So far as I know this is the first time that a centenary of the Norman Conquest has been celebrated. Although 1066 is the one date in English history that everybody knows, the events of that year and the personalities involved in them have never found a place in the popular memory. The spate of books which has greeted the centenary this year has been partly inspired by the desire to remedy this state of affairs and to bridge the gap between academic studies and the popular imagination. But they are not likely to achieve this result. With all their merits historians of the Conquest today have no message capable of penetrating the barrier between the universities and the outer world.
There have been three occasions in the past when the events of 1066 have seemed to convey an important intellectual message to a large public. The first occasion was in 1163. In this year, the solemn translation of the recently canonized Edward the Confessor to his new tomb in Westminster Abbey was a symbol of the newly achieved unity of the French and English peoples of Britain. It was seen by contemporaries as an act of healing after the bitterness of Conquest and as a demonstration of the continuity of English history. The translation took place on 13 October, on the eve of the anniversary of the Battle of Hastings, and it was the nearest thing to a centenary celebration at any time before this year. It was a great event, but it did not encourage a renewed interest in the Conquest. Quite the contrary. It effectively buried it.
Then in the seventeenth century the Conquest got a new lease of imaginative life as a result of a doctrine popularized by the Levellers. In the Leveller mythology the Conquest was the source of all the tyrannies which oppressed the English people. The partition of the lands of Englishmen among the Norman conquerors destroyed the free nation of England. It was a blow from which the people had never recovered. It is easy to smile at this simplification of history, and it was soon forgotten in Restoration England, but it is a landmark in the historiography of the Conquest. For the first time it made the Conquest an event worth remembering.
A HUNDRED YEARS AGO there was no celebration, but there was a man at work on the greatest, and certainly the biggest, book ever written on the Norman Conquest. This was E. A. Freeman. He was a man with a message. He gave the Conquest a world setting in the perennial struggle between the two great forces in European history—the Teutonic and the Gallic. The Battle of Hastings was for him a heroic fight in which the Teutonic freedom of England was temporarily overthrown till it was won back by the strength of the people. In modern secular terms this was the theme of those who had consummated the canonization of Edward the Confessor in 1163. It was also the theme of the Levellers brought to a new conclusion. It was thus a theme with deep historical roots, and it appealed to a generation of liberal nationalists who were about to witness in the Franco-Prussian War a new round in the ancient struggle.
The canonizers of Edward the Confessor, the Levellers, and finally Freeman all made 1066 a clearly significant date. But Freeman did something more. He initiated a century of scholarly investigation, which now threatens to sink the Conquest in a bog of disagreements and uncertainties. This was not Freeman’s intention. He had few uncertainties and allowed no disagreement, but it was his fate to encourage these weaknesses in others. The History of the Norman Conquest of England, intended as a book to end all books on the subject, was the beginning of a new Battle of Hastings which is not yet quite over. The opposing armies have now been enormously inflated by fresh drafts from the universities, but they glare at each other across a battlefield in which the main positions, though much altered by modern fortifications, are still those which were occupied by Freeman and the enemies who rose up against him.
The greatest of Freeman’s enemies was John Horace Round, and the contrast between the two men is the contrast between two generations of scholars. They were both men of private means; they both wrote for a general audience of intelligent people; neither of them was in the modern sense an academic historian. But here the likeness ended. Freeman was a man of universal interests with a European point of view. He had a great, though rather verbose, gift for historical narrative. He was the first writer to master all the sources for the Conquest and to weave them together with a coherent story; and in a sense he was the last. He had reached his maturity at the height of the new historical movement in Europe, and he saw himself as the lofty purveyor of those new riches to a generation which scarcely understood their worth.
