“Why is the rule by William the Conqueror seen as such a turning point in English history instead of Cnut the Great’s rule?”

I have heard of the date 1066 so much but not 1016 when Cnut became king of whole of England – Why is it so?

[Question by u/littlesaint: link to the original reddit post]

My answer

I see many discussions on historical facts, but I think the best approach to answer this difficult question is with historiography: the writing of history. Also I’m pretty happy because I can provide some light on the subject. I hope you’ll like it.

I read in J. Bellis’ monography (The Hundred Years War in Literature. 1337-1600, 2016) that “in 1754 David Hume held that ‘William had even entertained the difficult project of abolishing the English language’, persuaded by the fabrications of the chronicle of pseudo-Ingulf, not until 1826 demonstrated to be a fifteenth-century forgery not an eleventh-century original. […] In their emphases on the conquerors’ alleged attempts at total linguistic abolition, the emotive invective of the French conflict of the eighteenth and nineteenth century was surely rearing its head: Hume and Scott were (unwittingly, perhaps?) the Gloucester and Castleford of their generations.” (p. 28)

A few pages before, J. Bellis writes on Gloucester and Castleford’s works.

“Early in the thirteenth century, Lazamon described the Normans as ‘unnatural people’, the dominance of their language as ‘malicious practice’ and ‘an immoral act’. […] He represented conquest as a specific act of linguistic vandalism, an overwriting of the precious and precarious textual landscape that encoded British history.§ Such romanticized reconstructions became more exaggerated as the events became more distant. In the early fourteenth century, the Metrical Chronicle (historically attributed to Robert of Gloucester, although this is debated) inveighed against the fact that ‘the English people have been dragged down to the ground, on account of a false king, who had no right to the kingdom.’ […] Two whole centuries after 1066, it projected an image of the conquerors as an unassimilated, unwelcome group, and the English as a racial subset living among invaders. […] Thomas Castleford took the topos further, writing of the Conqueror, ‘he cleft the land of England from English blood’. […] He depicted the dominance of French in the legal system as a deliberate ploy to condemn the English in a language they could not understand.” (p. 21-22)

J. Bellis concludes:

“This romantic exaggeration, itself inherited from the later Middle Ages, was in turn inherited by criticism in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Edward Freeman (1876) held that ‘the tongue of the Norman conquerors … utterly displaced the national tongue’. He called ‘the abiding corruption of language’ ‘the one result of the Norman Conquest which has been purely evil’, lamenting that ‘the tongue which we brought with us from the elder England … has become for ever the spoil of the enemy’. Again, this reflects thirteenth- and fourteenth-century constructions (conducive to eighteenth- and nineteenth-century reconstructions), not the reality; it neatly illustrates for just how long the depiction of ‘linguistic conquest’ went on gathering momentum.” (p. 28)

We can therefore trace back a long chain of texts that construct the 1066 Norman Conquest as a total disaster for England and the English language in particular. It all begins in the 13th century with Lazamon point of view on the matter, which is then inflated by Gloucester and Castleford’s writing in the 14th century. This leads to the writing of the pseudo-Ingulf chronicle in the 15th century, “that purported to be an eleventh-century monastic chronicle” (Bellis, 2016, 25), but that is nothing but a forgery and has been written to sustain the war propaganda against the French. That last text was taken very seriously, however, by Hume and Scott, who romantically exaggerated the impact of the Norman Conquest on the 11th century Anglo-Saxon England. Their point of view was then carried on by the honourable scholar that was Edward Freeman and the impact of the Norman Conquest has been discussed ever since.

On the other hand, there is no such historiographical debate, spreading through several centuries, about Knut’s conquest. Partly because, “as Pearsall holds, ‘Englishness had always been constructed’ negatively, ‘out of opposition to Frenchness’, which ‘had been the whetstone of English national sentiment from Norman times and … was always capable of being reinvoked’.” (Bellis, 2016, 64)

The marking of 1066 as a point of “no return” was, however, not rendered obvious by former chroniclers. Among them we should mostly consider the anonymous author of the prose Brut. Before diving into that I’d ask you to allow me a short excursus about the Brut literature.

The Brut is a medieval narrative source that can be written in Latin, Old French (anglo-norman) or Middle English. Its literary tradition, as far as we can trace it back, starts with Monmouth own Historia Regum Britanniae (a most important historical chronicle that also lays the foundation of the Arthurian literature). That first Latin chronicle was written in the 12th century. It was then translated and adapted into Anglo-Norman verses by Wace, a few decades later. Those two massive works had a very clear and single objective: legitimize the Plantagenet kings as the rightful rulers of England.

