Equestrian statue of William the Bastard and his horse, Conqueror.
CHAPTER 19.—FRANCE CONQUERS ENGLAND; OR, ENGLAND CONQUERS FRANCE.
And now we come to England.
We remember that a bunch of Angles, Saxons, and Jutes invaded Britain and forced the British to go west and turn into Welsh, and that the Angles bought the naming rights and called the whole conquered part of Britain “England.” If we were paying attention (and we were paying attention, weren’t we, class?), we may also recall that Charlemagne’s lead consultant Alcuin was English, showing that some of these Germanic invaders took to civilization just like natives once they got a taste of it. If we were paying attention at the advanced-placement level, we may even remember that the Vikings began their long career of pillage and massacre at Lindisfarne in England, thus setting up the central problem of English history for nearly three centuries.
From the destruction of Lindisfarne on, the main problem confronting the English was how to deal with the waves of Danes washing across the land. The most famous English king of this period, Alfred the Great, spent a not-so-great period of his reign running for his life across the fens and moors and other topographic features of England, pursued by Danes who tracked him by the trail of burnt cakes he left behind him everywhere he went. Eventually Alfred came to an agreement with the Danes: they would stop chasing him around, and he would give them half of England and learn to pay more attention when he was baking stuff. This accommodation gave Alfred the leisure to get back to being great.
After Alfred came a long line of Eds: Edmund, Edred, Edwig, Edgar, Edward, and various reruns of those names. There was also a period when the Danes ruled all of England, not including (as King Canute demonstrated) the tides. Then came Edward the Confessor.
Edward was called a “confessor” because he was a very saintly king, by the standards of his time. That is to say, he occasionally enjoyed having some enemy assassinated and his head brought in on a platter, but he did it in a very pious way. Historians, who in general are less than saintly themselves and like to have some excuse for it, delight in suggesting that his saintliness ruined the kingdom. But there is no necessary conflict between saintliness and effectiveness. Pope Leo the Great showed us what a saint can get done if he’s smart and decisive. Edward was neither. He was a nice quiet fellow: just the sort of man you’d hire to teach Bible classes at a boys’ boarding school. But you’d never make him the principal.
Edward spent much of his youth in the court of the Duke of Normandy. There he picked up Norman ways and made Norman friends, many of whom followed him when he was quite unexpectedly called upon to become King of England. On the throne he remained what our own House Un-American Activities Committee would have called a Norman sympathizer.
The Normans, as you may recall, were Frenchified Vikings. They kept their Viking ancestors’ greed, sailing ability, and talent for effective violence. But they spoke French, and they had picked up a certain number of French ideas—one of which would turn out to be very important for our story.
The Normans lived under a comfortable arrangement by which the King of France granted them practically limitless autonomy, in return for which they performed for him the valuable service of not gutting him and leaving his carcass for the vultures. So everybody was happy. The arrangement also included a clause that required these Viking invaders to protect the north of France from Viking invaders. King Charles of France, who negotiated the original agreement, is for some reason known to history as Charles the Simple.
At some point while he was king, Edward may or may not have promised William the Bastard, Duke of Normandy, that he would inherit the throne of England when Edward passed on to the reward of the godly. Certainly William remembered him saying something very like that, and are you going to argue with someone who goes around calling himself “the Bastard”?
The English nobles, however, hadn’t heard anything of the sort. When Edward died in 1066, they gathered in their Witenagemot, or “Meeting of the Wise” (they had a high opinion of themselves), and chose Harold Godwinson as their king.
Well, this infuriated William. He believed that he was the rightful heir to the throne of England. This was one of those French ideas the Normans had picked up. The French had long since come to believe that a kingdom was a species of property to be passed down to the heir when the old king died, along with his stamp collection and his best shaving mug. The English, on the other hand, clung to the wildly romantic notion, once common to all the Germanic tribes, that the king, in a sense, belonged to the kingdom, rather than the other way around, and that, therefore, what made a king legitimate was the choice of the people, which is to say the two dozen or so people who mattered.
So, as far as William was concerned, Harold was just a thief, stealing the property that Edward, God rest his soul, had promised William. What was far worse, though, was that William distinctly remembered that Harold, when William had been holding him hostage for some reason or other, had sworn on a stack of holy relics that he would support William’s claim to the throne, with no other inducement than William’s threatening to kill him if he didn’t swear. How can you trust a man who repudiates an oath he was forced to swear on holy relics? Is a man like that fit to be king of anything?
So there were two men claiming to be king of England, and it looked like trouble. In the fall of 1066, a third claimant, a Dane confusingly named Harald, landed in the north and began wiping out earls right and left. By an exhausting forced march, Harold surprised Harald and defeated his invaders at the Battle of Stamford Bridge, thus finally solving the problem of invading Danes forever. And that is another of history’s delightful little jokes, because while Harold was celebrating his decisive victory over Harald, William the Bastard was landing at the other end of the country.