For all this magnificence Round had no use at all. His roots were in the traditions of English local history: in Colchester, his home town; in Essex, his country; in the great families with which his own was distantly connected. He was by nature an antiquary and genealogist, and a historian by accident. While Freeman loved liberty and the people, Round stood for pedigree and peerage, which he saw as bulwarks against the rising tide of democracy in Europe and plutocracy in America. Like the Levellers he saw the Conquest as the event which gave England a lasting and powerful aristocracy; but unlike the Levellers, and unlike Freeman, he loved it for this reason. So while Freeman saw the Conquest as a near-disaster, blunted and overcome at last by the strength of the people, Round saw it as the source of order and discipline, threatened in these latter days by turbulent forces from within. Round’s obsessional hatred of Freeman’s benevolent liberalism gave an edge to his historical criticism, and his love of the peerage as the source of political order gave him a motive for understanding the Anglo-Norman baronage in its first youth. No one has ever understood feudal society better than Round. This unlikeable supporter of a social order, that was in its last agonies during his lifetime, is still its best interpreter. He was the sociologist of reaction, but he spoke the clear and unambiguous language of modern scholarship. In a cloudy way Freeman had the future on his side, but he could scarcely write a sentence without filling it with sentiments and vague generalities as alien to the eleventh century as to our own. No one now—not even those who most firmly believe he was right—can read him. He had greater historical gifts than Round, but no great book is less likely to be reprinted today than Freeman’s Norman Conquest, his greatest book. It is ironical that Round’s most virulent attack on Freeman has recently (and rightly) been reprinted. It is still a work to influence and excite a historian, because with all its faults, it is a masterpiece of the analytical method, the method of the future. It helps to keep Freeman’s book, the book which it killed, alive.
BROADLY SPEAKING the controversy between Round and Freeman was on the question of continuity, and this is still the main problem of modern scholarship about the Conquest. It was unlucky that on so complex a subject Round’s genius for incisive statement should have made one simple question the center of the debate: Was the system of military service which comes into view in the twelfth century a development of the system prevailing in pre-Conquest England, or an innovation of the Conqueror? Round was firmly on the side of innovation; Freeman just as firmly on the side of continuity. It would certainly have astonished both of them to learn that the controversy would be raging with unabated violence nearly seventy years after it began. Among recent books on the Conquest the most authoritative surveys of the subject as a whole are those of Professors Douglas and Barlow, and they fall neatly on one or other side of the fence in the old controversy. For Professor Douglas, the military obligations of King William’s barons “owed little or nothing to Anglo-Saxon precedent” and any correspondence between post-Conquest feudal military obligations and pre-Conquest military service is (with one local exception) “demonstrably lacking.” The Conquest therefore “involved a revolutionary change” and brought military feudalism to England. For Professor Barlow on the other hand the precise opposite is true. The military service of King William’s barons was simply a continuation of old arrangements and old methods of assessment. So little was post-Conquest military service a result of new bargains between the Conqueror and his followers that King William probably did not know how much service his barons owed him, and he had to have Domesday Book made in order to find out. Military service both before and after the Conquest depended on the military assessment of “hides,” and it is therefore “not only perverse but useless” to make a distinction (as Professor Douglas does) between the Anglo-Saxon royal army (the “fyrd“) and the post-Conquest feudal host.
Here, shorn of sundry errors and with all passion spent, we have the basic views of Round and Freeman repeated by two distinguished modern scholars. It certainly seems odd that seventy years have not sufficed to bring a cessation of hostilities on a problem about which nearly all the evidence has long been known. It is one of the great merits of Professor Warren Hollister that he has tried to clear up this problem by a cool, dispassionate, and (above all) strictly limited survey of the evidence. This is the first time that anyone has attempted to study the question of military service fully and systematically, steering clear of wider issues and of the passions raised by more explosive topics. So much blood has flowed over this battlefield in the last century that the appearance of a cool and professional scholar of a new generation is greatly to be welcomed. Professor Hollister’s lucidity and urbanity never desert him. He allows all kinds of virtues to the views he is obliged to criticize, but at the end of the day he has (or so it seems to me) quite simply demolished the more extreme opponents of Round’s views on the introduction of knight service into England. But in the course of the argument a curious thing has happened: the issue has steadily diminished in importance.
