The finale episode of this miniseries brings the story of 1066 to a bloody and bitter end. William (Ed Stoppard) lands at the shores of England with his 14,000 men, much to the surprise of English King Harold (Adam James). Harold is baited by William’s intimidating tactics and arrogance into fighting a battle with a vastly depleted army, fresh from the battle that defeated Viking threat Hardrada. Harold’s family strongly advise him to bide his time and build a bigger army, but the thought of Normans pillaging England’s south coast seems to be too much of an insult for him to wait around patiently.
The recreations of the Battle of Hastings in this episode are quite impressive. Even more impressive (and helpful) is Dan Snow’s narration and our historians’ diagrams portraying the formations and tactics of the English and Norman armies on the battle field. Historians Tom Holland (acting as William) and Janina Ramirez (acting as Harold) talk about their cunning tactics to vanquish the other’s army. Holland takes his role very seriously; coming off as a character actor and/or irritated schoolteacher in comparison with the more light-hearted Ramirez. I suppose they both know who wins.
Presenter Dan Snow travels to the town of Battle (go figure) a few miles outside of Hastings. There he explores the battlefield with a local historian, tries out some Norman weapons on pig carcasses, and plays armies with a bunch of local sixth formers. The section with the sixth formers could’ve easily been cut, but that’s just because I’m looking for something wrong with this programme really. There are also a couple bits of dodgy green-screen and CGI, but I wasn’t expecting Avatar from Snow and the crew.
One of the best things about this episode is the characterisation of William, who is (and in my opinion always has been) the most likeable guy out of the three rivals. He is portrayed as clumsy yet optimistic, as he falls over on the beaches of England and puts his chainmail on backwards before battle. He of course laughs it off to the amusement of his men. He has nothing to fear as he believes God is on his side. Such a claim may be disputable, but what they do have on their side is intelligence and tactics. The Normans have brought cavalry, archers, infantry and trickery to this battle, and they really made us (old) English look a fool.
Let me finish my saying one satisfying and one frustrating thing about this episode.
One frustrating issue about this episode is that many of the important details (such as the death of King Harold) remain disputed. Historians have limited accounts from this era and bicker over the devil in the details of such things. We are instead left with two different re-enactments of certain aspects of the battle, which makes the completionist within me rather sad. However this is not the programmes fault, and credit to the producers for giving us all the possibilities rather than the sexiest thing to shoot for TV.
One satisfying aspect of the episode though, is its attention to details and logistics. I fully expected the programme to end with William defeating the English and prancing about the battlefield victorious. However it did not. We follow William in the weeks after the battle as he marches to a panicking Saxon Westminster and demands to be coroneted, finally becoming King William the Conqueror, the first Norman King of England.
Que Dieu sauve le roi?
1066: A Year to Conquer England is available on the BBC iPlayer.