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The Norman Conquest: Cataclysm or Continuity?

William with his half-brothers depicted in the Bayeux Tapestry
William with his half-brothers depicted in the Bayeux Tapestry

The Norman Conquest: Cataclysm or Continuity?

Key points about the Norman Conquest

  • The Normans, led by William I, invaded England in 1066.
  • England went through a period of change after the Norman Conquest.
  • The Anglo-Saxon nobility were replaced with a Norman aristocracy.
  • Society changed at every level, and the trade in slaves was banned.
  • Culture and language changed.
  • Castles appeared and cathedrals were rebuilt in a RomanesqueAn architectural style of medieval Europe characterised by semi-circular arches. An architectural style of medieval Europe characterised by semi-circular arches. style.

People you need to know

  • Edward the Confessor - King of England from 1042 until 1066, who died without an heir.
  • Gregory VII - Church reformer who was pope between 1073 and 1085.
  • Lanfranc - William I’s spiritual adviser, celebrated intellect, light of the reformistSupporting the European Reformation of religion, where Protestants split from Catholic beliefs and practices, or supporting reform in a more general way. Supporting the European Reformation of religion, where Protestants split from Catholic beliefs and practices, or supporting reform in a more general way. movement, friend of Pope Gregory VII, and Archbishop of Canterbury from 1070 until 1089.
  • Matilda of FlandersThe modern area of northern Belgium and historically a territory in the Low Countries. The modern area of northern Belgium and historically a territory in the Low CountriesA region in western Europe which includes Belgium and the Netherlands.. - wife of William I, and Queen of England.
  • Stigand - Anglo-Saxon Archbishop of Canterbury.
  • William I - also known as 'the Conqueror'. Duke of Normandy, and King of England from 1066 until 1087.
  • Wulfstan - Anglo-Saxon Bishop of Worcester, who was canonisedMade into a saint. Made into a saint. in 1203.

Without doubt, the Norman Conquest had an impact on England, but recently historians have stressed its continuity, questioning whether the invasion can be viewed as a cataclysm. After all, any incident claiming the description must have far-reaching consequences for the organisation of the country, its government, laws and institutions, and its economy. It must also have a profound effect on people of every rank, on their culture and religion. There should be visual evidence of it, for example in architecture and land management. Furthermore, these changes must be directly traceable to the event, and must be ongoing. Does enough evidence exist to allow the claim to be made?

Law and administration

William the Conqueror
William the Conqueror

William's legitimacy as king was built on continuity. He invaded England not as some Viking looking for fresh pickings but as the rightful heir to Edward the Confessor. Any drastic change in administration or law would show the deceit in his claim. As such, the Anglo-Saxon organisation of government through hides, hundreds, and shiresSystem of medieval land management. A hide was a land-holding considered sufficient to support a family; a hundred consisted of a hundred hides; and a shire was originally a subdivision of a county. System of medieval land management. A hide was a land-holding considered sufficient to support a family; a hundred consisted of a hundred hides; and a shire was originally a subdivision of a county. continued, and was essential for establishing Norman dominion: there would be no Domesday BookThe two-million-word report of the survey commissioned by William the Conqueror into land-holding and worth in England and parts of Wales. Its name comes from the a reference to the final account at the Last Judgement, as it was such a complete record. The two-million-word report of the survey commissioned by William the Conqueror into land-holding and worth in England and parts of Wales. Its name comes from the a reference to the final account at the Last Judgement, as it was such a complete record. without it. Yet despite keeping the system in place – and why not, being fine-tuned for the collection of taxes – changes were made. Land was parcelled out to William's supporters differently, sometimes organised geographically, sometimes keeping the same boundaries as before, and sometimes combining the left-overs. Even when administration didn't change, those responsible for it did. The old Anglo-Saxon sheriffs were replaced by Normans, and Henry of Huntingdon recorded that 'Sheriffs and officials whose responsibility was justice and judgement were more frightful than thieves and robbers, and crueller than the most cruel.' Henry of Huntingdon, The History of the English People 1000-1154 (trans. Diana Greenway), Oxford: Oxford University Press (2002), II.38