It has long been clear that there was something spurious in the violent antithesis of Round and Freeman. It expressed the political and temperamental opposition of the two men, rather than any fundamental incompatibility between their scholarly views. The violence of the first contestants has infected the dispute long after their death. Round has been the chief victim of his own malevolence, and pulling him to pieces has become a major occupation among recent historians. This is a mistake, for Round has far more to teach historians than Freeman. But even if he is right in every criticism of Freeman (as he certainly is in most) the main arguments for the continuity of political, social, and religious life through the Conquest are left untouched. This is the point that recent historians have made abundantly clear. Many factors have helped to diminish the scope of Round’s victory over Freeman. It is quite clear that even if Round was right about the introduction of knight service, this innovation was not the source of later military changes, still less was it a central factor in the history of society. It was a typical weakness of nineteenth-century historians to see formal institutional changes as the key to historical development in general. They mistook the form for the reality and failed to see that developments in warfare, for example, came from changes in political policy, from technical progress in castle-building, in military engineering, in knightly combat fostered in tournaments, from the growing use of mercenaries—from almost everything except the introduction of knight-service. We can now forget this institutional curiosity, and we can concentrate on things of substantial importance for society—the countryside, the economy, the art and learning of the monasteries and cathedrals, the coarse fabric of order and government. In all these fields we shall have to make a respectful bow to the year 1066, but we shall not remain prostrate before it or before any theory of its “place” in English history.
THE PROGRESS OF STUDIES of the Conquest in the future may be judged by the extent to which the old disputes are forgotten. We have not yet reached a state of equilibrium, but at least there now seems some possibility of ending the sterile confrontations of direct opposites. We may expect a period of considerable confusion in the history of this period as the main positions defined by Freeman and Round become blurred and associated in new combinations. Mr. Lennard’s studies of rural England after the Conquest have shown how little remains of the old simplicities when they are subjected to rigorous local investigation. Seventy years ago Maitland could write that the occupiers of the soil after the Conquest “might be divided by the financier into three main classes.” But it would take a bold man now to say how many classes a financier or anyone else would find in rural England in the eleventh century. The truth is that the founders of medieval social science, Maitland and Round among the first, achieved their best results by simplication, and no doubt the time for this will come again. But the main need now is for an increasingly delicate discrimination. Mr. Lennard is one of the pioneers in this direction, and in his recent book Dr. Matthew follows the same course. He has searched for new examples of local continuity and has produced explanations of obscure local events which owe nothing to the old generalizations. He has eschewed the study of what the Conquest “is supposed to have resolved and achieved” and he has tried to penetrate the “deepest currents” of English life. This has led him to dig into the lower strata of society and to bring up such interesting specimens as Fulk de Lisures, who held his land in 1166 by the service of attending the king’s hunt complete with horses, arms, and horn slung round his neck, exactly as his Anglo-Saxon predecessor had done a hundred years earlier. At a lower level still he has looked at the miscellaneous services owed by small men in English villages to find examples of ancient services recorded scarcely intelligibly in the old law books. This is not a new search but it is a necessary one. There have been some distinguished, and some brave, pioneers whose work may now come into its own. Many of Dr. Matthew’s details still need a closer analysis before any satisfactory pattern of development can be established, but it is only through enquiries of this kind that the history of medieval society can ever be written afresh.
