A riveting account of the most consequential year in English history, marked by bloody conflict with invaders on all sides.
1066 is the most famous date in history, and with good reason, since no battle in medieval history had such a devastating effect on its losers as the Battle of Hastings, which altered the entire course of English history.
The French-speaking Normans were the pre-eminent warriors of the 11th century and based their entire society around conflict. They were led by William 'the Bastard' a formidable, ruthless warrior, who was convinced that his half-Norman cousin, Edward the Confessor, had promised him the throne of England. However, when Edward died in January 1066, Harold Godwinson, the richest earl in the land and the son of a pirate, took the throne . . . . this left William no choice but to forcibly claim what he believed to be his right. What ensued was one of the bloodiest periods of English history, with a body count that might make even George RR Martin balk.
Pitched at newcomers to the subject, this book will explain how the disastrous battle changed Englandand the Englishforever, introducing the medieval world of chivalry, castles and horse-bound knights. It is the first part in the new A Very, Very Short History of England series, which aims to capture the major moments of English history with humor and bite.
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About the Author
Ed West is the recently appointed Associate Director of UK2020, a British policy think-tank. Before that, Ed was deputy editor of the Catholic Herald and a frequent contributor to the Daily Telegraph, the Times, Evening Standard, Daily Express and the Guardian. He is a popular British twitter personality and blogs for The Spectator. He currently lives in London.
Read an Excerpt
Red Sky at Night
Read any national history from this period, whether it's Ireland, Italy, Spain or even Egypt, and you'll find the Normans turning up at some point. And England made an awfully tempting target. By the mid-eleventh century, the country was one of the most prosperous in western Europe, with wool from the Cotswolds and East Anglia exported across the continent and a system of minting coins and collecting taxes that was way ahead of its rivals.
This was all quite impressive since only five hundred years earlier their ancestors had been illiterate raiders noted largely for the cruel deprivations they carried out on prisoners. The tribes known as the Angles, Saxons, and Jutes had crossed the North Sea from Germany and Denmark to Britain in the fifth century after the Romans left, conquering the south and east of the island. Converting to Christianity in the seventh century, the 'Garmans' (as natives called them) had gathered into a number of kingdoms that slowly absorbed each other until by the ninth century there were just four — Northumbria, Mercia, East Anglia and Wessex. However, at this point new barbarians from Scandinavia arrived, known to us as the Vikings ('raiders'), and in the 860s their armies overran three of the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms until in 871 just Wessex remained, ruled by a young, inexperienced and very neurotic king called Alfred. Against the odds, he fought off the invaders, and fifty years later his grandson Athelstan had conquered all of what is now England, roughly on its modern borders.
England had become a rich and sophisticated state under the House of Wessex, culminating with the relative golden age of Alfred's great-grandson Edgar the Peaceful (959–975), who established full authority over the island's various warlords, despite being less than five feet tall. With peace came a huge growth in trade and learning, most of it done through the Church and its monasteries. The Angles and Saxons, despite being terrifying pagan barbarians to the Britons they conquered, had very quickly become devoted to Rome; partly, it has to be said, because they were so far away they didn't have to encounter the squalid reality of the place.
And so England in 1066 had law courts, counties, a tax system, and a very rich body of literature. Its people were in many ways more civilized than the Normans, who according to one contemporary 'found English prisoners well-dressed, long-haired and beautiful, much given to combing their locks–unlike the Normans' own shaven and crop-headed style.' The English were 'a people greater, richer and older' than the Normans, according to Orderic Vitalis, a mixed Norman-English writer of the time.
The language, what we call Old English, had flourished in the century previously so that before the conquest some one thousand 'writers and copyists in English have been identified', and, along with Irish, it was 'the most developed of Europe's vernaculars', with a literature far in advance of French.' Much of this was owed to Alfred, who, as well as beating the Vikings, encouraged everyone to learn to read and also set up the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, a series of books recording (the mostly depressing) events of the period written in five different locations.
