Thursday, 11 September 2008

The Other thing that Happened Today

Understandably enough, the majority of people's focus today is going to be on the attack on the twin-towers back in 2001. I don't think I can do that subject justice, so I'm not going to try. Instead, I'm going to drift into my role of medieval historian for a moment and point out the other important event 11th September is the anniversary of: the death in 1087 of William the Conqueror.

It probably seems like an insignificant thing, but without this man's life, things would almost certainly be rather different. The words on this page definitely would be, because without the invasion of an Old French speaking nobility, English would have been influenced far less by that language. Even little words like pork and beef wouldn't be part of it, deriving as they do from the French.

There also wouldn't have been the continuing connection to Normandy until approximately the Third Crusade (when Philip II of France pulled a sickie so he could run back and steal it) resulting in an important Northern European force in the form of the Angevin Empire. Without that, maybe European politics for the next few hundred years (the consequences of which still pop up now and again) would have been very different indeed.

And then there are all the deaths.

Without William, there probably wouldn't have been the mass displacement and killing known popularly now as the 'harrowing of the north'. I forget the exact figures involved, and I wouldn't like to risk being wrong when we're dealing with what I suspect are tens of thousands, but I don't need them anyway. I just need you to imagine for a moment an almost total scorched earth policy over much of the north (and particularly the north east) of England. My home town of Beverley was lucky, because, according to John Kettel, writing a couple of hundred years later, William was impressed by what he heard of St John of Beverley. Most places weren't so lucky. Even taking into account some of the problems with the term waste in Domesday Book, large swathes of countryside were still trying to recover almost twenty years later.

And then there's that book. No one knows for sure what he wanted it for, with arguments usually ranging between taxation and a record of 'feudal' landholding. It was just a snapshot, and it wasn't even finished in his lifetime, but the level of organisation it took was impressive.

So there we have it, at least in as much as I can be bothered. William I: typically ruthless medieval monarch, Conqueror of England, cause of a lot of rivalry between England and France in the long run, and probably also one of the first sad, anorak wearing stattos. Not to mention the only King of England the average school child has heard of these days.

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