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
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,