There are seldom absolute stops in history or entirely new chapters. One event, however, which has been almost universally accepted in such terms, from the greatest scholars to the humblest schoolchild, is the Norman Conquest of England in 1066. Not only was this the last time that England was successfully invaded, but it was followed by a complete change in the ruling dynasty, the introduction of military feudalism, the reform of the church and the rapid expansion of monasticism. Such social and political changes were accompanied by dramatic architectural and topographical development: the introduction of the castle, the spread of new towns, and the erection of hundreds of new ecclesiastical establishments, all executed in a new style of architecture. Whatever moral reservations must be expressed about the activities of the Normans in England there is no doubt that through their energy and administrative ability they transformed the face of town and country alike.
Two unique sources of historical evidence have contributed greatly to this impression of profound change: the Domesday Book, which was compiled some twenty years after the Norman Conquest, and the Bayeux Tapestry, which was probably competed within a decade of the Conquest. The Domesday Book (1086) provides us with the most comprehensive survey of the English landscape and society ever executed. Although doubts may be expressed about the proper interpretation of its contents, the survey represents the firm historical reference to the vast majority of English settlements and therefore intrinsically it represents an historical beginning.
The Bayeux Tapestry is a confident account of the Conquest which incorporated a justification of William the Conqueror’s claim to the English throne – a claim which scholars have argued about over the centuries. It seems probable that the tapestry was embroidered in England, perhaps at St Augustine’s, Canterbury, for William’s half brother, Bishop Odo of Bayeux, and was intended to be hung in Bayeux Cathedral. There has been considerable controversy over the dating of the tapestry, but it seems most likely that is was completed in time for the consecration of Odo’s new cathedral in Bayeux in 1077. The tapestry narrates in ostensibly simple terms the events leading up to the Conquest and the story of the battle of Hastings itself. The story is quire clearly told from the Norman viewpoint and appears to be based largely on accounts of two of William the Conqueror’s contemporary hagiographers, William of Jumieges and William of Poitiers, as well as a version of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle.
In brief the tapestry tells of [the English noble] Harold Godwinson leaving King Edward the Confessor’s court and undertaking the journey to Normandy, where, after being seized by Count Guy of Ponthieu, he is taken to William’s palace at Rouen. Harold then joins William in a successful campaign against the Breton border towns of Dol and Dinan. At Bayeux Harold takes an oath of obedience to William – an event which was pointedly of considerable significance in the light of subsequent events. On returning to England Edward dies and Harold accepts the crown. At this point the vision of Halley’s comet which appeared that year is seen as a terrible omen. On hearing of the news of Harold’s accession William prepares a fleet and then sails to England, where, after building a castle at Hastings, he goes into battle against Harold. Some of the most vivid scenes then follow, portraying aspects of the battle in considerable detail, including a brilliantly depicted cavalry attack, and Harold’s death. The final section which presumably showed William being crowned at Westminster is missing. Thus the actual event which led to Norman domination in England is graphically illustrated. No other event in English medieval history received such singular treatment. . . .
Duke William II, or William the Conqueror as he was known after the battle of Hastings, was born at Falaise in 1027/8, the bastard son of Duke Robert I, or Robert the Magnificent as he was popularly known. Robert’s death in 1035 while returning from a pilgrimage to Jerusalem resulted in a politically troubled situation. William succeeded to the dukedom as a minor and there followed a period of near anarchy during which two of his guardians were assassinated. William survived this tumultuous period and formally came of age in 1044. Almost immediately he was involved in an internal revolt which was finally crushed at the decisive battle of Val-es-Dunes in 1047.
Williams long apprenticeship at the seat of power was to serve him well. In the following twenty years he consolidated his control and developed skills which he as later to apply with great success in England. Although regrettably the details are only scantily recorded in the early part of this period a strengthening of feudal ties was accompanied by a general tightening up of ducal administration most notably in the area of military service, providing the Norman duke with the strongest army in Europe. At the same time William insisted on exercising his right to garrison the castles of his strongest barons, and it was probably at this time that the castle became a particularly important element in William’s military strategy.
William embarked on a series of successful and by all accounts brutal campaigns which eventually brought the whole of Maine under Norman control, and subdued Brittany over which he claimed lordship. Thus by 1066 William had established himself as master of north-west Gaul, a powerful European sovereign in all but name.
Town life flourished and in particular William deliberately fostered the development of Caen between Bayeux and Rouen on an island at the confluence of the rivers Orne and Odon. William saw Caen as a new military stronghold with geographical advantages of Rouen, mainly access to the sea, but without Rouen’s vulnerability to attack. Caen also lies in the very heart of the narrow belt of Jurassic limestone, which provided the main source of Caen stone for the construction of castles, churches and monasteries both in Normandy and England. . . .