King Alfred had built the first English cities since the Romans left, creating a system of 'burhs' that were fortresses where people could hide when the Vikings turned up, and these soon grew into towns. In the tenth century, London had property magnates for the first time — the Abbess of Barking, with twenty-eight apartments in the city, was the biggest. With peace, overseas trade increased, and England was connected to the global economy revolving around Pavia, northern Italy, through which goods from as far away as modern day Indonesia turned up in England. A tourist trade sprang up in religious centres, centred around novelties such as Saint Swithun's relics in Winchester, although 'pilgrims' were often just merchants pretending to be on religious missions to avoid customs duties. Almost every big town in the country claimed to have some saint's remains, which could be very lucrative, and many were rather dubious; five different holy houses claimed to possess the head of Saint Oswald, so presumably at least four of them were wrong.
Largely thanks to King Alfred's literacy drive, as well as modern forensics, we know quite a lot about life in urban tenth-century England — and it was mostly grim. We know that hygiene was not of the highest standard, and that only monasteries had neccessariums, or toilets. We also know that the people suffered from parasites, the most sinister being the mawworm, a twelve-inch-long monster that sometimes popped out of the corner of people's eyes, Alien-style. The Anglo-Saxons almost never washed, and remarked upon how strange it was that their Viking neighbours would comb their hair and bathe themselves (with soap made from conkers) before their Saturday night activities; it improved their chances with the ladies, observed one monk.
The weather must have made all of this even more unpleasant. England was far hotter in the tenth and eleventh centuries than it is now, with London enjoying the same climate as central France does today. There were almost forty vineyards in the south of Britain, spread as far north as Suffolk, not considered by wine buffs today as great grape country.
As for food, we know something of what the early English ate from a Latin vocabulary by Elfric, archbishop of Canterbury at the turn of the millennium, which discusses the roles played by the baker, ploughman, fisherman and shepherd. Elfric's Colloquy consists of a series of discussions between monastic master and young pupils designed to improve their conversational Latin, but it is also an insight into teaching methods and jobs. It suggests that although the Anglo-Saxons kept pigs, goats and deer, they ate them rarely, as meat was expensive. Fish was more popular, although herring was also very costly. People mainly ate carrots, leeks, garlic, fennel and kale; kale was so popular that February was called sproutkele in Old English before the introduction of the Roman calendar. In fact, the calendar was different to the one we have today in many ways. While January 1 was merely the day of Our Lord's circumcision, New Year's Day was on March 25, or Lady Day, a feast in honour of the Virgin Mary and her immaculate conception (nine months before Christmas). It is now called Mothering Sunday in Britain, or Mother's Day. This calendar lasted until the seventeenth century, and may be the origin for the European custom of April Fool's Day, whereby people following the old system were laughed at.
Some ancient superstitions and bits of folklore survive from this era: 'If the sky reddens at nights, it foretells a clear day; if in the morning, it means bad weather,' goes the wisdom first written down by Bede in the eighth century; or 'Red sky at night, shepherd's delight', as people still say in England. Other bits of wisdom did not last so well, including one claiming that thunder on Wednesdays 'presages the death of idle and scandalous prostitutes'; you don't often hear people say that these days. Among the few other things a visitor to the tenth century might find familiar are noughts and crosses — the only game of the period that we still play.
If you wanted to look after yourself, you could read the ninth century Bald's Leechbook, the first English medical guide, although it's not quite as medieval as it sounds, laeceboc meaning medicine book, rather than referring to leeches. Among the cures recommended was cutting the eyelid open to calm a swelling, treating a spider bite with crushed black snails and lower back pain with 'smoke of goat's hair'. It also suggests one might lash oneself with a whip made out of dolphin to cure insanity (at what point does someone doing this think 'my mental health is definitely improving'?) Alternatively, chicken soup was used as an ailment for sickness, and a thick, porridgey beer was drunk as much for its cleanliness (although most people did have access to clean water, at least outside of cities) as for its alcohol content, which was low by today's standards; still, a few pints would certainly dull reality. The Leechbook also deals with headaches, baldness, virility or lack of it, and 'talkative women and evil spirits', declaring: 'If a man be over-virile, boil water agrimony in Welsh ale; he is to drink it at night, fasting. If a man be insufficiently virile, boil the same herb in milk.'
