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18 September 2014
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William the Conqueror: A Thorough Revolutionary

By Michael Wood
Melancholy havoc

Image of Norman soldier
The military face of Norman England ©
All the eye witnesses and near-contemporaries agree that these were terrible events. Enslavement and devastation of the countryside, deliberate burning of fields, refugee crises, famine, people surviving on insects and rats. These were the news stories of the day. Their descriptions match the worst horror stories of modern war reporting.

Then, as time passes, we begin to read chroniclers who offer a wider overview of how things seemed to them, a generation or two later. Though these are not primary sources, written in 1066, their snapshots are fascinating insights into the way the next generation saw things.

'I have cruelly oppressed them and ... killed innumerable multitudes by famine or the sword ...'

William of Malmesbury, for example, who wrote in the 1120s, had a Norman father and an English mother, so he was caught between the two sides. He writes that this was 'a fateful day for England, the melancholy havoc of our dear country', because it fell under foreign lords. Around the same time, another historian of mixed descent, Orderic Vitalis, reports the deathbed confession of William the Conqueror. According to Orderic, this is what William said:

'I've persecuted the natives of England beyond all reason, whether gentle or simple. I have cruelly oppressed them and unjustly disinherited them, killed innumerable multitudes by famine or the sword and become the barbarous murderer of many thousands both young and old of that fine race of people.'

Did William ever say that? It seems hard to believe that Orderic really had access to an eye-witness account of the Conqueror's last words. Most likely this is what the English would have wanted him to say. But his text certainly shows us how some people felt 40 years on from William's death, 60-odd years after Hastings. And perhaps this is a pointer to why the tale persisted in myth for so long afterwards.

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