In 1066, a dynamic group of invaders crossed the English Channel and defeated the English at the Battle of Hastings where the Norman, William the Conqueror, defeated and killed the Anglo-Saxon King Harold. These people were the Normans, and their cultural roots defined them as both Vikings and Frenchmen.
The Norman conquest was more than just a military venture. After the Normans conquered England, they put their stamp on their new kingdom and drastically changed English society forever, imbuing their language and passion for arts and culture into the very fabric of England’s story. This is the story of how the Norman conquest changed England.
The Norman Conquest After Hastings
The victory at Hastings did not mean an immediate transfer of power. The Norman conquest still needed to be consolidated, and rebels needed to be pacified. Anglo-Saxon lords still fought on until 1071. During this time, William the Conqueror had his hands full. He had to repel two invasion attempts from Ireland by Harold’s sons and put down three rebellions in York. Meanwhile, his borders with Wales and Scotland were under permanent threat.
While many Anglo-Saxons fled to Norway, for most Anglo-Saxons, life didn’t actually change much. There weren’t thousands of Norman peasants crossing the channel to resettle, and so for the Anglo-Saxons who worked the land (which was most of them), there was no need to move. Nor was there any specific feeling of national identity to protect. As far as the average Anglo-Saxon was concerned, the Norman conquest around them was nothing more than one ruling elite replacing another.
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In medieval times, the general trend was that people felt loyalty to their local community. People from other towns were seen as foreigners just as much as people from other kingdoms. For the average Anglo-Saxon, the Normans were just foreigners who spoke French. They weren’t specifically hated for being Norman any more than any other foreigner would be.
What did create a certain level of discontent were several new laws. The punishment for the murder of a Norman would be the nearest village being burnt to the ground. This would have bred a certain animosity between the Anglo-Saxons and their Norman overlords.
On one hand, the animosity grew out of Norman rule rather than being an initial feeling of loyalty to one’s nationality. On the other hand, the animosity could be seen as simply a general distrust between the upper and lower classes. William’s new law of revoking hunting rights in forests didn’t help the situation either. And what certainly made things much worse was the violent campaign in the north.
In 1069 and 1070, the last Anglo-Saxon claimant to the throne, Edgar Ætheling, made his stand in the north of England, rallying Anglo-Saxon and Danish lords around him. The Norman response was brutal. After paying the Danes to leave, the Normans defeated the Anglo-Saxon lords by leading massacres and burning crops in a campaign known as “The Harrying of the North.” Some historians today suggest what happened was genocide. The Normans weren’t trying to exterminate Anglo-Saxon culture but rather to halt dissent. The Norman lords encouraged repopulation of the areas affected and allowed Anglo-Scandinavian culture to flourish, which is evident today in place names and regional accents.
However, the Normans were a godsend for enslaved people in Anglo-Saxon England. Before the Norman conquest, 10% – 20% of the population was enslaved. The Normans abolished the practice.
For the Anglo-Saxon nobility, their time of dominance was over. Before the Norman conquest, there had been approximately 4,000 Anglo-Saxon landowners. Twenty years after the Norman conquest, virtually everything had been transferred to Norman hands. Only two Anglo-Saxon landowners were left with enough power to have any influence. Many of their kinsmen – warriors, nobles, and knights – fled to Scandinavia and ended up in the Middle East serving in the Varangian Guard.
The Norman Bureaucratic System
The first thing the Normans did after they conquered England was to readjust how the country was governed. A new, streamlined system needed to replace the relatively decentralized and uncontrollable system that was in place before.
Nevertheless, certain aspects of Anglo-Saxon governance were kept in place. The sheriff system was retained to keep control over the shires into which England was split. The sheriffs, who were replaced with Normans, were answerable to the king and, as such, provided good protection against nobles who wished to abuse their power.
The Church also underwent a massive change, replacing the bishops and archbishops with Normans. The dioceses’ headquarters were also moved to more urban locations, which gave the new king more administrative and military control over the Church. The bishops benefitted from this move as they ended up being much closer to the urban populations.
One huge factor that made governance easier after the Norman conquest was the ordering of a census, known as the Domesday Book.
The Domesday Book
The Norman conquest meant that King William the Conqueror was now having to rule over a vastly different society than the Dukedom of Normandy. From 1086 to 1087, King William ordered a census to be undertaken throughout the kingdom. The results were compiled in what was called “The Domesday Book,” which represents the most comprehensive survey of any medieval kingdom throughout history. Today, the Domesday book is an invaluable reference for historians as it clearly marks the shift of land ownership in England and provides demographic statistics such as the fact that 90% of the population was rural and 75% of the population were serfs.
The survey also shows how feudalism was further developed as a result of King William’s policies. Under the feudal system, the manorial system was developed further, which had its origins in Anglo-Saxon times. The system divided the kingdom into the smallest possible unit of land – the “manor” – which was enough to support a single family. Each lord could have hundreds of manorial units under his rule.
Castles & Architecture
The Normans were avid builders, and in the decades following King William’s accession, many hundreds of castles were built across all of England. Many of them were simply motte and bailey castles designed to consolidate power during the Norman conquest, but these structures were later upgraded with stone and provided an aesthetic that is immediately recognizable as Norman architecture. Others were stone castles from the very beginning of their construction.
The Normans viewed these buildings not simply as defensive structures, as the Anglo-Saxons had, but as bases of operation through which entire regions could be controlled. They often housed cavalry, which could be deployed quickly wherever needed.
Motte and bailey castles soon fell out of favor, however. Their wooden construction was susceptible to rot and fire. But for the first few decades of Norman rule, they did their job. They were replaced by great stone castles and fortresses as the Norman leadership ushered in a new era of zealous castle-building that lasted for centuries.
In addition to building castles, there was also a massive increase in church building, as Normans sought to make their peace with God and bring religion closer to the masses.
Language & Culture after the Norman Conquest
One of the biggest changes that happened in England after the Norman conquest was the shift in language. The Anglo-Saxon language, often referred to as Old English, was a Germanic language, while the Normans spoke a dialect of French, which is a Romance language. Although the Normans had originated from Denmark and Norway, they adopted and integrated French culture after they settled in Normandy.
While the new gentry spoke French, their subjects spoke English. This is reflected in English culture today as French is considered a language of culture. French phrases are scattered throughout English speech in order to make the speaker seem more educated.
The greatest linguistic import, however, was the addition of thousands of French words to the English lexicon. Although it is difficult to determine, it is estimated that between 40% and 50% of English words in use today have their roots in French. The usage of French-root words increases in academia, showing the importance that the English culture placed on how they viewed French as opposed to Old English.
An example of the cultural divide as shown by language is that of animals and meat products. Today, farm animals are referred to by their Anglo-Saxon roots (cow, sheep, pig), but when these animals reach the plate ready to be eaten, as they would have been experienced by the Norman elite, the French-root words are used – beef, mutton, and pork, from the French boeuf, mouton, and porc, which are the French words for the animals, as well as the meat that is derived from them.
There is no doubt the Norman conquest had a massive effect on England and English society. Not only was a new culture introduced, but the new culture that was introduced was the one in charge. Nevertheless, as the Normans changed England, so did England change the Normans.
The cultural divide quickly blurred as Normans married and had children with Anglo-Saxons. English slowly displaced French as the language of the nobility and administration. By 1362, English was being spoken in parliament.
The Normans were a dynamic group of people. For some, they were brutal thugs, but their legacy is more than one of simple conquest. They rebuilt England and turned it into a powerful nation that would one day control the biggest empire in history.