One of the more enjoyable pastimes a history buff can indulge in, is the “what if” game. What if Francisco Pizarro had been murdered by the Incas? What if Henri II of France had not had his eye penetrated by a lance? What if Julius Caesar had survived the plot to kill him? Or if Judas had said “nope, not interested,” and turned his back on those thirty silver pieces? What if Troy hadn’t fallen, laughing their heads off at the idiotic Greeks who thought they were stupid enough to pull that wooden horse through their gates? Or, to open the door on one of the more heated debates within the historic community, what if Richard III had won at Bosworth?
This year, one of the more recurring what if’s will relate to the year 1066. If Harold had won, if William had hit the dust, then what?
Obviously, none of us know. But many of us enjoy to speculate, becoming more and more animated as the waves of discussion rise and crash around us. The only thing we do know is that if events in the past had not happened, things would have been different. Not necessarily worse. Not necessarily better. Just different.
One of my favourite “what if” books is Making History by Stephen Fry. In this book, a certain young man travels back in time to ensure Adolf Hitler is never born. How? He poisons the water source that serves Hitler’s parent’s home, and wham, just like that, little Adolf never sees the light of the day. Our hero congratulates himself: he has rewritten history to the better. But has he? Without revealing too much of the plot, let’s just say that no, he hasn’t. Hitler rose to power as a consequence of the political winds blowing at the time. He managed to hit the right time, the right place to spout his racist, ultra-nationalistic nonsense. Had Hitler not been around, someone else would have filled the gap, and what if this person was smarter than dear old Adolf? Same agenda, same ultimate goal, but totally different tactics. Maybe very successful tactics…
Fortunately, we will never know just what such a person could have accomplished, but it’s important to keep in mind that most of the historical people who’ve left such a huge imprint on history have done so due to having been there at a certain point in time. Yes, obviously certain qualities are required – in William the Conqueror’s case, it helped that he was determined and ruthless, that he lived with the conviction (or pretended to) that the English crown was his by right. He must also have been very capable and innovative. I know the people in the Harold camp don’t like to hear this, because in history, Harold is the tragic hero who died on the battlefield after having had the terribly bad luck of first having to fend off Harald Hardrada and treacherous brother Tostig, then turn right around to rush down and fight William.
Except, of course, that the successful among us rarely blame bad luck for anything. They rely on meticulous planning, on a careful assessment of the situation, and a capacity to act quickly and forcefully. Maybe Harold should have handled Tostig differently. Maybe he was inept at building the alliances required to hold both Hardrada and William at bay. Because seriously, a king cannot rely on luck, can he?
It is my personal opinion that William has been somewhat unjustly treated by those of us who love our history. Not that he necessarily was a person I’d invite for tea and cake, but the man is quite often represented as evil incarnate, caring nothing for the people he subjugated. Yes, he committed various heinous deeds, but it seems to me that what we cannot forgive him for – ever – is that he won over our golden-haired hero, the affable, easy-going, handsome, upright Harold. Where William is depicted as dour and cold, little given to casual endearments or jollification, Harold comes across as the life and soul of the party, a man as loved by men as by women. Except that he wasn’t, was he? Not all Anglo-Saxon nobles felt Harold Godwinson was the best thing since sliced bread.
Had William lost the battle of Hastings, he’d have been no more than a footnote in history. England would have developed down a different path, a path without Henry II, Thomas Becket, Edward III, without Simon de Montfort and Henry III’s magnificent Westminster Abbey. No War of the Roses, no Henry VIII (no major loss, IMO). Would English as we speak it have existed? Would Shakespeare’s works ever have seen the light of the day? We will never know. After all, William did win, and all we can do is speculate. But when we do, we should keep in mind that there is no guarantee that a future forged by Harold Godwinson would have been better. It would just have been different. Very different.
I have the honour of being one participant in a collaborative effort dedicated to highlighting the potential “what if’s” in the momentous year 1066. Our book, 1066 Turned Upside Down, has just hit the “etailers” and offers nine different perspectives on William, Harold and all the rest. We have played at being nornes, snipping fate’s threads and retying them as we see fit 🙂 Have we had fun? Oh, yes! And all of this for less than £2 – seriously that’s not even one family-sized muffins at Starbucks and comes with the benefit of zero calories.
The authors are:
Helen Hollick, author of multiple historical and pirate novels, including Harold the King
Joanna Courtney, author of the Queens of the Conquest series
Anna Belfrage, Historical Novel Society Indie Award Winner 2015, author of the Graham Saga
Richard Dee, fantasy author of Ribbonworld
G K Holloway, author of 1066: What Fates Impose
Carol McGrath, author of The Daughters of Hastings trilogy
Alison Morton, author of the Roma Nova thrillers
Eliza Redgold, author of Naked, a novel of Lady Godiva
Annie Whitehead, who writes about Mercia and Saxon England
with an impressive foreword by writer and actor, C.C. Humphreys
The fabulous cover art is by Cathy Helms of Avalon Graphics