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History is full of stories that will grip you like a modern page-turner novel, but only a few can do it as easily as the tale of the Normans. Proud and fearsome, these Viking descendants were key players in tailoring the socio-political picture of Europe for much of the high Middle Ages. What follows is a history full of intrigue and characterized by the Norman conquests and military prowess that swept through Europe like a whirlwind, leaving a mark for centuries to come.
The thing that gives this account its unmistakable flair is the unique and inspiring identity of the Normans. Combining the ferocity and the conquering spirit of their Viking heritage with established, carefully developed laws and customs of medieval Western Europe, the Normans were set upon a path that would make their name etched in the foundations of European history.
Page from "History of the Normans," by Dudo of Saint-Quentin.
The Early History: Viking Settlement in France and the Birth of the Normans
During the 10th century, the raids of the Vikings were penetrating deeper and deeper into Europe and the originally destructive nature of these incursions slowly gave way to settlement. The Kingdom of West Francia, seeking to put an end to the violent raids of the Norsemen, decided to strike a deal with those Vikings, whose encampments in the north of France increasingly resembled permanent settlements. And so, in the year 911 AD the ruler of West Francia, Charles III the Simple, created the Duchy of Normandy - a fief which he granted to the prominent Viking leader Gaange Rolf, later known as Rollo .
This duchy, established in the treaty of Saint-Clair-sur-Epte, comprised a string of land on the French coastline along the English Channel, much of which had a considerable Norseman population. In exchange, Rollo had to vow to protect the Kingdom of West Francia against future raids of his kinsmen, the Vikings, as well as adopt Christianity and become a vassal of King Charles III.
And thus, Rollo became the first Duke of Normandy and Count of the town of Rouen. This calculated act by King Charles III finally accepted the settlement of the Norsemen, which began as early as 841 AD, and secured his kingdom from the constantly looming threat of Norse invasions.
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In the decades that followed, the creation of the Duchy of Normandy - whose name itself is derived from French Normand - Norsemen - expanded and the Vikings quickly became assimilated. The Old Norse paganism was gradually replaced by Christianity and their language and customs exchanged and fused with those of the Franks. It was this fusion and assimilation that gave birth to a unique Norman identity which was reflected in architecture, warfare, politics, and language - a testament to the unique bond between two powerful cultures.
Victorian interpretation of the Normans' national dress, 1000–1100.
A Start of Something Great: The Gaange Rolf
The Icelandic sagas mention a particularly notorious Viking – one called Göngu-Hrólfr. Translated as Hrólfr the Walker, this man was said to have an imposingly large stature – and was unable to ride a horse because of his size, thus gaining the nickname Walker. Whatever the case, this Hrólfr, later known in its Latinized form as Rollo, successfully exerted his influence in Viking society, managing to secure a foothold in the Frankish lands by seizing Rouen in 876 AD and plundering Bayeux between 890 and 892 AD.
Charles the Bald, in a desperate attempt to stave off further incursions, granted more lands to the Bretons, namely Cotentin and Avranchin, in hopes that they could defend these territories from the wrathful Norsemen. But these regions were already heavily plundered and couldn’t provide any significant resistance, allowing the Vikings to move ever deeper into West Francia.
In these turbulent years of warfare, Rollo finally cemented his influence by marrying Poppa, a daughter of the Count of Rennes - a marriage that gave him a male heir – William Longsword, and also gave a clear message to the Kings of Francia – the Vikings were there to stay.
Rollo, Duke of Normandy.
After the creation of the Duchy of Normandy, Rollo, also known by his new Christian name Robert, worked on establishing himself as a powerful duke, connecting his family with that of the Frankish elite. This he accomplished by marrying his daughter Gisla with William III, the duke of Aquitaine, an influential noble of the time.
With his unyielding raids and conquests, but also with his cunning political relations with the Franks, Rollo proved his worth and successfully established a dynasty of Norman counts.
Restless: The Norman Conquest of Sicily
During the early beginnings of the Duchy of Normandy, a part of the Vikings that settled in along the Seine River proceeded to sail even further in search of new places to plunder. The earliest of these raids happened in circa 860 AD, when the Vikings once more raised their sails and journeyed to southern Italy via the Iberian Peninsula. They referred to Italy as “ Langbarðaland” – the Land of the Lombards, a name that is attested in several rune stones from Sweden.
After the few initial raids along the Ligurian and Tuscan coastlines, as well as the sacking of Pisa and the raids in Sicily and North Africa, the Norsemen kept an “on and off” presence in the Mediterranean.
The first concrete mention of the Norman invasion is from 999 AD, with several sources mentioning an increasing presence of Norman knights in Sicily, most of which operated there as mercenaries when the revolt against Byzantine rule began in 1009. From then on, their influence in Southern Italy grew, with the mercenaries led by Rainulf Drengot growing in notoriety.
Norman expeditionary ship depicted in the chronicle ‘Le Canarien’ (1490).
In the following decades, well into the early 1000’s, many immigrants and petty lords would travel from Normandy, increasing the Norman presence and strengthening their importance in the political scene of Sicily and Italy, eventually conquering half of the Italian peninsula and establishing the Kingdom of Sicily.
The Norman presence in the Mediterranean spans close to two centuries, during which they asserted their superiority in warfare and conquest, utilizing intrigue and treachery, and successfully shifting the sphere of influence.
