1066: The Battle For Middle Earth

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This was the two part drama shown on Channel 4 on Monday 18 and Tuesday 19 May depicting the momentous events of the year 1066. Unlike many such historical blood-and-guts epics it showed the battles from the viewpoint of ordinary warriors. Another virtue in my book was that it made it clear that there was nothing “rightful” about William the Bastard’s claim to the English crown.

Middle Earth, incidently, was what the Anglo-Saxons called the human realm between Heaven and Hell, long before Tolkein borrowed it as a fantasy setting. Another Tolkeinesque piece of language was the English reference to the Normans as “orca” – orc being the Anglo-Saxon for foreigner or demon. It was a justified term both in reality and in the drama. The Norman occupation and oppression of England was brutal (genocidal in the North). In the drama, the only invader who behaved with any honour or decency was a Breton pressed into the Bastard’s service.

The history and politics were somewhat simplified; only three battles were shown – Fulford where the Northern Militia were defeated by Harald Hardrada’s Norsemen, Stamford Bridge where the Norse were defeated by Harold Godwinson’s southerners and Hastings where the exhausted and depleted English Army was defeated by the invaders.

The truth was a little more complex – and the year 1066 was even more fraught than portrayed. Harold’s brother Tostig also wanted to be king and obtained the help of the Norsemen to do so. Had he succeeded, England would have been effectively added to Harald’s kingdom – the Norse King would hardly help him out of the goodness of his heart. The best Tostig could have hoped for would be to be a Jarl paying tribute to his overlord Harald.

In May 1066, Tostig and the Norse fleet attacked and occupied Sandwich in Kent but were driven out by Harold’s militia. He landed on the unprotected Norfolk coast and looted the area before moving on to Lindsea. In June he was driven out by Earl Edwin and the Lindsea Militia. He retreated to Scotland where he was joined by Harald. In September they commenced further raids on the Northumbrian coast and reached York.

News of this reached Harold on the South coast where he awaited the threatened Norman invasion. He now faced a dreadful choice – remain in the South awaiting an invasion that might not come while the Norse consolidated their control of the North, or march North and leave the South coast undefended. As history records, he chose to head north to fight the invader already on English soil. The narrator of 1066: The Battle for Middle Earth observes that this decision sealed England’s fate. It should be noted though, that the Bastard needed the wind to change direction so his fleet could cross the Channel. Had this not happened, and Harold had remained in the South, he would have lost the North to the Norse and the Wittan would have likely removed him as king.

As it was, he and his army marched 200 miles north to defeat the Norse, then marched 200 miles back to be defeated in turn by the Normans.

1066 is one of those pivotal years, where many alternate timelines could split off from our own. Had Harold remained in the South he would likely have repulsed the Normans but would have lost the North to the Norsemen. Possibly it could have been reconquered by Harold or his successors, or it could have been conquered by the Scots in later centuries during the period when they drove the Norse out of Caithness, the Orkneys, Shetlands and Western Isles. The eventual union of England and Scotland would have been on much more equal terms. Or possibly it could have remained independant and Britain remain a collection of small nations.

In our timeline England fell under the control of the Normans. Our land was stolen from us. I actually feel angry about those events nearly a thousand years ago and am not surprised that Africans and Asians still feel anger at their more recent oppressions at European and Japanese hands. The drama concludes with the observation by the narrator that within a year Hastings, not a hide of Sussex was owned by an Englishman. In the credits we are told that the Bastard took half the country as his personal property, gave half the remainder to the Church and divided the rest among 190 of his followers. Then we are told that one-fifth of the UK is still owned by their descendants. Ever been stopped from walking across a grouse moor up North? Reason you can’t is that for the last thousand years it’s been ‘owned’ by the descendants of a French thug who slaughtered the inhabitants.

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