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1066 and all that pt. 2

In the last blog we left Britain under the thrall of the Norman duke, William.

By 1155 the Kingdom was consolidated on both sides of the Channel into the powerful Angevine Empire under the rule of Henry II. This stretched from Scotland to Spain and halfway to the Alps.  Such a dominion was short lived, and it quickly started to crumble as the internal tensions of the Plantagenet ruling family erupted into conflict. Internal conflicts and power struggles dominated domestic politics for the next 400 years with no serious invasion attempts. Until that is the tensions caused by the matrimonial and religious machinations of Henry VIII and the colonial ambitions of the major European states all came to a head in 1588 with the attempt by Spain to invade England : the Spanish Armada.

Sailing up the Channel came a huge and powerful fleet of Spanish galleons armed to the gunnels.  Walter Raleigh, originally from Greenway on the Dart (stage 7 day 1) famously interrupted his game of bowls on Plymouth Hoe to sail out of the Sound (stage 7 day 3) and harry the would be invaders as they headed for Calais to meet up with the low country Catholics. The English set fire ships into Calais harbour (stage 2 day 1) to destroy the anchored Spanish fleet. They in turn set sail and engaged the English in the southern North Sea. Foul weather intervened and the remaining Spaniards fled around the north of the British Isles with heavy losses.

Exactly 100 years later in 1688 the last successful invasion of England took place.  The power struggles of the French, Spanish and Dutch dominated the Low Countries of the Rhineland, Netherlands, Holland etc.  This was fuelled in part by religious fervour but largely by the desire to control international trade and colonisation.  The involvement or neutrality of England became a key factor in the strategic calculations of both the catholic and protestant powers. In England the catholic James III had succeeded his more pragmatic brother Charles II to the throne.  As he swayed English policy in a catholic direction he lost the support of many powerful parties in England.  They ‘invited’ his protestant nephew William of Orange and his wife Mary, James’ daughter, to overthrow James.  It’s very much more complicated than that but we will skim over the underlying objectives of William and the parliamentary machinations of the Tories and Whigs for now.

The intrigues culminated in William assembling a fleet of 260 ships carrying 20,000 men and 5,000 horses, the largest naval invasion force assembled to date, to sail from the Netherlands down the English Channel to land in Brixton (Spring warmups A,B and C ) . They knew they could land unopposed in Devon and quickly set out to Exeter (our winter base) where Mary was declared Queen.  From there they headed for London. After a half-hearted defence, James fled to France leaving William and Mary as joint monarchs.  The Dutch soldiers were quickly sent back to the Netherlands and the fleets of England and Netherlands temporarily merged under the same command.

This was a turning point in the fortunes of the British Isles. The Dutch and Spanish naval power quickly diminished and within 40 years the British Navy was the dominant force in the seas around Europe and soon the world.  Control of the seas and particularly the English Channel was to be the most important factor in the failure of future European powers to invade the islands.  Napoleon hovered on the brink of an invasion but he could not gain the essential naval dominance, his navy being defeated by Nelson in Copenhagen , the Eastern Mediterranean and finally at Trafalgar. 

It was not until 1940 that an invasion by a German army became a real possibility.  By now air superiority became as important as naval power and the story of the Battle of Britain fought in the skies over south east England is well known.  The most extensive fortification of both the English and French sides of the Channel took place at this time much of which can still be seen today.  Though only about 15% of the planned German ‘Atlantic Wall’ was actually built.

In 1944 the gradual eroding of German military control of the continent from the south via Italy and Greece and east from Russia was finally reinforced by the allied invasion of Normandy, Operation Overlord.  On 6 June the Allies (Britain, USA, Canada and the Commonwealth) sent over 5,000 vessels carrying nearly 130,000 men to land on the beaches of Normandy, supported by 120,000 aircraft and 24,000 airborne troops. They left from many of the ports we will be visiting this summer, Falmouth, Fowey, Plymouth, Dartmouth, Tor Bay, Exmouth, Portland, Poole, Solent, Portsmouth, and Shoreham.   The remnants of the preparations are still visible in many of these rivers and ports.

They landed on the beaches of Normandy between Ouistreham (stages 1 & 2)  and St Vaast (stage2 day 3/ 4) , famously code named Utah, Omaha, Gold, Juno and Sword (stage 2 days 1-3) with huge casualties and made slow progress inland against entrenched German opposition.  It was not until 21 June after a hugely destructive battle that they finally took Caen ( below), about the day we should be arriving,(change over stage 1 and 2) and 26th June when they took Cherbourg, (change over stage 2 and 3)  

the destruction of Caen

By the end of August 1944 nearly 2 million troops had landed in Normandy. This had been the largest sea-borne invasion in human history and the first, and last, of any significance from Britain into Europe!  This year is the 80th anniversary of the invasion.  Only a handful of the soldiers, sailors and airmen from the Allied forces are still alive but the memory and legacy left by the heroic fight against tyranny and fascism remains strong, in the re-enactment celebrations and the museums and historical sites we will visit.  

Some would have us believe we are currently being invaded by desperate refugees and migrants huddled in fragile rubber dinghies that risk their lives to try and get to our shores.  We will probably see the enhanced naval presence in the Dover Straits and be subject to the restrictions and inspections aimed at curbing this migration.  This is not an invasion but a tragedy; they don’t carry swords, bows or guns, just hopes and fears.  Snark is named after the Lewis Carroll poem ‘The Hunting of the Snark’ an allegory for the pursuit of happiness.  This is the happiness provided by the absence of fear and want, surely an aspiration of all peoples and for which we can all strive to share.

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