Post-classical history


Late in his life, Napoleon summed up how wars are won and lost. It was, he said, three parts moral. One part physical.cvii Throughout his campaign for the English throne, William had relentlessly maintained the moral high ground, from his manipulation of Harold’s oath, through his dealings with the Vatican, to (according to William of Poitiers) his careful arrangement around his neck on the morning of the battle of the bones of the saints on which he maintained Harold had sworn. It has frequently been asserted that in the final analysis he had outgeneralled his opponent, but it was on the moral high ground that he most conspicuously did so. It was a considerable achievement for a man whose conquest lacked any moral or legal justification.

He lost no time in exploiting the propaganda and military victory that he had won, though initially events left him somewhat at a stand. He waited at Hastings, as the D Chronicle records, in the days following the battle for submissions to his authority to come in. They did not come. Instead, as soon as the news of Harold’s death reached them in London, the remaining chief men of the kingdom (the two archbishops, Stigand and Ealdred, and Earls Edwin and Morcar among them) elected the young atheling Edgar as king, as clear an indication as could be given of England’s rejection of Norman rule. It was, as even William of Poitiers admitted, evidence of ‘their highest wish to have no lord who was not a compatriot’. Perhaps it was only at this stage that William realized exactly how long a struggle lay ahead of him before he could with any realism call the country conquered. The initial stages of the process, the submission of Dover, Canterbury, Winchester, the slaughter of the citizens of Romney who had had the impertinence to attack the Norman ships that had accidentally landed there, the gradual encirclement of London by his army, the devastation of all the territory over which he passed, were soon achieved. London put up more of a fight, but without stronger leadership than a boy of fourteen could provide, it was soon overcome. The unfortunate Edgar, with Stigand and other dignitaries, came to submit to him at Berkhamstead ‘out of necessity’, says the D Chronicle; and it was great unwisdom that they did not do so earlier, before so much harm was done, it adds bitterly. The Domesday Book gives proof twenty years later of the devastation of the country through which William passed, with large areas of this normally rich and fertile country simply entered as ‘waste’. On Christmas Day he was crowned in Westminster Abbey, which thus, in its first year of existence, saw the burial of one king and the coronation of two more.

Again according to William of Poitiers, ‘the bishops and other leading men begged him to take the crown, saying that they were accustomed to obey a king, and wished to have a king as their lord’.cviii According to the D Chronicle, Archbishop Ealdred refused to place the crown on William’s head until he had sworn on the Gospels to be a true lord, and to rule the people as well as any king who had gone before him, provided they would be loyal to him. It is interesting that much the same oath was administered to Cnut on his coronation; it may, in fact, have been standard procedure for all coronations, for English kings as well as for conquerors, but noted only in the case of conquerors. The proviso of English loyalty was to be important to William, since it gave him the only excuse that could be made for the campaign of oppression that followed. Orderic Vitalis claims that, by the grace of God, England was subdued within the space of three months; a somewhat optimistic statement, given that he records later that

meanwhile the English were groaning under the Norman yoke, and suffering oppressions from the proud lords who ignored the king’s injunctions. The petty lords who were guarding the castles oppressed all the native inhabitants of high and low degree and heaped shameful burdens on them. For Bishop Odo and William fitzOsbern, the king’s viceregents, were so swollen with pride that they would not deign to hear the reasonable plea of the English or give them impartial judgement. When their men-at-arms were guilty of plunder and rape they protected them by force, and wreaked their wrath all the more violently upon those who complained of the cruel wrongs they suffered.

