The Norman Conquest was the conquest of the Kingdom of England by William the Conqueror (Duke of Normandy), secured in 1066 at the Battle of Hastings and the subsequent Norman control of England. It is an important watershed in English history for a number of reasons. It tied England more closely with Continental Europe and away from Scandinavian influence, created one of the most powerful monarchies in Europe, created the most sophisticated governmental system in Europe, changed the English language and culture, and set the stage for a long future of English-French conflict. It remains the last successful military invasion of England.
Normandy is a region in northwest France which at the time had experienced extensive Viking settlement. Beginning about 150 years earlier in 911 a French Carolingian ruler Charles the Simple had allowed a group of Vikings, under their leader Rollo, to settle in northern France with the intention they would provide protection along the coast against further Viking invaders. This proved successful and the Vikings, who were known as the Northmen from which Normandy is derived, held off further Viking invaders. The Normans quickly adapted to the indigenous culture, renouncing paganism and converting to Christianity, adopting the langue d'oïl of their new subjects and, through the introduction of Norse features, transforming it into the Norman language, and intermarrying with the local populations. They also used the territory granted in 911 as a base to extend the frontiers of the Duchy to the west, annexing territory including the Bessin, the Cotentin Peninsula and the Channel Islands.
Meanwhile in England the Viking attacks increased and in 991 the Anglo-Saxon king of England Aethelred agreed to marry the daughter of the Duke of Normandy to cement a blood-tie alliance for help against the raiders. The Viking attacks of England grew so bad in 1013 the Anglo-Saxon kings fled and spent the next 30 years in Normandy, not returning to England until 1042.
When the Anglo-Saxon king Edward the Confessor died a few years later in 1066 with no child, and thus no heir to the throne, it created a power vacuum into which three competing interests laid claim to King of England.
The first was Harald III of Norway who had blood ties to the Anglo-Saxon family. The second was William the Bastard, the Duke of Normandy, because of his blood ties to Aethelred. The third was an Anglo-Saxon by the name of Harold Godwinson who had been elected by the Anglo-Saxons of England to be king. The stage was set for a battle between the three.
Conquest of England
King Harald of Norway invaded northern England in September 1066 which left Harold of England little time to gather an army. Harold's forces marched north from London and surprised the Vikings at the Battle of Stamford Bridge on September 25th. It was an Anglo-Saxon victory, King Harald was killed and the Norwegians were driven out forever — it was the last Viking invasion of England. The victory however came at a great cost: the Anglo-Saxon army was left in a battered and weakened state.
Meanwhile William had assembled an invasion fleet of around 600 ships and an army of 7000 men but had been delayed in leaving Normandy due to unfavorable prevailing winds. He managed to arrive in the south of England just days after the defeat of the Norwegians and Harold moved south again to meet him. He landed at Pevensey Sussex on September 28, 1066 and assembled a prefabricated wooden castle near Hastings as a base.
The choice of landing was a direct provocation to Harold Godwinson as this area of Sussex was Harold's own personal domain. William began immediately to lay waste to the land. It may have prompted Harold to respond immediately and in haste rather than to pause and await reinforcements in London.
They fought at the Battle of Hastings on October 14. It was a close Norman victory but in the final hours Harold was killed and the Saxon army fled. With no living contender for the throne of England to oppose William, this was the defining moment of what is now known as the Norman Conquest.
After his victory at Hastings William marched through Kent to London but met fierce resistance at Southwark. He then marched down the old Roman Road of Stane Street to link up with another Norman army on the Pilgrim's Way near Dorking, Surrey. The combined armies then avoided London altogether and went up the Thames valley to the major fortified Saxon town of Wallingford, Berkshire, whose Saxon lord, Wigod , had supported William's cause. While there, he received the submission of the Archbishop of Canterbury. One of William's favourites, Robert D'Oyley of Lisieux , also married Wigod's daughter, no doubt to secure the lords continued allegiance. William then travelled north east along the Chiltern escarpment to the Saxon fort at Berkhamstead, Hertfordshire and waited there to receive the submission of London. The remaining Saxon noblemen surrendered to William there, and he was acclaimed King of England around the end of October and crowned on December 25 1066 in Westminster Abbey.
Part of William's success in being crowned king so quickly was because Norman cultural and political influence in England had built up over the years prior to 1066, and William had an arguably legitimate dynastic claim to the throne of England, which enabled him to claim enough support among the Anglo-Saxon nobility to prevent a wholly united front against his ascent of the throne.
Although the south of England submitted quickly to Norman rule, resistance continued, especially in the North, for six more years until 1072 during which he moved from south to north subduing rebellion by the Anglo-Saxons and installing Norman lords along the way. However, particularly in Yorkshire, he made agreements with local Saxon Lords to keep control of their land (under Norman-named Lords who would "hold" the lands only from a distance) in exchange for avoidance of battle and loss of any controlling share.
Hereward the Wake led an uprising in the fens and sacked Peterborough (1070). Harold's sons attempted an invasion of the south-west peninsular. Risings also occurred in the Welsh Marches and at Stafford. Most seriously William faced separate attempts at invasion by the Danes and the Scots. William's defeat of these led to what became known as the harrowing of the North in which Northumbria was laid waste to deny his enemies its resources.
The conquest of Wales took place piecemeal and finished only in 1282, during the reign of King Edward I. Edward also subdued Scotland but did not truly conquer it as it retained a separate monarchy until 1603 and remained an independent kingdom until 1707.
