Historical interpretations of The Norman Conquest

Most historians agree that 'The Norman Conquest' is the most important event in the history of England. The book 1066 and All That (1930), written by Sellar and Yeatman, jokes that 1066 is the only date everybody could remember.

The debate about the Norman Conquest has always essentially been about whether it was a good or bad thing.

Interpretations of 1066 and Norman rule

Even at the time, Anglo-Saxon writers saw it as a disaster and a punishment. The Norman chroniclers, by contrast, portrayed it as a glorious victory by the great and godly Normans.

In the 1800s, the great historian EA Freeman saw Harold II as an English nationalist, fighting for our freedom. His rival JH Round portrayed the English as corrupt and out-of-date, and William as the king who brought modern, European ways to England.

The most famous source is the Bayeux Tapestry. It shows the events before, during, and after, the Norman Conquest, embroidered into a piece of cloth.

The Bayeux Tapestry

Find a copy of the Bayeux Tapestry and use it to identify some of the scenes mentioned above.

  • Do they match your ideas about what happened?
  • What questions could you ask to assess the reliability of the tapestry as a record of events?

Modern interpretations of The Norman Conquest

Publicity photo of presenter Robert Bartlett from the TV series The Normans, standing by Tower of London, built during the reign of William I.
Presenter Robert Bartlett from the TV series The Normans

Generally, popular culture has supported the Saxons. Even recently, the Channel 4 docu-drama Battle for Middle Earth (2009) portrayed the Conquest as the struggle of plucky English underdogs against the nasty Normans.

However the BBC series The Normans (2010) stressed how the Normans were great builders, brilliant warriors and tip-top administrators who changed the world.

What is your interpretation of the Norman Conquest?

  • Who did you want to win – Harold or William – and why?
  • Was it a 'good thing' or a 'bad thing'?
  • Why do you think Hollywood has not made a film about it?
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