There are two or three things I thought I knew about the battle of Hastings. Bear with me, because this is half remembered from primary school…

First off, a bunch of French blokes all called Norman – except for their leader, who’s called William – sailed over from France to claim the throne of England. While this was happening, King Harold was off fighting Vikings at Fulford and Stamford Bridge. When he found out what William was up to, he got proper cross and came down with what was left of his army and fought them all at Hastings. Given that a hat trick is difficult in whatever sport you’re playing, he lost the third one when he got an arrow in the eye, meaning that William got to be king, and some clever archer got a pay rise.

Naturally, that’s just me doing a sub-par impression of Philomena Cunk. Of course it didn’t really happen like that, and no, I don’t really think all the French people were called Norman (evidence that just one of them was, though, would please me immensely). But really, quite a lot of them could be, because as this book makes abundantly clear, the fact is we know very little about the Battle of Hastings at all.

In fact, what we do know from the sources we have is very little indeed. A lot of the book is spent discussing the sources, what they say, and how they contradict each other. It’s to Lawson’s credit that this never gets boring – if anything, it’s absolutely fascinating. Lawson manages to skilfully weave around the events, the sources, explaining how the sources contradict each other, where they agree, and the biases inherent in each source and where they come from.

And the Bayeux Tapestry, of course, what of that? Well, strangely, what I wasn’t expecting was to be able to see how much the tapestry has changed since it was made, but there’s even a trance of information on that, with the publication of a set of engravings made of the tapestry in the 1700s.

And what of that arrow? Well, modern thinking is that it might be one of Harold’s guards, about to throw a spear. But Lawson presents both sides of the argument, and lets you make up your own mind.

So should you read this? OK, it’s not John Grisham or Stephen King, and if you’re looking for a quick hit that runs through the battle, swords and shields flying on a tide of blood, then you’re in for a disappointment. If, however, you want a reasonable look at what we do know, and where we know it from, and a balanced look at why it might be right or wrong, then this is a superb read. Not an easy read, I’ll grant you, but that’s not the language. This isn’t an everything-in-passive-voice dry-as-dust academic tome, but a well-written summary of the state of the subject.

Lawson keeps a dozen plates spinning in the air, keeps your eye on a hundred little details and yet keeps you anchored to the key facts at all times. I wouldn’t say I’m that much clearer on how the Battle of Hastings actually happened, but I’m a lot clearer on how it came about, a rough outline of what happened, and what the implications were.

Read it. It’s brilliant.

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