The Normans were the first group I remember in primary school history. Perhaps it was the 900th anniversary of the Battle of Hastings in 1966 that had propelled the invaders into the mind of the teacher. There had been a wonderful set of postage stamps based on the Bayeux tapestry that exercised a strange fascination for years afterwards.
The teacher would tell us about the heroic English who had marched north to defeat the Norwegian invaders at the Battle of Stamford Bridge and who had then marched 200 miles south in five days – an extraordinary achievement – and had been exhausted when they faced the army of William, Duke of Normandy on a hillside near the town of Hastings. Each time the story was told there was an irrational wish that this time the retelling of the history would result in an English victory.
It must be some forty years since that strange feeling that there might be an account of the Battle of Hastings in which Harold would win and Anglo-Saxon England would survive. Watching BBC television’s The Normans, narrated by Professor Robert Bartlett, who brought each moment alive, the feeling returned. As Bartlett stood in a grassy field giving an account of how the battle unfolded, there was a wish that the arrow that would bring down King Harold would miss; that his body would not be dismembered; that the English would not be slaughtered in those Sussex acres.
The childhood wish for a Saxon victory was maybe rooted in some sense of a lost past. Having a surname that is a toponymic, a name derived from the place from which people came, Norman records show that a number of places called Poulton existed prior to the conquest, so those who would in later times assume the surname ‘de Poulton’ were presumably those whose families had been part of Saxon communities. Had the Normans treated badly those who were ancestors? Had they become second class people in the new kingdom?
But even if they had, what matter? There is hardly a community that has not had blood on its hands at some point in its history.
Was there something more to a junior class dislike of the Conqueror? Was it part of a centuries long fear of invaders? Was there some atavistic dislike of the French, a nation still caricatured in English tabloid newspapers?
It is odd; the people who would bring Britain into a new era with new administration, and grand architecture, and economic growth, evoking such a feeling?
Maybe there were other schoolboys who were cheering while I was booing.