British History,Monarchs of Great Britain,King Arthur

Narrative History of England
Part 5: Medieval Britain by Peter N. Williams, Ph. D.



Norman England
Hardacnut was the last Danish king of England. He died in convulsions at a wedding feast. Edward the Atheling, who succeeded him, was the legitimate heir of Alfred the Great. Known as Edward the Confessor, he was perhaps one of the most misunderstood monarchs in the history of England. Though he took adequate steps to provide for a smooth succession to the throne, events that followed his death have spoiled his reputation as a wise, effective ruler. The circumstances that eventually led to the arrival of William the Norman had been set in place long before 1066.

Ever since Edward's father had married Emma of Normandy in 1002, England had been wide open to Norman influences. Edward's cousin was the father of Duke William. The young Edward himself had been brought up in Normandy. A popular choice as king, he collaborated with the leading earls of the country to dispossess his mother Emma of her wealth at Winchester. A motive was provided by her support of the King of Norway's claim to the English throne, a threat renewed when Harold Hardrada, uncle of Magnus became king of Norway in 1048. But there were more pressing problems for Edward at home.

Godwin of Wessex was the most powerful man in England after the King, whom he supported in the raid on the treasures at Winchester, but who tried his utmost to run the country as family fiefdom. He plotted to have Edward marry his daughter Edith, a union to which the king consented to keep Godwin happy and allied in the face of continued Scandinavian threats. Edward was double Edith's age; the marriage did not produce an heir, for the saintly king had earlier taken a vow of chastity (a hunting accident had left him impotent in any case). Edward wanted his Norman relatives to gain the throne of England. The handing over of power to William became his obsession. But there were other claimants from the house of Earl Godwin that contested the king's wishes.

From 1046 to 1051, Edward was engaged in a power struggle with the Godwins. He was forced to take action. First, he exiled Swein, the ruthless treacherous eldest son who had abducted an abbotress among his other nefarious deeds. He next exiled Godwin and all his sons, two of whom joined their father and Swein in Bruges and two of whom went to join the Vikings in Dublin. Thus temporarily freed from Godwin influence, in the pinnacle of his power, Edward was left alone to appoint Norman bishops to many vacant English Sees. Then Godwin returned.

Civil War was averted only because the King restored Godwin and his sons to their earldoms. Edward was also humiliated by having to purge his Norman bishops. He then was forced to appoint Stigand, Godwin's nominee to Canterbury in place of Robert of Jumieges. Edward shied away from provoking an all-out war with his hated enemy Godwin. He was spared a decision by the death of Godwin on Easter Monday 1053 and the succession of Harold Godwinson as Earl of Wessex. The enmity between the Crown and the House of Godwin continued unabated, especially over the appointing of bishops and the leadership of the armies raised to fight Gruffudd of Wales who had been successful in winning back many border areas previously lost to the English. Harold himself raised an army to punish Gruffudd. But the main problem remained, that of succession. Matters were not helped by the suspicious death of Edward the Atheling, younger son of Edmund Ironside, who had been smuggled out of England as a babe to escape Cnut, and who had returned in 1057. Only the king and the late Athelings' two children remained of the ancient house of Cerdic of Wessex. By his defeat of Gruffudd in Wales, Harold then made himself the premier military leader in England. In 1064, he visited Normandy.

The Bayeux Tapestry, woven after 1066, depicts the events leading up to the Norman invasion of that year as well as the great culminating battle. It shows Harold receiving instructions from King Edward, embarking for Normandy, aiding William in an expedition, saving trapped knights in a river crossing and being knighted by the Norman Duke, to whom he swears an oath of loyalty. Next is shown the death and burial of Edward, the coronation of Harold, the appearance of a comet and the invasion and culminating battle.

It is highly probable that Edward did send Harold to Normandy with the formal promise that the kingdom would pass to William upon Edward's death. Harold would thus act as regent until the Norman leader could arrive to claim his throne. However, before the death of Edward, who had done everything in his power to hold the ambitions of the Godwins in check and to ensure the peaceful transition of power to William, he could not have foreseen the wave of nationalist feeling which greeted Harold's bid for the crown.

