Yes he did! Every schoolboy knows that. It’s one of the most famous incidents of Our Island Story. His horse stumbled and the thanes Guthrum and Cerdic hewed him down. King Harold the Victorious, founder of the illustrious Godwinson dynasty cut off his head. You can see the scene depicted on the walls of many public buildings, showing his corpse on the ground hacked to pieces whilst his men flee from the sight of The Bastard’s head held aloft by the King. It decorates our schoolrooms and our history books. It’s the climactic scene of the world famous Winchester Tapestry, carefully preserved in a special museum reverently visited by crowds of tourists every year. The Pope was on the side of The Bastard, but God was on the side of the English. Naturally. Bayeux? That’s a little town in France, isn’t it? What’s it got to do with anything?
Sit quietly for a little time and recover your normal senses. I understand that you experienced a terrible nightmare in which fiends from hell showed you a false version of history in which The Norman Bastard conquered Englalond and what horrible consequences followed, corrupting and distorting our history society and identity; until an even worse vision arose in which the degraded future inhabitants of these islands – surely not our descendants – allowed themselves to be overrun by Saracens and black savages, and even invited them to live here at their expense, take authority over them, rape their children and replace them. That’s too evil and disgusting to even imagine. You should pray more, do penance and seek absolution for whatever sins brought these demons to torment you, brother. Also, I know our English mead is most excellent, but imbibing less of it might make you less likely to fall prey to such foul dreams.
Why isn’t this the version of history that we all know and accept as natural and right? Losing Anglo-Saxon England in an afternoon could in a Wildean sense be called ‘careless’, and difficult to achieve, even for an inveterate gambler with fate. I doubt that many, if any, of those involved anticipated such sweeping changes to follow a mere change of ruler. William was not a complete outsider, nor were the Normans complete unknowns. He was related to the previous ruling house, and Anglo-Saxon culture had some influence in Normandy. He had a shaky claim to the throne, and Harold, who had no blood relation to the previous king still needed time to establish himself. Of course there would be winners and losers amongst those around the throne, lands would be lost and gained, the favourites of the new king would gain too much wealth and power – that was merely the way of the world; but the complete dispossession of the native ruling class of large landowners, the replacement of all senior Anglo-Saxon clerics by Frenchmen, the destruction of the old churches, including their style of decoration, and their replacement by huge and expensive French cathedrals in a new style, the scrapping of the artistic and cultural, legal and social traditions of the past, and even the subordination of the language to French can not have been widely anticipated. There was a radical re-orientation of the country from involvement with Scandinavia and the low countries on the other side of the North Sea to involvement with France and the Mediterranean. Why did any of that happen? Let’s imagine what might have happened if it had not.
Suppose that Harold had taken the sensible advice of his counsellors, including his mother, who urged him to rest his men and gather reinforcements before seeking battle. He could have met William a few days or even weeks later, in far greater strength and with more confidence of success; although as it was, the battle of Hastings was a close run thing. Why then did Harold push his luck? Perhaps his decisive victory over Harald Hardrada, the most feared warlord of the time, went to his head. His rush north had caught the Vikings complacent and unprepared and achieved a great tactical victory at Stamford Bridge. Strategically and politically it had also been a good move to act rapidly before his traitorous brother could capitalise on the strength of the Viking position and raise more local support. William on the other hand had started at his maximum strength and had no expectation of recruiting more locally. Ravaging the lands of local people, as he immediately commenced to do, would not gain him sympathy, and seems to have been done partly in hope of bringing Harold to battle quickly. Had the Normans ever had hopes of bringing many influential people over to William’s cause they would certainly have mentioned it.
Perhaps Harold was unnerved by his religious faith and his need to demonstrate quickly and decisively that his rule was approved by Heaven. He was a usurper who had not been king long enough to be sure that his legitimacy would be accepted if competitors were not crushed very promptly. The news that William had invaded to dethrone Harold with the approval and blessing of the Pope, even flaunting a Papal banner, seems to have demoralised Harold. He may have feared that if he waited, instead of rallying to him many lords and warriors would have lost confidence in him and either have drifted away to join William or have stood aside to await the outcome.
