I am unfamiliar with details of European history; how is the Battle of Hastings relevant to the historical background in Harper Lee's To Kill A Mockingbird?

Chapter 1, Paragraph 4:

Being Southerners, it was a source of shame to some members of the family that we had no recorded ancestors on either side of the Battle of Hastings.

This passage is quite difficult for me to understand. How does the Battle of Hastings connect to the Southern American identity in Alabama during the 20th Century?

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    Southerners are renowned for the recorded depth of their family trees. This statement is making the point, with tongue solidly in cheek, that the family had no ancestors worthy of the name to trace genealogy to. Feb 4, 2016 at 7:48
  • In the USA at least this is a historically important book of the mid to late 20th Century, and had an impact on the Civil Rights movement. Also, I'd argue the question is about what would be in the mind of an author in that same period when they said something like this. Its fairly recent history (I wasn't alive yet, but some of our readers were I'm sure), but I'd argue it IS still history.
    – T.E.D.
    Feb 5, 2016 at 21:57
  • This question is about why an author depicted a fictitious character using a long-ago historical event as part of their "frame of reference." This frame of reference is itself a historical "event" (actually, the ethos of a particular time and place). As such, the question is on topic. Put another way, It is about "the history of history." Please see my answer below.
    – Tom Au
    Feb 7, 2016 at 23:04

2 Answers 2


Southerners are renowned for the recorded depth of their family trees. This statement is making the point, with tongue solidly in cheek, that the family had no ancestors worthy of the name to trace genealogy to.

In practice it was much more common for Southern families to trace lineage to Civil War heroes, Revolutionary War heroes, or notable early immigrant communities such as the Pilgrims of Mayflower fame. However, the further back the better, so to have no-one of note in one's lineage, all the back to 1066, was a significant hole in one's community standing.

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    One thing this answer undersells: While its true that Southerners got social status from being able to trace their genealogy back to the colonial period, and then to England, you were mostly socially OK if it ended there. Thus "back to the Battle of Hastings" is a wry exaggeration (or what the English might call "sarcasm").
    – T.E.D.
    Feb 5, 2016 at 21:29
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    @T.E.D.: I was thinking of hyperbole actually. Feb 5, 2016 at 21:56
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    I was under the impression that wry hyperbole for humorous purposes was essentially how Brits do what they call sarcasm. But then again, as an American I'm not an expert on these things.
    – T.E.D.
    Feb 5, 2016 at 22:03
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    @T.E.D.: I'm no Brit; I'm a half-Scotch, quarter-Dutch, quarter-Frisian Canadian. Feb 5, 2016 at 23:32
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    @Pieter Geerkens that's me channelling my Scottish grandfather ;-/
    – RedSonja
    Nov 18, 2016 at 5:36

This character would have been a contemporary of Alabama's Governor George Wallace who (in) famously said, "segregation today, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever." This meant, "Your social status of today is your status of tomorrow, and forever." A person who shared that mindset would care deeply about whether their family had or didn't have ancestors going back "forever," (e.g. to the Battle of Hastings).

The Battle of Hastings was arguably the most important event in (modern) English history. Most prominent English families had men engaged in it on one side or the other. Not being "represented" in what as arguably the "creation" of modern England was a source of concern to lineage conscious English families.

After he won, William the Conqueror compiled a list of major landholders in the so-called Domesday Book. Most of these landowners, by definition, had some family member fight at Hastings because of the feudal system. Not having anyone in the family represented there after so many generations of intermarriage signified a lack of feudal ancestors with status, at least to some.

A commenter reasonably observed that "not everyone considers 950 years ago to be 'modern.'" That's the way that most people on Stack Exchange would feel. But the question was why did the author depict a character from the middle of the 20th century Alabama as using the Battle of Hastings as a "frame of reference." Put another way, the Battle of Hastings (almost 1000 years in the past) had relevance to Alabamans in the 1960s because those Alabamans believed that it had such relevance.

Southerners were more likely to feel this way than Northerners because a larger percentage of (white) Southerners were of English descent. Also, a larger percentage of English Southerners were "gentlemen" settlers, as opposed to e.g. Puritans, and therefore even more class conscious than other Englishmen.

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    You know, not everyone considers 950 years ago to be 'modern' :-)
    – jamesqf
    Feb 7, 2016 at 6:14
  • @jamesqf: 1066 is "modern" in that no one since then successfully invaded England, not the Spanish, French, or Hitler, meaning that it was the last time that the ethnic composition of the British Isles changed--until recently.
    – Tom Au
    May 10, 2016 at 19:44
  • Tom, see my comment to Pieter. Your overstate the case considerably. Nov 16, 2016 at 20:46
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    @Tom Au there was a little incident with the Dutch in 1688.
    – RedSonja
    Nov 17, 2016 at 9:22
  • @RedSonja: William of Orange died without issue, and his influence on England was not as lasting as that of William the Conqueror.
    – Tom Au
    Nov 17, 2016 at 16:27

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