The Norman Conquest was the most significant military—and cultural—episode in English history. An invasion on a scale not seen since the days of the Romans, it was capped by one of the bloodiest and most decisive battles ever fought. Language, law, architecture, and even attitudes toward life itself —from the destruction of the ancient ruling class to the sudden introduction of castles and the massive rebuilding of every major church—were altered forever by the coming of the Normans. But why was this revolution so total?
Reassessing original evidence, acclaimed historian and broadcaster Marc Morris goes beyond the familiar story of William the Conqueror, an upstart French duke who defeated the most powerful kingdom in Christendom. Morris explains why England was so vulnerable to attack; why the Normans possessed the military cutting edge though they were perceived as less sophisticated in some respects; and why William’s hopes of a united Anglo-Norman realm unraveled, dashed by English rebellions, Viking invasions, and the insatiable demands of his fellow conquerors.
Named one of the best books of the year by the Kansas City Star, who called the work “stunning in its action and drama,” and the Providence Journal, who hailed it “meticulous and absorbing,” this USA Today and Wall Street Journal bestseller is a tale of gripping drama, epic clashes, and seismic social change.
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The Norman Conquest
THE BATTLE OF HASTINGS AND THE FALL OF ANGLO-SAXON ENGLAND
By MARC MORRIS
Pegasus Books LLCCopyright © 2012 Marc Morris
All rights reserved.
The Man Who Would Be King
THE BAYEUX TAPESTRY begins with three men in conversation, two standing and one seated. The standing men are not identified, but the seated figure carries a sceptre and wears a crown, while above his head the caption reads 'Edward Rex'— King Edward. Today he is known, more conveniently, as Edward the Confessor. His memorable by name arose in 1161, almost a hundred years after his death, when he was recognized as a saint by the pope. The pope was satisfied that Edward had performed miracles while alive, and that miracles had continued to occur after his death.
From the record of events in his own day, Edward does not appear to have been particularly saintly. There are suggestions in contemporary sources that he may have been more pious than most, but otherwise he seems to have cut a typical, indeed unexceptional, figure. He lived a fairly long life by medieval standards, dying in his early sixties. On the Tapestry he is shown as an old man with a long white beard, and his death forms one of the most important scenes. The date of his death – 5 January 1066 – is enough to indicate that he is crucial to our story. But in order to understand that story properly, we need to travel back to his youth, and explore how he came to be king of England in the first place. It is a remarkable tale – the one aspect of his career that is indubitably miraculous.
England at the start of the eleventh century was a country both old and new. Old, because its roots stretched back into a distant past, when tribes of Germanic peoples, now collectively known as the Anglo-Saxons, had begun migrating to the island of Britain in the fifth century. Fierce warriors, these newcomers eventually made themselves masters of southern and eastern Britain, defeating the native Celtic peoples, subjugating them and driving them into the upland regions to the north and west. In the areas where the Anglo-Saxons settled, new kingdoms had arisen, the names of which are still familiar as the counties and regions of today: Kent, Sussex and Essex; East Anglia, Mercia and Northumbria. Pagan at first, the rulers of these kingdoms began to convert to Christianity from the end of the sixth century, and so in time did their peoples.
But in the ninth century, this galaxy of competing kingdoms was destroyed by new invaders – the Vikings. Despite attempts to rehabilitate them in recent times, the Vikings, with their lust for blood and glory and their gruesome human sacrifices, were not surprisingly regarded with horror by the settled Anglo-Saxons, who witnessed their monasteries being torched, their gold and silver treasures being looted, their precious illuminated manuscripts being destroyed, their young men and women being led away as slaves, and anyone else who stood in the way being mercilessly put to the sword. One by one the several kingdoms of the Anglo-Saxons fell: first Northumbria, then East Anglia, and finally even Mercia, the mightiest kingdom of all, collapsed in the face of the Viking onslaught.
