Alfred the Great: His Character and Appearance

Alfred the Great – the only monarch in English or British history to behold the epithet of ‘the great’ – ascended the throne of Wessex (later England during the reign of his grandson, King Æthelstan) 1,143 years ago. Normally as a society, we lose track of certain things. We remember the names but so seldom do we remember the epic tales that surround the names. Rarely do we remember the face.

This leads to the next question – how do we know what he looked like? The answer lies within primary sources. Historians require primary sources, or documents from the time that one is studying, in order to form arguments about that time. How would you like it if someone 400 years from now judged you and everything you did without reading what you or those you knew personally had to say for yourself? Obviously, if the people of the future read your words or those of people who understand you, you are likely to be remembered differently.

Primary sources sometimes offer us something truly wonderful. Sometimes, we are offered a look at the person we are trying to discover. Yes, they may mostly just hold details about the battles they fought and the laws they implemented, but when it comes to King Alfred, sources on how he looked are quite abundant.

We are fortunate to have a primary source provided by Asser, which describes the appearance and character of Alfred.

Asser wrote of Alfred in his Life of King Alfred,

“Now, he was greatly loved, more than all his brothers, by his father and mother – indeed, by everybody – with a universal and profound love, and he was always brought up in the royal court and nowhere else…[He] was seen to be more comely in appearance than his other brothers, and more pleasing in manner, speech and behaviour… [and] in spite of all the demands of the present life, it has been the desire for wisdom, more than anything else, together with the nobility of his birth, which have characterized the nature of his noble mind.”

It is also written by Asser than Alfred did not learn to read until he was twelve years old or later, which is described as ‘shameful negligence’ of his parents and tutors. It is true, however, that Alfred was an excellent listener and had an incredible memory, and he retained poetry and psalms very well. A story is told by Asser about how his mother held up a book of English poetry to him and his brothers, and said; ‘I shall give this book to whichever one of you can learn it the fastest.’ After excitedly asking, ‘Will you really give this book to the one of us who can understand it the soonest and recite it to you?’ Alfred then took it to his teacher, learned it, and recited it back to his mother.

Alfred is also noted as carrying around a small book, probably an ancient version of a small pocket notebook, which contained psalms and many prayers that he often collected. Asser writes: “[these] he collected in a single book, as I have seen for myself; amid all the affairs of the present life he took it around with him everywhere for the sake of prayer, and was inseparable from it.

An excellent hunter in every branch of the sport, Alfred is remembered as an enthusiastic huntsman against whom nobody’s skills could compare. However, it is recorded that his skills and success did not strive in vain.

Although he was the youngest of his brothers, he was probably the most open-minded. Despite eventually becoming one of the greatest warriors and forgers of peace in the kingdom, he was an early advocate for education. His desire for learning could have come from his early love of English poetry and inability to read or physically record them until later in life. Asser writes that “[Alfred] could not satisfy his craving for what he desired the most, namely the liberal arts; for, as he used to say, there were no good scholars in the entire kingdom of the West Saxons at that time.”


The Battle of Hastings and the Birth of the English Language (1066)

Adventus Saxonum: The Backdrop

When Rome abandoned ‘Britannia’ in 410 AD, the British Isles were open to invasion. Sure enough, Germanic tribes such as the Angles, the Saxons, and the Jutes (among many others) invaded and settled along the eastern coast of modern-day England. This mass migration of Germanic tribes became known as the Adventus Saxonum, which is Latin for ‘Arrival of the Saxons.’

The Saxons eventually rose to power as the most prominent of the other settlers and would become mostly united by the middle of the 900s. Think of it this way, do you remember how the American colonies were settled? The Dutch came over and founded New Amsterdam, and then the English who had already ruled all of New England took over Manhattan and renamed it New York after the Duke of York, then eventually claimed everything else. It’s pretty much the same kind of thing. Only here, in early Britain, the Angles and the Saxons had mostly intertwined, giving birth to the term ‘Anglo-Saxon.’ Although we have no evidence to say that there were more Angles than Saxons or vice versa, the land eventually became known as ‘Anglialand’ over time, which became ‘England’ and there they spoke the Anglo-Saxon language that we call Old English. It was slightly similar to the language we speak today and we still use some Anglo-Saxon words. In fact, you’ve probably spoken a few of them today, such as above, apple, awake, back, blood, body, daughter, ear, evening, ice, king, man, open, queen, quick, right, say, shadow, walk, winter, yes, and you (just to name a few).

England was ruled by the Anglo-Saxons until the last Anglo-Saxon king, Edward the Confessor, died in 1066. Edward is described in the Vita Ædwardi Regis as

“…a very proper figure of a man—of outstanding height, and distinguished by his milky white hair and beard, full face and rosy cheeks, thin white hands, and long translucent fingers; in all the rest of his body he was an unblemished royal person. Pleasant, but always dignified, he walked with eyes downcast, most graciously affable to one and all. If some cause aroused his temper, he seemed as terrible as a lion, but he never revealed his anger by railing.”

EDWARD THE CONFESSOR Reigned 1042-1066

Reigned 1042-1066

The Imperial State Crown - the blue sapphire in the cross on top of the crown was once a ring worn by Edward the Confessor. The crown also has the Black Prince's Ruby, the Cullinan II , the Stuart Sapphire, and Queen Elizabeth I's pearls.

The Imperial State Crown – the blue sapphire in the cross on top of the crown was once a ring worn by Edward the Confessor. The crown also has the Black Prince’s Ruby, the Cullinan II, the Stuart Sapphire, and Queen Elizabeth I’s pearls.

There is no denying that Edward was a great king. He was the first and only Anglo-Saxon sovereign of England to be canonized. He was exceptionally pious and unworldly for a man of power of his time, and when he died in January 1066, England suffered a succession crisis between several claimants to the throne.

