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1066 and all that pt. 1

Our voyage this summer will take in numerous iconic historic sites (which stage is noted in brackets) about which we will be posting more over the coming weeks. The English Channel, or La Manche to the French, has always been a barrier that has defended Britain from the imperial ambitions of many European states. Crossing it with a force capable of invading the nation is a challenge that has defeated many potential conquerors, but not all!

10,000 years ago or so the land bridge that linked Britain to the Continent was finally submerged by the rising waters from the melting ice sheets. Britain became an island for the first time in over 100,000 years. Before this Stone age homo sapiens and neandertals had been able to wander freely from the continent into Britain and the adjacent Doggerland.

The closing of the land bridge did not isolate the island completely, trade still existed by sea and the interchange of ideas and technologies continued. Agriculture arrived with another migration from the Iberian peninsular around 6,000 ago. They started to settle and cultivate the land, domesticating animals for food and transport and displacing and absorbing the existing hunter gather tribes.

Around 4,500 years ago Beaker peoples from central Europe, our dominant DNA ancestors, crossed into Britain. The land was mineral rich, had a temperate climate that supported the newly emerging agriculture and the relative stability that the separation provided. Within a few hundred years they had largely displaced the previous migrant population. This was the start of land ownership and with it the slow rise of the tribal states. While it did not coalesce into a single nation it became relatively homogeneous with regard to religious, cultural and law.

The European Celtic culture that emerged in the late bronze age had a strong influence on the Britain’s art and crafts; tin, copper, lead and gold were all exchanged with the Continent and imported artifacts informed the development of a British aesthetic. Later the availability of iron ore and charcoal for smelting led to the adoption of new technologies improving both agriculture and warfare. Britain was a relatively wealthy and stable place, trade with the newly emerging Roman hegemony flourished and inevitably Britain became a tempting target for invasion and exploitation.

Enter Julius Caesar, the first Roman Emperor, set on conquering the known world and putting it under Roman control. The first organised invasion of Britain was inevitable. In 55 BC he set out with his initial fleet from somewhere between Calais and Cap Gris Nes (stage 2 day 1) and after drifting at the mercy of the Channel tides and fickle winds landed in Pegwell Bay, a little north of Dover; Veni Vidi Vici. The vici (conquered) bit was a little premature as this time the invasion was unsuccessful and after a second wave and some new alliances with southern British tribal rulers, the Romans withdrew.

Fast forward a hundred years to 43AD and Claudius decided it was time to have another go. His forces almost certainly departed from the Roman port of Bononia, modern day Boulogne (stage 2 day 1-2) possibly landing at Richborough, north of Dover and later near Chichester on the Solent (stage 1 day 4). This time they stayed for over 300 years, pacifying most of the island and stamping their culture, language and laws onto the existing population. Migration and international marriage was common amongst the roman troops and the DNA of the native population became intermingled with the wider Roman Empire. Early Christianity gained a foothold and further bound the islands culture and laws to the wider continent.

The power vacuum left by the Romans was exploited by Saxons, Angles and Jutes who migrated across the North Sea and occupied large parts of eastern and southern Britain, intensifying agriculture and pushing the natives west and north into Cornwall, Wales and Scotland. The economy grew and with it the island’s prosperity, population and institutions. Monasteries and Abbeys were founded, cities rebuilt, records started to be kept, land ownership and management became more formalised and coinage and credit systems were established.

The island was still split into several nations which argued and fought with each other over inheritance and territory. This weakened the individual states and left them open to the next round of invasions and exploitation. In 789 with the Vikings sacked of the holy island of Lindisfarne (visited during Snark’s 2022 adventure) and gradually dominated much of the British Isles. By the start of the new millennium the land and power had been consolidated under a single monarchy ruled by iconic kings such as Cnut and Ethelred the Unready and eventually Edward the Confessor.

The lines of succession were complicated and heavily interwoven with the Viking dukedom of Normandy (stages 2 and 3) where Edward spent many years in exile. Edward died without any offspring leaving a disputed crown with three principal claimants: Harold Godwinson, Duke of Wessex and the most powerful English baron, Harald Hardrada the King or Norway and William, Duke of Normandy.

All three claims had some justification and for centuries historians have covered thousands of pages with learned arguments about the merits of each. On Edwards death Harold, the only one in England at the time, quickly claimed the throne and was crowned. Harald wasted no time and invaded the north of England probably landing near Middlesborough. He was defeated by Harold at Stamford Bridge on 25 September 1066.

William had already launched an invasion fleet from his home city of Caen. (change over from stage 2 to 3). This was pushed up the coast by poor weather to St Valery sur Somme, (stage 2 day 3-4) from where it eventually crossed the Channel to land at Pevensey near Eastbourne (stage 1 days 5-6) on 28 September. The rest is history as they say and was first recorded in the extraordinary Bayeux tapestry This was probably embroidered in London and then taken to Bayeux where it was displayed in the Cathedral built by Bishop Odo, the likely commissioner of the tapestry. It is now displayed in a dedicated museum. (stage 3 day 2-3)

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