Conflict, FEATURED

The Normans in Britain: More Than Just 1066

When the Normans invaded England in 1066 it was a pivotal event that forever changed the course of English history. Led by William the Conqueror, the Normans, a people of Viking origin who had settled in Normandy, embarked on a daring campaign to claim the English throne.

But was there more to the Norman invasion than the Battle of Hastings and 1066 and all that?

The Normans: Who Were They?

The Normans were descendants of Vikings who settled in the region of Normandy, located in present-day northern France. After their initial Viking raids on the area in the 9th and 10th centuries, the Normans gradually adopted the French language and customs while retaining some of their Viking heritage.

Read More: 800 Year old Complete Chain Mail Vest Discovered 

They became skilled warriors and developed a strong feudal system, which played a significant role in their later conquests.

Leadership and Society of the Normans

The Norman invasion of England was spearheaded by William, Duke of Normandy, also known as William the Conqueror. William was a formidable leader, renowned for his military prowess, determination, and strategic thinking.

Born in 1028, he ascended to the ducal throne of Normandy at a young age and spent years consolidating his rule and expanding his territories. William’s claim to the English throne was based on his assertion that he had been promised the crown by his distant cousin, Edward the Confessor, the previous English king.

Norman Society and Religion

Norman society was feudal in nature, with a hierarchical structure led by the nobility. At the top of the social pyramid was the Duke, followed by barons, knights, and peasants.

Read More: Medieval Sword Found in Poland

The Normans were predominantly Catholic Christians, and their religious beliefs played a significant role in shaping their cultural and social practices. They constructed grand cathedrals and monastic buildings, patronised the arts, and supported religious institutions.

The Invasion of England

In 1066, William and his Norman army set sail from Normandy and landed on the shores of England. This invasion was precipitated by the death of Edward the Confessor, which triggered a power vacuum and several rival claimants to the English throne.

William believed that his claim was legitimate and sought to assert his authority over England.

The Battle of Hastings

The most decisive and iconic event of the Norman invasion was the Battle of Hastings, fought on October 14, 1066. The battle pitted William’s forces against the English army led by Harold II, who had assumed the throne after Edward’s death.

Read More: Mastering the Art of the Medieval Poleaxe

The battle raged fiercely throughout the day, and although Harold’s forces initially held their ground, they eventually succumbed to the superior Norman tactics and discipline. Harold was killed in the battle, marking a pivotal turning point in English history.

The Aftermath of the Battle

Following his victory at Hastings, William marched triumphantly to London and was crowned King of England on Christmas Day, 1066. The Norman conquest resulted in a significant transformation of English society and governance.

William established a new ruling elite composed of Normans, who replaced the existing English nobility. The English language also experienced an influx of French vocabulary, which enriched and influenced the development of the English language.

Norman Rule and Governance

William the Conqueror implemented a centralised system of governance in England. He introduced the Feudal System, which established a hierarchical structure where land was granted in exchange for military service and loyalty.

Read More: There is a Medieval Castle Being Built in France

The Normans conducted extensive surveys of landholdings, known as the Domesday Book, to assess and record the extent of their newly acquired territories. This helped solidify their control over the land and its resources.

Read More: War Horse: A Brief History of Horses on the Battlefield

The Norman rulers also introduced a new legal system based on feudal law and established a network of royal courts to administer justice. The English legal system was transformed, and the principles of Norman law merged with existing Anglo-Saxon customs, laying the foundation for the development of English common law.

The Norman Impact on Language and Culture

The Norman conquest had a profound impact on the English language. The Normans spoke a variety of Old French known as Anglo-Norman, which influenced the English vocabulary.

Read More: The Semi Derelict Medieval Town of Buje

Thousands of French words entered the English language, particularly in areas related to law, government, and the arts. This linguistic fusion contributed to the richness and complexity of the English language that we recognise today.

In addition to language, the Normans also left their mark on English culture. They introduced a refined courtly culture, embracing chivalry, literature, and the arts. The troubadours, poets, and storytellers from the French-speaking courts of Normandy brought a new aesthetic and narrative tradition to England, enriching the cultural fabric of the nation.

The Normans brought several animals to England, including horses, dogs, and falcons, which had a profound impact on English agriculture, hunting, and cultural practices.

Construction

One of the most visible legacies of the Norman conquest is the construction of impressive castles and churches throughout England. The Normans were skilled architects, and their castles served both as military fortresses and symbols of Norman authority.

Churches and Cathedrals

The Normans made significant contributions to ecclesiastical architecture in England, leaving a lasting legacy in the form of churches and cathedrals. These structures, built in the Romanesque or Norman architectural style, showcased the skill and vision of Norman builders. Some of the notable churches and cathedrals constructed by the Normans in England include:

Durham Cathedral

Durham Cathedral is one of the most magnificent Norman cathedrals in England and stands majestically on a hill overlooking the city of Durham. Construction began in 1093 under the direction of Bishop William of St. Carilef. The cathedral’s design exemplifies Norman Romanesque architecture, with its massive columns, rounded arches, and intricate stone carvings. The cathedral remains an important pilgrimage site and a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Canterbury Cathedral

Canterbury Cathedral, located in Kent, holds great religious and historical significance. While the original cathedral existed before the Norman Conquest, it was significantly rebuilt and expanded by the Normans. Archbishop Lanfranc, a Norman appointee, led the reconstruction efforts in the late 11th century. The Norman additions included the Trinity Chapel and the crypt, which are remarkable examples of Norman architecture.

