What Wil­liam did for Eng­land

The Bat­tle of Hast­ings was a defin­ing event in English history. John Goodall re­veals the real con­se­quences of a ter­ri­fy­ing pe­riod in history

Country Life Every Week - - My Favourite Painting Tim Gosling - Il­lus­tra­tions by John Bradley

When it comes to mil­i­tary history, eng­land, like all na­tions, has a par­tial­ity for re­mem­ber­ing its tri­umphs. There­fore, it is no sur­prise that per­haps the most im­por­tant and de­ci­sive english de­feat of the past mil­len­nium has, to all in­tents and pur­poses, been rein­vented in the pop­u­lar imag­i­na­tion as a vic­tory. When Wil­liam the Con­queror tri­umphed in the hard-fought Bat­tle of hast­ings, he might have de­feated the english, but we like to think that he also un­wit­tingly laid the foun­da­tions for a win­ning union of cul­tures. If so, what were the con­se­quences of the bat­tle?

Wil­liam be­gan his reign in 1066 by try­ing to act like an english king. he chose West­min­ster Abbey, a build­ing just com­pleted by his pre­de­ces­sor, ed­ward the Con­fes­sor, for his coro­na­tion on Christ­mas Day. It was a de­ci­sion that es­tab­lished the abbey’s sub­se­quent claim to be the coro­na­tion church of the english kings. The oc­ca­sion, how­ever, was not a happy one. Sol­diers posted out­side the build­ing mis­took the english cries of ac­cla­ma­tion for treach­ery and be­gan burn­ing the sur­round­ing build­ings. As the may­hem spread, Wil­liam—ac­cord­ing to one ac­count—sat pow­er­less, trem­bling on the throne.

The events of the coro­na­tion set the scene for a decade of ex­plo­sive vi­o­lence. Re­sis­tance—or re­bel­lion, de­pend­ing on your perspective—wore out Wil­liam’s ini­tial pa­tience and, through brutal cam­paign­ing, he stamped his au­thor­ity on eng­land. The most no­to­ri­ous episode was the sub­ju­ga­tion of the north of eng­land by fire and the sword over the win­ter of 1069–70, which shocked even 11th-cen­tury com­men­ta­tors. how far down the so­cial scale in dif­fer­ent re­gions th­ese ac­tions had a di­rect im­pact re­mains a mat­ter of debate. What is clear, how­ever, is that the english no­bil­ity and the es­tab­lished lead­ers of the Church were, al­most ev­ery­where, dis­pos­sessed.

In the process, Wil­liam ef­fected the sin­gle largest re­dis­tri­bu­tion of prop­erty in english history, plac­ing the lion’s share of the re­sources of the realm in the hands of a tiny cir­cle of about 70 fig­ures, both lay and cler­i­cal. Some of th­ese men—and they were all men, al­though some mar­ried english brides to bol­ster their po­si­tion—might rea­son­ably claim a place among the wealth­i­est and most pow­er­ful fig­ures in our history. They were, how­ever, com­plete strangers to the king­dom they con­trolled, talk­ing dif­fer­ent lan­guages (his church­men, in par­tic­u­lar, were drawn from across europe, not just nor­mandy), bear­ing un­fa­mil­iar names and dress­ing in alien fash­ions.

As the Bayeux Tapestry clearly il­lus­trates, the english wore mous­taches, whereas the nor­mans not only had clean-shaven faces, but cropped the hair on the back half of their heads. In an at­mos­phere of ex­treme ten­sion be­tween con­querors and con­quered,

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