Why did they lose?

Tom Shippey

  • The Battle of Hastings: The Fall of Anglo-Saxon England by Harriet Harvey Wood
    Atlantic, 257 pp, £17.99, November 2008, ISBN 978 1 84354 807 2

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.

The full text of this book review is only available to subscribers of the London Review of Books.

You are not logged in