Pre and Post Norman English history, up until the Wars of The Roses.
I loved learning about history in school, but the earliest we ever studied was 1066 and the invasion of England by William the Conqueror, one of only three kings of England that have a sobriquet. (The other two are Alfred the Great, and Edward the Confessor, two pre-Norman kings.) I think that a lot of British people think that history started in 1066, because that’s such an important date and we never get taught about anything earlier. The syllabus of history exams is focused quite heavily on 20th Century events, with a side-trip to the Tudors for A-level students now.
When I got to university, I was randomly placed in a seminar group focusing on Anglo-Saxon and Norman history for the first semester, which was called The History of War. Lectures spanning from the Romans to the first Gulf War were offered; you could go to any of them you wanted, but you had to attend the ones that informed you about your seminar topics. I had intended on going to all of the lectures, but I stopped after the Anglo-Saxon ones. Well, they were on at 9am! Students shouldn’t have to cope with such an anti-social time of day!
I was really pleased to be placed in this group – I wanted to learn about something new, and although I had the basics of 1066 in the back of my brain, I knew nothing about what had come before it: how Edward the Confessor was more Norman than English, and how the politicking of the noble Godwinson family had brought about a stale, childless marriage (seriously, George R R Martin clearly got a few character notes for Tywin and Cersei Lannister from Earl Godwin and his daughter Edith) that opened the door for a sly invitation for Duke William to take the throne after his death.
I had a vague idea that the death of Harold left the country without an English king, so William, who had trounced the English at Hastings, had nobody to compete with for the crown. Well, that was wrong. Chuck a rock about in October 1066 and you’d hit an English noble with a good claim to throne.
I learned that there were kings before Edward, that several of them were Norwegian, that many of them had the pre-fix Aethel before their name and the country was a patchwork of tribal areas that are still visible on the map of England today. I learned that the England that William conquered had a sophisticated system of laws and coinage, traded with countries all over the world and had a language that still provides us with some of our most basic words we use in English today. (No, not those words. Well, not just those words!)
I also found out that despite pre-Conquest England being as patriarchal as the post-Conquest country that denied Empress Matilda her rightful crown as Queen of England, it still produced women like Aethelflaed, who ruled most of what we today think of as the Midlands and helped her brothers and nephew stitch together all those patchwork petty kingdoms into one solid country of England.
I learned about monasteries and the Vikings, continental politics and the confusing but important genealogies that brought about the next few hundred years of fighting between England and France. I learned that the English Civil War we all know about between the Roundheads and the Cavaliers was actually at least the third civil war in Britain, the first being between the iron-willed Matilda and the little sneak Stephen. I wouldn’t want to be trapped in a lift with her, but by God, there was a woman who could have ruled a medieval country. Abseiling down castle towers and escaping from armed guards in a white cloak over snowy fields was the least of what she got up to!
I think the thing I learned the most was that we tend to have a very straight line idea about history – we know X happened, so it must have been because of Y. In reality, X happening was because Z didn’t happen, A died young and B was stuck in a bog in Mercia and missed the battle completely. History is layered with subtleties and we can’t trust the stories that we’re given. They were written by the victors, after all. The reason that I didn’t know much history pre-1066 is because the English lost the Battle of Hastings, and the Normans won. Their story became more important to the national story, and the men and women that provided a stable and thriving country for the Normans to plunder faded into the darkness.
So, I can tell you why Aethelred wasn’t actually Unready, and where the hell the Danelaw was. I know why the Bayeux Tapestry isn’t actually a) a tapestry, b)made in Bayeux or c) a trustworthy primary source for the era. I can tell you why Harold Godwinson, the last Anglo-Saxon king, was really pissed off with his brother Tostig and why the whole arrow in the eye thing isn’t really all it’s cracked up to be.
I can tell you, objectively, which of the Plantagenet kings was the best, and which should have taken a vow of chastity after the obligatory heir and spare were born. I know which king loved his wife the most and which had the most gruesome burial you could possible imagine.
None of this knowledge is remotely useful in real life, of course, but I’m awfully glad I learned it!