1066: A year to conquer England – BBC 2



Word PressOh dear, BBC 2. This was like some sort of role-play exercise used by a teacher to try to get a class of 11-year-olds involved in the lesson.  Three people each pretending to be one of the key figures involved – William of Normandy, Harold Godwinson and Harald Hardrada – and sitting round a table together, arguing about who was best in a way that just about stopped short of saying “So NER”. We even had to hear about William’s problematic childhood in a way that made him sound like a whingeing contestant going on a “journey” on The X-Factor. Not to mention some campaign maps which looked very similar to the ones in the opening sequences of episodes of Dad’s Army.  At least it didn’t involve anyone dressing up, but it was pretty puerile stuff even so.   Could we please lose all this dumbing down?   It’s embarrassing.

It’s a shame that it was done in such a silly way, because the subject matter was very interesting and important. Everyone knows that the Battle of Hastings (or the Battle of Senlac Hill, for those who moan that it didn’t take place actually in Hastings!) took place in 1066, but what’s often forgotten is that it was the third of three crucial battles for England which took place that year, and that things could so easily have turned out differently.

Edgar the Atheling, who was the rightful heir, didn’t really come into it, and only got a brief mention in the programme, but it was a close run thing between the other three. Four, if you count Harold’s brother, Tostig Godwinson, who formed an alliance with Harald Hardrada.  Tostig and Harald Hardrada defeated the great northern earls, Harold’s allies and brothers-in-law, at the Battle of Fulford, and must have fancied their chances, especially as Harold had to march his troops all the way from London to just outside York, where the two armies met at Stamford Bridge.  This bit always confuses everyone when they “do” 1066 for the first time, because you hear “Stamford Bridge” and assume that the Vikings had invaded Chelsea :-).

If Harald Hardrada and Tostig had won the Battle of Stamford Bridge, and if William had either dropped out of the race or been defeated by them in term, what would have happened? Would England have become part of a Scandinavian Empire long term?  Would the country have been split, as it had been in the days of the Danelaw?  There were already significant Scandinavian holdings in Scotland and the Isle of Man, and Scandinavian settlements in Ireland – would Hardrada have been able to link them all together?   Probably not.  As previous Viking rulers in England had found, and as the Plantagenets were to find later on, those sorts of empires don’t work and don’t last.  But England would certainly have developed very differently.  Quite possibly the Middle Ages would have been much pleasanter – no Norman feudal system, and the focus on the North.

Anyway, it didn’t happen. Harold’s army thrashed Hardrada and Tostig, both of whom were killed.  The Battle of Stamford Bridge is often called the end of the Viking era: that’s too simplistic, but Harald Hardrada’s sons didn’t go off trying to conquer other countries, and Denmark stayed out of English affairs thereafter as well.

So, Harold Godwinson was riding high. Unfortunately for him, he had to deal with the fixture pile-up from hell.  Even worse than having to play Chelsea (at the other Stamford Bridge) on Monday night, Rostov on the Thursday and Middlesbrough on the Sunday.   And, having just fought a major battle, his army had quite an injury crisis to deal with as well.

Stamford Bridge was on September 25th.  On September 27th, William of Normandy set sail for England.  Harold’s knackered army had to march all the way back down south, almost 250 miles, to face the Normans at Hastings.  The Normans won, Harold was killed (although there are a few legends which say that he escaped, but they’re highly unlikely to be true!) … the rest is, well, history.

The battle went on for nine hours. So it was a close-run thing.  Maybe the Normans would have won even if Harold’s army hadn’t just fought another battle and then had that long march.  Harold’s been criticised for heading straight for William’s army rather than stopping to gather more men, especially as he’d dismissed some of his troops in the south before the march north.  Military experts all agree that William’s tactics were superior, and that he was an even better commander than Harold.  And, once Harold has been killed, his army seems to’ve lost the plot and struggled to cope without him.

Who knows? But things could so easily have turned out differently.  They didn’t; but to think of 1066 just as the year of William of Normandy, William the Conqueror, is to miss so much of what was going on during that year, and all credit to BBC 2 for showing that.  But did they have to show it in such an infantile way?  All right, the days of AJP Taylor or David Starkey sitting behind a desk are gone, but things have gone way too far in the “livening up” direction now, and it’s just got silly.  Enough!!

3 thoughts on “1066: A year to conquer England – BBC 2

  1. Chris Deeley

    I’m looking forward to reading Marc Morris’s book on the Norman Conquest. Currently reading “King John”, which is brilliant.


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