But the kingdom of Wessex endured. Led first by the celebrated King Alfred the Great, and afterwards by his sons and grandsons, the people of the most southerly Anglo-Saxon kingdom at first doggedly defended themselves, and then successfully fought back. And not just in Wessex. During the first half of the tenth century, the West Saxon kings became the conquerors, pushing their frontier northwards, driving the Vikings into retreat, and bringing the neighbouring peoples of Mercia and East Anglia under their dominion. In 954, the Viking capital of York finally fell, and the lands north of the Humber were also annexed by the heirs of Alfred.
In driving the Vikings out, the kings of Wessex had forged a powerful new state. As their armies had advanced, their conquests had been cemented by the foundation of fortified towns, known as burhs (boroughs), around which they had established new administrative districts, or shires. Where there had once been several, competing kingdoms there was now a single source of authority. Henceforth the various Anglo-Saxon peoples would swear an oath to one king, and live under one law; they would use a single silver coinage and worship a single Christian God.
But, having conquered, the kings of Wessex took care not to be seen as conquerors. Anxious not to alienate his new Anglian subjects, Alfred had urged them to forget their former differences, and emphasized the common Christian culture that united them against the pagan hordes they were fighting. Diplomatically he was not a rex saxonum in his charters but a rex angul-saxonum, and his people were collectively described as the angelcynn. In a further effort to promote unity, he also stressed their common history, commissioning a chronicle that would circulate around the kingdom's major monasteries. Remarkably, this Anglo-Saxon Chronicle (as it was later known) was written not in Latin, as was the practice in virtually every other literate corner of Europe, but in the everyday language that people spoke. By the end of the tenth century, this language had a name for the new state: it was 'the land of the Angles', Engla lond.
Such was the kingdom, at once ancient and modern, that Edward the Confessor would eventually inherit. Dynastically speaking, his credentials for doing so were impeccable, for he had been born into the royal family at some point between 1002 and 1005, a direct descendant of King Alfred (his great-great-great-grandfather). Statistically speaking, however, Edward's chances must have seemed vanishingly slim, for he was the product of a second marriage: six older half-brothers were already waiting in line ahead of him in the queue for the succession. And yet, at the time of Edward's arrival, it would have been rash to have placed a bet on any particular candidate, because the world was once again being turned upside down. A decade or so earlier, the Vikings had come back.
They came at first in small parties, as they had done in the past, testing the waters, raiding and then retreating with their loot. But in 991 a large Viking horde had landed at Maldon in Essex and defeated the overconfident English army that had set out to meet them, and from then on the Vikings had returned to burn, pillage and plunder on a more or less annual basis; by the time of Edward's birth, the violence had become almost a matter of routine. Under the year 1006, the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle records that the Vikings 'did as they had been wont to do: they harried, burned and slew as they went'. The citizens of Winchester, Wessex's ancient capital, 'could watch an arrogant and confident host passing their gates on its way to the coast, bringing provisions and treasures from a distance of more than fifty miles inland'.
Why did the powerful kingdom of England, so good at expelling the Vikings in the tenth century, fail to repel them in the eleventh? In part it was because the Vikings who came in the second wave did so as part of bigger, better equipped and better organized armies: the giant circular fortresses they built around this time in their homelands at Trelleborg and elsewhere give some indication of their power. But Viking success was also caused by an abject failure of leadership in English society, beginning at the very top, with Edward's father, Æthelred.
Just as Edward has his famous cognomen 'the Confessor', so too his father will forever be remembered as Æthelred 'the Unready'. As it stands, 'unready' is a pretty fair description of Æthelred's level of preparedness for Viking attack and kingship in general. In actual fact, however, 'unready' is a modern misreading of his original nickname, which was the Old English word unraed, meaning 'illcounselled' or 'ill-advised'. (It was a pun on the king's Christian name, which meant 'noble counsel'.)