The saintly king had completely overlooked English resentment at the ever-growing Norman influences in their island nation. The "Chronicle" went so far as to justify Harold's seizure of power by stating that Edward had entrusted the kingdom to him. On January 6, 1066, the funeral of Edward and the coronation of Harold, henceforth held in contempt by the Normans as an untrustworthy bond-breaker, took place at the newly consecrated Abbey at Westminster.

William of Normandy must have been furious. His people called themselves Franks or Frenchmen. They had come to France centuries before as Viking invaders when their brothers were busy ravaging the coast of England. In many ways, their new homeland was similar to the English Dane-Law, an area also settled by invaders from the North. It had been recognized in 911 at a treaty between Charles, the Simple and Rollo, the Norwegian. Rollo had then converted to Christianity and ruled his territory as a Duke, a subordinate of the French king. In 1002, as we have seen, Emma, sister of Richard Duke of Normandy and a descendant of Rollo, became the second wife of English King Ethelred.

The Norman invasion of England was unlike that involving massive immigrations of people seeking new lands in which to settle and farm as marked by the Anglo-Saxon and Danish invasions. This new phenomenon was practically an overnight affair. William's victories were swift, sudden and self-contained. No new wave of people came to occupy the land, only a small, ruling aristocracy.

It is tempting to surmise the path England would have taken had William's invading force been beaten off. King Harold had taken concrete steps to enforce his rule throughout the country. According to the account of Florence of Worcester, Harold immediately began to abolish unjust laws and make good ones, to patronize churches and monasteries, pay reverence to religious men, to show himself as pious and humble, to treat wrong doers with great severity, to imprison all thieves and to labour for the protection of his people. In order to do all this, however, he first had to reconcile the houses of Godwin of Wessex and Leofric of Mercia.

After dealing with the perfidy of his exiled brother Tostig, who had raised an army to plunder England's coast line Harold then had to deal with far more serious threats. Harold Hardrada, King of Norway, was raising a massive invasion fleet and William of Normandy, was also busy raising his own army of invasion. Hardrada, wishing to surpass even Cnut as the great ruler of a Scandinavian Empire, had failed to conquer Denmark; he mistakenly thought England would be an easier target. He crossed the North Sea to make his landing near York. King Harold then showed his military prowess by marching his army northwards and completely destroying the over-confident forces of Hardrada and Tostig at Stamford Bridge.

There was no rest for the victors. Three days later, William of Normandy, with his huge host of fighting men, landed unopposed in the south, at Pevensey. Harold had to march southwards with his tired, weakened army and did not wait for reinforcements before he awaited the charge of William's mounted knights at Hastings. The resulting Norman triumph depicted on the Bayeux Tapestry shows Harold's death from an arrow, his bodyguard cut down and Duke William triumphant.

The only standing army in England had been defeated in an-all day battle in which the outcome was in doubt until the undisciplined English had broken ranks to pursue the Normans' feigning retreat. The story is too well-known to be repeated here, but when William took his army to London, where young Edgar the Atheling had been proclaimed king in Harold's place, English indecision in gathering together a formidable opposition forced the supporters of Edgar to negotiate for peace. They had no choice. William was duly crowned King of England at Westminster on Christmas Day, 1066.

Had Harold Hardrada won at Stamford Bridge, England would surely have become part of the Scandinavian Empire with all its attendant problems. Had Harold of Wessex won at Hastings, and it was touch and go all day, then the future course of England would have been certainly different. We can only guess at further isolation from the Continent and the making of a truly island nation at this very early date. We do know that William of Normandy won and changed the face of the nation forever. Not only was the land now governed by a foreign king and subjected to a foreign aristocracy, for the next four hundred years it wasted its resources and manpower on futile attempts to keep its French interests alive while, at the same time, becoming part of (and contributing to) the spectacular flowering of European culture.

The Conquest meant a new dynasty for England and a new aristocracy. It brought feudalism and it introduced changes in the ecclesiastical hierarchy, with the attendant change in the relations of Church and State. In the early part of the 11th century, mainly under the Cluniac Order, there had been a tremendous monastic revival in the Dukedom of Normandy. This came about as a result of close cooperation between King and Church in what was basically a feudal society, and one which was transferred to England in 1066 lock, stock and barrel.

