At the end of May, My Own True Love and I are traveling to Normandy with a tour led by the National World War II Museum.* The focus of the trip is D-Day. I am sure it will be wonderful, because the museum knows its stuff. But I must admit the part of the trip that I’m most excited about is seeing the Bayeux “tapestry”, which really isn’t a tapestry at all. The 230-foot long embroidered chronicle of William the Conqueror’s invasion of England in 1066, created within a generation of the invasion combines two of my favorite things in one glorious stop: history and needlework.
I was already familiar with the broad story of the invasion, thanks in part to a water-logged visit to Hastings several years ago. Nonetheless, because I am a history bugg** to the bone, I decided to read up. After a bit of poking around on-line for recommendations, I settled on David Howarth’s 1066: The Year of the Conquest. The combined history buggs/buffs/nerds/enthusiasts of the internet did not let me down.
Howarth writes a clear and fast-paced account of the invasion, firmly set in its historical context, without losing sight of the contemporary sources and their prejudices–a historical juggling act of the highest order.*** He tells us what his own prejudices are right up front in a passage that sets the tone for the book: “Personally, I think that if I had been around at the time I would have liked King Harold, heartily disliked King Edward the confessor, felt sorry for Earl Tostig and terrified of Duke William, and found nothing whatever to say to King Harold Hardrada of Norway.” ****
Having got that off his chest, Howarth begins by comparing the worlds of England and Normandy in the years before the invasion, particularly in terms of their recent experience (or lack of experience) of warfare. (I must admit, his description of English society before the conquest called to mind the Shire in Tolkien’s Middle Earth.) Over and over he provided a detail that clarified things I already knew–like the difference between the shaggy little English horses (Middle Earth again) and Norman war steeds, or the importance of papal support to the Norman cause.
The most enlightening part of the book for me was Howarth’s discussion of the difficulties William the Conqueror had to overcome to set his invasion in motion. The Normans may have been descendants of Vikings but they weren’t known for naval warfare. (William himself had probably only been on a ship once before he set out across the Channel.) They had to build a fleet from scratch. Because Normans fought on horseback, they had to plan their ships around the need to transport horses. Which meant they were dependent on sails rather than oars, which were the preferred technology for sea-going vessels in Northern Europe at the time. It is obvious that William the Conqueror’s success was by no means a given. In fact, as described by Howarth, the difficulties were so overwhelming that the whole idea must have sounded loony tunes to his contemporaries.
In short, Howath’s 1066 is an engaging read that left me with a richer understanding of the people and issues of the Norman invasion.
I had planned to move on to one of the books on the museum’s suggested D-Day reading list, several of which sit on My Own True Love’s bookshelves, and various horizontal surfaces in our living room. But I notice that Howarth also wrote a book on D-Day. Tempting. Very tempting.
* Which I apparently never wrote a blog post about after our visit as part of our Great River Road in 2015. The short version: It’s fabulous.
**A recurring typo that I have embraced. Think of it as a history nerd who really burrows in.
***I intend to look closely at how he does what he does in a future newsletter. If this is the kind of thing you’re interested and you don’t yet subscribe, you can do so here: http://eepurl.com/cobpk9
****I wish I’d had the courage to start my dissertation with a similar disclaimer: “I’ve spent the last twenty years surrounded by a group of talented men for whom I had little affection and less respect. Sir Walter Scott was the only one among them with whom I’d have willingly shared a drink.”