Saturday, July 3, 2010

Review: 1066 - The Year of the Conquest

1066:  The Year of the Conquest
1066:  The Year of the Conquest is a very slim history by David Howarth about... well, 1066 and the Norman invasion of England.  It begins in a small English village in January of that year, detailing the class system in place and how the average person in England lived at the time.  From there, Howarth takes us to King Edward the Confessor's deathbed, details English succession law in place at the time (very different than after the Normans came in) and recounts Harold's rise to the throne.  We then cross the Channel to where Duke William hears news of Edward's death and Harold's succession and begins planning his invasion.  And then we are there for the Battle of Hastings, after which England's trajectory changed so drastically.


Now that I have a complete (mismatched) set of Thomas B. Costain's Pageant of England series, I want to finally get started on reading it!  But I decided before I did so, I should first understand how such a decidedly French-named family such as the Plantagenets took power in England in the first place.  Luckily, I've had 1066 on my shelf forever, and it's very short and perfectly readable, so now I'm set to begin.  I am completely ignoring the Angevins that came before the Plantagenets, of course, but well... one family at a time.

Anyway, back to this book.  It's good!  It's so short, which I thoroughly appreciate in a military history.  The actual battle takes up very little of the story-telling.  Also, Howarth clearly has extensive naval knowledge as he used a lot of sea-faring terms that I didn't understand but sounded very impressive.  He managed to bring the two main characters- Harold and William- into three dimensions for me, and he clearly sympathized with both of them.  I really liked getting to know these two men and I am really quite fascinated by King Harold and his father, Godwin.  I will have to read up more on them!

Two things really hit me while I was reading this book.  First- that I know absolutely nothing about English history before the Normans came in.  I am not sure how much of this history is taught in schools in England (anyone?), but it was so fascinating to learn how different the class structure and the culture was before William conquered the country.  I also love the English names.  Godwin.  Ranulff.  Gyrth.  Stigand.  They are fabulous and I wish they were still around.

I also was struck (as I am in pretty much every history book I read) by just how large a part chance played in this whole situation.  It is amazing how something like the weather can change the course of history.  Kind of terrifying as well.  And over and over in this book, I just felt so sad for King Harold (who would be on my Top Ten List of Historical Figures Deserving Bear Hugs, if I put one together) and the way the fates seemed to align against him.  The poor man probably died thinking God had forsaken him (in fact, it's quite likely he did die thinking just that), and that just seems like such a lonely, heart-breaking way to go.

I really enjoyed this brief history of the Norman conquest.  It definitely whet my appetite for learning more about English history prior to the 11th century, but also makes me very excited about my Plantagenet reading.  It also helps explain a lot about the culture and psyche of the English upper class being so obsessed with the French up to at least the Regency era, if not beyond that.  Highly recommended if you have any passing interest in English history!

25 comments:

  1. England in that period of time is my fav :D And then the Normans come, and later it all gets boring, lol

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  2. Thanks for the recommendation. Military history sometimes intimidates me, and the length of this one sounds just right for me.

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  3. This sounds like a great read. I do appreciate a certain "shortness" in my military history. :) I love history, but I like it in digestible bits.

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  4. I'm really glad you liked this, Aarti, but I think you can guess this is the sort of book that makes me run screaming in the other direction, yes? :D

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  5. This sounds good. I remember having to memorize the year 1066 in school but the year (not what happened) is about all I remember! And for some reason I love books that are named with dates! (there is a whole bizarre group of us on LibraryThing!) So I'll have to try this one!

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  6. I love the Plantagenets, the lovely Plantagenets! When I was a freshman in college, I checked out a bunch of books that were intended as brief overviews of English history, and I remember I griped and complained all the way through the pre-1066 monarchs. I only got interested when I got to Henry II.

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  7. Blodeuedd- Yes, it's really fascinating the way it used to be, isn't it?

    Bookshelf Monstrosity- Yes, military history scares/bores me, too, but this is so short it's ok :-)

    Trisha- Exactly! Well, I like non-military history in large doses, but war scenes were never my thing.

    Amanda- Yes, I know ;-)

    rhapsody- Haha, that makes sense to me because SO MANY BOOKS are named with dates!

    Jenny- Yes, that is one wily family, isn't it? I like them, too. Well, I don't think I'd LIKE them, but they do fascinate me!

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  8. I like history books to be short as I often start to lose interest if they’re too long, so this one sounds perfect for me. And to answer your question about whether pre-Norman history is taught in English schools - yes, I remember learning about Roman, Anglo-Saxon and Viking England, though not in very much detail. We seemed to spend a lot more time on the Tudors and Stuarts and the Victorians/Industrial Revolution.

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  9. This one has been languishing on my bookshelves for a while now. Maybe I'll get to it soon...

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  10. You say it's short and I'm glad because even when a book on such a subject is fascinating, I always find I can't take too much of it. I should learn more about English history. I read a volume by Winston Chruchill but it was not very well done so I should read something else.