And so the English groaned aloud for their lost liberty and plotted ceaselessly to find some way of shaking off a yoke that was so intolerable and unaccustomed.cix

There were to be continual risings against the invaders all over the kingdom, but particularly in the north where it looked at one point as if a separate kingdom might be set up under Edgar Atheling, buttressed by his brother-in-law the King of Scotland and King Sweyn Estrithson of Denmark; it was this threat that provoked the infamous harrying of the north by William in 1069–70, a cold-blooded campaign to destroy anything in the area that might support life. Even for chroniclers who normally praised William, this was too much:

In his anger he commanded that all crops and herds, chattels and food of every kind should be brought together and burned to ashes with consuming fire, so that the whole region north of Humber might be stripped of all means of sustenance. In consequence so serious a scarcity was felt in England, and so terrible a famine fell upon the humble and defenceless populace, that more than 100,000 Christian folk of both sexes, young and old alike, perished of hunger. My narrative has frequently had occasion to praise William but for this act which condemned the innocent and guilty alike to die by slow starvation I cannot commend him. For when I think of helpless children, young men in the prime of life, and hoary greybeards perishing alike of hunger I am so moved to pity that I would rather lament the griefs and sufferings of the wretched people than make a vain attempt to flatter the perpetrator of such

Although he may have won the military and propaganda battles, William’s victory may in the long term have had some of the flavour of dust and ashes. His initial return to Normandy in triumph with eminent English hostages in his train and wagonloads of English gold and treasure was hailed with joy, but England was never to be a place where he felt at home and, as the years passed, he spent less and less time there. He had never originally intended to be a conqueror; he had expected a peaceful succession, but his instincts were autocratic. The idea that the English crown was elective, that the English people could thwart his original intentions, was clearly not one that had ever seriously occurred to him or that he could accept. His initial attempts to learn English were very quickly abandoned; and when the king made no effort to speak the language, it would be hard to blame his underlings for failing to do so. Ironically, even his campaigns in Normandy, Brittany and Maine were much less successful after 1066 than they had been before it. Orderic Vitalis, a reasonably dispassionate critic of the Conqueror, notes that, after 1066,

because of his remarkable courage he stoutly stood up to all enemies, but he did not invariably enjoy success as before, nor was he cheered by frequent victories. In the thirteen years of life which remained to him he never once drove an army from the field of battle, nor succeeded in storming any fortress which he besieged.cxi

What William really wanted from his conquest was the status of a consecrated king, to assist him in his rivalry with the King of France, and the revenues and loot of England. His idea of governing according to the laws of Edward the Confessor (which, in fact, were the laws of Cnut) was to ensure that he received every penny to which he was legally entitled. His conquest was not even to be very durable. Within a century of Hastings, the reign of his own direct Norman line had ended with his daughter’s son, King Stephen (the descendants of his own sons having died out), and England and Normandy were settling down under the rule of Angevin kings, descendants of the Geoffrey Martel whom William had fought so desperately earlier in his career.

It is impossible not to contrast his victory with that of Cnut half a century before. Cnut had an advantage linguistically in having a mother-tongue that even at that time was much closer to English than Norman French was (it is notable that in Snorre’s account of Stamford Bridge, the Northumbrian English and the Norwegian invaders were able to communicate with each other without much trouble, and a recent study argues convincingly that Old English and Old Norse were mutually intelligible).cxii But although his brand of ruthlessness was no less pronounced than William’s, he chose, after the bloodbath with which he opened his reign, to operate much more diplomatically, and he made conspicuous efforts to adapt his rule to English custom. The average Englishman would probably have noticed little difference from the rule of his Anglo-Saxon predecessors, apart from the merciful cessation of Viking raids. Cnut did not replace the native ruling class with an alien one; of the three great earls who flourished during his reign and whom he bequeathed to his successors, only one (Siward of Northumbria) was Danish, and he had married into the family of his Northumbrian predecessors. Leofric and Godwin were ‘mere English’, and this was very much the pattern for the major appointments made throughout his reign. Even if he had wished to, he could not have replaced the senior English churchmen with Danes since Denmark had been too recently converted to Christianity to produce a sufficient number of qualified men. Cnut’s rule hardly interrupted Anglo-Saxon rule.

