The Norman Conquest by Marc Morris

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The Norman Conquest by Marc Morris

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Category: History
Rating: 4.5/5
Reviewer: John Van der Kiste
Reviewed by John Van der Kiste
Summary: A full account of the Norman conquest, the background and power struggles that led up to it, and the aftermath. Although it focuses on the year 1066, the narrative covers most of the 11th century and beyond
Buy? Yes Borrow? Yes
Pages: 440 Date: March 2013
Publisher: Windmill
External links: Author's website
ISBN: 9780099537441

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When did the Norman conquest of England start and end? This generous panoramic history takes a wide sweep of almost the whole of the eleventh century in England, although as the title indicates, the focal point is that pivotal date of 1066. Morris begins his narrative at around the year 1000, a time when the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms were under threat from the Viking invasions from Alfred and Ethelred the Unready. Having long been vulnerable to raids from Scandinavia, England then had to contend with the same from France. The power struggles that followed the illness and death of the childless Edward the Confessor (who had nominated William of Normandy as his preferred successor in 1051), the apparent seizure of the English throne by Harold Godwinson who then had himself crowned with remarkable haste, the invasion led by Harold’s brother Tostig and Harald Hardrada of Norway and the death of both the latter at Stamford Bridge, are dealt with in painstaking detail.

By this time, William’s invasion fleet, numbering about 700 ships with around 7,000 men on board, was sailing for Pevensey Bay. It was a conquering army on a scale which the British had not seen since the days of the Romans. The battle of Hastings three weeks later, which ended in the death of Harold and the decisive victory of William, was only the beginning. It ushered in years of chaos and rebellion as the Anglo-Saxons put up resistance to Norman rule.

William already had a reputation in his native country for being a powerful fighter. He was a vassal of the King of France, but the latter suspected him of planning to extend his borders on the mainland by force – and after a decisive battle in which the French attempted to overrun Normandy and were repelled, he was left alone.

Much of William’s twenty-year reign was spent in subjugating the English, to an extent which even revolted the Norman chronicler Orderic Vitalis. His countrymen, he declared, had killed perhaps as many as 100,000 people in the persecution (might we say an early example of ethnic cleansing?) remembered as the Harrying of the North (1069-70), of having mercilessly slaughtered the English, ‘like the scourge of God smiting them for their sins’. The Normans, he declared, were ‘ignorant parasites, made almost mad with pride’ and ‘had subdued a people that was greater and more wealthy than they were, with a longer history.’ Churches were rebuilt and castles were constructed for defence purposes, the old ruling class of England was virtually destroyed as the Normans imposed their own legal systems and language on the country. Was the Norman conquest good or bad for Britain? It might be argued that progress was necessary, although there is no doubt that the invading force’s treatment of the English was cruel in the extreme.

Morris has done well to separate fact from fiction. Any historian chronicling events and politics from so long ago is going to have to rely on a good deal of hearsay, propaganda (in this case pro-Norman and anti-Norman), and very little solid evidence. For example, how true is the old, old story that Harold was killed by an arrow in the eye? Has this merely come about after restoration of the Bayeux tapestry in the mid-nineteenth century, which suggests that according to early drawings of the tapestry in its unrestored state that the figure of Harold is not trying to pluck an arrow from his eye but hurl a spear at his attackers instead. When sources offer two conflicting versions of events, both are given and the author argues in favour of what he considers to be the more likely, while letting the reader make up his or her mind.

The book does not come to a finish with the end of the reign and the death of William, but also looks at the next few Norman and Plantagenet Kings, even briefly into the thirteenth century. In the last pages, the author suggests that it was not until the death of Stephen and the accession of Henry II that Englishmen could ‘ponder afresh the question of national identity’.

If this book appeals then you might also enjoy Matilda: Wife of the Conqueror, first Queen of England by Tracy Borman. You might also enjoy Harold: The King Who Fell at Hastings by Peter Rex.

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