A riveting and authoritative history of the single most important event in English history: The Norman Conquest. An upstart French duke who sets out to conquer the most powerful and unified kingdom in Christendom. An invasion force on a scale not seen since the days of the Romans. One of the bloodiest and most decisive battles ever fought. This new history explains why the Norman Conquest was the most significant cultural and military episode in English history. Assessing the original evidence at every turn, Marc Morris goes beyond the familiar outline to explain why England was at once so powerful and yet so vulnerable to William the Conqueror’s attack; why the Normans, in some respects less sophisticated, possessed the military cutting edge; how William’s hopes of a united Anglo-Norman realm unraveled, dashed by English rebellions, Viking invasions, and the insatiable demands of his fellow conquerors. This is a tale of powerful drama, repression, and seismic social change: the Battle of Hastings itself; the sudden introduction of castles and the massive rebuilding of every major church; the total destruction of an ancient ruling class. Language, law, architecture, and even attitudes toward life itself were altered forever by the coming of the Normans.
Historian Marc Morris presents an enjoyable and modern account of the Norman invasion that created the foundation for the English nation. Beginning with the Saxon kings and the constant conflicts besetting England as she fell prey to both Vikings and Normans, Morris lays bare the intrigues and betrayals that marked the Anglo-Saxons' rule. With his silken voice and impeccable timing, narrator Frazer Douglas recounts these events with great familiarity and relish. Morris sets the stage for William the Conqueror's invasion and shows how his hopes for a united Anglo-Norman realm were dashed by rebellions, Viking invasions, and the demands of his fellow conquerors. Listeners will be entertained by this rambunctious look at the most important period of English history.
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Marc Morris' The Norman Conquest: The Battle of Hastings and the Fall of Anglo-Saxon England (2012) is an absorbing book, demonstrating how the "new set of [Norman] attitudes and morals, which impinged on everything from warfare to politics to religion to law, . . . altered what it meant to be English." Morris begins with a concise overview of Anglo-Saxon history in England and of Norman history in Normandy up to the time of the conquest, introducing key cultural factors (including English ships, earls, and political murders, Norman castles, counts, and religious reforms, and chaotic succession conflicts in both lands) and figures (including AEthelred the Ill-Advised, King Canute, Emma, wife to both kings, Earl Godwine, Edward the Confessor, Robert Duke of Normandy, and his son William the Bastard). Morris sets up the context of William's conquest (including fraught matters like whether Edward had really named him his heir and whether Harold had really later confirmed it), then depicts the famous battle (including fraught matters like whether the Normans fled in route or in ruse, pulling the English out of their impregnable shield wall to chase them, and whether Harold was killed by a chance arrow to the eye or hacked apart by a death squad). He then covers the aftermath of the battle, when William struggled to solidify and legitimize his reign in the face of numerous rebellions and invasions, and the aftermath of the conquest, balancing the positive actions and effects of Norman rule (the end of the slave trade and political murder system and the dawn of a new age of architecture, etc.) with the negative ones (the removal of the "middle class," the Harrying of the North, and the consolidation of land in the hands of a small and powerful aristocracy, etc.). Finally, although the Anglo-Saxon tree of England fell, its deep roots never died, and the tree survived by becoming a hybrid with rising Anglo-Norman sap, as exemplified by modern English.
Throughout, Morris is open about the many insoluble questions caused by the limited, compromised, contradictory, and biased sources (one of which is "a horrendous Frankenstein's monster of a text, stitched together from bits and pieces of other chronicles, wrenched from their original texts"). Indeed, his book is nearly as much about the writing as the making of history, for he effectively works into it his historical sources, letting us know where the old quasi-historians were coming from when they wrote their chronicles. He does interesting things with the Bayeux Tapestry, more a long embroidered picture book than a tapestry, positing a likely candidate for its commission, marveling at its miraculous survival through the centuries, demonstrating the ambiguity of its images and words, and using it to supplement information from other sources. In short, he discloses the biases and limitations of each of his sources, sets them up against one another, and explains why one version is more likely than another, or how we may usefully combine two versions to get a composite "truth," and so on, as when he concludes a "debate" with the following sharp comment: "For once, William of Poitiers appears to have given us the unvarnished truth."
The book is never dull. Everywhere Morris conveys his enthusiasm for his material: "Against such nonsense we also have the magnificent testimony of the Bayeux Tapestry, almost certainly commissioned by Odo himself, which shows the bellicose bishop charging into battle on a black horse, rallying the Normans at the crucial moment. Whatever reservations others may have had about his behaviour, Odo clearly had no problems with the dual nature of his role."
Morris' chapters on the post-battle era of painful adjustment, as Normans steadily replaced Anglo-Saxons in nearly all positions of power, tried to reshape English culture in their own Norman image, replaced English with Latin as the language for official documents, and officially recognized their radical redistribution of land via the Domesday Book, are fascinating. And throughout Morris sprinkles "juicy bits," information that illuminates and stimulates, like the nickname William gave his eldest son Robert (with whom he literally came to blows in internecine battles for Normandy), translated into English as "Shorty-Pants." And like William's funeral, when his body was so fat and bloated that as it was being jammed into his stone sarcophagus, his bowels burst, and "No amount of frankincense and spices could hide the resultant stench, and the clergy therefore raced through the rest of the funeral rite before rushing back to their houses." Ah, indeed, as William's biographer Orderic Vitalis put it, "death deals with rich and poor alike."
About the reader, Frazer Douglas, I do sympathize with the reviewer who gave him two stars and said, "He has a pleasing enough voice but he reads the entire book in the same monotone sing-song." Douglas does tend to insert his own brief pauses so as to emphasize certain words, nearly making a rhythm that's not always in Morris' text: "Our [brief pause] first instinct might be to [brief pause] believe [brief pause] Poitiers." But once you get used to his manner, he's quite pleasing to listen to, and I really like his reading of quotations from Morris' old sources, because he enjoys imbuing the old historians with a dusty and biased enthusiasm, as when he reads this line from The Life of King Edward: "He lived in the squalor of the world like an angel."
Finally, Morris' material is of such great interest and is so tightly and spicily written that I bet that most people interested in the history of England and France would enjoy his book.