Things have been just a little awkward between Britain and France ever since the Norman invasion in 1066. Fortunately—after years of humorously chronicling the vast cultural gap between the two countries—author Stephen Clarke is perfectly positioned to investigate the historical origins of their occasionally hostile and perpetually entertaining pas de deux.
Clarke sets the record straight, documenting how French braggarts and cheats have stolen credit rightfully due their neighbors across the Channel while blaming their own numerous gaffes and failures on those same innocent Brits for the past thousand years. Deeply researched and written with the same sly wit that made A Year in the Merde a comic hit, this lighthearted trip through the past millennium debunks the notion that the Battle of Hastings was a French victory (William the Conqueror was really a Norman who hated the French) and pooh-poohs French outrage over Britain’s murder of Joan of Arc (it was the French who executed her for wearing trousers). He also takes the air out of overblown Gallic claims, challenging the provenance of everything from champagne to the guillotine to prove that the French would be nowhere without British ingenuity.
Brits and Anglophiles of every national origin will devour Clarke’s decidedly biased accounts of British triumph and French ignominy. But 1000 Years of Annoying the French will also draw chuckles from good-humored Francophiles as well as “anyone who’s ever encountered a snooty Parisian waiter or found themselves driving on the Boulevard Périphérique during August” (The Daily Mail). A bestseller in Britain, this is an entertaining look at history that fans of Sarah Vowell are sure to enjoy, from the author the San Francisco Chronicle has called “the anti-Mayle . . . acerbic, insulting, un-PC, and mostly hilarious.”
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1,000 Years of Annoying the French
By Stephen Clarke
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 2010 Stephen Clarke
All rights reserved.
When Is a Frenchman Not a Frenchman?
The French are very proud of the fact that they were the last people to invade the British Isles. Hitler didn't make it beyond Calais, the Spanish Armada was swept into the North Sea, and even France's own Napoleon never managed to land more than a few bedraggled soldiers on British soil. William the Conqueror, on the other hand, not only invaded England, he grabbed the whole country and turned it into a French colony.
However, as with so many things in the French version of history, this is not quite correct. Or, to be more precise, it is almost completely wrong.
For a start, a Dutchman, William of Orange, successfully invaded Britain in 1688. But because this was a bloodless takeover, it could be argued that it was less an invasion than the response to a plea from the Brits to come and save them from themselves.
More importantly, though, if you look at the facts of the Norman Conquest in 1066, it becomes clear that France's claim to have launched the last successful cross-Channel invasion is completely unfounded. It seems rather harsh to begin this book by undermining one of the core ideas in France's collective historical psyche, but it has to be done ...
My kingdom for a Norse
Before 1066, the issue troubling the inhabitants of what is now Britain was not 'Will I get a decent pension?' or 'How much is my house worth?' It was more along the lines of 'When will a horde of axe-wielding murderers come charging across the horizon to rape the women and steal the cattle (or in the case of certain Viking tribes the other way round)?'
If people didn't starve to death because of famine or pillage, if they managed to get the harvest in and have time to eat it, life was good. And to give themselves a reasonable chance of enjoying this luxury, what they needed most was a strong king. Someone who would tax them half to death but who might just keep them alive long enough to pay the taxes – a lot like modern governments, in fact.
In the ninth century, Britain had just such a king: Alfred. By maintaining a permanent fleet and a highly trained army, Alfred managed to keep England – or the portion he governed, up as far as the Midlands – free of Viking raiders. In fact, Alfred earned the title 'the Great' because of the way he transformed these raids on Britain from violent treasure hunts into suicide missions.
The upshot was that the Vikings, understandably frustrated at losing a sizeable chunk of their income, decided to sail a few miles further south and pillage France, where much easier pickings were to be had. So easy, in fact, that the Vikings set up bases on the French coast from which to raid inland – sort of pillaging resorts. Soon, the whole region was so unstable that the King of France was forced to pacify the invaders by ceding a large slab of territory to these 'men of the north'. And in the year 911 the region officially became the country of the Norsemen, or Normandy.
In short, Normandy owed its existence to an Englishman who deflected invaders away from Britain and over to France. An auspicious start.
In those days, the domain governed by the French King was little more than a collection of easily defendable duchies in the northeast of what we now call France, and the ruler was a puppet who could barely hold on to his own lands, never mind invade anyone else's. In fact, these kings didn't even call themselves French until more than a hundred years after William the Conqueror, when in 1181 Philippe Auguste first took the title 'Rex Franciae' (King of France) as opposed to 'Rex Francorum' (King of the Franks).
