The Norman Conquest of England was the conquest of the
Kingdom of England by William the Conqueror (Duke of Normandy), in 1066 at the
Battle of Hastings and the subsequent Norman control of England. It is an
important watershed in English history for a number of reasons. It tied England
more closely with Continental Europe and away from Scandinavian influence,
created one of the most powerful monarchies in Europe, created the most
sophisticated governmental system in Europe, changed the English language and
culture, and set the stage for a long future of English-French conflict. It
remains the last successful contested military invasion of England.
Normandy is a region in northwest France which at the time
had experienced extensive Viking settlement. About 150 years before the Norman
Conquest, in the year 911, French Carolingian ruler Charles the Simple had
allowed a group of Vikings, under their leader Rollo, to settle in northern
France with the idea that they would provide protection along the coast against
future Viking invaders. This proved successful and the Vikings in the region
became known as the Northmen from which Normandy is derived. The Normans quickly
adapted to the indigenous culture, renouncing paganism and converting to
Christianity; adopting the langue d'oïl of their new home through the
introduction of Norse features, transforming it into the Norman language, and
intermarrying with the local populations. They also used the territory granted
them as a base to extend the frontiers of the Duchy to the west, annexing
territory including the Bessin, the Cotentin Peninsula and the Channel Islands.
Meanwhile in England, the Viking attacks increased and in 991 the Anglo-Saxon
king of England Aethelred II agreed to marry Emma, the daughter of the Duke of
Normandy, to cement a blood-tie alliance for help against the raiders. The
Viking attacks of England grew so bad that in 1013 the Anglo-Saxon kings fled
and spent the next 30 years in Normandy, not returning to England until 1042.
When the Anglo-Saxon king Edward the Confessor died a few years later in 1066
with no child, and thus no heir to the throne, it created a power vacuum into
which three competing interests laid claim to King of England.
The first was Harald III of Norway who had blood ties to the Anglo-Saxon family.
The second was William the Bastard, the Duke of Normandy, because of his blood
ties to Aethelred. The third was an Anglo-Saxon by the name of Harold Godwinson
who had been elected in the traditional way by the Anglo-Saxon Witenagemot of
England to be king. The stage was set for a battle between the three.
Conquest of England
King Harald of Norway invaded northern England in September 1066 which left
Harold of England little time to gather an army. Harold's forces marched north
from London and surprised the Vikings at the Battle of Stamford Bridge on
September 25th. It was an Anglo-Saxon victory, King Harald was killed and the
Norwegians were driven out — it was the last Viking invasion of England. The
victory however came at a great cost: the Anglo-Saxon army was left in a
battered and weakened state. Meanwhile William had assembled an invasion fleet
of around 600 ships and an army of 7000 men. This was far greater than the
reserves of men in Normandy alone: William recruited soldiers from all of
Northern France, the low countries, and Germany. Many of his army were second-
and third-born sons who had little or no inheritance under the laws of
primogeniture. William promised that if they brought their own horse, armour,
and weapons to join him, they would be rewarded with lands and titles in the new
At this daunting task, William showed his best side: that of a supremely able
administrator, a skill which was to help bring England under his heel once he
After being delayed for a few weeks by unfavourable winds and weather, he
finally arrived in the south of England just days after Harald's defeat of the
Norwegians. The delay turned out to be crucial: had he landed in August when he
originally planned, Harald would have been waiting with a fresh and numerically
superior force. William finally landed at Pevensey in Sussex on September 28,
1066 and assembled a prefabricated wooden castle near Hastings as a base.
The choice of landing was a direct provocation to Harold Godwinson as this area
of Sussex was Harold's own personal domain. William began immediately to lay
waste to the land. It may have prompted Harold to respond immediately and in
haste rather than to pause and await reinforcements in London. Again, it was an
event that favoured William. Had he marched inland, he may have outstretched his
supply lines, and possibly have been surrounded by Harold's forces.
They fought at the Battle of Hastings on October 14. It was a close Norman
victory but in the final hours Harold was killed and the Saxon army fled. With
no living contender for the throne of England to oppose William, this was the
defining moment of what is now known as the Norman Conquest.