Harold and his army ran as fast as they could down the length of England to Hastings, where they met and very nearly defeated William’s army. But Harold happened to be killed just when the battle was nearly over, and after that luck turned against him. William and his army won the day, and in a short time they had taken over the rest of England. William was crowned king.
Thus ended the reign of Harold, the last of the Saxon kings. How it would have cheered Harold as he died to know that one day he would be the hero of a novel by Edward Bulwer-Lytton!
The English doubtless thought that this would be just one more change at the top of the org chart. They were wrong. William took the feudal system seriously. He rewarded loyalty with land, and he punished disloyalty by taking away land. It turned out that a large percentage of the English aristocracy were disloyal, and—by a remarkable coincidence—a roughly equal number of William’s Norman cronies were loyal. Thus England came to have a French-speaking upper crust for more than three hundred years. The nobles could not communicate with their subjects except by pointing at things. Fortunately, a few simple gestures, accompanied by random killings of the recalcitrant or uncomprehending, were all that was necessary to explain their duties to the English serving classes.
Since the French-speakers were rich and the English-speakers were poor, it naturally followed that French was superior to English, and that therefore England, insofar as it was full of English people, was not really a very considerable place.
From the time of the Norman Conquest down to, for all we know, the present day, the kings and queens of England looked at England as a sort of appendage to their French possessions. You will still find Elizabeth II claiming the title “Duke of Normandy” today, and you can look it up in Wikipedia if you don’t believe it. The key to understanding English history for the next few centuries, therefore, is understanding that the kings of England did not regard England as any really keen thing to be king of. It was like being King of the Elk County Maple Syrup Festival: very nice in its way, but not something that would put you on the geopolitical map. As far as the English kings were concerned, the only place worth being king of was France. And if some other fellow was going around pretending to be king of France, then someone would have to teach that guy a good lesson.
William died of an equestrian mishap, and his perfectly awful sons William Rufus and Henry died in perfectly awful ways—the former ran into an arrow in what the coroner somehow ruled was a death by misadventure, and the latter died from a surfeit of lampreys. Dr. Boli believes that one lamprey constitutes a surfeit, but Henry was quite fond of them.
After Henry followed a period historians call “the Anarchy,” during which, for quite some time, Queen Matilda was pitted against Empress Matilda for control of England. That is too confusing to worry about, so we skip ahead to the Angevins, who took over after the Anarchy. The Angevins controlled more than half of France, and they didn’t care much about England. And the less they cared about England, the more the English people loved them.
Take, for example, Richard the Lion-Hearted. Richard has a longstanding reputation as one of the English people’s favorite kings, and there is a very good reason for that. He was never in England. If he did accidentally happen to step into his English domain for a moment, he bounced back out like a rubber ball. He spent as much time as possible playing the crusading game with his friend Saladin, and whatever time was left he spent in France. He avoided English soil as much as he possibly could, and the English people loved him for it.
His brother John, on the other hand, is the all-purpose moustache-twirling villain of English history. Why? Because he was always in England, doing king stuff.
John may have been a rotter, but many much worse rotters have got through the business of being king with moderate success, and then gone to rest in a tomb that no one spits on. King John, however, had all sorts of bad luck.
First of all, he lived in the shadow of his fantastically popular, and largely mythological, elder brother. Even while Richard was still alive, people told wonderful stories about how he had lopped off three hundred Saracen heads with one blow of his soup spoon while simultaneously curing all the children in Antioch of their acne. Then the people would shake their heads slowly and say, “Pity about his brother, though. I suppose poor John will never amount to anything.” And John would say, “Hey! Regent of England, you know! Someone has to take care of business while Dickie-bird is off spooning Saracens!” But everyone would pretend he wasn’t there and face the other way, until John would finally snort and say, “Fine! When I’m proper king of this place, see if any of you has a head left!”
Richard and John hated each other, in spite of the best efforts of their mother, played by Katharine Hepburn, to keep peace in the family. Richard had not planned on leaving John in charge, having made a list of pretty much anyone but John who could control his dominions while he was off crusading. But Richard was perfectly willing to inflict John on England once John had eliminated the competition. “Whatever,” said Richard.
So John became famous as the wicked regent of the Robin Hood legends, the villain people all over the world love to hiss as he exploits the poor and oppresses the innocent. It must be said, however, that the universal appeal of the Robin Hood legend comes largely from temporal distance. We do not approve of redistribution of wealth in real life. If Robin Hood showed up today at some poor back-country farmhouse in Arkansas with a handful of quarters pilfered from the CEO of Walmart, the farmer would shoot him, and then congratulate himself on having preserved the Republic from communism. But we do love to see John get what was coming to him eight hundred years ago.
