The day after the recent English by-election in Rochester on 20 November (St Edmund’s Day, no less), newspaper front pages across the country were plastered with pictures of a grinning politician sporting a rather garish tie. Adorning Mr Farage’s neck was not a Disney figure or other staple of the ‘comic tie’ genre, but (to some medieval historians’ great excitement) scenes from the Bayeux Tapestry. What should we make of this latest eruption of the Norman Conquest into modern British politics?
The subliminal message, one may presume, was that in an age of bland, corporate politicians who stick to bland, corporate neckwear, here at last is a man who is not afraid to stick out from the crowd, a man with a personality, and someone who thankfully doesn’t take himself or his dress sense too seriously. The tie in question (retailing at £22.50) has reportedly now sold out, so the UKIP leader is a trend-setter in mens’ fashion as well as politics.
But Mr Farage helpfully provided his own gloss too. When asked why he had picked this tie, he explained to the Daily Telegraph that “It was the last time we were invaded and taken over.” This was – one assumes? – a jovial off-the-cuff statement, intended to demonstrate Mr Farage’s patriotism. Still, it nevertheless reveals a rather peculiar view of medieval English history. Evidently Mr Farage identifies with the pre-conquest English, and not with the Normans. In such a view of history, the Normans are little but a group of threatening European immigrants. Plus ca change…
What we might call the Farage interpretation of the Norman Conquest is not however terribly robust. It’s certainly true that the Normans conquered England. But in doing so, they became part of English history. These immigrants are logically as much ‘our’ political ancestors as the Anglo-Scandinavian kingdom that they conquered, and to whose development they made such a mighty contribution. It simply doesn’t make sense for people in the 21st-century to choose sides on the Battle of Hastings.
In fact, if Mr Farage knew more about the Norman Conquest 1, he might have hesitated before tying the double-Windsor, since it is frankly difficult to think of a less suitable tie for a leader of UKIP, apart perhaps from one emblazoned with the EU flag. For if a Bayeux Tapestry tie symbolises anything, it is England’s long and enduring history of participation, indeed immersion, in continental politics, trade and tradition. For centuries after 1066, those who ruled England also ruled lands across the English Channel. Even English culture came into line with continental traditions, as libraries across the land restocked. The Conquest was a defining moment in the enduring ‘Europeanisation’ of England.
It is true of course that this ‘Europeanisation’ was not exactly a peaceful process. Yet Mr Farage’s tie, as it happens, also demonstrates that there was more to the Conquest than violence alone. Alongside serried ranks of immigrant-bearing boats and horses, the tie’s key scene (as far as can be seen from the blurry photos) is one in which one man, standing, is talking to another, seated on a throne (this blog’s cover image). You might assume that the seated man is King William, or perhaps King Edward the Confessor – but not so. It is actually Guy, the count of Ponthieu (a town in northern France, near Calais), who is in conversation with a dejected-looking Harold.
Harold had ended up in Guy’s court after being shipwrecked on route to see Duke William in Normandy in 1064. What Harold had been travelling to Normandy for is unclear, and still debated. Still, what all historians can agree on is that the visit shown on Mr Farage’s tie proves the Norman Conquest didn’t come out of the blue, and wasn’t the product of violence alone: it was a result of pre-Conquest English political engagement with powerbrokers on the continental mainland. That engagement was reflected in marriage alliances, in the movement of politically-motivated asylum seekers, like King Edward the Confessor, who had been sheltered by the Normans as a child, as well as in (tentative) moves towards ‘ever-closer union’ led by the popes in Rome, whose councils pre-Conquest English abbots and bishops willingly attended. 2 What the tie represents, in short, is how deeply entwined England and the continental mainland were in the Middle Ages, before as well as after the Normans, in times of peace and of war. Put simply, medieval England was a European country.
Yet there is also another dimension to the scene on Mr Farage’s tie. Harold made his ill-fated visit to Normandy via Ponthieu against his king’s wishes, in pursuit of his own narrow political interests. But he should have listened to King Edward, for after the detour to Ponthieu, he ended up being made to take an oath to Duke William, an oath that helped pave the way to Hastings. That kind of misjudgement was not isolated. Indeed, it can be argued that the disruption of the Conquest, and the economic devastation of the north in particular that it brought in its wake, was in large part the result of a failure of leadership on the part of the English political class, carelessly caught up in factional squabbles, short-termism and sordid politicking, at the expense of the long-term national interest, with disastrous consequences. This might not have been the message that Mr Farage had in mind, but perhaps it’s his tie’s most important message of all.
Image: scene from Bayeux Tapestry, via Wikipedia. The Latin reads “Where Harold and Wido [Guy] discuss”.