WILLIAM THE FIRST was the first of our kings,
Not counting Ethelreds, Egberts and things,
And he had himself crowned and anointed and blest
In Ten-Sixty-I-Needn’t Tell-You-The-Rest
But being a Norman, King William the First
By the Saxons he conquered was hated and cursed,
And they planned and they plotted far into the night
Which William could tell by the candles alight.
Then William decided these rebels to quell
By ringing the Curfew, a sort of a bell,
And if any Saxon was found out of bed
After eight o’clock sharp, it was Off With His Head!–Eleanor and Herbert Farjeon
The rest of this little poem goes through each strike of the bell, one through eight, at the end of which all the Saxons are tucked up in bed, “in a deuce of a state.” I know it by heart. It’s the first poem in a marvelous little book, Kings and Queens, by Eleanor and Herbert Farjeon (early twentieth-century British siblings with a knack for churning out reliably popular children’s stories, poems, and songs). Eleanor is best known outside the UK for the hymn “Morning has Broken,” which put Yusuf Islam (AKA Cat Stevens) on the map in 1972.
Oh well. It’s a pretty song.
The rest of Kings and Queens covers every monarch since William with an equally historically accurate and easy-to-memorize little poem. “John, John, bad King John, Shamed the throne that he sat on,” and so on. It was a very early, and a favorite, book of my childhood.
Remembering this book, on this day, puts me in a bit of a reverie about how I began to learn history.
It certainly wasn’t in the classroom. I didn’t wait till I was six or seven or eight. (Do they even teach history at those ages these days?) My elementary school education was spotty, took place on three different continents, and went completely missing for a year, during which I was the reluctant beneficiary of my mother’s often ill-tempered rare and half-hearted attempts at home-schooling, the benefits of which I have no memory at all. But I survived, and by the time I started Junior High School, the family had settled, for keeps, in the United States, and I’d picked up and scavenged enough facts and knowledge to fake it until I could finally make it, which I eventually did.
I began to learn history from books, at first from books which were read to me, and later, from ones I read and treasured myself. From poems, like the one I recited above, or others by Kipling, Browning, and Longfellow. Some from antiquity, some anonymous. From stories and novels by Scott, Kipling, Sutcliffe. (Later, when I became interested in the genre I call the ‘tasteful bodice ripper,’ from Heyer, Seton, DuMaurier.) Everywhere I looked, there were books.
And I learned history from family: from Dad, from my grandparents, and from my great-grandmother. I learned about a time in the world I couldn’t remember, but they could (some such recollections, related to me by a relation or family retainer who lived through them, go back as far back as about 1875, almost 150 years ago–before there were telephones, when Queen Victoria still had decades to go on the throne, the Franco-Prussian War had just ended, and William Ewart Gladstone was Prime Minister, sandwiched as he was in between the two terms of Benjamin Disraeli.
And I learned bits of history from songs, sad ones, funny ones, songs about the first World War, about the Civil War (both of them, mine and yours) folk songs about the days of Robin Hood, or about the Four Marys or the six wives of Henry VIII (“With her head tucked underneath her arm, She walked the bloody tower . . .”). And I’m a walking encyclopedia of popular songs of World War II–“We’re going to hang out our washing on the Siegfried Line” (“Daddy, what’s the “Siegfried Line?”–There were two, one in each World War.) Hard to stump me on songs of the Second World War.
Everywhere I looked, there was history. And I never seemed to be at the center of it. As time went on, I began to see myself as a very small cog in a very big wheel that had been turning for thousands of years before I was born, and would continue doing so for thousands of years after I was gone. All in all, and even before I got to school, I think that sense gave me a wonderfully healthy perspective on my place as neither more, nor less, important than those who had gone before, than those who would come after, or than those who were present with me in the here and now. It’s an upbringing and a worldview that I think is largely missing among today’s young people, and that makes me sad. Because it was a lovely way to grow up, it’s a lovely, connected, relaxed feeling, and I wish they had it too.
Speaking of those who have gone (some considerable time) before me, but to whom I can feel the connection, October 14 is the anniversary of the Battle of Hastings. William the Bastard, natural son of Robert of Normandy and his mistress, Herleva, defeated Harold II (Godwinson) of England on October 14, 1066, had himself crowned William I of England on Christmas Day, founded the House of Normandy, and ruled until 1087 when he died, apparently as a result of an injury from the pommel of his saddle (ouch).
Accounts of the all-day battle differ, but many speculate that Harold’s army may have been victorious had the king not been killed, possibly by an arrow to the eye (that part may be apocryphal). What’s not apocryphal is that the fight went out of his troops when Harold fell, and William cruised to an easy victory.
And the course of British history was changed forever. On this day, nine-hundred fifty-six years ago.
*An excellent bit of light reading history on William the Conqueror by one of the queens of the ‘tasteful bodice-ripper’ genre is The Conqueror, by Georgette Heyer. Probably too girly for some of you alpha-males, but a fun read. (I’m not ashamed to admit to reading Georgette Heyer, since her book, An Infamous Army, about the Battle of Waterloo, was required reading at Sandhurst for decades, just for its closely-researched description of the battle itself. Still may be, for all I know).