The Norman Yoke: Symbol or Reality?

By Michael Wood
Later generations saw the Normans as usurpers who had put the English under a 'Norman Yoke'. Was this symbolic of a general sense of oppression, or representative of the harsh crushing of a whole society ... or both?
Cover of children's book about William the Conqueror 

Comic book history

Saxons and Normans. 'It's injustice I hate, not the Normans', says Robin Hood in one of those cartoon stories. We all take in such tales as myths at our parents' knees. We encounter them in children's books, films, TV - even in Hollywood movies about Robin Hood, when Errol Flynn or Kevin Costner speak for the freedom-loving Saxons oppressed by the Normans. We all have our favourites, and I sometimes think these myths influence our view of history quite as much as real historical facts. Indeed sometimes it is quite difficult to tell them apart.

'Saxon England was dead, but a greater England would arise ...'

From my own childhood, for example, I particularly liked the Ladybird books on William the Conqueror and Alfred the Great. I also remember The Eagle, which was a boys' comic of the late 50s and early 60s. The Eagle ran a wonderful series for half a year on the Norman Conquest - the story of King Harold and his faithful 'thegn' Ulric of Glastonbury.

Of course, it all ends in tears with the fascistic crop-haired Normans, the Battle of Hastings, and the tragic death of Harold. In the comic strip there was an impressive last scene in which Ulric carried the body of King Harold down to the shore at Hastings. There he saw a vision in the sky - Tommies at the Somme and Alamein, Spitfires and Hurricanes, the Thin Red Line, Drake's drum and Nelson's Victory. The caption read: 'Saxon England was dead, but a greater England would arise.'

Vision of England

Image from Ladybird Book
How Ladybird books portrayed the Conquest
This was the vision of history sold to boys in the late 50s and early 60s. It encapsulates a famous myth about Anglo-Saxon England - the myth that the English were freedom-loving, primitive democrats before 1066, and that we lost our liberties to the Normans.

The historians call this myth the 'Norman Yoke', and it's been an amazingly persistent emotional thread in English literature, art and politics. A theme so long lasting that it has even exerted its pull over the way professional historians have read their historical documents.

'We are all influenced by what we read and what we experience.'

Take the greatest 20th-century book on early English history, Sir Frank Stenton's Anglo-Saxon England. Stenton's book was completed in the middle of World War Two and published in November 1943, and of course, no work of history can ever escape its own time. It was patriotic, teleological in approach, written from the heart and touched by the wartime spirit.

When Stenton talks of Alfred as the founder of the British Navy, you can almost see battleships of gunmetal grey hugging the horizon just as they did in Ulric's vision in The Eagle. We are all influenced by what we read and what we experience. And when we try to bring the people of the past back to life and imagine we can see them, we always have to remember that it is our breath, our blood, we have used to animate them.

Norman Yoke

Image of Anglo-Saxons hunting
Hunting scene in pre-Conquest England
The myth, however, is based loosely on historical fact. The nub of the myth of the Norman Yoke, as we have seen, is simply that Anglo-Saxon England had laws which protected people's freedom. Pre-1066, the English lived free under the law and these liberties were lost to the Normans and the succeeding rulers of England.

In their place was imposed Norman law, foreign law, French law. So - the myth goes - up until the English Civil War, the English were all, in effect, under the rule of the Normans. The 17th-century struggles then were to free England from the Norman Yoke. As they said at the time of the English Civil War, 'What are the King and his ministers but the Conqueror's colonels in another guise?'

This tradition of the cataclysm of 1066 was never lost in the common culture of England. You can trace it through the literature of the following six centuries. The common thread was that these were terrible events and that the English were deprived of their liberties.

'It was all part of the politically charged redefining of English identity ...'

This became more sophisticated in Tudor and Stuart times. After the break with Rome and later, in the time of Elizabeth, there was a lot of delving into Anglo-Saxon history to try and see what we had been like before 1066, to try to discover the character of early English law and the early English church. It was all part of the politically charged redefining of English identity, which went on after the tremendous cataclysm of the Reformation and the break with our ancient Catholic past.