Why then did the Papacy interpose itself in a squabble as to who should rule England? Ever since Alfred Saxon England had been very subservient to Rome, and there was no reason to suppose that under Harold – or William – things would be much different, although there was a squabble between the Pope and Harold’s Archbishop of Canterbury. The answer seems to lie in central Italy, continued control of which was and long remained the prime goal of the Church. There the Papacy was under pressure from those other Normans who had conquered the south of Italy and had proved themselves capable of capturing the Pope and courteously holding him captive until they had got what they wanted from him. Fear of the Normans and greed to retain land whose theft had been justified by forgery; not very Christian motives from which to to justify opposing one loyal son of the Church in favour of another more ruthless and politically adept warlord who might help them against those other Normans – but motives which left the Papacy seeing eye to eye with William and on the same moral level.
Let us suppose that Harold’s nerve had held, and that men had indeed rallied to his cause. Knowledge that the Pope supported William, spreading at the same time as knowledge that William was burning and pillaging his way across England – and he could not have stayed for long in one place as his men consumed the supplies – would have been offset by the latter, and as the more restless and less disciplined of his men took to raiding on their own account when there was no sign of resistance, his effective force would have been reduced whilst Harold’s army of aggrieved and angry men was growing.
With the advantage of local knowledge it is possible that Harold could again have achieved surprise and caught William at a disadvantage, perhaps near Winchester the Saxon capital. It is too much to expect that he could have achieved a repetition of Stamford Bridge, but a hard fought victory is quite conceivable. Had William actually fallen as was possible, and as the rumour of which at Hastings had caused a panic in the Norman ranks, that one death would have ended the campaign and gifted Harold with immense prestige.
The king who had killed two invaders in a single year, both of them renowned warlords, would clearly have proved that God was on his side, although it would have been more modest to put that the other way around. That would have made his rule secure and given him the legitimacy to found a dynasty which might have been long lasting, strong and famous. It might also have enabled him to take a more sceptical and independent attitude towards the claims of the Papacy, perhaps becoming closer to the political and theological positions of Constantinople and Orthodoxy.
Something like that is how the dice of history could or should be expected to have ‘normally’ fallen. It was the Norman victory which was the less probable event. Like Alexander, William had risked everything and was mortgaged to the hilt. Failure, or even lack of rapid success, would have been the end of him. He could never have raised another such army and after failure the French would probably have attacked and absorbed his Duchy, so he was committed to a Death or Glory campaign. He would still have been deep in trouble had the weather continued too bad for him to cross the Channel and after a few more weeks his army had broken up and dispersed as winter set in and food and money ran out. Nor could he return safely after defeat in England. He would have preferred to go down fighting. Battle was very personal for the leaders. After the death of one of them his men had no more reason to fight and without his personal example in the forefront, why should they risk their own lives?
To celebrate the English victory, indeed the almost miraculous double victories, as they would have appeared, it is easy to guess that there might have been commissioned a huge embroidery or tapestry. Let’s call it the Winchester Tapestry. Why not? Maybe Harold would have created a monastery or church to house it and dedicated this to-be-famous work to the glory of God and his own dynasty. English needlework was already famous and Opus Anglicanum, the rich and complex embroidery used particularly for expensive liturgical vestments, was much in demand throughout the middle ages. Why only one? London was already established as a centre for this work and no doubt versions of such famous events would have been very popular and helped reinforce national pride and identity.