In the Ancestor’s Footsteps: William the Conqueror
In the years that unfolded after the creation of the Duchy of Normandy, the reigning dukes further developed the Norman influence and established several important connections in the political scene. The lines of succession were clear and uncontested - until the death of Duke Robert I the Magnificent. Robert’s only son, William, was also a bastard, an illegitimate offspring of Robert and a common woman.
This, as well as William’s youth, as he was eight years old at the time, created quite a stir among the Norman nobility, challenging his claim to the ducal title. William spent at least 25 years in a struggle to establish his power and quell his opponents - the chief of which were Guy of Brionne, Geoffrey Martel, as well as the Viscounts of Bessin and Cotentin.
Panel from the Bayeux Tapestry - this one depicts Bishop Odo of Bayeux, Duke William, and Count Robert of Mortain.
Those first years of his rule were difficult and full of rebellions against him. But after some political struggle with a few key opponents, William succeeded in becoming a duke with the help of Henry I, the King of France, and the Archbishop Robert, his great-uncle. But not before blood was spilled.
Those long years of instability and disorder culminated in an open rebellion against him, organized by several Norman nobles – a rebellion that ended in the battle of Val-ès-Dunes in 1047 AD. William, just 20 years old at the time, crushed his enemies and claimed his dukedom once and for all.
Finally, by 1060, he fully asserted his rule over Normandy and shifted his focus to England.
Scene from the Bayeux Tapestry showing Normans preparing for the invasion of England.
The Turning Point: Norman Conquest of England
1066 AD would come to be remembered as one of the turning points in history, and certainly one that will always be remembered by the English – for the events that unfolded from that year onwards would echo through Europe with a thunderous beat.
Edward the Confessor, the childless Anglo-Saxon King, died on January 5th of that year, leaving no heir and a kingdom full of pretenders vying for the English throne. The man who won it was Harold Godwinson, the late king’s brother-in-law and Earl of Wessex – the richest of the English aristocrats.
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Harold meeting Edward shortly before his death, depicted in scene 25 of the Bayeux Tapestry.
But soon enough, he’d find that his claim to the throne faced a challenge – namely that of William, the Duke of Normandy. William had ties to the English throne , being the first cousin of the late king – a connection established through the marriage of a previous English king - Æthelred the Unready - with Emma of Normandy, a sister to the late duke Richard II, in 1002.
In the ensuing political unrest, William the Bastard, as he was known up to that point, showed his cunning by seizing the opportunity given to him – a clear claim to the throne of England – a land weakened by invasions of the Norwegian king, Harald Hardrada.
In one daring sweep, William’s Norman, French, and Flemish forces sailed across the English Channel and land at the southern English coast, where soon after the destiny of a kingdom would be decided at the battle of Hastings .
Duel of the Fates: The Battle of Hastings
The Norman Invasion of England was undoubtedly a daring feat that would establish William, the Duke of Normandy, as one of the most cunning military commanders of his age.
Harald Godwinson , the new King of England, defeated the army of Harald Hardrada in the northeast of the country – only three days before William would land on English shores. In an attempt to deal with this new threat, Godwinson made a long and exhausting march south – a risky feat which ended prematurely, forcing him into a defensive battle near Hastings.
Bayeux Tapestry Scene 57: Harold's death. Legend above: Harold rex interfectus est, "King Harold is killed."
What happened then, on October 14, 1066, showed the superiority of the new mix of Norman cavalry and infantry tactics, as the forces of William defeated the Anglo-Saxons and started a new age of Norman rule in England – a rule that would take decades to fully set-in.
The New Age of Warfare: Norman Military Prowess
History teaches us that every successful method of warfare gets “stale” in time. New tactics are developed and combat reaches a whole new level. And with the onset of the High Middle Ages, the new military revolution was brought on by the Normans. With the somewhat unique set of circumstances that led to their emergence, the Normans managed to combine the best from the both halves of their identity.
Retaining the well-known Norse restlessness and warlike culture and receiving some of the Frankish early feudal laws and military doctrines, the Normans managed to combine them into a new, revolutionary identity – a heavily militaristic society that would set a new standard in medieval Europe.
A Norman warrior was a formidable opponent. Experimenting with mobility and armor, these early knights were always clad in long chainmail shirts that covered most of the body. The head was protected with a conical, nasal-guarded helm, while most of the body was covered by the long, teardrop-shaped shield.
Modern representation of a Norman knight. (One lucky guy/ CC BY NC SA 2.0 )
Normans excelled in heavy cavalry tactics, employing thundering charges as a form of early shock attacks. With a heavy emphasis on spears, swords, and light maces, Norman cavalrymen inspired the classic image of the medieval knight as we know it today.
War & Culture: Norman Architecture
As the chief remainder of their Viking identity, the Normans retained their love of adventure and exploration. That’s why, through the entirety of the High Middle Ages, Norman mercenaries were key characters in almost every European conflict.
But war was not their only craving – through their numerous connections with other nations, the Normans developed a unique style of architecture . Bringing their own style of Romanesque architecture wherever they went, they managed to create a variety of rich and memorable styles. The most important of these is the Norman-Arab-Byzantine style, developed in Sicily.
