1066: Changing the English Channel
We Are Not Amused, Sir Guillaume
Escaping the doom of history
There is a wonderful old saying that goes, "Those who forget the past are doomed to repeat it." This, of course, implies that the people who came before us were doing more than just stumbling along blindly through their lives with no idea where they would wind up, or what the impact of their actions would be — and if the SCA [Society for Creative Anachronism] teaches us anything, it's that history is more often made by dumb luck than by genius or vision.
Because of this, we can see the immense value of insightful, well-researched essays and documents which put the events of the Middle Ages into perspective. For example, a scholarly study of the Norman Conquest of England and the famous Battle of Hastings would provide insight into an event of immeasurable political, cultural and military impact. I was hoping to include one in this book, but frankly, it sounds like a lot of work, so instead, I'll just make some stuff up as I go along.
At the beginning of 1066 A.D., the King of England, Edward "Fast Eddie" the Confessor, lay dying. Edward was best known for his famous quote, "Although these are hard times, I must confess, I am raising your taxes again."
England's system of Royal Succession was based on Danish / Saxon tradition which mandated that the wise men and leaders of England all come together for a Whitnegamot (an old Anglo-Saxon term meaning "square dance") in order to elect the new King based on the ability to govern with foresight and justice — or, if this proved too difficult, they also had the option of electing a new King based on who gave them the most gold.
After the death of Edward, the men of the Whitnegamot decided, after days of debate and more than a few casks of ale, that it was time to elevate a young, energetic fellow by the name of Harold "The Sap" Godwinson, to the throne. "It's quite an honor to be your new King," Harold said in a speech at his coronation. "Your faith in my leadership and judgment fills me with pride. And now, it's time to raise your taxes."
The choice of Harold as King of All England did not sit well with the nobility of other nations, most of whom were trying to come up with some feeble excuse why they should be King of all England. The top contender for this title was William "Billabong" of Normandy, whose major campaign theme in the race for the crown was, "Grandma slept with the King." Upon hearing of Harold's coronation, William decided to visit England to demonstrate that the enlightened, progressive system of royal selection employed by the Saxons was slightly inferior to that of the Normans, in which governmental representation and political foresight were replaced with swords, torches, spears, crossbows and catapults.
Although most of the people of England felt that two oppressors — sorry, we meant "candidates" — were enough, a third "independent" participant decided to throw his helmet in the ring. His name was Harald "I'm not the other guy named Harold" Hardrede, King of Norway.
To Harald, England was the key to reaching his ultimate dream: to sit on the throne of a "Northern Byzantine Empire," which was a fairly silly idea since there were relatively few Byzantines to be found in the area. He had noticed, you see, that the Byzantine Emperor received his taxes mainly in the form of gold, gems, silk, spices, and incense, whereas Harald, as King of Norway, received his taxes mainly in the form of sheep, sheep skins, wool, mutton and fleas. This was the situation he hoped to rectify (or at least escape) by invading England.
Meanwhile, William gathered his knights on the northern coast of Normandy. His challenge was to cross the English Channel in ships devoid of technologically advanced propulsion systems, such as "oars." In fact, the Norman ships were driven by a system known to historians as "a big bedsheet tied to the top."
Hampered by this lack of a discretionary sailing system, William's army partied — sorry, we meant "exercised" — waiting for the navigators' signal that the wind had shifted toward England and that it was time to have the Norman Invasion. From the navigators' point of view, this was quite a set-up — as long as the wind wasn't blowing toward England, they got to sit on the beach, eat William's food, drink William's ale, and carouse with William's camp followers. As soon as the wind shifted toward England, they got to sail overseas, get shot at, build castles, fight Saxons, and probably die.
"Italy," the navigators would say to William in the morning. "Wind's headin' right toward Italy today." Then the next morning it would be, "Poland today, Will. If we sail with this wind we'll end up in Poland. Or maybe Egypt."
Finally, when William's food supply was nearly exhausted and many of his barons and knights were beginning to wander off aimlessly, he asked the navigators, "Which way would the wind blow if I were to burn down your homes, kill your children, and boil you in oil?"
"Whoa, look at that!" the navigators said collectively. "There goes that pesky old wind heading right toward England."
With that, the Norman army headed for England, but they were soon to meet with disappointment. Harold's army had gone north to convince Harald's invading force that England wasn't such a hot place to have as the center of their Northern Byzantine Empire because, while most of the Byzantine people got along with the Byzantine Emperor, most of the English people would have found immense enjoyment in watching the King of Norway being fed to a pack of starving lobsters.
Fortunately, in a flash of Viking strategic brilliance, Harald decided to abandon the idea of having a battle on a field where all the soldiers could participate, in favor of engaging the Saxons on a narrow bridge where the fighting would take the form of a "Mother May I?" game with axes.
Harold sent his soldiers out single file, but the Viking warrior stationed on the bridge was so good that he defeated dozens of Saxons — this stratagem backfired, however, because the rest of the Vikings got bored standing around, wandered off to find the kegs of mead, and wound up in a drunken stupor by the time it was their turn to fight. This was the end of Harald's pretension to the English Crown.
Meanwhile, William and his now highly efficient navigators managed to cross the Channel and were in the process of convincing English peasants that they should donate generously to the newly formed, tax-exempt, Church of We Want To Be King — the primary doctrine of which was, "Give 'till we burn down your village."
Hearing this, Harold managed to get a majority of his troops pointed in a vaguely southerly direction before whooping real loud and starting a stampede. English road systems being what they are, however, most of the soldiers took the M12 to the YG109 across the BB110H and over the round-about to the TGJL99650 and wound up lost in a forest on top of Senlac Hill. While they were trying to figure out how to re-fold their map, one of William's soldiers snuck up and convinced Harold to "look really close" at one of his arrows, which just so happened to be resting on the string of his bow at the time.
With Harold out of the way, William had very little trouble finding his way to London which, with the help of his navigators took slightly less than a year. During this trip, William managed to "liberate" thousands of pounds of gold from English captivity, and when he was finally given the crown, he became affectionately known as "William the Blood-Sucking Slime Ball."
As the King walked past, the peasants would shout, "Long Live the Blood-Sucking Norman Slime Ball!" in Anglo-Saxon, which their new French-speaking King didn't understand. Undaunted by this language barrier, William would smile and, with a royal wave, say, "Thank you, my loyal and gracious people. Now, we'll raise your taxes ..."
© 2001 Scott Farrell
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