After the Death of Edward the Confessor

Edward slipped into a coma before he died, never naming his plans for succession. Historians debate Edward’s intentions as to who he believed should have been his successor as king. Some say William, The Duke of Normandy was his rightful heir, others argue that the rich and powerful aristocrat Harold Godwinson was the rightful one.

Regardless of what Edward may or may not have wanted, Harold became king. The Witenagemot* intervened and elected him to rule.

*From the seventh to eleventh centuries, the Witenagemot was an assembly of the ruling class whose function was to advise the king. It was comprised of a group of England’s most powerful noblemen. Harold was crowned on January 6, 1066.

Once word reached Normandy that Edward was dead and Harold had succeeded him, Duke William of Normandy was absolutely furious.

Death of Harold as depicted by William Blake in his work Visionary Heads.

Death of Harold as depicted by William Blake in his work Visionary Heads.

The Bayeux Tapestry, which is one of the most well-preserved documentation of this story, is showing here the coronation of Harold as King of England.

The Bayeux Tapestry, which is one of the most well-preserved documentation of this story, is showing here the coronation of Harold as King of England.

Norman Interest in the Throne

(I’ll be honest, it’s starting to get confusing, even for me. So, take a peek at the family tree if you’re really interested in this section, especially if you are a visual learner like I am.)

Family tree showing Edward the Confessor's relation to his brother-in-law, Harold, and his cousin, William, The Duke of Normandy.

Family tree showing Edward the Confessor’s relation to his brother-in-law, Harold, and his cousin, William, The Duke of Normandy.

Present-day Normandy in France was settled by Viking invaders from the North (hence the term ‘NORmans’), and a duchy was established there. In 1002, King Æthelred II of England married Emma, the sister of Richard II, then-Duke of Normandy. Their son was King Edward the Confessor. Edward’s Norman roots created a very strong interest in English politics for the Normans, especially since Edward had continually called on them for support throughout his reign. It is believed that Edward even encouraged William to succeed him on the throne. Some historians even suggest that William was promised it.

According to the website of the British monarchy, “William’s claim to the English throne was based on his assertion that, in 1051, Edward the Confessor had promised him the throne (he was a distant cousin) and that Harold II – having sworn in 1064 to uphold William’s right to succeed to that throne – was therefore a usurper.”

Were the Normans ‘barbaric’ and trying to invade England just to gain more power, or were they men of honor with a legitimate claim to what they were promised?

William had a lot of support for his vision of England. Not only did he have the allegiance of Emperor Henry IV, but he also had the approval of the pope. The pope has always been considered the closest man to God. In 1066, this was exceptionally true, and to have the pope’s help meant that you also had God’s.

A map depicting the locations of where the King of Norway's forces landed in York in the north, and where William and the Norman forces landed in the south for the Battle of Hastings.

A map depicting the locations of where the King of Norway’s forces landed in York in the north, and where William and the Norman forces landed in the south for the Battle of Hastings.

The Battle of Hastings and the Norman Conquest of England

On September 28, 1066, William landed on the south coast of England and within a week had raised fortifications at Hastings. By this time, Harold’s army was exhausted. They had just fought off a Norwegian invasion in the north (near York) that month, eliminating the King of Norway’s claim to the throne. Learning that the Normans had landed and were setting up camp and getting ready to fight, Harold and his army were forced to march south. They covered 250 miles in about nine days to meet William. Many people died or had to stop marching along the way and were replenished by completely inexperienced soldiers. This was a major advantage for William and his army.

On October 14, 1066, fighting began around 9am and lasted until the sun was setting. Harold’s army was still weak not only from the battle against the King of Norway’s army up north, but also from the trek down to where the Normans were waiting for them. However, they had the advantage of being based uphill from the base of Duke William’s army. Also to the advantage of the English was that their army included Europe’s best infantry equipped with two-handled battle axes.

The Normans made the first move by having their archers shoot uphill at the English shield wall. This failed. The arrows probably bounced off the shields or flew over them completely, since the arrows had to be shot uphill. Historian Matthew Bennett writes in his Campaigns of the Norman Conquest (2001) that William then sent the spearmen forward to attack the English, who were met with a barrage of missiles and not arrows but spears, axes, and heavy stones. They couldn’t break the shield wall and after failing to make headway, a general retreat began. As the Normans were slowly withdrawing, Harold’s army suddenly charged after them.

It was rumored that William had been killed. To dismiss all confusion, he raised his helmet on the battlefield to show his troops that he was still fighting alongside them.

As the English charged after them (which may not have been an order given by Harold, since a contemporary source relates that Harold ordered his army to stay in formation), the Duke then led a counter-attack against them. Some of the English then rallied on a hillock before facing the massive forces of William’s army.

The Bayeux Tapestry shows that Harold’s brothers Gyrth and Leofwine were killed just before the confrontation by the hillock. The fact that they were even depicted on the tapestry suggests that they may have started the initial charge against the retreating enemy. The Carmen de Hastingae Proelio (Song of the Battle of Hastings, ca.1067), one of the earliest written sources of the battle, states that William slew Harold’s brother Gyrth in combat.

Harold was then killed. Since there are few to little sources that tell us how he died, it is believed that was hit by an arrow and then taken down by a mounted knight’s sword. The Bayeux Tapestry doesn’t clarify much, but it depicts a figure holding an arrow sticking out of his eye next to a figure being hit by a sword. Above this, it says “Here King Harold has been killed”, not specifying which figure. Traditional stories say that Harold really was hit through the eye. The earliest mention of that comes from the 1080s from a history of the Normans by the Italian monk, Amatus of Montecassino. The tradition is later supported by William of Malmesbury who stated that an arrow went through his eye and pierced his brain, and then was hit by a knight’s sword. Other than this one consistent and probably true theory, other chroniclers state completely different and contrasting causes of death for the King.

