Roz and I met for lunch at the historic city of Bayeux, the site of the famous Bayeux Tapestry. As well as viewing the tapestry itself, which was well worth the 7.80 euro we paid to get in, its well-known Norman-Romanesque cathedral, Notre-Dame de Bayeux, was spectacular. Throw in the picturesque gardens flanking the tiny River Aure, the colourful streets draped in French flags and, of course, the variety of eateries sprawling out onto the pavement, and we had a place difficult to pull ourselves away from.
But it was the tapestry itself that we wanted to see most of all. The 11th century’s equivalent of a comic strip, it tells the story of the last successful invasion of England. Being a French invasion, it marked the beginning of an Anglo-French rivalry that is still alive and well today. At its worst, this rivalry has resulted in war—at its best, in a petty jealousy that continues to exist between the two countries’ inhabitants.
Over 70 metres in length, technically it’s not even a tapestry, rather an embroidered piece of cloth, stitched, not woven, in woollen yarns. It was supposedly seized by the Nazis during World War II, almost used by French Republicans to cover an ammunition wagon and transported to Paris by Napoleon to inspire a planned attack of England. Had it been destroyed, Europe would have been deprived of a pretty juicy piece of history.
According to the tapestry, William, Duke of Normandy, also known as William the Conqueror, aka William the Bastard, was promised the English throne by the current king, Edward the Confessor, once he’d snuffed it. The ageing Edward, who had no natural heir, sent his brother-in-law, Harold, Earl of Wessex, to inform William that he (William) should succeed him. Though Harold would have resented it, he travelled to France, informing William of the King’s wishes, and also, supposedly, swearing his allegiance to William.
It sounded like a pretty simple plan, but life is full of simple plans that don’t go to script. In what became a bitter twist of fate, certainly for William, King Edward, as he lay dying in his bed, allegedly promised Harold his entire kingdom.
So when Edward finally died, on January 5, 1066, Harold was crowned the new king. You can imagine that, once William got word of this over in France, he was absolutely fuming. He quickly set about forming an invading army and built a fleet of ships large enough to carry it.
Meanwhile, back in England, Harold had more trouble on his hands. It came in the form of a Viking king, Harald Hardrada of Norway, who was yet another king who wanted to get his hands on the English throne. Who’d want to be a king? Obviously everybody, as now poor King Harold had invaders coming at him from both sides of the country.
A bit like Napoleon, before the Battle of Waterloo, Harold had to act quickly. Circumstances allowed him to travel north to Stamford Bridge, where on September 25, 1066 he took the Viking forces by surprise. Harald Hardrada was killed, and so was his partner in crime, Earl Tostig, who happened to be King Harold’s brother. Family loyalty didn’t count for much back then. Of the 300 or more Viking ships that brought the Norwegian invaders to England, only 24 returned. This, in effect, marked the end of the Viking era.
Within less than three weeks, King Harold’s army was fighting its second major battle, this time against William, at the Battle of Hastings. It was October 14, 1066, one of the most famous dates in English history. After looking a winner for most of the battle, poor Harold’s army was destroyed by William’s brilliant archers. Harold himself was killed.
There’s some conjecture as to how he met his demise. The tapestry suggests an arrow in the eye or his legs cut out from under him—or perhaps a combination of the two. In any case, it was not the outcome he and the Saxon people throughout England had been hoping for. William the Conqueror, a Norman from France, was their new king.
So how could a Frenchman who had just killed an English king take control of this foreign land and all its people? William was smart, or he at least had some pretty good number crunchers advising him. The most important decision he made was to write a book. It wasn’t a bestseller with the public, but it made him a great deal of money. Every rich and poor bastard in the country had to have his assets recorded and valued—even his chickens—to determine how much tax he would have to pay.
This information was recorded in the Domesday Book. If you disobeyed these laws or questioned the new king’s power, you had your property and belongings destroyed. There was no choice in the matter. Any wonder stories involving characters like Robin Hood, who took from the rich and gave to the poor, were very popular among the peasants.
To carry out his plan, William first had to have the backing of the church. This cost him about a quarter of the country’s wealth. He shrewdly gave a small amount (about 5%), to the Anglo-Saxon lords, kept some of it for himself, and divided the remainder, about half, among his trusted and loyal Norman servants.
|A part of the tapestry's 70 metres of length.|
Finally, William created a land ownership system similar to the one used in France. He distributed his loyal nobles throughout the country, charging them with the job of looking after the land and the large peasant population who worked on it. The lords and barons—who were given the remainder of the land—took it in exchange for their allegiance to William and the payment of taxes. Further down the pecking order were the knights who were also provided with some land or shelter, in exchange for their loyalty, military service and taxes. On the bottom rung came the Saxon peasants, the common people who formed the majority of the country’s population. They, of course, owned a minority of its wealth. Not a lot has changed in many parts of the world when you think about it.
It was very much a class society with virtually no upward mobility. If your parents were nobles you were a noble. If your parents were peasants, you remained a peasant, and you only married a peasant.
Sounds like a recipe for a romantic novel set somewhere in the 20th century. Boy meets girl, they fall madly in love, she’s rich, he’s poor and from the wrong side of the tracks. The parents obviously don’t approve. The girl fights an inner battle, torn between love and duty. Throw in a ship—specially, the Titanic—on its maiden voyage, destined for the freezing waters of the North Atlantic, and you may even have a box-office extravaganza on your hands.
Whatever might have happened to Jack and Rose some 800-odd years later, the feudal system enabled William to maintain control throughout England. It’s hard to gauge whether the Saxon peasant population was, in the long run, better or worse off under Norman rule than before, but one thing’s for sure: it certainly made William a very rich and powerful man. Not only was he the king of Normandy, the most powerful kingdom in France, but he was also the last man to ever conquer England. And the English have never forgotten it.
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|Roz laughing off the drizzle at the top of Koppenberg, Belgiu|
|Allied cemetery, Northern France|
Other places in or near Northern France.
‘Lycra, Lattes and the Long Way Round’ is available on Amazon, Book Depository, Barnes and Noble, Kobo Books and other online bookstores.
|Memorial statue commemorating the Battle ov Verdun, 1916|
Also available at local bookshops on the Mornington Peninsula: @ Rosebud Bookbarn and @ La Brocante
“Travelling – it leaves you speechless, then turns you into a storyteller’.