In the latest issue:

Real Men Go to Tehran

Adam Shatz

What Trump doesn’t know about Iran

Patrick Cockburn

Kaiser Karl V

Thomas Penn

The Hostile Environment

Catherine Hall

Social Mobilities

Adam Swift

Short Cuts: So much for England

Tariq Ali

What the jihadis left behind

Nelly Lahoud

Ray Strachey

Francesca Wade

C.J. Sansom

Malcolm Gaskill

At the British Museum: ‘Troy: Myth and Reality’

James Davidson

Poem: ‘The Lion Tree’

Jamie McKendrick

SurrogacyTM

Jenny Turner

Boys in Motion

Nicholas Penny

Jia Tolentino

Lauren Oyler

Diary: What really happened in Yancheng?

Long Ling

Short Cuts: Harry Goes Rogue

Jonathan Parry

Why did they lose?Tom Shippey
Close

Terms and Conditions

These terms and conditions of use refer to the London Review of Books and the London Review Bookshop website (www.lrb.co.uk — hereafter ‘LRB Website’). These terms and conditions apply to all users of the LRB Website ("you"), including individual subscribers to the print edition of the LRB who wish to take advantage of our free 'subscriber only' access to archived material ("individual users") and users who are authorised to access the LRB Website by subscribing institutions ("institutional users").

Each time you use the LRB Website you signify your acceptance of these terms and conditions. If you do not agree, or are not comfortable with any part of this document, your only remedy is not to use the LRB Website.


