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De Re Militari | Book Reviews

Peter Rex

1066: a New History of the Norman Conquest

Stroud, Gloucestershire: Amberley Books, 2009. Pp. 336 (286 text). US$ 29.95. ISBN-13: 978-1848681064.

Long has the Norman conquest of England in 1066 been a subject of interest to both academic and popular audiences; it is, as everyone knows, one of only two dates in English history worth knowing. [1] Such massive attention ensures unevenness to the study of anything remotely related to the Norman conquest of England.  In an attempt to remedy this problem, Peter Rex’s new book intends to properly sort out the history of that fateful year on behalf of “modern historians who are unable to free themselves” from the “insidious influence” of the standard narrative (8).  His effort reinforces this reviewer’s belief that not all studies of 1066 are created equal.

1066: a New History covers roughly ten years, from the planning of William the Conqueror’s campaign in 1066 to the end of 1076.  In fourteen narrative chapters Rex lays out his argument, which can be boiled down to a single point: Duke William’s claim to, and subsequent conquest of, England was justified by a Norman propaganda effort that concealed its deceitful and heinous nature.  That propaganda still operates today, leading historians astray and obscuring William’s ruthless nature as well as the true magnitude and quality of English opposition to the Norman settlement.  This line of argument draws from Rex’s previous book The English Resistance: the Underground War against the Normans (2004), which, in a blurb on the back cover of the book reviewed here, is praised for portraying “William as he really was…a bloody, ruthless war criminal.”  And those seeking further discussion need look no further than Rex’s next book, for the rear flap of 1066: a New History announces that he “is writing a new biography of William the Conqueror, also for Amberley.”

The overall tone of the book is determinist: this reviewer gets a strong impression that Rex has already made up his mind about the true history of 1066 and is on a quest to demonstrate the validity of his theory.  Immediately noticeable is the book’s persistent and multi-faceted attack upon any and all Norman “propaganda”. (i.e., the principal Norman sources for the events of 1066).  Rex eviscerates William of Poitiers and William of Jumièges, calling them “romance, not history” (26).  On the other hand, he is somewhat complimentary towards the later Orderic Vitalis, whose critical remarks about William are accepted wholeheartedly.  He has nothing to say, in a historiographical sense, about the Carmen de Hastingae Proelio (which has not been firmly established as “Norman”); the English accounts of 1066 in manuscripts C and D of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle are largely spared Rex’s critical eye and any of their various textual problems are easily explained away (242-243).  There is a noticeable thread of English nationalism throughout the entire book.  To give just two examples, the English apparently excelled in craftsmanship and embroidery (“unlike the Normans”, 224) and Queen Emma “of course, had not a drop of English blood in her veins” (100).  At times, Rex takes to calling William I simply “the Bastard” (e.g., 169), and in the epilogue he attempts to place blame for at least 500,000 deaths and perhaps many more on the king’s shoulders (221). 

The book’s determinist stance would be more palatable were it complemented by ample citation to such scholarly publications.  In 1996, Boydell & Brewer published The Battle of Hastings: Sources and Interpretations, a collection edited by Stephen Morillo, a noted historian of Anglo-Norman military history.  Along with the pertinent documents, Morillo assembled critical studies that “represent a fair sampling of the perspectives and approaches that historians have taken”—important moments in “Hastings Historiography,” if you will. [2] Remarkably, Rex cites neither Morillo’s collection nor any of its articles (Carroll Gillmor’s 1984 piece on naval logistics appears in the bibliography but not the footnotes).  A trite point, perhaps—after all, one cannot cite everything—and were Rex’s book marketed only as a popular history the point would be irrelevant.  However, 1006: a New History, professes to be a revision: criticisms regarding the author’s research or lack thereof are therefore valid and necessary.  On this point the book’s credibility suffers.  Aside from a few volumes of Anglo-Norman Studies, there exist scant references to academic or peer-reviewed studies.  When Rex does refer to “historians,” particularly those who have “allowed themselves to accept and be misled,” (242) footnotes rarely accompany his remarks.  The only scholar taken to task is R. Allen Brown, who is simply called “strongly pro-Norman” (277).  Rex assembles a goodly list of books on Hastings and the Normans in his bibliography, but there are several glaring omissions, including standard works on the history of Anglo-Norman warfare by Morillo, John Beeler, Michael Prestwich, and John Gillingham. [3]

