The Trauma of 1066

The Norman conquest of Anglo-Saxon England


Elisabeth Van Houts.

Printed by permission of: History Today, Oct 1996 v46 n10 p9(7)


Abstract: The horror and suffering rained down on the English in the years immediately after 1066 should have been well documented. But there is a great lack of contemporary literature on the subject. This may indicate the traumatised state of the people. Writings from the time are discussed.


Full Text: COPYRIGHT 1996 History Today Ltd. (UK) Modern studies of the Norman Conquest of England in 1066 emphasise the survival of Anglo Saxon customs and the continuity of pre-Conquest institutions well into the twelfth century. There is little or no attention paid to the catastrophic impact the Conquest had on the English population, or for the absorption of its effect on the Normans and their European neighbours.


The lack of early English chronicles is no doubt responsible for the modern failure to engage in a discussion on the traumatic experience of expeditions of 1066 to 1071 for both the victors and the victims. Yet, precisely this lack of contemporary narratives and the emergence second and third generation stories about 1066 can explain the impact of the war. The historiographic tradition of the First and Second World Wars this century shows similar patterns of silence followed by an explosion of literature.


For the post-conquest period the neglect of the study of trauma is the more surprising if we take into account the rising number of articles and monographs based on documentary sources and, of course, Domesday Book, detailing the harrowing aftermath of the conquest. Apart from the loss of lives among the Anglo-Saxon aristocracy - estimated at between half to three quarters of the men - many of their widows and daughters fled to nunneries in order to avoid being forced into marriage with William's soldiers. Ordinary people, too, felt the effects as many lost their houses due to the demolition of whole wards in towns like Winchester, Wallingford, Exeter and Cambridge. In Norwich the Domesday commissioners justified non-payment of customs by the bordars on the grounds of poverty caused by just this reason. In the North the Conqueror's punitive expeditions of 1069-70 led to extensive waste and

famine, which in turn caused instances of cannibalism as noted, not only by the chronicler Simeon of Durham, but also by the recluse, Marianus Scotus, as far away as Mainz in Germany.


The high prize paid by the indigenous population, both lay and ecclesiastic, who hold on to their land left traces, not only in the short-term memory, but also in the longer term. I wonder whether the insensitivity of modern, mostly English, historians in this respect has something to do with the collective modern inexperience of warfare on English soil? Not having been subject to foreign occupation has de-sensitised the English as to what it means to be governed by people who do not speak your language, settle on your land, force you to pay for land you thought you owned and do all this after having inflicted a humiliating defeat on your people.

As a second generation historian from the Netherlands, which was once occupied by the Germans, I am all too aware of the shock and disbelief experienced by those who were driven from their homes, were addressed in a foreign language, were starved of food, had relatives killed and had to come to terms with this trauma while life continued. Modern experiences can open our eyes to similar events in a distant past as long as we remain aware of the `other-ness' of that past. One way of exploring the subject is by looking at the collective memories of Normans, English and to a lesser extent Continentals, in order to establish what form trauma took and how it was expressed.


The literature generated by contemporaries, i.e. the first generation of the Norman Conquest, is not surprisingly dominated by the Norman view. William of Jumieges added an account of the Norman Conquest to his history of the dukes of Normandy but firmly declined the possibility of writing about England after 1070; instead he promised a future sequel about William the Conqueror's son, Robert Curthose. William of Poitiers wrote a biography of the victorious duke which contains an account of the Conquest, concentrating on the invasion, battle and subsequent campaigns in England. He highlights the careers of the Conqueror's eleven main advisers, but is silent on the 3,000 to 5,000 participants of the Conquest. His account of the raids in Northern England show a particular degree of detail not easily matched elsewhere. Although his story has survived incomplete we can reconstruct its last chapters through Oderic Vitalis' Ecclesiastical History which preserved the missing end but supplemented it with his own comments. Some aspects of this mixture normally attributed to Orderic might in fact have come from William of Poitiers.

