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Bring back the English resistance

Where is our ancient tradition of radical dissent when we need it most?

The Idler, June 2009

‘If the succession runs in the line of the conquest, the Nation runs in the line of being conquered, and it ought to rescue itself from this reproach.’
Thomas Paine, Rights of Man, 1791

Everyone knows about the Norman Conquest. 1066 is the only battle date that pretty much everyone can remember. You probably learned about it in school, and what you learned probably went something like this:

In 1066, Duke William of Normandy invaded England , to contest the recent coronation of King Harold. William claimed, dubiously, that the throne was rightfully his. William landed with his army at Pevensey and Harold’s men marched south to meet him. They met on the slopes of Senlac Hill, west of Hastings . Harold ended up with an arrow in his eye and William ended up with the throne of England . He was crowned king on Christmas Day 1066, in Westminster Abbey. And that was that. Next stop: the Plantagenets.

But that wasn’t that. What the school history books don’t tell you is that the battle of Hastings was the beginning, not the end, of the Norman campaign to conquer England . For the next five years, a guerrilla insurgency of remarkable ferocity and cunning was fought all over the nation in an attempt to drive the Normans out. It was a campaign which has modern parallels in the French resistance, the Viet Cong or the Iraqi insurgency. At times, it seemed that King William I’s hold on the English crown would be even more precarious than his predecessor’s – and maybe just as shortlived. The English resistance had begun.

After Hastings , William expected England to fold before him. But it didn’t. The remains of the establishment got together and acclaimed a new king: not William, but Edgar, the fourteen-year old grandson of a previous king, Edmund Ironside. William’s problem was that the English crown was not hereditary – it was elective. And nobody had elected him. He dealt with this problem in the way he dealt with every other problem in his life: through the use of extreme violence.

William marched through the south of England , slaughtering, burning and raping as he went. He ravaged the coast, then marched in a circle around London , cutting off its food supplies. He burnt Southwark to the ground and marched west, harrying the populations of Buckinghamshire and Bedfordshire, Middlesex and Hertfordshire. Eventually, the remnant English leadership caved in. Edgar, who would never be crowned, submitted to the invader. A coronation was hastily arranged at Westminster Abbey.

Maybe William intended his enthronement to be a healing occasion, but it didn’t turn out that way. At the end of the traditional coronation ceremony, it was standard practice for the audience to acknowledge their new king with a roar of acclamation. William had stationed a ring of Norman knights outside the abbey, in case things got nasty. When the knights heard the shouts from inside, in a language they didn’t understand, they assumed a rebellion had begun. So they set fire to the nearby houses, and started killing the onlookers. The abbey emptied as people fled, and the new king was left alone, orb and sceptre in hand, shaking with fear and fury on his lonely throne.

Perhaps the violent fiasco of the coronation strengthened the determination of the English to resist William. Or perhaps it was the new king’s first act – to confiscate the land of everyone in England and demand payment if they wanted it back. Perhaps it was his seizure of vast tracts of the country, and its distribution to his cronies. Whatever the reason, most of England was yet to be won. In the west, Exeter fought off the advance of the Normans with ferocity. The sons of the late King Harold, who had fled to Ireland , made sorties into Devon and Cornwall , where they attacked William’s men. Edgar fled into exile in Scotland , where he drummed up the support of King Malcolm. On the Welsh borders, an outlaw known as Eadric the Wild fought a guerrilla campaign, in alliance with the Welsh princes, which tied down the Norman armies for years.

And all the time, all over the nation, bands of guerrilla outlaws took to the woods, the marshes and the wastelands, with the tacit support of local populations, emerging to harass, harry and assassinate the occupiers. The Normans called these underground fighters ‘silvatici’ – men of the woods. The English called them the wild men, or the green men. Like all good guerrilla fighters, they were almost impossible to defeat.

The year 1069 saw a great rebellion in the north of England . The Earls of Mercia and Northumbria raised armies and sent for support to the King of Sweden. Young Edgar joined them and together they declared war on the King. William marched north to meet them, building huge castles as he went, and battered them into submission. To ensure that there would be no further hiding place in the north for the green men, he then razed everything that stood over 1000 square miles of land between York and Durham – the infamous ‘harrying of the north’. Every animal, every house, every field was destroyed. To survive, the remaining citizens were reduced to selling their children into slavery, or even digging up graves and eating the corpses.

Yet still one area of England remained unconquered: the fens. Specifically, the isle of Ely, which in the 11 th century was surrounded by impenetrable marshes. Ely would be the site of the resistance fighters’ last stand. It was a stand that would be led by a man as ruthless, cunning and determined as William himself: an opponent who proved a match for the Norman invaders and whom William never defeated by force of arms. His name was Hereward, and he was England ’s last hope.