And when one of these Kings of the Franks did try to bring the troublesome Normans under his umbrella, it was with disastrous results. In 942, the Duke of Normandy, the formidable-sounding William Long Sword, was assassinated and succeeded by a mere ten-year-old called Richard. Sensing weakness, King Louis IV of the Franks decided to attack southern Normandy and capture Rouen, the major river port between Paris and the coast. But young Richard was not alone – he was supported by powerful clansmen with names like Bernard the Dane, Harald the Viking and Sigtrygg the King of the Sea, and the invasion ended in Frankish tears. Louis was captured and only released in exchange for hostages – one of Louis's sons and a bishop. In short, the Normans were issuing a clear warning that they had zero fellow feeling with the Franks, Burgundians, Lorraines or anyone else in the country that would one day become France. They wanted to be left alone.
All of which leads to a rather obvious conclusion: despite what a modern Parisian might tell you, the Normans weren't French at all. Calling a tenth- or eleventh-century Norman a Frenchman would have been a bit like telling a Glaswegian he's English, and we all know how dangerous that can be.
In fact, the Normans thought of the Franks as a bunch of limp Parisians who acted as if they owned the continent and needed to be kicked back home if they strayed too far from their snobbish little city. (An attitude, incidentally, that hasn't changed much since the tenth century.)
And the feeling was mutual – the Franks looked down on the Norman dukes as dangerous Nordic barbarians who lived only for hunting and war, and who practised heathen-style polygamy, living with hordes of mistresses and illegitimate children.
The Franks were perfectly right, and it was into this context that William was born.
William was a bastard
It is still possible to visit the Conqueror's birthplace today, in a small Norman town called Falaise (the French word for cliff). William's castle, or, as the locals call it, le Château de Guillaume le Conquérant, dominates the whole area from a rocky knoll opposite the grey stone cliff in question.
At the centre of a walled enclosure stands a freshly renovated Norman keep, a proud angular tower made of the creamy-white Caen stone that William and his descendants exported all over their territories, both in Britain and on the continent. Norman castle-builders insisted on working with Caen stone because it was easy to carve, yet resistant to the onslaught of weather and missiles (plus, presumably, they had shares in the quarries back home).
However sure of itself le Château de Guillaume le Conquérant might look today, though, it suffers from something of an identity crisis, because it isn't actually the castle where William was born. In fact, in 1120 William's son Henry came to Falaise, knocked down the old chateau and rebuilt one of his own. None of the original structure survives.
It seems strange – Henry becomes King of England and Duke of Normandy, and the first thing he does is return to his father's birthplace and demolish it. It's almost as though he wanted to deny his origins, as if there might be some shame associated with William's birth. And it's true – the Conqueror did have spectacularly low-class roots.
William wasn't known as 'the Conqueror' at first, of course. But he did acquire his other nickname pretty well immediately –'William the Bastard'. His unmarried parents were Robert, the younger brother of the incumbent Duke of Normandy, and a beautiful girl from Falaise whose name differs according to which history book you read. In French sources, she has been called Herleva, Harlotta, Herlette, Arlot, Allaieve and Bellon.
The story of how the young maiden met Robert also varies. In 1026 or 1027, she was either washing animal skins in the river ordancing, or maybe both, when Robert rode through the village of Falaise on his way to the castle. He caught sight of the lovely girl (let's call her Herleva for simplicity's sake) and instantly started to plan what his contemporaries called a 'Danish marriage', or, as we might say today, a shag.
According to later Anglo-Saxon legends, probably invented to irritate the Normans, Robert kidnapped Herleva. To be fair, though, he did go and inform her father, a local tanner, what he was doing. The father tried to insist on marriage, which Robert refused, mainly because Herleva wasn't posh enough – tanners were amongst the lowest of the low. Leather was tanned using a combination of urine, animal fat, brains and dung (dogs' muck worked very well, apparently), which meant that leatherworkers were even more malodorous than cesspit-cleaners.
Marriage was no real problem, though. Norman nobles didn't need to wed their conquests, so Herleva was washed of the leathery smell and laid out on Robert's bed in his creamy-white chateau to become his frilla, or local mistress.
Shortly after this, Robert's elder brother, Duke Richard of Normandy, attacked Falaise and took the castle. (It was the kind of thing warlike Normans often used to do to their brothers.) Feeling pleased with himself, Richard returned to his headquarters in Rouen, where he promptly died in mysterious circumstances, which was another thing Normans did, especially if they annoyed ambitious men like Robert.