That Æthelred was ill-advised is not open to doubt: the king himself admitted as much in a charter of 993, in which he blamed the mistakes of his youth on the greed of men who had led him astray. From that point on he put more faith in peaceable churchmen, but they regarded the Viking attacks as divine punishment, and thus saw the solution as spiritual reform: more prayers, more gifts to the Church, and, in the meantime, large payments of tribute to persuade the invaders to go away. Naturally, this last policy only encouraged the Vikings to come back for more. At length – by the time his son Edward was a small boy – Æthelred embarked on a more confrontational policy. In 1008, says the Chronicle, 'the king gave orders that ships should be speedily built throughout the whole kingdom'. But this shift coincided with Æthelred placing his trust in his most discreditable counsellor of all, the contemptible Eadric 'the Grabber' (Streona), who had risen to power at court by having his rivals variously dispossessed, mutilated and murdered. The result was that the English aristocracy was riven by feud and rivalry, with disastrous consequences. When the newly constructed fleet, for instance, eventually put to sea, arguments broke out between the two factions; twenty ships deserted, then attacked and destroyed the others.
And so the Viking attacks continued. Large areas of the country were ravaged in both 1009 and 1010. In 1011, the invaders besieged Canterbury and carried off the archbishop; when he refused to be ransomed the following year they killed him, drunkenly pelting him with ox heads and bones. 'All these disasters befell us', says the Chronicle, 'through bad counsel [that word unraedas again], in that they were never offered tribute in time, nor fought against, but when they had done most to our injury, peace and truce were made with them; and for all this they journeyed anyway in war bands everywhere, and harried our wretched people, and plundered and killed them.'
The end came in 1013, when the Vikings came led by the king of Denmark himself. Swein Forkbeard, as he was known, had raided several times in the past, but this time his ambition was outright conquest. Landing in Lincolnshire, he quickly took the north of England, then the Midlands, and finally Wessex. Æthelred, holed up in London as his kingdom collapsed, had just enough presence of mind to get his two youngest sons, Edward and his brother Alfred, out of the country. A few weeks later, having spent what must have been a miserable Christmas on the Isle of Wight, the king himself followed them overseas. England had been conquered by the Vikings, and its ancient royal family were in exile – in Normandy.
On the face of it, Normandy might seem a strange place for anyone to go in order to escape the Vikings, because it had begun life as a Viking colony. At the start of the tenth century, having been dissuaded from attacking England by the kings of Wessex, a group of Norsemen had crossed to France and concentrated on ravaging the area around Rouen. Like the Vikings who had visited England a generation earlier, these invaders arrived intending to stay; they differed from their cousins in England in that they were successful. Try as they might, the kings, dukes and counts of France could not dislodge their new Scandinavian neighbours; by the end of the tenth century, the Viking rulers of Rouen controlled an area equivalent to the former French province of Neustria. But by then it had acquired a new name. It was now Normannia, 'the land of the Norseman'.
For Æthelred and his sons, however, it was not a case of 'out of the frying pan, into the fire', because in the century since their first arrival, the Norsemen of Normandy had been evolving rapidly. It was obvious from their names. Their first leader bore the suitably-Viking name of Rollo, or Hrolfr. His son and grandson, by contrast, had been given the French names William and Richard. They had also (as their new names imply) converted from paganism to Christianity. Gradually their followers did the same, shedding their Viking ways and adopting Continental ones. They learned to speak French, increasingly using it instead of their original Norse tongue, and their leaders began to style themselves with French titles: 'count' at first, and then, when they were feeling even grander, 'duke'. Eventually, they ceased fighting to expand Normandy's borders and entered into more settled relations with their neighbours. Counts William and Richard, for example, were both married to French princesses.