Hereward, the son of a local landowner, had been dispossessed by the conqueror. He wanted revenge. He fortified the isle, and gathered a band of rebels bound together by holy oath. The abbot of Ely, fearful of what William would do to his abbey, supported the resistance. Attempts by local Norman barons to purge the isle of the rebels failed so badly that William himself was forced, in 1071, to lead an army in person to finish the job.

But Hereward was to prove a wilier foe than Harold. William’s first attempt to defeat him involved the construction of a giant floating causeway, to carry his knights across the deep fen and into Ely. Hereward and his men watched with amusement as, the causeway completed, William’s knights, eager for glory and gold, rushed all at once onto it. It collapsed under their weight, and they drowned in the mere.

Furious, William considered his next move. He was persuaded by one of his commanders that a local witch could be employed to curse Hereward and ensure victory. He blockaded the isle and built four siege towers, with catapults on top. He built another causeway, this time more stable. He placed the witch on top of one of the towers, and proceeded to bombard the isle with both stones and curses. Hereward and his men watched, amused, from the marshes nearby, where they had secreted themselves. Then they poured oil on the reeds and set them alight. The fen went up like it had taken a napalm strike, consuming William’s causeway, his siege towers and the witch, who fell screaming from the tower and broke her neck.

This went on for eighteen months or so. William attacked, Hereward parried, and the isle remained unconquered. The end, when it came, was anticlimactic. William sent a secret message to the abbot of Ely: surrender, or I take all of your land, now. Then, when I defeat you, I take your abbey too, and its treasure, and your life. It was enough. While Hereward was away one day, foraging in the fens, the abbot led William’s men in. Treachery, not battle, had been the conqueror’s final weapon.

Hereward’s tale of doomed resistance has struck a chord down the ages. His story has perhaps stayed alive for so long because Hereward and his green men were some of the earliest recorded English rebels: the first in a long line of people who, over the next thousand years, would stand up for freedom against an ever-encroaching slavery,

English history is too often represented, even today, as a pageant of lords and nobles, wars and conquests. In this, it has much in common with the kind of history taught in pretty much every nation in the world, from the USA to North Korea : Establishment history, which talks up the triumphs of the looters, thieves, killers and psychopaths who built the modern world. History as a list of battle dates and peace treaties. History which flatters the kind of people who enjoy planting flags on the corpses of the conquered. The kind of history which makes William a hero and Hereward a footnote.

But there is another kind of history, in England as elsewhere: the history of those who resist this tide, even though they know it will probably drown them. The history of those who rebel against the future, and against their own marginalisation by power. It is a history which, as we slide deeper into an age of slumbering, obedient consumerism, we would do well to remember. It might even help to save us from what we are becoming.

Take, for example, the ‘peasants revolt’ of 1381. Far from being a minor act of civil disobedience by a bunch of ignorant dung-shovellers, this was an unprecedented, and very nearly successful, attempt at revolution. For decades, the poor folk of England had been kept under by repressive laws which restricted their wages and their movements and meted out extreme punishments for minor offences (death by hanging for stealing a chicken, anyone?) Church and State grew fat off their labour, and they had had enough. The last straw was a ‘poll tax’ levied on them by a cash-strapped parliament. Across southern England , people began to resist. They attacked and killed tax collectors. They burned the houses of gentry and clergy. Then they marched on London .

By the time they got there, they were 100,000 strong. Their leader, Wat Tyler, was preaching revolution. His right-hand man, a radical priest named John Ball, was calling for the abolition of serfdom, the break-up of the Church, the land and goods of church and barons to be divided up among the people. They sent word to the king demanding an audience. The king didn’t come, so the rebels attacked London . They beheaded the archbishop of Canterbury , invaded churches, looted the houses of the wealthy. The king – Richard II, who was only 14 – retreated to the Tower of London , fearing that ‘the heritage and realm of England were near lost.’

In the end, though, they weren’t. Boldly, the young king agreed to meet with the rebels at Blackheath, on the edge of the city. There he had Wat Tyler killed, rendering them leaderless, before boldly promising the rebels all they demanded. He sent them home in hope. When they got there he kept none of his promises; instead he had the ringleaders rounded up and executed. The revolution had failed, and a lesson had been administered: never trust the promises of the powerful.

Over the next few hundred years, dozens of similar uprisings swept the nation – Jack Cade’s Kentish rebellion of 1450 (in which one of my ancestors apparently participated), the Cornish uprising of 1497, the northern risings of 1536 against Henry VIII , Kett’s Rebellion of 1549. But things really took off again in the 1640s, as civil war swept the nation. A huge undercurrent of long-suppressed radical thought welled to the surface. The Levellers, like Wat Tyler’s men 300 years before, wanted the abolition of the aristocracy and the established church. Gerard Winstanley’s Diggers wanted the same, and called for the redistribution of land to everyone in England . The Ranters, the Quakers, the Muggletonians and plenty of others attempted to seize the opportunity created by the fall of the monarchy to create a fairer, more equal country.

