The coronation of William the Conqueror
Here’s a conundrum that the Brits have not had to face for over a millennium (or possibly since 1688 if you count the Glorious Revolution); how to deal with a conquering monarch. As most schoolkids knew in my day (I’m not too sure what the current crop know these days) William the Conqueror had the audacity to invade this green and sceptr’d land in 1066, with the erstwhile king, Harold, taking one in the eye for his country.
Although successful at Battle near Hastings – amazing how they chose to fight at a place that bore the name of a conflict – the Normans’ hold on the country was precarious. Harold’s supporters rallied around his heir, Edgar, whom they proclaimed, but never crowned, king. The fifteen year old lad put up some resistance but the Normans soon prevailed, Edgar abdicating the throne in December 1066 and taking the title of Earl of Oxford magnanimously offered to him by William.
William saw that he needed to regularise his position by being crowned king of England and raced to London for the deed to be done. He chose Christmas Day as the day for the coronation, taking the view that the locals might be otherwise occupied enjoying the festivities usually associated with the Christian festival.
The day arrived and the streets and all the approaches to Westminster Abbey were lined with double rows of soldiers, both on horse and foot. Attended by 260 of his closest followers and many priests and monks William rode to the Abbey. Amongst the attendees of the ceremony were a considerable number of Saxon nobles.
The ceremony began with Geoffrey, the bishop of Countances, asking the Normans present, in French, whether William should take the title of king of England. The Archbishop of York then asked the Saxon contingent in their native language whether they would take the Norman as their king. Both sides shouted their approval and so enthusiastic and loud was the response that the soldiery around the Abbey were startled and being primed to be on their guard for seditious behaviour, assumed that the uproar was a cry for help.
Without further ado they started to attack the surrounding English houses, setting them alight. A few rushed into the Abbey and the sight of armed soldiers and the smell of the burning houses drifting into the church caused panic amongst the congregation, many of whom fled from the scene. Whilst the Normans suspected that the whole of London had used the ceremony as a signal to rise up against them, the Saxons, doubtless keen Game of Thrones fans, began to fear that they had been lured into a trap, to be slaughtered whilst unarmed.
Rioting ensued and there are suspicions that the Normans used the opportunity to plunder the damaged buildings. Eventually order was restored, although the riot lasted many hours, and the flames were extinguished. William the Conqueror, however, had been pretty much deserted in the smokey Abbey but he insisted that Archbishop Aldred and the few remaining petrified priests continue with the coronation ceremony, so important to him was the stamp of legitimacy that the act would bring to him.
So over enthusiastic cheering was the spark that caused a riot and marred the ascendency of William the Conqueror to the English throne, at a time when he was anxious to reconcile the two nations. Little did he know that the antipathy between the English and French ran deep!