The Bayeux Tapestry reflects the tradition that Harold was shot in the eye by an arrow, although it is debated that the figure (second from left) with the arrow in the eye is him. (The arrow is very faint, it almost blends with the background).

The Bayeux Tapestry reflects the tradition that Harold was shot in the eye by an arrow, although it is debated that the figure (second from left) with the arrow in the eye is him. (The arrow is very faint, it almost blends with the background). It reads “Here Harold was killed.”

The battlefield. The Abbey was built over the spot where Harold was killed.

The battlefield. The Abbey was built over the spot where Harold was killed.

Without a leader, the English army finally collapsed. Most that remained fled, and those who were close to Harold bravely stayed put and fought off as many remaining Normans as they could before being destroyed by William’s outstanding and already-victorious forces.

The next day, Harold was identified either by the marks on his body or by his armor and officially confirmed dead. Peter Rex, the former Head of History at Princethorpe College writes in Harold II: The Doomed Saxon King (2005) that Harold’s personal standard was then presented to William and sent to Rome.

William, Duke of Normandy. Later 'William the Conquerer.'

William, Duke of Normandy. Later King William I of England, or ‘William the Conquerer.’

William was crowned King of England on Christmas in Westminster Abbey in 1066. It took a total of six years for him to consolidate his conquest of England, and faced constant challenges both there and in Normandy, where he remained Duke. One of his first actions as king was to built an abbey on the site of the Battle of Hastings (or Sandlac, as it is also commonly known) in the modern-day town of Battle, England. The high altar of the abbey was erected on the site where Harold was killed. Battle Abbey was destroyed during Henry VIII’s Dissolution of the Monestaries from 1536-1541. The ruins still stand today.

Battle Abbey on the site of the Battle of Hastings. Photo by Antony McCallum.

Battle Abbey on the site of the Battle of Hastings. Photo by Antony McCallum.

The location where Harold was killed at the Battle of Hastings, later the site of the high altar. Photo taken by Néstor Daza.

The location where Harold was killed at the Battle of Hastings, later the site of the high altar. Photo taken by Néstor Daza.

Culture Shock: The Birth of the English Language

The Normans did not remain in Normandy. Once they acquired England, many gathered as families and moved there. They took advantage of the land and made it their home. They even married the natives and assimilated. As they slowly over time became English, they also ended up creating a new language. It was a blend of the Germanic Old English and Norman ‘Old French.’ This new language that evolved after 1066 is known today as ‘Middle English.’

As you probably noticed earlier, Old English words were pretty simple. They had one or two syllables and they were rough and to the point. Norman words were much more elegant and less harsh. This culture shock with the language spoken in England created some of the first synonyms of our language. This is why we have two words for almost everything, such as hug: very short and rough; and embrace, which is much more elegant and fitting of the sophisticated Norman culture. Consider these other example of Old English and Old French words that we still use today:

Screen Shot 2014-01-24 at 10.50.36 PM

You’ve probably been told at some point in your life that when you speak English, you’re really speaking a bunch of ancient French and German at the same time. Now you can see exactly what they meant. The reason the French language truly became mixed with the Anglo-Saxon language though is because once William marched into London and forced the English to submit to him, he changed the official language of the kingdom into Old French. The commoners maintained their Anglo-Saxon language at home and the elite or those working with the governing body spoke French. Descendants of both bodies eventually learned both. Over time, the two languages simply evolved into one complex Middle English language, making one of the most common things of our everyday lives today a descendant of the Battle of Hastings. It is only one of numerous profound contributions the Normans made to the world of our ancestors.

Queen Elizabeth’s Oak


Queen Elizabeth's Oak

Under the branches of this tree, it’s been said for centuries that Henry VIII danced with Anne Boleyn and enjoyed private time with her during their courtship. Years later as a girl, their daughter (the future Elizabeth I) enjoyed picnics in it’s shade.

This ancient tree was planted roughly around the 12th century, died in the late 19th century, and remained hollowed out until it finally fell in 1991.


Victoria’s Secret


Victoria's Secret

After the unexpected death of Queen Victoria’s beloved Prince Albert in 1861, the monarch was thrown into 40 years of deep mourning. She wore black every single day and had his clothes laid out every morning until her own death in 1901.

Few people noted that Victoria wore colorful, sexy lingerie beneath the deep black layers, as risque corsets were the fashion craze at the time. Whether or not the depressed queen actually did this or not became known as Victoria’s Secret.

In this photograph is pictured The Queen with Mr. Brown, the subject of the movie Mrs. Brown starring Judi Dench.

King Alfred’s Ambitious Vision For a Secure Kingdom (878-899)

Wessex Under Attack

Alfred possessed all the qualities that only a legendary king would have. His character was one of honesty, courage, brilliance, and piety, and he was just as good at peace as he was valiant in battle. The only thing about his legendary reign is that, for starters, it isn’t exactly ‘legendary.’ Alfred was real, and in many ways, he truly honors his epithet of ‘The Great.’

A modern sketch of Alfred the Great.

A modern sketch of Alfred the Great.

Vikings from modern-day Denmark (referred to as the Danes) ravished the northern kingdoms of England. Northumbria first succumbed to their wrath, then East Anglia, and shortly afterwards, Mercia fell to their control. They were called ‘The Great Heathen Army’ and they were unstoppable, ruining everything in their path like a plague of locusts.

When Alfred succeeded the throne of the southern kingdom of Wessex, the Danes stopped their vast expansion. They probably did so to gather and save their strength for a massive attack on Wessex, which they surely would have known they would need to defeat a recognized war hero like Alfred. Eventually, they did attack. Alfred suffered a major blow after a surprise attack in January 878.

The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle dictates:

…most of the people they [the Danes] killed, except the King Alfred, and he with a little band made his way by wood and swamp, and after Easter he made a fort at Athelney in the marshes of Somerset, and from that fort kept fighting against the foe.