The extent to which Normandy had cast off its connections to the Viking north, a vexed question for modern historians, was also a matter of great moment to King Æthelred. When, at the start of his reign, the Vikings had returned to England after their long absence, they naturally looked upon Rouen as a friendly port of call. It was a handy place to put in for repairs during the winter, and plunder from England— gold, silver and slaves— could be conveniently unloaded there for profit rather than sailed all the way back to Scandinavia. Æthelred was understandably keen to dissuade the Normans from engaging in this trade; he tried both force (an unsuccessful attack on Normandy) and diplomacy (a treaty in 991), but neither had much long-term success in reducing the number of Viking fleets that put into Rouen laden with English loot. The king's diplomatic initiative did, however, have one result with far-reaching consequences. In the spring of 1002, Æthelred agreed to marry the sister of the new Norman duke, Richard II. Her name was Emma.
It is difficult, of course, to assess people's personalities, never mind their personal relationships, at a distance of 1,000 years, but it is probably fair to say that, despite the participation of papal legates, the marriage of Æthelred and Emma was not a match made in heaven. The couple, it is true, got on well enough to produce three children: Edward, the future Confessor, his brother Alfred, and their sister, Godgifu. But since Æthelred had six sons by a previous marriage, the production of more male heirs was hardly a top priority. The match with Emma was intended to stop Vikings seeking shelter in Normandy, and this it signally failed to do. Only when the Vikings decided to conquer England in 1013 did Æthelred belatedly reap some benefit from having taken a Continental bride, which was, of course, a convenient cross-Channel bolt-hole. Whether Emma had any part in suggesting or arranging his reception is unclear. Tellingly, perhaps, the Chronicle records that she made her own way to Normandy, travelling separately from both her children and her husband.
In the event, Æthelred's exile was remarkably short. Just a few weeks after his arrival in Normandy, his supplanter, King Swein, died suddenly, leaving the question of who would succeed him in suspense. The Viking army, camped in Lincolnshire, immediately declared in favour of Swein's teenage son, but the English magnates decided to give Æthelred a second chance, and sent messengers inviting him to come home— but on conditional terms. According to the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, they declared (in a phrase that provides one of the most damning indictments of Æthelred's rule) that 'no lord was dearer to them than their rightful lord, if only he would govern his kingdom more justly than he had done in the past'.
Æthelred, being in no real position to negotiate, naturally accepted. If his subjects took him back, he promised, 'he would be a gracious lord to them, and would remedy each one of the things which they all abhorred, and everything should be forgiven'. As a mark of his sincerity, the messengers who conveyed the king's acceptance back to England were accompanied by his son, the youthful Edward the Confessor. 'A complete and friendly agreement was reached and ratified with word and pledge on every side', said the Chronicle, adding that shortly afterwards Æthelred himself crossed the Channel and was joyfully received by his subjects. In this new-found mood of national unity, the king achieved the one notable military success of his career, leading an army into Lincolnshire and driving the Danes out.
Once they were gone, however, the mood of English co-operation quickly evaporated; very soon Æthelred was back to his old ways. The year after his return saw a fresh round of killings at court, orchestrated, as before, by his henchman, Eadric the Grabber. But the king's attempt to neutralize his enemies served only to increase divisions: his eldest son by his first marriage, Edmund, now emergedas the champion of a party of opposition. By September 1015, England was once again in total disarray; Æthelred was ill, and his heir apparent was in rebellion. It was at this moment that the Vikings returned, led by their new king, Cnut.
Excerpted from The Norman Conquest by MARC MORRIS. Copyright © 2012 Marc Morris. Excerpted by permission of Pegasus Books LLC.
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Table of Contents
England Family Tree,
Europe Family Tree,
A Note on Names,
1 The Man Who Would Be King,
2 A Wave of Danes,
3 The Bastard,
4 Best Laid Plans,
5 Holy Warriors,
6 The Godwinesons,
7 Hostages to Fortune,
8 Northern Uproar,
9 The Gathering Storm,
10 The Thunderbolt,
12 The Spoils of Victory,
15 Aliens and Natives,
16 Ravening Wolves,
17 The Edges of Empire,
19 Death and Judgement,
20 The Green Tree,
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Interesting and informative but hard for an elderly reader to follow without constantly referring back to earlier pages.
Very historical and highly detailed, great for history buffs. Exciting and hard to put down.
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