  1. By registering for access to the LRB Website and/or entering the LRB Website by whatever route of access, you agree to be bound by the terms and conditions currently prevailing.
  2. The London Review of Books ("LRB") reserves the right to change these terms and conditions at any time and you should check for any alterations regularly. Continued usage of the LRB Website subsequent to a change in the terms and conditions constitutes acceptance of the current terms and conditions.
  3. The terms and conditions of any subscription agreements which educational and other institutions have entered into with the LRB apply in addition to these terms and conditions.
  4. You undertake to indemnify the LRB fully for all losses damages and costs incurred as a result of your breaching these terms and conditions.
  5. The information you supply on registration to the LRB Website shall be accurate and complete. You will notify the LRB promptly of any changes of relevant details by emailing the registrar. You will not assist a non-registered person to gain access to the LRB Website by supplying them with your password. In the event that the LRB considers that you have breached the requirements governing registration, that you are in breach of these terms and conditions or that your or your institution's subscription to the LRB lapses, your registration to the LRB Website will be terminated.
  6. Each individual subscriber to the LRB (whether a person or organisation) is entitled to the registration of one person to use the 'subscriber only' content on the web site. This user is an 'individual user'.
  7. The London Review of Books operates a ‘no questions asked’ cancellation policy in accordance with UK legislation. Please contact us to cancel your subscription and receive a full refund for the cost of all unposted issues.
  8. Use of the 'subscriber only' content on the LRB Website is strictly for the personal use of each individual user who may read the content on the screen, download, store or print single copies for their own personal private non-commercial use only, and is not to be made available to or used by any other person for any purpose.
  9. Each institution which subscribes to the LRB is entitled to grant access to persons to register on and use the 'subscriber only' content on the web site under the terms and conditions of its subscription agreement with the LRB. These users are 'institutional users'.
  10. Each institutional user of the LRB may access and search the LRB database and view its entire contents, and may also reproduce insubstantial extracts from individual articles or other works in the database to which their institution's subscription provides access, including in academic assignments and theses, online and/or in print. All quotations must be credited to the author and the LRB. Institutional users are not permitted to reproduce any entire article or other work, or to make any commercial use of any LRB material (including sale, licensing or publication) without the LRB's prior written permission. Institutions may notify institutional users of any additional or different conditions of use which they have agreed with the LRB.
  11. Users may use any one computer to access the LRB web site 'subscriber only' content at any time, so long as that connection does not allow any other computer, networked or otherwise connected, to access 'subscriber only' content.
  12. The LRB Website and its contents are protected by copyright and other intellectual property rights. You acknowledge that all intellectual property rights including copyright in the LRB Website and its contents belong to or have been licensed to the LRB or are otherwise used by the LRB as permitted by applicable law.
  13. All intellectual property rights in articles, reviews and essays originally published in the print edition of the LRB and subsequently included on the LRB Website belong to or have been licensed to the LRB. This material is made available to you for use as set out in paragraph 8 (if you are an individual user) or paragraph 10 (if you are an institutional user) only. Save for such permitted use, you may not download, store, disseminate, republish, post, reproduce, translate or adapt such material in whole or in part in any form without the prior written permission of the LRB. To obtain such permission and the terms and conditions applying, contact the Rights and Permissions department.
  14. All intellectual property rights in images on the LRB Website are owned by the LRB except where another copyright holder is specifically attributed or credited. Save for such material taken for permitted use set out above, you may not download, store, disseminate, republish, post, reproduce, translate or adapt LRB’s images in whole or in part in any form without the prior written permission of the LRB. To obtain such permission and the terms and conditions applying, contact the Rights and Permissions department. Where another copyright holder is specifically attributed or credited you may not download, store, disseminate, republish, reproduce or translate such images in whole or in part in any form without the prior written permission of the copyright holder. The LRB will not undertake to supply contact details of any attributed or credited copyright holder.
  15. The LRB Website is provided on an 'as is' basis and the LRB gives no warranty that the LRB Website will be accessible by any particular browser, operating system or device.
  16. The LRB makes no express or implied representation and gives no warranty of any kind in relation to any content available on the LRB Website including as to the accuracy or reliability of any information either in its articles, essays and reviews or in the letters printed in its letter page or material supplied by third parties. The LRB excludes to the fullest extent permitted by law all liability of any kind (including liability for any losses, damages or costs) arising from the publication of any materials on the LRB Website or incurred as a consequence of using or relying on such materials.
  17. The LRB excludes to the fullest extent permitted by law all liability of any kind (including liability for any losses, damages or costs) for any legal or other consequences (including infringement of third party rights) of any links made to the LRB Website.
  18. The LRB is not responsible for the content of any material you encounter after leaving the LRB Website site via a link in it or otherwise. The LRB gives no warranty as to the accuracy or reliability of any such material and to the fullest extent permitted by law excludes all liability that may arise in respect of or as a consequence of using or relying on such material.
  19. This site may be used only for lawful purposes and in a manner which does not infringe the rights of, or restrict the use and enjoyment of the site by, any third party. In the event of a chat room, message board, forum and/or news group being set up on the LRB Website, the LRB will not undertake to monitor any material supplied and will give no warranty as to its accuracy, reliability, originality or decency. By posting any material you agree that you are solely responsible for ensuring that it is accurate and not obscene, defamatory, plagiarised or in breach of copyright, confidentiality or any other right of any person, and you undertake to indemnify the LRB against all claims, losses, damages and costs incurred in consequence of your posting of such material. The LRB will reserve the right to remove any such material posted at any time and without notice or explanation. The LRB will reserve the right to disclose the provenance of such material, republish it in any form it deems fit or edit or censor it. The LRB will reserve the right to terminate the registration of any person it considers to abuse access to any chat room, message board, forum or news group provided by the LRB.
  20. Any e-mail services supplied via the LRB Website are subject to these terms and conditions.
  21. You will not knowingly transmit any virus, malware, trojan or other harmful matter to the LRB Website. The LRB gives no warranty that the LRB Website is free from contaminating matter, viruses or other malicious software and to the fullest extent permitted by law disclaims all liability of any kind including liability for any damages, losses or costs resulting from damage to your computer or other property arising from access to the LRB Website, use of it or downloading material from it.
  22. The LRB does not warrant that the use of the LRB Website will be uninterrupted, and disclaims all liability to the fullest extent permitted by law for any damages, losses or costs incurred as a result of access to the LRB Website being interrupted, modified or discontinued.
  23. The LRB Website contains advertisements and promotional links to websites and other resources operated by third parties. While we would never knowingly link to a site which we believed to be trading in bad faith, the LRB makes no express or implied representations or warranties of any kind in respect of any third party websites or resources or their contents, and we take no responsibility for the content, privacy practices, goods or services offered by these websites and resources. The LRB excludes to the fullest extent permitted by law all liability for any damages or losses arising from access to such websites and resources. Any transaction effected with such a third party contacted via the LRB Website are subject to the terms and conditions imposed by the third party involved and the LRB accepts no responsibility or liability resulting from such transactions.
  24. The LRB disclaims liability to the fullest extent permitted by law for any damages, losses or costs incurred for unauthorised access or alterations of transmissions or data by third parties as consequence of visit to the LRB Website.
  25. While 'subscriber only' content on the LRB Website is currently provided free to subscribers to the print edition of the LRB, the LRB reserves the right to impose a charge for access to some or all areas of the LRB Website without notice.
  26. These terms and conditions are governed by and will be interpreted in accordance with English law and any disputes relating to these terms and conditions will be subject to the non-exclusive jurisdiction of the courts of England and Wales.
  27. The various provisions of these terms and conditions are severable and if any provision is held to be invalid or unenforceable by any court of competent jurisdiction then such invalidity or unenforceability shall not affect the remaining provisions.
  28. If these terms and conditions are not accepted in full, use of the LRB Website must be terminated immediately.
Close
The Battle of Hastings: The Fall of Anglo-Saxon England 
by Harriet Harvey Wood.
Atlantic, 257 pp., £17.99, November 2008, 978 1 84354 807 2
Show More
Show More

