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1066 AND ALL THAT

December 23, 2013

1066 bookTHE significance of 1066 could not possibly be lost on we English, but a question has been raised – Were we robbed? In a fascinating book; ‘The Last Conquest 1066’, a first novel by historian Berwick Coates, the author uses his own extensive and intimate knowledge of the era to paint a picture of how our forefathers lived and defended their land. History has come alive of late with an explosion of books and television features, with interest being given a popular kick by the Time Team programme. Though the sham urgency of a three day time limit on excavations, is only justified by the presenter Baldrick aka Tony Robinson, leaping from one pile of bones to half buried wall in a pseudo frenzy. However, the programme has done a lot to create interest in the subject and along with other teams of archaeologists  digging up the odd English King in a car park or two, it has gained momentum. At first the book seemed a ‘tome’, but attracted attention with a cover of a shining Norman battle helmet set against a darkening rich red sunset of two opposing armies in silhouette.

King Harold 1066It is his first novel, but he has plenty of luggage. He read History at Cambridge; been a British Army officer, became a History teacher and has a raft of non fiction books to he credit.

Turning the last page after reading the previous 546, there was a satisfying glow of at least some understanding of the battle and resolution. Obviously  within the confines of the author’s knowledge, but his treatment of both combatants seemed logical and elegantly sympathetic (King Harold pictured left). He focuses on individuals on both sides explaining in the notes that it was not possible to be sure of names or if they existed, but he had gained sufficient insight and knowledge of how people lived and under what constrictions, to make an educated stab at adding their contribution to history. For a mix of imagination and fact, it is a remarkably good read. Having landed in Hastings, the Normans were busily building defence positions for the expected attack that did not immediately materialise. Harold and his army were near York, scoring a great victory by repelling the Viking chieftain, Hardrada at the battle of Stamford Bridge. As is often the case in it never rains etc, learning of the landing at Hastings, Harold turned his army round marching them back from Yorkshire in record time to meet the new invader.

WilliamThe story opens with a group of Norman scouts searching for Harold. A chance injury of a lone Norman falling off his horse begins the story when he is helped by a family of Anglo Saxon peasants. The description of this little event was very well woven with understandable characterisations of both Anglo Saxons and Normans. Though not yet an active enemy, the villagers tend the injured soldier in the manner of two cultures meeting for the first time where curiosity and language gap take communication back to the grunting and pointing mode. There is a lot of scene setting and similar characterisation in the first few chapters, and individuals come alive in the pages, from peasants to Dukes, Bishops and aristocracy. Switching between camps and individuals, there is a lot of ground covered of the anguish and uncertainty both armies felt, and two very nice cameos of William (pictured right ) and Harold. Both are treated equally for their humanity and courage in leadership on the field of battle. The author obviously believed there was degree of respect between the two men and the good equality of leadership in both. It is quite plausible as well, as Harold and William did apparently fight side by side when as an English Duke, Harold helped William in a few battles in France. Interestingly the reason why William came charging over to gain the English crown was briefly mentioned. Historians tell us it was because William was promised the crown by Edward the Confessor when he died, which he did in  1066. The English were allegedly unaware of the deal, and took the dying Edward pointing to Harold on his deathbed, as a rite of succession.

The battle was recorded in a 70 metre long tapestry celebrating the conquest of England by William, and thought to have been initiated by his wife Matilda.

Taperstry 1 The painstakingly embroidered tapestry was apparently created in a Monastery in southern England in the 11th century, and now resides in a museum in the town of Bayeux is north west of Caen.

With the angry invader building his castle on the Sussex coast, the book follows Harold as he marches towards Hastings or the area that now holds the town of Battle depending which episode of Time Team you watched. Another great plus in our understanding is shown by the author as the description flows with his intimate knowledge of the order of battle, tactics  disposition of troops by both commanders. It seems as if Harold chose his ground well, plumbing for a steep incline,  a marshy steep hill, in the book named Caldbec Hill and the Normans as Senlac, though some doubt now favours a location outside the present town and in the middle of a roundabout. The Norman Knights’ with their even heavier destrier horses, needed the flat plain for the charging horse flesh and chain mailed clad aristocrats to make a fine mess of the English shield wall, prickling with spears, bows and pitch forks.

Tapestry 2The battle is described in a bite sized chunks of the listed characters and with great skill, the mind graphics created give involuntary shudders at the slaughter with both sides disassembling the opposing soldiers with axes and swords We all know the ending but the author sees it as a very close run battle. Harold was almost inches away from victory when the hand of fate tilted the balance with the last throw of the dice, or in this case, an arrow, which fell in favour of William. I would like to believe that is how it was and certainly the knowledgeable reviews suggest that with Berwick Coates undoubted historical knowledge and elegant understanding of life at the time, the book is as close as you will get. We English disdain failure but extol the virtues of a noble and heroic defeat. This book gives just that. The Last Conquest 1066 by Berwick Coates, isbn 978-1-471111-196-9 is published by Simon & Schuster UK for £7.00

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