With characteristic modesty, Robert dubbed himself Duke Robert the Magnificent and reclaimed his castle at Falaise. And it was there, in late 1027 or early 1028, that Herleva bore him a son. The French know the baby as Guillaume, but even French historians admit that the newborn's real name would have been something much closer to the English William, and the Bayeux Tapestry gives him the decidedly northern-sounding name of Willelm.
From a very young age, circumstances combined to prepare the little Bastard for his future role as conqueror of England. In 1035, Robert, who never married, proclaimed William his successor, a choice which in no way shocked or disconcerted the Normans. As the French historian Paul Zumthor says in his biography of Guillaume: 'nowhere else in Christian Europe could a bastard have acceded to the throne'. The boy William was sent to live with a cousin, and began to be groomed as a fighting duke.
He soon gained a reputation as a very serious young man, his only real pleasures being hunting and the occasional juggling show. He never got drunk at table, consuming a maximum of three glasses of wine (more evidence that he wasn't French), and had little or no sense of humour. He was, however, really excellent at hurting people, and reserved his most murderous rages for anyone who made a joke about his humble origins.
When he was twenty-four, William decided to consolidate his political position by making a good match. Not content with an old-fashioned 'Danish marriage', he decided to wed Mathilde (as the French call her, or Maheut, which was probably her original name), daughter of the Count of Flanders and a granddaughter of the incumbent King of the Franks.
Mathilde wasn't so keen, however, and made it public that she didn't want to marry a bastard. But William wasn't the type to let anyone get away with insulting his mum, so he leapt straight on his horse and galloped from Normandy to Lille, almost 400 kilometres away, crossing the Seine valley, splashing through the marshlands of the Somme and penetrating deep into the potentially dangerous territory of the King of the Franks. After several days in the saddle, and no doubt without stopping to freshen up or buy flowers, William bounded into the Count of Flanders's castle, threw Mathilde to the ground and, as Paul Zumthor puts it, 'tore her robe with his spurs', which is probably not a metaphor for 'asked her really nicely to marry him'. Apparently, the haughty young lady 'recognized that she had met her master' and agreed to the wedding.
Her father probably had something to do with this sudden change of opinion, too. When a Norman rode into your territory and had his way with your daughter, it was a heavy hint – similar things could, if necessary, happen to the rest of your domains. And William himself was the living embodiment of his political clout. At a muscular five feet ten, he was a giant for his time, a veteran of several military campaigns, and quite obviously a man with a future. Not a bad candidate for a son-in- law.
There was just one hitch to the pair getting hitched. What William had forgotten, or chosen to ignore, was that he and his new fiancée were cousins, and the Church opposed their union. Never one to back down from a fight, William decided to go ahead anyway, and the couple were married sometime between 1051 and 1053.
The relationship was a tumultuous one. As we've seen, William was famous for flying into sudden furies, and in Mathilde he had apparently met his match, even though many sources say she was only about four feet four inches tall. The couple would often have flaming rows, and it is said that during one of these, William dragged Mathilde through the streets of Caen by her hair to show everyone who was boss. Despite the occasional descent into domestic violence, though, their marriage was deemed a great success. William was pretty well the only ruler of his time who sired no bastards and who was faithful to his wife, and during their thirty-year union, the couple had ten children: six girls and four boys.
This devotion to creating a dynasty, coupled with William's obsession with getting his own way, did not bode well for the Anglo-Saxon rulers who were now sitting pretty in England.
A tapestry of illusions
If we know so much about William's reasons for invading England and ousting King Harold, it is because the Bayeux Tapestry paints such a detailed picture of historical events.
The 70-metre-long embroidery, with its vivid tableaux recounting events leading up to the Conquest and ending with Harold's death at Hastings, is a stunningly beautiful work of art, and anyone with the slightest interest in history, culture, needlework or just plain human endeavour should go and see it. Its survival is a miracle – in 1792, during the French Revolution, it was almost cut up to cover ammunition wagons, and in the Second World War Goebbels did his best to steal it. It is the only embroidery of its type and age to have lasted so long.
Its only failing is that it is definitely not a record of the historical facts.
A modern parallel might be ex-President Bush commissioning a film about Iraq. Make sure, he would say, that it starts with footage of Saddam's weapons of mass destruction. What do you mean there never was any footage? Make some! Then we want plenty of tanks and explosions – I like explosions. Torturing prisoners? No, we don't need any of that depressing stuff. Oh, and at the end, it's me who catches Saddam, OK?