From there, Alfred is known to have forged a massive resistance movement.

Alfred is often depicted, ever since his death, as a victorious hero valiantly moving forward. This is likely symbolic of his victory at Edington after being viciously defeated beforehand. (Photo by Matt Cardy/Getty Images).

Alfred is often depicted, ever since his death, as a victorious hero valiantly moving forward. This is likely symbolic of his victory at Edington after being viciously defeated beforehand. (Photo by Matt Cardy/Getty Images).

Alfred would rise from the marshes of Somerset to defeat the Danes with a major victory at the Battle of Edington in May 878. According to Alfred’s biographer, Bishop Asser:

‘Alfred attacked the whole pagan army fighting ferociously in dense order, and by divine will eventually won the victory, made great slaughter among them, and pursued them to their fortress (Chippenham) … After fourteen days the pagans (Danes) were brought to the extreme depths of despair by hunger, cold and fear, and they sought peace.’

This contemporary source is extremely important because it ends up providing some credibility of Alfred’s greatest ‘legendary’ traits, which were his brilliance as a warrior, and his ability to stem peace from chaos. Alfred knew that he was unable to drive the Danes from the rest of the land. Instead, he made peace with them in the Treaty of Wedmore. Guthrum, King of the Danes was converted to Christianity. Alfred, a devout Christian, even stood as his godfather.

Alfred then negotiated a partition treaty and a frontier was designed, allowing northern and eastern England to remain under the jurisdiction of the Danes, where most had settled as farmers.

This became known as ‘Danelaw.’

A map of the territories clearly outlined by the Treaty of Alfred and Guthrum.

A map of the territories clearly outlined by the Treaty of Alfred and Guthrum.

King Alfred and His Ambitious Vision For a Secure Kingdom

  1. Burghal System
  2. Taxation
  3. A Navy

Although all seemed to be falling into place, Wessex was still very much under threat from the Danes. Alfred used the time of peace following Edington as an opportunity to completely reconstruct his kingdom’s military defense system. He believed that defense and prosperity were interdependent, and so he took on this ambitious project with this philosophy as one of it’s foundations.

The inspiration for his ideas may have come to him on a visit to Rome. According to Richard Abels in Alfred the Great: War, Kingship and Culture in Anglo-Saxon England (1998), Alfred studied how the Carolingian kings dealt with Viking invasions. By learning from their experiences, he was able to design a system of taxation and defense for Wessex. Another influence could have been a system of fortifications that had been built in pre-Viking Mercia.

  • The Burghal System

Alfred designed a network of burhs (later called boroughs) which became known as the Burghal system. These were fortifications that were distributed strategically throughout Wessex. Each one was nineteen miles away from the other, enabling the reorganized military to confront any attack within the kingdom in a single day. The Burghal system was revolutionary because of it’s strategy and how it was supported through taxes.

A Map of the Burhs of the Burghai System. Image based on information 'The Defence of Wessex' by Hill and Rumble. Image by Hel-hama.

A Map of the Burhs of the Burghal System. Image based on information ‘The Defence of Wessex’ by Hill and Rumble. Image by Hel-hama.

An example of what one of Alfred's newly designed burhs would have looked like.

An example of what one of Alfred’s newly designed burhs would have looked like.

  • Administration and Taxation

The people of Anglo-Saxon England had to pay a heavy tax for reform based on their landholding for the “common burdens” of the military, the Burghal system, and bridge repair. According to Ryan Lavelle in Alfred’s Wars Sources and Interpretations of Anglo-Saxon Warfare in the Viking Age (2010), the original term for this threefold tax was called trinoda neccessitas. The Old English term for a fine due (if you didn’t pay this tax) was called fyrdwitee.

  • English Navy

In 897, Alfred designed and ordered the construction of a small fleet. This was not the very first English fleet since we have records of a royal fleet long before the reign of Alfred. This was also not the birth of the Royal Navy, which truly flourished during the sixteenth century. This small fleet was, however, to become the first English navy to combat Viking longships.

The entire thought process behind this was that Viking ships should be intercepted before they could reach the coast. This way, Alfred’s navy could spare their kingdom from being ravaged like the other kingdoms had recently been by the invaders, most of whom had come by sea.

And so, the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle regarded 897 as a very important development in the naval forces of the kingdom. The chronicler wrote:

…King Alfred gave orders for building long ships against the esks, which were full-nigh twice as long as the others. Some had sixty oars, some more; and they were both swifter and steadier, and also higher than the others. They were not shaped either after the Frisian or the Danish model, but so as he himself thought that they might be most serviceable.

These were perhaps some of the earliest battleships in England. The chronicler is extremely fond of them, clearly pointing out that they were ‘swifter and steadier’ than Danish or Frisian ships. Not to mention, they are also described as rising higher above the seas than the others. With a hero like Alfred on the throne, where better a direction to make an enemy face than up?


And yes, these ships did rise higher, because Alfred’s designs were based off of Greek and Roman warships with high sides good for fighting, instead of for navigating. However, according to Richard Abels (pp. 305–307), these early English battleships were brilliant in conception, but in practice they turned out to be too large to maneuver well in the waters they were used in, such as rivers, where any naval battles would have likely occurred.

Overall Conclusion

The actions for taken by Alfred were indeed ambitious, but this is extremely dependent on the important factor of trust. Political instability was extremely huge at this time. Several kingdoms surrounding Wessex had completely fallen to invaders in just a short period of overall Anglo-Saxon history. Alfred was one man, just like any other sovereign of those realms. So, in order for this to work, Alfred would have seriously needed to have been trusted by his people. Not that they had a choice in paying taxes (because they would be fined if they didn’t), but it looks like they did because they trusted the proposed system. And even though the nobility is reported to have been iffy about spending their money on what the king considered a ‘common good for the people’ that the court should help provide, no mass protests were demonstrated, and nobody migrated to the Danelaw over the border of Wessex. Alfred’s people had sworn him allegiance, and by doing so, they gave the king who rose from the marshes after a defeat their whole trust to protect them.