Hunting scene from the Bayeux Tapestry
Hunting scene from the Bayeux Tapestry

At his coronationThe ceremony of crowning a king or queen (and their consort). The ceremony of crowning a king or queen (and their consort). , William swore 'that he would hold this nation as well as the best of any kings before him'. Michael Swanton (trans. & ed.) The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle D, London: Phoenix (2000) 1066  He would continue the laws and practices of his predecessors, confirming, for example the status of London. the City of London had special rights and privileges, including in its administration, governance, and in exemption from taxation. Many of these rights continue to this day. But neither he, nor his underlings, kept the promise. The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle complained that 'the greater the talk about just law, the more unlawful things were done. They levied unjust tolls and they did many other unjust things which are difficult to relate.' ASC E, 1086 [1087]  Oderic Vitalis, looking to excuse the King, recorded that 'the English were groaning under the Norman yoke, and suffering oppressions from the proud lords who ignored the king's injunctions.' Quoted in Marc Morris, The Norman Conquest, London: Windmill (2012) p.207  But William himself, an avid fan of hunting, established the royal forestLand, not necessarily wooded, that was set aside for royal hunting. Land, not necessarily wooded, that was set aside for royal hunting. and introduced forest lawA harsh law that was introduced by William I that sat outside the common law and was designed to protect game and their habitats for royal hunting. A harsh law that was introduced by William I that sat outside the common lawThe part of English law that is derived from custom and judicial precedent rather than statutes; or when referring to a marriage, one unrecognised by the church or civil authorities. and was designed to protect game and their habitats for royal hunting. , which had a direct impact on those living in it. Although hunting land was set aside by the Anglo-Saxon nobility, it was nothing compared with what William instituted. John of Worcester lamented that 'on King William's command, men were expelled, homes were cast down, and the land was made habitable only for wild beasts.' Although Domesday shows much New Forest land was uncultivated in 1066, a further 15,000 to 20,000 acres were cleared, including 20 villages, a dozen hamlets and the 2,000 or so inhabitants. Quoted in Morris, The Norman Conquest, p.291  Livelihoods, and meal plans, were likewise destroyed, with heavy fines and punishments inflicted on those caught using the royal forests, for everything from chopping wood to hunting. The devastating impact of this could still be felt 300 years on, when its limitation was requested during the Great Revolt.

The economy

England's economy took a tumble immediately following the Conquest, but in the main it was short-lived, and the economy grew, perhaps more than it otherwise would, over the Norman period. However, the Economist recently blamed the current north-south economic divide on the Harrying of the NorthA brutal scorched earth policy that William I used to punish the people of the north for, and discourage them from further, rebellion. A brutal scorched earthThe military tactic of destroying everything that might be used by an enemy. policy that William I used to punish the people of the north for, and discourage them from further, rebellion. , 'How Norman rule reshaped England' The Economist, 24 December 2016, accessed at http://www.economist.com/news/christmas-specials/21712047-england-indel… on 11 January 2017.  and both Simeon of Durham and John of Worcester attest to the longevity of the devastation: the former that the villages and hamlets between Durham and York were uninhabited for nine years afterwards; the latter that even in the 1120s, much of the land was uncultivated. Upheavals were balanced with rewards. Thanks to the invasion, England developed closer ties with France, opening new trade routes and markets, but also bringing new problems. For the next several centuries, English people fought for their kings on foreign soil, and paid for it through high taxes. Closer ties with the Continent helped the economy to stabilise, but at the expense of trade with Scandinavia and, according to Hugh Thomas, the use and expertise of the navy.

Society

Arguably the greatest effect of the Norman Conquest was felt by the Anglo-Saxon nobility. At the start of William's reign, many Anglo-Saxons remained in positions of power, even witnessing Matilda's coronation. It seems unlikely that William set out to replace one aristocracy with another but by Domesday 'there was scarcely a noble of English descent in England, but all had been reduced to servitude and lamentation, and it was even disgraceful to be called English'. Henry of Huntingdon, History II.38  Years of rebellion had taken their toll, and William's initial idea of a joint Norman and Anglo-Saxon aristocracy had proven unworkable. Those who had been present at Matilda's coronation in 1068 had, by 1086, been executed, murdered, imprisoned, exiled, or simply downgraded. Domesday records that of the thousand tenants-in-chiefPeople who held their land directly from the monarch. People who held their land directly from the monarchA king, queen, or emperor. across England, thirteen were English and only four had lands worth more than £100. According to Morris, the wealthiest of these, Edward of Salisbury, might have been half-Norman.  Only 10% of their 8,000 subtenants were English. The result was a group of Norman super-rich, with half of English land held by just 200 Normans. Morris, The Norman Conquest, pp.319-20.  Perhaps little has changed since: when the late Duke of Westminster was asked for the secret of his success, he replied 'Make sure they have an ancestor who was a very close friend of William the Conqueror.' Judith Evans and Richard Milne, 'Duke of Westminster Dies', Financial Times, 10 August 2016, accessed at https://www.ft.com/content/57f2dec2-5e7d-11e6-bb77-a121aa8abd95 on 11 November 2016.

