The other day I promised to write an entire essay about “1066: The Year of the Conquest,” David Howarth’s short history of England’s most tumultuous year. Today I shall fulfill that promise. I read the book not so much for the history but for the prose. I was told by a local bookseller that Howarth, who died in 1991, was a writer of graceful, unpretentious sentences, which is exactly what I aspire to be. The bookseller did not lie. Here is Howarth writing about the village of Horstede where, in April of 1066, King Harold’s dire warnings about a threatened invasion from across the English Channel were not initially taken very seriously by the villagers:

“Yet one cannot imagine the people of Horstede were very much excited by it all: more likely they persuaded themselves, in the usual English way, that somebody high up was making a fuss about nothing and it would all turn out to be a false alarm. Easter was the biggest of all their annual feasts. That year it was on 16 April, and when they walked through the fields of spring to church that Sunday morning they had better and happier things to think about. Even now, in the second half of April, this part of England with all its blemishes is almost painfully beautiful. In the woods of Horstede the buds have subtly changed the outline of the oaks, the birches are covered with a gauze of green, the cuckoo has come with its stupid summery song, the dismal English winter is past and everything is coming to life, the birds and animals and crops, and the men and women too: Christ is risen. It is not a time to take much heed of warnings.

“But on the night of the Tuesday after Easter, something happened far worse than warnings of kings or threats of human enemies, something that amazed and overawed the Horstede people and shattered their springtime peace of mind. A monstrous light appeared in the sky, silently moving with a trail of fire. People went out to gaze at it in fear, then in again to examine their consciences and ask each other what it could portend. All over England it was seen that night and seven nights after. The King saw it, with what feelings one cannot know; so did the [council of advisors known as the] witan, assembled with him for the Easter feast on Thorney Island. Monks, more learned than most, said it was a star called cometa, the hairy star. Modern astronomers say it was Halley’s comet. Whatever it was, everyone saw it as an omen of doom, a heavenly sign of wrath and fire on earth.

“Sure enough, the comet had scarcely vanished when a strange fleet of ships was sighted off the Isle of Wight, and fierce foreign sailors came swarming ashore. But it was not the Duke of Normandy who led them, it was Harold’s brother Tostig.”

Because language use is largely a matter of subjective taste, it is impossible to pen a passage of any length that cannot be picked apart by some disapproving reader. For me, however, the above three paragraphs are nearly perfect. The first of the three, with its lyrical references to gauzes of green and stupid summery songs, lulls us into the same sort of false security that the villagers of Horstede allowed themselves to fall into during the spring of 1066 despite the dire warnings they were hearing of a pending invasion. The second paragraph shatters that sense of security with the intrusion of a terror that starts out vague (“something happened”) and gradually grows sharper and scarier (“a star called cometa, the hairy star…an omen of doom, a heavenly sign of wrath and fire on earth.”). The third and shortest of the paragraphs delivers the strongest punch of all. After setting us up to assume that the Duke of Normandy and his army had arrived on the shores of England, Howarth knocks us off balance with the news that the invader portended by Halley’s comet is not William but Tostig Godwinson, King Harold’s mad brother.

Howarth’s book is a model of brevity, covering a complex subject in under 200 pages without ever coming across as hurried or cursory. I particularly like the way Howarth dispels sentimental myths and clichés. On chivalry, he writes: “Chivalry in later ages may have had some merits, but in the eleventh century it was a social disaster. It produced a superfluity of conceited illiterate young men who had no ideals except to ride and hunt and fight, whose only interest in life was violence and the glory they saw in it. They were no good at anything else, and despised any peaceful occupation. In national wars they could be called on to fight by their feudal obligations, much like the thanes in England. But just by existing, they created wars. When they had nothing to do they became mercenary soldiers who for pay and plunder, and for their own amusement, would form an army for anyone who wanted to start a private war. What was worse, perhaps, they were taught to look down on anyone who was not a knight, and they treated mere peasants or tradesmen with cruelty or disdain.”