It is not only the most familiar date in English history, it also marks in many minds, even educated ones, the start of it. Before 1066 there were just those tedious Anglo-Saxons, whose public image was all too memorably fixed by the minor characters in Ivanhoe: Athelstane, last survivor of the old Anglo-Saxon royal line (fat, bone-idle), its last partisan Cedric (hopelessly conservative, completely out of touch) and Gurth (just a swineherd). No matter what they called themselves, they weren’t really English. The whole period is best forgotten.

One consequence is that popular books about the Anglo-Saxon period concentrate overwhelmingly on its end. Novels especially have the word ‘last’ in their titles, as with Bulwer-Lytton’s Harold, the Last of the Saxon Kings, Charles Kingsley’s Hereward, the Last of the English and Hebe Weenolsen’s The Last Englishman. Henry Treece broke ranks by calling his Hereward novel Man with a Sword, but Julian Rathbone latterly re-established the pattern with his novel The Last English King. Harold and Hereward, and still in a fading sort of way Alfred the Great, are readily fitted into stories of national defiance. Pre-Conquest successes, like Bede and Offa and the highly creditable story of the English conversion and the missions to Germany and Scandinavia – these are no longer part of the national myth.

Harriet Harvey Wood’s book in a sense restates and in a sense tries to counteract that national myth. Her view, expressed with some passion, is that the wrong side won on 14 October 1066: Anglo-Saxon England was more civilised than William’s Normandy. William had no moral or legal claim to the throne. Harold, by contrast, was the last English king for more than 600 years to owe his crown ‘to the will of the people’. William’s victory can be explained only by the ‘incredible luck’ that drew Harold to Yorkshire to fight Haraldr, his Norse namesake, at Stamford Bridge, gave William fair winds at just the right moment, and led Harold to make what seem to be inexplicable errors of tactical judgment. And the result was disastrous: a flourishing civilisation distinguished for its art, literature, prosperity and administrative efficiency was ‘stamped out brutally’ by men who, far from being chivalrous knights in armour, were no better than ‘mounted thugs’.

Wood does not quite put it like this, but she comes close to repeating the claim, made many years ago by R.W. Chambers, that in 1065 England looked as if it would skip the Middle Ages altogether and go straight into a Renaissance. It was after all a strongly centralised state, with very efficient systems – for example, for producing and controlling the coinage. Literacy in English rather than Latin had been proclaimed as a royal policy since the time of Alfred, and was certainly spreading: no one wrote English prose as well and clearly as Ælfric for at least another 500 years, not even Malory, and historians have connected the state’s administrative efficiency with the ability of many laymen to read the royal instructions. While there was admittedly a class system based on wergilds, it was a relatively flat one, with only two main male classes (apart from slaves): the 200-shilling churl and the 1200-shilling thane. It was a fairly porous system: there were established procedures for churls to become thanes, with written laws and a system of open-access courts at every level from the hundred, the unit of local government, upwards. Women were also well protected by medieval standards, with legal rights to a share of the property on divorce, no bar to remarriage, and freedom to own and dispose of land, a situation (Wood claims) not reached again until the passing of the Married Women’s Property Act in 1882. Sentiments in the gnomic poems, she says, ‘were positively advanced even by 20th-century standards’, and she quotes in support the poem Maxims I, with its advice (putting it in 20th-century terms) to encourage the self-esteem of the young. Rich, stable, liberal and progressive: why did they lose to a bunch of pirates? The phenomenon certainly seems to demand an explanation, though there may be more than one.

