Jim Cullen: Review of Marc Morris's "The Norman Conquest: The Battle of Hastings and the Fall of Anglo-Saxon England" (Pegasus, 2013)

tags: 1066, William the Conqueror, Jim Cullen, Marc Morris, Battle of Hastings

Jim Cullen teaches at the Ethical Culture Fieldston School in New York. His most recent book, Sensing the Past: Hollywood Stars and Historical Visions, was published earlier this year by Oxford University Press. His next book, A Brief History of the Modern Media,will be published next year by Wiley-Blackwell.

I didn't realize until after I had finished Marc Morris's The Norman Conquest that I had done so shortly after reading another book about a pivotal battle in the history of a nation, Allen Guelzo's new book on Gettysburg, The Last Invasion (see my review here). In that book, as in every account of Gettysburg, there are countless subjects for speculation -- what Robert E. Lee was really thinking; how many effective troops the two armies actually had at their disposal; who really should get the credit for the Union army's retention of Little Round Top (and if that really mattered). But whatever questions may arise about that or any other battle in the American Civil War, the documentary record is immense. We know, for example, what Abraham Lincoln was doing on any given day, often on an hourly basis.

In the case of the Battle of Hastings, an epochal event in the making of England, the amount we don't know is vastly greater than what we do. History in such cases rests on the slimmest of written accounts, which often contradict each other. At one point in his narrative, Morris compares such accounts with the visual depiction in the famed Bayeux Tapestry, and then quotes himself on some of the terms he used in preceding sentences: "seems"; "looks very much like"; "appears"; "as if." Though the battle took place was a "mere" 947 years ago, he has less to work with than even some ancient historians.

And yet Morris's professed uncertainty gives us confidence in him. He is as attuned to the historiography of his subject as he is the primary source record, which he deconstructs in some cases and affirms in others, often through a process of triangulation. Though clearly intended for a trade audience, and written by a non-academic (Morris is a magazine writer and broadcaster), The Norman Conquest is a tour de force piece of scholarship.

It took me a while to figure this out. I got a little impatient in the early going, which reviews a good deal of English history before and during the reign of King Edward the Confessor, a period marked by political instability and foreign occupation in a country where power was relatively decentralized.  It was not until about a third of the way through Morris's account that we finally get to hear about one of the more intriguing events that culminated in the Battle of Hastings: Earl Harold Godwinson's unexpected sojourn with William of Normandy -- which apparently happened when the earl's ship blew off course and he found himself a lavishly feted hostage -- that culminated in the Harold's pledge to support William's claim to the throne of England. But upon the death of Edward in January of 1066, Harold of course later took the crown for himself (he clearly regarded his promise, made under duress, not binding). Harold fought off another claimant, that of the invading Scandinavian Harold Sigurdson -- the dreaded Harold Hardrada -- at the Battle of Stamford Bridge in September, and then managed to make it to the other end of England in less than a month to meet William at Hastings, a battle he came within a whisker of winning. Morris's account of these dramatic events is authoritative and fast-paced. It's also complete before the book is half over.

One of the things that Morris explains in the remainder of the book -- which you can sort of infer but which he makes vividly clear -- is that however decisive it may have been, the Battle of Hastings was only the beginning of the Norman conquest. It was far from clear that William could actually subjugate the rest of the country, pockets of which resisted him for years. Once he did, he had to contend with outside incursions from Scotland, Wales, and Denmark, all of which he managed to fend off. Once he did that, he had to deal with challenges from within his own family. The sheer unlikelihood that he prevailed becomes increasingly remarkable. Before 1066, successfully invading England wasn't all that difficult. After 1066, it never happened again.

The first half of Morris's subtitle is "the Battle of Hastings," which is the main reason why I (and, I suspect most other casual readers) picked it up. But it's the second half -- "the fall of Anglo-Saxon England" -- that's his real subject here. This is a book about a social revolution: a society whose law, language, religion, architecture and much else were transformed over the course of a generation. It wasn't a pretty process; indeed, William could be downright brutal, as in his notorious "Harrying of the North" in which he suppressed an uprising in Yorkshire by inducing a famine. Aristocrats and middling folk were stripped of their possessions, an expropriation codified in his legendary "Domesday Book," one of the most remarkable inventories ever created. But The Norman Conquest is not an account of unmitigated disaster; as Morris points out, the Normans ended slavery, reformed the churches, and took a less murderous stance toward defeated opponents than their predecessors did. In the long run, as he explains in a graceful final chapter, they laid the foundations for a hybrid state that proved remarkably durable and tensile.

The Norman Conquest is a highly readable and substantial account of one of the most pivotal events in British history. It is a distinguished contribution to the annals of 1066 and deserves to have a long history of its own.

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