Wednesday, 8 October 2014

hashtag hastings

The gadfly Today I Found Out has a teasingly enticing brief about how the realms and domains—real estate—of Merry Old England has remained in essentially the same hands for nearly a thousand years, beginning with the Norman conquest of England. The landed-gentry have a very interesting history starting in October of 1066 when William II, Duke of Normandy recognised a crisis of succession and a power-vacuum that left the isle of the Anglo-Saxons vulnerable and invaded after the native rivals heralding from Denmark and Norway had tired each other out. The Normans themselves were not of French but rather of Viking extraction, invited by the Carolingian rulers some one hundred fifty years earlier to settle along the northern coast in exchange for allegiance and protection against other Norse clans marauding the seas.  This was an old Roman tactic, with many integrated tribes maintaining buffer zones across the Empire’s frontiers.

Over the intervening generation, Norman and English rulers became bound through a few strategic marriages, but Duke William II’s claim was not without contest. The conquest, cemented by the decisive Battle of Hastings, chiefly resulted in the displacement of the native English aristocracy for Norman elites but preserved other institutions and government structure—the peasant-class just knew that they were exchanging one master for another. Chattel slavery in the British Isles was abolished under William, which may have mustered popular local support, but that custom, though there were no longer raids and people delivered as property, was transmuted into other sorts of bondage, with feudalism and serfdom. Those classes of servitude incidentally do not behold lady and master to take care of said possession. The ousted English aristocrats staged a few uprisings but never again managed to regain a foothold in their homeland, though the population remained overwhelmingly Anglo-Saxon with only a few thousand Norman settlers as overlords, meet the new boss—same as the old boss. Dispossessed, many of the former landowners fled to Ireland, the Nordic countries, and interestingly to Byzantium, where they joined the ranks of the elite Varangian Guard—akin to the Praetorians of the West, bodyguards to the Emperor. These events and cultural shifts are well documented in both the Domesday Book, a survey and census of all the households in this newly-acquired kingdom, and in the Bayeux Tapestry, the later of which H and I are excited to be visiting again soon, equipped with thoughts about the spread and advance of this society.