Thursday, October 14, 2010

1066: The fading of a bright star

If you've read my book, or my book reviews of anything to do with 1066, or listened to me rant and rave about the Norman Conquest, you'll know I wear a big heart on my sleeve for the Saxons at the Battle of Hastings. Those Normans and their bastard duke? Boo! Boo! Boo! Wonder why I'm always so P.O.'d about an event that took place more than nine hundred years before my parents even thought of having me? Allow me to explain.

In January of 1066, Harold Godwinson ascended the throne of England. Handsome and brave as he was, or so the chroniclers of the period tell us, Harold seemed to also be the shining star of his family. At least compared to some of his brothers, one a rapist and murderer exiled from England for part of his life, the other turned traitor to his family. Harold's father Godwin was a powerful earl of Wessex, but also the sort of man who followed favorable winds. He could be counted on to support whoever ensured the best for him and his family. The family had a great fortune and owned at least half of England between them. So, how did things go so horribly wrong for Harold?

First, he made an enemy of his brother Tostig, the traitor I mentioned above, by not supporting him when the people of his domain rebelled. A brother holding a grudge, with strong connections to the Continent and in the Scandinavian area, almost guaranteed that Harold's reign would never be easy.

Second, Harold also made an enemy of Duke William the Bastard in Normandy, who counted on Harold's support of his "claim" to England. Trust me, people; William deserves the appellation of "bastard", not just in the 11th century sense but the 21st century one as well. I call B.S. on William's claim, argued in the folds of the Bayeux Tapestry, that Harold had sworn an oath on holy relics to support him. Why an ambitious man like Harold from an ambitious family would support the claims of an outsider for the English throne defies all logic. Weren't there enough good Englishmen better suited to ruling England?

1066 was not going to be a good year for Harold. His brother enjoined the Viking king Harald Hardrada in an attack on England in September. Harold pinned his hopes on two northern earls, related to him by marriage to their sister, but unfortunately, the brothers were more interested in their own survival than protecting the English people. Harold had to take care of the invaders himself. Just when he defeated them at Stamford Bridge, a battle in which his brother Tostig died, he received word of Duke William's invasion. He marched his depleted force south to the outskirts of the town of Hastings, and on October 14, met his end there.

Harold, we barely knew you! If I could, I'd love to have a conversation with him, something like, "So, um, exactly what were you thinking when you marched a battered force south to meet William? Did it ever occur to you to wait, muster all your forces and then meet that flipping jackass? WTF, Harold!" Of course, that conversation would be very one-sided, since he wouldn't understand a word of my modern English, and there's that whole nine hundred year gap between us, him being dead and all. But it is something I wonder about, which historians have debated for centuries. I'm reading a book on the period, The History of England from the Norman Conquest to the Death of John by George Burton Adams. It's old and could be a good read, except for the ideas it promulgates that the conquest wasn't such a bad thing. It brought England into the fold with the Catholic Church, and into a more Continental, rather than Scandinavian sphere of influence. Yeah, I'm sure the Saxons who lost their families and lands were consoled by those facts. Basically, if I could, I would throw this book at the wall, except I'm not destroying my Kindle that way.

To grasp the full scale of how much 1066 changed England, imagine if Mexico invaded the United States. After a long battle, the Mexican army decimated U.S. forces and killed the president, who happened to be present in his role as commander-in-chief. They also killed most of his generals and some cabinet ministers, leaving a few still in Washington. The Mexican army decimates U.S. cities in their path to Washington. Their president claims the U.S. for his own. The new official language of the U.S. becomes Spanish, rather than English and almost all U.S. citizens who own great wealth and property lose it to the Mexican elite. That is precisely what happened to the English after 1066, when they lost against the Normans.

So, on this nine hundredth and forty-fourth anniversary of the Battle of Hastings, I give a virtual salute to the brave and brash King Harold, the last of the Saxon kings, and a stiff middle finger to William the Bastard for stealing his crown and country.

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