Nine hundred and fifty years ago, on October 14th, 1066, the Norman Conquest began with the Battle of Hastings in the south of England, fought between the invading forces of William, Duke of Normandy, and the defending Anglo-Saxon King, Harold Godwinson. Harold was killed and the victorious French barons began the process of taking over the administration of the island kingdom, finally settling multiple claims to the English throne set in play by the death of the childless King Edward the Confessor earlier in the year.
Nearly a thousand years before Brexit, Britain was very much in the thick of European history and opinion. Yet for a long time, English historians have debated the extent and meaning of the Norman Conquest without considering what the rest of Europe thought and wrote about the situation. There was no Twitter, no Chunnel, so things may have taken longer, but the connections, of trade, dynasty, religion, still ran deep, and people were paying attention all over the continent. For instance, William the Conqueror, as he would ultimately be called, had managed to wrangle papal approval of his claim to the English throne from distant Rome, realizing that such legitimization could help him in his claim. Yet closer to the scene, Flemish monks, just as Catholic as Rome, were unanimous in their condemnation of William’s aggression. Was it a case of violent usurpation or rightful dynastic claim?
Elisabeth van Houts takes a fresh look at these and other European views of the Conquest, noting that “the continental sources have been almost completely ignored” by historians of England. She begins with Denmark, which also had a claim to the English throne and therefore saw William as a big problem. In fact, they tried to oust him via invasions in 1069, 1070, and 1075, but were repulsed each time. But not all northern Europeans painted William as the villain: Adam of Bremen thought Harold had deserved his defeat and death. Meanwhile, dissent in England itself was rarely possible under Normanization, which was very much top-down and feudal, but continental critics expressed “at least as much condemnation of the arguments and violence used by the Normans as they expressed admiration for the military victory and the reform of the English church,” Houts writes.
The long debate on what exactly the effect of the French invasion of Britain was, particularly for the average Briton, can only be enriched by looking to other voices. Not many people had an opinion that was memorialized in the chronicles, since literacy was a rare skill, but word got around. This early medieval period was surprisingly a-buzz with rumors and news that moved… by horsepower. Interestingly, some of the Anglo-Saxons defeated at Hastings went into exile as far as Constantinople, where they served in the Byzantine military, taking their eyewitness reports with them across Europe.
But it may also not be surprising that many of the chroniclers get their basic facts wrong. Of course, facts were often less important than propaganda: Adam of Bremen, for instance, claimed 100,000 Englishmen were killed at Hastings, but historians today think there were some 10,000 deaths in total at the battle.
A number of Houts’ sources cite the appearance of Halley’s Comet—which would not be called that for more than 6oo years—shortly before the invasion so famously illustrated on the Bayeux Tapestry. In retrospect, it was considered an omen and portent: but of course one guy’s rotten luck was another’s very good luck.
It was all a matter of perspective, as history usually is.