Wood starts with a broad perspective and narrows down steadily to the events of 14 October itself, though these must remain largely unknowable. She sketches out the history of the earlier 11th century, made confusing above all by the habit of the contending kings of practising serial monogamy. Both Æthelred and Cnut had children by two wives (Emma the Norman married both of them), producing a total of six or seven variously significant brothers and half-brothers. The only 100 per cent Englishmen among them were Edmund Ironside and his brother Edwig, and once they had been eliminated (by 1017), there was only an exiled line whose last representative in 1066 was the boy Edgar, brought back to England from Hungary as the succession crisis deepened. Harold Godwinsson, the king who died at Hastings, had no genetic connection with the old royal dynasty at all, though his sister was the wife of King Edward. William’s dynastic connection was actually slightly stronger, since he was the son of King Edward’s first cousin, but they were only maternal cousins (William’s grandfather was the brother of Edward’s mother, Queen Emma). If you were looking for the bloodline of Alfred the Great, the only candidate in 1066 was young Edgar, and he was only 14.

Harold’s claim was based on being unquestionably English, militarily experienced, and above all on the spot. William’s claim was based on an alleged promise of the throne made by King Edward, and an alleged promise made by Harold on holy relics to support that claim. The Norman view, then, was that Harold was a sacrilegious oath-breaker, and the Norman view dominates ‘the sources’, which Wood itemises in a final chapter. There are 12 main ones, but non-Norman ones are either sketchy, like the D and E versions of The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, or tangential, like the ‘Life of King Edward’ or the Canterbury monk Eadmer’s ‘History of Recent Events’. Others were written much later, like the 12th-century accounts of Orderic Vitalis, William of Malmesbury, ‘Florence’ of Worcester and the detailed account of the battle of Stamford Bridge written in the 13th century by the Icelander Snorri Sturluson as part of The Saga of Haraldr Hardrádi; Wood keeps quoting this, though with decent reservations: we now know that its tactical details, at least, were based on descriptions of much later post-Crusader battles. There are, however, three Norman accounts of Hastings that can arguably or positively be dated to within ten years of the battle, and most provocative of all, there is the Bayeux Tapestry, thought to have been commissioned by one of William’s relatives, but almost certainly created by English embroiderers.

What exercises Wood most is the question of Harold’s promise. Several sources agree that some time before the crisis, perhaps in 1064, Harold crossed the Channel, fell into the hands of the wrecker count Guy of Ponthieu, and was rescued by William. He went on campaign with William against the Bretons, and gave him some kind of oath of fealty on holy relics. It was his breach of this oath that gave William the moral high ground and caused Pope Alexander II to grant his expedition the status of a proto-Crusade, complete with appropriately blessed banner. Wood doubts the whole story of papal benediction, which has no non-Norman corroboration. But what was Harold doing across the Channel in any case? The three main early Norman sources all say he had been sent by Edward to confirm Edward’s earlier choice of William as successor (but then they would). Later versions suggest that he was out on a yachting trip which went wrong in bad weather. Eadmer, the Canterbury monk, says that Harold went to try to get William to release his brother and nephew, who had been taken hostage, did so against Edward’s warnings, and was coerced into a promise of support. Interestingly, this seems to be what the Bayeux Tapestry is trying to portray. Its first panel appears to show Edward and Harold before the latter’s departure, but gives no clue as to Harold’s errand – which is odd, if the tapestry is Norman propaganda. In a later panel, though, we see Harold with the king again, and Harold’s posture looks apologetic, while the king is apparently wagging a finger at him: Harold has done something unwise, perhaps sworn an oath to support William’s succession, which Edward, contrary to the Norman authorised version of events, did not approve.

