always maintained that at that meeting Edward had promised William the throne of England upon his death.
In early 1066, Edward the Confessor died. Since he had no children, there was no clear heir to the throne so several competitors claimed the right to be the new king, including Harold Godwinson the powerful Earl of Wessex, the Earl’s brother Tostig who was also Earl of Northumbria, and King Harald of Norway, who history has dubbed Harald the Ruthless. On his deathbed, Edward announced that Harold Godwinson, the Earl of Wessex, should take over…. which he did, for a few months.
Back in Normandy, this infuriated William, who declared war on the new king. William arrived in Southern England on September 28th from France with hundreds of ships and over 7,000 soldiers. On October 14th the Norman army met the English troops at the famous Battle of Hastings, where the English were soundly defeated, possibly because their troops were almost all infantry but about half the Norman soldiers were archers and horsemen. King Harold Godwinson was killed, legend has it by an arrow in his eye, and William began to take over England.
Over the next year or so, William plundered and burned a large number of towns and villages in Southern England, confiscating and redistributing land to those loyal to him, installing basic forms of regional government, and generally taking control. It was during this time that he began to be known as “the Conqueror”. On December 25th, Christmas Day and just three months later in that same year, William was crowned King of England in Westminster Abbey in London. He remained on the throne until his death in 1087, spending most of that time tightening and consolidating control over England. Every king and queen of Britain since then including the recently passed Queen Elizabeth II and her son the current King Charles III, is a direct descendant of this line going all the way back to William the Conqueror, and even Rollo.
For centuries following the Norman Conquest, there was great debate about whether history should view this invasion, the last truly successful invasion of Great Britain, as “good” or “bad”, and agree on who were the heroes and the villains. However, over the last couple of centuries historians have tended to look at it less judgmentally and more in light of the changes the invasion and strong leadership that the Normans brought. These benefits included a stronger, more unified country, over 1,000 defensive castles built in England, changes in architecture, development of the English language, and eventually a strong global platform that allowed it to colonize about half the world. England arguably became the greatest power on earth in the 1600s and 1700s on the strength of a monarchy that had been largely stable for centuries and has now been stable for almost 1,000 years. There is a lot more information at www.britannica.com and www.history.com.
I say goodbye this week with a quote from Marc Morris, author of the definitive book The Norman Conquest. As the centuries rolled since the violence of 1066, he says: “….it is a mark of the kingdom’s political maturity that in times of crisis its leading men would generally come together to debate their differences rather than immediately reaching for their swords.”
God Bless America!
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