An 11th century manuscript showing unfree men working in the fields
An 11th century manuscript showing unfree men working in the fields

The effects of the Conquest were not limited to the aristocracy, and considerable changes were experienced by the lower levels of society. Slavery was big business in Anglo-Saxon England, with slaves accounting for between 10% and 30% of the population, but not by 1066 in Normandy. As Conqueror, William issued a ban on the export of slaves and, while not immediately or wholly effective, its impact is evident in Domesday Book: their number in places such as Essex reduced by 25% between 1066 and 1086. Marc Morris, 'Normans and Slavery: Breaking the Bonds', History Today 63 (2013)  Perhaps, as already experienced in Normandy, there was a general trend – fuelled by economics – against slavery, although the Godwins, the most powerful pre-Conquest Anglo-Saxon family, at least did not seem to notice. Earl Godwin took as slaves many of Alfred Ætheling's companions, as well as the unfortunate residents of the eastern coast of England in 1051. Likewise Tostig, in his rebellion in 1065, carried off slaves.  While slavery reduced, many more peasants fell under the duties and ties of serfdomA social and economic system under the feudal system, whereby peasants owed their lord labour, theoretically in return for protection. A social and economic system under the feudalOf, or relating to, a Medieval social structure where, in theory, the nobility would protect everyone, the peasants would pay for this protection by working the land, and the clergy would pray for everyone. In the secular world, the monarch was at the top of the pyramid, with each layer of nobility… system, whereby peasants owed their lord labour, theoretically in return for protection. , particularly in areas with new patterns of landholding. Between 1066 and 1086, Domesday records a fall in the number of free peasants in Cambridgeshire from 900 to 177, in Bedfordshire from 700 to 90, and in Hertfordshire from 240 to 43. Although not as extreme everywhere, 'English society, in certain areas at least, was a lot less free after the Conquest than it had been before.' Morris, The Norman Conquest, p.315

Domesday Book records in two million words the results of the nationwide survey conducted on William's orders.
Domesday Book records in two million words the results of the nationwide survey conducted on William's orders.

Thanks to these significant changes to the social structure it has been, wrongly, suggested that William introduced feudalismA Medieval social structure where, in theory, the nobility would protect everyone, the peasants would pay for this protection by working the land, and the clergy would pray for everyone. In the secular world, the monarch was at the top of the pyramid, with each layer of nobility and commons owing… A Medieval social structure where, in theory, the nobility would protect everyone, the peasants would pay for this protection by working the land, and the clergy would pray for everyone. In the secularNot connected with religious matters. world, the monarch was at the top of the pyramid, with each layer of nobility and commons owing… to England. With no perfectly-functioning feudal Of, or relating to, a Medieval social structure where, in theory, the nobility would protect everyone, the peasants would pay for this protection by working the land, and the clergy would pray for everyone. In the secular world, the monarch was at the top of the pyramid, with each layer of nobility… system in Normandy, this would have been impossible. But William made use of the apportioning of land to his followers to ensure that rights and expectations were laid out in full. This, Marc Morris argues, was the point of Domesday. When Domesday Book was written, all land was held by William, either directly or as his tenant (or his subtenant), and loyalty and service were expected in return. Domesday therefore established the feudal obligations of William's vassalsHolders of land under the feudal system, for which they have to pay homage and show allegiance. Holders of land under the feudal system, for which they have to pay homage and show allegiance. and thus probably became the only near-perfect example of feudalism working in its truest form. PrimogenitureWhere land, titles and wealth were inherited by the oldest son. Where land, titles and wealth were inherited by the oldest son. became, at least theoretically, the norm. However, few Norman kings were succeeded by their first-born sons, and the business of succession was messy: less than 100 years after the Conquest, England was thrown into the civil war known as the Anarchy, when the Empress Matilda and her cousin Stephen fought over the throne. Unlike Anglo-Saxon England, where power could be held in many ways, power in Anglo-Norman England was associated with landholding. Estates were not to be divided, leading to the exclusion of women and, problematically, younger sons. With most of a parent's estate being inherited by just one child, the others were largely excluded from wealth and power. This didn't always make for happy relationships within a family, and also left younger sons looking for other ways to make their fortunes, including in raiding and making war. It has been suggested that this is one reason for the popularity of the Crusades: it removed a certain warlike element from society and gave an outlet for it elsewhere.