One of the central characters of the immediate post-Conquest period was Earl Morcar. He had been captured in 1071 during the siege of Ely and brought to Normandy where he was entrusted to the care of Roger of Beaumont. Morcar even witnessed one of Roger's charters in 1086 when he obviously was still alive. William of Poitiers had close connections with the Beaumont family and it is not at all improbable that he consulted Earl Morcar in particular for the events leading up to the siege of Ely. A personal discussion between the English Morcar and the Norman William might have generated a certain understanding for the English victims and might have led to William's surprisingly well-informed account and the mild and emphatical nature of its narrative.


Thus we cannot exclude an exchange of oral tradition between Normans and Englishmen for the specific purpose of historical writing in the immediate post-Conquest period. Bishop Gun of Amiens, who in 1069 acted as Countess Matilda's chaplain, wrote a celebratory poem on the Conquest in 1067 which is our most detailed, but not necessarily most trustworthy, account of the battle. Like William of Poitiers, he mentions the Conqueror's closest friends and some of his own relatives and he gives intriguing information about the English negotiators in London in 1066. The passionately negative terms in which he denounces Harold and the English have recently been characterised by the Latinist, Giovanni Orlandi, as typical for an immediate victorious response to a battle. in contrast, the Continental chronicles and annals, expressing horror and moral indignation about the bloodbath come, I believe, closest to representing English despair, fear and fury. An anonymous monk at Nieder, Alteich ,on the Danube, quoted eye-witness reports on the victims of the battle of Hastings as early as 1075, while ten years later Frutolf of Michelsberg in Bamberg condemned William the Conqueror for having sent almost all the bishops of the kingdom into exile and the nobles to their death he forced the middle-rank soldiers into servitude and the wives of the Anglo-Saxons into marriage to the newcomers'. Even William's ally, Pope Gregory VII reminded him in a letter of 1080 of the great moral anguish both had faced in 1066: `...with what zeal I laboured to advance you to your royal state. So much so that I had to bear from certain of my brethren the almost infamous charge of having lent my aid in bringing about so great a sacrifice of human life'.

On the English side the earliest source hinting at the Norman Conquest is the Life of King Edward, written at the request of his will, Queen Edith, in the years 1065-67. That there is no more than a hint is the result of stunned shock, for the queen lost three of her brothers in the battle of Hastings and then had to watch her mother, Gytha, sisters and niece flee to Flanders to escape the wrath of the Normans.


The entries in the various versions of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle are brief and condemn the invasion. Some are written as contemporary comment, others are later revisions dating from the time England was firmly under Norman control. The most evocative expression of grief comes from a poem written by the skald, Thorkill, for his master Earl Waltheof after he had been executed for treason in 1076. It is written in Old Norse, of which two lines may be quoted in an Old English version of William of Malmesbury. Intriguingly the poem's theme of Waltheof's betrayal by William the Conqueror neatly reverses the official Norman charge of treason against the earl:


William crossed the cold channel and

reddened the bright swords and now

he has betrayed noble Earl Waltheof It

is true that killing in England will be a

long time ending


Thorkill might well be hinting that it had been Waltheof's wife Judith, William's niece, who had betrayed her husband. In short the English reaction to the Conquest was one of stunned silence.

Whereas the first generation histiography is dominated by Norman accounts, the second generation was dominated by the English view. The first substantial accounts of the low experience on the English side dating from the late 1090s come from Eadmer of Canterbury in his 'Life of Anselm' and his 'History of the recent events of the English'. John of Worcester who interpolated and updated the Anglo Saxon Chronicle in Latin and William of Malmesbury in his chronicles on the kings and bishops of England, partly written at the request of Queen Matilda II, herself of Anglo-Saxon stock. These historians sought to link the present afterglow with their Anglo-Saxon past by justifying their defeat by the Normans as God's revenge on their sins, a theological rationalisation of collective shame. There are few or no accounts of the battle, nor any substantial information on individuals taking part. What little there is concentrates on King Harold and his brothers who were all three killed at Hastings and on several local rebels from the English resistance, like Eadric the Wild, Earl Waltheof and Hereward the Wake. On the whole we get a collective view from above.