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But the architecture they are best known for is, of course, war-related. Normans excelled in the construction of castles and keeps. The earliest of these were wooden – the so-called “motte-and-bailey” castles – only to be replaced in later years with the iconic stone castles which we all know and like.
Bayeux Tapestry - Scene 19: siege of Dinan (detail). The soldiers of William, Duke of Normandy attack the motte-and-bailey castle of Dinan. Conan II, Duke of Brittany surrenders and gives the keys to Dinan via a lance.
The Norman Legacy
No doubt could be placed at the ferocity and the importance of the Norman story, a formidable identity that rose out of the tumultuous age of the Vikings. With their revolutions in the fields of warfare, exploration and castle-building, the Normans quickly swept over much of Europe, often playing crucial roles in the biggest socio-political struggles of the time.
And so, out of a period of raids and instability, a new force emerged, a nation that would defiantly carve its own place in history alongside the greatest kingdoms and empires - the Norman era.
The Norman Conquest (or the Conquest) was the 11th-century invasion and occupation of England by an army made up of Normans, Bretons, Flemish, and men from other French provinces, all led by the Duke of Normandy later styled William the Conqueror.
William's claim to the English throne derived from his familial relationship with the childless Anglo-Saxon king Edward the Confessor, who may have encouraged William's hopes for the throne. Edward died in January 1066 and was succeeded by his brother-in-law Harold Godwinson. The Norwegian king Harald Hardrada invaded northern England in September 1066 and was victorious at the Battle of Fulford, but Godwinson's army defeated and killed Hardrada at the Battle of Stamford Bridge on 25 September. Within days, William landed in southern England. Harold marched south to oppose him, leaving a significant portion of his army in the north. Harold's army confronted William's invaders on 14 October at the Battle of Hastings William's force defeated Harold, who was killed in the engagement.
Although William's main rivals were gone, he still faced rebellions over the following years and was not secure on his throne until after 1072. The lands of the resisting English elite were confiscated some of the elite fled into exile. To control his new kingdom, William granted lands to his followers and built castles commanding military strongpoints throughout the land. The Domesday Book, a manuscript record of the "Great Survey" of much of England and parts of Wales, was completed by 1086. Other effects of the conquest included the court and government, the introduction of the Norman language as the language of the elites, and changes in the composition of the upper classes, as William enfeoffed lands to be held directly from the king. More gradual changes affected the agricultural classes and village life: the main change appears to have been the formal elimination of slavery, which may or may not have been linked to the invasion. There was little alteration in the structure of government, as the new Norman administrators took over many of the forms of Anglo-Saxon government.
When the Syracusan Arab ruler Ibn at-Timnah was forced to flee from the island amid a blood feud with the Agrigentine Arab ruler Ibn al-Hawas in 1061, he approached Roger d'Hauteville in Calabria and enlisted his aid, having been crushed in battle. Roger, the younger and more hot-blooded of the Hauteville brothers, jumped at this opportunity. In the winter of 1061, 150 mounted Norman knights and a handful of auxiliaries crossed the Strait and landed north of Messina, plundering the rich and undefended countryside before crushing a Muslim amry which had been sent against them. They failed to take Messina and fled to their ships, only to find that their ships had been scattered by a Muslim fleet. For three days, they withstood raids from Messina before evacuating on their ships on the fourth day.
The Normans, now aware of the island's riches, prepared a second invasion. In the spring of 1062, the Normans levied another army of 2,000 infantry and 450 mounted knights, led by both Hauteville brothers. Robert mustered the lion's share of his men and ships at the rock of Scylla to divert the Muslim fleet's attention, while Roger sneakily made the crossing five miles south with 500 men. They struck Messina from the south and captured the entirely unprotected city, and the Muslims fled rather than be caught in a pincer attack. The Greek Christians greeted the Normans as liberators and offered them a thanksgiving service, and Ibn at-Timnah soon attached his army to the Normans together, they marched deeper into the heart of the island. Much of eastern Sicily was loyal to Ibn at-Timnah and did not resist him or the Normans, and Paterno fell quickly. The mountain fortress of Enna, Ibn al-Hawas' principal stronghold, held out as the Normans harassed the countryside. The Normans then lured Ibn al-Hawas' army into an open battle, and his men were crushed by the Norman knights. Despite this great victory, Robert knew he was overextended, so he left the fortress untaken and consolidated his gains, while he let his men return to their families in Apulia with loot in hand. Meanwhile, Roger entered into the Greek Christian town of Troina, which welcomed him as a liberator. He wintered at Troina, but he returned home to marry his betrothed Judith d'Evreux at Mileto. Roger was incensed with his older brother's tendency to take most of the loot during his campaigns, and he demanded titles and privileges from his brother before threatening to take them by force. Robert responded by laying siege to him at Mileto, and Roger slipped out of the city in disguise and fled to Gerace. The townsfolk captured Robert when he came to pursue Roger, but Roger realized that, without Robert, his political ambitions would be crippled. The two siblings embraced as a gesture of peace, preventing a civil war and leading to Roger being given his fair share of the loot.
