Norman Conquest

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The Norman Conquest of 1066 AD is a decisive event in the history of England. The Normans (former Vikings who lived in France and now spoke French) invaded and defeated the Anglo-Saxon army, and permanently took control of England.

It is the last time that England was successfully invaded by a foreign power.

Contents

The battle of Hastings

When Edward the Confessor, King of England, died on January 4, 1066, a three-way struggle for the throne ensued. Harold Godwinson, Earl of Wessex, and already the most powerful man in the kingdom, was proclaimed king. But Harald Hardrada, King of Norway, and William the Bastard, Duke of Normandy, both had strong claims. After a tense year of military preparation on all sides, the first to invade was Harald Hardrada, who landed in Yorkshire. King Harold marched north to meet him and destroyed the Norwegian army at the Battle of Stamford Bridge, September 25, 1066, killing Harald Hardrada. It was one of the most decisive English victories ever, but the following day, amidst the celebrations, Harold received word that Duke William had landed with his army on the south coast.

Harold immediately set off with his army on a forced march from York to Hastings, and the exhausted English army met the Normans in the Battle of Hastings on October 14, 1066. The forces were very evenly matched, and the battle went on all day, until finally at dusk Harold was hit with an arrow in the eye and died. Leaderless the English fought on into the night but the situation became increasingly hopeless and Duke William won the battle. For the next few weeks William laid waste the countryside around London, finally forcing the English Witan (i.e. parliament) to accept him as king. He was crowned as William I, the Conqueror, on December 25, 1066.

Conquest

The Normans spoke French, not English, and imposed a new leadership class on England, giving all the land to their own nobles. The "Old English" language added many French and Latinate words to its Germanic base, becoming "Middle English." The Conquest brought England--then a backwater--into closer contact with European culture.

The Normans, with a much more complex legal and political system, created an effective government. The first three Norman kings, William I, William Rufus, and Henry I, reigned from 1066 to 1135. They had to confront and suppress rebellious Englishmen, unreconciled Welsh and Scots, foreign enemies on the continent, and deal with the internal rivalries among the Normans themselves. These kings were soldiers and were brutal and violent when necessary. As itinerant warlords they kept their new subjects under control through force and intimidation rather than through charters and legal formalities. The new institutions that emerged came out of English roots rather than being created by the Normans. The Normans did impose a new legal system, called the "common law", on top of the old localistic system.

Dramatic changes did occur in three areas. In terms of land ownership, the Normans introduced tenurial relations among the upper classes—that is, knight service in return for land. This was feudalism and it fundamentally altered politics, government, and law. The second area of drastic change was the much greater "manorialisation" of the countryside, whereby the peasants came under the control of the great manors. The third area where Norman influence predominated is architecture, with gothic becoming the favored style for churches.

Interpretations

Historians looking at the meaning of the Conquest until recently were at opposite extremes. One school says the Conquest made little difference: the changes were not very great for most people, and the essential English character soon reasserted itself in all fundamentals despite the use of the French language by a new leadership class. At the other pole are historians who argue the Conquest brought abrupt and profound changes. Some argue the changes improved England, moving it from weak, directionless Anglo-Saxon leadership to a strong Norman leadership. Some say the changes were great and for the worse, imposing on the defenseless English peasants harsh and rapacious rule, which took the English centuries to overcome.

In recent decades, scholars have avoided black-and-white and emphasized nuances and local variations. They study the ways in which Anglo-Saxon and French institutions and practices worked together to establish the fundamentals of later medieval English society, economics, government, law, religious institutions and practices, art, architecture, and language. Huscroft (2009) concludes that the effects of the Conquest were moderate, because the peoples of eleventh-century Britain and Normandy had much in common.

Further reading

  • Bartlett, Robert. England Under the Norman and Angevin Kings, 1075-1225 (2002) excerpt and text search
  • Brown, R.A. The Normans and the Norman Conquest (2nd ed. 1985), good narrative history
  • Chibnall, M. The Debate on the Norman Conquest, (1999); short survey with chapters on feudalism and lordship; law and the family; empire and colonisation; peoples and frontiers; the church and economy; and a very good bibliography.
  • Chibnall, M. Anglo-Norman England, 1066—1166 (1986)
  • Harper-Bill, Christopher, and Elisabeth Van Houts. A Companion to the Anglo-Norman World (2003) online edition
  • Huscroft, Richard. The Norman Conquest: A New Introduction. (2009) 369 pp. excerpt and text search
  • Kapelle, William E. The Norman Conquest of the North: The Region and Its Transformation, 1000-1135 (1979) online edition
  • Lapidge, M. et al, eds. The Blackwell Encyclopaedia of Anglo-Saxon England (1998)
  • Liddiard, Robert. Anglo-Norman Castles (2003) online edition
  • Poole, Austin, From Domesday Book to Magna Carta, 1087-1216 (1955)
  • Saul, Nigel. The Oxford Illustrated History of Medieval England (2001) excerpt and text search
  • Thomas, Hugh M. The Norman Conquest: England after William the Conqueror (2007)
  • Williams, A. The English and the Norman Conquest (1995). , good narrative history

references

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