Adventures in Bookland: The Norman Conquest by Teresa Cole
Even 950 years after the event, the Norman Conquest still provokes division. It seems all but impossible for a historian to approach it without, in the end, taking sides: Norman or Anglo-Saxon, William or Harold. In part this is because the near contemporary sources are almost all Norman – with the exceptions of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle and, intriguingly, the Bayeux Tapestry – and thus require interrogation. That the Normans, alongside their skill in castle building, were also early masters of the dark art of spin is pretty clear: the question remains, how much was spun?
Teresa Cole firmly takes the Anglo-Saxon cause. She sets the Conquest in the context of the previous century of history, starting with the accession to the throne of England, by the foullest of means, of England’s worst-ever king, Æthelred. Gifted a settled, ordered country by the labours of Alfred the Great and his successors, Æthelred squandered it all, pouring the country’s wealth away in a futile attempt to buy off Viking armies. Finding the country such a cash cow, the Vikings decided to stay and, in 1016, England was conquered, by Cnut.
If there is any one person to blame for the Conquest, that man is Æthelred. A competent, even a less cowardly, king would have been able to face down the Viking threat. But Cnut had set the precedent and when, fifty years later, Edward the Confessor died without an obvious heir, the beasts began to prowl. England had been taken once; it might be taken again.
Cole does a fine job of leading the reader through the events of 1066. In hindsight, whoever you might favour, it’s clear that luck played the greatest part in that bloody series of events. But, of course, for the people of the time, it was not luck, but God’s will. That William should essay such an invasion without a clear belief that God, indeed, willed it seems incredible in the context of the time. His victory, eventually, confirmed it for his contemporaries. Although in reaching this conclusion they forgot Augustine’s dictum that God hates evil but permits it. Deus non vult.