As Edward the Confessor lay dying in 1066, according to his contemporary biographer, he foresaw the Norman invasion and England’s downfall within a year. Sir Winston Churchill, in his History of the English-Speaking Peoples, alludes to this prophecy at the end of his account of Edward’s reign. “The lights of Saxon England were going out,” he declares, “and in the gathering darkness a gentle, grey-beard prophet [i.e., Edward] foretold the end.”
Edward the Confessor was very much in Churchill’s mind as the storm clouds of fascism were gathering in Europe. In April 1940, when a foreign power was again threatening to invade, the events of 1066 echoed in the chambers of Admiralty House. F. W. Deakin, who was present with Winston Churchill, recalls the night of April 27. “Naval signals awaited attention, admirals tapped impatiently on the door of the First Lord’s room, while on one occasion talk inside ranged round the spreading shadows of the Norman invasion and the figure of Edward the Confessor who, as Churchill wrote, ‘comes down to us faint, misty, frail.’ I can still see the map on the wall, with the dispositions of the British Fleet off Norway, and hear the voice of the First Lord as he grasped with his usual insight the strategic position of 1066 . . . The distant events were as close and real as the mighty events at hand.”
To Churchill and his advisers in Admiralty House, England’s fate manifested in that moment as an unbroken chain linking past and present. The country had fallen in 1066, and there was a risk it would happen once more, in 1940. As these concerns arose in Churchill’s mind, out came the bundle of associated thoughts that had been archived with it in the recesses of his memory. They included mental images of Edward the Confessor, “misty and frail.” They included the thought that Edward was somehow linked, in 1066, to England’s downfall.
What we see in this case, in the anecdote from 1940, is the resonance of 1066 in the context of the peril of imminent invasion. Yet its power to stir feeling is also seen where there is no such emergency. Anticipating the nine-hundredth anniversary of 1066, the genealogist Leslie Pine prepared a book called Heirs of the Conqueror. “Across English history,” he wrote, “lies the red channel of the Norman Conquest. Bloody, brutal, devastating and unnecessary . . . It is as if, when we study William the Conqueror’s career, we were watching that of a Hitler before his time.” Even in 1966, twenty years after the War, Pine was making comparisons between the Conquest and Hitler’s attempted invasion.
Fast forward fifty years to the Brexit debate, and Brexiteers were fearful their goal might elude them. Unlike Churchill, they do not fear a conquest. Rather, they fear England might never escape the clutches of the EU. On October 14, 2019, the former UKIP leader, Gerard Batten, announced on Twitter: “Today is the 953rd anniversary of the Battle of Hastings. The Anglo-Saxons fought a brave and desperate fight for national survival and lost.” “Brexit is a desperate fight for national survival. We cannot afford to lose.”
Observe the power of resonance. When Mr. Batten realised that it was the anniversary of Hastings, he linked that battle to his own struggle to break free from European powers. Distant events became close and real. Batten suddenly saw himself fighting with King Harold, fearing the loss of what, for him, was their common cause. Leslie Pine, in 1966, felt that William the Conqueror could be regarded as a Hitler of his time. Sir Winston Churchill reflected on the parallel in 1940, when England was threatened with invasion, as in 1066. Throughout the last century, the ghostly figure of Edward the Confessor, and the bloody conquest that followed his death, have haunted those who have tasked themselves with defending against a perceived foreign tyranny. The question of who was responsible for everything that went wrong in 1066—for events that resonate in politics even today—matters to us all. It matters, especially, when those events are appropriated to forge our narratives of nationhood. Answers can be found, but only if we go back to re-examine Edward the Confessor. Did this half-Norman king really soften England up, allowing opportunists to invade, or was it Harold’s ambition that brought disaster on the people?
Tom Licence is Professor of Medieval History at the University of East Anglia. A former Fellow of Magdalene College, Cambridge, he specializes in the Norman Conquest, sanctity, kingship, and historical writing.