William's victory also linked England with France and not Scandinavia from now on. Within six months of his coronation, William felt secure enough to visit Normandy. The sporadic outbreaks at rebellion against his rule had one important repercussion, however: it meant that threats to his security prevented him from undertaking any attempt to cooperate with the native aristocracy in the administration of England.

A rising at York in which the Danes also took part was easily crushed and the land harried unmercifully in revenge. Duke William showed that he meant business; he ruled with ruthless severity. On his absences in Normandy, he left strong, able barons to deal with any rebellions, including powerful church leaders such as Lanfranc of Canterbury. Through attrition, in the futile attempts at resistance, the old Anglo-Saxon aristocracy was severely depleted. The years 1066-1075 were a period of trial and experiment, with serious attempts at cooperation between Saxon and Norman, but these attempts were entirely given up in favor of a thoroughly Norman administration. By 1075, the only Anglo-Saxons to remain in authority were Ecclesiastes. By 1086, other than small-estate holders, there were in the whole of the land only two Englishmen holding estates of any dimension.

By the time of William's death in 1087, English society had been profoundly changed. For one thing, the great Saxon earldoms were split: Wessex, Mercia, Northumbria and other ancient kingdoms were abolished forever. The great estates of England were given to Norman and Breton landowners, carefully prevented from building up their estates by having them separated by the holdings of others. In addition, William's insistence that the prime duty of any man holding land from the king was to produce on demand a set quota of mounted knights produced a new ruling class in England, one entirely different from that which had been in place for so long.

This was not the Saxon way of doing things: it constituted a total revolution. The simple rents of ale and barley or work upon the lord's manor were now supplemented by military service of a new kind: one that had been practiced only by and thus familiar to a Norman. In such a system, those at the bottom suffered most, losing all their rights as free men and coming to be regarded as mere property, assets belonging to the manor. In all intents and purposes, they were no more than slaves. In addition, further restrictions and hardship came from William's New Forest laws and his vast extension of new royal forests in which all hunting rights belonged to the king. The peasantry was thus deprived of a valuable food source in times of bad harvests. The most emphatic proof that the old freedoms were gone was the remarkable survey of England known as the "Domesday Book."

Begun in 1080, the unique "Domesday Book" (the book of unalterable judgments), was an attempt to provide the king with every penny to which he was legally entitled. It worked only too well, reckoning the wealth of England "down to the last pig." To determine how the country was occupied and with what sort of people, William sent his men into every shire and had them find out how many hundred hides there were in the shire, what land and cattle the king should have in the country, and what dues he ought to have in twelve months from the shire.

William was also determined to find out how much land was owned by the archbishops, bishops, abbots and earls. "So very narrowly did he have it investigated, that there was no single hide nor virgate of land, nor indeed... one ox nor one cow nor one pig which was left out, and not put down in his record; and all these records were brought to him afterwards." The book names some 13,000 places, many for the first time. A veritable Who's Who of the century, the "Domesday Book" is a remarkable accomplishment indeed, packed with exhaustive detail on every holding in the entire country and its value.

We have briefly noted the efforts to reorganize the Church in Normandy even before the Conquest of England. William had presented his invasion to the Pope as a minor crusade in which the "corrupt" Saxon Church in England would be reformed. Lanfranc was chosen as the instrument of reform, an exceptional man whose work was profound As Archbishop of Canterbury, he infused new life into the Church made moribund under such as Stigand (deposed by William), giving it a tighter organization and discipline.

Lanfranc had been Abbot of Cannes; he was a distinguished scholar and an expert on civil law. He had been prominent in the negotiations leading to William's marriage with the daughter of the Duke of Flanders. A practical administrator, he and the Conqueror seemed to have a close sympathy in aims and ideals. They agreed on the nature of the reforms necessary for the Church in England, especially that the influence and intrusion of the Papacy should be resisted and that real power should lie with the metropolitan dioceses. Asserting his authority and declaring that England was not merely a papal fief, Lanfranc was supported by the king. He held synods regularly, corrected many irregularities, and righted long-standing abuses. His most persistent problem was that of clerical marriage.