William had rather more excuse for a wholesale importation of a ruling class from abroad, since the three great battles of 1066 had between them virtually wiped out the entire top layer of English society. There is some evidence that he started his reign with the intention of honouring his vow to be a good lord to all his subjects: one of his earliest actions as king was to issue a writ confirming the rights and privileges of the city of London. A number of major landowners were confirmed in their positions (including Earls Edwin and Morcar); Stigand continued in office; and a few English names appear on his earliest charters, though these soon disappear as rebellions surfaced throughout the kingdom. William of Poitiers says that he endowed the boy Atheling with ample lands, but, according to the Domesday Book, Edgar never got possession of any of them. But Edwin and Morcar rebelled in 1068, made their peace with William, then rebelled again in 1071, when they were involved in the rising of Hereward the Wake. Edwin was eventually killed in the fens by his own men, Morcar was captured and spent the rest of his life in prison. We have the testimony of the Domesday Book that by 1086 only 8 per cent of English land remained in the hands of those who had owned it in 1066. William of Malmesbury in the following century confirmed that England had become ‘the residence of foreigners and the property of strangers; at the present time there is no Englishman who is either earl, bishop, or abbot; strangers all, they prey upon the riches and vitals of England’.cxiii

But there were still possible English appointees left, especially in the Church where a particularly clean sweep of senior English clerics was made; this was no doubt done in part to honour whatever promises may have been made to the Vatican in 1066 (though whatever these were, William maintained Stigand in office as archbishop until 1070). But it certainly caused considerable resentment, since the new Norman bishops and abbots were rarely demonstrably superior to the Englishmen they supplanted and were very often inferior. Edward, Archdeacon of London, who took monastic orders under Lanfranc at Christ Church, Canterbury, is said to have tried to abscond, because he could no longer bear the irritation of being corrected by men less learned than himself. Lanfranc would hardly have come into this category; but then he was a Lombard, not a Norman. The learning and eminence of Lanfranc, previously Abbot of St Stephen’s, Caen, and before that prior of Bec, to whose school the students of Europe flocked, was indeed one of the mitigating benefits to England of the conquest. His appointment as Archbishop of Canterbury in 1070 was to be an unqualified advantage to the English Church.

However, there was strong Norman disapproval of the English houses of secular, very often married, canons, set up under the influence of the Lotharingian canonical revival, and a desire to reform them as celibate Benedictine monasteries. The reluctance of some Norman churchmen to accept the old English saints as legitimately canonical was another cause of friction, among both clergy and laity. A certain degree of scepticism was pardonable among the new masters, it was a period in which many things, previously accepted, were being questioned. The great French scholar Abelard even queried the sanctity of France’s patron saint, St Denis. But in England, it was also a period in which English sensitivities were very raw. In many monasteries and parishes, the lower clergy, the monks and parish priests, kept their places but in general under foreign superiors. The language gulf between higher and lower increased the English sense of inferiority. English abbeys and churches were pillaged of their treasures, especially if they had had connections with the old regime. King Harold’s foundation of secular canons at Waltham Abbey (in which he was probably buried) was stripped of the relics, manuscripts and gold and silver plate with which he had endowed it to enrich William’s own foundation of St Stephen’s, Caen. Eadmer expresses the general feeling of English churchmen:

Their nationality was their downfall. If they were English, no virtue was enough for them to be considered worthy of promotion; if they were foreigners, the mere appearance of virtue, vouched for by their friends, was sufficient for them to be judged worthy of the highest honour.

By 1087, when William died, the only pre-conquest English bishop still in office was St Wulfstan, Bishop of Worcester.

At what one might call the administrative civil service level, English officials held on to their posts initially; as long as the language of government continued to be English, this was essential, and even after this there is ample evidence in the Domesday Book that, at the middle levels of society, Englishmen continued to hold positions, mainly as minor officials, under the new foreign lords. But as soon as Latin was substituted for English for official purposes, both in the Church and in government writs, the way was open for Normans and other foreign clerics to take their place. William’s control over church appointments was rigid, understandably, since it was his senior churchmen whom he used most often as regents during his frequent absences from England.