Tellingly, many of them seized on the notion of the ‘Norman Yoke’ to explain their predicament. England , they claimed, had once been a free nation – then William had arrived with his brutal barons, and made slaves of the people. The execution of Charles I – a descendant of the conqueror – had made England free again for the first time in six centuries. Now that freedom must be cemented. Six hundred years on, the civil war rebels saw themselves as heirs of Hereward. Oliver Cromwell, heir of the conqueror, suppressed them all to protect the interests of himself and his landed class.

Ironically, the triumph of parliament in the Civil War led to massive acceleration of a process which would spur the next wave of rebellions against the rulers: enclosure. The Civil War brought a new class of landed gentry to power and, untrammelled now by a supremely powerful monarch, they began to flex their muscles. Over the next century and a half, parliament passed act after act enforcing the enclosure – or, to be more accurate, theft – of common land. The eighteenth century saw a rash of resistance to this process, as people united to tear down fences around newly enclosed land, or attack those responsible for erecting them.

But the enclosure of rural land by the gentry was a precursor to something much bigger, and even harder to resist: the enclosure of entire populations by the industrial revolution. As landlords and merchants began to see the potential of the industrial technology that came onto the scene in the late eighteenth century, there was no stopping them. Suddenly, artisans were being put out of business by machines, just as their smallholding parents had been driven from their land by enclosure. The long process of stripping people of their independence moved up a gear, as industrialisation forced entire populations into the teeming slums of the expanding cities, to work in the mills and mines.

Wage labour and urban poverty were the new realities, and with them came new rebellions. The much-maligned Luddites saw precisely what this process was doing to the freedom and independence of life and labour they cherished and took the situation, and the new machines, into their own hands. For a time, so many of them did so that the military had to be mobilised. The mythical ‘Captain Swing’ led farm labourers across the south of England in the destruction of the agricultural machinery which was taking away their livelihoods, and in the intimidation of the ‘blackguard enemies of the people’ who employed machines instead of men to thresh their corn.

The twentieth century saw a new wave of rebellions, now by a population firmly ensconced in the cities who saw, in socialism, communism, the labour movement and, later, the environmental movement, a means and a reason to rebel against a system which continued to enslave them. In the name of something which used to be called ‘progress’, and is now mostly called ‘development’ or ‘growth’, the majority lived lives of hard work, low pay and debt, whilst a minority of lucky piglets snuffled greedily from a trough containing the fruits of others’ labour and the exhausted greenery of an increasingly unhappy planet.

Today, we are living through the latest phase of this long march away from freedom. It is an age of biometric ID cards, mobile CCTV cameras, remote-controlled spy planes and government DNA databases. An age where the population is numbed by shopping, celebrity TV and internet gossip to an extent to which would gobsmack even Aldous Huxley. An age of global warming and genetic engineering, mass extinction and designer babies.

We find ourselves in a land where the State tells us where we can smoke, what we should eat and how much to drink. A land in which every year brings a new ban on some harmless pleasure and a new stricture about what can be said and how to say it. A land in which giant corporations, the heirs of the gentry and the barons, are encouraged to bankrupt us, but we have to pay them back when they bankrupt themselves.

There was a stodgily patriotic legend that did the rounds during the early days of World War One, which apparently cheered the people of England as the Germans advanced through Europe . It was said that at the Battle of Mons, the British infantry saw amongst their numbers the ghosts of the archers of Agincourt, from 500 years before, urging them on to victory. It wasn’t true, of course, but it helped rally the people. Heroes from the past had appeared in the present to urge their descendants to victory. Today, the ‘Angels of Mons ’ are probably better known than the battle.

We could do, today, with some angels of our own. We could do with a vision of Hereward raging against the conqueror, lit up against the night sky. We could do with a visitation from the green men, the Diggers, the Luddites or the Chartists. We could do with a forcible reminder of a radical tradition which is older than the House of Lords or the House of Windsor; older, probably, than England itself.

Because that old rebel tradition seems in danger of dying out. Lowing mindlessly outside the Christmas sales, addled by the morphine of celebrity mags and the farce of party politics, we have come to believe that ‘consumer choice’ and voting every half a decade is the same thing as freedom. In reality, we are slaves just as surely as if we had been invaded, and our loss is as great as the loss of the commons. Today, the invader is in our head; he whispers that we are free even as we wilfully enslave ourselves. And the loss that we suffer is the loss of our self-respect, our independence of spirit; our ability to say no.

Hereward, according to the 11 th century sources, slipped away from Ely undefeated and unbowed. No-one knows where he went, or when and where he died. Or even if. For in my dreamier moments, I like to imagine that Hereward is still out there somewhere; roaming the land like the scholar gypsy, or slumbering in some deep cave like Arthur and his knights, awaiting our call.

That call will only come if we awake first, and realise that, no matter how much we are told otherwise, we are not free. It will only come when we remember that freedom survives only if it is fought for; that, like the Angels of Mons, and like Hereward himself, it needs the heat of battle to realise its true, furious, revolutionary potential.