January 13, 2010

Review: The Norman Conquest: A very short introduction

If you want to understand English history, you cannot get away from the Norman Conquest. Whether you look at the English Civil War and the great debates about whether the Conquest made Englishmen subject to Kings and not Parliaments, or to the nineteenth century and the great discoveries of historians like Edward Freeman and Frederick Maitland, you cannot escape the shadow of the Duke of Normandy. Tour the country and you will find that there is no ecclesiastical structure standing from the 11th Century that was not rebuilt in 1066. Admire the pattern of castles spread throughout the smiling hundreds of the south, the harsh lands of the northern wappentakes and even into Wales and Scotland and you are looking at a creation of the conqueror. Buy a piece of land in England and the chances are that you can trace who possessed it in 1086 when the great survey, Doomsday Book, was completed. Furthermore, you'll find quickly that there has never been a revolution in land holding in England like that of the period 1066-86 since: an entire landowning class was wiped out at one stroke of a Norman pen. Want to understand Shakespeare and you need to understand the medieval obsession with uniting the duchy of Normandy to the Kingdom of England- an obsession that lasted at least to Elizabeth I. Wherever you go in English history, you cannot escape the Conquest.

How can you understand the conquest? The best place to start is to understand, as George Garnett attempts to, the basis upon which William Duke of Normandy claimed the throne. In 1066 when Edward the Confessor died there was only one legitimate heir to the English throne- Edgar Atheling- who had been recalled with his father in 1057. Edgar had the best claim to be directly descendent from Cerdic and the House of Wessex who had ruled England, with interruptions, since Alfred. But Edgar did not get the throne. Instead something else happened- a powerful lord Harold Godwinson, Earl of Wessex, seized the throne and was immediatly attacked, from the North by his brother Tostig and the Norwegian King Harald Hadrada and from the south by William Duke of Normandy. The two battles of Stamford Bridge and Hastings decided that William would ascend to the throne. Garnett points out the key issue here is not merely that William seized the throne but his justification for so doing was that Edward had nominated him to the throne. William's publicists and propagandists sought to suggest that William had been granted the throne twice by Edward, once in 1052, and the second time when Edward had sent Harold to Normandy in 1065. By taking the throne Harold was an oathbreaker. This is a story that is present in no Anglo-Saxon account. Rather than reconciling the two sets of accounts- English and Norman- Garnett leaves us with the fact that they are incompatible and suggests that the important question is what claim William made.

William's claim meant that Harold was an illegitimate ruler of England. He did not exist. By the time of Doomsday Book, Harold was an unperson as King (he still existed as Earl of Wessex). William traced his position directly to the Confessor. The Confessor had granted him the whole of England, everything in it and crucially every piece of land. This meant that the Conqueror was able to grant out land to whom he wished- every piece of land in England was not owned, but owned as the King had granted. By 1086, Garnett suggests William had cemented this in four overlapping ways. Firstly when tenants in chief (including churchmen) died, their estates would remain vacant until their successors (whether by blood or by appointment in the Church) bought the right to succeed. Secondly they owed a standard knight service to the King of various men- normally in multiples of five- a number set when they were granted the land: the number of men bore no relation to the size of their estates but to the favour of the King. Thirdly the King asked all his tenants in chief and all their significant sub-tenants to Salisbury to sign an oath to him: there was no feudal pyramid in England, everyone owed their first duty to the King rather than their lord. Fourthly William wanted to know how much all his tenants in chief owned, so he compiled Doomsday Book to find out, to find out how much their successors should pay to succeed their fathers or predecessors as Abbot or Archbishop. All depended, according to Eadmer, a contemporary historian, on the nod of the King. These reforms changed the face of the English monarchy and set in train developments which led directly to the creation of Common Law and the signing of Magna Carta.

Garnett's radical interpretation of what 1066 means is not uncontested. Plenty of historians would disagree with the account that has just been given. As a former student of George's I am likely to agree with him. It has always struck me that one of the strongest points for George's claim about William's claim is that other people produced nomination stories when they claimed the English throne: there is a story in Adam of Bremen that suggests Svein of Denmark may have been promised the throne, no doubt had he obtained it we would have heard more about that. As to the nature of the conquest, again my reading of Maitland and Holt would suggest Garnett is right- I find the idea that this was a wrenching change more convincing than that there was an evolution. So much of the English nobility, almost all of it and (with two exceptions) all of the higher clergy before 1066, saw their careers end abruptly in 1066. The Conquest caused a caesura in English political life and compared to it most of the other revolutions in English history, perhaps even that of 1649, look tame. If I have criticisms of Garnett's study they are minor- can we really know that Eadmer was being ironic as much as Garnett suggests- or they reflect on a prose style that occasionally irritates.

This is though a fascinating book- Garnett provides people not merely with a good bibliography (incidentally for anyone interested in the period, do not be put off say that Maitland's Doomsday Book and Beyond was published in the 1890s, it is still one of the greatest history books ever written). It is provocative and lots of historians would take issue with it- but it is important and interesting. No short introduction of such a key period will be without critics: some will fade quickly from the memory, this one I suspect will remain.


James Higham said...

Interesting. I always thought it strange that Harold had such trouble coming back south and let men return to the farms.

It's never really been my filed, Hastings. My current interest is Venice, the Renaissance and the Knights Templar.