14 October, 2016 marks the 950th anniversary of the Battle of Hastings. The Bayeux Tapestry is a depiction of that battle. Around the 900th Jubiliee of the Battle of Hastings, there was an obituary published in the London daily, ‘The Times’:
Harold of England – killed in action defending his country from the invader, 14th October, 1066
How many of us would be able to construct an obituary for a person or people from among the First Nations in Australia, who were ‘killed in action defending their country’? This place called ‘Australia’ is the Country of hundreds of Nations. How long would it take us to compile a memorial, which acknowledged defenders from each of the Nations, who were the Traditional Custodians of today’s Australia? In saying this, I am adding my voice to the growing demand for a substantial recognition of First Nations people in Australia who have died defending their country against invaders
To recognise this 950th anniversary of the Battle of Hastings, I am reflecting on some words emerging from that event, which have become anchored in my vocabulary now. The words ‘William’ and ‘Windsor’ stand out. Here they are used together in a sentence.
“It was William the Conqueror who first chose the site for Windsor Castle, high above the river Thames and on the edge of a Saxon hunting ground.”
Remembering the Battle of Hastings traces our language and culture back over centuries of invasion. William’s presence in Normandy was the result of a land grant to a Viking. William descended from a Viking leader who had received the land around Normandy from a Frankish king as a land grant. This may be the sort of land transaction that underpins many contemporary land transactions and general association with land in Australia.
The invasions in Australia are so recent. We can see their ongoing and devastating effects on the dispossessed peoples, and we are getting an increasingly clear view of their historical effects. While we are part of this ancient tradition of invasion and dispossession, Australians (as a diverse population, who share a common identity) have not embraced a language that acknowledges this tradition. I find it ironic that the Constitutional recognition advocates speak of ‘First Australians’. We must look back on people ‘defending their country from the invader’ as a form of resistance against the imposition of notions of ‘Australia’.
The absence of a common language makes it difficult to collectively work through difficult issues. One key to building such a language is to recognize that place names are active elements in our 21st century English language. Most of our place names provide a direct link to the details and processes of invasion and dispossession. Understanding this aspect of our English language may point us to the people who died defending their country from the invader. Here are a few remnants from the Norman conquest.
During his lifetime, William shifted the seat of Norman power from Rouen, a port town on the Seine River, to Windsor, overlooking the River Thames. For those who want to commemorate the role of the hospitals of Rouen during World War 1, it is worth noting that William established a hospital in Rouen after securing papal absolution related to his marriage of Matilda. For those interested in the forced displacement and dispossession of the First Nations in the Australian state of Queensland, William also established a hospital in Cherbourg for the same reason.
After 100 years of subdivision in Brisbane there were too many William Streets in Brisbane. Many were re-named. William IV, Duke of Clarence and St Andrews, was the British monarch at the time of the naming of the Brisbane town. On Christmas day 1066, the Duke, William of Normandy, a.k.a. William the Conqueror, became William I, King of England.
In my neighbourhood, in 1938, William St was renamed after the English town of Abingdon. In antiquity, there was a place called Abingdon near the site of Windsor Castle. The knights of Abingdon Abbey became closely associated with the castle guard of the newly established Windsor Castle. Other references to William IV in my neighbourhood are Clarence St and Clarence Corner.
“The House of Windsor came into being in 1917, when the name was adopted as the British Royal Family’s official name by a proclamation of King George V, replacing the historic name of Saxe-Coburg-Gotha. It remains the family name of the current Royal Family.” Less protective publishers associate the renaming of the royal family with the widespread anti-German sentiment in Britain during the First World War. Looking to the future, there is a realistic chance that the house of Windsor will provide Australia with a head of state named William, maintaining the close proximity of these words in our language. (Read whatever you like into the naming of Harry, the next in line).