Zirid troops arriving in Sicily
Meanwhile, Ibn at-Timnah had been ambushed and slain by Ibn al-Hawas in northern Sicily. In the summer of 1062, as Robert put down Byzantine-supported rebellions in Apulia, Roger returned to Sicily, finding a cold reception in Troina. The Greeks there realized that the Normans were harsh overlords and brutal thieves, and they attempted to kidnap Judith as Roger campaigned further into Sicily. The small Norman garrison rallied to the defense of their lady, and Roger and his army returned to the city to join the garrison. However, he found that thousands of Muslims from the countryside had taken up arms to aid the Christian Greeks. Overwhelmed, Roger led a retreat into Troina's citadel and prepared for a siege, holding out for four months. Once again, the Normans' salvation came through sheer luck. The Saracen soldiers on the perimeter had taken to drinking red wine to warm themselves during the winter normally forbidden from drinking alcohol due to their religion, they became intoxicated. Roger took advantage of the drunkenness, and, in January, he led a foray onto the open streets and subdued the inebriated Muslims at their outposts. They then engaged the Greek and Saracen besiegers and retook the city.
Battle of Cerami
By now, the Muslim rulers of Sicily realized that the Normans were a real threat, and the Saracen princes set aside their differences and put up a united front. They then received reinforcements of North African Berbers from the Zirid dynasty of Algeria, led by the Emir's princely sons. Roger returned to Calabria to retrieve more horses for his knights (as his men had eaten most of their horses during the siege) meanwhile, Judith held Troina as bands of Normans pillaged the countryside for supplies. By the time of Roger's return, a Muslim army had gathered at Palermo and was marching on his position. Roger had 130 knights and 500 infantrymen at his disposal, while the Saracens had up to 50,000 troops. Roger sent his cousin Serlo II of Hauteville with 30 knights to secure Cerami to the west of Troina, and, in June of 1063, the two armies met at the Battle of Cerami. The Normans again defied the odds and slew 20,000 Muslims, and their victory established the permanence of the Normans in Sicily.
Conquest of Sicily
In 1064, Norman brothers mustered their levies and laid siege to Palermo, knowing that control over the prosperous capital city would guarantee dominion over the entire island. Their siege camp was infested by venomous tarantula during the siege, forcing the Normans to abandon the campaign. The following years saw perpetual rebellions against Robert in Apulia, and Roger was forced on the defensive as his brother put down Greek uprisings. In 1068, Roger defeated the Muslims outside of Misilmeri, causing the Kalbids of Palermo to turn on the Zirids, blaming their defeats on North African interference. As riots broke out in Palermo, Ibn al-Hawas was killed and the Zirid princes decided to pack up and return to North Africa. Muslim Sicily was now leaderless and deprived of the bulk of its army, and, in 1071, Robert Guiscard ended his campaign in Apulia by conquering Bari and finally ending the Byzantine presence in Bari. The Franco-Norsemen then focused on the conquest of Palermo, which fell in 1072. The Islamic rump state in Sicily was given a reprieve as the Hautevilles focused on conquering Naples, Amalfi, Salerno, and Abruzzo, but, by now, the Sicilian Arabs' fate was inevitable. In 1085, Roger conquered Syracuse, the last great Muslim city in Sicily. In 1091, Noto, the final Islamic outpost, fell to the relentless Hauteville, ending two centuries of Muslim rule on the island. Its people remained diverse, with the Normans and their Orthodox Greek and Muslim subjects forming the most dynamic kingdom in the history of medieval Europe.
Norman places to visit
You can see some of the best-preserved Norman architecture in England at English Heritage sites, including great castles and magnificent abbeys. Follow the links below to find out more about some of our most spectacular Norman sites.
A Norman castle was built here within the walls of a Roman fort close to the spot where William landed in England on 28 September 1066.
King William gathered his army here in 1070 after his campaign to subdue northern England. See the remains of the Norman castle and cathedral built here soon afterwards within a vast Iron Age hillfort.
Rochester Castle has one of the most spectacular keeps in England, begun in 1127. A masterpiece of Norman architecture, it is the tallest such building to survive in Europe.
See some of the most impressive late 12th century architecture in England at this vast fortress, including Henry II's magnificent great tower.
Benedictine monks from Durham founded a priory here in the 11th century to house a shrine to St Cuthbert. Surviving Norman architecture includes the famous rainbow arch.
Built by a Norman baron, Richmond has more surviving 11th-century architecture than any other castle in England.
The conquest of Salerno
After 1058, Salerno remained the only independent principality of Lombard in southern Italy. The territory of the principality decreased significantly during the ongoing conflicts with the Normans, but Robert Guiscard chose at this point to conclude an alliance with Salerno. Presumably in 1058-1059, he, declaring his previous marriage invalid because of close blood consanguinity, married Sishelgayit, sister of the Salerno Prince Gizulf II. For the sake of an alliance with Salerno, Robert even forced his brother Wilhelm of Principe to return to the principality the cities he had captured in Calabria.
The political alliance with Salerno proved fragile and short-lived. Gisulf II secretly supported Robert the rebellious barons of Apulia from Robert, concluded an alliance against Normans with Gregory VII, and also tried to subjugate Amalfi, whose inhabitants agreed to surrender under the patronage of Guiscard.
In the summer of 1076, Robert Guiscard laid siege to the city of Salerno. Prince Gizulf II, anticipating the attack, forced the townspeople to stock provisions for two years, but soon after the beginning of the siege, requisitioned stocks of his subjects, and then sold the products at fabulous prices. Exhausted by the hunger and tyranny of the prince, the inhabitants of Salerno themselves opened the gates of the city of Guiscard on December 13, 1076. Gisulf II with his brothers and a few supporters took refuge in the city citadel, but in May 1077 was forced to capitulate.