Maybe it hardly mattered anyway, since the issue was settled on the battlefield, and here one can only wonder why things went the way they did. By 1066, the English housecarls, heavily armoured and wielding their two-handed Danish-style battle-axes, were as formidable an infantry as could be found anywhere in Europe. In any other year their total defeat of the Norse invaders under Haraldr Hardrádi, former commander of the Varangian Guard, gigantic in person and victorious (according to his saga) from Jerusalem to Jutland, would have counted as a major historical turning-point on its own: the Vikings never came back. But did it sap the English soldiers’ strength? It seems not unlikely, given the two forced marches, London to Yorkshire done in a week, with battle immediately following on 25 September, and Yorkshire to Hastings in less than three, with all the inevitable complications of casualties (very heavy at Stamford Bridge) and logistics (the forage for all those horses). Should Harold have waited, and why didn’t he, since his position was bound to get stronger and William’s weaker, as the invader ran low on food and was cut off from supplies or reinforcements? Wood suggests that Harold, like Byrhtnoth at Maldon before him, was constrained by his own and his society’s heroic values: refusing battle was not an honourable option. One could put it differently by suggesting that he took on William’s challenge for the same reason that modern rugby captains might kick a penalty into touch in the hope of driving over for seven points instead of taking a more certain three: they reckon they have the momentum and are going for a killer score. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t.

Another explanation for the unexpected defeat is that the Normans used a combination of archers and cavalry while the English were tactically monolithic. The English axemen could sweep mere archers off the field, but if they broke ranks to do so they became vulnerable to cavalry. If they stood their ground, they could see the cavalry off, but had to endure being shot at – and at short range even moderately effective bows can punch through ring-mail. Was Harold shot in the eye? Can we believe the stories of feigned flight enticing the English to charge downhill? As I’ve said, these matters are now unknowable, but Hastings was for sure replayed, so to speak, 15 years later on the Adriatic, when the Greek emperor’s Varangians (by this time largely exiled Englishmen) fought the Normans under Robert Guiscard, with much the same result: early Varangian success brought to a stand by cavalry charges, followed by withering archery; no survivors. The English had weapons, but the Normans had a weapons system.

Wood’s view, in short, is that the result at Hastings was a mix of good luck for William with some forgivable bad judgment from Harold; but really, the Normans didn’t deserve it. This is a suitably flattering conclusion, but there are reasons to question it. Were there systemic faults in the pre-Conquest kingdom, not just accidental ones? Like so many national narratives, Wood’s is essentially court-centred, and tends to ignore the periphery, but it’s worth considering the battle at Fulford, which preceded Stamford Bridge. If the northern levies had had their hearts in it and the earl of Northumbria known his job, couldn’t they at least have kept Haraldr’s Norsemen occupied, one way or another, until the Norman crisis was settled? Instead, they folded swiftly and completely. One has to ask why.

One might reply that the north had been astonishingly badly handled for years before Hastings. Its basic problem was ethnic hostility between at least four groups: the settler Danes in Yorkshire; the native English beyond the Tees; the Cumbrians in the north-west (speaking a language resembling Welsh but threatened by their fellow Celts from central Scotland); and the incoming Norwegians from Ireland, whose Norse speech didn’t defuse old enmity against the Danes. Earl Siward, famous from Macbeth, seems to have had a plan for bringing the groups together, siring one son, Osbeorn, or Asbjörn, on a Danish wife with Yorkshire connections, another, with the good Old English name of Waltheof, on a lady from the ruling native family of Bamborough, and placating other magnates like Thorfinn Thorsson from Allerdale (‘mac Thore’ as he is revealingly called in a Cumbrian writ). But whatever Shakespeare may say, Siward’s march on Macbeth in 1054 was not a walkover. Siward (in legend a bear’s son himself) defeated Macbeth and his Norman mercenaries on Seven Sleepers’ Day, but he lost his son Osbeorn, and his nephew young Siward, who might have replaced Osbeorn, as well as Thorfinn’s son Dolfin (Norse Dolg-finnr, ‘wound-Finn’, or ‘sorcerer of wounds’). The coming generation of leaders was all but wiped out, Old Siward himself died, and the north went back to its normal habit of internecine feuding (which it kept up until William executed Waltheof years later).