Chaucer's Wife of Bath, taken from the Ellesmere Manuscript of the Canterbury Tales. Written English only came back into use in the 14th century, thanks to the likes of Chaucer.
Chaucer's Wife of Bath, taken from the Ellesmere Manuscript of the Canterbury Tales. Written English only came back into use in the 14th century, thanks to the likes of Chaucer.

As the aristocracy changed, so the language of the court was revolutionised. Although it was common sense for Norman migrants to learn some English – William allegedly tried and failed – to manage their tenants and business, in Anglo-Norman England to speak French was to show breeding, status and class. As Robert of Gloucester said: 'For unless a man know French, people regard him little; but the low men hold to English, and to their own speech still.' Quoted in H.R. Loyn 'The Norman Conquest of the English Language' History Today 30 (1980).  French eventually trickled down the social scale: by Hugh Thomas' count, 10,000 French words were adopted into the English language between 1066 and 1485. Hugh M. Thomas, The Norman Conquest: England After William the Conqueror, Plymouth: Rowman & Littlefield (2008), p.138  However one only need look at the names for animals – in the field they are sheep, cow and calf, but at the table they are mutton, beef and veal – to see the class differences. Written Anglo-Saxon English didn't disappear overnight. One version of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle continued to be written until 1154, and other Anglo-Saxon texts continued to be copied in monasteries. The first writs of William were issued in both Latin and Old English, but as Anglo-Saxon landholders disappeared, so did their language on official documentation. By 1070, no further writs were written in English. It was not until the explosion of literature in the 14th century that written English came back into fashion, and this Middle English would have been as foreign to speakers of Old English as it is to speakers of modern English.

Religion

Work began on Lincoln Cathedral in 1072.
Work began on Lincoln Cathedral in 1072.

It might be expected that religion would be one area of continuity, yet in the years following the Conquest religion underwent a reformation. By 1066, with a few exceptions initiated by Edward the Confessor, Pope Gregory VII's reforms had not reached England and it was considered a den of sinners. Afterwards, religion seemed to flourish and William of Malmesbury was convinced that 'The standard of religion, dead everywhere in England, has been raised by their arrival'. 'In 1066 there were around sixty monasteries in England, but by 1135 that number had more than quadrupled to stand at somewhere between 250 and 300; in the Confessor's day, there had been around 1,000 English monks and nuns; by Malmesbury's day there were some four to five times that number.'

Reform was initiated from the top down, with Anglo-Saxon bishops and archbishops replaced by foreigners. In 1068, 10 of England's 15 bishops had been English, Of the remaining five, three were German, appointed by Edward the Confessor, and two had recently been appointed by William.  but by the time of William's death, only one English bishop, Wulfstan, remained. Reform wasn't the only driver. In handing out bishoprics, senior clergy became William's vassals and now, unlike in Anglo-Saxon England, the great religious houses owed knight service.

It wasn't merely the top levels of the Church that changed, and just as the Normans questioned the English clergy, so they questioned English saints. Lanfranc, Stigand's replacement as Archbishop of Canterbury, wrote in a letter to his protégé, 'These Englishmen among whom we are living have set up for themselves certain saints whom they revere. But sometimes when I turn over in my mind their own accounts of who they were, I cannot help having doubts about the quality of their sanctity.'Eadmer, quoted in Antonia Gransden, ‘1066 and all that revisited’ History Today 38 (1988)  RelicsParts of a deceased holy person's body or belongings kept as an object of reverence, or something from an earlier time., if they weren't stacked away or thrown out completely, were subjected to testing by fire. Further assaults were made on Anglo-Saxon religious practice by the institution of new rituals and language, resulting in the death of three monks, and the injury of a further eighteen, at Glastonbury Abbey.In 1083, the new abbot of Glastonbury, Thurstan, attempted to introduce new chants into the liturgy. Many of the monks weren’t happy with the changes and protested. They eventually took shelter near the altar, where they were fired upon by Thurstan’s guards. The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle laments that ‘the blood came down from the altar onto the steps, and from the steps to the floor.

