Well, I seem to have gotten quite
off-track with my book reviewing given the Elections and all ... the last review I did was just shy of a month
ago, and, as I've not stopped reading
, I now have a 10-book "backlog" to plow through ... so I'm going to apologize if some of the next few of these aren't my best work (not only will I be trying to get caught up, but my reviews tend to be better when I'm fresh off of reading the book!).
First up is David Howarth's 1066: The Year of the Conquest
, I'd picked this up at a used book sale ("fill the bag for $5"), and wasn't sure about how I'd take to it. I ended up, however, being very pleased to find that this "popular history" was, in fact, a history
and not "historical fiction" trying to look respectable.
To those of you who weren't paying attention in school (or went to some Leftist brainwashing camp that avoids "dead white guys"), 1066 was the year that William of Normandy defeated the English King Harold at the Battle of Hastings (as commemorated in the famed Bayeux Tapestry).
England, in the centuries prior to this, had evolved a remarkable
political structure, with layers of representative government
that was, essentially, transparent
in that any subsistence-level farmer, blacksmith, carpenter, etc. had the explicit right
to petition the King for whatever grievances he might have. However, these matters were typically handled "through channels", where each village (or "hundred", getting the name from the number of "hides" which were the amount of land to support one family) had a Thane, who reported to a low-level noble responsible for the Shire, who then reported to the noble responsible for that Earldom, of which the country was divided (about a half dozen).
Now, prior to Harold, Edward "the Confessor" had been King, and died without specifically
naming a successor. At one point it appears that he had at least discussed the possibility
with William of Normandy, and William had based a great deal of his power base in France on his eventual succession to the English throne. However, Edward died rather abruptly and, in the confusion following, Harold was named and crowned King.
This, of course, set up the Norman Conquest. William could not just "let this go" as he'd built up affiliations based on his "future power". One of the interesting things in this telling is that William's "people" had arranged to have had sacred relics of a saint placed under/within the table that he and Edward had used when Edward promised the succession to William, thereby making it a "sacred vow", this they took to Rome and had the Pope rule (in a one-sided case, as nobody had bothered to inform Harold that this was even happening) on the English succession. William won the Papal approval, and was even given a Papal banner and ring with a relic of St. Peter in it. As such, William was now leading something of a crusade
, which not only allowed him to firm up his political support, but get vast amounts of work done on the force he'd need to cross the Channel.
Harold, while seemingly a good king, was one of the most unlucky ones ... when he got word of what was happening on the continent, he mobilized his army, and had them waiting
all summer on the southern coast, for an attack that never materialized. Eventually he had to release them, and as the forces were dispersing back to their home shires, the first of two
attacks came. A Norse fleet (roused up by another
claimant to the throne) landed on the East coast from the North Sea, and Harold had to counter-attack there ... successfully, as it turns out. A mere matter of days later, William got the shift of wind he was waiting for, and the Norman fleet crossed the Channel.
It appears that Harold was totally disheartened by the Papal imprimatur and seems to have simply awaited his fate, dying in the battle of Hastings, when, had he attacked like at Stamford Bridge, he might very well have defeated William's army. This, essentially, ended the "democracy" of England, as William brought with him a whole new nobility which was used to uncontested feudal control, and whom he'd promised land and income.
Howarth presents this all in as great detail as possible (the sources, Norman, Norse, and English, are few and far between), with a handful of maps and charts. He makes a substantial effort to give a sense of who the English were
before the Conquest, how their lives were, how the society was, and how that was going to change (greatly for the worse) under Norman rule. His narrative is quite engaging, and one has a sense of, if not "being there", at least of reading news reports from the scene. This is a very interesting look into a fascinating (and pivotal) year of so of English history.
I have no hesitation in recommending 1066: The Year of the Conquest
to anyone with an interest in history. There appears to be a paperback edition of this still in print (so you might be able to get it via your local brick&mortar book seller), and the Amazon new/used guys have this for as little as 1¢ (plus $3.99 shipping).