Saturday, 30 May 2020

The English Resistance

Apologies for another off-piste post, which makes two in a row, but there may be some wargaming context here. This is actually being written during the Covid-19 coronavirus ‘lockdown’. Hopefully, when you read it said lockdown might be lifted and the virus reducing. Just as an aside, it is funny how we (not just wargamers) automatically reach for military metaphors for this sort of thing. We have a ‘battle’ with a virus. We have ‘brave fights’ against cancer. Cancer charities, I know, are objecting to that usage, as it makes those who die as a result of cancer losers. Anyway, I shall stop my slightly grim musings and move on.

I have been reading again:

Rex, P. (2014) The English Resistance: The Underground War against the Normans, Stroud, Amberley.

This is a more popular sort of title than the one from last week – occasionally even I get a bit tired of detailed, lengthy academic works, particularly about things I know relatively little about. Rex writes about the resistance to the Norman conquest after 1066, and a very odd book I found it too.

Firstly, the narrative is a bit broken up. Stuff is assumed, mentioned, and then referred to as if the reader now knows all about it. The narrative anyway is a bit confusing, with various names of people popping up and down, swapping sides, reconciling and revolting. Even at a more popular level, this can get a bit bewildering.

The terms in which Rex analyses the resistance to the conquest are also a bit stark. The likens the resistance to the French Resistance in World War Two, carrying out raids against the occupying power but needing outside assistance to make any headway towards expelling the invaders. I suppose that at a grand strategic level this might be true enough. The French, of course, had the Allies to help and, eventually, invade and liberate. The English had the Danes, who were brought off (it seems) rather easily by William.

It seems to me that the historiography of the Norman Conquest has two extremes. Either, as with Rex, it was an invasion, a trashing of the liberties of Anglo-Saxon England, and the imposition of a foreign elite on the English nation and the start of centuries of subjugation. This is, perhaps, the received view, certainly amongst a section of the English political left: the imposition of the Norman Yoke, feudalism, serfdom and so on, on the true English people.

The alternative view is that it did not make that huge a difference. England was a fairly centralised hierarchical sort of nation at the time, and William and his cronies simply replaced the upper echelon with themselves and life for the rest carried on much as before. If you were an Anglo-Saxon thegn, naturally, you were in a bit of trouble, particularly if you had fought at Hastings, but mostly you just moved down a level, had an overlord other than the king, and had to redeem your own lands. Vexing, but not too devastating.

I doubt if I need to describe the resistance to wargamers. Assorted people associated with the old regime attempted, falteringly, to retake the country for themselves. They failed, due to bad organisation and lack of external aid. Rex also complains at length about the collaborators and quislings in the Anglo-Saxon polity that supported William. Well, maybe. It would, I think, have been a tricky judgment about whom to support, but God had shown in battle that He favoured William, and anyway Harold and his brothers were no more, so there was not a single decent figurehead to rally around.

The most interesting and romantic (or, if you like, semi-historical, mythical) figure is Hereward ‘the Wake’. My interest in this resistor stems from the 1970s when I used to visit my grandparents who lived in the Fens. The local independent radio station was Radio Hereward. I had no idea why, but I liked the name. It got confused in my junior mind with Robin Hood, the Disney film of which had just been released.

Anyway, Hereward was a South Lincolnshire minor thegn and eventually, for obscure reasons raided Peterborough with some Danes (who then pushed off) and was besieged with is men in Ely. As the place was then awash with rivers, streams, marshes and so on, this reduced William and his army to semi-amphibious activity, building causeways, bringing in ships and fighting boggy skirmishes. Eventually, of course, might overcame the resistance and Hereward disappeared, to re-emerge in myth, legend and radio stations.

Rex spends some time trying to work out from the records exactly who Hereward was. The ‘Wake’ bit was a later addition, created by the Wake family to give themselves a decent ancestor. This is an interesting aside, and really goes to show that medieval families were not above reinventing history for their own purposes. If they had not done so, of course, there might be little interest in an obscure Lincolnshire thegn and a boggy siege in Fenland. Hereward might be a little bit more interesting than just an obscure Anglo-Saxon who gathered a band of robbers did a bit of raiding and then disappeared when the police turned up, but it is hard to tell. As so often when trying to trace medieval individuals, there are a lot of ‘ifs’ and ‘perhaps’ in the account.

Overall the book is an interesting light read even if some of the analogies drawn as a bit overblown. There was post-Hastings resistance to William. Rex is in the camp that equates the Harrying of the North with the total devastation of the area from York to Durham, following the Chronicles. Again, you seem to have to pick one side or the other here. Rex dismisses the ‘revisionist’ views of the Harrying and re-interpretations of ‘waste’ entries in the Domesday Book. Here he lines up with older historians who thought they could trace the movements of William’s armies through waste entries. That seems a little, um, optimistic.


  1. I've just finished reading Rex' book "1066" which is perhaps a little more accessible, perhaps because the subject matter is better known to most of us. But it draws heavily on the Doomsday Book and Bayeux Tapestry so that I felt it focused too much on the Norman land grab, which becomes a bit tedious when all you want to hear about are battles and skirmishes. However, I did find it useful for ideas on game scenarios, outside of the big Battle, which will allow small bands of Saxons, Vikings, Irish and other Mercenaries to pitch in with the Normans. Nonetheless I think my copy will be returning to the charity shop rather than taking up space on my bookshelf.

    1. I had seen the 1066 book on a book list somewhere and wondered about it. As I have just read Teresa Coles' The Norman Conquest I decided to give it a miss; there is only so much popular 'it was a disaster for ordinary people' that I can take, especially when the evidence is a little on the thin side.

      Interestingly, I recently read Oman's account of Hastings in his art of war in the middle ages. Not a huge amount has changed, apparently, in the historiography.