Memory and Myths of the Norman Conquest

In their celebrated spoof history, 1066 and All That, Sellar and Yeatman famously concluded that English history contained only two memorable dates: 1066 itself and the year 55 BC (when Caesar invaded Britain, if memory serves). But there can be little doubt, given their choice of title, that they thought the Norman Conquest of 1066 was the most memorable of all.

But why do we remember the date of 1066 above all others? In 2004 David Bates, newly appointed as director of the Institute of Historical Research, delivered a well-received inaugural lecture entitled, ‘1066: Does the Date Still Matter?’, in which he ventured some tentative answers. However, as he explained, his own forays in this field were limited to asking the opinions of IHR staff. The results were interesting, but hardly conclusive; as investigative methods go, this was arguably not that far removed from Sellar’s and Yeatman’s ‘years of research in golf-clubs, gun-rooms, green rooms, etc.’

Siobhan Brownlie has approached the question with a great deal of rigour. In the first place she has commissioned a quantitative survey of 2,000 UK residents, carefully selected to be representative of the country as a whole, in which respondents were asked a variety of Conquest-related questions: whether, for example, they felt positive or negative about the Norman invasion, sympathy for the Anglo-Saxons and so on. Secondly, she has searched a selection of British newspapers for the period 2005­-08, uncovering a total of 807 references to the events of 1066.

The results of the survey, given in an appendix, are occasionally diverting, but in general,  when it comes to extrapolating from these data, the results are disappointing.

Perhaps the first thing to note is the style of the writing, which is prolix in the extreme. Every concept (not just ‘memory’ and ‘myth’) is defined at great length, often using examples which have no connection to the Conquest itself, and scarcely a paragraph passes without a précis of the ideas of other academics. Of course this is an academic book, not intended as bedtime reading; but even academics should be able to say that most people remember the Conquest because they did it at school and resist sentences such as: ‘Mnemonic socialization occurs in many places and in many ways, including unobtrusive means such as street names and the faces on bank notes, with schooling as a particularly important memorial vector.’

When we are offered conclusions, though, they often seem crushingly obvious. ‘In general’, explains the author, ‘negative attitudes [towards the Conquest] are not so fully and virulently expressed in the newspapers as in the early chronicles.’ Men who wrote within living memory of 1066, she finds, focussed on the trauma and tended not to crack jokes; modern journalists treat the subject with greater levity. Nowadays the New Forest, Domesday Book and castles all get a big thumbs-up; in 1066, not so much. ‘Writing’, we are told, ‘plays an essential role in preserving the memory of the distant past.’

All incontestably true, of course – but one wonders whether it is necessary to go to such lengths in order to prove it.

Marc Morris is a medieval historian and broadcaster. His latest book is The Norman Conquest (Windmill, 2013).