Tuesday 29 December 2015

687. The Normans Take England.


  I have just finished reading a book (in the Penguin Monarchs series and written by John Gillingham) about King William II, known as Rufus, who is one of those kings of England about whom almost everyone knows very little except that he was killed by an arrow shot in the New Forest in Hampshire which was a good thing because he was a thoroughly unpleasant sort of fellow.
  Certainly the impression of Rufus from Gillingham's book is much more positive and demonstrates that he was far more interesting than just being someone whose manner of death is the only notable thing about him. He seems to have had a bad press from writers who lived shortly after his death rather than those who actually lived during his reign and then mainly because he upset leaders of the Church. 
  He was the third son of the rather more unpleasant William I who had usurped the English throne by invading the country and killing King Harold II and then replaced the English lords with his Norman cronies and, finally, when English resistance grew to his regime, viciously brought death and destruction to the country with the English north being most scarred by The Conqueror's terror.
  Rufus proved adept at using the wealth of England to fund armies and buy off enemies to gain territory in France - in Maine and the Vexin - and eventually gained control of Normandy itself when his brother, Duke Robert, set off to the Holy Land on Crusade. He was less successful in crushing the Welsh but he established English settlers in Cumbria which he gained from the Scots and had influence in Scotland itself.
  He never married and had no children, neither legitimate nor illegitimate. He appalled the clergy who abhorred the fashions of his reign where men, they felt, wore effeminate clothes and long hair in the style of women. 
   He died at the height of his power in 1100, aged about 42. An influential English writer saw him as an oppressor of the Church while the Normans viewed him as a strong ruler and a chivalrous soldier and leader. His death may or may not have been assassination with his brother Henry or the King of France or his son Louis behind any plot.
   Henry, whether or not he was responsible, acted quickly after Rufus' death to grab the crown of England and at his coronation published a charter which stated "I abolish all the evil practices by which the kingdom of England has been unjustly oppressed, and I set out some of those evil customs here". It was useful for the younger brother to blacken Rufus' name.
  The British stamp dealer, Captain Charles McMiram, was allowed to establish a philatelic agency for Barbuda in 1968. It appears that McMiram was a student of the British monarchy and so determined to issue a series of stamps on that subject and 1 stamp was consequently released fortnightly beginning with a depiction of William The Conqueror which was issued on 16 February 1970. 
  Naturally the second in the series (issued 2 March  1970) portrayed William Rufus and it is remarkable to me what a good stab at a portrait of the "Red King" McMiram's artist made. The picture (see above) showed Rufus looking appropriately ruddy-featured and notably with the very long hair that had scandalised the contemporary clergy but perhaps rather older than a man who lived only to be 42 might have done though if he was as debauched as his critics make out then perhaps the appearance in the portrait is not as unreasonable as might first be thought.
  McMiram was faced with a similar problem right at the start of the series - no contemporary portrait of William I existed and so he opted to have the artist who designed the stamp use a portrait of himself to represent The Conqueror. Hence, even if the series does not accurately depict all the English monarchs from the end of 1066 onwards, there is one stamp dealer whose face appears in the ongoing issue! A lovely story, I think.


   Of course, 14 October 2016 will be the 950th anniversary of the Battle of Hastings when Norman rulers and Norman aristocracy grabbed power over the English and the country's wealth. As I have previously pointed out, Royal Mail does not intend to release a set of stamps to commemorate this notable anniversary although a 1980's popular music group, Pink Floyd, is to be honoured with a Royal Mail stamp issue despite having received philatelic acknowledgement from the British postal service on 2 former occasions. Instead of a set of stamps to commemorate the battle, a ridiculously overpriced "Commemorative sheet" will be released on 14 October 2015. I have long given up buying such items and so I will have no commemoration of the 950th anniversary of the Battle of Hastings in my British stamp collection but at least I can fall back on admiring the Pink Floyd  stamps - if I decide that money should be spent buying them and at that is not for sure at this stage.
  It may well be time to follow the same plan with my Royal Mail collection as I already follow with issues from Isle Of Man, Jersey, Guernsey, Gibraltar, Australia and so on - only buy new issues which commemorate notable anniversaries or events of local relevance. 2016 may well be the time to start following such a plan with British new issues. The Pink Floyd issue would certainly be one of the first sets to be omitted from my collection. 
  Back to the Normans - one of my favourite British sets of all time is that which was released in 1966 to commemorate the 900th anniversary of the Battle of Hastings. Designed by the incomparable David Gentleman the issue was released on the precise anniversary of the Battle of Hastings - that is - 14 October 1966 and copies the style of the Bayeux Tapestry with 6 of the values produced in a se-tenant strip illustrating the progress of the battle.

The Norman invasion fleet at sea.

The death of the last English king, Harold II.

The Normans slaughter the English.

The Normans attack!

  One of the consequences of the Norman Duke's seizure of the English throne was that the Channel Islands became linked to the English monarchy. Guernsey Post will issue a set of stamps on 25 May 2016 to commemorate the 950th anniversary of the Battle of Hastings (why so long before the actual anniversary?) but the issue will be inscribed "Alderney". On 27 July 2015 Guernsey Post will then issue a set of stamps on "The History of the British monarchy". This set is also to be inscribed "Alderney" and could also be linked to the Battle of Hastings anniversary.
  The first definitive set of the independent postal administration of Guernsey issued on 1 October 1969 included in the stamp designs various portraits of a number of English and British monarchs taken from coinage. The halfpenny value included a portrait of King Harold II's immediate predecessor, Edward The Confessor, whom the Norman Duke had claimed had bequeathed the throne of England to him. The 1d and 1/6d values depicted William I himself with a nose shaped similar to Captain McMiran's but the face altogether thinner.

Edward The Confessor

William The Conqueror

   The Normans altered the lives of the unfortunate English forever and changed the English people's future dramatically and irretrievably. No king of England would ever again have a fatherline descended from the English genes brought over from Angeln when the English first came to Britain after the Roman withdrawal from the islands. And if that's not worth a special stamp issue I don't know what is.  But very few stamps have appeared from Royal Mail or the British Post Office over the years which illustrate aspects of the Anglo-Saxon period and there seems little chance of that omission being corrected in the foreseeable future.

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