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What can the Norman Conquest teach us about regime change?

By George Garnett

The Norman Conquest of England, recently examined in Rob Bartlett’s television series, offers some striking parallels. The term is jargon, of a type beloved by politicians, because it attempts to foreclose on reflection and debate. The manner of the ‘change’ – by armed force – is veiled, and the agent unspecified, even though both are always obvious. Less obvious is why a particular ‘regime’ requires ‘change’ by foreign military intervention. In the case of Iraq, our own regime has tried and tried again to make the requirement obvious to us, and perhaps also to itself. One such attempt was so ‘sexed up’ that it will go down in history as the ‘dodgy dossier’.

Going back almost a millennium, we find evidence for a similarly sophisticated attempt on the part of a foreign power to justify the replacement of this country’s regime. There are, of course, many differences, in particular Duke William’s claim that he was dutifully suppressing Harold II’s brief, tyrannical usurpation, and, in his own person, restoring the true heir to Edward the Confessor.  As such, the official Norman line, embodied in Domesday Book, was that English legitimacy had been restored. Old England continued, and not even under new management. In this respect, the recent forceful change of regime in Iraq was quite different. There, a pretence has been made of imposing a novel and utterly foreign system of government, on the assumption that it is the sole, universally valid type. But in terms of the elaborate efforts made to justify Duke William’s actions, to provide legal cover for endorsement by the eleventh-century equivalent of the UN – the papal curia –, the parallels in tendentious legal scrupulosity are uncanny. We tend to think of medieval rulers, and the clerics who worked and wrote for them, as crude, simple types, unconcerned with diplomatic niceties. Nothing could be further from the truth.

Our distance from 1066 makes it easier to evaluate the results of this particular regime change. The mantra of continuity with Old England, epitomised in a ubiquitous acronym for the status quo in the ‘time’ of King Edward, in turn provided cover for the systematic removal of the English aristocracy, and a transformation in the terms on which their French replacements held their new English lands. This was elite ethnic cleansing. By seizing control of England’s past, the Normans transformed its future, and reconstructed it in their own image – all the while proclaiming that nothing had changed. Harold II was soon airbrushed out of history. By the time Domesday Book was produced, at the end of the Conqueror’s reign, Harold II had never been king. Every major English church had been or was soon to be demolished and rebuilt in the new continental style. Fifty years after the Conquest, England had been rendered almost unrecognisable, and all in the name of a regime change founded on the premise that there had been no change of regime.

Justification and reality were revealingly juxtaposed in York on Christmas Day 1069, on the third anniversary of William’s coronation. In response to English rebellion in the North, he had laid the region waste. Finally, his troops had even torched York Minster. William then arranged for his regalia to be sent up to York, so that he could solemnly display his regality in the burnt out shell of the church. In Iraq thus far the conquest seems to have been much less successful, and therefore the antithesis between the theory and the brutal facts of regime change has not (yet) been as sharply delineated.

George Garnett is Tutorial Fellow in Modern History, University of Oxford and author of The Norman Conquest: A Very Short Introduction. This article is posted with permission from the BBC History/Oxford University Press microsite.

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