In which we pose an anniversary question
Today: the anniversary of the one date in English history that just about everybody knows. It is – as you’ve probably realised – the 944th anniversary of the Battle of Hastings, which occurred on October 14th, 1066. And, of course, all that: the death of King Harold II at the hands of Duke William of Normandy, which led to the duke’s coronation as King of England on Christmas Day that year.
It is, of course, slightly silly to posit: what would the world be like now if the Battle of Hastings* had turned out differently. Counterfactual history can always be true, as the narrator of an Umberto Eco novel almost said, because the premise you’re starting from is always false. Nevertheless, it’s an ever-interesting exercise, particularly with an event like Hastings which turned on a rather narrower pivot than you might think. The standard history of the battle, after all, was written for the victor’s brother, and follows a firm melodramatic template: our hero is promised his future inheritance by a pious elder, and our dastardly villain swears loyalty to him. Come the pious elder’s death, our dastardly villain grabs power, God shows his displeasure, and the plot ends with the villain dying a perjurer’s death and our hero getting his just reward.
The battle was a long battle, though, for the time; and it certainly didn’t start off as a rout. At one point, in the confused melee, things definitely seemed to be going the English way: some of the Norman troops had fled, and Duke William appeared to have been killed, disappearing down into the miry slaughter. However, it was only his horse that had been killed, and somehow he survived, climbing up and throwing off his helmet to persuade his troops he was still there to fight for. There were a good proportion of mercenaries in the Norman army, after all, and you can imagine how willing they would be to go on fighting once they thought the chap paying the money out was down. It was a very narrow escape, it seems, but from there he eventually succeeded in turning the battle round; and thus, English history proper started.**
Would we be living in a very different world if the battle had been won by the English? Undoubtedly, in both large and tiny ways. The English we speak would be a rather different English, for one thing: probably none of those legal paired phrases like “cease and desist”, “goods and chattels”, and so on. We’d have one fewer national park: the New Forest would never have been built. Moreover, we may well have had a rather more decentralised country. King William overthrew a system of English nobility which had slowly grown up from a loose grouping of tribes sharing a common North Sea culture, a system in which no single family was dominant over the long term, there was no automatic hereditary throne, and the individual royally-qualified families had strong regional power bases. He replaced this with a single dynastic line; in the following thousand years, there have only been three major breaks in the line of succession.*** He made sure this happened by carrying out an economic conquest alongside his military one: destroying the entire economy of Yorkshire and Durham, for a start, and thoroughly replacing the English land-ownership structure, taking economic power out of the hands of the English and giving it over to the new nobility.****
Would England have been very different if this hadn’t happened? Would rural Yorkshire have denser settlement patterns, and would we still have a single Royal Family? Naturally, it’s impossible to say: on the first point, the Black Death would still have happened, so by 1400 the population in our projected Anglo-Saxon Yorkshire may well have been around the same as it actually was. We’d probably have different northern cities: York, Durham, Newcastle and (probably) Grimsby were already well-established by 1066; Manchester, Leeds and Middlesbrough were nowhere, and Sheffield was a Norman foundation. I like to think, though, that overall the country would have been more like Germany: still with its capital as the nation’s hub, but with a much greater sense of regionalism, and the importance of the regional cities. We’d still have been English, but we might have been English in a rather different England. Whether it would have been a better England, of course, is another of those things that’s impossible to say.
* Which, of course, didn’t happen in pier-bereft Hastings, but in the handily-named nearby town of Battle.
** Or at least it felt as if we were taught that in schools 25 years ago. I particularly remember, at the age of 5, watching a Norman Conquest-themed series of the educational TV show Zig Zag, featuring a “will the peasant forced into poaching really get his hand chopped off?” cliffhanger.
*** There was something of a hiccup after all William’s own sons had died, largely because some leaders at the time did not like the idea of a queen regnant. The outline of the start of that phase of history, strangely enough, is almost the same as the story of the Bayeux Tapestry: dastardly villain swears oath but goes on to seize throne, etc. However, instead of the dastardly villain dying within the year during a short and decisive military campaign, this story ends with 19 years of on-off civil war until the villain, King Stephen, died a natural death.
**** And those people who can trace their ancestry back to that newly-founded nobility are, of course, still very proud.