The only exception to this general rule is the 'History of Hereward the Wake', a story which has been thoroughly neglected by modern historians. It was written between 1109 and 1121 by a monk of Ely on the basis of a now lost Old English biography by Leofric and the reminiscences of several of Hereward's companions, two of whom are named as Siward of Bury St Edmunds and Leofric the Black. Hereward's adventures cover two distinct phases. During the first from c. 1063-67 he fought as an exiled mercenary for a variety of masters in Cornwall, Ireland and Flanders - adventures generally interpreted as fiction. In fact, though, this section fits in well with what we know of these areas in the 1060s. The second half of the story is concerned with the siege of Ely and can be substantially corroborated with the bits and pieces in other English sources. Clearly, the text as we have it now is based on eyewitness reports put together by Richard of Ely as best he could. The clumsiness however reveals the at times conflicting, but enormously detailed, reports which Richard has not tried to reconcile. Any accomplished forger would not have produced an account which is so full of `contradictions'.

I see the 'Gesta Herewardi' very much as an attempt to cope with the trauma of defeat, not by theological rationalisation, but by romanticising heroic behaviour and honourable surrender through the medium of epic narrative. There is another aspect of Hereward's story that deserves attention. The 'Gesta Herewardi' is the only narrative source from the first two generations, either in Normandy or England, which lists in detail the exploits of individual men belonging to the thegnly class or lower strata of the Fens. Through these eyewitness accounts we have, as it were, the view from below.


On the second generation Norman side we find Orderic Vitalis interpolating William of Jumieges, 'Gesta Normannorum Ducum' (GND) with details on King Harold's brothers Tostig and Gyrth, the battle and in general a toning down of some of Williams more explicit pro-Norman sentiments. In fact Orderic fitted the account of low more firmly in a Norman context but also expressed empathy with the English losses. For his account of the Norman Conquest he used William of Poitiers' biography and some passages from his own interpolated GND version. He also inserted his famous condemnation of William the Conqueror's harrowing expeditions in the North:

In consequence so serious a scarcity

was felt in England and so terrible a

famine fell upon the humble and

defenceless populace that more than

100,000 Christian folk of both sexes,

young and old alike, perished of

hunger. My narrative has frequently had

occasion to praise William, but for this

act which condemned the innocent and

guilty alike to die by slow starvation I

cannot commend him. ...l am so moved

to pity that I would rather lament the

griefs and sufferings of the wretched

people than make a vain attempt to flatter

the perpetrator of such infamy.


During the third generation, from c. 1125-50, on the English side two new authors emerge: the archdeacon, Henry of Huntingdon, followed in the footsteps of John of Worcester by taking the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle as his point of departure and extending that into the 1150s, rewriting and revising his text continuously. His obsession with worldly vanity and God's plan of the world pervades his account of the Conquest. His views on the vital role of William fitz Osbern as the logistical brain behind the invasion pre-dates the opinion of Canon Wace. Like Henry, Gaimer too took the Anglo Saxon Chronicles as the centre of his work. But unlike Henry, he wrote it in verse and in the language of the victors.


In Normandy, Orderic did not alter his account of 1066 later on in his life while he was writing the contemporary sections of his Historia Ecclesiastica. His younger contemporary Robert of Torigni followed in his footsteps by interpolating the GND, though not the section on the Conquest of England. In an extra chapter on the death of William the Conqueror be simply said that those who wish to know more about him should read either William of Poitiers' chronicle or Bishop Guy's Carmen de 'Hastingae proelio'. Perhaps Robert's suggestion that he add the Life of Saint-Margaret and Queen Matilda II to the GND reflects his close contacts at Bec with the Empress Matilda. Did she suggest a branch of the GND be dedicated to the female Old English line as a 'gesta reginarum Anglorum' fusing the English and Norman branches of the ruling dynasty?


