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18 September 2014
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William the Conqueror: A Thorough Revolutionary

By Michael Wood
Image of Norman horseman
Norman horseman at the Battle of Hastings ©

King William was a hard man, determined to use force to impose his will on the nation he had conquered. He was so successful at it, the Anglo-Saxons became second-class citizens in their own country.

A new order

After the famous defeat of King Harold by William of Normandy at the Battle of Hastings in 1066, the lands and riches of the Anglo-Saxon ruling class were systematically removed by its conquerors. The Norman Conquest was a thorough-going revolution which, as so often happens in history, was driven by a great figure - William the Conqueror.

You may not like William (who did?) but you have to admit that this hard, inflexible and unlovable man was politically the master of his world. And the fascinating thing about the Norman invasion is that it is still known as 'the Conquest'. If you live in Britain, even now, more than 900 years on, that is all you have to say - everyone knows what you are talking about.

'They are ... trying to make sense of one of the great turning points in English history ...'

The Conquest has always been a subject of much debate between historians. They used to argue whether it was a good thing or a bad thing - whether Anglo-Saxon England was an archaic backwater only brought into the mainstream of European civilisation by the Norman invasion, or a place that would have been better off left to its own people.

These days, the debate tends to focus not on praise or blame or regret, but on the textual and material evidence for what happened in the years immediately following the Norman Conquest. Fortunately, the period is served by an incredibly rich series of sources.

There are the Norman accounts, but also valuable, if in short supply, are English reports from the time. Then there are the words which flow from various people over the next 50 years. They are looking back on events and trying to make sense of one of the great turning points in English history, much as we still do today.

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