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Norman Britain

View from the Norman position at the Battle of Hastings

William the Conqueror was crowned King of England on Christmas Day 1066 at Westminster Abbey. Since being born the illegitimate son of Robert, Duke of Normandy, and Herleve, a girl from Falaise, William had faced constant danger. Life in Normandy had until 1060 been a constant battle for survival. After defeating King Harold near Hastings in 1066 life was no easier. There were rebellions in both England and Normandy to contend with. Alongside these internal threats came attacks from Scandinavia and from the French king. The symbolism of William's Christmas Day coronation was carefully planned, to call upon religious authority to bolster William's earthly power. The coronation service itself emphasised religious elements which had been introduced by Edgar the Peaceable in 973.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Model of a Motte and Bailey Castle, at Clifford's Tower, York

Once William the Conqueror had defeated Harold he set about controlling his new kingdom financially and militarily. William introduced a feudal system from Normandy whereby nobles held their lands in return for military services offered to the duke. Hoping in this way to control England's nobility, he also worked on various methods to control England's population in general. Mobile cavalry troops patrolled the countryside. In urban areas the main tools of control were castles. Castles were fundamental to the Norman conquest, and were both a symbol and means of oppression. The Anglo Saxon Chronicles' epitaph for William the Conqueror opens with the words: "He had castles built and poor men hard oppressed."

The first Norman castles tended to be wooden enclosures on the top of artificially created mounds, with a further fortified area at the bottom of the mound controlling the approach. These were known as motte and bailey castles, with motte referring to the huge mound, and bailey the enclosure at the bottom. Later permanent stone castles were built on some of these sites, as at Tonbridge, Kent where a stone castle now sits on top of a particularly impressive motte reaching sixty feet in height. A reconstruction of an original wooden motte and bailey castle can be seen at Mountfitchet Castle and Norman Village in Suffolk. At a few sites William's men chose to build stone castles rather than the usual wooden forts: Chepstow Castle, Monmouth Castle, and the White Tower at the Tower of London are examples. Of these Chepstow is probably the earliest, the Great Hall dating from 1067.

 

 

 

 

 

Rochester Castle

As an extension of this castle building programme, virtually every cathedral and church in the country was replaced by a Norman building. This huge undertaking was the main effort in the battle for English hearts and minds. The effect of his policy was to ally religious authority with military force. It is revealing that Rochester Castle and the neigbouring Rochester Cathedral were both built by the same man, Bishop Gundulf.

By 1085 it seemed that all the many crises that William had faced in his life were culminating in the threat of a huge invasion from Denmark. Taxation was required to fund the army that would face this latest threat. This led to one of the most remarkable achievements of the Norman period, the Domesday Book. This was a vast survey of property and land holding, used to calculate tax. The book, in a practical sense was out of date even before it was finished. The Anglo Saxon Chronicle might claim that every ox, cow and pig was included in the Domesday Book's pages, but between the beginning and end of the compilation of the Domesday Book many oxen, cows and pigs would have died and been born. The power of the book did not so much lie in its actual information but in the way it symbolised control and power, reaching into the smallest corners of people's lives. William it seemed could look into your farmhouse and see what you had there. His view could roam over your fields and see your crops growing. The Domesday Book is now kept at the National Archives.

 

 

 

The White Tower at the Tower of London

So we might know what William changed about England: the feudal system he introduced, the castles he built, the amazing Domesday record he commissioned. Just as important are the things that did not change. As David Douglas, the expert on William makes clear, England and Normandy were actually very closely linked even before the invasion. Douglas writes:

"An intimate political relationship between Normandy and England was part of the inheritance of Duke William. The great Viking leaders of the ninth century had transferred their operations indiscriminately on both sides of the Channel, and the resulting settlements were associated both in origin and in their character" (William the Conqueror by David Douglas P159).

The invasion of England was not the invasion of one very different culture into another. Both countries had been shaped by the same forces. This was reflected in William's style of rule. He may have been tough and ruthless, built new castles, and introduced, or at least hastened, the development of a new feudal relationship with the nobility. But he was crowned as an English king using the traditional English coronation ceremony. He replaced most of England's nobles with men from Normandy, but the council he used was modelled on the same lines as that used by previous English kings. Stability could only be achieved through a high degree of continuity in the way the country was administered. This wasn't so difficult when England and Normandy shared so much of their historical background. As the historian Brian Golding has written in his book Conquest and Colonisation : "the traditional interpretation that the English ship of state sailed on, but after 1066 under a new, more vigorous crew, remains valid." William was successful in his conquest because he decided not to alter the way England was run. What is often perceived as a huge change was only possible because in many ways things were not changed.

 

 

 

Arundel Castle

In the reigns that followed, when England was ruled by the sons and grandson of William the Conqueror, many historians have seen the constitutional basis of England being laid. There is a popular view that administration was revolutionised and legal systems laid down. Development in these areas did happen during Norman times, but whether this was a conscious plan is another matter entirely. There is a case for suggesting they just got on with the business of surviving, and things happened without them. Following the relatively short reign of William Rufus, the Conqueror's youngest son, Henry I, took over. Henry has often been seen as a scholarly man, gaining the name Beauclerc, and being credited with all kinds of clever legal and administrative innovations. Modern historians such as Judith Green or David Crouch take issue with such views. It seems that the real Henry I was not scholarly. In fact he was barely literate. His scholarly nickname "Beauclerc" was invented by historians in later centuries. Henry was a ruthless monarch who simply survived. He changed little, and in doing so produced a sustained period of stability in which administrators could develop their work. Henry was succeeded by the Conqueror's grandson Stephen who did experiment with some serious changes to the way England was run. He created new earldoms, hoping to stablise the country. These innovations unfortunately seemed to have the opposite effect, and may have contributed to the instability that brought the time of the Norman kings to an end.

History focuses on times of transformation, but transformation usually isn't all it seems to be. In many ways people only change to keep their lives as they were. As the science writer Lynn Marguilis has written:

"Life is extremely conservative. On whatever level - the individual organism, the species, the biota as a whole - life expends energy in an effort to preserve its past, even if, paradoxically, various threats force it to innovate... life will expend huge quantities of energy to preserve itself. It will change in order to stay the same." (From Microcosmos)

Norman life can be explored at the many castles which have survived. See the Visits Menu at the top left of this page. The Bayeux Tapestry which tells the story of the Norman invasion of 1066 is kept in Bayeux, Normandy. An excellent copy can be seen at Reading Museum. The 1066 battlefield at Senlac Ridge has been preserved at Battle Abbey in East Sussex.

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