The Norman Conquest

I like reading history almost as much as reading fiction, as readers of this blog have probably gathered. My favourite periods are the later middle ages and the sixteenth and eighteenth centuries (the seventeenth century is too bloody and dismal unless I’m in a really upbeat mood). However, I enjoy history books from all periods and about most countries.

I’ve just completed The Norman Conquest, by Marc Morris and, although I’ve read accounts of the later Saxon period, the Domesday Book and the reign of Henry I, I’m almost certain that I haven’t previously covered the Norman Conquest itself. Morris’s work could actually be more accurately described as a biography of William the Conqueror: it covers the whole of his life and finishes with his death in 1087. However, it also gives detailed information about how Edward the Confessor ruled England and the events that took place immediately after his death that helped to precipitate the Conquest. The book is extremely well-researched and put me right about several common misconceptions. For example, William was actually Edward the Confessor’s chosen successor, so less of an upstart than earlier historians have implied; Harold was the son of Godwine, his treacherous leading aristocrat and eventual enemy, and had less right to the throne than William (though the claims of both were, strictly speaking, eclipsed by that of Edgar Atheling, Edward’s nephew); it was not unusual for bastards to inherit under Norman law; Harold did not march from Stamford Bridge to Hastings after he defeated Harold Hardrada, because he did not know of William’s invasion at that point and, in any case, it was impractical to move armies over vast distances unless in a foreign country where the land could be plundered with impunity – instead, the Northern army was dispersed and a fresh one mustered in the South after news of William’s invasion reached Harold; and, although the Battle of Hastings gave William a decisive victory in the sense that Harold, the anointed king, had been killed and therefore a power vacuum had been created for William to step into, William had but a precarious hold on the throne for many years after the Conquest and had to quell many risings and rebellions in all parts of the country, as well as hostile attacks from the Welsh, Scots and Irish.

Relatively little is known of William the Conqueror the man, but Morris takes what there is to paint a compelling picture of an early mediaeval magnate. When I wrote about Richard III, I pointed out that almost all mediaeval kings were murderers; William stood head and shoulders above most of them for his achievements in this respect. He was the archetypal soldier-monarch, slashing and maiming and killing, engaging in mass slaughter every year of his adult life. His worst murderous excess did not involve the use of any of these types of atrocity, however, but straightforward – if that’s the right word – starvation. When there was an uprising in the North, William simply laid waste the lands and left the people to starve. Pathetic accounts survive of whole communities, including children, dying en masse and of how some people took to the roads and walked hundreds of miles until they could find charity – one group walked from Yorkshire to Worcester, for example – only to die because their digestive systems could not cope with the food after so many months of enforced fasting. (Morris compares their condition with that of concentration camp survivors.) Dubbed the Harrying of the North, this is the one event in William’s career that even his most fervent apologists can find no excuse for. Morris, who on the whole seems to be pro-William, does not try. He confines himself to the observation that the calculation of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle that 100,000 people perished in this way may be exaggerated, but of course there is no way of telling. William himself was said to be haunted by the Harrying on his deathbed.

However, somewhat surprisingly, but arguably justifiably, Morris makes some claim for certain civilising influences that stemmed from the Norman invasion. The Normans disapproved of slavery, and although it had been common practice in late Saxon England, it quickly died out after the Conquest. The Saxons took no prisoners, whereas the Normans believed that soldiers who had been fighting honourably on the other side should be captured (though they were more likely to treat well noble prisoners or those who could be ransomed, and their ‘clemency’ often did not prevent them from maiming their captives). Almost 500 years before Henry VIII, they tried to curb the power of the church; they also made it clean up its act, at a period when clergy were frequently promiscuous or co-habiting with women who had borne them children and nepotism and simony were widespread. Apropos of the church, this book has explained to me something that has puzzled me for years (although it might just show how slow on the uptake I am!), which is the role of the church in society. Because the book covers the very early Norman period, before the church had assumed many of the customs and ceremonies of the later mediaeval period, and because it was an unspiritual and pragmatic age, Morris is able to demonstrate clearly that senior clergy did not exist to promote the spiritual welfare of the populace. They did not even pretend to. They were administrators, some of them very capable and powerful ones, four centuries before Henry VII created posts for key councillors who effectively became the earliest civil servants.

William came to rather a sticky end. In his late fifties, grotesquely fat, and riding once again to battle – in France, where he spent 60% of his time even after the Conquest – he is said to have jolted violently against the pommel of his saddle, so that it became embedded in his overhanging gut. Alternatively, he had been sick of a stomach ailment for some time and may have died of natural causes. I love the extreme differences of the truth that these ancient chroniclers offer their readers: what they actually say is often less important than the moral intent that lies behind it. Thus there is a sub-text that William, the fat murderous bastard who had caused so many to suffer misery and horrible deaths, deserved a horrible death himself. And so the chronicler obligingly provides one… or perhaps he is telling the truth. These early historians would have made excellent novelists, if only the medium had been invented in their day.

Marc Morris, conversely, is an excellent historian who also tells a good story, but who is scrupulous in giving alternative versions where he finds them and indicating to the reader how likely it is that the truth has been exaggerated. Although I’m not enthralled by battles, blood and guts, there is so much more going on in this book that it held me spellbound from start to finish.