It would be pleasant, though difficult, to believe in the deathbed speech attributed to him by Orderic Vitalis in which he owned that he had

wrested [the crown of England] from the perjured King Harold in a desperate battle, with much effusion of human blood; and it was by the slaughter and banishment of his adherents that I subjugated England to my rule. I have persecuted its native inhabitants beyond all reason. Whether gentle or simple, I have cruelly oppressed them; many I unjustly disinherited; innumerable multitudes, especially in the county of York, perished through me by famine or the sword. . . Having, therefore, made my way to the throne of that kingdom by so many crimes, I dare not leave it to anyone but God alone, lest after my death worse should happen by my means.cxiv

He then, according to Orderic, handed his second son, William Rufus, a sealed letter addressed to Lanfranc on his wishes regarding the appointment of the successor to the throne and recommended him to cross the sea immediately to secure the crown for himself. Even in death, it is hard to break the habits of a lifetime.

It is easy to exaggerate the resentment and humiliation experienced by the native population as the rule of the conquerors was established. It is likely that intermarriage between the conquerors and the conquered began fairly soon after 1066, possibly in some cases to reinforce title to lands granted to new masters. There must have been many widows available. To what extent such marriages were freely entered into cannot now be known. The official dispensations later granted to Englishwomen who had entered convents and in some cases taken vows to escape the predatory attentions of the incomers indicates that such marriages were not always voluntary. However, to the majority of a mainly agrarian population (if they did not have the misfortune to live north of the Humber) life probably continued much as it had always done, perhaps with rather more emphasis on the collection of taxes, but subject to the same contingencies of bad weather, war, harrying and sickness. There was presumably the added irritation of being ruled by lords who no longer spoke a language they could understand and who were very often absentee landlords, more concerned with the lands they also held in Normandy or Flanders or with the wars they were fighting on the other side of the Channel, and with the money they could extract from their English estates to pay for them, than with the welfare of their English tenants. It was at the level of the thegns and king’s thegns that the new domination would bear hardest. Many of the younger surviving members of these families emigrated, either to Scandinavia or to Constantinople to serve in the Varangian Guard where they would have further chances of fighting the Normans, even if it had to be those of southern Italy.

None the less, what is remarkable is not how much of Anglo-Saxon England was destroyed, but how much in the longer term survived. English laws, language, literature and political and administrative institutions are still recognizably inherited from pre-conquest times. William may have replaced all the chief English office-holders with Normans, Bretons, Flemings and other members of his rather miscellaneous host, but the chief institutions of government he wisely kept intact, since no such efficient and well-regulated arrangements existed at that time in his own duchy. It was these institutions that had made England such a wealthy and desirable country, and since he desired the wealth, he maintained the institutions and to a certain extent, the people who operated them.cxv It seems to have been in the cities that the higher classes of the English maintained their standing more than elsewhere. It has been pointed out that, after the conquest, most of the moneyers continued to be English; the family of London moneyers who struck coins for Edward the Confessor and Harold II also struck them for William I, William II and Henry I. Certainly, the standard of the English coinage both before and after 1066 was far higher than that of the Norman coinage and was much more respected internationally. But in general the situation was as summarized by Sir Frank Stenton:

The Normans who had entered into the English inheritance were a harsh and violent race. They were the closest of all western peoples to the barbarian strain in the continental order. They had produced little in art or learning, and nothing in literature, that could be set beside the work of Englishmen. But politically they were the masters of their world.cxvi

It is impossible not to try to guess what would have happened if the battle had gone the other way, as it so easily might. If King Harold had thrown the Normans back into the Channel, he would probably have been secure for the remainder of his reign, as Cnut was. After his death, there would almost certainly have been another disputed succession. He had sons by Edith, who would not have been accepted by the Church as legitimate, and he had at least one much younger posthumous son by Aldyth, sister of Earls Edwin and Morcar, who was legitimate. The former would certainly have put in a claim for themselves, and the claim of the latter would have been supported by his uncles. Depending on when Harold died, there would also have been a strong case for the Atheling Edgar, who would probably have been much of an age with Harold’s illegitimate sons, and no older than his great-uncle Edward the Confessor had been when he had succeeded. Harold’s election had been prompted by the exceptional dangers threatening England when Edward died, and with those dangers safely surmounted, there would have been nothing against and much to be said for returning to the old royal line. The speed with which the remaining chief men of the kingdom turned to Edgar as soon as Harold’s death at Hastings was known indicates that his claim would probably have been strongly supported, especially if the alternative was an internecine contest between members of the Godwinson family. And Edgar, if elected, might perhaps have proved as durable as his great-uncle, as canny a king, and might have done better in the matter of providing an heir. Even as a homeless exile, a wanderer through England, Scotland and France, he outlived almost all the other players in this tragedy.