There is lots of standard medieval gibberish: 'If a man's hair fall out, make him a salve; take great hellebore and viper's bugloss, and the lower part of burdock, and gentian ... If hair fall out, boil the polypody fern, and foment the head with that very hot.'
It also suggests: 'Against a woman's chatter: eat a radish at night, while fasting; that day the chatter cannot harm you.' And, 'make this a salve against the race of elves, goblins and those women with whom the Devil copulates; take the female hop-plant, wormwood, betony, lupin, vervain, henbane, dittander, viper's bugloss, bilberry palants, cropleek, garlic, madder grains, corn cockle, fennel.'
Among the other folk remedies suggested at the time was drinking wolf's milk for problems in pregnancy and childbirth, or alternatively trying a dried and pounded hare's heart. For an epidemic of plague, take a 'hand of hammerwort' and some eggshell of clean honey and add some more herbs. Meanwhile, hearing troubles could be dealt with by pouring 'juice of green earthgall or juice of wormwood' into the ears. As for bladder problems, get some 'dwarf dwolse' and pound it, and then down it with two draughts of wine. You'll at least forget about your problems. For baldness, 'collect the juices of the wort called nasturtium' and rub a bit in.
We may laugh, but this was not especially irrational: before the scientific method and modern medicine in the late nineteenth century, most active medical treatment was more likely to kill you than make you better, so you could do worse than eating some herbs and hoping for the best. Anyone who actually thought himself knowledgeable about medicine was probably a menace and would just try making a hole in your head to see what happened.
But this is if you could get your hands on food, for starvation was a frequent event. The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle recorded grimly:
975 'Came a very great famine.'
976 'Here in this year was the great famine.'
1005 'Here in this year there was the great famine, such that no one ever remembered one so grim before.'
During the worst of these, a group of forty or fifty people were seen jumping off Beachy Head in Sussex while holding hands. And one of the oldest surviving English jokes says as much about their tragic lives as their humor.
Q: What makes bitter things sweet? A: Hunger.
Another Anglo-Saxon joke goes like this: Q: What has two ears and one eye, two feet and 1,200 heads, one belly, one back, one pair of hands and one neck?
A: A one-eyed garlic seller with 1,200 heads of garlic.
You probably had to be there.
Almost every July the food ran out, and the poor would often feed themselves on ergot, the fungus that grows on rye bread and which in bad times was the only thing available. Unfortunately, this produces an effect similar to a bad acid trip, and medieval famines were probably not the best environments to experiment with recreational drugs; ergot-eaters would describe feeling anxious and dizzy, with a burning sensation in the arms and legs, strange noises in the ears, and uncontrollable twitching. A somewhat more enjoyable-sounding subsistence food of the time was 'Crazy Bread', a mixture that included poppies and hemp.
Life was often so bad that fathers would sell children younger than seven into slavery, and there was even a word in Old English for people who volunteered to give up their freedom, which at least ensured you got fed as a part of the livestock, since one man was worth eight oxen. Slaves, also called 'live money', still accounted for over 10 percent of the population by 1066, and 25 percent in more remote areas like Cornwall, so it wasn't quite the social democratic paradise that anti-Norman historians make out. In fact it was the Normans who phased out slavery, replacing it with the somewhat better condition of serfdom (which was still pretty awful, obviously).
Slaves were often poor people who had gone down in the world, or they were native Britons (or as the Saxons called them, 'Welsh', which means 'slave' as well as 'foreigner'), but sometimes they were there as a punishment, which was more practical than prison. In the case of incest, the man convicted went to the king as his slave and the woman to the local bishop. Sleeping with another man's slave was also a crime: anyone who deflowered a virgin slave of the royal family had to pay fifty shillings, a huge sum; if she was a slave of the royal flour mill, it was half this amount, and for an under-slave, the lowest class, only twelve shillings.
