Sunday, 11 September 2016

"I fart in your general direction" - Art imitating life

Many people of a certain age will recognise this quote without any difficulty. If you don't then I can only offer sympathy and suggest that there is a Monty Python-shaped hole in your movie and comedy education - specifically, in this case, Monty Python and the Holy Grail. Released in 1975 and up there with Life of Brian as two of the greatest comedy films of their era.

To put it in context: King Arthur (played by Graham Chapman) and his knights of the round table arrive at an unknown castle somewhere in England, in their quest to find the Holy Grail. They try to find out whose castle it is but the French guard (John Cleese) quickly loses his patience:

Frenchman: You don't frighten us, English pig-dogs! Go and boil your bottoms, sons of a silly person! I blow my nose at you, so-called Ah-thoor Keeng, you and all your silly English K-n-n-n-n-n-n-n-niggits! [makes taunting gestures at them]
Sir Galahad: What a strange person.
King Arthur: Now, look here, my good man--
Frenchman: I don't want to talk to you no more, you empty-headed animal food trough wiper! I fart in your general direction! Your mother was a hamster and your father smelt of elderberries!
Sir Galahad: Is there someone else up there we can talk to?
Frenchman: No, now go away or I shall taunt you a second time!

So what possible relevance can this have for the story of William, Duke of Normandy and his conquest of England? Well, in a strange case of art imitating life, I was more than a little surprised to find the very same reference captured by the chroniclers in relation to an event that took place in 1068. 

All was not plain sailing for King William in the months and years immediately after his coronation on Christmas Day 1066. Even the coronation itself was not without incident: the shouts of acclamation coming from the crowd within Westminster Abbey were supposedly mistaken by the Norman soldiers outside as the start of a riot, resulting in much burning and destruction.  

So it was that it may have come as no surprise when William received word of a conspiracy against him centering around Exeter. Messages urging other nearby towns to join the uprising were intercepted by royal agents and it quickly became apparent that this was a serious issue as the ring leaders appeared to be none other than Harold's mother, Gytha, and three of his sons from his first marriage to Edith Swan-neck. Something had to be done for fear that they might rally the English to rise up against him.

When William's demand for fealty was refused, he quickly raised an army (notably - for the first time - calling upon Englishmen to serve as well) and marched west. At first it seemed that the rebellion would soon fizzle out. As William's army drew near, a delegation came forth from the city, apparently seeking terms. They promised to open the gates of the city to the king and gave hostages as a promise of good behaviour. 

When William eventually arrived at the gates of Exeter, however, he found them barred against him. Quite why this happened is not known. Was the delegation a bluff to buy time to enable the defences to be completed? Or was it evidence of a disagreement among the rebels, with one party wishing to sue for peace and the other to hold out?

Either way, William was unimpressed and was not inclined to waste any more time. He called for one of the hostages to be brought forward and had him blinded in full view of the defenders on the city walls. It must have been a gruesome sight, not to mention a clear warning as to what would befall the rest of them should they choose not to surrender there and then. 

On the contrary, however, this act of brutality did not have the desired effect. If anything, the chroniclers say, it stiffened the resolve of the defenders. Clearly they were made of pretty stern stuff down in the west country and weren't about to surrender control of their borders to some unelected, jumped-up foreign overlord. (Sorry - best move on quickly!).

Indeed, so unimpressed were they with King William's bullying tactics that one bold chap - so William of Malmesbury tells us -  "standing upon the wall, had bared his posteriors, and had broken wind, in contempt of the Normans." Whether he also shouted the immortal words to accompany this act goes unrecorded, but I like to think he did. I would also hope that there was a better than slim chance that William's father smelt of elderberries. 

The gesture proved ultimately to be futile, however. An eighteen day siege followed, after which the Normans managed to enter the city, possibly because part of the wall had collapsed and possibly because the leaders of the rebellion had all scarpered, leaving the town to its fate. Happily for Exeter, William chose not to raze it to the ground and slaughter its citizens which feels like a lucky escape. I also hope the chap who had the bare-faced cheek to fart at the king also lived to to share the tale with his grandchildren at every family gathering even though they had heard it, like, a gazillion times before!