Robert Guiscard joined Salerno to his possessions, although he allowed Gisulf II and his brothers to leave the city. The capitulation of Gizulf was accompanied by anecdotal history in the spirit of Guiscard. Robert demanded that the surrendered prince give the Salernoe relic – the tooth of the evangelist Matthew, the patron saint of the city. Gisulf tried to deceive the winner, having sent an ordinary, absolutely not sacred tooth to him. The priest who was at Robert exposed the deception and the Duke of Puglia in his letter put Gizulf before a choice: to lose all his teeth or to give a relic. Gisulf humbled, gave the relic, and only after that he was allowed to leave Salerno.
Salerno became the capital of the Duchy of Puglia and on the orders of Robert, the construction of a grand cathedral in honor of the Evangelist Matthew began here. Salerno continued to play the role of the second, continental capital, and in the Sicilian kingdom.
Loud, Graham Alexander. How was the Norman Conquest of Southern Italy?
Loud, Graham Alexander. Continuity and Norman Italy
Loud, Graham Alexander. . . “Coinage, Wealth and Plunder in the Age of Robert Guiscard.
Gay Jules. L’Italie meridionale et l’empire Byzantin: Livre II
Gravett, Christopher, and Nicolle, David. The Normans: Warrior Knights and their Castles
Houben, Hubert (translated by Graham A. Loud and Diane Milburn). Roger II of Sicily:
Jamison, Evelyn. The Norman Administration of Apulia and the Capua
Joranson, Einar. The Legend of History in Italy: Legend and History
Matthew, Donald. The Norman Kingdom of Sicily
Norwich, John Julius. The Normans in the South 1016-1130
Skinner, Patricia. Family Power in Southern Italy
Its in fact a magnum history from the post-Roman Empire Anglo-Saxon immigration (or invasion. ), to the Vikings one (including the great King Knut), Normans conquest and including the formation of modern France. Discovered that the name "Arlete" (a North of Portugal one, actually existing in my family) is a Norman name. Great reading. Many things discovered.
I also recommend the listening of Ep. 0122: Principal Ruffian & Chief Among Plunderers: The Norman Conquest of England http://profcj.org/e Its in fact a magnum history from the post-Roman Empire Anglo-Saxon immigration (or invasion. ), to the Vikings one (including the great King Knut), Normans conquest and including the formation of modern France. Discovered that the name "Arlete" (a North of Portugal one, actually existing in my family) is a Norman name. Great reading. Many things discovered.
I also recommend the listening of Ep. 0122: Principal Ruffian & Chief Among Plunderers: The Norman Conquest of England http://profcj.org/ep122/ from The Dangerous History Podcast.
Great long immersive read.
The first hundred pages cover the history of Britain before the Norman invasion, and then we have hundreds of hundreds as we go through the Normans establishing themselves, struggling with their relationships across the Channel, but most of all determining their relationship with the Anglo Saxon people they had conquered and hoped to rule. It was not until the 16th century when the the two languages, Anglo Saxon and Norman French began to merge into one lingua franca
Where Were the Normans From?
The Normans, who were originally Vikings, primarily came from Scandinavian areas. The Normans came from Denmark, Norway, and Iceland. Some Normans may have visited the British Isles first and then moved to the French coastline, but the Normans call parts of Scandinavia their original homeland.
The Norman Conquest (Invasion) of England
The Norman Conquest was an invasion that resulted from confusion as to who had the right claim to the English throne in the early 11 th century. In 1066, King Edward the Confessor died in England. He had no heirs, so decisions had to be made as to who had claimed to the throne.
Harold Godwinson, Earl of Essex in England, claimed the throne. The claim was supported by Anglo-Saxon councils and wealthy aristocrats. On the other hand, Duke William of Normandy did not agree with Harold’s claim. Duke William claimed that the throne was promised to him
In the north, King Harold’s brother teamed with the King of Norway, named Harold Hardrada, and invaded English shores. King Harold won the battle for England, but King Harold and the Vikings were quickly threatened by Duke William’s army invading in southern England.
King Harold’s and Duke William’s army fought each other in the famous Battle of Hastings. Since King Harold’s army was tired, weak, and smaller after their previous battle, they faced significant disadvantages when meeting the Norman army.
It was in the Battle of Hastings that King Harold was killed. A Norman archer managed to shoot King Harold in the eye with an arrow, killing him. After a few more battles, Duke William of Normandy, along with the Normans following him, took over England. It was at the Battle of the Hasting that the Normans successfully invaded England.
On Christmas in 1066, Duke William was crowned the King of England. The Normans, which were now French Vikings changed the architectural landscape of England, as well as the religious environment.
The Impact of the Norman Conquest of England
The Norman conquest of England, led by William the Conqueror (r. 1066-1087 CE) was achieved over a five-year period from 1066 CE to 1071 CE. Hard-fought battles, castle building, land redistribution, and scorched earth tactics ensured that the Normans were here to stay. The conquest saw the Norman elite replace that of the Anglo-Saxons and take over the country's lands, the Church was restructured, a new architecture was introduced in the form of motte and bailey castles and Romanesque cathedrals, feudalism became much more widespread, and the English language absorbed thousands of new French words, amongst a host of many other lasting changes which all combine to make the Norman invasion a momentous watershed in English history.