William’s claim to the throne of England lay principally through his grandfather’s sister, Emma, who was married to two consecutive kings of England, Ethelred and Cnut. Emma who was sister to Duke Richard II (966 – 1026), and the mother of Edward the Confessor, was largely responsible for bringing Normans and Norman customs into the English court. Edward spent half of his life in exile in the duchy and in the first years after succeeding to the throne relied on the political and military advice of his Norman comrades and generally throughout his reign maintained close personal contact with Normandy. It seems reasonably clear that Edward the Confessor had recognized William as his successor in the early 1050s, and probable that Harold’s journey to Normandy in 1064 was to confirm this recognition. On hearing of Edward’s death on 5 January 1066 and Harold’s accession, William had no doubt about his course of action and set in motion the diplomatic and military preparations necessary for the invasion of England. . . .
William’s preparation and organization, the characteristics of which were to be the hallmark of his rule as King of England, played a decisive role in his victory. Seldom can the events of one day – Saturday, 14 October 1066 – have had such a profound effect on the political geography of Europe. William of Poitiers wrote that, with his success at the battle of Hastings, Duke William had conquered all of England in a single day ‘between the third hour and evening.’ In reality, however, although this battle saw the end of united and national resistance to William, local resistance and piecemeal rising s continued and it was not until the notorious ‘harrying of the North’ (1068-70) that the pax Normanica prevailed.
The Norman occupation of England was virtually a re-run of the Scandinavian settlement in Normandy. England received a new royal dynasty, a new aristocracy, virtually new church, a new art and architecture and, in official circles, a new language. By 1086 only half a dozen of the 180 greater landlords or tenants-in-chief were English. The Crown itself held one-fifth of the land and a considerable percentage of the remainder was held by a few of William’s favorites, who had come with him from France. It has been estimated that about half the country was in the hands of ten men, most of whom were William’s relatives. The power and wealth of the country was held by a small Norman elite, and as if to demonstrate the change of management castles were built throughout the kingdom. Within twenty years of the Conquest they dominated all the shire towns and within half a century sat in virtually every settlement of importance in the country. By 1090 only one of the sixteen English bishoprics was held by an Englishman and six of those sees had been moved from their historic centers to large towns where they subsequently remained. By the end of the twelfth century virtually every Anglo-Saxon cathedral had been removed and rebuilt in Anglo-Norman style, as well as hundreds of new abbeys, and parish churches.
It should, however, be remembered that Norman domination was largely confined to the upper echelons of society. Although groups of French settlers did move into England and were found in many towns particularly in the Welsh borderlands, the level of folk penetration was far less even than that perpetrated by the tenth-century Norsemen in Normandy. Indeed, recent analysis of place-names in Normandy suggest that there might even have been a modest movement of English settlers into Normandy after the Conquest.
The Norman Conquest of England was in no way a folk movement to be compared with the Anglo-Saxon or Scandinavian settlements. Similarly, the place-name evidence demonstrates precisely the same pattern of hybridization that had already occurred in Normandy. Norman family names were attached to already existing Anglo-Saxon place-names and there was a considerable restyling of place-names to Norman design. Despite the use of French in polite society it never reached much beyond that, and although a considerable number of French words found their way into the English language, they did not change it profoundly. One reason for this was that the Normans transacted most of the written communication in Latin and not French, but in the process did displace Anglo-Saxon as the official language.
Once William had successfully quelled all opposition he was able to create a state in England which was far stronger and more unified than anything that had gone before. The secret of this was his complete domination of the country through feudal institutions. Before 1066 feudalism was more developed in Normandy than in England, military obligation in return for land, known as knights’ service, was already a recognized institution and many feudal quotas had already been established. In the process of the Conquest, not only was the Norman model introduced into England, but it was made far more effective and systematic than it had ever been in Normandy. This was largely because, as conqueror, William quite literally claimed the whole of England as his own. He dispossessed all but a handful of English lords and gave lands to his own men, insisting that he, as king, was the only person allowed to regard land as his absolute property; everyone else was merely a tenant who paid rent, normally in the form of knights’ service. This was even the case with the English bishoprics and abbeys who also became Crown tenants and had to provide service. He was therefore both king and feudal lord of absolutely all the land in his kingdom, and consequently he controlled the sole source of wealth as well as the font of justice. England became the supreme example of a feudal military monarchy. The Crown and the Norman aristocracy found themselves extremely wealthy, wealth which was rapidly translated into buildings – cathedrals, abbeys, parish churches, castles and new towns.
It is a paradox that although it was in England that the Normans achieved their greatest success in all fields, in the long run the Conquest of England turned them into Englishmen. Although the new Norman aristocracy largely despised the English and their customs, they were operating essentially within an English matrix. Because their penetration of English society was at such an elevated level it was always probable that English traditions and institutions would survive in some form, and eventually absorb the Norman masters.