Recently I’ve been delving into the history of London as I develop some London walks. I soon realised that there are certain areas of my knowledge that are, ashamedly, a little patchy. Roman London? Tick. Long 18th? Fine. Blitz? Slam dunk. Norman invasion and subsequent effect on London? Errr… Whilst I thought I could easily explain the significance of Norman rule, I found that I was vague at best. Even though I’d made the pilgrimage to the Hastings battlefields and spent hundreds of hours walking around the evocative ruins of Norman keeps across the country, I was a bit useless at explaining the ramifications of the 1066 invasion without rambling aimlessly or drawing complete blanks.
The problem is that while every British school child is taught the date 1066, the Normans are only really taught in primary and junior school. As a small child I did genuinely soak up information about the anatomy of a motte and bailey castle and was thrilled when my Dad took me to the Rufus Stone as a child. But all too soon I moved on to senior school where the World Wars dominated our history classes for the next five years. Even in college my A level was pure World War II. Subsequently I dropped the subject at AS level stage having overdosed on 20th century politics. Combine that with a passion for the ancient world sparked off by a beloved childhood books of Greek myths and a family trip to Greece when I was still a kid, I have spent most of my time sadly neglecting the Anglo Saxons and Normans. I regret it, as I’m realising now what a wealth of fascinating history they provided us with. But how do you launch into research having not really studied William the Conqueror since you were 8 years old?
Thank Heaven, then, for Marc Morris. I’ve been a Morris fan for a long while now. I’ve spent many an hour watching Castle (more than once I’ve spent entire Sundays wrapped in a duvet watching the entire series repeated back to back on a history channel as it rains outside,) and the accompanying book (recently reissued) has taken pride of place on my shelves for years, eagerly thumbed through each time I’m planning my next castle visit.
As a tour guide I’m a big fan of Morris and his style of presentation. He’s infectiously enthusiastic without ever being obnoxious (I could name a few TV historians who could do with following his example!) He’s also perfected the balance of being informative without ever feeling the need to over simplify his subject and patronise his audience, or indeed deliberately flaunting his academic credentials by bombarding his viewers and readers with so much technical terminology and in depth analysis that his baffled audience write him off as a pretentious dick (again, two crimes committed by so many authors and presenters writing for a wide audience.)
I was therefore rather excited when this popped through my letterbox this month:
I had, as yet, not managed to find a decent account of the Norman invasion that was both well written and informative. Morris has done an excellent job of both counts. The wonderful thing about this book is that there is a narrative thread, a real sense of an unfolding story. And having not really considered the politics of the period since I was a child, Morris managed to explain everything at a sensible pace without ever making me feel out of my depth in such unfamiliar territory. And the conquest IS unfamiliar territory, because nearly all of what I thought I knew is wrong. One by one Morris takes each lazily accepted ‘fact’ and dissects it down to bare bone before fleshing it back out into something that makes far more sense and more readily understandable. It’s commendable that Morris deliberately set out to write a book for a general readership rather than medievalists with a clutch of doctorates. He explains his reasoning rather marvellously here
It was such a pleasure reading this book. There was a lightbulb moment on practically every page. I had assumed that the Normans were violent bullies crushing an unsophisticated bunch of weedy Anglo-saxons to a bloody pulp, hanging around like a bad smell and treating the conquered like slaves. However, I was wrong. Reading the book, this sprang to mind more than once:
Here is Morris explaining what he means:
There are so many points in the book like this that my whole understanding has been changed. At one point I believe I may have actually slapped my forehead whilst exclaiming “of course!”
If there was only one book explaining the significance of the ‘greatest event in English history,’ I’d be recommending this one with passionate ardour. I may even become a born again medievalist! I’ll certainly be ignoring my ancient myths and 17th century whores for a while. A trip to Hastings and various other locations mentioned by Morris are already being planned and I’ll be taking my well thumbed copy along.
Treat yourself with a copy of The Norman Conquest, and treat others too. It really is fab and a complete eye opener. Also, do follow Morris on Twitter as he is wonderfully amusing. When you’ve read it, let me know because I’m dying to discuss it with someone! I’ll be here, waiting for you, daydreaming about Morris guiding me around castles and battlefields.