Anyone who becomes misty-eyed at the sight of an imposing old English castle ought to read what Howarth says about them. A passage about the many things the common people of England despised about the Conquest concludes with this observation: “Perhaps most of all they resented the castles the Normans built all over England. There was no external enemy, and William was always strong enough to forbid the private wars that had been the plague of Normandy in the past: the only purpose of the castles was to protect the new landlords against their tenants and provide what England had never had before, a huge number of prisons. The grim stone keeps were a threat to every man and woman in every part of England, and stood as symbols of bondage.”

Howarth possessed a gift for formulating epigrams, and his book has many pithy observations about a variety of subjects:

“Autocracy is always an oversimplification of the art of government.”

“Wounded pride is not a motive many people recognize in themselves, nor one they can use to win other people’s support.”

“Sheer lunacy of course was recognized in those days, but the subtle gradations of mental sickness were not. Yet people must have suffered from them then as they do now, and history can be distorted if one always insists on finding sane and rational reasons for the things they did.”

“I think it is usually presumptuous to say that generals of the past made blunders: one seldom knows the information and experience they acted on, or the stresses that impelled them.”

I also like the way that Howarth frequently uses short, uncomplicated sentences and paragraphs to deliver big news and sweeping statements:

“All the evidence suggests that Tostig was really out of his mind.”

“So one comes back to his [William’s] personal pride, which I think is the only credible cause of the Norman invasion.”

“Thus the final choice of the Hastings district can only have been made on the day the fleet set sail; and which of the harbors was sighted first was one of the chances of pilotage.”

“The Battle of Hastings was indeed a trifling thing in the downfall of a nation.”

Howarth makes no attempt at objectivity in his book. His sympathies are always with the English and against the Norman invaders. Here are a few of his more subjective observations:

“The Norman aristocracy and their neighbors were much more warlike people [than the English]. It was partly through necessity: with long land borders, no lord could survive unless he was able and willing to fight off other predatory lords. But it was also a matter of temperment: they loved fighting, while the English – or at least a significant number of them – had begun to discover the pleasure of having nobody to fight. England was unfortified, except for the walls or palisades round towns and important houses, which were designed to keep out robbers and animals rather than armies; but in Normandy every landlord or baron had his castle, designed to withstand a siege. And there was another important difference: the English had conceived the idea that every man, even the king, was subject to the law, but the Normans had not. The English were feeling their way, however dimly, towards a kind of democracy; the Normans towards efficient autocracy.”

“In 1066, when William was thirty-eight or thirty-nine, he had spent the whole of his life since childhood – probably every day of it – either in war or the sports that were training for war, or the warlike rule that was the prize of victory. He was probably illiterate, devoid of any intellectual or artistic interest, God-fearing, just when he was not angry, and absolutely intolerant. He was a more barbarous primitive man than either Edward or Harold, but he is not to be blamed: he came from a more barbarous primitive country.”

Compare that last passage, describing the Duke of Normandy, with the following passage, describing King Harold of England:

“Finally, in that night at York, he entirely revived the townsmen’s shattered morale, so that they followed him out in the morning not to confirm their surrender but to fight again. It was no mean feat of horsemanship: the Chronicle says he rode by night and day. It was marvelous as a feat of leadership – to infect a whole army with the same driving sense of urgency, to have the strength at the end of the march to inspire the men of York, and then to bring them all into battle without a pause. Here is proof, if proof is demanded, that Harold possessed the sympathy and loyalty of the English.”

Unlike King Harold with his army of faithful followers, writes Howarth, William “did not have an army of loyal Norman lieges: two thirds of it were miscellaneous foreign mercenaries, hard to control and impossible to trust, who did not know or care about the justice of his cause but were only intent on booty.”

Howarth (echoing Churchill’s “History is written by the victors.”) frequently complains that most of the contemporaneous accounts of the Norman invasion were written by historians sympathetic to the conquerors. He accuses these historians of being biased towards William to the point of hero-worship. But as the above excerpts demonstrate, Howarth sometimes is guilty of a similar hero-worship towards King Harold. Even Harold’s disastrous performance at the Battle of Hastings, where he appears to have stood immobile and issued no orders while the men around him were being slaughtered, Howarth credits to Harold’s piousness rather than incompetence or cowardice. The book argues that when, shortly before the Battle of Hastings, he discovered that the Vatican had sanctioned William’s invasion, the devoutly Christian Harold became convinced that England’s defeat was a fait accompli and no amount of resistance could prevent it. Thus, according to Howarth, “the strangely passive battle [Harold] fought seems to fit a mood of fatalism, as if he scarcely fought for victory but simply awaited the expression of God’s judgment.”