After his victory at Hastings, William marched through Kent to London but met
fierce resistance at Southwark. He then marched down the old Roman Road of Stane
Street to link up with another Norman army on the Pilgrims' Way near Dorking,
Surrey. The combined armies then avoided London altogether and went up the
Thames valley to the major fortified Saxon town of Wallingford, Oxfordshire,
whose Saxon lord, Wigod, had supported William's cause. While there, he received
the submission of Stigand, the Archbishop of Canterbury. One of William's
favourites, Robert D'Oyley of Lisieux, also married Wigod's daughter, no doubt
to secure the lord's continued allegiance. William then travelled north east
along the Chiltern escarpment to the Saxon fort at Berkhamstead, Hertfordshire
and waited there to receive the submission of London. The remaining Saxon
noblemen surrendered to William there, and he was acclaimed King of England
around the end of October and crowned on December 25, 1066 in Westminster Abbey.
Although the south of England submitted quickly to Norman rule, resistance
continued, especially in the North, for six more years until 1072 when William
moved north, subduing rebellions by the Anglo-Saxons and installing Norman lords
along the way. However, particularly in Yorkshire, he made agreements with local
Saxon Lords to keep control of their land (under Norman-named Lords who would
"hold" the lands only from a distance) in exchange for avoidance of battle and
loss of any controlling share.
Hereward the Wake led an uprising in the fens and sacked Peterborough (1070).
Harold's sons attempted an invasion of the south-west peninsula. Risings also
occurred in the Welsh Marches and at Stafford. Most seriously William faced
separate attempts at invasion by the Danes and the Scots. William's defeat of
these led to what became known as The Harrying of the North in which Northumbria
was laid waste to deny his enemies its resources.
The conquest of Wales took place piecemeal and finished only in 1282, during the
reign of King Edward I. Edward also subdued Scotland but did not truly conquer
it as it retained a separate monarchy until 1603 and remained an independent
kingdom until 1707.
Control of England
Once England had been conquered the Normans faced a number of
challenges in maintaining control. The Anglo-Norman speaking Normans were in
very small numbers compared to the native English population. The Anglo-Saxon
lords were accustomed to being fully independent from centralised government,
contrary to the Normans who had a centralised system, which the Anglo-Saxons
resented. Revolts had sprung up almost at once from the time of William's
coronation, led either by members of Harald's family or disaffected English
nobles. William dealt with these challenges in a number of ways. New Norman
lords constructed a variety of forts and castles (such as the motte-and-bailey)
in order to provide a stronghold against a popular revolt (or increasingly rare
Viking attacks) and to dominate the nearby town and countryside. Any of the
remaining Anglo-Saxon lords who refused to acknowledge the legitimacy of
William's accession to the throne or who rose in revolt were summarily stripped
of titles and lands, which were then re-distributed to Norman favourites of
William. If an Anglo-Saxon lord died without issue the Normans would always
choose a successor from Normandy. In this way the Normans displaced the native
aristocracy and took control of the top ranks of power.
Keeping the Norman lords together and loyal as a group was just as important, as
any friction could easily give the English-speaking natives a chance to divide
and conquer their minority Anglo-French speaking lords. One way William
accomplished this was by giving out land in a piece-meal fashion. A Norman lord
typically had property spread out all over England and Normandy, and not in a
single geographic block. Thus, if the lord tried to break away from the King, he
could only defend a small number of his holdings at any one time. This proved a
very effective deterrent from rebellion and kept the Norman nobility loyal to
The changes that took place as a result of Norman conquest
were significant for both English and European development. One of the most
obvious changes was the introduction of the Latin-based Anglo-Norman language as
the language of the ruling classes in England, displacing the German-based
Anglo-Saxon language. Anglo-Norman retained the status of a prestige language
for nearly 300 years and has had a significant influence on modern English. It
is through this, the first of several major influxes of Latin or Romance
languages, that the predominant spoken tongue of England began to lose much of
its Germanic and Norse vocabulary, although it retained Germanic sentence
structure in many cases.
Another direct consequence of the invasion was the near total loss of
Anglo-Saxon aristocracy, and Anglo-Saxon control over the Church in England. As
William subdued rebels, he confiscated their lands and gave them to his Norman
supporters. By the time of the Domesday book, only two English landowners of any
note survived the purges. By 1096, no church See or Bishopric was held by any
native Englishman, but by Normans.
