Rethinking the teaching of the Norman Conquest for GCSE and A-level

2nd July 2015 at 11:35

Battle of Hastings

All of the exam boards have now published draft specifications for the new History GCSE. The days of a 20th Century-only syllabus are now gone (and good riddance!) and there are some interesting new options available for Key Stage 4 study. One topic which in some form or other is common to all the new specifications is the Norman Conquest. Like I’m sure every other history teacher in the land I’ve taught the Conquest in Year 7 but I have recently also taught it for A-level, which has been quite an eye-opener for what I didn’t know when teaching this in Key Stage 3.

The period is a fascinating one but it is replete with hurdles for students coming back to it for examination study: there is a vast cast of characters with odd names (some repeated: 1066 boasts two significant Harolds and three significant Ediths) and fierce disputes between interpretations, with some historians going so far as to declare which side they’d have fought for at Hastings. The three big areas which look likely to come up in the new GCSE specifications are the causes of the succession crisis at the end of Edward’s reign, the reasons why the Normans were victorious at Hastings, and the post-Conquest changes to society and economy that created the system labelled “feudalism”. Each of these issues provide great hooks to get students into the drama of the period and the guts of the debates about it.

In the first case, be wary of Norman propaganda! The oft-repeated claim that William was the only legitimate heir to Edward is nonsense in light of the way in which Anglo-Saxon kingship was bestowed. Traditionally, Anglo-Saxon kings needed three things: decent from Alfred the Great, nomination by the former king and to be acclaimed by the leading nobles. Neither William nor Harold possessed all of these, but both claimed they’d been nominated by Edward, and Harold had certainly been unanimously backed by the English lords who gathered for the Confessor’s funeral. As such, Norman claims that Harold was an illegitimate king are to be treated sceptically; it was as much William’s ambition as Harold’s which precipitated the crisis of 1066, and the real cause was Edward’s total unwillingness to produce an heir who could have laid claim to all three requirements with his wife Edith (whom Edward once tried to dispose of in a nunnery). Making sure the blame for the crisis is spread around and not just located at Harold’s door is a great chance for students to dig into a rich debate.

On the second, Year 7 lessons on the Norman Conquest often proclaim William a strategic genius for the use of “feigned retreat” tactics at Hastings, but it is worth highlighting that getting his army to England was a significantly more ambitious and impressive feat. Estimates for the number of men at Hastings on either side vary, but there were certainly enough to have created a massive logistical shipping challenge. Historians suggest that William could not have possible logged enough wood nor had enough time to build his entire fleet, so it was a mark of some skill to have assembled sufficient ships from allies and mercenaries to land at Pevensey at all. The narrative of William’s early life—a child-duke, warred over by his nominal protectors, whose mixture of ruthlessness, generosity and guile won him back control of his duchy from lords who had gone rogue during his minority - is an essential part of understanding why so many were prepared to follow William beyond the bounds of France, and provides students with the chance to reflect on the impact of the individual on historical processes.

The question of feudalism in England is bedevilled with historiographical disputes. It has traditionally been argued that William brought feudalism to England, bestowing all land from him in return for military service, a system he was familiar with from the continent. Against this, some historians have argued that England was essentially proto-feudal under the later Anglo-Saxons, whilst others have suggested that William did make changes but these amount to no more than “bastard feudalism”, much less clear-cut than that found on in Europe. On top of this, there is the question of whether “feudalism”, in England or Europe, even existed at all—certainly the term itself was never used in the Middle Ages. Unlikely as these are to come up in a GCSE exam (they don’t really come up at A-level, it is much more about the generic ideas of land and service) it is still worth being aware of the arguments to avoid giving students a misleading impression of the social and economic state of play in William’s reign, and to give them a sense of the wider historical arguments they are entering into by commenting on the Norman Conquest.

Naturally, there are lots of other important issues which are easily worth a lesson or two, and the precise content will depend on the exam requirements, but teaching students in more depth a topic they are bound to have done at Key Stage 3 is a great opportunity to consider how and why we teach history in different ways at different ages and I’d strongly urge anyone thinking about teaching the Conquest for GCSE to give it a go.

A few resources from TES

How far did William I and William II change govt

Norman Conquest Dingbats