1066: The Year of the Conquest
David Howarth`s 1066: The Year of the Conquest is intended for the general reader, but is also of interest to scholars who are already familiar with the events. He makes the characters into three dimensional beings who can think and feel and are not simply vague names associated with events. This has the effect of creating interest in the general reader and creates a better understanding of the emotions and logic behind events for the scholar. Different versions of stories and legends are told so that the truth can be better seen while the reader is challenged to decide for himself. The author sifts through propaganda of the time for a clearer view of events and as a result he appears to make correct judgments. Although he seems to be a good judge of men, some of his political and military conjecture is twisted.
The discussion of the political causes of the conquest is detailed, informative, and takes into account emotions, the thoughts of the participants, and polital realities. The author is fair and is not easily fooled by propaganda. For example, Edward the Confessor was at one time glorified as a saint, but Howarth shows him as he actually was, but fairly despite declaring his dislike for him in the introduction. Harold has been accused of being power hungry because of his quick coronation, but Howarth shows that if he was not coronated the same day as Edward`s burial, it would have been three months until the next possible coronation day. Despite his for the most part realistic view of the political situation, Howarth is gullible to believe that Harold and William became friends. Anyone held at the mercy of another becomes his friend for self preservation. Likewise anyone who holds someone who could give them control of another nation has every reason to appear friendly.
Howarth criticizes Harold`s decisions in the Hastings campaign and states that there was a leadership gap after Stamford Bridge. These accusations are leveled simply because Harold lost and it assumes Harold must have made some major error in judgment which resulted in his defeat. Some authors charge that he should have waited for reinforcements to double or triple the size of his army. However, Howarth wisely realizes that the ridge was already packed with troops and supply had become difficult. Anymore troops would do more harm than good and would be almost impossible to effectively command. However, Howarth is incorrect in his conclusion that Harold had to win a decisive battle and not simply hold the ridge. It was not necessary to destroy the Normans. Supplies from Normandy could not be counted on to arrive regularly because of bad winds or loss of control of the Channel. Supplies in the area were becoming dangerously low so William would have to move forward or starve. Conveniently, Harold had the main road to London blocked, forcing William to assault his strong position, withdraw, or starve.
Howarth implies that the charge that Harold was too hasty in confronting the enemy are correct. However, with the Hastings area being ravaged, confronting William was not a purely emotional decision. Harold owed protection to his subjects and would have lost credibility as a leader had he delayed confronted the oppressors. If he had waited for troops he did not need and could not command or supply effectively, his subjects in the Hastings area would have been further needlessly pillaged. Meanwhile, Harold`s troops had been mobilized the whole summer beyond their obligations and were already deserting with the justification their services were not critical for national survival. Further waiting could have resulted in the melting away of the English force.
According to Howarth, Harold should have taken the offensive at Hastings, but this was unnecessary due to the critical situation of the Normans. In addition, an English assault could lead to quick and easy disaster. The Normans were professional well equipped and well trained soldiers with extensive combat experience. The English might have been able to destroy the Viking force, but Normans were a far cry from the Vikings. The English troops were not controlled and disciplined enough to conduct an attack and the command system could not have been capable of coordinating a massive assault. The limited English counterattacks show what a full scale attack would have been, disaster on a massive scale. Defense is the easier form of war to conduct and was all the English could do effectively and was all they needed to do. It cannot be fairly stated that Harold led his troops poorly.
The aftermath of the war is not properly dealt with. The reinvasion in 1068 is not dealt with, but the effects on the population and the replacement of the native aristocracy is discussed. The effects on law and language are not treated, although it appears language was significantly altered. It is quite obvious that at some time in the distant future the link to Normandy was lost, but the reader is given no clue as to how and why this happened. It is true that a lengthy discussion of the results of the war would be a letdown after the climax at Hastings, but the events are only important because of their results.
The book is entertaining and informative to the general reader and the scholar. Howarth makes judgments, but also allows the reader to decide things for himself. Not all of the judgments are realistic, but even this encourages the reader to think for himself. Although the book needs a better conclusion, it is still well worth reading, but some healthy skepticism is advised.
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