Books: Don't let the Bastards grind you down

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The Independent Culture
1066: The Year of the Three Battles

by Frank McLynn Cape pounds 18.99

October 14, 1066 remains the most significant date in English history, and speculating about what might have been had the good guys won is far more rewarding than fantasies about storm-troopers in Whitehall. For better or worse - no, for worse - the English we are were made on that day and the English we were destroyed, or compromised. Amazingly, somewhere between 8,000 and 14,000 men (almost no women) split a nation of more than a million with a flourishing culture of its own into two antagonistic halves with dire results for us, our neighbours, and maybe the world.

The Normans were ruthless, cruel oppressors, control freaks, committed to hierarchy, bureaucracy, rule from the top. What culture they had was a watered-down remnant of the nastier characteristics of their Norse ancestors, combined with a French arrogance already wedded to an arid rationalism and an exaggerated respect for things Roman. The Anglo-Saxon- Danes they conquered were hedonistic, freedom-claiming and freedom-loving, empirical in their approach to life, sceptical about dogma, ready to respect others and not interfere, individualistic. Even in the narrow world of fine and applied art they were far superior to the Normans - just compare what little is left (the Normans destroyed most of it) in the way of manuscript illumination, real tapestry, wall-painting, jewellery and so on with the clumsy primitivism of what should be known as the Bayeux Needlework.

Without women the Normans had to intermarry, but the two strands remain unreconciled and conflicting right down to the present day, however anglicised the Norman side may seem to be. It took them 300 years to learn a corrupt version of our language, and about as long to build up a rigid class-system, based initially on family and land-owning but was now shored up by attitudes, education, all the rules that operate to ensure that you don't get anywhere in England unless you are prepared to be co-opted, to join the club.

So, any book that helps us to understand better how it happened and what it meant is to be welcomed, and, within the parameters he has set himself, Frank McLynn's does just that. First, though, a caveat. The title is misleading. Less than a fifth of the main text deals with the year itself and its three battles; one of them, Fulford, gets barely two pages and no mention in the index; and the accounts of Stamford Bridge and Hastings add little to what one can read in the several Decisive Battles-type books that are around.

Nevertheless his Hastings is very good and captures most graphically what it must have been like, without going beyond the bounds a historian should respect (novelists may quite legitimately be more inventive, so long as they do not claim to be historians), giving an exciting and finally tragic account that I find as moving as accounts of Waterloo. Cunningly, McLynn leaves an analysis of the arrow-in-the-eye controversy to an appendix, giving us the Carmen de Hastingae Proelio version of four killer knights moving in at the end to finish Harold off. Indeed he makes a very good case indeed for reinstating the Carmen as a major and reliable source.

One failing for me though is his inability to make up his mind about Harold. At one point McLynn's Harold is unreservedly the hero: "frank and open, sunny temperament, easy-going, self-confident, brave and tough ... love of England was his outstanding characteristic". But when it comes to deciding to bring William to an open battle instead of adopting the Fabian tactics urged by his younger brother Gyrth, he is "intoxicated by his success" (at Stamford Bridge), a "victim of human arrogance" and "overweening confidence". This seems doubly unfair when McLynn himself has rehearsed the very sound reasons for Harold's decision: he had to contain William on the Hastings peninsula (as it then was) because once William broke out his supply problems would be over. East or West, and North too once he was through or round the Wealden Forest, he could go where he liked, feeding his army from the stocked barns of a rich harvest. Where he was, the noose was tightening - with Harold's ever-increasing army in front, and the fleet behind. Consequently neither commander could refuse a fight which both of them would probably, on that day, have preferred to postpone. As it was, it was a close-run thing, and everything we have been ever since and are now hung on that last hour of daylight.

So much for one fifth of this really quite splendid book. What is the rest about, the first 180 pages? McLynn takes us through a meticulous and all-inclusive account of the societies and cultures from which the principal characters came, and gives us just about everything that can possibly be known about those characters themselves: the rootless, vacillating, possibly homosexual Edward the Confessor; the paranoid, humourless Conqueror whose attitude to booze is significantly equated with Hitler's obsessive hatred of smoking; poor Tostig - a worthy man blighted by pride rooted in sibling rivalry; and Harald Hardrada, the last of the Vikings. His treatment of Hardrada, and especially the formative years he spent in the Byzantine Varangian Guard, is particularly fresh and fascinating, if not all that germane to the overall book.

Yes, perhaps his accounts of interminably shifting and changing alliances in France and Scandinavia do go on a bit, but these are well balanced by the altogether more interesting and relevant excursions into the socio- economic aspects of the background that lay behind it all. So, pace the title, this is a far more fascinatingly rich and thorough book than one expects, though for me personally the final vision is the one I always have when I think of 1066 - of Harold as the exemplar of an Englishness that still survives in spite of the Bastards: a sort of Alan Shearer of yesteryear.

8 Julian Rathbone has been commissioned to write the screenplay of his bestseller 'The Last English King' (Abacus pounds 6.99). His latest novel is 'Trajectories' (Gollancz pounds 16.99).