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The Norman Conquest of England: The Alternative Histories

The Norman Conquest of England: The Alternative Histories

On October 14, 1066, the armies of King Harold Godwinson and William, Duke of Normandy, met at Hastings in England. The battle would end with the Normans victorious, Harold dead, and the remaining Anglo-Saxon forces in flight. By the end of the year, William would be crowned the new King of England, marking the start of an era known as the Norman Conquest.

The story of the Norman Conquest was told by more than a few medieval chroniclers, including William of Jumièges, William of Poitiers, Orderic Vitalis, William of Malmesbury and John of Worcester. For a more visual account, one can turn to the Bayeux Tapestry to see how the events of 1066 were depicted. Historians trying to reconstruct the events of the invasion of England and the Battle of Hastings generally make use of these sources. However, there are other lesser-known accounts of the Norman Conquest. Here we present two of these works, both written over a hundred years after the Battle of Hastings.

The Roman de Rou, by Wace

By the mid-twelfth century a writer from the Island of Jersey was making a name for himself. Wace – were not sure what his first name was – had gained fame for Roman de Brut, a retelling of Geoffrey of Monmouth’s Historia Regum Britanniae. Wace added to the Arthurian legend a few new details, including giving the name Excalibur to King Arthur’s sword and creating the concept of the Round Table. The 15,000 line poem proved to be very popular in the Middle Ages, and no doubt helped Wace get his next commission: King Henry II asked him to write a history of the previous rulers of Normandy going back to Viking warrior Rollo in the 10th century.

The Roman de Rou devotes a very significant portion of space to recounting the Norman Conquest. Historians who have worked on Wace have found him to be a very good writer and historian who would consult a wide range of sources, both written and oral. Unlike many of his Norman contemporaries, he does not portray Harold Godwinson as an evil villain, nor William the Conqueror as the pure hero. As Penny Eley and Philip Bennett point out in their article ‘The Battle of Hastings according to Gaimar, Wace and Benoit: rhetoric and politics‘, Wace’s portrayal of Harold “allows us to see him as perhaps only slightly less worthy, and only slightly less in right, than the Conqueror.”

Wace’s account of the battle is a combination of some written sources, but also oral traditions – perhaps he heard many Normans tell him how their great-grandfather was at the Battle of Hastings and the deeds he did that day. Add to that a dash of chanson de geste-type literary embellishment and you get sections like this:

You would have heard a great deal of noise from the horns, great clashing of lances, great striking of clubs and great fighting with swords. At times the English retreated, at others they rallied; those from across the sea attacked and withdrew repeatedly. The Normans cried out ‘God help!’ and the Englishmen shouted ‘Out! Out!’ Then you would have seen between men-at-arms, English and Norman infantry, great struggles and melees, thrusts from lances and blows from swords. When Normans fell, the English cried out; they insulted each other and very frequently issued challenges to each other. But they did not understand each other. The bold struck blows and the cowards became fearful. Because they did not understand what they said, the Normans said the English barked. Some men lost their strength, others gained in strength, the bold struck and the cowards took flight, as men do when in combat. The Normans were intent on attack and the English defended themselves well. They pierced hauberks and split shields, receiving great blows and returning great blows. These men advanced, those withdrew; they tested each other in many ways.

Wace even adds his own version of how Harold was killed:

The Normans pushed forward so much that they reached the standard. Harold was with the standard, defending himself as best he could, but he was suffering great pain from his eye, as it had been put out. While he was suffering pain from the blow to his eye, which was hurting him, an armed man came through the fighting and struck him on the ventail, knocking him to the ground. As he was trying to get up again, a knight, who struck him in the thigh, through the fleshiest part, knocked him down again and the wound went right through to the bone. Gyrth saw that the English were thinning out and that there was no way to escape; he saw his lineage falling and no hope of protecting himself. He wanted to flee, but could not, for the throng was increasing all the time. The the duke spurred his horse and reached him, pushing him forward very violently; I do not know whether this blow killed him, but it was said that he lay there for a long time. The Normans knocked the standard to the ground, killed King Harold and the finest of his allies and captured the golden pennon; there was such a throng when Harold was killed that I cannot say who killed him.

One of the most fascinating things about the Roman de Rou was that Wace stopped writing it in the 1170s, because Henry II asked him not to continue it. Historians have speculated on why – had Wace offended Henry in the way he wrote about his royal predecessors, or perhaps that the relatively even-handed account of Harold Godwinson was not to his liking? It may have been that Wace was punished for taking Thomas Becket’s side in his conflict with Henry, or it could have been a case of the Norman writer had just gotten too old to finish the work. One possible clue is that Wace’s replacement was Benoit de Sainte-Maure, who penned the Chronique des ducs de Normandie for Henry II – his account of the Norman Conquest had Harold being far more villainous and making sure that William was completely justified in conquering England.

The Vita Haroldi

The second unusual account about the Norman Conquest was written in the early 13th century – it is an account of the life of Harold Godwinson, before the Battle of Hastings and after.

The Vita Haroldi only survived in a single manuscript and the person who wrote it is unknown. While the work offers little about the events leading up to the Norman invasion or the Battle of Hastings itself, it does have contain this interesting tale:

When, then, the English army was beaten and overcome at the first attack of the Normans, King Harold, pierced with numerous blows, is thrown to the ground amongst the dead ; yet his wounds, many and deathly though they were, could not altogether deprive of life him whom the goodness of the Saviour had most happily ordained to restore to life and victory. Thus, as the enemy’s host departed from the scene of the slaughter, he, who the day before was so powerful, is found stunned and scarcely breathing by some women whom pity and a desire to bind up the wounds of the maimed had drawn thither. They act the part of Samaritans by him, and binding up his wounds, they carry him to a neighbouring hut. From thence, as is reported, he is borne by two common men, franklins or hinds, unrecognised and cunningly hidden, to the city of Winchester. Here, preserving the secret of his hiding-place, in a certain cellar, for two years, he was cured by a certain woman, a Saracen, very skilled in the art of surgery, and with the co-operation of the medicine of the Most High, was restored to perfect health.

Once Harold is healed, he travels to the continent in hopes of finding support to retake England. However, he soon realizes that no one will come to his aid, and the former English king decides that he should seek spiritual salvation rather than secular power. After going on pilgrimage, Harold returns to England, where he lives a quiet existence under an assumed name. It is not until he is on his death bed that he reveals who he really is.

Christopher Flack, in his PhD dissertation Writing Conquest: Traditions of Anglo-Saxon Invasion and Resistance in the Twelfth Century, explains that “the author of the Vita Haroldi articulates a new tradition of Harold, one in which he can triumph over his enemies by reaching the kingdom of God. While other sources could at best be apologetic for his actions, the author of the Vita Haroldi has transformed him into a spiritual figure by denying the markers of subjugation to the Norman invaders.”

While some people believe this source might a true account, and have gone looking for the remains of Harold, most historians have dismissed the story as being a fictional cross between a hagiography and a romance, perhaps based on legends that spread among the Anglo-Saxon peasantry who hoped that their king would one day return.

You can read this 19th century text and translation of the Vita Haroldi:

See also:

Quiz: The Norman Conquest

Ten Things You May Not Have Noticed in the Bayeux Tapestry

Harold Godwinson’s Posthumous Reputation, 1066-c.1160

1066: The Limits of our Knowledge


Watch the video: 1066flash game all cutscenes (September 2021).