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18 September 2014
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The Normans: Monty's Proud Ancestors?

By Michael Wood
Roger of Montgomery

Artist's impression of Hen Domen
Artist's impression of Hen Domen - Roger of Montgomery's original castle ©
William Blake says that any fool can generalise, the real art is to be particular. And that's especially true of history. In history it is all in the detail - you learn things from the particular.

For example, some time after my brush with Field Marshal Montgomery all those years ago, I was making a film about the Norman Conquest for the BBC. I was looking for individual characters, a real-life Ulric the Saxon, for example, or a real-life Norman knight. I decided to go looking for Monty's ancestor, Roger of Montgomery, as an example.

We went back to his ancestral village in Normandy, to see his estates there. Then we went out to the Welsh border, to the town that still bears his name. Go there today and you will still see a big stone Norman castle on the hill which stands over the town. It was built to control the Welsh border and the trade ways into England. A mile or so away beyond the fields is the site of the original castle, built by Roger in the immediate aftermath of the Battle of Hastings, when the Norman army fanned out to suppress the English resistance and clamp hold of the country.

'... the archaeologists compared them to SAS men, in chain mail from head to foot ...'

The place is called Hen Domen. It was a motte and bailey castle, with great ditches and a huge mound on which the inner castle was built of great wooden timbers ringed by palisades. It was also the site of the only long term systematic archaeological dig of a Conquest-period Norman castle. Here, if anywhere, we might get evidence from the ground of what it was like at the time of Roger of Montgomery.

Standing on Hen Domen, in the company of the archaeologists, I thought back to those first months after the Battle of Hastings. The Norman army took the submission of the English nobility in London, but out here they still had to impose their will on the people. After they had laid out the perimeter of the castle, the landscape for a mile around it was blitzed, so there were no trees or bushes left for the resistance to hide behind.

Then in the middle of it, massive earthworks were thrown up by captured English labour, to be crowned with great timber palisades, towers, gates and fighting platforms. Inside was crammed with mess huts, stables, latrine blocks, armouries and forges to supply munitions. As for the men who used it, the archaeologists compared them to SAS men, in chain mail from head to foot, their steel helmets with great nose pieces and their heavy weaponry.

Many of them were mercenaries - violent men, men who couldn't care less what they did to the native people, practised killers who were in it for the money. Perhaps that is an imagining too far. But what the archaeologists could show was that this was a place made purely and simply for war.

Published: 2004-11-09

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