On this day, 954 years ago, occurred one of the most important events in English history. Norman invaders under William, Duke of Normandy, defeated King Harold’s English army in a battle fought a few miles inland from Hastings.
William was affectionately nicknamed ‘the Bastard’, which was a reference to the circumstances of his birth, not his character. However, considering the unsporting tactics he used at Hastings, his character too could have merited that soubriquet.
The Normans were actually Vikings, only about a century removed from their bandit heritage. In the past they had specialised in daring raids on land and sea, terrorising and robbing anyone weaker than they were.
They’d munch on some hallucinogenic mushrooms, don their horned helmets and start cutting throats with a skill seldom matched in the Middle Ages. In the process, they came in contact with many civilisations and learned from each one.
The tactic William used at Hastings came out of the Scythians’ unwritten rule book. Actually, their tactics were unwritten only by the Scythians themselves. Herodotus provided that service for them and, while he was at it, for posterity.
The Scythians’ favourite trick was to feign flight, making the enemy overextend in pursuit. At a critical moment, they’d suddenly turn around and massacre the huffing and puffing posse.
That’s exactly what the ‘Bastard’ did at Hastings. Using his overwhelming advantage in cavalry and therefore mobility, he lured Harold’s forces into a seemingly triumphant pursuit, which then turned into a rout of the English forces. Harold himself was killed by an arrow in the eye – the Normans also had more archers and hence firepower.
The English learned that lesson, but the French didn’t, which was demonstrated during the Hundred Years’ War, when English archers had a field day picking off French knights one by one. Three field days, to be exact: at Crécy, Poitiers and Agincourt. In those battles, the French lost what their histories describe in a characteristically florid style as la fine fleur de la noblesse française.
But it’s not the French who interest me here, but the Vikings. Murderous and thieving acidheads they might have been, but they were clearly so much more than just that.
For they not only conquered but also civilised foreign lands or, alternatively, were civilised by them. The Vikings seem to have had a rare talent for asset stripping: taking from other nations what they found useful and discarding the rest.
For example, the Russian Primary Chronicle claims that the natives actually invited the Vikings to take over Rus’. “Large and rich is our land,” the ancient Slav ‘woodsmen’ are supposed to have pleaded, “but there is no order. Come and rule over us and bring order to us.”
Whence the proto-Russians suddenly acquired this urgent desire for order never has been made clear. Let’s just say that among the many indisputably great talents the Russians possess, a quest for order has never been the most salient.
The Norse version of Russian history is disputed, but what’s beyond doubt is that they did bring civilisation to the Slavic and Finnish tribes they conquered. In the process, they built Kiev, one of the most splendid European cities of the time.
Roughly at the same time they invaded England, the Vikings conquered Sicily and were enchanted by her predominantly Moorish splendour. It took the Vikings but a few decades to lose their language and switch to Arabic. In fact, their official documents were produced in that language for centuries after the Moors were driven out of Sicily.
The Vikings who invaded England were thoroughly Gallicised. They settled in what was later called Normandy at the beginning of the tenth century, when King Charles the Simple gave them that piece of land in the hope that they’d stop harassing the rest of France.
Again, it took the Vikings but a few decades to assimilate. They abandoned their pagan cults to become pious Catholics and developed their own dialect of French. They also showed an unexpected knack for endeavours other than murder, rape and plunder.
The Normans, as they were now called, were busily building cathedrals and churches, schools and castles, both copying and developing the Gothic innovations originating in Île-de-France. They also proved to be masters of governance and administration.
It was those talents that they brought to England, only to find that many of them were superfluous. The English (or Saxons, if you’d rather) already had an intricate and sophisticated political system, much superior to anything the ‘Bastard’ had seen in France. All the Normans had to do was slot into the existing institutions, just as they slotted into the Moorish culture of Sicily.
Yet the marauding Vikings still lurked underneath the veneer of French culture, and the Normans started out by robbing England blind. At least 95 per cent of the lands belonging to the Saxon nobility were repossessed, and 100 years later not a single English earl or bishop was actually English.
The Normans also clung to their own language longer than they did in Sicily, but eventually the nature of linguistics took its course. Franco-Norman gradually became Anglo-Norman and then, centuries later, English, arguably the greatest and certainly the most popular language on Earth.
That’s why we have much to celebrate on this day, for while the bitterness of the Hastings defeat has subsided, the joy of the subsequent culture persists. We admire the square towers of Norman churches adorning our cities and countryside. We marvel at the battlements of the great castles they built.
And above all, we rejoice in the English language, which wouldn’t be the same had that arrow missed Harold’s eye.
Happy Battle Day!