Getting the history right on '1066: A Year to Conquer England'

Recently shown on BBC Two, 1066: A Year to Conquer England explored the story of the Norman invasion of England, which culminated with the battle of Hastings. But how does a show like this go about getting the history right? History Extra spoke to Professor Stephen Baxter, a historical consultant on the programme…

'1066: A Year to Conquer England' (BBC)
'1066: A Year to Conquer England' (BBC)

Recently shown on BBC Two, 1066: A Year to Conquer England explored the story of the Norman invasion of England, which culminated with the battle of Hastings. Rather than a traditional, ‘straight’ presentation of history, the show was a docu-drama, introducing viewers to the three contenders for the throne of England: Harald Hardrada, Harold Godwinson and William of Normandy. The stories of these three figures were partly dramatised by actors and partly presented by Dan Snow. Elsewhere, a team of historians added commentary from a ‘war room’ and argued the case for each of the three kings; all the while a clock counted down to the fateful day of 14 October 1066.

So how does a show like this go about getting the history right? Is it easy to find the right balance between historical fact and compelling drama? And is this an effective way of presenting history?

History Extra spoke to Professor Stephen Baxter, an expert in medieval history who also served as a historical consultant on 1066, to find out more…

(BBC)

What does the job as historical consultant on this sort of show entail? What kind of knowledge and information do you provide?

SB: I have written and presented historical documentaries for the BBC in the past, though this was a very different role. The series was already at an advanced stage when I was invited to get involved. The series had been commissioned, its format and structure had been determined, and good deal of research had been undertaken.  

In the case of this show, I made four main contributions: I met with the series producer and we discussed some of the subject’s main problems and controversies, and explored some specific issues. After that, I answered a few specific queries as research for the series progressed. I also spent a morning filming at Exeter Cathedral Library, where Exon Domesday is kept. Extracts from this interview are woven into the film. My final contribution was to read and comment on the final draft of the script.

I did not undertake the research for the programme, and was principally consulted on problems of interpretation, not of fact. That is partly because are surprisingly a relatively few ‘straight facts’ to provide. Reliable near-contemporary sources provide a relatively small number of incontrovertible facts, eg the date of the battle of Hastings was fought (14 October), and the fact that the English lost.

But most of what we know about that day, and the rest of the year, is contested by near-contemporary and later narratives – and has therefore been debated by historians ever since. Those narratives are profoundly constrained and shaped by a range of factors – eg by the motives of their authors, the conventions of genre, the expectations of anticipated audiences, their political sympathies and prejudices, and the practical constraints imposed by the date and place of composition. For these reasons, our sources rarely supply or constitute objective statements of fact. They more often mount often incompatible arguments about what happened and why. That is what makes the subject so interesting.

While I was not asked (and am not qualified) to offer advice about dramatisation, I mainly provided advice about matters of interpretation on a subject which is undoubtedly dramatic!

 

What was your opinion of the docu-drama format of 1066? Do you think this is an effective way of presenting history?

This is a good, big, question, not least because it raises wider philosophical questions about public history in general and TV history in particular.

The short answer is that I like the docu-drama format, for two reasons. First, it has the power to capture and hold an audience, and to generate interest in and enthusiasm for the subject. In the end, that is more important than ‘getting the facts right’, insofar as that is possible. Viewers will usually recall whether they found a programme interesting and engaging for much longer than any specific piece of information it might convey. In my view, the primary goal of good TV history should to draw out the quantum interest of the past, for if it succeeds, the audience will be more inclined to explore the subject for themselves, and convey their enthusiasm to others.

Secondly, the format compels the producer to choose between different scenarios and interpretations. Each scene is effectively their ‘take’ on how things happened, and presents that ‘take’ in a clear and vivid way. There is nothing wrong with that, because the audience knows that it is a conceit – that things could well have happened differently. Indeed, if anything, the use of drama helps makes the point that any reconstruction must be imaginative, and does so more honestly and explicitly than any other.

The way in which this show used commentary from professional historians – both in formal interviews and in the imagined debates which take place in the ‘war room’ in this series – are a constant reminder that the story being told is subjective and debatable.

(BBC)

In episode one of 1066, a black character appeared as an envoy to William of Normandy. Is there precedence in history for a black man to have been in this court and in the employ of William?

The only near-contemporary source to mention an envoy sent by Duke William is William of Jumièges, writing shortly after the conquest, probably in the early 1070s. He says: “Harold immediately seized Edward’s kingdom, thus perjuring the fealty he had sworn to the duke. The duke then instantly dispatched messengers to Harold urging him to renounce this act of folly and with worthy submission keep the faith which he had pledged with an oath.”

Neither this nor any later accounts say anything specific about identity, let alone the ethnicity, of the ambassador.

 

When you watched the show, how do you feel about seeing your historical expertise dramatised? Do you worry about being misquoted or misrepresented and did you spot anything that you would query?

I’m delighted, and intrigued to see the show – not least because on this occasion, I did not see the final product until the day of transmission!

I don’t worry about being misrepresented, as it’s a different genre to academic history. Both have value for different reasons.

In a sense, everything can be queried – or weighed, to get a sense of which direction the balance of probability tips. It goes without saying that my own judgments were not always identical to those made by the programme’s researchers and producers. When that was so, I explained my reasons for taking a different view – knowing and respecting the fact that they were not bound by them, so long as there was at least one credible source. For instance, I consider it doubtful that Harold’s brother Tostig visited Duke William in Normandy and Harold Hardrada in Norway before launching his own invasion, but that is what's said by one 12th-century source, Orderic Vitalis.

(BBC)

Do you think it’s important to be involved in this sort of production, bringing these interpretations of history to a general audience? If so, why? 

Yes, passionately. All forms of public history matter. The subject is much too good to be hoarded. Sharing knowledge of the past will rarely transform lives as some forms of knowledge can. But it should always enrich them.

And TV history does so more efficiently than any other medium. For instance, If I were to lecture to a different people for every working hour of every week of the year until I retire, I would still not reach an audience as large or diverse as a single episode of this programme!

 

The full series 1066: A Year to Conquer England can be viewed on BBC’s iPlayer until Monday 3 April 2017.

Professor Stephen Baxter is barron fellow in Medieval History at St Peter’s College, Oxford.

 

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