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18 September 2014
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The Norman Yoke: Symbol or Reality?

By Michael Wood
Vision of England

Image from Ladybird Book
How Ladybird books portrayed the Conquest ©
This was the vision of history sold to boys in the late 50s and early 60s. It encapsulates a famous myth about Anglo-Saxon England - the myth that the English were freedom-loving, primitive democrats before 1066, and that we lost our liberties to the Normans.

The historians call this myth the 'Norman Yoke', and it's been an amazingly persistent emotional thread in English literature, art and politics. A theme so long lasting that it has even exerted its pull over the way professional historians have read their historical documents.

'We are all influenced by what we read and what we experience.'

Take the greatest 20th-century book on early English history, Sir Frank Stenton's Anglo-Saxon England. Stenton's book was completed in the middle of World War Two and published in November 1943, and of course, no work of history can ever escape its own time. It was patriotic, teleological in approach, written from the heart and touched by the wartime spirit.

When Stenton talks of Alfred as the founder of the British Navy, you can almost see battleships of gunmetal grey hugging the horizon just as they did in Ulric's vision in The Eagle. We are all influenced by what we read and what we experience. And when we try to bring the people of the past back to life and imagine we can see them, we always have to remember that it is our breath, our blood, we have used to animate them.

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