Conquest: Hastings to Ely
The conquest of England by the Normans started with the 1066 CE Battle of Hastings when King Harold Godwinson (aka Harold II, r. Jan-Oct 1066 CE) was killed and ended with William the Conqueror's defeat of Anglo-Saxon rebels at Ely Abbey in East Anglia in 1071 CE. In between, William had to more or less constantly defend his borders with Wales and Scotland, repel two invasions from Ireland by Harold's sons, and put down three rebellions at York.
The consequences of the Norman conquest were many and varied. Further, some effects were much longer-lasting than others. It is also true that society in England was already developing along its own path of history before William the Conqueror arrived and so it is not always so clear-cut which of the sometimes momentous political, social, and economic changes of the Middle Ages had their roots in the Norman invasion and which may well have developed under a continued Anglo-Saxon regime. Still, the following list summarises what most historians agree on as some of the most important changes the Norman conquest brought in England:
- the Anglo-Saxon landowning elite was almost totally replaced by Normans.
- the ruling apparatus was made much more centralised with power and wealth being held in much fewer hands.
- the majority of Anglo-Saxon bishops were replaced with Norman ones and many dioceses' headquarters were relocated to urban centres.
- Norman motte and bailey castles were introduced which reshaped warfare in England, reducing the necessity for and risk of large-scale field engagements.
- the system of feudalism developed as William gave out lands in return for military service (either in person or a force of knights paid for by the landowner). developed and spread further where labourers worked on their lord's estate for his benefit.
- the north of England was devastated for a long time following William's harrying of 1069-70 CE. , a detailed and systematic catalogue of the land and wealth in England was compiled in 1086-7 CE.
- the contact and especially trade between England and Continental Europe greatly increased.
- the two countries of France and England became historically intertwined, initially due to the crossover of land ownership, i.e. Norman nobles holding lands in both countries.
- the syntax and vocabulary of the Anglo-Saxon Germanic language were significantly influenced by the French language.
The Ruling Elite
The Norman conquest of England was not a case of one population invading the lands of another but rather the wresting of power from one ruling elite by another. There was no significant population movement of Norman peasants crossing the channel to resettle in England, then a country with a population of 1.5-2 million people. Although, in the other direction, many Anglo-Saxon warriors fled to Scandinavia after Hastings, and some even ended up in the elite Varangian Guard of the Byzantine emperors.
The lack of an influx of tens of thousands of Normans was no consolation for the Anglo-Saxon aristocracy, of course, as 20 years after Hastings there were only two powerful Anglo-Saxon landowners in England. Some 200 Norman nobles and 100 bishops and monasteries were given estates which had been distributed amongst 4,000 Anglo-Saxon landowners prior to 1066 CE. To ensure the Norman nobles did not abuse their power (and so threaten William himself), many of the old Anglo-Saxon tools of governance were kept in place, notably the sheriffs who governed in the king's name the districts or shires into which England had traditionally been divided. The sheriffs were also replaced with Normans but they did provide a balance to Norman landowners in their jurisdiction.
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The Church was similarly restructured with the appointment of Norman bishops - including in 1070 CE, the key archbishops of Canterbury (to Lanfranc) and York (to Thomas) - so that by 1087 CE there were only two Anglo-Saxon bishops left. Another significant change was the move of many dioceses' headquarters - the main church or cathedral - to urban locations (Dorchester to Lincoln, Lichfield to Chester, and Sherborne to Salisbury being just some examples). This move gave William much greater administrative and military control of the Church across England but also benefitted the Church itself by bringing bishops closer to the relatively new urban populations.
The royal court and government became more centralised, indeed, more so than in any other kingdom in Europe thanks to the holding of land and resources by only a relatively few Norman families. Although William distributed land to loyal supporters, they did not typically receive any political power with their land. In a physical sense, the government was not centralised because William still did not have a permanent residence, preferring to move around his kingdom and regularly visit Normandy. The Treasury did, though, remain at Winchester and it was filled as a result of William imposing heavy taxes throughout his reign.
Motte & Bailey Castles
The Normans were hugely successful warriors and the importance they gave to cavalry and archers would affect English armies thereafter. Perhaps even more significant was the construction of garrisoned forts and castles across England. Castles were not entirely unknown in England prior to the conquest but they were then used only as defensive redoubts rather than a tool to control a geographical area. William embarked on a castle-building spree immediately after Hastings as he well knew that a protected garrison of cavalry could be the most effective method of military and administrative control over his new kingdom. From Cornwall to Northumbria, the Normans would build over 65 major castles and another 500 lesser ones in the decades after Hastings.
The Normans not only introduced a new concept of castle use but also military architecture to the British Isles: the motte and bailey castle. The motte was a raised mound upon which a fortified tower was built and the bailey was a courtyard surrounded by a wooden palisade which occupied an area around part of the base of the mound. The whole structure was further protected by an encircling ditch or moat. These castles were built in both rural and urban settings and, in many cases, would be converted into stone versions in the early 12th century CE. A good surviving example is the Castle Rising in Norfolk, but other, more famous castles still standing today which were originally Norman constructions include the Tower of London, Dover Castle in Kent, and Clifford's Tower in York. Norman Romanesque cathedrals were also built (for example, at York, Durham, Canterbury, Winchester, and Lincoln), with the white stone of Caen being an especially popular choice of material, one used, too, for the Tower of London.