What would not have happened is easier to guess. The empire constructed by William did not outlast his own life. Normandy was inherited by his rebellious eldest son, Robert; England, which, as he had acquired it by his own efforts he believed (despite his hypothetical deathbed speech) to be his to dispose of at will, went to his second son, William Rufus, and, when William Rufus died childless, to his third son, Henry. Robert’s desire to reunite Normandy and England under himself led to a continuous state of war between him and his younger brothers, ending in his loss of Normandy altogether and, eventually, its acquisition by the rival house of Anjou. The fratricidal wars between Robert and his siblings in which England was perforce involved placed the new English aristocracy in a very difficult position. Most of them, certainly the most powerful nobles, held land in both Normandy and England. Those who fought for William Rufus or, after him, Henry risked having their ancestral Norman possessions confiscated by Robert; those who fought for Robert equally risked the loss of their new English lands. Prudent fathers who were able to do so divided their inheritance between two sons, Norman to one, English to the other, thus saving each of them the trouble of choosing sides, though risking the possibility of their later meeting, like the brothers they served, face to face on the battlefield. Many could not or did not do so, and to the curse of being ruled by an alien governing class was added the problem of absentee landlords who expected their English tenants to fight for their masters’ lands on the other side of the Channel. The family feuds fought out first between William and his eldest son and, after his death, between all his sons and, indeed, his grandchildren, dragged the English into continuous wasteful and irrelevant warfare, for which in general England paid in lives and money. The situation was not much improved by the accession of Henry II, the first of the Angevin kings and the one who contributed most to the post-conquest development of England, since his continental and family feuds and those of his successors were as incessant as those of his Norman predecessors. England, unconquered, would have been spared all these continental squabbles, although it might have had some succession contests of its own. It is highly unlikely that, on past showing, they would have been as destructive as the civil wars between Stephen and Matilda, after which the direct Norman line died out. More importantly, there would almost certainly have been no Hundred Years War, no English claim to the throne of France, no Agincourt, no burning of Joan of Arc. It might all have been relatively peaceful for England.

It has been suggested that Harold’s reign would have turned England politically and culturally more in the direction of Scandinavia, further from the influence of France that was to mean so much to England in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries. This need not have been the case. Harold himself appears to have been a man of some culture, who travelled widely and spoke several languages easily. The English language would almost certainly have developed differently – possibly into something much closer to German or Dutch. Before 1066, English was still heavily inflected; when it re-emerged from obscurity after the conquest, it had lost most of its inflections and agreements. This might have happened spontaneously anyway, though the example of German throws some doubt on the idea. What literature might have been written in it can only be guessed at, but there is no reason to suppose that it would not have been receptive to the new literary fashions on the Continent. Anglo-Saxon England had never been closed to continental influence. Before the conquest, there was (as far as we know) so little vernacular literature elsewhere in Europe that the question hardly arose, but in the other arts there was certainly no isolation. The few artefacts that survive indicate an openness to what was happening elsewhere in Europe that would probably have continued just as easily after 1066 if there had been no invasion – indeed, possibly, much more easily, given the cultural insensitivity of the Norman conquerors in all spheres except architecture. The Carolingian influences in the stole and maniple of St Cuthbert and the work of the extraordinarily beautiful Winchester school of illumination as illustrated in the benedictional of St Æthelwold show to what extent continental examples affected pre-conquest English workmanship.