Then, of course, John had trouble getting along with the pope. There were times when John seemed to think he was Henry VIII, but it was nowhere near time for Henry VIII yet, as a quick glance at the calendar would have told him. Pope management was one of those skills without which a king was bound to be a bust. When the pope got mad and dropped the Interdict bomb, for example, the proper response was to dress as a penitent and trudge through the snow to beg forgiveness. It made the pope feel important. Then, once the Interdict was lifted, with any luck it might take the pope years to notice that you had gone back to your wicked ways. John, however, kept thinking there must be another way. Try as he might, though, the only thing he could come up with was sulking, which didn’t help at all. Finally, having wasted years on grumpiness without success, John swung to the other extreme and gave insane submissiveness a try. He actually gave up his kingdom to the pope and received it back as a fief. The popes had been claiming to be feudal masters of the universe for some time, but John was the first king to go through the ceremonies that made the claim official.
John might have been able to defy the pope as much as he liked if he had had the nobles on his side. The barons, however, hated him. They loved Richard, because he was gone all the time and they could do what they liked. With John, it was like having your least-favorite third-grade teacher always watching the playground like a hawk. Then, when he lost almost all his French possessions, most of them lost huge amounts of valuable real estate. That was hard to forgive.
Eventually the barons rebelled, but that was nothing new. Barons were always rebelling. What was new this time was that they cornered King John and made him sign a Great Charter giving them certain unalienable rights.
The Magna Carta limited John’s powers in many important ways. For example, it insisted that no one should punish or kill a man without due process of law, unless he was one of the large majority of the population who were serfs and thus had it jolly well coming to them.
Other kingdoms had traditions that made the nobles independent of the king to various degrees, but the Magna Carta was a revolutionary written guarantee of the right of the rich to plunder and oppress the poor without interference from the central government. It is rightly regarded as the founding document of every capitalist society today. Of course, King John repudiated it as soon as there was no longer a crossbow pointed at his head. But it was in force for about fifteen minutes, and people remembered those fifteen minutes as a golden age of liberty.
From King John on to Henry VIII, England was ruled by a series of Shakespearean kings, distinguished by their habit of speaking in blank verse and dividing their reigns into five acts. Two of them came in multiple parts, but they were probably still single kings; and if we measure by the number of lines of blank verse, the most important king in English history was Henry VI. This was the period of the Hundred Years’ War, the Wars of the Roses, and other assorted dreadfulnesses, during which the kings of England repeatedly gained and lost France, murdered their relatives, and dealt with the usual round of rebellions. We simply skip over most of it, because how many times can a king murder children and poison rivals to shore up his throne before the thing gets to be monotonous?
The English kings never gave up their designs on France. It is worth noting that Henry V actually made a treaty with the mad king of France naming Henry as his successor on the French throne. It is, however, sometimes considered poor sportsmanship to make a ridiculously advantageous treaty with a mad king. It looks a bit like taking unfair advantage of the disabled, which a gentleman simply would not do. Nevertheless, the English monarchs continued to rely on that treaty as their main evidence that the so-called kings of France were illegitimate usurpers. The English monarchy also holds an unassailable deed to the Brooklyn Bridge, and the current monarch refrains from pressing that claim only out of deference to the feelings of her American allies.
Thus we have brought our story up to the age of the Tudors. But now, once again, it is time to lurch backward in time. While the English kings and would-be kings were killing each other and disappearing under mysterious circumstances in the usual medieval fashion, some very unusual things were going on way down in Italy.
The chapters previously published:
FROM THE CREATION OF THE UNIVERSE TO THE DAWN OF CIVILIZATION.
THE DEFINITION AND CHARACTER OF CIVILIZATION.
THE ANCIENT EGYPTIANS, FURNISHING AND DECORATING THE AFTERLIFE SINCE 3150 B.C.
THE LESS MARKETABLE ANCIENT CIVILIZATIONS.
THE ISRAELITES DISCOVER MONOTHEISM AND SPEND MOST OF THE REST OF THEIR HISTORY TRYING TO BACK OUT OF IT.
THE ANCIENT GREEKS LIVE THE EXAMINED LIFE.
THE ANCIENT GREEKS INVENT HISTORY.
ALEXANDER RUNS OUT OF WORLDS TO CONQUER.
WHILE ROME CONQUERS THE WORLD, GREECE CONQUERS ROME.
CHRISTIANITY RUINS EVERYTHING.
THE ROMAN EMPIRE DECLINES AND FALLS FOR 1500 YEARS STRAIGHT.
CIVILIZATION DESTROYS CIVILIZATION.
NOTHING HAPPENS IN THE DARK AGES.
CHARLEMAGNE TURNS ON THE LIGHTS.
MORE FUN WITH BARBARIANS.
WHAT THE MIDDLE AGES WERE IN THE MIDDLE OF.
THE CRUSADES ARE WHOLESOME FUN FOR EVERYONE.