Harold II – legitimate king, his army a match for the famed Norman cavalry; William the Conqueror – deceiver, war criminal, and propagandist with no real claim to the throne; devastation and expropriation by a brutal Norman regime; brave resistance undermined by collaborators; a dedication to the English dead. These are the main themes of this book, and must be the new, radical history that the title and dust jacket promise. Peter Rex does have a point. History is often written by the victors and the conquest sources are mainly Norman, while some 20th-century historians minimised Norman violence and Anglo-Saxon suffering, pushed Norman military superiority, and accepted the Norman construct that Edward left the throne to William and Harold swore to support him. But while it is still important to counter this view, it is not now ‘new’ or radical.
Balance and context are also important. Rex admits that William might have intended a genuinely Anglo-Norman realm – but he does so only once, whereas much evidence supports that view. Examples include mercy for the rebellious city of Exeter (and repeatedly for English earls) and also the retention of Anglo-Saxon officials, churchmen and language. Anglo-Saxon England itself had an advanced government system, but had seen succession crises on every king’s death since the late tenth century. Harold’s father had been implicated in the betrayal and murder of Edward’s brother Alfred; earls were exiled and returned with Irish fleets and Welsh raiders; Harold’s elder brother abducted an abbess and his younger brother’s policies led to rebellion in the north. Edward’s connections with Normandy, where he had spent part of his youth, remained close. These fissures within the Anglo-Saxon elite, memories of their quick return to power after Cnut’s conquest 50 years before, and self interest, did prevent united opposition to William.
Rex reserves his strongest criticism for collaborators, but, as in later conflicts, theirs was often a difficult position. Some managed to protect their dependents by working with the new regime. Rex cites Thorkell of Arden, but Abbot Aethelwig of Evesham, the archetypal quisling, also helped refugees and impoverished nobles. Bishop Wulfstan of Worcester recognised William, played a crucial role in defeating a 1075 rebellion, and sat on the shire court, but the Anglo-Saxons soon considered him a saint. No one has ever called him a quisling.
Rex is right not to accept the Norman succession narrative, but the surviving evidence suggests that William and Harold did meet in 1064. Nothing was recorded in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle for that year, and so, Eadmer, an early 12th-century English monk at Canterbury, might be useful. He says Harold, against Edward’s advice, sought the release of family held hostage by William. Indebted to William for his release from Guy of Ponthieu, Harold was forced to swear to support him. Edward was furious. His story matches the Bayeux tapestry, a Norman source, but woven by Canterbury women. Their ambiguity, balance, and subtlety are necessities in interpretation of the Conquest. So, while this book contributes to an important corrective process, it is too partisan to be a ‘history’ of the Conquest.
Dr Stephen Marritt is lecturer in medieval history at the University of Glasgow