Recently we’ve been learning about the Norman conquest of England. The kids had a vague memory of hearing about it from our earlier approaches to history, and I reminded them of it by showing them again the animated version of the Bayeux Tapestry we watched earlier:
(This post contains a few affiliate links to Amazon. Some of the books are older and hard to find, but check your local library and used bookstores first.)
Then we turned to reading The Striped Ships by Eloise Jarvis McGraw. McGraw’s book is written for an older audience and I’m pretty sure my children missed noticing some of the beautiful complexity of it, but the basic story still worked for us. It tells of a thane’s daughter whose life is turned upside down when the stripped ships arrive in Pevensey. Juliana’s travels take her to the Norman encampment at Hastings, through the marshes into the big forest (the Weald) and then eventually to Canterbury where she makes a life for herself as an embroiderer, working on the great tapestry destined to hang in Bayeaux. The book is lighter than I thought it might be as more of Juliana’s family survive than I had thought, and it helped to introduce a number of topics. It familiarizes the kids with some of the names – Bishop Odo, Harold, and William in particular, and with the story of the oath Harold gave to William that he would support William. It gives an abundance of day to day details about life in the time period. I liked as well that it touches on the fact the Normans were not new to England after 1066, but that King Edward had brought many with him earlier and they were in some ways integrated.
What the book does not explain at all is why in the world William would have thought he had a claim to the throne or why King Edward had been so delighted with Normans. For that information I turn to the adult non-fiction book, Queen Emma and the Vikings: The Woman Who Shaped the Events of 1066 by O’Brien, Harriet New Edition (2006). The book itself is beyond my kids abilities but I read it and then prepared myself to retell portions of the story to them, using playmobile people as our visual for who was moving where. The main point was that Emma has twice been married to a husband with another wife. She had two sets of children with the potential to inherit the throne but the wives of each of her husbands also had children who could inherit. After some complication her son Harthacnut took the throne and then shared it with her son (his half-brother) Edward. Edward has spent most of his life in Normandy and it was natural he would be attached to his extended family there, thus justifying (at least partially) William (son of Edward’s cousin) believing that he would inherit the throne of England after Edward’s death.
Harold Godwineson becomes a bit of a mystery. On one hand his father was implicated in the death of Edward’s brother Alfred. He did break an oath to help William take the throne, though there is question whether the oath was made under coercion and therefore invalid. On the other hand, he did not attempt to force the people of Northumbria to accept his brother Tostig as earl after they had kicked him out. Was that realism or a sense of justice overwhelming family loyalty?
The other important aspect I wanted to stress was that England was not unified. There were Welsh slaves. There were the Danes. When we were talking about the Danes we turned to the television show Horrible Histories of the vignettes about the Vikings.
One of the things that did frustrate me looking for information about the Bayeux Tapestry online was that most videos about it begin with what Herald being crowned rather than including the earlier part of the story about his visit to Normandy, leading up to the swearing of the oath. I was lucky my local library has a book The Bayeux Tapestry: The Story of the Norman Conquest 1066 that includes pictures of the whole of the tapestry. With beautiful pictures and very simple commentaries, it provided a nice-wrap up for us. Reading through it we could talk about the parts of it which are specifically mentioned in The Striped Ships. The one thing I disliked about the book is that it says Herald had gone specifically to Normandy to meet with William and that the hounds and hawks drawn are meant to show peaceful and noble intent, whereas other sources suggest that Herald may have been off on a hunting trip when a storm took them off course.
The idea that Herald’s visit to the Normandy was completely unplanned is told in the historical fiction book The King’s Shadow by Elizabeth Alder. I bought a second hand copy of the book because it was mentioned in the book Recasting the Past by Rebecca Barnhouse. (I wrote about one of her other books here.) The King’s Shadow tells of a Welsh boy, tongue cut out by a family enemy and then sold into slavery to Harold Godwinson’s wife, then turned page, scout, squire and eventually foster-son to King Harold. As Rebecca Barnhouse’s book points out, that rags-to-riches tail is unbelievable, not the least because the wealthy competed to serve the king, and the job of squire would have been given as a privilege to someone whose family the king needed. The book portrays William the Conqueror as a brute and Harold as noble. I read the book myself instead of outloud to the kids because I was concerned about how the mention of cutting the boy’s tongue might go over with my often too sensitive kids. The book didn’t dwell on that, and I think the book’s fast pace might have appealed more to the children than The Striped Ships slower pace does, but I prefer the accuracy and complexity of The Striped Ships.
I find combining books with youtube videos a good way of keeping interest up and getting lots of information about a topic. Some days, I wonder what homeschooling parents did before the internet. Do you have favorite online resources you use?