The remaining clergy were taken in hand by the establishment of church courts and councils, overseen by archdeaconsSenior Christian clerics to whom a bishop delegates certain responsibilities. Senior Christian clerics to whom a bishop delegates certain responsibilities. . Crimes such as blasphemyThe action or offence of speaking sacrilegiously about God or a sacred thing. were tried in church rather than secular Not connected with religious matters. courts. SimonyThe buying or selling of ecclesiastical privileges, such as pardons or benefices. The buying or selling of ecclesiastical privileges, such as pardons or benefices. and clerical marriage were banned, with limited results. Episcopal seesThe areas of bishops' jurisdiction, or their cathedrals or places or residence. The areas of bishops' jurisdiction, or their cathedrals or places or residence. were moved from rural areas to urban centres, buildings were cleared and the local peasantry conscripted to construct grand cathedrals. By 1087, nine of England's fifteen cathedrals had been burnt down or demolished to make way for new Romanesque buildings, and the remaining six, along with every major abbey (excluding Westminster) would be rebuilt in the new style subsequently.

Castles

The Great Tower at Chepstow is one of the earliest Norman stone structures in Britain.
The Great Tower at Chepstow is one of the earliest Norman stone structures in Britain.

As with cathedrals, the Normans left their mark on the land by building castles. Excluding a few built by Edward the Confessor's French friends,The first use of the word ‘castle’ is recorded in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle in 1051 and comes from the Old Northern French castel. castles were an entirely new and unwelcome addition to the English landscape, a symbol not just of military occupation – and an uneasy one at that – but also of psychological and cultural dominance. At a conservative estimate, by 1100 there were 500 Norman castles in England, including in Exeter, York and Durham – all places which had seen considerable resistance to Norman rule. Some have argued that the castles should be considered more as homes than military fortifications, and some castles – such as Restormel in Cornwall – have architectural features that are hardly sensible in a siegeA military operation in which enemy forces surround a town or building, cutting off essential supplies, with the aim of compelling those inside to surrender.. Restormel Castle has very big windows. It is true that they operated as more than mere fortifications – the land was also governed from them, and the great magnatesPeople of great wealth or influence. People of great wealth or influence. lived, and entertained, in them. Yet they were still a sign of conspicuous consumptionExpenditure on, or consumption of, luxuries on a lavish scale in an attempt to enhance one's prestige., a way of showing the power of the new lord over the populace and over peers. Just as with the rebuilding of cathedrals, castles changed the face of England and that, at least in architectural terms, was revolutionary.

So, can the Conquest be considered a cataclysm? There is no doubt that the Conquest had a significant and long-lasting effect on England. Although the invading Normans were keen to stress continuity, keeping those aspects of Anglo-Saxon England that worked well, society was changed fundamentally. To those experiencing the Conquest, to those who lost their lands, positions, houses, and saints, the invasion was cataclysmic. Over time, as Normans and Anglo-Saxons intermarried, the economy and trade grew, and common enemies gave common purpose, cataclysm turned to assimilation. England's current class structure, language, politics, and landscape are all a result of this process. Given its impact, it's little wonder that Henry of Huntingdon saw fit to write 'God had chosen the Normans to wipe out the English nation'.

Things to think about

  • How much of an impact did the Normans have on England?
  • Would change have happened in England without the Norman Conquest?
  • Did the Norman Conquest represent a cataclysm, or was there more continuity between Anglo-Saxon and Anglo-Norman England?
  • Are we still experiencing the effects of the Norman Conquest today?
  • How important was the Norman Conquest to the history of England?

Things to do

  • The landscape is littered with evidence of Norman occupation. Visit a local castle or cathedral and consider what these buildings tell us about the Conquest: what was their purpose, what do the buildings say about the lifestyle and outlook of the Normans, and how much effort would it have taken to build them?
  • Domesday is available online from a number of sources. One of the most detailed and easy to search can be found here.
  • Try to write a sentence without using any words introduced to England through the Conquest.

Further reading

An enjoyable and engaging book on the Norman Conquest is Marc Morris' The Norman Conquest. Hugh Thomas' The Norman Conquest: England After William the Conqueror provides a neat, less immediate consideration of the effects of the Conquest on medieval England.