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Jan 4, 2011 2:23 am


Coalition government and the Norman Conquest of England



The current UK government may be determined to run my profession into the ground but at least they gave me a teaching point first. With the question of university fees, Liberal Democrat leader and Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg has had to become the tail wagged by the Conservative dog if he wishes to remain part of the dog at all. And this is exactly the position that Earls Eadwine and Morcar found themselves in after the Norman Conquest...

Cambridge MP Julian Huppert and Liberal Democrat leader Nick Clegg with their pledges to oppose any increase in university tuition fees, on the campaign trail in 2010 (My erstwhile MP Julian Huppert and Liberal Democrat leader Nick Clegg with their pledges to oppose any increase in university tuition fees, on the campaign trail in 2010.)

For those watching from overseas, one of the big pledges of the now-Deputy Prime Minister, Nick Clegg, when he was campaigning in the UK General Election lately gone as seen above, was that there would be no tuition fees added to the fees that UK university students pay; that is, the government would continue to subsidise university teaching if he was elected. In the event, of course, he was elected only as the smaller part of a coalition with the Conservative Party and has been forced to eat these words. This will not entirely have surprised those of us who watched him remove the party's many-years-old promise to put a penny in the pound onto income tax to pay for education, perhaps the only Liberal Democrat policy anyone could remember, and then ditch the slogan 'Education is a Right, Not a Privilege'. In fact, I suppose, they have decided to retrench into school education, and although the Party website apologises, as did Clegg, for failing to deliver on the tuition fees pledge it is still part of the Party's manifesto to remove them. (Let's see how long that stays true.)

All of this came very sharply to mind when teaching the Norman Conquest at the end of last year. The parallel arises thus. In mid-1066, one Eadwine was Earl of Mercia and his brother Morcar Earl of Northumbria, that is to say that they together ran more or less the north and mid- to north-west of Anglo-Saxon England. The two were sons of Ælfgar Earl of Mercia, to whom Eadwine had succeeded in 1062, and grandsons of Earl Leofwine. Morcar was however new in post, having succeeded to the earldom of Northumbria, never less than tricky to run due to its pronounced tendency to expel its ruler, only in 1065 after the Northumbrians had had such an episode with Tostig, brother of the man who was now king, Harold II, also known as Harold Godwineson. This was arguably the peak of the Mercian lordly family's influence, and a new situation; the Godwinesons had ruled between half and two-thirds of England for much of the previous generation, under the king of course but perhaps with a greater material base and more popular following than he. Harold was married to the two Mercian brothers' sister, Edith, and peace between the lineages was more or less established, but it had not ever been thus and it was perhaps still questionable just how much these two had invested in the new Godwineson kingship. This may have made one of their tasks in early 1066, chasing out an attempt at return by the dispossessed Tostig, extra sweet, but when he returned with King Harald Hardrada of Norway in tow the brothers' position as first defence of the North was less happy: they met the Viking force at Fulford and were defeated. By this time Harold was already on the way north from the South Coast where he had been awaiting an invasion by Duke William of Normandy. The results are of course well-known: Harold's troops defeated and killed both Tostig and Hardrada and then had to march south immediately to meet the now-landed William, and, exhausted and presumably without much support from the badly-hurt northern levies, lost fatally to him at Hastings.

The death of King Harold II of England at the Battle of Hastings, from the Bayeux Tapestry (The death of King Harold II at the Battle of Hastings, from the Bayeux Tapestry.)

They say the rest is history, but it was history that was now partly made by Eadwine and Morcar. Harold and his two remaining loyal brothers had died on the field at Hastings; Archbishop Stigand of Canterbury was of dubious legitimacy; all remaining English power was now in the hands of the Mercian brothers, Archbishop Ealdred of York and the last of the line of the kings of Wessex, the teenage Eadgar the Ætheling, possibly least successful royal scion ever. It was Eadwine and Morcar who guarded the heir in London and presumably led the deliberations about what to do as William, initially driven away from London Bridge, campaigned around the capital city, cutting it off from resupply, before moving in from the north. The two brothers' mark here is one of indecision: Eadgar was proclaimed king but not crowned, and William's attack was resisted but not effectively. In the end their choice was to be some of the few English nobles who stayed on board for the new régime, along with the northern archbishop who, however, died in 1069. These men were the English face of William's new Norman government, the tokens of secular continuity, but this meant they became indelibly associated with a serious increase in taxation and a series of vicious reprisals against rebels. It must have cost them immensely in terms of personal standings in their 'home constituencies', as their inability to affect William's policy became clearer and clearer and they therefore lost their credibility as patrons, fixers and political actors. It's no wonder, to my mind, that they ultimately rebelled, first in 1068 and then again and finally in 1071. Eadwine was killed by Norman troops at this point, and Morcar fled to the Fens to join Hereward the Wake and is lost to history; but it was that or be relegated to another kind of nothingness.

One of the fens of East Anglia
(An East Anglian fen.)

There are lessons here, one might argue, about getting into bed with partners big enough to squash your political initiative. In the end it was too much for the Mercian brothers and they tried to reclaim their power by rebellion. Of course Clegg won't do the same, and I shall be very surprised if his party retain him after the coalition has ceased to be viable, whenever that may be; neither would Eadwine's and Morcar's have if William had left a continuity party standing. But if Clegg hadn't reneged on his only real pledge of the campaign, I would have only far poorer ways of making this point about the position of the English who chose to work with William I in 1066. It's a bloody poor compensation, but if Clegg cares to listen he might understand that university-level history has something to tell people like him, and therefore, one might argue, others.


We seem currently to recommend Brian Golding's Conquest and Colonization: the Normans in Britain 1066-1100 (London 1994, 2nd edn. 2001), reviewed here, for the new enquirer into the Norman Conquest, but for this specific aspect Ann Williams's The English and the Norman Conquest (Woodbridge 1995, repr. 2000) might be more use and I am very heavily influenced here by Robin Fleming, Kings and Lords in Conquest England (Cambridge 1991), reviewed by me here. I presume also that Stephen Baxter will have had a few things to say about all this in his The Earls of Mercia: lordship and power in late Anglo-Saxon England (Oxford 2007, repr. 2008) but shamefully I have not yet read it. All other suggestions for Mr Clegg's edification gratefully received of course!


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