No other medieval European conquest had such disastrous consequences for the
defeated ruling class. William's prestige among his followers gained a
tremendous boost, however, for he was able to award them vast tracts of land
with little cost to himself. His awards also had a basis in consolidating his
own control: with each gift of land and titles, the newly-created Lord would
have to build a castle and subdue the natives. Thus was the conquest
Even before the Normans arrived, the Anglo-Saxons had one of
the most sophisticated governmental systems in Western Europe for the time. All
of England had been divided into administrative units called shires of roughly
uniform size and shape and were run by an official known as a "shire reeve" or
"sheriff". The shires tended to be somewhat autonomous and lacked co-ordinated
control. Anglo-Saxons made heavy use of written documentation which was unusual
for kings in Western Europe at the time and made for more efficient governance
than word of mouth.
The Anglo-Saxons also established permanent physical locations of government.
Most medieval governments were always on the move, holding court wherever the
weather and food or other matters were best at the moment. This practice,
however, limited the potential size and sophistication of a government body to
whatever could be packed on a horse and cart, including the treasury and
library. The Anglo-Saxons established a permanent treasury at Winchester, from
which a permanent government bureaucracy and document archive had begun to grow.
This sophisticated medieval form of government was handed over to the Normans
and grew even stronger. The Normans centralised the autonomous shire system. The
Domesday Book exemplifies the practical codification which enabled Norman
assimilation of conquered territories through central control of a census. It
was the first kingdom-wide census taken in Europe since the time of the Romans,
and enabled better taxation of the Norman's new realm.
Systems of accounting grew in sophistication. A government accounting office
called the exchequer was established by Henry I; from 1150 onward this was
located in Westminster.
William disliked the Anglo-Saxon Archbishop of Canterbury, Stigand and in 1070
manoeuvred to get him replaced with the Italian Lanfranc or proceeded to appoint
Normans to church positions.
Anglo-Norman and French relations
Anglo-Norman and French political relations became very
complicated and somewhat hostile after the Norman Conquest. The Normans still
retained control of the holdings in Normandy and were thus still vassals to the
King of France. At the same time, they were the equals as King of England. On
the one hand they owed fealty to the King of France, and on the other hand they
did not, as they were peers. In the 1150s with the creation of the Angevin
Empire the Normans controlled half of France and all of England, dwarfing the
power of France. Yet the Normans were still technically vassals to France. A
crisis came in 1204 when the French king Philip II seized all Norman and Angevin
holdings in mainland France except Gascony. This would later lead to the Hundred
Years War when Anglo-Norman English kings tried to regain their dynastic
holdings in France.
During William's lifetime, his vast land gains were a source of great alarm by
not only the King of France, but the Counts of Anjou and Flanders. Each did his
best to diminish Normandy's holdings and power, creating centuries of skirmishes
and battles in the region.
English cultural development
One interpretation of the Conquest maintains that England
became a cultural and economic backwater for almost 150 years. Few kings of
England actually resided for any length of time in England, preferring to rule
from cities in Normandy such as Rouen and concentrate on their more lucrative
French holdings. Indeed, a mere four months after the Battle of Hastings,
William left his brother-in-law in charge of the country while he returned to
Normandy. The country remained an unimportant appendage of Norman lands and
later the Angevin fiefs of Henry II.
Another interpretation has it that the Norman Duke-Kings neglected their
continental territories, where they in theory owed fealty to the Kings of
France, in favor of consolidating their power in their new sovereign realm of
England. The resources poured into the construction of cathedrals, castles and
the administration of the new realm arguably diverted energy and concentration
away from the need to defend Normandy, alienating the local nobility and
weakening Norman control over the borders of the territory, while at the same
time the power of the Kings of France grew.
The eventual loss of control of continental Normandy divided landed families as
members chose loyalty over land or vice-versa.
The extent to which the conquerors remained ethnically distinct from the
native population of England varied regionally and along class lines, but as
early as the twelfth century, the Dialogue on the Exchequer attests to
considerable intermarriage between the native English and French immigrants.
Over the centuries, particularly after 1348 when the Black Death pandemic
carried off a significant number of the English nobility, the two groups merged
and became barely distinguishable.
For the importance of the concept in mass culture, note the spoof history book
1066 and All That as well as the iconic status of the Bayeux Tapestry.
Similar conquests include the Norman conquests of Apulia, Sicily, the
Principality of Antioch, and Ireland.
Alan Ayckbourn wrote a series of plays entitled The Norman Conquests. Their
subject matter has nothing to do with the Norman conquest of England.
Since that time, perhaps the only two serious attempts to attack England from
beyond the British Isles were the Spanish Armada and the Battle of Britain.
Neither actually deployed ground forces but rather battled for control of the
sea and air, respectively.