1066 is probably the best-known date in English history, but history is about more than just dates. Even though history is taught to us as a list of dates and names, the way we look at the past is changing. When I was at school if you could remember the rhyme "divorced, beheaded, died, divorced, beheaded, survived" and knew the date 1588 for the Spanish Armada you were considered to have all the information that you were ever going to need for the 16th century and the Tudor monarchy in general. In the same way what most of us think that we know about Harold, Hastings and the subsequent Norman Invasion is probably either wrong or at best the tip of the iceberg.
The year 1066 is much more complex that just one battle fought on the south coast of the Anglo-Saxon kingdom of England. It was a year in which the country was to have three kings, fight a number of battles against two major powers and see the start of a whole new shift in cultural identity. Here Jim Bradbury has attempted to reappraise all the background information regarding the events of that year and produce a book at once in-depth and yet accessible to the general reader. In my mind there is no doubt that he has succeeded.
Battles don't happen accidentally, most don't anyway and the events that led up to the Battle of Hastings are explored in depth to begin with. The close family connections between the ruling house of Wessex and the Duchy of Normandy are examined to show the close rivalry and political machinations that created the groundwork for the Norman Invasion. A brief history of Normandy proves to be something that I had not come across in any other books on this subject before and proves to be worth its wait in gold for an understanding of the Norman mindset. Into this melting pot is added the Viking position, often over looked but without their involvement Harold may not have been in the weakened state in which he found himself.
A very good background on the arms and equipment of the times is covered showing that all three armies that contributed to the happenings that year were very similarly equipped. The idea of the Normans being the technological superiors to the Saxon army and Harold Hardrada's Scandinavians being a bunch of untrained ruffians just doesn't hold water any more and Bradbury shows this all too well.
He even speculates on some of the yet unidentified military designs and pieces of equipment to be seen in the Bayeux Tapestry, which remains a major resource for military information.
Drawing from a number of historical sources the battle is examined in detail, tactic, overall strategy, geography and a number of other aspects are all held up to the microscope. Some basic mythologies are shattered such as Harold's arrow in the eye featured in the Tapestry but a lot of solid factual evidence is built up to provide a good understanding of what was to prove to be one of the longest battles in medieval history. The aftermath of the battle provides us with a greater understanding of the impact of the loss of Harold as England's king and the start of Norman domination. Did the English rank and file just swap one set of nobles for a foreign set of nobles or was it the beginning of a whole new culture?
What Bradbury has created here is a major source book for all aspects of the events of that year from the political origins to the cultural changes that followed and it's all laid out in an accessible and readable fashion. Photographs of important locations, maps, diagrams and even family trees help present the facts but it is Bradbury's writing style that creates a bridge between a very academic subject and the general reader. If this is the first book that you have read on the subject or your twentieth, there is more than enough here to make it a must by for history buffs and academics alike.