Howarth, David. 1066: The Year of the Conquest.

NY: Viking, 1977.

Like Waterloo and Gettysburg, the Battle of Hastings has been the subject of hundreds of volumes of history over the centuries. The date “1066” is one of the first things a young British student learns (or used to), like “1492” or “1776” in the U.S.

And for the last quarter-century of my career as a reference librarian and as the History Specialist in my large library system — almost since the day it was published, really — this has been the first book I recommended on the subject to anyone who asked. Howarth is a terrific explainer. The battle itself takes up only the last couple of chapters of this very manageable book (it’s only around 200 pages). The rest is given over to an exploration of the circumstances and the context of events, the nature of English society and politics under the Anglo-Saxon monarchy, the vast differences in the Norman system sixty miles away across the Channel, and the reality of warfare in the 11th century. He’s also very good at asking the questions that make you think about things more deeply, and at pointing out the verifiable coincidences that made it possible for William to invade (which had never been done in Western Europe before) and to win, and to do it with such a small army.

There were so many points at which a slight difference in the weather could have changed everything. If William had managed to land in Sussex on his first actual attempt in September, when the English were lined up along the shore waiting for him, it would have been a very different story. But then Harald Hardrada and Tostig Godwinson invaded Yorkshire and King Harold had to hurry off and deal with that — and then the wind changed suddenly and William was able to land quite unopposed, and to his considerable surprise. And could the duke have pulled it off without the connivance of the Pope? (Almost certainly not, the way Howarth lays it out.) The author has his own prejudices but he’s quite aware of them and even explains them to the reader. And throughout the book, he combines reliable history with first-rate storytelling. For most people with a general sort of interest, this probably is the only treatment of the Conquest they will ever need, but even close students of the subject will find that Howarth is worth re-reading every few years.

Published in: on 25 January 2013 at 6:39 am  Leave a Comment  
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