Whenever he can, Howarth credits William’s success against the English to a nearly incredible string of lucky breaks:

“Time and again in these thirty-two frantic days, one can see that if one event had chanced to happen one day later or one day earlier than it did – if anyone had hurried even more or paused a little longer – all the later events would have happened differently, and nothing whatever in the history of England since would have been the same.”

Howarth is no respecter of sacred cows – at least not sacred Norman cows. He refers to the famous Bayeux Tapestry, an amazing, thousand-year-old, 230-foot-long piece of embroidery that depicts all the major chapters of the Norman Conquest, as a “strip-cartoon” written for Normandy’s “illiterate majority.”

It could be argued that Howarth’s favoritism towards Harold and the English is a fatal flaw in a book that is supposed to be a factual account of historical events. I didn’t always accept Howarth’s blatantly pro-English assertions, but I wasn’t particularly bothered by them either. I like the fact that the book has a point of view and that the author doesn’t even pretend to be a neutral observer. As well as an interesting overview of one of the seminal events in European history, the book is also one Englishman’s feisty and argumentative opinions about those events.

The Conquest was a singular event in world history, and Howarth excels at describing its many oddities. He notes, for instance, that the army King Harold led to slaughter at the Battle of Hastings was “the last army in history that was homogeneous: they were not divided into separate arms, cavalry, infantry, and artillery or archers. All of them were the same, except that some were better armed than others. Their weapons were battle-axes, swords and spears; javelins and smaller axes that were made to be thrown; and among the poorer men, stones tied to sticks which could be thrown a long way and probably did a lot of damage for such a simple device.”

From a distance, Howarth notes, the battle would have been an eerie sight:

“Since gunpowder, deafening noise has been the essence of battle; it is hard to imagine now that the Battle of Hastings was comparatively silent, with only the evil thud of weapons, the sounds of the horses’ hoofs on the muddy ground, the snorts and neighs, the human cries of triumph or agony, and ordinary conversation…Nobody a mile away in the English countryside would have heard the battle at all.”

Among the other oddities at the Battle of Hastings is the fact that it was the first time that Englishmen had ever met horsemen in battle. It was also the first time that the Normans had ever encountered battle-axes. Another curious fact related by Howarth is that archery played almost no role in England’s military in the eleventh century. Archery was employed mostly for sport in England. It was forbidden to teach the lower classes how to use a bow and arrow because the aristocrats feared the commoners might put these weapons to use in the poaching of game on private estates. Thus, in the Battle of Hastings, Norman archers were able to stand at a safe distance and rain arrows down upon the English army, but the English could not retaliate in kind, being armed only with sticks, stones, spears, and swords. This is one instance where England’s stratified class system worked against it. Fittingly, it was a Norman archer’s arrow that took King Harold out of the fray. He was blinded when an arrow pierced his eye. The injury wasn’t fatal, but what happened next was:

“He stood or crouched or lay there, a blind man with the battle raging around him, waiting for the blow he knew must come. William and Eustace rode in on him: the others were Hugo of Ponthieu…and a knight with the honored name of Giffard. They hacked him to pieces. One of them stabbed him in the chest, another cut off his head, another disemboweled him, and the last cut off his leg at the thigh and carried it away…It was not a quick or merciful death: while Harold was blind, there was time for the thought to penetrate his pain that God had declared his judgment.”

Howarth concludes his book with these observations:

“Most conquerors deal harshly with the leading men of the countries they dominate and leave the simple people much as they were. But by giving away the land, William brought his conquest into the humblest cottage, and even the children were made to know they were born to a beaten race. Yet those children, or their children, won a victory in the end. They never became Norman; they remained most stubbornly English, absorbed the invaders and made of the mixture a new kind of Englishness.”

Howarth doesn’t mention it but those conquered children also made a new kind of language out of a mixture of Old English and Norman French. It was a language that eventually evolved into our language. And David Howarth was a master of it.

 
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