BBC Radio 4
« Previous | Main | Next »

The Normans - Spinning the globe in 1066

Post categories:

David Prudames, British Museum David Prudames, British Museum | 15:15 UK time, Wednesday, 14 July 2010

bayeaux_570.jpg1066. Mention that year to pretty much anyone educated in Britain during the last couple of hundred years and they'll tell you exactly what it means, but here are the headlines:

Edward the Confessor dies; King Harold claims the crown; William of Normandy (a small kingdom in northern France) invades; a battle near Hastings is won by William; and the rest, quite literally, is history.

Throughout July, the BBC will be revisiting this turning point in the history of Britain in a season about the Normans. But, with the final week of the latest instalment still ringing in my ears, I thought I'd try to give the Normans the 'History of the World' treatment.

I asked Gareth Williams, curator of early medieval coins at the British Museum, to help put the Normans in a wider context:

The Vikings had been granted the county of Rouen in France in AD 911 which later became the Duchy of Normandy, so the Normans were a Scandinavian elite given control of a French county.

Normandy's rulers shared these Scandinavian roots with their contemporaries across the channel. The defeated Harold was Anglo-Danish aristocracy; Edward the Confessor was the son of an Anglo-Saxon king and Norman queen, and before him, two Danish kings - Canute and his son - simultaneously held the thrones of England, Denmark and Norway.

This was the interconnected world of the North Sea. Blood and culture together connecting much of what is now Norway, Denmark, Britain, Germany, France and - in the case of the Normans, southern Italy.

So when William set sail for England he wasn't just land-grabbing, he was coming to take a throne to which he had a claim: through blood and culture, if not exactly in law.

And when he arrived, in many ways, William worked with and built on what was already here, literally in some cases - as Gareth explains:

What we see really quickly is an impact on the landscape with castles appearing across the country and the building of churches in the stone, Romanesque Norman style.

The system of land-ownership also changes so that land essentially belonged to the king and queen in the so-called feudal system. But there is very considerable continuity with what came before, for example, in the coinage.

And you can see what some of those coins looked like on the History of the World website. Try this one or this one.

But - all that said - what's the bigger picture here? If we spin the globe in the eleventh century AD, what do we find? Well, just as the ruling families of the colder parts of Europe were bound together in a kind of North Sea world, we find cultural ties creating connections around the globe.

Muslim kingdoms stretched from Spain to Afghanistan, and Baghdad was the largest city in the world. There were pyramids appearing in what is now the USA, as well as across Central America. The world's first bank notes are circulating in China; while in West Africa, the empire of Ghana rules a large part of what is today Mali and Mauretania

As we've heard many times in the Radio 4 series, there are fascinating connections to be found throughout world history. Indeed however local a famous episode like the Norman conquest might seem, it is so often part of a much bigger story.

Comments

  • Comment number 1.

    The Vikings had been granted the county of Rouen in France in AD 911 which later became the Duchy of Normandy, so the Normans were a Scandinavian elite given control of a French county.

    Considering France as we know it didn't exist in AD911 that is quite an achievement.

  • Comment number 2.

    That's a pretty pedantic comment. France may well not have existed in AD 911 as well know it to-day but the land we now know as France certainly did. It was ruled by Charles the Simple who granted the area around Rouen to a Viking by the name of Rollo who originated from Norway. One of the terms of this settlement was the the Vikings converted to Christianity.

    Look up Charles the Simple and everywhere he is described as King of France. Rouen has existed as a city since Roman times.

  • Comment number 3.

    So when William set sail for England he wasn't just land-grabbing, he was coming to take a throne to which he had a claim: through blood and culture, if not exactly in law.

    ----------------------------------------------------------------------------
    There is an argument the William had a greater claim to the English throne than Harold. William was a distant relative to Edward the Confessor through marriage. As Edward the confessor spent most of his time on his knees, a lot of it in the cathedral at Rouen as a guest of his distant relative, he never got round to producing a heir. It was during this time that he was supposed to have promised the throne of England to William.

    Harold on the other hand was related to no one except his father. Harold's father, the Earl of Essex was de-facto King of England in the absence of Edward the Confessor. On a visit to Normandy Harold is supposed to have supported William's claim the the English throne and promised to keep the kingdom secure until the death of Edward the Confessor.

    When Harold's father died he inherited his titles and when Edward the Confessor died, proclaimed himself King of England with the support of the Anglo Saxon nobility.

    This of course peeved William more than a little. Having been promised the throne by both the previous king and one of the main nobles of England, he found himself sidelined and was having none of it.

    The rest is history.

  • Comment number 4.

    No mention of Constantinople, richest city in the world at the time? I hope that the series will not gloss over the clash between Normans and Byzantium, two of the world's superpowers at the time - despite the fact that Byzantium was staggering from the invasion of the Seljuks and their victory at the battle of Manzikert in 1071.

  • Comment number 5.

    If we are considering the wider picture, the contemporaneous involvement of the Normans in southern Italy and Sicily shouldn't be overlooked. The Hauteville family are probably more interesting than the ducal family, precisely because they didn't have the same advantages to start with. We are very familiar with the Norman invasion of England in this country, but overlook the parallel developments in Italy - and Palestine too, come to that. I'm not sure it is very clear what made the Normans as a people so dynamic, but we shouldn't look at William the Conqueror as exceptional.

    As for Stuart8827's second comment, it's a rather modern notion to think that we should be looking for hereditary right. In any case, it was Edgar aetheling who had the only decent hereditary right.

  • Comment number 6.

    laughingjkings wrote:The Vikings had been granted the county of Rouen in France in AD 911 which later became the Duchy of Normandy, so the Normans were a Scandinavian elite given control of a French county.

    As I stated on the: The Normans knights and banners site.

    Their ancestors were Vikings, by the time they conquered England nearly two hundred years later they had fully mixed in with the native French and so they were no longer Vikings. William the conquerer`s mother was of French stock. Also his father had a lot of French blood as well running through his veins. His great grandmother was a French women from Brittany.So really they were Norman-French.who indirectly made this country what it is today.
    which is to my mind a jolly good thing!

    Let me add that:they brought to England a new culture and language that they had adopted from the original French population of Normandy.Not a Viking language or culture, but distinctively French.

  • Comment number 7.

    "Let me add that:they brought to England a new culture and language that they had adopted from the original French population of Normandy.Not a Viking language or culture, but distinctively French."

    Orderic Vitalis states that he could not understand a word of Normandy French. He was born in the household of Roger de Montgomery to a French father from Orleans.
    Duke Richard I as a child, when rescued from Paris by his Steward, was taken to learn the language of his men.

    There is no record of French being used in England until Henry II, his mother Matilda, could not speak the language of Anjou.

  • Comment number 8.

    Haesten wrote:Orderic Vitalis states that he could not understand a word of Normandy French.

    What rubbish! At the age of eleven he was entered as a novice in the Norman monastery of St Evroul-en-Ouche, and what language did they speak there!
    oh yes! French! of course he spoke French; his father was a French priest, Odeler of Orlean. All the Normans at this time spoke French. As for Duke Richard I; Richard was bilingual, having been well educated at Bayeux.

 

BBC iD

Sign in

BBC navigation

BBC © 2014 The BBC is not responsible for the content of external sites. Read more.

This page is best viewed in an up-to-date web browser with style sheets (CSS) enabled. While you will be able to view the content of this page in your current browser, you will not be able to get the full visual experience. Please consider upgrading your browser software or enabling style sheets (CSS) if you are able to do so.