Friday, 10 January 2014

The Battle of Hastings: the Fall of Anglo-Saxon England

Author Q&A: Harriet Harvey Wood

The Battle of Hastings: The Fall of Anglo-Saxon England 
Published in 2009. 

Harriet Harvey Wood’s book challenges conventional wisdom on 1066 by arguing that rather than bringing culture and enlightenment to England the Normans’ aggressive and illegal invasion destroyed a long- established and highly developed civilisation.
What is the basis of your claim that England in 1066 was ahead of other European people in its political institutions, art and literature?
The evidence. Much has been lost from all Dark Ages European countries, but in England we know there was poetry of a high quality, because some of it survived. We also have the law codes of the English kings from the very early 7th century to the 11th century available that show that even kings were not above the law in England. There were no law codes in Normandy. For art, look at the Lindisfarne Gospels, the Sutton Hoo jewellery and the Benedictional of St Athelwold. That’s not to say however that there wasn’t fine art work elsewhere in Europe.
What was the basis of William’s claim to the throne of England? None. He claimed that the previous king, Edward the Confessor, had promised him the succession but there is no independent proof of this.
His only blood claim was that his great-aunt had married Edward’s father. In any case, England was an elective monarchy: the previous king could say who he would like to succeed him, but the Great Council were free to disregard his suggestion – and in the case of William, they did and elected Harold.
Can you say a little about the battle of Stamford Bridge that occurred days before the Battle of Hastings?
The King of Norway Harold Hardrada invaded, claiming to be the King of England, a claim even weaker than William’s, but both were ultimately relying on force, not right. Hardrada was the most celebrated warrior of his age, and was considered unconquerable. To the English, Hardrada would have seemed the greater threat and his defeat at Stamford Bridge finally ended the Viking threat to Western Europe. However, Stamford Bridge undoubtedly reduced Harold’s strength and he arrived with fewer men at Hastings than might have been the case. It’s entirely possible also that if Harold had not been at Stamford Bridge, William would not even have managed to land.
Why did Harold choose to fight at Hastings rather than draw William forward?
With hindsight, one can only say God knows! William had caused devastation in Sussex while Harold was up north. The first duty of a king at that time was to defend and avenge his people. He had to challenge William. The point to remember is that if his defensive
tactics had worked, and they should have worked (in fact they nearly worked, as even Norman chroniclers admit), William would have lost.
It was Harold’s death that finished it.
Considering most accounts were written long after the battle took place then how much is conjecture? There aren’t many first-hand descriptions of Thermopylae or Marathon. William of Poitiers and Guy of Amiens were writing about it very soon after the event, using the accounts of those who had fought in it. From the Norman point of view, the evidence is as good as you’re likely to get in the 11th century. From the English point of view, of course, yes, it has to be largely conjecture, since there was no surviving testimony. Even the English chroniclers were reporting hearsay well after the event.

What changes did William introduce after his victory?
The most fundamental change was in land tenure laws. There was land held by the king and land held by the people (folkland). One could hold land as a gift from the king (bookland) in return for certain services, or one could hold it by “folkright” – this was probably family land, the inheritance of which may have gone back to the period of the original 5th century Anglo-Saxon settlements. William made all land the property of the king, granted by him to the holder. A man sitting on land that had been the property of his family for generations suddenly found it belonged to William.

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