Apart from the Norman and English material there rises an Angevin-Loire angle to the Norman historiography. The Gesta consulum ambaziensium written in Anjou tells the story of Geoffrey of Chaumont, a participant of the Norman Conquest, who subsequently became William the Conqueror's main adviser in France and negotiated the marriage of William's daughter Adele with Stephen of Blois. His story, therefore, is a substantial contribution to our knowledge of 1066 - kept alive for seventy years before committed to paper in the late 1130s.

During the next few decades from 1150 to c. 1175, the period of the fourth generation, we witness an explosion of new information on IOU, both in England and in Normandy. In England the Waltham chronicler and Walter Map provide fascinating details on King Harold and some of the 1066 rebels, while the Fenland monasteries add more details to Hereward's story. Battle Abbey, the Conqueror's own foundation record its history, as did many other English monasteries by starting the so-called Cartulary Chronicles.


In Normandy Wace embarked on his monumental Roman de Rou which, with its modern counterpart by Edward Freeman, is the longest and most detailed story of the Norman Conquest. This sudden upsurge in the recording of memories provides the clue to the trauma experience. At Waltham Abbey in. about 1166 an elderly monk wrote down the oral tradition passed on to him by the sacristan Turketil when he was a ten-year old boy in the 1120s on the burial of King Harold. Harold had not been buried on a hilltop in Sussex, as the Norman authors record, but in a proper tomb in Waltham to which he had been transported.

Walter Map, in his collection of historical gossip, has intriguing details on Eadric the Wild in Herefordshire and other titbits of history which go back to the time of the Conqueror. At Ely the monk, Richard, compiled The Book of Ely which is based on John of Worcester's chronicle, the History of Hereward and, surprisingly, William of Poitiers' biography of the Conqueror. Instead of using William's biography for the relevant chronological periods roundabout IOU, the author used the Gesta Guillelmi for stylistical reasons only. It looks as if he felt partisan enough with the English not to use a pro-Norman account for his 1066 story. Yet, he was sufficiently impressed by William of Poitiers' Latin to borrow his language verbatim. Only those readers who knew William's text would have recognised his borrowings and his rejection of the contents as a subtle, though quite devastatingly literary, rebellion against the Norman occupation.

The Battle Abbey material throws light on that community's collective memory of William the Conqueror in about 1100. The anonymous monk tells that the Conqueror had left the amulets he wore at the battle of Hastings in Battle, where they were hung on a relic shrine. When the monks of Saint-Germer at Fly in the Beauvaisis approached William Rufus for money to buy a new chasuble for their church, Rufus told them that Abbot Henry of Battle would pay them. Henry protested to the king, but in vain, and was then forced to cash in the Conqueror's amulets. With the money thus acquired the monks of Fly purchased cloth with which the chasuble was made. About a year later lightening destroyed it and this was interpreted both at Fly and Battle as God's punishment for the misuse of Battle's endowment.


In due course Abbot Odo of Fly and his monk Richard came to Battle to perform a public apology. What is striking is the attempt to rationalise the loss of the Conqueror's physical remains of his triumphant victory in 1066, in a transaction forced upon them by the Conqueror's son Rufus. In 1124 Abbot Ralph of Caen had died at the venerable aged of eighty-four and so one of the last IOU contemporaries had passed away. His death and the visit of the monks of Fly coincided with the first evidence we have of Battle beginning to preserve Hastings memorabilia, such as the ship list of William the Conqueror.


Finally, the English fourth generation were successful in establishing Edward the Confessor as a saint. This was yet another attempt to rationalise his death and the subsequent Anglo- Saxon defeat and turn these events into a triumph. Osbert of Clare at Westminster and Aeldred of Rievaulx were the prime movers of this campaign.