In 1055 the southern government sent in Harold’s brother Tosti to settle things down. It was a disastrous appointment. He had no standing in the area, with a Danish name like Tosti (short for Thorstein) he was bound to antagonise the English, and in the end he antagonised everybody, was driven out, and joined the side of the Norse invaders in 1066, to be killed at Stamford Bridge. The only reason for employing him must have been to find a ‘safe seat’ for someone with important contacts. But it was a contemptuously cynical manoeuvre, and it would be no surprise if many northerners responded less than enthusiastically to the leadership of the next well-connected outsider brought in, the earl of Mercia’s younger brother Morcar, possibly Lady Godiva’s grandson.

It may also be that Harold wasn’t quite the ‘people’s prince’ that Wood claims. In 1052, in the course of the quarrel between Edward and his father, Godwin, he came back from exile in Ireland to raid Somerset and Devon, killing many of the shire-levies who opposed him, and went on to harry the south coast, though rather more gently. On that occasion, very notably, Edward’s supporters and Godwin’s refused to fight each other ‘because there was little else of worth but Englishmen on either side’. Still, appeals to national unity from Harold in 1066 might well have fallen on deaf ears in the south-western counties as well as the north. One could in short charge the entire pre-Conquest ruling class of England with cronyism (quite literally jobs for the boys in the case of Tosti and Morcar); with putting factional politics above national interest; with spreading alienation and disaffection in areas not felt to be important; and for good measure, with determined military conservatism. These things may not matter when times are good, but when the strain comes on, the weak links snap. The accession of Edward after decades of foreign rule showed a deep national attachment to the native royal line. But this loyalty was repaid by a casual squandering of what we now call ‘social capital’. In the end – or so one could argue, against the whole tenor of Wood’s spirited argument – there was not enough left.

William met with surprisingly little resistance after Hastings, considering the circumstances. The Bayeux Tapestry is reckoned to be English work, and the Domesday Book was quite likely written up by English clerks at Durham. When the English monks of Peterborough heard that Hereward was going to raid the abbey with his ‘gang’, they sent the sacristan straight off to the incoming Norman abbot and his 160 bodyguards to appeal for protection – the Normans turned up too late. The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle gave William a surprisingly balanced obituary: stern, avaricious, cruel, yes, but wise, kind to ‘good men who loved God’, and no one can say he didn’t know how to keep order. Almost all accounts of 1066 and after – and Wood’s is very much not an exception – see the conflict in national terms, with the Home Guard sadly and disgracefully beaten by foreigners, an event which demands special pleading; and one has to concede that, as the restoration of Edward the Martyr, the armistice of 1052, and the continuing loyalty to young Edgar the Atheling all in their different ways showed, even in the 11th century there was a strong reservoir of English national feeling. But it was the rank and file who felt it, not as far as we can see the rulers or the administrative elite, and it was not inexhaustible.

Wood’s insistence on the virtues of Anglo-Saxon England means that at the end she has to stress both the sadness of the 1066 defeat for civilisation, and the underlying strength that allowed English institutions to survive and eventually shake off what 17th-century reformers called ‘the Norman yoke’. For the female relicts of the dead loyalists at Hastings especially, the aftermath was long. Several generations later someone writing in the dialect of Herefordshire (which one of his fellows significantly called ‘our language, that is ald inglis’) showed unusual sympathy with a whole class of impoverished women, ‘who are poorly provided and beset by evil, like almost all gentlewomen now in the world, who do not have the wherewithal to buy themselves a bridegroom, and give themselves into the service (theowdom) of a wicked man with all that they have’. This must have been a common fate among the female relatives of the English gentry killed at Hastings, or dispossessed after it, and the fate was remembered by their descendants. The real pity is that it was not foreseen by the squabbling self-interested ruling Anglo-Saxon elite, who do not, I think, in the end deserve Wood’s well-intentioned and forcefully argued advocacy.

Send Letters To:

The Editor
London Review of Books,
28 Little Russell Street
London, WC1A 2HN

letters@lrb.co.uk

Please include name, address, and a telephone number.

Read anywhere with the London Review of Books app, available now from the App Store for Apple devices, Google Play for Android devices and Amazon for your Kindle Fire.

Sign up to our newsletter

For highlights from the latest issue, our archive and the blog, as well as news, events and exclusive promotions.