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De Re Militari | Book Reviews

M. K. Lawson

The Battle of Hastings, 1066

Stroud: Tempus Publishing, 2002. Pp. 319. £16.99. ISBN: 0-7524-2689-3

Among all the battles fought in the Middle Ages, the one fought between Harold Godwinson and William the Conqueror ranks as one of the most analyzed and debated. Dozens of books and articles have tried to explain why the Norman/French invaders were able to defeat the English troops at Hastings, and it almost seems as if little else can be said about the battle. But M. K. Lawson's latest book (his first dealt with the English king Cnut) offers some fresh ideas on the Norman invasion of England and its main battle, making it required reading for anyone who wishes to study these events.

Almost a third of this book is devoted to analyzing the wide range of sources available to us, trying to find where they agree and disagree with each other. Lawson also presents a lot of information on the geography of the region, which is aided by the many photographs the author took of the area around the battlefield. This section is perhaps the best part of the book, as it shows how historians should try to critically question their sources as well as think of what else could be useful for them to look at.

Lawson uses another third of the book to discuss the Norman and English armies, where he tries to make the case that these forces were much larger than what other historians have concluded. This is a very controversial idea, which many will disagree with, but it is also well argued and worthy of debate. Since, according to Lawson, there were tens of thousands of men involved in the fight, the size of the battlefield also has to be much larger than what has been previously thought.

The battle itself takes up just over forty pages in the book, but is still comprehensive and well written. Lawson also adds an appendix that deals with the death of Harold as it was portrayed in the Bayeux Tapestry, where he argues that a nineteenth-century restoration of the Tapestry added in the scene where the English king is struck by an arrow in his eye. To emphasize this point, an engraving of the Tapestry, made in 1729-1733, is also included in this book.

Overall, this is an excellent work that should find its way onto the bookshelves of any medieval historian interested in warfare or the history of England during the eleventh century. Lawson should also be commended for writing a book that is so thoroughly researched that it will appeal to the academic community, and is written in a style where the more general reader can enjoy it.

Peter Konieczny

Reference Librarian, University of Toronto<deremilitari@hotmail.com>

Page Added: October 2004