Wace’s Roman de Brut—as it is called—was later on adapted into prose: the prose Brut. Now, we do have an awful lot of manuscripts containing different versions of that Anglo-Norman prose Brut. They were for most of all listed and described by the eminent scholar who was Lister M. Matheson.

A medieval chronicle was a “living text”, meaning it could be altered every time it was copied. Many things could change: from the content itself to the apparatus. The prose Brut was particularly popular because many chroniclers decided to add to it, generation after generation.

Circling back to the topic at hand, J. Marvin observed in her masterful monography (The Construction of Vernacular History in the Anglo-Normand Prose Brut Chronicle, 2017) that “the [prose Brut] chronicle also handles the Norman Conquest to minimize the appearance of a dynastic shift, taking pains to delegitimize Harold while legitimizing William as much as possible. It carefully notes William’s relationship to Edward the Confessor and his brother Alfred. […] It also emphasizes Harold’s unfitness, as a greedy and prideful oath-breaker, to rule. […] William’s victory becomes a triumph of right as much as might.” (p. 121-122) However, funnily enough, the apparatus of some prose Brut would later deconstruct that carefully crafted presentation of continuity.

“In London, Inner Temple Library, Petyt MS 511, vol. 19 (P511/19) the presence of the Latin genealogical poem that starts with William the Conqueror – ‘rex est anglorum, bello conquestor eorum’ – emphasizes his significance, and the sense of his beginning a new epoch in English history. For good measure, P511/19 also contains the Latin link between the prologue and the main text, and in the blank space left below the Latin link a fifteenth-century user has briefly repeated in Latin the information found in the earlier French note, including William’s conquest. This framing of the narrative is thus strongly reinforced for readers. And it appears to have had an effect. […] A fifteenth century annotator, probably the same person who added the Latin note, has provided a lengthy French note on the conquest of Britain and the change of the realm’s name, and there are also two manicules, one at the passage in the text acknowledging ‘la grant mescheance’ and another in the top margin beside the note.” (Marvin, 2017, 180-181)

The P511/19 contains what Lister M. Matheson classified as the Short Version of the prose Brut, which present a continuation of the chronicle up until 1333. It is therefore a 14th-century text and manuscript. The specific layout of the manuscript added to the 15th-century hand that wrote annotations in relation with the Norman Conquest further demonstrate the historiographical shift I was presenting in the first paragraphs, especially since the author of the prose Brut had particularly written his chronicle to showcase a rightful continuity between Edward and William’s reigns.

K. A. Murchison also demonstrates in her article about Le Livere de Reis de Engleterre (LRE), “Piety, Community and Local History: Le Livere de Reis de Engleterre and it’s Context in Cambridge, Trinity College, MS R.14.7” (2016), another early 14th-century chronicle, that the Norman Conquest wasn’t presented as a major shift by its author. “The chronicle is principally occupied with conveying the history of the eleventh and twelfth centuries. […] The author draws primarily on Geoffrey of Monmouth and Bede. […] Compared to its sources, LRE generally puts greater emphasis on the Church than the nation, and this creates the illusion of a transnational community of ethics, which deemphasizes national differences. […] As [John] Spence points out, England’s French prose chronicles typically justify the switch from Anglo-Saxon to Norman rule by emphasizing the legitimacy of William the Conqueror’s claim to the throne and by celebrating his reign. In contrast, LRE distributes praise or blame for William and other Norman rulers based on the way they treat religious individuals and institutions.”

These different observations help us to understand how the “Norman Conquest” gradually became a myth that served a purpose. Indeed, during the Hundred Years War “it was politically useful to keep insisting on the possibility of French aggression, and stoking the idea that its particular object was the English language. These allegations […] deliberately associated the French in the late fourteenth century with the Normans in the late eleventh, eliding present aggressors with former conquerors to depict a dubiously just, territorial skirmish as a defence of the realm (and the language) against its ancient and perennial menace. Perhaps it was not for nothing that the French are repeatedly described by the chronicles as ‘the Normandys’.” (Bellis, 2017, 63)

From that point onwards, 1066 became a very strong literary topos.

In conclusion, I’d like to add that I’m not stating, in any way, that William’s conquest of England as in and for itself is any more or less important than Knut’s. However I can safely assert that it became a much bigger deal for later historians. It was severely more discussed, it rose and brought on a lot more emotions (especially in connection with national pride and sense of identity), and that is why, in my opinion, William’s rule of England is seen “as such a turning point in English history”.

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