The English Resistance: the Underground War Against the Romans
© 2006 Peter Rex
I was scandalized to learn, in seventh grade, that once ages ago, England was conquered. Already I had acquired the mythic conception of England as an indomitable island redoubt, safe from whatever Continental mischief was carrying on. But there, in my book, in 1066, William of Normandy lands, kills the Witan-endorsed successor to the English throne, and installs himself as monarch, with a line that officially lives on today. Peter Rex argues in The English Resistance that William’s assault at Hastings accomplished less than is popularly believed, only giving him the title of king and command of southern England, and that historians have heretofore been too pro-Norman to give the feisty Saxons their due.
1066 was a brutal year for Anglo-Saxon England, with no less than three battles culling its stock of leaders. The depletion of ranks went a long way towards making southern England putty in William’s hands, especially as he burned down villages that resisted. Bearing as he did a banner blessed by the Pope, the church hierarchy in England favored his cause as well…and considering their lands and knights, the bishops were no small allies. (The lower levels of the church, like the abbeys, were far more resistant to the Norman intrusion.) In the north, however, the barons were unscathed, and several rebellions against William would erupt from it directly or with its support. Intriguingly, one of the rebellions had the intent of routing William and establishing an Anglo-Danish state, with an English client-king. The same death-and-fire approach William used to intimidate the south was leveled against the north with greater ferocity after the Bastard* concluded a siege of the rebels’ marshy stronghold. Much of the north was ‘wasted’, the fields ruined for cultivation.
The English Resistance has more spell in its title than it its execution, because Rex assembles the book in a very odd way. It opens with commentary on the long-term consequences of the resistance, leading William to abandon his pretense of an Anglo-Norman state with continuity to the old line, devotes a few chapters to different rebellions mixed with extensive discussion of one rebel’s genealogy, and then to end…introduces the characters of the drama? Reverse order would seem more appropriate, with the many pages devoted to Hereward. the Wake’s forefathers and descendants left to the book Rex has written on Hereward the Wake. The book tends toward the scholarly, with much discussion of source interpretation, but there are pockets of drama. I might read one more book by Rex to see how it compares: he has written biographies of Edwin the Confessor, Harold Godwinson, Hereward the Wake, and other figures associated with the conquest. That sort of devoted study promises insights to be had.
* A far more entertaining title than “William the Conqueror”, and much less pompous.