During the Rochester and Strood by-election in 2014, Nigel Farage was often to be seen wearing a Bayeux Tapestry tie. It became the most unlikely fashion accessory of the year. Mr Farage never spelt out why he sported it, nor has the French president explained his recent offer to loan the Tapestry itself to Britain. Irony is most pointed when it is not underlined. The Norman Conquest is again resonating in current British politics, as it has throughout much of the last 950 years.
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On 17 September 2018, MP Boris Johnson wrote on prime minister Teresa May’s ‘Chequers plan’, as Britain prepares to leave the European Union. Johnson told the readers of the Daily Telegraph that “if Chequers were adopted it would mean that, for the first time since 1066, our leaders were deliberately acquiescing in foreign rule”. This can only mean that, in his view, the Chequers proposals adopted by the Cabinet are tantamount to “deliberately acquiescing” in invasion by a foreign power. There has been and seems no imminent prospect of an invasion of Britain by EU forces, but is Mr Johnson right to say that in 1066 “our leaders… deliberately acquiesc[ed] in foreign rule”?
To characterise the English response in 1066 thus is a little hard on our 11th-century compatriots. Pitched battles, definitively won by one side and lost by the other, were rare in the Middle Ages. During the battle depicted at epic length in the Tapestry, many leaders of the English kingdom, from King Harold II down, resisted invasion to the death. So Mr Johnson must be referring either to the few survivors, or to those who, for one reason or another, were absent on the day. After the victory, Duke William led his army in a slow circuit around London, ravaging as they went. He picked off strategic towns and cities one by one. Evidently he did not think it prudent to attack London straightaway. We are told by one Norman source that he was so relaxed he went hawking. If so, that was not because the English were being pusillanimous.
What remained of the indigenous leadership did not cravenly throw in the towel. In London, they elected a new king – Edgar the Ætheling – a king who, unlike Harold II, was a member of the English royal line. That this King Edgar fails to appear in lists of English monarchs is evidence not of spinelessness on the part of the English, but of their inability to muster sufficient military reserves to make an effective stand. They had fought two other battles against different invaders in the north a few weeks before Hastings. English resources had been exhausted by their unwillingness to acquiesce.
In these desperate circumstances, and in the face of continuing destruction being wreaked by the invasion force, the residue of the English leadership, including the king so recently elected in London, and leading London citizens, came to terms with Duke William at Berkhamsted. Their submission was deliberate, in the sense that they must have deliberated about it. But military realities rendered it unavoidable.
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It was only with this deal made that William at last approached the city itself, where nevertheless there was some last ditch resistance as his troops entered. At his subsequent coronation in Westminster Abbey he swore, at the stipulation of the officiating Archbishop of York, to rule as the best of English kings before him, and soon afterwards he issued a written confirmation of the traditional privileges of the city. He was now a legitimate king, in control of the most effective royal administration in western Europe.
The undertaking made at his coronation turned out to be worth, to borrow a phrase, two-thirds of diddly squat – much like the pledges of good lordship made not long before at Berkhamsted. Regardless of William’s new status, the English, or many of them, did not take this lying down. The first few years of the reign are punctuated by English risings in the north and the south west.
If Mr Johnson is looking for an instance of willing acquiescence by national leaders in a foreign invasion – indeed a foreign invasion promoted by what passed for parliament after the ejection of the king – he should consider 1688. But then, the coup which replaced a legitimate king with a foreign prince called William was presented as the only way of preserving Britishness.
George Garnett is a professor of medieval history at St Hugh’s College, Oxford, and author of The Norman Conquest: A Very Short Introduction (Oxford University Press, 2009).