Winchester Cathedral

Winchester Cathedral, situated in Hampshire, is one of the largest cathedrals in England. The Normans undertook extensive renovations and expansions of the existing Anglo-Saxon cathedral, transforming it into a grand Romanesque structure. The cathedral’s magnificent nave, transepts, and crypt are notable examples of Norman architectural elements.

Ely Cathedral

Ely Cathedral, located in Cambridgeshire, underwent substantial reconstruction under the Normans. Bishop Simeon of Normandy initiated the project in the 11th century, and the cathedral was further expanded and embellished by subsequent Norman bishops. The cathedral features stunning Norman elements, such as the West Tower, the Galilee Porch, and the remarkable Octagon, which is a masterpiece of medieval engineering.

Rochester Cathedral

The Cathedral in Kent is another noteworthy Norman construction. Bishop Gundulf, a skilled Norman architect, oversaw the rebuilding of the cathedral in the late 11th century. It exhibits classic Norman features, including its robust stone walls, rounded arches, and intricately carved decorations.

Lincoln Cathedral

Lincoln Cathedral, situated in Lincolnshire, underwent significant reconstruction during the Norman period. Bishop Remigius, a Norman appointee, initiated the project, and the cathedral was completed in the 12th century. The cathedral’s west front, with its impressive fa├žade adorned with intricate sculptures, exemplifies the Norman style.

These are just a few examples of the churches and cathedrals built by the Normans in England. Each structure showcased their architectural expertise and played a crucial role in establishing Norman authority and leaving an indelible mark on the religious and cultural landscape of medieval England.

Castles

The Normans, renowned for their military prowess, also constructed numerous castles throughout England following their invasion in 1066. These castles served as symbols of Norman power, centres of administration, and strongholds for defence. They played a crucial role in solidifying Norman control over the country and shaping the medieval English landscape. Here are a few notable Norman castles in England.

Tower of London

The Tower of London is one of the most famous and iconic Norman castles in England. William the Conqueror initiated its construction around 1078 as a royal residence and fortress.

White Tower
The ‘white tower’ at the Tower of London is in fact a Norman castle.

Situated on the banks of the River Thames in London, the Tower of London served as a symbol of Norman authority and later became a notorious prison. It features a White Tower, which is a massive keep, surrounded by defensive walls and towers.

Windsor Castle

Windsor Castle, located in Berkshire, has its origins in the Norman era. William the Conqueror ordered the construction of the castle as a strategic fortification in the late 11th century. Over the centuries, it has been expanded and modified by subsequent monarchs. Windsor Castle is the oldest and largest occupied castle in the world and continues to be a royal residence.

Rochester Castle

Rochester Castle, situated in Kent, is a well-preserved example of a Norman stone keep castle. Bishop Gundulf, who was instrumental in the construction of Rochester Cathedral, oversaw the building of the castle in the 1080s. The castle’s mighty keep, or central tower, stands as a testament to Norman military engineering.

Warwick Castle

Warwick Castle, located in Warwickshire, was originally built by William the Conqueror in 1068. While the castle has undergone numerous renovations and additions over the centuries, its origins can be traced back to the Norman period. Warwick Castle showcases a combination of Norman and later medieval architectural styles and is now a popular tourist attraction.

Dover Castle

Dover Castle, perched atop the White Cliffs of Dover in Kent, is one of England’s most iconic castles. Its origins can be traced back to the Roman era, but it was significantly expanded and fortified by the Normans. The castle served as a key defensive stronghold due to its strategic location and played a vital role in the defence of England throughout history.

Norman Expansion and Legacy

The Norman conquest of England was not an isolated event but marked the beginning of a broader Norman expansion across Europe. The Normans established themselves as a powerful force, forging territories and kingdoms across the continent. They launched expeditions to Southern Italy, Sicily, and even participated in the Crusades to the Middle East.

Read More: Sex in Camp! The Groupies of the Middle Ages?

The Norman influence extended beyond military conquests and political dominion. They made significant contributions to art, architecture, literature, and the development of a sophisticated courtly culture. The fusion of Norman, French, and Anglo-Saxon elements laid the foundation for the emergence of a distinct Anglo-Norman culture, which would shape the course of medieval England.

What did the Normand do for us?

The Norman invasion of England in 1066 was a watershed moment in English history. Led by William the Conqueror, the Normans brought about significant political, social, and cultural changes. Through their military might, administrative reforms, and cultural influences they changed England forever.