book-reviews

The English Resistance

by Peter Rex

Rating: ★★★

In 1066 William the Conqueror beat Harold Godwinson at Hastings, and thus became King of England. Except it doesn't end there. In this book, Peter Rex details the aftermath of Hastings, in which the Norman invader sets about trying to maintain his hold on the English.

History is complex. It's not right to paint the aftermath as a plucky England refusing to be cowed, because for a large part that is what happened -- collaborators went over to William, hostages were exchanged, and most people south of the Humber just accepted the atrocities carried out by the Norman troops and tried to get on, even as they were ousted from their lands and titles to reward William's army. Yet at the same time, William's rule was by no means assured. Rex points out how even William seemed to consider the country won only after putting down a threatening rebellion aimed at raising the princeling Edgar the Aetheling to the throne many considered his right and managing to buy off a Danish invasion invited by the local population, both of which were real threats to him retaining his power. William's harsh punishment of the north -- what we would term a genocide -- can be informed by this.

While the content of the book is interesting, and it manages to be informative, the writing leaves a great deal to be desired. The chronology of events Rex presents is confused by his habit of talking suddenly of things which he has not yet reached, and by his diving back to revisit earlier points, a sloshing motion meaning that the story does not grip you. A dramatis personae is most welcome in a text dealing with many similar and confusing persons, but Rex inexplicably put this section right at the end of the book, where it is all but useless.

The book also suffers somewhat from what appears to be a prevailing bias in the source material. The first half of the book covers the majority of the actual events of the resistance, while the second half covers what seems to be a reasonably small event regarding a rebel named Hereward, a figure who has been inflated to legend (even gaining an invented name, 'the Wake', which Rex stresses is nowhere in the oldest sources). While his inclusion certainly adds some specific flavour to the book, Herewald does not merit the treatment he gets -- two chapters are devoted entirely to his lineage and non-descendants.

Certainly not the best-presented book, but the only one I've come across on this topic, The English Resistance provides some useful post-conquest context for the interested.