An 887 penny forged during the reign of Alfred. It reads "Ælfred Rex." Rex is Latin for 'King' and is still used when referencing a king (or 'Regina' for queen) on English currency. A British monarch still signs their name with "R" after their name for either Rex or Regina. © National Portrait Gallery, London

An 887 penny forged during the reign of Alfred. It reads “Ælfred Rex.” Rex is Latin for ‘King’ and is still used when referencing a king (or ‘Regina’ for queen) on English currency. A British monarch still signs their name with “R” after their name for either Rex or Regina. © National Portrait Gallery, London

Alfred’s success is greatly measured by the way he valiantly carried himself with dignity, completely unwilling to accept defeat, yet absolutely willing to compromise. Perhaps at the end of the day, he simply asked his subjects to do just that. For many, given the fact that the taxes were paid and the burhs and the ships were completed, a compromise was the greatest way to give hearty ‘thanks’ to the hero of their home. And sure enough, when Viking raids returned in 892, Alfred and the Kingdom of Wessex were extremely prepared.

Debating the Barbarity of Norman Society (1066)

It can be argued that the Normans were barbaric by examining various accounts of their actions. According to scholars, they invaded foreign lands simply because they needed more land. With that information alone, one could easily assume that they lead a very primitive and barbaric culture. However, when looking further into the issue, the reasons why they needed more land can lead to a less barbaric view of their ways. The Normans were a society in search of wealth. They ventured into foreign lands and were great at taking control over weaker people and there is no doubt that their advanced military spread over a great portion of Europe. Still, despite the fact that they were willing to conquer to achieve better standards of life, they did not do it at the actual expense of life.

Several contrasting sources would claim it to be a very organized culture and all agree that it was very militaristic and mobilized for war. According to William of Jumièges in his “Gesta Normannorum Ducum,” the English King Edward died in 1065 without heir, and the kingdom was left to Duke William of Normandy (who later would become William the Conquerer).[1] However, Harold, “the greatest of all earls in his realm in wealth, honour [sic] and power,” who had sworn fealty to William as the rightful successor, seized England as his own immediately. According to the document, which is very undoubtedly pro-Norman, Harold not only ignored the duke’s requests to abandon his plans, but he turned the English against him.

Harold Godwinson depicted on the Bayeaux Tapestry.

Harold Godwinson depicted on the Bayeaux Tapestry.

William, Duke of Normandy. Later 'William the Conquerer.'

William, Duke of Normandy. Later ‘William the Conquerer.’

This document later highlights the strength of the Normans. When the duke observed how quickly Harold grew support from the English, “he had a fleet of up to 3000 ships hastily put together and anchored at Saint-Valéry in Ponthieu, full of vigorous horses and very strong [and armed] men” (115). Sailing from the north of France, once the Normans arrived in the southern part of England, they charged forward towards Hastings. Harold’s army met them there, and thus the ‘Battle of Hastings’ occurred, in which Harold was slain and William took his place as the rightful king of England, becoming known to history as William the Conquerer. William is described as “…a very fortunate war-leader, supported by an excellent council…” (117) and the English accepted him as the rightful king, even if they were unhappy to lose Harold (who had just victoriously returned to London from a successful battle against the Norwegians).

William commanding his troops at Hastings.

William (left, saluting his soldiers) commanding his forces at Hastings.

This document highly glorifies William and the Normans, but even without the exquisite descriptions with fancy words describing how valiant and occasionally how the results were God’s will, it is still unfair to suggest that they were a barbaric people. By this evidence, it can be assured that they were definitely people that held true to rules and regulations. William and Edward had agreed that William would succeed him as king. Based on this text alone, it can be argued that William was mostly furious that Harold disregarded an organized plan and a promise that did not even greatly concern him, and it seems like he was reacting to a large bit of disrespect and treason.

Historians discover the possible site of the Battle of Hastings.

William of Poitiers in his “Deeds of Duke William” explains the very same story. According to van Houts, William was formerly a chaplain of William the Conquerer (118). He based his writings between 1071-1077 on the eyewitness accounts of others since he was not present during the invasion of England in 1066 (118). Here, Harold is depicted as a “…mad Englishman…[who] could not endure to wait the decision of a public election… [and] on the tragic day when that best of all men was buried, while all the people were in mourning, he violated his oath and seized the royal throne…with the connivance of a few wicked men” (118). Duke William is then depicted as a valiant soldier, determined to take what was rightfully his by inheritance.

The wickedness of Harold’s actions, as written by William of Poitiers, agrees with William of Jumièges in that the Normans were insulted by the fact that they were cheated of what was rightfully theirs. Despite any language that William of Poitiers may use to glorify William the Conquerer, the bottom line is that the Norman militaristic response cannot be justified as an act of ‘Barbaric’ nature over their English conquest. It was never intended to be a conquest. It was the result of an Englishman who provoked it to become one, and this act of cheat and betrayal would not be tolerated today any less than it was then.

England, 1066.

England, 1066.

England, 1087.

England, 1087.

Other accounts of the Normans during their period of European conquests suggest that they were not barbaric at all. In fact, they often integrated into the cultures that they dominated. For example, the Tower of London is a fine example of Norman architecture built during the time of William himself, which is still in use today. Countless Norman structures exemplifying their great sense of art in architecture still stand today throughout England and Europe, leaving a lasting impression of their assimilation to the places they conquered. These castles that we still marvel at symbolize that they were there to stay, not there to rule from afar.


Construction for the Tower of London began in 1066 as part of the conquest. It is one of the finest surviving examples of Norman architecture that we have today. Photo Credit: Bob Collowan/Commons/CC-BY-SA-3.0.

