....it is what you can remember.
1066 and All That
The Norman Conquest of England: A Shift in Focus for Western Civilization
Some events in history are so significant that we can almost define everything else as happening either before or after. The Norman Conquest of Anglo-Saxon England, in 1066, was one such pivot point in Western Civilization. Pre-1066 England’s political interests and attention was focused on the happenings in Scandinavia. Post-1066 the Normans wrenched England’s gaze towards toward continental Europe, which it is still in today. But to understand how this shift happened, it is necessary to understand the players involved.
Who were the Anglo-Saxons?
At the beginning of the 5th century Rome was no longer the superpower that it once had been. Divided between the East, whose capital of Constantinople was in modern day Istanbul, and West Rome’s resources were simply stretched too thin to actively protect its furthest outpost; the island of Britain. Geoffrey Hindley tells us:
The empire [Rome] was under general attack and in 410 Alaric the Visigoth actually occupied Rome; Britain’s military garrison was soon called back to Rome leaving the defense of the embattled province to the local Romano-British population… The Western Emperor Honorius sent word that thenceforward they would have to fend for themselves (Hindley, 3).
With Roman authority now gone, it did not take long for local warlords to start fighting for land and power. One such individual, named Vortigern, decided to borrow the Roman tactic of hiring mercenaries to fight for him. So, led by the brothers Hengest and Horsa, three ships full of warriors arrived to first fight for the Roman-British against other Roman-British, and shortly thereafter against their former employers for themselves. These warriors were the Angles, Saxons and Jutes and they had arrived in England to stay.
Fury of the Northmen
For the next 400 years England would be carved up into as many as nine separate kingdoms whose rulers fought each other for power. By the mid ninth century, however, what were once disorganized Viking raids had developed into a full scale occupation that was threatening to consume all of England. Hindley tells us, “It was the Wessex of Alfred the Great that prevented Anglo-Saxon Christian civilization from being submerged… The Battle of Edington of 878 was the decisive turning point for England…” (Hindley, 205).
Vikings are nothing if not tenacious, so by the early 11th century, aided by the poor leadership of the King Aethelred II “the Unready”, the English crown passed to a Dane. Cnut, who was already king of Denmark, would also in time be king of Norway and Sweden, formally shifted England’s focus towards the Scandinavian orbit.
Who were the Normans?
The Vikings were not only attacking England during the 9th century, France was a popular target as well. In 911, Charles III of France gave land to one group of Northmen, by the mouth of the Rouen River, in the hopes that they would keep other groups from sailing further into France. With regard to this arrangement, Francois Neveux states, “He [Rolo, leader of the Normans in 911] kept an effective watch on the lower Seine, which ceased to be the route through which Vikings penetrated the heart of the heart of the Kingdom” (Neveux, 70). Relatively quickly the former Vikings accepted the French language and merged French culture with their own; hence, the Normans were, quite literally, Frenchified-X-Vikings. Neveux says, “They merged into the surrounding population, marrying local women and were quickly “gallicized” even abandoning the use of the own language by the middle of the tenth century” (Neveux, 194).
Over the next 150 years the Normans would become a force to be reckoned with not only in France, though they technically remained a vassal to the French king, but also in southern Italy and as far away as Byzantium in the Eastern Roman Empire. Their culture was violent and their leaders ambitions to acquire more power. So, in 1066 when William, Duke of Normandy, decided on an all-out invasion of England he was very much acting in character.
By 1066 England and Normandy had ties going back over fifty years. David Douglas says, “The long developing relationship between Normandy and England had thus at last produced a situation which involved the medieval destiny of a large part of northern Europe” (Douglas, 180).
A significant player in the Anlgo-Saxon-Norman relationship was the twice queen of England, and mother of two English kings, Emma of Normandy. Emma, sister of the then Duke of Normandy, married King Aethelred but, as Pauline Stafford tells us, “Her first significance was as a Norman” (Stafford, 7). Emma would eventually return to England, but her two of her sons were raised in Normandy. One of these sons, Edward, was so familiar and comfortable with Norman culture that when he became King in 1042 he brought many Normans with him to the English court.
In 1051 Edward, supposedly and without the consent of his Earls, promised the crown to William of Normandy. This, along with a distant tie by marriage to the English crown and a heated dispute over if Harold Godwinson has promised to support his claim, gave William the pretense he needed to invade England and fight for the crown when he was not selected as Edward’s heir in 1066. On the speed that the English chose a king other than William, David Howarth says, “Edward was buried in his abbey the morning after he died, and the same afternoon in the same place, Harold was crowned” (Howarth, 56).
Under New Management
How 1066 unfolded is a very complex story whose climax was the Battle of Hastings between King Harold and Duke William. The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle has a lengthy entry for 1066, and about Hastings it says:
William came upon them unawares, before they had gathered; the king, nevertheless, fought very hard against them with those men who would stay with him, and there were many killed on both sides. There King Harold was killed… and many good men. The French held the field of the dead as God granted them because of the people’s sins (Pick, 195).
Robert Lacy remarks, “…the Battle of Hastings was one of the longest-recorded military encounters of the Middle Ages, and its outcome changed the course of English history” (Lacey, 62). The Anglo-Saxon ruling class was systematically replaced with King William’s loyal Norman and French followers.
The Norman Conquest had the immediate impact of wiping out the entire Anglo-Saxon ruling class in England and replacing them with a new, French speaking, group. Also, significantly, it gave birth to Middle-English as Old-English, of the Anglo-Saxons, and the French, of the Normans, started to combine. Most significant by far, however, was the fact that England’s primary interest was no longer Scandinavia; it was Europe.
When William got to trade up his title of Duke to King, as well as upgrade “the Bastard” to “the Conquer”, it immediately created tension with France. This was because even though William might be King of England, he was still Duke of Normandy and thus technically a vassal of the French King; thus the King of England was also a subject of the King of France.
Disputes over the English king’s claims to lands in France, all originating from the conflict of the dual role of king and duke, played a major part in English-French conflict over the next 350 years.
Before the Norman Conquest England’s involvement with continental Europe was a distant second to its interest in Scandinavia. William of Normandy’s victory at Hastings, however, brought England squarely into the mix of all things European and was thus an extremely significant event in Western Civilization.
It is worth nothing than even though England was changed forever after the Norman Conquest, and all of Europe with it, some things remained and have endured. Helen Hollick brilliantly sums this up in the final words to her book Harold the King:
1066 is known as the Norman Conquest, but it is still worth remembering that although William had himself crowned king, and while most of the male aristocracy were replaced by Normans, the ordinary English – the Saxons – remained English. England was ruled by Normans but never became Norman – if that had happened we would be speaking French, not English… (Hollick, 690).
Douglas, David C., William the Conqueror. Berkley: University of California, 1966.
Hindley, Geoffrey. A Brief History of the Anglo-Saxons. New York: Carroll & Graf, 2006.
Hollick, Helen. Harold the King. Great Britain: Silverwood Books 2011.
Howarth, David. 1066 The Year of the Conquest. New York: Barnes & Nobel, 1977.
Lacy, Robert. Great Tales from English History. New York: Back Bay Books, 2003.
Neveux, Francois. A Brief History of the Normans. London: Running Press Books, 2006.
Pick, Christopher, ed. The Anglo-Saxon Chronicles. Great Britain, 1983.
Sellar, W.C. and Yeatman, R.J. 1066 and All That, A Memorable History of England. Phoenix Mill: Sutton, 1993.
Stafford, Pauline. Queen Emma & Queen Edith. Malden: Blackwell, 2001.