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An introduction to the history of the year 1066

David Howarth takes a nearly thousand-year-old historical subject well known by every British kid before they were allowed out of school I'd imagine and retells the story in a most readable, almost fairytale way. This is not the most scholarly text on the subject, but it is one of the most enjoyable I've read. It's especially enjoyable if you like a good underdog story, one where that lowly hero doesn't even win, but rath The last time England was successfully conquered by a foreign army?

It's especially enjoyable if you like a good underdog story, one where that lowly hero doesn't even win, but rather ends tragically with an almost martyr's death. King Harold He was the son of a kingmaker, who held no hereditary right to the throne, but who seemingly was given it by an almost democratic majority of lawmakers abiding by the apparent wishes of the previous king.

If Howarth is to be believed, Harold didn't even particularly want the throne, but was essentially thrust into it in order to fill a vacuum of power before the monarchy became weakened by a lack of leadership.

1066: The Year of the Conquest

Howarth does a marvelous job of creating empathy in the reader for Harold. The poor sod undergoes trial after trial in a surprisingly short period of time. There's a sea voyage that ends in a shipwreck and a greedy count's dungeon.

There is a conniving, backstabbing brother.

New Age in British History

There is a viking king, one of the last of his kind, making a last ditch stab at glory by attempting to seize York, the seat of power in northern England. And then there was Harold's mortal enemy. William the Conqueror William was born the bastard son of a Norman duke. In the treacherous times that were 11th century Normandy, William was lucky to escape childhood with his life. He grew up in the warrior's world and knew one thing, how to fight, and he did it very well. From all accounts, it seems that just prior to 1066, Harold spent time as William's guest.

During this time - and there is MUCH debate over - William felt he'd come to an understanding with Harold that when the time came Harold would aid his ol' pal Will who may actually have been holding Harold hostage in claiming for him the English throne, based on William's rather weak and distant line of heritage.

When England decided she preferred local boy Harold over a bastard foreigner who didn't even speak their language, William was incensed to say the least, incensed enough to lead one of the most ambitious invasions of the era.

When people think "1066" they often think of the Bayeux Tapestry. Highly regarded by historians, the tapestry is the story of the Battle of Hastings and the events leading up to it.

David Howarth's 1066 is another version of that same story.

See a Problem?

Some will see this as blatant revisionism, because some don't read the fine print, and the print isn't all that fine. Howarth is straightforward in saying that some of his theories are just that, theories that can not, and may never, be proven. But what's the difference between guessing at history that way as opposed to taking the word of the winners?

William the Conqueror commissioned his version of history by way of victory. No scribe of the era wishing to retain his head was going to write anything but glowing praise of the man now in charge.

And should we listen without a skeptical ear to the historians who wrote their own versions of The Battle of Hastings some 100 or 200 years after the fact, from which much of the past century's "scholarly" work on the subject has been derived?

Battle of Hastings

They weren't there for it and knew no more than what the accounts of William's men tell them. Certainly, Howarth's is a liberal view of the Battle of Hastings, with the author's bias quite apparent.

  • Initially, William had the body buried next to the battlefield, with a headstone reading, 'Here lies Harold, King of the English', but after Harold's name was blackened by later Norman propaganda, the headstone was removed, and the body was disinterred and taken to Harold's abbey at Waltham;
  • When William heard of what Harold had done, it is said that he flew into a terrible rage of anger;
  • This was the lever that William needed;
  • The matter was further complicated by Harold Hardrada who was king of Norway and Denmark;
  • Harold called out the English levy the fyrd , which was an army of English peasant farmers obliged to fight for their king when required to do so, and kept it out.

Having said that, it's still quite an enjoyable look from a different perspective on the event that changed England's future in a big way, the last successful invasion by a foreign enemy.