Control of England
Once England had been conquered the Normans faced a number of challenges in maintaining control. The Anglo-Norman speaking Normans were in very small numbers compared to the native English population. The Anglo-Saxon lords were accustomed to being fully independent from centralized government, contrary to the Normans who had a centralized system, which the Anglo-Saxons resented. Revolts had sprung up almost at once from the time of William's coronation, led either by members of Harold's family or disaffected English nobles. William dealt with these challenges in a number of ways. New Norman lords constructed a variety of forts and castles (such as the motte-and-bailey) in order to provide a stronghold against a popular revolt (or increasingly rare Viking attacks) and to dominate the nearby town and countryside. Any of the remaining Anglo-Saxon lords who refused to acknowledge the legitimacy of William's accession to the throne or who rose in revolt were summarily stripped of titles and lands, which were then re-distributed to Norman favourites of William. If an Anglo-Saxon lord died without issue the Normans would always choose a successor from Normandy. In this way the Normans displaced the native aristocracy and took control of the top ranks of power.
Keeping the Norman lords together and loyal as a group was just as important, as any friction could easily give the English-speaking natives a chance to divide and conquer their minority Anglo-French speaking lords. One way William accomplished this was by giving out land in a piece-meal fashion. A Norman lord typically had property spread out all over England and Normandy, and not in a single geographic block. Thus, if the lord tried to break away from the King, he could only defend a small number of his holdings at any one time. This proved a very effective deterrent from rebellion and kept the Norman nobility loyal to the King.
The changes that took place as a result of Norman conquest were significant for both English and European development. One of the most obvious changes was the introduction of the Anglo-Norman language as the language of the ruling classes in England, displacing the Anglo-Saxon language. Anglo-Norman retained the status of a prestige language for nearly 300 years and has had a significant influence on modern English.
Even before the Normans arrived the Anglo-Saxons had one of the most sophisticated governmental systems in Europe for the time. All of England had been divided into administrative units called shires of roughly uniform size and shape and were run by an official known as a "shire reeve" or "sheriff". The shires tended to be somewhat autonomous and lacked co-ordinated control. Anglo-Saxons made heavy use of written documentation which was unusual for kings in Europe at the time and made for more efficient governance than word of mouth.
The Anglo-Saxons also established permanent physical locations of government. Most medieval governments were always on the move, holding court wherever the weather and food or other matters were best at the moment. This practice, however, limited the potential size and sophistication of a government body to whatever could be packed on a horse and cart, including the treasury and library. The Anglo-Saxons established a permanent treasury at Winchester, from which a permanent government bureaucracy and document archive had begun to grow.
This sophisticated medieval form of government was handed over to the Normans and grew even stronger. The Normans centralized the autonomous shire system. The Domesday Book exemplifies the practical codification which enabled Norman assimilation of conquered territories through central control of a census. It was the first kingdom-wide census taken in Europe since the time of the Romans.
Systems of accounting grew in sophistication. A government accounting office called the exchequer was established by Henry I; from 1150 onward this was located in Westminster.
Anglo-Norman and French relations
Anglo-Norman and French political relations became very complicated and somewhat hostile after the Norman Conquest. The Normans still retained control of the holdings in Normandy and were thus still vassals to the King of France. At the same exact time, they were the equals as King of England. On the one hand they owed fealty to the King of France, and on the other hand they did not, as they were peers. In the 1150s with the creation of the Angevin Empire the Normans controlled half of France and all of England, dwarfing the power of France. Yet the Normans were still technically vassals to France. A crisis came in 1204 when the French king Philip II seized all Norman and Angevin holdings in mainland France except Gascony. This would later lead to the Hundred Years War when Anglo-Norman English kings tried to regain their dynastic holdings in France.
English cultural development
One interpretation of the Conquest maintains that England became a cultural and economic backwater for almost 150 years after. Few kings of England actually resided for any length of time in England, preferring to rule from cities in Normandy such as Rouen and concentrate on their more lucrative French holdings. The country remained an unimportant appendage of Norman lands and later the Angevin fiefs of Henry II.
Another interpretation has it that the Norman Duke-Kings neglected their continental territories, where they in theory owed fealty to the Kings of France, in favour of consolidating their power in their new sovereign realm of England. The resources poured into the construction of cathedrals, castles and the administration of the new realm arguably diverted energy and concentration away from the need to defend Normandy, alienating the local nobility and weakening Norman control over the borders of the territory, while at the same time the power of the Kings of France grew.
The eventual loss of control of continental Normandy divided landed families as members chose loyalty over land or vice-versa.
The conquerors remained ethnically distinct from the native population of England but over the centuries, particularly after 1348 when the Black Death pandemic carried off a significant number of the English nobility, the two groups merged and became barely distinguishable.
For the importance of the concept in mass culture, note the spoof history book 1066 and All That as well as the iconic status of the Bayeux Tapestry.
Compare the Norman conquests of Apulia, of Sicily, of the Principality of Antioch and of Ireland.
Alan Ayckbourn wrote a series of plays entitled The Norman Conquests . Their subject matter has nothing to do with the Norman conquest of England.
- Marjorie Chibnall, Debate on the Norman Conquest, New York: St. Martin's Press, 1999
- David Douglas, William the Conqueror: The Norman impact upon England. University of California Press, 1964.
Last updated: 10-18-2005 00:34:43