Norman Conquest of England

Battle of Hastings
Battle of Hastings

The Norman Conquest is the period of English history that followed William the Conqueror’s defeat of King Harold at the Battle of Hastings in October 1066.

Although Hastings was the turning point of the conquest, it actually took William about six years to put down all Saxon opposition. The political personalities changed and Britain became less isolated.

Along with the Anglo-Saxon king, most members of the nobility were killed at Hastings or during the ensuing insurrections. Those who survived had their lands taken from them. These landholdings became the possessions of William and his followers, thus imposing a Norman aristocracy on the English people.

Recognizing that relatively few Normans were ruling the masses of Englishmen, William utilized the Anglo Saxon idea of a centralized monarchy to stabilize and consolidate his power.

Other political and legal institutions he established borrowed heavily from English tradition. In this feature, English feudalism differed from that found on the Continent.

To strengthen his position of power, William had himself crowned William I, king of England, by the archbishop of Canterbury on Christmas Day 1066. To guarantee further his sovereignty, William began an extensive building program, erecting castles and garrisons at strategic points throughout the Isles.

Placing each of these tactical locations under the control of one of his most trusted nobles, William was able to tighten his control over the entire nation. Castles, which were rare in the British Isles before 1066, became a familiar feature of the landscape.

Construction of castles also made it easier for William to introduce the feudal system to England. William divided his territory among his favorites in return for their pledge to feed, house, and equip knights for the king. From the castles lords could effectively administer large areas of land for the king.

With the Oath of Salisbury in 1086, William established the precedence of loyalty to the king as more important than loyalty to lesser lords. This highly organized system of obligations among knights, lords, and the king was far removed from Anglo-Saxon ideas of kingship.

William the Conqueror

William was the illegitimate son of Robert I, duke of Normandy, and the daughter of a local craftsman. Sometimes called William the Bastard, William nevertheless inherited his father’s lands when the duke died in 1035. Constant rebellions during William’s minority kept him and his guardians in frequent danger.

William the Conqueror
William the Conqueror

William was able to defeat the invading army of the king of France and to put down opposition among his nobles. With his power established in Normandy, William visited England in 1051 or 1052, when he received the promise of his cousin Edward the Confessor that he would name William as his successor.

William further improved his position through marriage to Matilda of Flanders, a descendant of Alfred the Great. Later Harold, earl of Wessex and also in line for the English throne, was shipwrecked off the coast of France.

Harold found himself under William’s authority and, likely in exchange for his freedom, promised to support William’s claim to England. In 1066 when word reached France that Harold had been crowned king of England, William immediately appealed to the pope, who gave him sanction to raise an army and invade England.

Battle of Hastings

Although some Norman barons did not give wholehearted support to the mission, William brought them in line through bribes and threats. In September 1066 William sailed for England with an amassed army of approximately 30,000 troops, including mercenaries and men attracted by the possibility of plunder.

Harold II was already under attack from Harald Hardrada, king of Norway, and Harold’s exiled brother Tostig, whom he was able to defeat on September 25. William landed at Pevensey in Sussex on September 28.

Even though Harold’s troops were tired and William had superior numbers and equipment, Harold was able to keep William at bay when they first met at Hastings. At one point, William had to rally his troops and lead a counterattack on the Saxons.

Tradition, including the Bayeux Tapestry, shows that Harold received an arrow in his eye during the battle, causing his troops to act in confusion; some fled; some stayed to fight to the end.

After this battle, William’s advance to London was uneventful, and he was able to proclaim himself king of England. Despite uprisings from the Saxons during the next six years, William’s takeover had been accomplished.

Bayeux Tapestry

Bayeux Tapestry
Bayeux Tapestry

The Bayeux Tapestry tells the story of the Battle of Hastings and the events leading up to it on a linen background more than 7 meters long and half a meter wide (20 by 230 feet). Most scholars agree that this is not the total tapestry, that some pieces of the embroidered cloth have not survived the years.

Bishop Odo, William’s half brother, whom William named earl of Kent, may have commissioned it. There are flattering images of Odo, and only he and one other of William’s companions are named on the tapestry.

The origin of the labor is highly disputed among the English and French, each insisting the massive work was done in their homeland. The tapestry has been housed in Bayeux, France, at least since 1476, and possibly since shortly after its creation in the 1070s.

Religious Reform

William was a ferocious opponent and could be quite brutal in putting down opposition, yet in many ways he was also a very spiritual man. Another significant part of his conquest agenda was reform of the church.

In 1070 William arranged for his longtime friend Lanfranc to be named archbishop of Canterbury. Lanfranc’s primary responsibility was to facilitate the reforms William wanted, including appointing foreign prelates to replace Saxon clergy and enforcing discipline in monasteries.

King and archbishop also instigated a canonical court, removing church-related cases from the secular legal system. William asserted his power to name bishops and to approve or disapprove of church doctrine and decrees without opposition from Lanfranc and the church.

Domesday Book

Always cognizant of the fragility of his hold over the English, William constantly sought better means to solidify his power and manage his finances. To that end, he ordered that the Domesday Book be assembled. The title is a variation of doomsday, or “day of judgment,” and probably is linked to the fact that the book became the final authority in many property disputes.

This remarkable compilation, completed between 1085 and 1086, is a detailed accounting of the wealth of England, listing personages and their holdings in land and livestock, the numbers of tenants on the land, buildings, mills, and other sources of wealth. The Domesday commissioners also noted the devastation that England had undergone as a result of William’s expeditions to put down opposition.

In fact in some areas, they released individuals from their taxes because of the poverty they found in areas where William’s troops had been especially destructive. The Domesday Book was the basis for tax assessments until 1522.

A Changed Language

One of the most significant influences of the Norman Conquest was on the English language. The conquering French imposed their native tongue as the language of the upper classes, literature, and the court, considering Anglo-Saxon speech crude. However the English never abandoned their language, forcing the upper class to accept much of the language of the lower classes.

As the Norman and Saxon languages fused over the decades, Middle English, the language of Geoffrey Chaucer, emerged, still primarily Anglo-Saxon, but much enriched by French and Latin additions. Parliament was opened in English for the first time in 1352.

William I died as the result of a riding accident in 1087. He bequeathed his Norman territory to his son Robert II and his English lands to his son William II, a decision that was later to shape the events of the Hundred Years’ War. Henry I and King Stephen followed William II. The end of the Norman period is usually considered as 1154 when Henry II, a Plantagenet, came to power.