As the Battle of Hastings is re-enacted on-site today, I wonder, not for the first time, whether we have had a thousand years of national independence after the slaughter of Senlac, or instead have remained a conquered people ever since.
Like the joke about the prehistoric axe museum exhibit that had several changes of handle and head to counter rust and rot, but was said still to be the same axe, the people who run this country seem to me to have a sort of enduring colonial attitude to the rest of us. I think of a titled landowner, selling off his inherited land to developers for money - for what? Business owners that sell out their famous names to foreign and multinational concerns; a number of Prime Ministers from Macmillan on, surreptitiously giving up our sovereignty and the democratic habits that took four centuries and more to establish.
Is Britain more plagued by aristocratic and plutocratic traitors than other European nations? If so, is it because they see themselves as not quite British, more transnational, cheerfully looting the locals? How else can we explain the behaviour of our politicians, civil servants, industrialists, journalists and professional handlers of law and money in the great European controversy of the last decades?
In the meantime, let's go back to 1066...
On Stamford Bridge (republished from 22 May 2012)
We stood on a little jetty at the end of a private garden. The caged fowl beside the public footpath were silent. Shaded by branches, midges circled above the eddying stream. Static caravans lay haphazardly on the other bank, like cast runes.
Near here, said the leaflet, stood the original Saxon bridge, where a Viking warrior held off Harold’s army, buying time for his countrymen to scramble into position on the rise behind us. Some say he slew up to 40 Englishmen, a Biblical number.
And how was he killed? Legend has it that someone got into a half barrel and floated underneath the bridge, thrusting a spear up between the planks. One can imagine the Norseman jerking onto tiptoe and dropping his blade, others jumping forward to hack him down.
Battle-memory is sharp. Back home, survivors would relate his story, acting out the planted feet, each mighty movement, the raging face. His fame would live.
As would his family. A young son might become a king’s ward, then an honoured house-carl; a daughter would have suitors for the hero’s blood in her veins, and as was iron custom, his widow’s neighbour would plough her field before his own.
Almost a thousand years have passed, and all has changed. In 1066, there was no village here; now, there are buildings of brick and stone, metalled roads, other vegetation and a different climate. Even the river will have altered, in its shape and the composition and depth of its silt.
And so has the cosmos. The glittering bridge over which his soul would pass to the Hall of the Slain (Norway was then only part-Christianized), is now an arm of the Milky Way, around which the Earth, part of a solar system unimagined in his day, has since moved trillions of miles in its quarter-billion-year orbit. More of the outer reaches of the ever-expanding Universe are now receding faster than light, so that the glint of long-extinct stars, quasars and galaxies can never reach us. All that is, is moving away from what is observed to what is recorded, then to speculation, myth and oblivion. Yet his brave deed is still remembered.
So, why is he anonymous? The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle describes him simply as a Norwegian, and the early 13th century Norse account omits him entirely. No bard inscribed him on eternity’s roll. Yet we still know the name of Horatius Cocles, who held back the Etruscans while the bridge into Rome was demolished, 1,500 years ago. Perhaps this Viking is an invention by one who understood narrative, and how stories of vast conflict need intensifying moments of delay, and an interlude at the personal scale before returning to the broader historical vista. Besides, the heart always soars at the contemplation of those who scorn certain death.
He may have been real, nevertheless. The Chronicle’s reference is matter-of-fact, and makes his action merely a rearguard defence after the death of Hardraada. But was he really here, by this shallow, narrow, island-divided branch of the Derwent?
Or, as some say, did the battle occur a mile further downstream, at what is now Scoreby, a Roman settlement straddling a wider stretch of river spanned by a bridge? That would seem a more likely place for Hardraada and Harold Godwinson’s rebellious brother Tostig to wait complacently in the warm September sunshine for further hostages and supplies from York, following their victory at Fulford five days earlier. Their forces were resting on both sides of the water, and their body armour, presumed no longer necessary, lay 15 miles away with their ships, at Riccall.
It was in this condition that the English King surprised them, having marched 185 miles from London in only four days. The occupiers on the west bank were quickly slaughtered, the remainder of the army assembling their overlapping “board-wall” and, perhaps retreating to the 100-foot rise at High Catton, resisting the attack for hours, before fragmenting and being routed. King Harald’s throat was pierced by an arrow, as (according to tradition) King Harold’s eye would be, nineteen days later; Tostig also perished, along with the overwhelming majority of the invaders.
Stamford is overshadowed by Hastings, but it was one of those hinges on which history turns. What might have happened, had the Norwegians won? Would Hardraada have gambled for the whole country, fighting William of Normandy? Had Tostig planned to be the King’s vassal, or to divide the land diagonally into Danelaw for Hardraada and some sort of Anglund for himself? Would that have lasted? Or would England have faced a series of episodes of civil strife and invasion worse even than the merciless elite-decapitation and folk-oppression of the Normans?
Had the Scandinavians succeeded, what would our language, law, custom and culture be today? Impossible to imagine.
So, reflecting on a man who might never have been, a place where something may not have happened, and a landscape which scarcely resembles that of a millennium ago, we took our souvenir earthenware mug with its horned-helmeted axeman and our misleading printed guide, and joined the queue at the lights to cross a bridge that probably had nothing to do with events that made us what we are today.