In Anglo-Saxon England, the marriage of priests had been recognised. Household functions had taken priority over Church ceremony; such marriages had been defensible from folk-law, if not canon law. Lanfranc as a lawyer familiar with current canon law and Church law as practiced on the Continent, introduced many new rules into England that were copied and followed throughout the land, but they did not include marriage of clerics. One important innovation of Lanfranc was the transfer of the seats of bishops to the new, growing towns and centers of trade. The growing dispute between the powers of the ecclesiastical courts and the secular courts remained a thorn in the Archbishop's side and soon came to a head in the reign of Henry II.

Apart from the cultural and political legacy of the Norman occupation, the effects on architecture and language were also immense. The Anglo-Saxons were not noted for castle-building nor for great cathedrals and churches. Not much remains of their building. But all over the landscape, we see physical reminders of the Norman presence, not only in the military strongholds, which meant a castle in just about every town, but also in the cathedrals, abbeys and monasteries that so effectively symbolize the triumph of the new order. Everywhere in England, a frenzy of church building took place, in which the style we call "Romanesque" dominated. On the borders of Wales and Scotland, in particular, we see that combination of church and castle, abbey and town that demonstrate only too well the genius of this hardy breed of seafarers, explorers, settlers, administrators, law givers and builders who were never more than a tiny majority. But what they built was meant to stay.

Changes in language also became permanent. The new nobility knew no English and probably did little to learn it (in contrast to the situation on the borders of Wales where many Norman lords freely fraternized and married local inhabitants and learned the Welsh language). Though English continued to be spoken by the great majority, it was the language of the common people, not those in power, a situation that wasn't to change until the 14th century.

There was still the matter of how to deal with the Celtic kingdoms of Britain, those beyond the borders, those that were not occupied by the Saxons and where the language and customs remained more or less untouched: Scotland and Wales. William seemed to regard Scotland as an area best left alone. Though he claimed, as king of England, some degree of influence over Scotland and took control of Cumbria in 1092, he did not bother to venture further north. Wales was a different matter.

Various Welsh princes were still vying for power. The last ruler who could truly call himself King of Wales, Gruffudd ap Llywelyn, was killed in 1063. The country was then rent by a series of inter-family squabbles and William seized his opportunity to establish a firm western frontier by giving away lands along the border to some of his most loyal supporters. These so-called border barons or Marcher Lords were left free to add to their territories as they wished. Their castles and fortified manors in all the important border towns attest to their power and influence. The lordships of Chester, Shrewsbury, Hereford and Glamorgan kept a tight grip on any aspirations of Welsh princes to re-assert control of their nation. Yet such was the power of the Welsh longing to be independent and so cleverly had they mastered the art of guerilla warfare from their mountain strongholds, that by the time of the death of William's son, Rufus (King from 1087-1100) that Welsh control had been re-asserted over most of Wales.

Continued Welsh efforts to drive out the Normans from their border territories was of great concern to England's rulers. In 1095, William II started sending royal armies into Wales and the practice was continued by Henry I. The great expense of such adventures meant that an easier way to keep Wales in check was to preserve the territories of the Marcher lordships, which remained in existence for over four hundred years.

In the meantime, in England, Norman Rule not only affected political and social institutions, but the English language itself. A huge body of French words were ultimately to become part of the English vocabulary, many of these continuing side by side with their English equivalent, such as "sacred" and "holy", "legal" and "lawful," "stench" and "aroma," etc. Many French words replaced English ones, so that before the end of the 14th century Chaucer was able to use a vast store of new words such as "courage" in place of "heartness," and so on. English became vastly enriched, more cosmopolitan, sharing its Teutonic and Romance traditions. Norman influence on literature was equally profound, for the developments in French literature, the leading literature of Europe, could now circulate in the English court as it did in France.

In retrospect, William's rule can be seen as harsh, but in some ways just. The king was determined to stay in firm control, and he certainly brought a new degree of political unity to England. Those huge, forbidding Norman castles which even today, in ruin, dominate the skyline of so many towns and cities had the effect of maintaining law and order. Even a Saxon scribe wrote that "a man might walk through the land unmolested," and compared to the lawlessness and abuses which were apparent in the reign of his successor William II, the Conqueror's reign was almost a golden age. Trouble came immediately upon his death.

Resource Information

Part 5: Medieval Britain, continued




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