When I was eleven I went to secondary school and began to study history.
This started with the Battle of Hastings in 1066, swiftly followed by the medieval period. In succeeding years we studied the rest of English history. English, please note. The Scots and Welsh were mere footnotes about peoples who occasionally attracted the notice of the English kings. The Irish were mentioned not at all.
I remember asking our Headmaster, who taught us in the second year, why we started our studies at 1066 and not earlier. ‘I’d have liked to,’ he said, ‘but there wasn’t time so we had to concentrate on the most important things.’
We were, albeit unconsciously, conforming to the rules set down by William the Conqueror. William erased from history the fact that the Witan, the council of England, had elected two kings between Edward the Confessor and himself, Harold Godwinson and Edgar Atheling.
His successors have done even better than this. They have obliterated the history of a whole people.
History, for them, begins with the arrival of the new masters, the Normans. Before that were the Dark Ages and Romans and Celts and goodness knows what else. Certainly nothing of very much interest or pride.
The only pre-conquest kings ever considered note-worthy were Alfred the Great (chiefly for burning cakes), the Danish King Canute for trying to get the waves to retreat (the opposite of what happened.) And King Caratacus for just passing by.
And as for the people? Well, what did they count?
Why am I writing about this?
Because the conquest of 1066 was the greatest grand larceny to have taken place in these islands.
On average the land held by ten English people before the conquest were held by one Norman or French lord thereafter. This is an astonishing theft of the resources and wealth of the country. Huge amounts of treasure were siphoned off from England to Normandy. The English people endured a servitude where they were ruled by a tiny, foreign elite who spoke a different language, deployed different laws and treated them as an alien breed. In effect they suffered centuries of apartheid.
The gulf between rich and poor, the rulers and the ruled has endured for almost a thousand years.
As well as this, generations of people were told that the Normans brought a superior culture to England and set it off on a path of glory. Pah!
I would argue that, insidiously, this mind-set is still with us.
The recent spat where Benedict Cumberbatch is said to have complained about being disadvantaged for being too posh is one astonishing example. The other is the angry reaction of a number of people to the opening ceremony of the Olympics. Danny Boyle celebrated a Britain which was not the preserve of the wealthy, the privileged and the descendents of the robber barons of Norman and medieval times. And some didn’t like it one bit.
And this is to say nothing of the fact that this country is still bedevilled by a thousand year old class system which battens on the people and continues to warp every facet of our national life. But maybe, just maybe, Danny Boyle has opened up a Pandora’s Box which will challenge this.
Perhaps all this explains why I have written about the dark days of the Norman Conquest when robbers destroyed a society and became a new elite.
- Attack upon York Castle. #SampleSunday #histfic An extract from The Lost King: Wasteland (martinlakewriting.wordpress.com)
- Talking with James Wilde (martinlakewriting.wordpress.com)
- Quote of the Day: April 21, 2012 (delong.typepad.com)