After the death of William it is unlikely that Normandy or any other French duchy would have attempted another invasion of England. Without the Norman Conquest England would have been much less involved in French affairs. French would not have become its language of power and culture. English would probably have remained closer to its Dutch/Deutsch roots. The Saxon church and its styles of architecture, art, literature, organisation and personnel would not have been replaced by French versions. We might still have had some Gothic cathedrals, but this French Royal style, as it was known at the time, would not have been so widespread. How would you like an onion dome on St. Paul’s, without the neoclassicism? Greater contact with central Europe might have made that possible. The Normans were famous for introducing castles as well as chivalry, but although these might have arrived more slowly they would have arrived, as they did in parts of Europe not occupied by the Normans or other Frenchmen. Without the Normans and the Plantagenet’s medieval England need not have been embroiled in French wars to gain the crown of France. Less loot and less glory and no ultimate defeat there, but no doubt other battlefields would have been found.
It is not possible to predict the vagaries of dynastic marriages, births and deaths, claims and alliances, but it seems likely that in place of France, English Royal attention and ambition would have been directed more to the east, to Denmark, Flanders and the Rhine. The Danish monarchy had been in control of England in the earlier part of the 11th century. Indeed, Harold’s family had risen to prominence as their servants in the administration of England. It is likely that these two royal houses would have intermarried. Instead of a Stuart union of the crowns of England and Scotland, history might record a Godwinson dynasty ruling both England and Denmark – which was a country much more important and powerful then than it is now. It came to rule Norway and southern Sweden and it controlled the strategically and commercially important access to the Baltic Sea. English interests and quarrels might thus have been directed to the Baltic and less interest might later have developed in the Mediterranean. The Crusades to the Holy Land were a mainly French affair, and in this version of history English participation would probably have been more directed to supporting the Teutonic Knights against the pagan Balts and Prussians, and maybe also against the Poles and Russians. Someone else would in the north have had to play the part of Richard the Lionheart in Palestine. Instead of Aquitaine, its wines and troubadour culture, we might have had – what? Finland, the area now occupied by St. Petersburg, Estonia? Bearskins and mead instead of wine and silks. (Although medieval England was warm enough to produce its own wine much of the time.) Skalds and shamans instead of troubadours and heretics. Stronger contact with Orthodoxy would have ensured even more venomous hair-splitting theological wrangling to intensify what could already have been expected via Rome.
The medieval English economy depended on its hugely profitable export of wool, which mostly went to be woven into fine cloths in Flanders or Florence. This trade could have intensified after the defeat of the Norman Invasion. England, Flanders and the Low Countries might have become more closely linked if royal ambitions had been directed there rather than towards France. The most prosperous regions of Europe, then and now, have been the valleys of the Po and the Rhine, with extensions to the Paris basin and the Thames valley. The Anglo-Saxons had come from the area between Denmark and the Rhine delta, and their relatives are still there. Firmer political, economic and cultural connections with these regions would have seemed natural had the Normans not violently disrupted this natural development. A combination of England, Denmark, Flanders, the statelets of the Low Countries and even perhaps some of the Rhineland and western Germany would have been a very powerful group, perhaps as formidable as the medieval European superpower, France, conflict with whom would have been inevitable as they continued their expansion north and east into the same desirable areas. Equivalents of Henry V, Marlborough and Wellington might still have campaigned across much the same areas, but Belgium might not have been invented! The North Sea might have been recognised as the centre of a region of intense trade and maritime power, more or less united culturally and politically. France of course would have been weakened if Burgundy had been attracted into this orbit, survived, and become an independent kingdom, although that would have provided a counterpoise to England and perhaps have destroyed the group. Stronger English contacts with the Baltic and Germany might have resulted in some Anglo-Saxons joining the Saxons in the Drang Nach Osten to participate in bringing urban civilisation to much of eastern Europe, and perhaps thereby diverting later attention from the New World and Australasia.
How might the failure of the Norman Invasion have affected the rest of the world? In Britain, Wales and Scotland were already on the anvil and would have been hammered anyway. Without Norman adventurers from Wales going to Ireland to carve out a kingdom and drawing their jealous monarch after them, England might have ignored Ireland for longer, but probably the equivalent of the Elizabethans, in search of timber for ships and land to settle would have taken it over. One loss however would have been the Arthurian legends, which were basically Celtic and heavily rewritten and promoted by Norman court patronage.