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  11. I'm a self-confessed history ignoramus! (you only have to read some of my posts on my friend's medieval blog to realise that :( ) I'm not proud of it, but history is a subject I dropped when I was 14. Short books like this one are definitely the way to start. My Penguin History of the World is over 1000 pages long, which is why I only ever read a few chapters of it many years ago(and it's so out of date now, mine is the 1988 edition). Whereas I have a complete collection of the Oxford University Press A very short introduction books (less than 200 pages each), and have actually read the ones on the Celts and Medieval Britain. (including one short chapter on the Plantagenets!)

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  12. Here's the thread about books with dates on Library Thing if you're interested..

    http://www.librarything.com/topic/54868

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  13. This sounds like an interesting read. 1066 is one of those years every history student from my university jokes about, we used to have to learn lists and lists of years, what happened and their significance and 1066 always stood out. It is one of those years that every single student knows by heart. To actually know a bit more than the few paragraphs we had to learn by heart on the subject would be nice.

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  14. I am reading about The Tudors and just reached back to study the Plantagenets a bit as well. I think this book would make the next obvious choice for me and would probably be perfect! I am so glad that you enjoyed this one and will be grabbing this one when I can. Isn't English history fascinating?

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  15. Helen- Thanks for letting me know! We tend to ignore pre-European-conquest in American history, too.

    Daphne- It's good!

    Rebecca- Yes, I think I recall that Churchill wrote a whole history of the British Isles. Just because he was amazing doesn't mean he could write ;-)

    Tracy- I think shorter chunks of history are easier to digest, too. Same with most subjects, really! It's hard to keep so many names straight.

    rhapsody- Thank you!

    Iris- Haha, well this isn't TOO much longer than several paragraphs, so it should give you a good background!

    Zibilee- Yes, I love English history as well :-)

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  16. Aarti, Churchill won the Nobel Prize for his writing. So, um, yes he could write.

    I've decided it awarded him for his speeches, of which I've read a collection and they are fantastic in every way.

    His history of the British Isles was just written at level that is not as scholarly as I'd expect, but I think that was the way such books were written the 1920s and 1930s. I am a bit of a dunce when it comes to British History and his history was geared towards those who knew the basics

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  17. Rebecca- I didn't know he won the Nobel Prize for his writing! I am not sure how the Nobel Prize is awarded, though. It seems to create a lot of controversy. I haven't read anything by him before (except his speeches, which I didn't know he actually wrote for himself), though, so I can't really comment on his writing style. Was he a history scholar? If not, I don't think I'd expect his history to be particularly scholarly. And thus maybe would prefer that!

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  18. I think definitions of history scholar were a bit different 60 years ago. He wrote dozens of histories of all kinds of things. Quite a "scholar" in general. But reading it today was not an easy task. And I was put out by the lack of footnoted evidence to everything he said. He'd evidently referenced sources, just not documented them. Supposedly that's how 1930s and 40s histories were written. We take the scholar at their word. That's just my take of his histories. I only read an abridgment of his history of the British Isles.

    He won the prize in 1953 for "for his mastery of historical and biographical description as well as for brilliant oratory in defending exalted human values." That's from the nobel prize website. I have always been rather impressed with Nobel Laureates -- but in this case, I rather despised the history and loved his speeches...

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  19. and yes, he did write all his speeches himself. He did not have any speech writers. According to the book I read, he took 1 hour for every minute of delivery.

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  20. I admit I'm fascinated by British royalty, but when reading about them I tend to skim over the battles that so many of them were directly involved in back then. But, you say this one is short, so I might have to take a look at it!

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  21. I have to tell my son about this book. We were just discussing the Norman Conquest and I was recounting to him what little I remembered from my British Literature course in college. Sadly, I don't think I ever learned much about it in my history courses.

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  22. I really liked 1066 too. Nice overview but now I'm catching up on the history of France - shockingly lacking.

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  23. I think pre-1066 I only recall learning about the Romans, Boudicca and Alfred the Great. And Edith Swan Neck, Harold's wife (what a great name!)

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  24. We got a lot of Roman conquest history when I was at school and a little bit of Viking stuff, but generally it was all about the conquerors and how they affected us. I guess there's more evidence for their cultures left, but couldn't be sure.

    Fiction rec - have you read 'The Needle in the Blood', which is all about 1066 and the creation of the Bayeaux tapestry (not a tapestry apparently). Probably a good time to read it if you're interested while the history is fresh in your mind.

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  25. Valerie- Very short :-)

    Kathleen- Yes, I think it would be great as it's a short volume, but has a lot of the important information in it.

    Carrie- I'm lacking on that one, too, though France really interests me only for the revolution era, I admit.

    chasingbawa- Yes, I like that name, too! It must have been a LONG neck.

    Jodie- I have NOT read that but I shall look into it now!

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