Bishop Wulfstan, a cleric and lawmaker at the turn of the millennium who was fond of delivering damning sermons on how everyone was going to hell, painted a grim picture of life when he slammed Englishmen who 'club together to buy a woman between them as a joint purchase, and practise foul sin with that one woman, one after another, just like dogs, who do not care about filth; and then sell God's creature for a price out of the country into the power of strangers.'
Even for free people poverty was the norm; the vast majority in 1066 lived in the countryside, which for most people before the modern era meant a life of relentless toil and misery. It was also a closed world, and unless they were forced into joining the army, or fyrd, most men would rarely even visit the next village, let alone other parts of the country. People even two counties away might speak incomprehensibly to them, and since violence was far more common than it is today, a stranger would by law have to blow a horn before entering a village to show he wasn't up to no good.
Most free people were classified as ceorls, that is peasants, from where we get the word 'churlish'. Dressed in the simple tunics worn by most — there were no buttons at the time — they worked the land, and often owned a small plot, although fields would not be enclosed for centuries to come. The common meadow was ploughed in strips of a 'furrow's length', or furlong, 22 yards wide and 220 yards long; this would become the length of a cricket pitch as that game evolved in the medieval countryside to become the quintessential sport for the English man of leisure; furlong is also still a measurement used in horse racing.
There were various different classes of peasant, each signifying an extra gradation of misery and burden, such as the wonderfully named drengs in the north of England, free peasants who only had to give military service in exchange for land. Below them were the lowly geburas, origin of the word 'boor', who had 'a formidable burden of rents and services'and had to work two days a week for their lord, plus three days a week during harvest and between Candlemas (February 2) and Easter. A gebura also had to plough an acre a week 'between the first breaking-up of the soil after harvest [late August] and Martinmas [November 11], and to fetch the seed for its sowing from the lord's barn'. In total he had to labor on seven acres a year for rent, on top of extra 'boon work', and also be a watchman from time to time. In return for this he got ten pence a year at Michaelmas [September 29], 23 bushels of barley and two hens at Martinmas, and a sheep or two pence at Easter (two pence was obviously worth a bit more back then). And they were relatively privileged; compared to actual slaves, who could expect a punch in the face every Michaelmas if they were lucky, they were living the dream.
And shepherds got some perks in return for their two-days-a-week obligation, including twelve night's dung for Christmas. It might not sound like a great present from a twenty-first-century point of view, but they were happy (probably).
Above the coerl were the thegn, the Anglo-Saxon nobility, of whom there were about four to five thousand men. To be considered of this rank one had to own not just a relatively nice house and five hides of land, but also your own church; but even a thegn's house wouldn't have been what one thinks of as a medieval pile, as most people lived in buildings made of wattle and daub, and it was only in the twelfth century when the wealthy began living in houses built of stone. The Romans had left large stone buildings, but many people considered them to have been a race of giants, and some actively avoided Roman ruins as they thought them haunted.
Even free men had certain duties towards their lords. Everyone was required to do physical labor and to take up arms. If the country was invaded, they would be required to join the fyrd, although most people would try to get out of this so that their crops didn't rot or something awful didn't happen to their women folk while they were away. It was this fyrd which was called in the summer of 1066 as the threat of foreign invasion materialized.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "1066 and Before All That"
Copyright © 2017 Ed West.
Excerpted by permission of Skyhorse Publishing.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Table of Contents
Chapter 1 Red Sky at Night 5
Chapter 2 Ethelred the Unready 15
Chapter 3 In Bed with the Normans 29
Chapter 4 King Canute and the Waves 41
Chapter 5 Lady Godiva 51
Chapter 6 Edward, Patron Saint of Divorcees 57
Chapter 7 'A Savage, Barbarous and Horrible Race of Inhuman Disposition' 71
Chapter 8 The Last Viking 89
Chapter 9 The Battle of Hastings 101
Chapter 10 The Norman Yoke 109
Chapter 11 William's Children All Kill Each Other 123
Chapter 12 Nineteen Long Winters When Christ and His Angels Slept 135
Chapter 13 We Shall Never Surrender 147