Our bloody English heritage

Posted on Fri 17 Sep 2010 @ 4.57am UTC

The bloody, war-wracked history of England gives us a little insight into why our English language is the way it is: visceral, direct, forceful and eschewing many of the linguistic niceties seen in other languages.

The excerpt below is reproduced from an email from Delanceyplace. I would have given the actual weblink to the article but Delanceyplace is an email-only subscription, so this is the reason for reproducing the article in whole here.

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In today’s encore excerpt — William the Conqueror, Duke of Normandy, crossed the English Channel from France in 1066 and conquered the English, thus starting what historians consider the true beginnings of modern Britain. William, who had known blood, fear and treachery since his earliest childhood, built a fighting force considered the fiercest in Europe, and his horse-mounted army decisively bested the horseless soldiers of England’s King Harald. After the conquest, he tried to include English lords as partners in his new regime, but their treachery led to a need to use savage methods to break the entire kingdom:

“[The child] William was inured to the spectacle of slaughter: two of his guardians were hacked down in quick succession; his tutor as well; and a steward, on one particularly alarming occasion, murdered in the very room in which the young duke lay asleep. Yet even as blood from the victim’s slit throat spilled across the flagstones, William could feel relief as well as horror: for he at least had been spared. …

“[Years later], in 1066, there could be no doubting that William ranked as a truly deadly foe. His apprenticeship was long since over. Seasoned in all the arts of war and lordship, and with a reputation fit to intimidate even the princes of Flanders and Anjou, even the King of France himself, his prime had turned out a fearsome one. So too had that of his duchy. Quite as greedy for land and spoils as any Viking sea king, the great lords of Normandy, men who had grown up by their duke’s side and shared all his ambitions, had emerged as an elite of warriors superior, in both their discipline and training, to any in Christendom. …

“[After defeating the England’s King Harald at the Battle of Hastings], what was left of the English turned at last and fled into the gathering darkness, to be hunted throughout the night by William’s exultant cavalry, and it was the reek of blood and emptied bowels, together with the moans and sobs of the wounded, that bore prime witness to the butchery. Come the morning, however, and daylight unveiled a spectacle of carnage so appalling that even the victors were moved to pity. ‘Far and wide the earth was covered with the flower of the English nobility and youth, drenched in gore.’ …

“[After the victory] William’s coronation oath, which stated that he would uphold the laws and customs of his new subjects, had been sworn with all due solemnity – and sure enough, for the first few years of his reign, he did indeed attempt to include them as partners within his new regime. But the English earls could never quite forgo a taste for revolt – with the result that, soon enough, an infuriated William was brought to abandon the whole experiment. In its place, he instituted a far more primal and brutal policy. Just as his ancestors had cleansed what would become Normandy of its Frankish aristocracy, so now did William set about the systematic elimination from England of its entire ruling class. …

“The task of the Norman lords, set as they were amid a sullen and fractious people, [became] no different in kind to that of the most upstart castellan in France. In England, however, it was not just scattered hamlets and villages that needed to be broken, but a whole kingdom. In the winter of 1069, when the inveterately rebellious Northumbrians sought to throw off their new king’s rule, William’s response was to harry the entire earldom. Methods of devastation familiar to the peasantry of France were unleashed across the north of England: granaries were burned, oxen slaughtered, ploughs destroyed. Rotting corpses were left to litter the road. The scattered survivors were reduced to selling themselves into slavery, or else, if reports are to be believed, to cannibalism.”

Author: Tom Holland
Title: The Forge of Christendom: The End of Days and the Epic Rise of the West
Publisher: Doubleday
Date: Copyright 2008 by Tom Holland
Pages: 289, 316, 325, 327-8

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Delanceyplace is a brief daily email with an excerpt or quote we view as interesting or noteworthy, offered with commentary to provide context.  There is no theme, except that most excerpts will come from a non-fiction work, mainly works of history, and we hope will have a more universal relevance than simply the subject of the book from which they came.