This, anyhow, is what the Bayeux Tapestry was assumed to be. But what makes it so fascinating is that it didn't quite turn out that way.
For one thing, the job of putting the Conquest into pictures was given to Anglo- Saxon seamstresses, who were famous throughout Europe for the quality of their embroidery, and seem to have taken the opportunity to add in lots of jokes. To make things even more complicated, the story itself would appear to have been told by someone who wanted to undermine everything William had done.
The best way to get to the root of all this is to try and unpick the tangled threads of the tapestry, and compare the Franco-Norman propaganda that has come down through history with another, perhaps more credible, telling of events. Let's take things step by step ...
Step 1: The Duke who would be King
By the 1050s, William, now Duke of Normandy, had fought off Breton and Frankish invaders and quelled Norman rebels. Possibly inspired by the mistake that his late uncle Richard had made in capturing Falaise Castle and then letting his brother come and murder him, William by the mistake that his late uncle Richard had made in capturing Falaise Castle and then letting his brother come and murder him, William had developed a simple but effective strategy for dealing with enemies. Instead of bashing down their portcullises, claiming their chateaux as his own, and then going home to be poisoned or otherwise assassinated, William would pursue aggressors or anyone he felt like attacking until he either killed them or seized all their riches and rendered them totally powerless. Pretty soon, word had got round that it was not a good idea to annoy William unless you were sure of being able to take him out, which was a slim possibility given that he had a personal army of highly trained knights and was himself a fearsome fighter.
Excerpted from 1,000 Years of Annoying the French by Stephen Clarke. Copyright © 2010 Stephen Clarke. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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Table of Contents
1 When Is a Frenchman Not a Frenchman?,
2 French-bashing in Its Infancy,
3 The Hundred Years War: A Huge Mistake,
4 Joan of Arc: A Martyr to French Propaganda,
5 Calais: The Last Last Bit of English Territory in France,
6 Mary Queen of Scots: A French Head on Scottish Shoulders,
7 French Canada, or How to Lose a Colony,
8 Charles II: The Man Who Taught Everyone to Distrust French Motives for Doing Absolutely Anything,
9 Champagne: Dom Pérignon Gets It Wrong,
10 Eclipsing the Sun King,
11 Voltaire: A Frenchman Who Loved to Get France in the Merde,
12 Why Isn't America Called L'Amérique?,
13 American Independence – from France,
14 India and Tahiti: France Gets Lost in Paradise,
15 The Guillotine, a British Invention,
16 The French Revolution: Let Them Eat Cake. Or Failing That, Each Other,
17 Napoleon: If Je Ruled the World,
18 Wellington Puts the Boot in on Boney,
19 Food, Victorious Food,
20 The Romantics: The Brits Trash French Art,
21 How Britain Killed Off the Last French Royals,
22 Why All French Wine Comes from America,
23 Edward VII Has a Frolicking Good Time in Paris,
24 Britain and France Fight Side by Side for Once,
25 World War Two, Part One,
26 World War Two, Part Two,
27 Le Temps du Payback,
28 Napoleon's Dream Comes True,
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
This book immediately caught my attention with its cheeky title, and it was a great ready with some interesting facts about the two countries history and their relationship over the years. I felt at times some of the stories were stretched a little to fall under the term 'annoying the french' but overall was a great book.
A really enjoyable history written with a humorous slant. It covered the history between France and England from ancient times through to the present. The last reference in the book included former President Obama. I learned a lot and I enjoyed it thoroughly. I recommend it to anyone who has a love of history.
by Elena E. Smith Bravo! What a wonderful historical account of British/ French relations, honestly written by someone who admits to his own bias. This book caused side-splitting laughter and the sad realization that if our text books read like this, every student would become a history major. This is a book that I will definitely read more than once!
Bit on the title but the book was a good read.
Discovered this book while traveling in France in the library of the b&b owned by English ex-pats. Have read several times and enjoy this as a unique history lesson. Only issue is the double standard adopted by the author as to who qualifies to criticize the cross-channel neighbors. While he does not hesitate to bash the French (he seems to believe it is his right as an Englishman) he can't help but bash Americans for criticizing the French government regarding frustrations with foreign policy. He gleefully quotes government talking heads that provide pithy comebacks to those uppity Yanks in the US (which by the way is a serious breach of manners to those of us south of the Mason-Dixon) Overall a really enjoyable read. I've read it several times which is saying something since I rarely read the same book twice. But towards the end I really wished the author would not have dragged my people into his playground fight!