From the literary point of view, it is less easy to guess what would have happened. It has been suggested that it was the Norman Conquest and the events that followed from it that opened England to the new tide of literary innovation that came from France. This seems unlikely. The Normans were most improbable conduits for any form of culture, and it would be difficult to prove that they were responsible for anything cultural that happened in England in the century that followed 1066; in fact little did, except an outbreak of distinguished historiography, much of it the work of men of dual English and Norman heritage like Orderic Vitalis and William of Malmesbury. A burst of the writing of history frequently follows upheavals such as a conquest; a similar outbreak occurred in Scotland after the Union with England of 1707. It is, perhaps, a way of making sense of the incomprehensible. The tearing apart of the country in the civil wars between Stephen and Matilda left little opportunity for anything in the way of literature or culture to flourish. It was the Angevin court of Henry II and his queen, Eleanor of Aquitaine, that deserves most of the credit for bringing the songs of the troubadours to England and thus for their influence on English lyric poetry, but it is arguable that this would have happened anyway. The absence of anything remotely comparable to the Norman Conquest in Germany and the low countries proved no impediment to the spread of romance and troubadour culture there, any more than in earlier centuries there had been any resistance to the spread of chansons de geste on the exploits of Old Germanic heroes like the Volsungs, Attila and the Niblung kings, and Hildebrand and Walther of Aquitaine, in Merovingian or Carolingian France or indeed the rest of western Europe. The twelfth-century lays of Marie de France reached Norway, even Iceland, a country particularly remote from continental influence, without difficulty, certainly without the assistance of any event comparable to the Norman invasion. Poetry, especially oral poetry and song, is notoriously resistant to frontiers.

But perhaps it is appropriate to finish on a vaguely poetic note. We started with the question, how did King Harold contrive to lose a battle that it might rationally have been thought impossible for him to lose. There may be a way of accounting for it, perhaps not in historical or practical terms but in a way that is to some extent artistically and poetically satisfying. To understand it, it is necessary to go back again to the Old Germanic heroic tradition and the concept of heroism, as illustrated in so many of the old legends and, more specifically, in Old English poetry. Heroism, as it is understood in poems like Beowulf and The Battle of Maldon, is a quality only achieved in death. There is no such thing as a live hero, because there is always the possibility of his fame being tarnished by an unheroic action. Only after death is his heroism fixed and immutable. This is the point of the long speech by Hrothgar to Beowulf, in which he adjures him to avoid the errors of Heremod, an earlier king of the Danes, who in youth performed heroic actions, as Beowulf had done, but later turned to vice and cruelty. It follows that, to attain a heroic reputation, the only kind worth having for a warrior, death in heroic action was to be, if not sought, at least not avoided, even if it was at the expense of prudence or common sense. N. F. Blake makes this point in his essay on the battle of Maldon, and reminds us ‘that heroes are not ordinary men. Judged by the standards of rational human behaviour, their gestures are stupid and they provoke comments of apparent criticism’, adding that ‘rational human behaviour does not provide the appropriate standard to judge by’.cxvii It was not sensible for Roland to refuse to blow his horn for help when overwhelmed by superior numbers. It was not sensible for Beowulf, as an old man, to insist on fighting the dragon single-handed; it was certainly not sensible for Byrhtnoth to allow the invading Danes to cross the Blackwater so that they could fight on equal ground. ‘God alone knows who shall rule this battlefield,’ he says, but one feels he knew. All three were fey: they knew instinctively that the consequences of their actions would be disastrous and that fate had spoken against them, but all knew equally that the challenge with which fate had presented them required them to accept it and die or lose honour and live. The situation faced by Harold was not so very different. From the moment he steps on board the ship that will take him to the swearing of his oath to William, he seems, like them, to move with a dreadful inevitability towards the fate that is waiting for him. It is perhaps fitting that, at the very end of the heroic age, the last Anglo-Saxon King of England should have met his death in a way that his remoter ancestors would have understood and applauded.

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