The “Deeds of Count Roger and his brother Duke Robert” by Geoffrey Malaterra (c. 1090) suggests that the invasion of Southern Italy was not a quest for power or the spread of a massive empire, but to make sure that people had enough land (238). It is written that in the province of Normandy in the village of Hauteville, the sons of Tancred (the hereditary ruler) felt that their neighborhood was too small to be divided amongst them and their heirs. To prevent any kind of arguments, they left their homeland to seek fortune through arms elsewhere, and this is why they discovered the Italian province of Apulia (239). This document states that Normans were peace-seekers and used their militaristic skills to eliminate feuds between the princes of Cadua and Salerno once they arrived. According to William of Apulia years later after winning control of the southern part of Italy, in his “Poem on the Deeds of Robert Guiscard,” Norman people returned to their native land where they actually “encourage[d] their relatives to come with them to Italy” (236).

Geoffrey Malaterra stresses that the fertility of the land attracted the Normans. Elisabeth van Houts supports this, stating “…[The] fertility of Campania, the area on the Mediterranean coast around Naples, with its vineyards, fruit, trees, springs, and plains, was an important aspect of the Normans’ wish to settle permanently” (225). It is also mentioned that intermarriage was used as a way of assimilating into the culture, and this was done through the working class as well as the aristocracy. In this instance, the pursuit of wealth and prosperity of the Normans was apparently the main goal of Norman conquests. Van Houts, citing Norman historian Graham Loud, also writes that “…[land] is not mentioned in any of the early sources and is therefore unlikely to have been the Normans’ main motivation” (225). After all, Italy would be much better for agriculture than the colder parts of Northern Europe. Therefore, it is unfair to suggest that the Normans were a vicious, power-hungry people if they conquered a land and then actually settled in it permanently. This adaptation was done over a period of decades and is unlike the barbaric characteristics of Norman society that have been exaggerated over the course of many centuries, and any initial violence caused by the conquest was rapidly superseded by intermarriage and assimilation.

And on top of the need for land, which in fact was not the main motivation for these migrations, one of the original reasons the Normans came to Italy was for religious purposes (224). Religious motivations sent them from their homelands as pilgrims (224). This claim is supported by “Poems on the deeds of Robert Guiscard” by William of Apulia, “Deeds of Count Roger and his brother Duke Robert” by Geoffrey Malterra, and “History of the Normans” by Amatus of Montecassino (235, 238, 241). According to van Houts, pilgrims were originally the force behind the first moves. It was a nonviolent invasion of sorts, or at least more diplomatic than we imagine in modern minds (225). They were cultured and sophisticated. Also according to van Houts’ description of Norman pilgrimages, as a leading expert on the subject, she describes that they integrated with societies south of their homeland and were willing to and did accept Christianity. It could be seen as a way of infiltrating society to maintain their presence (225). Once it became part of their norm after intermarrying with the elite, the Normans began to make their profound presence known with their massive, awe-inspiring cathedrals, which were not limited to just Italy. Many of them are still even used today.

And so, overall, the Normans can be summarized as a society that were sophisticated, educated, highly militarized and willing and open to compromise, and one with a great respect for elders and ancestry (239). If a single invasion truly were ruthless, it would have been for a fair and protective reason. This was a society that was smart and educated and made moves that would ultimately help its people, leaving no one behind. The invasions to Italy best help to summarize this and, when examined carefully, show a society that has been victimized by centuries of the Middle Ages being considered an era of darkness, brutality, torture, and sheer uncivilized chaos.

[1] According to Elisabeth van Houts, Orderic Vitalis updated the document text in 1115 in order to add information that would have been common knowledge during the time of William of Jumièges. Pro-Norman sentiments were distinctly toned down.

British Imperialist Interests and the White Paper of 1939

British imperialism was still a prominent factor in early twentieth century politics, and it is undoubtedly important in the history of Jewish Zionist aspirations. Talks of a permanent home for the Jews were on the table for decades prior to the establishment of Israel in 1948. However, tensions between Jews and Arabs were deadly as early as 1921. Following a series of riots that demonstrated the depth of Arab hostility towards Zionism, Britain became involved with the creation of the Jewish National Home (1923-1929).[1] Although this effort saw no mass violence, extreme amounts of hostility were encountered as tensions between the Allies and German forces advanced; it became clear that Britain had to resolve the issues surrounding Zionism in Palestine.[2] This had to be done in a way that was sensitive to the Jews, while simultaneously satisfying to the Arabs whose help they desperately needed in their fight against Germany. This conflict resulted in the British Government’s formation of the White Paper in 1939, a policy that regulated Jewish immigration to Palestine, gave the Arabs control of immigration after a certain time, and set the boundaries for a proposed Jewish state.

The impact of Britain’s involvement with Zionism in the Arab world was highly exemplified in the Jewish National Home. The formation of the National Home in Palestine was a result of the Balfour Declaration (1917). According to Jacob Metzer, this granted Britain the power “to promote the formation of a Jewish national home and the establishment of the British mandate in Palestine after the war provided… [for the] renewal of Jewish nation building.”[3] At first, the Balfour Declaration called for a national existence (in the form of the National Home) without an actual state. It did much more than set the boundaries for the Jews, but created a sort-of alliance between them and the British. It allowed the Jews to trust them and they believed that Parliament would ultimately respect their interests and help them in the years to come, ensuring their happiness and safety. This territory was not allowed to threaten broader imperial interests.[4] Therefore, the conflict that would eventually be followed closely after the publication of the White Paper of 1939 arose after the British Cabinet in 1923 concluded that “it could not promote a Jewish national home, yet ensure a peaceful outcome that would protect the Arab population” while sustaining total peace in Palestine.[5] Given that the British had bound to protect Arab interests years earlier, as well as vowing to protect Zionists, they were pressed to make sure that they made a move that would ultimately benefit their imperial interests. The result of this initial dilemma resulted in the Cabinet pressing to promote a Jewish national home.[6] Consequently, since the Arabs and Jews were so politically and socially divided, this move resulted in the British departure from Palestine in 1948, twenty-five years later.[7]

