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18 September 2014
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The Norman Yoke: Symbol or Reality?

By Michael Wood
Image of Ladybird book cover
Cover of children's book about William the Conqueror ©

Later generations saw the Normans as usurpers who had put the English under a 'Norman Yoke'. Was this symbolic of a general sense of oppression, or representative of the harsh crushing of a whole society ... or both?

Comic book history

Saxons and Normans. 'It's injustice I hate, not the Normans', says Robin Hood in one of those cartoon stories. We all take in such tales as myths at our parents' knees. We encounter them in children's books, films, TV - even in Hollywood movies about Robin Hood, when Errol Flynn or Kevin Costner speak for the freedom-loving Saxons oppressed by the Normans. We all have our favourites, and I sometimes think these myths influence our view of history quite as much as real historical facts. Indeed sometimes it is quite difficult to tell them apart.

'Saxon England was dead, but a greater England would arise ...'

From my own childhood, for example, I particularly liked the Ladybird books on William the Conqueror and Alfred the Great. I also remember The Eagle, which was a boys' comic of the late 50s and early 60s. The Eagle ran a wonderful series for half a year on the Norman Conquest - the story of King Harold and his faithful 'thegn' Ulric of Glastonbury.

Of course, it all ends in tears with the fascistic crop-haired Normans, the Battle of Hastings, and the tragic death of Harold. In the comic strip there was an impressive last scene in which Ulric carried the body of King Harold down to the shore at Hastings. There he saw a vision in the sky - Tommies at the Somme and Alamein, Spitfires and Hurricanes, the Thin Red Line, Drake's drum and Nelson's Victory. The caption read: 'Saxon England was dead, but a greater England would arise.'

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