Post-classical history


The Year of the Three Battles

Frank McLynn

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FOR FIVE HUNDRED years, until the middle of the fifth century AD, the Roman empire guaranteed stability in the Western world through the pax romana. When the empire fell apart (the last Roman emperor who could trace continuity from Augustus was Romulus Augustus, deposed in 476), the centre of gravity shifted to Byzantium, the city on the site of modern Istanbul founded by the emperor Constantine in 332. Despite attempts to revive the western Roman empire, most notably under Charlemagne at the end of the eighth century, the centre of gravity in the West, the cultural hinge on which everything turned, was Byzantium; western Europe itself for the most part remained a collection of petty kingdoms and principalities.

Two great seismic events broke up this basic pattern. From the middle of the seventh century, the great new religion of Islam was on the march, and within one hundred years had reached the Pyrenees. One hundred and fifty years later the Vikings erupted from their Scandinavian fiords and cut a swathe through northern Europe: such was the fear and devastation they spread that the old English prayerbook contained the plea A furore Normannorum libera nos, Domine (Lord, deliver us from the wrath of the Norsemen). Between them, the Vikings, pressing on France and northern Europe from the north, and the Islamic nations, pressing up through Spain from the south, bade fair to squeeze western Europe out of existence.

Once again the key was Byzantium. It was the Byzantine empire that provided the main line of defence against the encroachment of Islam, and it was the Byzantines who co-opted the Vikings into trading partners, so that the Scandinavian settlers in Russia and the Ukraine (the Rus) provided a crucial transmission belt between the Mediterranean and the Baltic Sea, North Sea and the Atlantic. In concentrating on a story that involves mainly England, France and Norway, we should not forget that the dramatic events of 1066 took place in a much broader context. In Sicily Byzantines, Normans and Arabs confronted each other; in Spain ferocious wars went on between Christian kings and Moorish emirs (Rodrigo Diaz of Vivar, ‘el Cid’, was an almost exact contemporary of William the Conqueror); and in the Atlantic the Norsemen had settled Iceland and Greenland and reached the shores of North America.

The three main characters in my ‘triple biography’ were all ‘great men’, to use a term that has fallen out of fashion. William of Normandy was the most cunning of the three, Harold Godwinson the most courageous and Harald Hardrada the most flamboyant. But they were not Prometheans: they could not perform deeds that were precluded by the technologies and economies of the age; they made history but not in circumstances of their own choosing. If at times we must immerse our heroes in the socio-economic milieu that produced them, this is partly because true biography is not possible for personages so remote in time, for whose lives the sources are so suspect, and partly to underline the fact that, considering the constraints each of them worked under, their achievements finally emerge as even more remarkable than we thought before.

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Britain in 1066

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