Domesday, Feudalism & the Peasantry
There was no particular feeling of outraged nationalism following the conquest - the concept is a much more modern construct - and so peasants would not have felt their country had somehow been lost. Neither was there any specific hatred of the Normans as the English grouped all William's allies together as a single group - Bretons and Angevins were simply 'French speakers'. In the Middle Ages, visitors to an area that came from a distant town were regarded just as 'foreign' as someone from another country. Peasants really only felt loyalty to their own local communities and lords, although this may well have resulted in some ill-feeling when a lord was replaced by a Norman noble in cases where the Anglo-Saxon lord was held with any affection. The Normans would certainly have seemed like outsiders, a feeling only strengthened by language barriers, and the king, at least initially, did ensure loyalties by imposing harsh penalties on any dissent. For example, if a Norman were found murdered, then the nearest village was burnt - a policy hardly likely to win over any affection.
At the same time, there were new laws to ensure the Normans did not abuse their power, such as the crime of murder being applied to the unjustified killing of non-rebels or for personal gain and the introduction of trial by battle to defend one's innocence. In essence, citizens were required to swear an oath of loyalty to the king, in return for which they received legal protection if they were wronged. Some of the new laws would be long-lasting, such as the favouring of the firstborn in inheritance claims, while others were deeply unpopular, such as William's withdrawal of hunting rights in certain areas, notably the New Forest. Poachers were severely dealt with and could expect to be blinded or mutilated if caught. Another important change due to new laws regarded slavery, which was essentially eliminated from England by 1130 CE, just as it had been in Normandy.
Perhaps one area where hatred of all-things Norman was prevalent was the north of England. Following the rebellions against William's rule there in 1067 and 1068 CE, the king spent the winter of 1069-70 CE 'harrying' the entire northern part of his kingdom from the west to east coast. This involved hunting down rebels, murders and mutilations amongst the peasantry, and the burning of crops, livestock, and farming equipment, which resulted in a devastating famine. As Domesday Book (see below) revealed, much of the northern lands were devastated and catalogued as worthless. It would take over a century for the region to recover.
Domesday Book was compiled on William's orders in 1086-7 CE, probably to find out for tax purposes exactly who owned what in England following the deaths of many Anglo-Saxon nobles over the course of the conquest and the giving out of new estates and titles by the king to his loyal followers. Indeed, Domesday Book reveals William's total reshaping of land ownership and power in England. It was the most comprehensive survey ever undertaken in any medieval kingdom and is full of juicy statistics for modern historians to study such as the revelation that 90% of the population lived in the countryside and 75% of the people were serfs (unfree labourers).
A consequence of William's land policies was the development (but not the origin of) feudalism. That is, William, who considered all the land in England his own personal property, gave out parcels of land (fiefs) to nobles (vassals) who in return had to give military service when required, such as during a war or to garrison castles and forts. Not necessarily giving service in person, a noble had to provide a number of knights depending on the size of the fief. The noble could have free peasants or serfs (aka villeins) work his lands, and he kept the proceeds of that labour. If a noble had a large estate, he could rent it out to a lesser noble who, in turn, had peasants work that land for him, thus creating an elaborate hierarchy of land ownership. Under the Normans, ecclesiastical landowners such as monasteries were similarly required to provide knights for military service.
The manorial system developed from its early Anglo-Saxon form under the Normans. Manorialism derives its name from the 'manor', the smallest piece of land which could support a single family. For administrative purposes, estates were divided into these units. Naturally, a powerful lord could own many hundreds of manors, either in the same place or in different locations. Each manor had free and/or unfree labour which worked on the land. The profits of that labour went to the landowner while the labourers sustained themselves by also working a small plot of land loaned to them by their lord. Following William's policy of carving up estates and redistributing them, manorialism became much more widespread in England.
Trade & International Relations
The histories and even the cultures to some extent of France and England became much more intertwined in the decades after the conquest. Even as the King of England, William remained the Duke of Normandy (and so he had to pay homage to the King of France). The royal houses became even more interconnected following the reigns of William's two sons (William II Rufus, r. 1087-1100 CE and Henry I, r. 1100-1135 CE) and the civil wars which broke out between rivals for the English throne from 1135 CE onwards. A side effect of this close contact was the significant modification over time of the Anglo-Saxon Germanic language, both the syntax and vocabulary being influenced by the French language. That this change occurred even amongst the illiterate peasantry is testimony to the fact that French was commonly heard spoken everywhere.
One specific area of international relations which greatly increased was trade. Before the conquest, England had had limited trade with Scandinavia, but as this region went into decline from the 11th century CE and because the Normans had extensive contacts across Europe (England was not the only place they conquered), then trade with the Continent greatly increased. Traders also relocated from the Continent, notably to places where they were given favourable customs arrangements. Thus places like London, Southampton, and Nottingham attracted many French merchant settlers, and this movement included other groups such as Jewish merchants from Rouen. Goods thus came and went across the English Channel, for example, huge quantities of English wool were exported to Flanders and wine was imported from France (although there is evidence it was not the best wine that country had to offer).