The fact that Britain was acting heavily on their alliance with the Arabs as their driving force towards resolving tensions in Palestine was no secret. The imperial desires of the British Government were clear even two years earlier than the revival of the idea of a prospective Jewish national home. Herbert Samuel, the 1st High Commissioner of Palestine wrote in a letter to Chaim Weizmann in August, 1921:

It is quite true that a great many, I might say almost all, of British officials in Palestine are not sympathetic to a Zionist policy which would be detrimental to the Arabs, and are not prepared to carry out with any goodwill a policy which is likely to result in a regime of coercion.[8]

This was in response to questions raised following a series of riots in Jaffa in May, 1921, which revealed the depth of Arab hostility towards Zionism. This put a heavy stress on Parliament, realizing they actually had to take action with both sides of the conflict, while simultaneously remain a friend of both. According to Jewish Historian Bernard Wasserstein, objections of the Zionist Commission to the suspension of Jewish immigration were supported as well as a firmer policy in response to the violence was also favored by Wyndham Deedes, the British High Commissioner of the British Mandate of Palestine.[9] However, Wasserstein writes that after the riots of 1923, it was made clear by Deedes that Zionism could succeed only if the Arabs were conciliated and that the responsibility for bringing about this seclusion was invested equally in both the British and the Zionists themselves.[10] Therefore, the idea for a Jewish state was, as believed by many, inevitable. In many ways, it really was.

To try to aide to peace as tensions rose in Europe, a White Paper was introduced in 1930, but it failed to satisfy both parties as it imposed crippling restrictions on Jewish land purchase and development.[11] This made it incredibly difficult for Jews to immigrate to the land, as they would not be able to purchase land or develop communities. It also allowed for Palestine to be limited to an additional 20,000 settlers.[12] Still, over the course of the next decade, Arab violence towards Jews in Palestine did not stop, but greatly escalated.

Zionist settlement in Palestine became the steering factor leading up to the White Paper of 1939. The Balfour Declaration, although only preceding the White Paper by just over twenty years, was drawn in a completely different world than the 1939 White Paper. Additionally, the Balfour Declaration did in fact address a certain type of spirit. It addressed a spirit of hope and optimism for a peaceful future by establishing a home for the Jews in the Middle East to avoid hostility from the Arabs, as well as over-all anti-Semitism that seemed to be growing at the time. Theodor Herzl, a Jewish journalist, firmly asserted that establishing a Jewish state was the only way to avoid aggression and resentment.[13] However, once Adolf Hitler’s plans to dominate Europe became clear, the British spirit in handling the situation in the Middle East drastically changed and became one driven by their strategic and imperialist nature. On top of this, the spirit of the debated region also drastically changed before the White Paper was implemented. After all, the Jews had a sense of what was happening or about to ensue, and they left or escaped German territories or prospective territories if they were able to. The only place to go seemed to be Palestine.

Jews therefore immigrated to Palestine in alarming numbers following Hitler’s rise to power in 1933. Clearly, this resulted in Jewish land purchases and resulted in a great resistance by Arabs. By 1936, this had influenced many different Arab political parties to level or eliminate most of their extreme political differences to give way to a quickly rising sense of nationalism. This unified sense of patriotism offered Arab Palestinians the chance to focus on Jewish immigration, and consequently British control over the region. Tensions were secured and irreversible by this point and socially the people were completely divided. Following the murder of two Jews on April 15, 1936, Jews retaliated, and thus the Arab revolt ensued as a result of the tensions. According to Baruch Kimmerling and Joel S. Migdal, “there were some claims that the act was purely criminal, but it was probably engineered for political purposes.”[14] Nevertheless, the revolt put an extreme strain on British forces in Palestine. This revolt demonstrated sheer acts of terrorism on both sides and lasted until 1939. It solidified British support for Jewish national home, and they had hoped eventually that a White Paper would put an end to the violence as well as the stress on British forces.

However, Britain was faced with a problem. On one hand, they had promised the Jews that they would support their cause, especially through the Balfour Declaration, which inspired a great sense of optimism among them. On the other hand, with Europe in turmoil and facing the possibility of London becoming dominated by Nazi German forces, British interests changed drastically. They also had hoped desperately that the Arabs would join the allied cause, which they ultimately did not. They had hoped for this because they feared that Italy might side with Germany, which they believed might interfere with their interests in the Middle East.

The White Paper eventually was an attempt by the British Government to address both sides of the issue without turning into a common enemy. After all, the Balfour Declaration in 1917 basically trapped the British into supporting Zionism. If they abandoned the Jews, they also abandoned the honor of their empire, which would tarnish their prestige as an imperial power. Therefore, they had to make it work for everyone. The main objective of the White Paper was to permit no further Jewish immigration after five years from 1939. This is how Parliament played devil’s advocate: they gave the Jews the ability to settle, while simultaneously allowing power to shift to Arab control, which Parliament figured would be widely accepted, especially since the Arabs had been protesting British control over the region.