The expectation of even greater complexity in the history of the Conquest bodes ill for “popular” history. The public for which Freeman wrote has now fallen apart. There is an academic public which thrives on complexity, and there is a large unacademic public which requires some measure of entertainment and simplicity of information in its history. This year the largest crop of books on the Conquest has been designed to meet the needs of the second of these two classes. Unluckily the authors of these books come to the subject at a bad moment: “all the freshness of the subject is lost, whilst many of the perplexities remain to be solved.” These words were written by Sir Francis Palgrave, the first serious student of the Norman Conquest, in 1851, and they are certainly much truer now than they were then. The point can be illustrated by the Battle of Hastings itself. Anyone who wishes to write a narrative of the year 1066 must make this the dramatic climax of his story. Freeman was able to write a very fine piece about it because he trusted his sources more than any modern scholar can do. Round began the process of demolition, and now all that is known about the course of the battle can be contained in ten sentences. We do not know enough about the numbers or the tactics of the two armies, the aims of the leaders, or their reason for fighting where and when they did; we know very little about the events of the day, or about the opportunities seized or lost. In all this ignorance modern writers continue to be very free with their criticisms and advice to the luckless Harold. Even such cautious scholars as Professors Douglas and Barlow do not hesitate to tell him when he should have counter-attacked. But in the end we don’t know what he did wrong or (for that matter) right. We only know that he lost. Perhaps because his men began looting too soon. This does not make for a vivid battle scene. And if the drama of the battle disappears in the dearth of information, the larger issues of institutional survival and the like are too complicated for treatment in a popular narrative.
IT WAS IMPOSSIBLE therefore for the writers of these narratives to achieve more than a limited success. The best account of the battle is that of Brigadier Barclay. He achieves a considerable success in translating the facts of eleventh-century warfare into the mild mild military jargon of the First and Second World Wars. The brigadier describes the scene at Hastings in terms which will be nostalgically familiar to any British platoon commander of twenty-five years ago. The language is strangely endearing and effective. The military imagination did not change much between 1066 and 1940, and this unpretentious narrative recreates the physical effort of the slow up-hill plod of men and horses, the mutual hesitant prodding of horsemen against infantry, the confusion, the delays, and the darkness falling on a scene of carnage. Brigadier Barclay is evidently at home in fields where men move heavily, and generally in the wrong direction at the wrong time. Mr. Linklater by contrast is at home only on the sea with the Ulfs and Bloodaxes and Sigurds of the North. He writes about them with an infectious zest which carries the reader through all the intricacies of their bloody stratagems. But where does the Norman Conquest come in all this? It was an anti-Viking event, and it brought the Viking age to an end so far as England was concerned. Mr. Linklater does not see it in this way, but he seems nevertheless to approach the Conquest with reluctance. We do not reach the Battle of Hastings till page 214, and after this the life goes out of his narrative. Domesday Book is the last straw: “One cannot read a page of Domesday without wishing, however vainly, that it had been written with a more human fullness.” All these facts and figures of men and sheep and ploughteams belong to a world which is not that of Mr. Linklater, and he hastens to bring his book to an end. Mr. Alan Lloyd was wise enough to stop before he became entangled in the results of the Conquest, and among the anniversary writers he has written the most lively general survey of English history in the half century before 1066. All these writers have taken care to get their facts right and to present them attractively, but they have not solved the problem of writing a satisfactory account of the Conquest for the general reader.
If events so imperfectly known are to have any interest, they must be seen through the eyes of contemporaries. This involves some close study of an original document—a difficult matter, it might seem, for the general reader. But there is one document—both a narrative and an interpretation of the events which culminated in the Battle of Hastings—which is now easily accessible: the Bayeux Tapestry. It is a document of high artistic quality and absorbing interest. It testifies at once to the artistic skill of the conquered people and to the political views of the conquerors. Of course it does not tell purely and simply the truth about the Norman Conquest. It gives the truth distorted by propaganda and inflated by rhetoric, but at least it is the truth as one side saw it. The reproduction of this document, edited with great skill and learning by Sir Frank Stenton and his collaborators, brings the Conquest before the eyes of the reader with a force and intimacy that nothing else can equal. With the help of the editors who unobtrusively supply the necessary information, the reader can see and feel and, within the limits of this document, judge for himself. It is the special privilege of works of art to perform this feat of communication with a minimum of previous instruction. This is why museums and art galleries are going to have an increasingly important role in popularizing the study of history, while the works of professional historians are likely to become increasingly remote. And this is why, of all the books on the Norman Conquest, the reproduction of the Bayeux Tapestry is most to be welcomed as a popular as well as scholarly introduction to the subject.
November 17, 1966