The Norman conquest of England, then, resulted in long-lasting and significant changes for both the conquered and the conquerors. The fate of the two countries of England and France would become inexorably linked over the following centuries as England became a much stronger and united kingdom within the British Isles and an influential participant in European politics and warfare thereafter. Even today, names of people and places throughout England remind of the lasting influence the Normans brought with them from 1066 CE onwards.
The Dramatic History of the Normans: A Tale of Medieval Conquest - History
In the year 1066, 7000 Norman infantry and knights sailed in warships across the English Channel. Their target: England, home to more than a million people. Theirs was a short voyage with massive consequences. And around the same period of time, other groups of Normans were setting forth all across Europe, going on adventures that would reverberate throughout that continent’s history. So who were these warriors and how did they leave their mark so far and wide?
Our story begins over 200 years earlier, when Vikings began to settle on the shores of northern France as part of a great Scandinavian exodus across northern Europe. The French locals called these invaders Normans, named for the direction they came from. Eventually, Charles, the king of the Franks, negotiated peace with the Viking leader Rollo in 911, granting him a stretch of land along France’s northern coast that came to be known as Normandy.
The Normans proved adaptable to their newly settled life. They married Frankish women, adopted the French language, and soon started converting from Norse paganism to Christianity. But though they adapted, they maintained the warrior tradition and conquering spirit of their Viking forebears. Before long, ambitious Norman knights were looking for new challenges.
The Normans’ best-known achievement was their conquest of England. In 1066, William, the Duke of Normandy, disputed the claim of the new English king, Harold Godwinson. Soon after landing in England, William and his knights met Harold’s army near the town of Hastings. The climactic moment in the battle is immortalized in the 70-meter-long Bayeux Tapestry, where an arrow striking Harold in the eye seals the Norman victory.
William consolidated his gains with a huge castle-building campaign and a reorganization of English society. He lived up to his nickname "William the Conqueror" through a massive survey known as the Domesday Book, which recorded the population and ownership of every piece of land in England. Norman French became the language of the new royal court, while commoners continued to speak Anglo-Saxon. Over time, the two merged to give us the English we know today, though the divide between lords and peasants can still be felt in synonym pairs such as cow and beef. By the end of the 12th century, the Normans had further expanded into Wales, Scotland, and Ireland.
Meanwhile, independent groups of Norman knights traveled to the Mediterranean, inspired by tales of pilgrims returning from Jerusalem. There, they threw themselves into a tangled mass of conflicts among the established powers all over that region. They became highly prized mercenaries, and during one of these battles, they made the first recorded heavy cavalry charge with couched lances, a devastating tactic that soon became standard in medieval warfare. The Normans were also central to the First Crusade of 1095-99, a bloody conflict that re-established Christian control in certain parts of the Middle East.
But the Normans did more than just fight. As a result of their victories, leaders like William Iron-Arm and Robert the Crafty secured lands throughout Southern Italy, eventually merging them to form the Kingdom of Sicily in 1130. Under Roger II, the kingdom became a beacon of multicultural tolerance in a world torn apart by religious and civil wars. Muslim Arab poets and scholars served in the royal court alongside Byzantine Greek sailors and architects. Arabic remained an official language along with Latin, Greek, and Norman French. The world’s geographical knowledge was compiled in The Book of Roger, whose maps of the known world would remain the most accurate available for 300 years. And the churches built in Palermo combined Latin-style architecture, Arab ceilings, and Byzantine domes, all decorated with exquisite golden mosaics.
So if the Normans were so successful, why aren’t they still around? In fact, this was a key part of their success: not just ruling the societies they conquered, but becoming part of them. Although the Normans eventually disappeared as a distinct group, their contributions remained. And today, from the castles and cathedrals that dot Europe’s landscape to wherever the English language is spoken, the Norman legacy lives on.
The impact of the Norman’s in Ireland.
The impact of the Notman conquest and influence is still visible today. From the time they landed at Bannow Bay on that faithful day in 1169, the Normans changed Ireland forever.
In the beginning they did not intermarry with the Irish or adapt to Irish culture, they stayed present but distant.
However this would change with time leading the phrase “More Irish then the Irish themselves”.
They were mainly settled in the east of Ireland in the areas they conquered and in the successful towns they established.
One of the main areas of Norman occupation would be called The Pale now the modern city of Dublin.
All along the East coast, you will find spectacular examples of Norman Castles that are still to this day imposing and frightening structures.
As the Normans and the Irish mixed, they both adapted and started to adopt parts of each other’s cultural differences.
Not only did they leave there mark on our landscape, their presence is still felt and recognized in some of Irelands most famous names, Roche, Tracy, Alyward, Burke, Fitzgerald and Barry to name but a few.
They may have conquered and changed the course of history but they also bestowed on us the magnificent stories of Ireland and magnificent architectural features such as castles and magnificent churches that dot our historic landscape.
These structures include some of Irelands most famous sites, such as Trim but also some of our most famous and beautiful towns such as the amazing city of Kilkenny and the stunning town of New Ross. Both of these amazing locations were founded by The Norman and not just conquered.
They left their mark on our landscape, and we are still shocked and awed by the dominating features they placed in stone on our ancient landscape.