The controversy surrounding this preceded its implementation. As early as January 1938, both Jews and Arabs were expressing their fears and criticisms of the policy and these were often addressed in the media as frequently as possible. The Jews were mainly content with the idea that the British were keeping true to establishing borders for their safety, especially since immigration was a way to save thousands of lives during Hitler’s wrath. However, fears of terrorism rose. According to an article from The Times, the Jews were “drawn to the refusal of the British Government to contemplate the compulsory transfer of Arabs from the Jewish Zone.”[15] This was a fear that was heavily justified. People could not get too worked up over a policy that respected their safety and wishes if they felt it were guaranteed not to work. This itself was partially disastrous because of the fact that even though legally the Jews would be in a Jewish region, they would then have to suffer from terrorism as a result of that. The Jews also hoped that the British would put the White Paper with the proposed borders into action as soon as possible. This was because there were allied nations that offered the Jewish economy assistance as a result of the enthusiasm aroused among Zionists abroad. A speedy establishment of the proposed state would assure them a stable economy while there existed those amused by the idea of a state and who were willing to help see the dream of Israel become a reality. The Arabs on the other hand were completely against it. The Times also reported that the Technical Commission “is not authorized to investigate solutions other than partition, which they [had] already rejected,” meaning that the Arabs were convinced that the British had done absolutely nothing with regard to their interests.[16]

With these fears on the table and with Parliament anxious to take action immediately so to have most attention on the Germans, a conference was called by Britain between Jews and Arabs to discuss the future of Palestine based on their interests. They met around a round table, which became known as The St. James Conference (because it was hosted by The Palace of St. James).[17] The conference was a complete failure. The Arab delegates refused to recognize the Jewish agency and rejected even meeting the Jewish delegates. Once they finally sat together after the British negotiated, the two groups of representatives could not come to any sort of agreement throughout the entire meeting. Subsequently, since some of the delegates even ended up storming out of the conference, the British were left to form the policy themselves.[18] Having to act alone and quickly, the White Paper of 1939 was born, which limited immigration to 15,000 a year for five years, after which it was to stop completely unless the Arabs decided otherwise.[19]

The aftermath of the implementation of the policy exemplifies just how it was rushed and was an ultimate failure. It was passed partially because a lot of pressure was on Parliament because of the immense suffering under the Holocaust; the world was hoping that Britain would provide the save haven for people who still had a glimmer of chance. The pressure to allow immigration was on the shoulders of Parliament and although there were other places they could go, the Zionist movement saw Palestine as the safest place. However, because the British tried to act strategically to please all parties to maintain their status as ‘the good guy’ who they should want to aid at the drop of a hat, the task became impossible to manage. According to Ellen Ravndall, “attempts to stop illegal Jewish immigration caused outcries against British barbarianism.”[20] Not only were they being viewed as barbaric people for not allowing Jews to immigrate to a territory under their control, but also they were physically suffering because of it at the peak of the Second World War. British forces had to fight against Jewish terrorism and they simultaneously had to maintain order to prevent another Arab revolt from happening. All of this collectively took a toll on the British economy and proved, in the long run, that they failed the Jewish-Arab conflict because they considered it a sort-of nuisance that was in the way of a bigger problem.

When Israel became a nation state officially in 1948, one of their first actions as an independent nation was to rescind the rules set by the White Paper. According to Rabbi Irving Miller, the White Paper of 1939 completely rejected the aforementioned spirit of the Balfour Declaration. Miller writes that “it can only be understood in the light of Neville Chamberlain’s policy of appeasing Hitler, Mussolini, and their Arab ally, the Mufti,” a statement which proves that the British Government was making decisions in the Middle East strategically to help them with in the war against Germany.[21] The White Paper subsequently can be regarded as a prime example of British imperialism. The reason being is that every move they made, from the Balfour Declaration in 1917 and even up to the St. James Conference, was based on maintaining friends who could possibly benefit their own interests in return. The way the policy was organized and forced into the lives of many who depended on Parliament (whether or not by choice) was undoubtedly due to their imperialist nature during the Second World War period.

  • [1] Bernard Wasserstein. The British In Palestine: The Mandatory Government and the Arab-Jewish Conflict 1917-1929. London: Royal Historical Society, 1978. Pages 89 and 139.
  • [2] Ibid, page 140.
  • [3] Jacob Metzer. “Economic Structure and National Goals–The Jewish National Home in Interwar Palestine.” The Journal of Economic History 38, no. 1 (1978): Page 101. Metzer’s article focuses around the politics of creating a state, specifically zooming on economics and long-term goals, however his writing is very clear that British Imperialism held a lot of power in the decades prior to the establishment of the State of Israel.
  • [4] Laura Robson. “Church, State, and the Holy Land: British Protestant Approaches to Imperial Policy in Palestine, 1917–1948.” The Journal of Imperial and Commonwealth History 39, no. 3 (September 2011): 457–477.
  • [5] John Quigley. “Britain’s Secret Re-Assesment of the Balfour Declaration.” Journal of the History of International Law 13, no. 2 (2011): 249–285. Page 250 discusses the British dilemmas faced between 1929-1939 in trying to satisfy both parties.
  • [6] Ibid.
  • [7] Ibid.
  • [8] Wasserstein, page 141. Taken from Samuel to Weizman, 10 Aug. 1921 (CZA Z4/16151). Chaim Weitzman was a Zionist leader, President of the Zionist Organization, and the first President of the State of Israel.
  • [9] Ibid.
  • [10] Ibid.
  • [11] Irving Miller. Israel: The Eternal Ideal. New York: Farrar, Straus and Cudahy, 1955. Page 36. Pages 36-38 describe the creation of the White Paper, and previous White Papers before the one of 1939.
  • [12] Ibid.
  • [13] Ibid, page 32.
  • [14] Kimmerling, Baruch, and Joel S. Migdal. The Palestinian People: A History. Hebrew University, 2003.
  • [15] “The White Paper on Palestine- Jewish Fears and Criticisms.” The Times London. London, January 6, 1938.
  • [16] Ibid.
  • [17] Ronald Zweig. Britain and Palestine During The Second World War. London: The Boydell Press, 1986. Page 4.
  • [18] Ibid., Pages 12-13.
  • [19] Miller, page 37.
  • [20] Ellen Jenny Ravndal. “Exit Britain: British Withdrawal From the Palestine Mandate in the Early Cold War, 1947–1948.” Diplomacy & Statecraft 21, no. 3 (September 14, 2010): 416–433. Page 418.
  • [21] Miller, pages 34 and 32.