Post-classical history


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FROM 15 TO 20 October William remained at Hastings, resting his troops, sending for reinforcements and hoping for submissions to come in from all over England; he was confident that, without leaders, England would soon surrender to him. But the expected overtures did not materialize: instead, Archbishop Ealdred, together with Morcar and Edwin, who had belatedly arrived in the capital, got the witan to elect the sixteen-year-old Edgar the Atheling as the new king, with the proviso that the coronation be delayed until Christmas. But the treacherous brothers then left Edgar high and dry by marching north to Northumbria with their housecarls. They took with them the dubious record of having betrayed two kings within a single month through their fanatical desire for an independent Northumbria.1

Disappointed by the lack of response, William got his army on the march again on the 20th. First stop was Romsey, which he had earmarked for revenge for the attack on the handful of his men who had landed there by mistake on 28 September. Executions and maimings showed the ‘Christian’ spirit in which this papal paladin intended to proceed. Next on his list was Dover. Despite its defences, the town surrendered without a fight, cowed into submission by the terrifying example of Romsey. William told his followers that clemency should be offered to all towns surrendering without opposition, but his loot-crazy troops took matters into their own hands and gutted Dover none the less. Canterbury was the next to surrender, on 29 October, and soon Winchester followed, persuaded by ex-Queen Edith. William’s rapid progress was made easier by the absence of castles in England, which would have made his conquest a laborious affair.2

At Canterbury William and the Normans were delayed for a month, suffering from dysentery; once again it is said that the duke came close to death. Then, at the end of November, he advanced on London. There was a minor engagement outside the city between the Saxon defenders and five hundred Norman knights, which made William decide not to attack immediately. Keeping on the south bank, he cut a swathe of devastation through Surrey, Hampshire and Berkshire, finally crossing the Thames at Wallingford (where Stigand made his submission) and looping back towards London from the north-west, thus effectively encircling the city with devastated terrain. Hearing that the Normans intended to invest them with siege engines, and seeing themselves facing a long war of attrition which they could not hope to win without the help of the traitorous Morcar and Edwin, the opposition party in London finally accepted the inevitable. Edgar the Atheling, Bishop Ealdred, Ansgardus the Staller (commander of the Saxon garrison) and the other English notables came out to meet William at Berkhamstead to make formal obeisance and hand over hostages. To palliate his wrath they begged him to accept the crown.3

William summoned a council of his followers to sound their views; they advised him to become king at once. William sent a party of armed men into London to build a fort, later to be the Tower, and arranged to be crowned at Christmas. So it was that on Christmas Day 1066 William, Duke of Normandy, became King William I of England, and was anointed by the great friend of the man he had defeated, Archbishop Ealdred. But the terrible destruction caused by the Normans in the year 1066 was not yet over. Although he had given strict orders against systematic looting, William’s troops were out of control and he had to turn a blind eye to their depredations. They were still in the mood for killing and plundering when they heard the great shouts of acclamation coming from Westminster Abbey and ‘inferred’ that an anti-Norman riot had broken out. Oddly enough, instead of rushing to the abbey to protect their king, they decided instead to set fire to neighbouring houses and slaughter a few Saxons. It was entirely appropriate that a man who had waded in blood to become king of England should have been crowned while flames licked and roared around the abbey.4

William reigned until 1087, and was engaged in a never-ending series of rebellions in England and wars in France. For those who claim him as a peerless warrior it is significant that after 1071 he never won a major victory. He survived plots and conspiracies by Eustace of Boulogne, Odo of Bayeux and even his eldest son, Robert Curthose. Svein Estrithson invaded England in 1069, together with Malcolm of Scotland, but re-embarked before facing William in battle. The punishment for northern England’s support of Svein was the infamous ‘harrying’, whereby William systematically destroyed the local economy of the north and left the people to starve. In 1071 Morcar and Edwin joined Hereward the Wake in a famous revolt in Ely. When this failed, Morcar was imprisoned and died in jail, then Edwin was killed while trying to rescue his brother. The two men who, by their machiavellianism and treachery, had sabotaged Anglo-Saxon England more effectively than anyone else did not enjoy the fruits of their duplicity. Without them there would have been no disaffection of Tostig, no invasion by Harald Hardrada, no battle of Hastings and no Norman Conquest. Tolstoy, who famously argued that great men do not affect history but was obsessed by the influence of evil men, would have found in the story of Morcar and Edwin a notable moral example.

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