Book Review: 1066- The Year of the Conquest

B

If one could judge my interests merely by perusing my bookshelf, an unmistakable penchant for history would be immediately presented to the inquirer. While I find most periods of history somewhat interesting, (save for just about anything after the mid 16th century) ancient Greek and Roman history tend to claim the lion’s share of my attention.

It was thus more of a whim than anything that compelled me to pick up 1066: The Year of the Conquest by David Howarth which details the year in which Saxon England was conquered by the Normans under the leadership of William the Conqueror.

I had only a passing familiarity with this time period, due mostly to some biographies of St. Thomas Becket that briefly touched upon this momentous event. Nevertheless, I figured it was worth the time to broaden my historical interests.

Howarth’s book is a rather refreshing approach to history in that he does not attempt to feign the objectivity and transcendent stance that characterizes so many attempts at history and generally makes them rather unreadable at best, implausible at worst. Howarth feels little sympathy for the Normans and even less for William, who he refuses to even address by the appellation of Conqueror which history has foisted upon him. Instead, Howarth wears his loyalties and biases on his sleeve, and even opens the book with this rather remarkable explanation:

But thinking about them as the kind of men and women one might meet and know, one begins to like some of them more than others; and why not? Personally, I think that if I had been around at that time I would have liked King Harold, heartily disliked King Edward the Confessor, felt sorry for Earl Tostig and terrified of Duke William, and found nothing whatever to say to King Harald Hardrada of Norway. I have not tried to hide this blatant prejudice, but I hope my portraits are fair enough to let anyone disagree with me.

I find this particular approach to history as refreshing as it is honest. The notion that one can come at any period of history in a detached and objective manner is to completely miss the point of history. History is not merely a sequence of events, but is a tapestry of people filled with a wide variety of feelings, emotions, motives, desires, ignorance, and whatever else might characterize the human condition. History cannot merely be observed from a distance, because no one experiences any event in that way. To pretend to do so is to actually engage in a great fallacy, for it tries to make history something that it is not. In our experiences we have our biases, our ignorance, our responses to events and people that shape and color the way we view the world and the way we react to it. The notion that there can be a passion-less and detached approach to history strikes me as misguided and doomed to failure from the outset.

At any rate, Howarth’s writing style is superb. He weaves the narrative cleverly by means of using a sterotypical English village as a sort of foil for the progression of events and the common Englishman’s reaction to them. The village of Horstede is chosen to fulfill this role, as much for its generalized value as for its proximity to the author’s our home growing up.

Howarth begins with New Year’s Day of 1066 and moves through the year sequentially, dividing it up into convenient chucks of time to help the reader keep track of the various events as they progress. In the midst of the this narrative thread Howarth presents some brief biographies of some of the major players- Edward the Confessor, his successor King Harold, Duke William, etc. As the biographical information is quite limited for all the individuals in the story, Howarth does not belabor the point by trying to fix exact dates, history, etc., but rather presents a rather broad character sketch to get the feeling for the person, not merely the historical facts of their existence. Howarth feels that the key to understanding the events is not the details but rather the men involved- the eccentricity of Edward, the mangnanimity of Harold, the ambition of William. In this complicated web of personalities are the events to come.

This particular era and the events that comprise it are shrouded in mystery and obscurity, as most of the accounts that survive were pro-Norman following the invasion. Thus, it is a rather tricky thing to tease out the propaganda from that which more nearly approaches the truth. Howarth even opens the book by declaring that nearly every sentence should be prefaced by ‘probably.’

Nevertheless, Howarth mercifully chooses his material and sticks to his guns- in most cases his narrative is an attempt to tell the English side as much as possible, and one gets the sense that he really doesn’t have much use for William, a man whom Howarth admits would terrify him. This is partially due to the nature of the earliest Norman accounts reading more like a hagiography of William than history. One could perhaps not expect much different from victors. In the Norman accounts William is presented as a brilliant leader deprived of his rightful crown who coordinated a tactically inspired victory over a usurper king. Howarth suspects the truth is quite different, and in many cases one can sympathize with his argument.

William is lauded in the earliest accounts of tactical brilliance in his leading hundreds of Norman ships across the English Channel in a coordinated landing that provided a beachhead for the invasion. In reality, he had an extreme run of luck. Norman ships had only one sail, and thus an entire fleet could not tack into the wind, which meant that they were at the mercy of the winds and where they happened to be blowing. The eventual landing site was actually an overshot of the intended spot.

The English King Harold knew William was coming- he and an army had been waiting for two months. It was a mere accident of time (the Normans suspected divine providence) that the exiled Earl Tostig enlisted the services of the King of Norway in attempt at a coup. King Harold thus had to redirect what remained of his largely untrained army to meet this new enemy in battle. It just so happened that William, who was completely unaware of this development, landed without a English army waiting to oppose him.

Howarth thankfully engages in some speculation that sheds some light on the Battle of Hastings and how a smaller Norman army was able to defeat a larger English army. Unbeknownst to King Harold, William had pressed his claim in Rome and managed to deceive the Pope into supporting his cause. Thus, the Normans crossed the English Channel with this blessing. Although no chronicle records it, Howarth speculates that on the eve before the battle Harold was informed of this development, the knowledge of which disheartened him greatly, for defying William thus meant the possibility of excommunication. At this time Harold had the support of the English church, and thus this battle would be for Harold the judgment of God between him and William, the justice of either’s cause revealed in the aftermath of the struggle.

Harold entered the battle a changed and perhaps already defeated man, and the Normans won the day. Yet they were in a very precarious situation. Normandy was a long way away. They had relatively few troops and no way to resupply them. The English could have easily raised an army 3-4 times the size of William’s forces. Yet the Battle of Hastings essentially ended the war, for the English sensed God’s judgment for defying the man who then seemed to be the rightful king. To suffer under Norman oppression for succeeding generations seemed a fitting if costly punishment.

Howarth ends the book as it began on New Year’s Day in Horstede. It has been ravaged by the Norman troops foraging for food, and King William has given away the land as compensation to the men who had come with him from Normandy under promises of wealth and land. The English were a beaten people. Yet the book ends on a high note. The Normans were never able to assimilate the English, and the English stayed English. Howarth, an Englishman himself, sees this as the greatest victory, something William could never achieve.

All in all, 1066: The Year of the Conquest is an excellent read. The pacing is great, and Howarth’s writing style is engaging. This is not a scholarly book but rather an attempt to capture the essence of the year 1066. In this he succeeds brilliantly.

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Jason Watson

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