In Normandy the main fourth generation contribution to the memory of IOU took place in the form of Wace's Roman de Rou. Wace was a canon of Bayeux Cathedral who began to translate and adapt the already considerable body of Latin historiography into Anglo-Norman verse. He collected oral stories for the pre@ and post-conquest history of Normandy and built these around the centrepiece of his work, the longest narrative account of the Conquest. Although part of it is clearly unhistorical, his list of companions is probably based on what we would now call an oral history project. Most of the names of individuals and lords of places have connections with Bayeux or Caen tenants. Did Wace comb through the archives of Bayeux Cathedral and the Caen abbeys and supplement this material with stories collected from men and women about their grandfathers and great grandfathers? These are all family stories preserved over three to four generations which would surely have been lost if Wace had not written them down. The most striking is the story of William Patric who shortly before the Conquest witnessed Duke William in the company of Earl Harold riding through his village of La Lande Patric on their way to Brittany. This expedition is well-recorded in contemporary chronicles elsewhere, but lacks the charming effect of the eyewitness account given here by his great-grandson to Wace.


There is a certain parallel between Wace's 'Roman' and the 'Gesta Herewardi': both texts contain lists of names of Conquest combatants of a lower social level than those recorded in the contemporary Norman sources or the main English sources. They implicitly contain nuggets of information representing the ordinary soldier instead of the official view at the top.


What then, is the relative value of the written and underlying oral traditions and how do they tie in with the trauma of 1066? I should like to argue that the silence in England was due to shock following the complete surprise of the defeat and surrender that autumn. The long silence in historiography signals clearly that the English were stunned. It took them a long time to come to terms with the Norman occupation. Moreover, writing about one's recent past under a hostile regime can easily be interpreted as treason and was therefore dangerous. However,

silence in writing does not mean that the war of low was taboo. The very fact that so much information survived for so many generations is proof of the strength and impact of these events on the collective memory. Domesday Book witnessed graphically the many changes of landholding which took place. Whether the basic pattern remained Anglo-Saxon or not is not at issue. What people would remember was that changes took place and these memories were passed on.

The 'Gesta Herewardi' is exceptional in comparison with the other conventional historiographical literature which survives. One of the reasons for its unique character is no doubt the fact that is was based on a contemporary 'Life of Hereward' by his priest Leofric written in Old English. As such it was not the only biography written in Old English after 1066. A better known example is the 'Life of Wulfstan' written by Coleman and revised and translated by William of Malmesbury. Whereas most historians argue ill flavour of the validity of the latter text, they are sceptical of Hereward's story. Yet the mechanics of survival in both cases are exactly the same.


Perhaps many. more texts like Leofric's and Coleman's were written which did not survive long enough to be translated. Like Richard of Ely, William of Malmesbury supplemented the original story with other information lie himself collected. Both historians belonged to the second generation and naturally, interpolated the original stories because they were addressing a different public. Their readers were new to the topic and did not have the information at their fingertips like their parents had. Did they need to know the story in order to understand their parents' attitude towards the Normans and the great battle?

Gradually the taboos influencing the recording of Conquest experiences disappeared, allowing more openness. The parallels with modern attitudes to the First and Second World Wars are particularly instructive here, despite the fact that those wars were fought on a larger scale, over a longer period and witnessing ethnic cleansing for which there is no evidence in the ION sources. We are now faced with an explosion of books on the First World War replacing war poetry and officially sanctioned propaganda with stories of how it really was for the millions of ordinary soldiers locked up in trenches in northern France. Comparison with the Second World War shows that the Germans collective memory is still in the process of slowly emerging from horror, shock and shame.


The post-1150 explosion of more factual material becoming public has, I think, to do with the three or four generation rule in historical writing, and indeed in record keeping. It is well-known that in the legal world knowledge beyond the third generation becomes suspect. By then the oral link with the previous two generations is normally severed by death of all members of the family so that nobody is alive to state the truth. if you want to record memory or oral tradition you have to do so within a period of not later than ninety or hundred years after the event.


In this context it is important that, at least in England, both the Waltham Chronicler and Walter Map explicitly state the use of eyewitness reports handed over from father to son and from son to grandson is admissible. For Walter Map history starts after ninety years while any period before that time is our own time. The generations living in the period 1150-75 were the last to record living memories of 1066 as admissible and acceptable information on the Norman Conquest. By the end of the reign of Henry II the canon of writing on the Conquest had stabilised and did not undergo any significant changes. The formation of the collective memory as the process of coming to terms with 1066's trauma had come to an end.

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