What about the New World? With stronger Northern connections, and perhaps more wealth with which to sponsor adventurous Norwegians and Danes and even English seamen accustomed to northern waters, earlier discovery and settlement of north-eastern America is possible and perhaps likely. Maybe it wouldn’t be named after an Italian; imagine that it might be named Godwinsland or Haroldia! Without religious fanatics fleeing civilisation, the harsh environment of New England might have been left as a nature reserve or reservation for the natives, whilst the better land of the Midwest and down the Mississippi was settled via the St. Lawrence and the city that might still be called New Amsterdam. The settlements might have been less unified and less English. The French would probably have been excluded and the worthwhile farming areas settled sooner. They might have been a fissiparous and quarrelsome bunch, more inclined to independence than to union with each other or loyalty to a motherland; more like the colonies of Greek cities than to the modern United States, whose unity came first from fear of the French, then from resistance to Britain, followed by a centralising constitutional coup, creating the conditions for rapid growth, mass immigration from Europe and rapid expansion across a continent. Hence it is unlikely that there would be either a very powerful United States, or an even more powerful union of these lands with Britain, Denmark, the Low Countries, Flanders, the Rhineland and Western Germany.
Unfortunately, religious fanatics can’t be wished away so easily. When the Saxon Martin Luther ignited the Reformation he released a babel of sects, each convinced of its own total rectitude and its divine mission to extirpate the others, in which of course they did no more than repeat the attitude of the Church towards them, so it is still likely that some of the losers would have fled to Haroldia and elsewhere. Under the conditions here suggested it is indeed likely that the Reformation would have spread all the more rapidly and completely from the Saxons to the Anglo-Saxons. The result would have been a Protestant bloc which would have been a far tougher opponent of the Catholic Church, and which might have carried the conversion of France and Poland as well as more of Germany. The equivalents of Cromwell might in Europe, like Hudibras have ‘built their faith upon the holy text of pike and gun, decide all controversies by infallible artillery, and proved their doctrine orthodox by Apostolic blows and knocks’.
The combined commercial and maritime power of England and the Netherlands, with the possible aid of France, would have made shorter work of sweeping the Spanish and Portuguese from the high seas and taking over the routes to and trade of the East. They might have been able to muscle into Spanish territory in south and central America to grab more of the gold and silver.
The quarrels of western Europe were bad enough, but Britain as part of Anglo-Denmark- Saxony-Netherlands etc. would also have become involved in the quarrels of central and eastern Europe. I doubt they would have had a decisive effect on them, but the pattern of wars and politics would obviously be somewhat different to those known in our version of history. Perhaps Prussia would not have unified Germany, particularly if there had not been French Revolutionary wars to stimulate them; maybe Austria would have done so. Maybe the western German states would have merged with Anglo- Denmark etc. if that hypothetical structure had survived.
Had King Harold slain the Bastard there might still be a benefit reverberating in our time. The western world might not be, or might not so completely be, in the grasp of the usurers. They financed William and he introduced them to leech upon the people until Edward III threw them out. Unfortunately Cromwell reintroduced them. They financed Dutch William and profited mightily from his success. Without a world-dominating United States, which they dominate, the banksters would be much weaker. They might not have been able to invent and spread Marxism and cultural Marxism. They might not have been able to overthrow civilisation in Russia for seven decades amid immense suffering degradation and barbarism. They might not now be spreading chaos in the middle east and destroying the peoples and culture of Europe with the savages they have bribed and forced their political stooges to allow in – precisely to eliminate us.
A character in Joyce’s Ulysses says that ‘history is a nightmare from which I am trying to awake’. We may well wish that we could awake from the condition we currently live in, and find that it was all just a bad dream, and that in truth King Harold Slew The Bastard!
© Cynic 2017