Hail Legionaries! Check out the intro blog from the Centurion and then dive into eleventh century England in episode 2!
Before you listen…
Eleventh century England wasn’t a very fun place to be, even for the powerful folks, to say nothing of the commoners. To the north, the hybrid-culture regions of Northumbria and Strathclyde were the source of constant border warfare and raids with the hostile Kingdom of Scotland and sometimes independent lords. To the West, the culturally distinct Welsh were independent and the source of many disagreements over boundaries that led to attempts at military conquest. The ‘Anglo-Saxons’ themselves, founders of England as we know it, competed with each other from the bases of formerly autonomous regions. On the continent in Northern France, Norman lords sought to expand their interests in the vulnerable British Isles, already acquiring a reputation (like their Viking forebears) for being some of history’s most notorious gate-crashers. Last and perhaps most menacing, the shores and the inlets were always in danger from Viking raids of all sizes and occasionally Viking colonization or conquest attempts. The region now known as Kent had been so successfully colonized by Vikings that it had become known as the “Danelaw.” To make matters more confusing, the Vikings competed with each other as well, and often allowed themselves to be bought off by lords from all other sides, or hired as mercenaries to fight other lords or other Vikings.
Got all that straight?
With the political situation in England changing completely by the decade for the course of 250 years, by the 1060s it hardly seemed like the place where an event of lasting importance for world history would occur. England had been subjugated by Vikings (again) and re-asserted itself (again) over the previous 50 years. As the Saxon King Edward the Confessor descended into his final illness without a clear successor, it looked like more of the same turmoil would continue forever: the erstwhile King of Norway claimed he had an agreement with a former Viking ruler’s son that the Kingdom would be his. William, Duke of Normandy (known unflatteringly at the time as “the Bastard” to highlight his illegitimate birth and dubious claim on his own duchy) was waving around a supposed promise made to him that he would inherit the kingdom. The Anglo-Saxon lords had their own ideas, of course, particularly the family of Godwin, who had spent years maneuvering himself closer and closer to the throne.
This time, however, would be different. The world wasn’t entirely aware of it at the time, but the Vikings were on their last legs as a terrifying power in Europe. The Saxons, disunited and quarrelsome as always, were more vulnerable than usual. The Normans, minor players, had just used their connections with the Church to grant themselves an aura of legitimacy that would bring swarms of opportunistic (and plunder-hungry) foreigners to their ranks.
The cultural melting pot was about to come together and the unwitting aggressiveness of one of its main players: Harold, son of Godwin, would provide the impetus for its final solidification, one that would tie it to the Continent in a new and ominously important way for centuries to come.
For Further Awesome Reading…
I like to start with surveys, especially when I think of Britain and England in particular. Early Middle Ages England was a war-ravaged cultural melting pot of different values and language groups, and a good starting point for general history is
Anglo Saxon England (Oxford History of England Book 2) by Frank M. Stenton
For the circumstances around the Battle of Hastings, there’s the popular ‘William and Norman-centered’ way to go about it, best represented in recent books by
The Norman Conquest: The battle of Hastings and the fall of Anglo-Saxon England by Marc Morris
For a really good look at the ‘Harold and Anglo-Saxon-centered’ side, I recommend
Harold, the Last Anglo-Saxon King by Ian W. Walker
Combining these two histories really gives you a sense of how England in 1066 was anyone’s game. In part because of that, and just because I can’t help myself, I have to also recommend
The Oxford Illustrated History of the Vikings
This was a real eye opener for me about who the Vikings really were, what their life was like, and what an important impact they had on Northern Europe before Harald Hardrada brought what is widely thought of as the closing chapter to their influence.
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