The lack of specific citation to scholarly histories bedevils Rex’s book at every turn.  Given his stated purpose, it is incumbent upon him not only to offer his own position (which he does, amply) but also to confront the research of others.  In this the book fails utterly.  For example, Rex casts doubt on the question of the famous “feigned retreat” of Duke William’s cavalry at Hastings (74). Although he seems to acknowledge the considerable literature on this subject he promptly ignores it (noticeably absent is Bernard Bachrach’s 1971 article, “The Feigned Retreat at Hastings,”—surely relevant if anything is—which is reprinted, incidentally, in the Morillo collection).  Rex also claims that a “consensus” holds that the Bayeux Tapestry was made at Canterbury (256).  While this may have been true in past decades, more recent studies have argued strenuously for the Tapestry’s Norman or even Angevin origins.  Similar disconnects between authorial argument and counter-theories exist at many other turns: Rex accepts historical claims that support his positions but does not engage with countervailing theories.  At other moments Rex fails to cite evidence for his own arguments.  He easily dismisses commentary from the respective Williams of Poitiers and Jumièges and casts his lot instead with “much more reliable sources,” none of whom are named (84-85).  Quotations are given without attribution, and the aforementioned Norman writers receive the unkindest cut of all—association with the Nazis.  Rex quotes a writer who once called the respective Williams, “Doctor Goebbels with two heads” (244).  Although the line’s sinister allusion matches well with the overall tone of the book, no citation whatever is provided. 

The irony of it all is that Rex’s arguments are not new.  That William the Conqueror was ruthless and used violence and intimidation to achieve his ends is well-known.  In his piece in the new Dictionary of National Biography, David Bates offers simply that William’s “faults most often remarked on were greed and cruelty” [4]. Even David Douglas, who, by illuminating the particular Norman character of William’s settlement in his path-breaking 1964 biography is perhaps the bogeyman to nationalist English historians, admitted the severity of the king’s flaws and deplored many of his violent moments.  Commenting on the so-called Harrying of the North, Douglas wrote: “it is hard to find any excuse for it even by reference to the crisis which then threatened the Anglo-Norman kingdom.” [5] Rex’s suggestion that historians have ignored the weaknesses of the Norman sources of the Conquest is similarly false. Morillo offers an abbreviated list of concerns surrounding both the Norman and non-Norman documents; these and other problems are examined in great detail in Antonia Gransden’s monumental 1974 Historical Writing in England. [6] And so on.

In the final analysis, 1066: a New History of the Norman Conquest does not prove that a false interpretation of pro-Norman history exists, much less that uncritical historians have been duped into accepting it.  It is neither a scholarly book nor a new history of the events surrounding William I’s accession to the English throne.  What audience does it therefore serve?  If taken as a popular history, the book is interesting, thought-provoking, and an engaging narrative of a critical time in England’s past.  Rex has amassed an array of sources to buttress his argument, and there are useful appendices and illustrations to enliven the narrative.  Certainly it will please those interested in a pro-English, nativist, “corrective” of history.  However, in its present form it is not an important contribution to the conversation on Anglo-Norman historiography.  Those authors intent on revisionism must name names, openly engage with the principal (and peer-reviewed) opposing positions, and be willing to let the evidence lead them to conclusions—not the other way around.

Notes

1. W. C. Sellar and R. J. Yeatman, 1066 and All That: a Memorable History of England (London, 1930).

2. The Battle of Hastings: Sources and Interpretations, ed. S. Morillo (Woodbridge, 1996), pp. xii.

3. S. Morillo, Warfare under the Anglo-Norman Kings, 1066-1135 (Woodbridge, 1994); J. Beeler, Warfare in England, 1066-1189 (Ithaca, 1966); M. Prestwich, Armies and Warfare in the Middle Ages: the English Experience (New Haven, 1996); J. Gillingham, “William the Bastard at War,” in Studies in Medieval History presented to R. Allen Brown, eds. C. Harper-Bill, C. Holdsworth, and J. Nelson (Woodbridge, 1989), pp. 141-58.

4. D. Bates, “William I (1027/8–1087),” Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, 2004 [http://www.oxforddnb.com/view/article/29448, accessed 10 Dec 2010]. 

5. D. C. Douglas, William the Conqueror (Berkeley, 1964), pp/ 372-73.

6. Sources and Interpretations, pp. 3, 17, 21, 33, 45; A. Gransden, Historical Writing in England, c. 550 to c. 1307 (London, 1974), pp. 92-104.

John D. Hosler

Morgan State University, Baltimore <John.Hosler@morgan.edu>

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