sun 13/07/2014

The Normans, BBC Two | TV reviews, news & interviews

The Normans, BBC Two

Britain's last conquerors are given their due

In the absence of newsreel footage, Professor Robert Bartlett leans heavily on the Bayeux Tapestry
In the absence of newsreel footage, Professor Robert Bartlett leans heavily on the Bayeux Tapestry

My surname came to Britain with the Normans, and I must say that my forebears have had a bad press in their adopted homeland. From Hereward the Wake to Robin Hood, Anglo-Saxon legends have depicted us as despotic and cruel, whereas we were great builders of castles and cathedrals, brilliant horsemen and tip-top administrators, as well as being despotic and cruel. Anyway, it was good to have the refreshingly un-youthful and un-strident Professor Robert Bartlett (more Norman names) giving us his authoritative account of the antecedents and legacy of 1066 and all that. It’s about time we Viking-Frenchmen had a spokesperson.

The invaders’ Scandinavian roots may have been a revelation to some viewers of The Normans, although not to those with some acquaintance of the Normandy countryside and its flaxen-haired, blue-eyed and decidedly un-Gallic looking locals. A giant Norwegian leader known as Rollo the Walker (he was too big for a horse) first fully annexed the area between the River Epte – a tributary of the Seine - and the English Channel (as it obviously wasn’t known as at the time) from the French, pointedly refusing to wash King Charles’s feet as an act of obeisance. In fact he had an underling make as if to wash Charles’s feet – before that man tipped the monarch on to his back. Legend or not, it was a wonderfully Mafia moment – an utterly scornful show of strength.

Like any good Mafiosi, the Normans decided to turn legit – adopting Christ instead of pagan gods, building instead of pillaging, abandoning their Nordic language and beginning to drink wine. For the first time in their history the Vikings blended in with the peoples they had just conquered, something they were to do with some success in England, Scotland and Ireland, less so in Wales. But that’s for next week’s episode, because this opener concerned itself more with William the Bastard, as William the Conqueror was known before he started conquering. The illegitimate son of an embalmer’s daughter, William inherited the Duchy at the age of eight, saw every single one of his guardians assassinated, and had to make several moonlight flits from would-be usurpers. It wouldn’t take a Penelope Leach to tell you that William was going to grow up with certain issues - that he was going to be a tough ‘un.

Seen from William’s point of view, it was Harold Godwinson who was the usurper of the English throne (and there was something unseemly about Harold crowning himself before Edward the Confessor was cold in his coffin), the whole story told in minute detail by the Bayeux Tapestry, that great apologia for William’s invasion. In the absence of newsreel footage, Bartlett found himself leaning quite heavily on this extraordinary length of 11th-century embroidery. At least there were mercifully few of those reconstructed battle scenes that are the history programme’s stock in trade – although the leisurely sequences in which Bartlett breathed in the grandeur of various Norman edifices, from Caen Cathedral to Mont Saint-Michel, began to feel a bit like pictorial stuffing.

The Bayeux Tapestry contained enlivening details, such as the English wearing their hair long and growing moustaches, while the Norman’s preferred the clean-shaven look with a brutalist haircut. It also contains the scene where Harold is struck in the eye by an arrow – the Battle of Hastings having been yet another of history’s close-run things after a rumour spread that William had been slain. At this point Bartlett was again reduced, not for the first time, to pacing around a large field, there being no easy way of illustrating the story. At least we were spared the dreaded dramatised reconstructions.

And, anyway, the story was riveting enough for you not to care. The Norman Conquest is such a familiar part of our island story that it’s easy to forget how unfashionable this period has become – how oddly neglectful we have become of this tumultuous year. Perhaps it was Sellar and Yeatman’s fault for turning the date into a schoolboy joke. Last year’s Channel 4 documentary 1066: the Battle for Middle Earth, which told the story of these momentous events through the eyes of ordinary Saxons, Vikings and Normans, was a start, and this BBC Four season really puts the era back where it belongs – as one of the most action-packed moments in our history. There is surely a terrific movie, or one of those Tudors-style TV epics, to be made about the months leading from Edward the Confessor’s death to William 1’s Christmas Day coronation at Westminster Abbey. Russell Crowe as Harold? Daniel Day Lewis as the hard, unforgiving Conqueror? I must write that pitch.

Share this article

Comments

In some ways you are perfectly correct: the scandinavian invaders were great builders. But before they were great builders they were savages. . . As Vikings they knew where the booty was and they plundered it everywhere, not just around the British Isles. The knew in particular where to find the greatest wealth. It was always -- then and now -- to be found in the Churches, with the 'Holy' men and buried deep in the Vatican coffers. They reckon that at Avignon the Popes hid their booty in rooms with false floors. Now, of course , they resort to Banco Ambrosiana, Anglo-Irish Bank, and everybody else's bank as well. Markus Chinkus knew all about it! You also write: "Like any good Mafiosi, the Normans decided to turn legit – adopting Christ instead of pagan gods, building instead of pillaging, abandoning their Nordic language and beginning to drink wine." Notwithstanding this general view of the Normans, there is much to show that they resisted religion entirely, but for legitimacy, did the work of Der Papst. The deal that allowed the worst criminals in Europe -- beaten off the beaches of Sandymount by Brien Boru -- to return some time later under Papal banners is just how the Vatican works. If we look at the Vatican's relations with the Byzantines, the Lombards, the Franks (Charlemagne, Der Grosse) or Rollo, or the entire succession of French, English and German Kings, or the Reformation Wars, the Thirty Years War, or World Wars 1, 11, Korea, Vietnam, Russia, South America, Iraq, Afghanistan, Iran, etc., we find the same 'mafioso deal'. The Normans were used to oust Islam in Southern Italy, just as the Americans were used to oust Ho Chi Minh (the big bad Communist who wanted to feed his people) in Vietnam. And that's the point of the business of history -- to see what is enduring, what is of consequence and significance to us and the present world we live in. Instead , therefore, of gazing with awe on the marvels of the Normans, perhaps we should look with greater scrutiny on those whio manipulated them. . . Seamus Breathnach www.irish-criminology.com
Thanks, Mr Gilbert, an excellent review of an excellent series. I was abroad when the first two episodes were screened but managed to catch up with them on iPlayer. The final episode was particularly good, telling of Norman state building in southern Italy, a story less well known in this country. And like you my forbears also came over with William, except I have a double offense in that my surname is Fitzgerald-Beaumont. It's encouraging to see them get a good press at last!

Add comment

The content of this field is kept private and will not be shown publicly.
  • Web page addresses and e-mail addresses turn into links automatically.
  • Use to create page breaks.

More information about formatting options

By submitting this form, you accept the Mollom privacy policy.

Subscribe to theartsdesk.com

Thank you for continuing to read our work on theartsdesk.com. For unlimited access to every article in its entirety, including our archive of more than 7,000 pieces, we're asking for £2.95 per month or £25 per year. We feel it's a very good deal, and hope you do too.

To take an annual subscription now simply click here.

And if you're looking for that extra gift for a friend or family member, why not treat them to a theartsdesk.com gift subscription?

newsletter

Get a weekly digest of our critical highlights in your inbox each Thursday!

Simply enter your email address in the box below

View previous newsletters