Radical tradition

Image of pamphlet
Anti-Norman sentiment resurfaced in 17th-century dissenters' pamphlets
England had become probably the most literate society that had yet existed in history. With the establishment of grammar schools in the 16th century a wide-ranging education had become available to middle-class people.

A lot of the ideologues in the Civil War (especially the radicals, the left-wingers, the Levellers and the Diggers) were teeming with ideas as they attempted to overthrow the monarchy. They were all harking back to these historical models that they'd read in their history books.

They knew what they thought about early English history, and they believed that the English had lost their liberties in 1066. They believed the story of the Norman Yoke was good history. This comes through very clearly in the writings of great Levellers such as Gerard Winstanley.

'They were all harking back to these historical models that they'd read in their history books.'

'England, you know, hath been conquered and enslaved divers times, and the best laws that England hath (viz Magna Charta) were got by our forefathers' importunate petitioning unto the kings, that still were their task-masters; and yet these best laws are yokes and manacles, tying one sort of people to be slaves to another...
'The last enslaving yoke that England groaned under (and yet is not freed from) was the Norman, as you know; and since William the Conqueror came in, about 600 years ago, all the kings did confirm the old laws, or else make new ones, to uphold that Norman Conquest over us; and the most favouring laws that we have doth still bind the hands of the enslaved English from enjoying the freedom of their creation.
'You of the gentry, as well as we of the commonalty, all groaned under the burden of the bad government and burdening laws under the late King Charles, who was the last successor of William the Conqueror: you and we cried for a Parliament, and a Parliament was called, and wars, you know, presently begun, between the King, that represented William the Conqueror, and the body of the English people that were enslaved ...
'... and William the Conqueror's successor, which was Charles (I), was cast out; and thereby we have recovered ourselves from under that Norman Yoke.'

An Appeal to the House of Commons (1649)

No French words

The arguments of the Levellers were not only to dissect what had happened in history and to agree on what had happened at the time of the Norman Conquest. They wanted to rectify it. One radical, John Hare, wanted not only the Lords thrown out and their lands taken away from them, but to have the laws redone in English and to have French words expunged from the English language.

'A French bastard arriving with armed banditti ... is in plain terms a very paltry rascally original ...'

Even in the 18th century we find the idea that the quest for English liberty was basically a war between the English people and the successors of William the Conqueror. It is, for example, the subject of several scintillating passages in the works of Tom Paine, one of the great English radicals. Take Paine's thumbnail of 1066:

'A French bastard arriving with armed banditti and establishing himself the King of England against the consent of the natives is in plain terms a very paltry rascally original and certainly has no divinity in it.'

In The Rights of Man Paine jeers at the idea of the succession:

'If the succession runs in the line of the conqueror the nation runs in the line of being conquered and ought to rescue itself.'

Myth and history

Image of banner
The lions of England - invented by the Normans to strengthen their image
The story of the Norman Yoke is an exaggerated and one-sided account of historic events, but having spent more than 20 years travelling in other cultures, and finding the same phenomenon - in Peru (about the Spanish Conquest), in Iran (on the Arab Conquest) and in North India (on the Muslim Conquest) - all I can say is that this sort of rewriting of history occurs in many places.

All cultures make their myths from their history. This is one way of telling stories about the past, which all humans love to do. But it is also a way ifor rulers to create a sense of a shared past, and is one of the ingredients of national allegiance, to a culture as well as to rulers. For all societies use their past to define themselves in the present. Even if it is not the literal past, but an image of that past, often as highly structured as a myth.

The creation of a group identity is one of the important ways by which a state fosters a sense of unity in its people. A sense of a shared past is probably crucial in this. With this in mind, it is easy to see why, in Tudor times following the break with Rome, it was very important to rediscover the essential Englishness of pre-Conquest England - it was part of asserting a national identity.

'For me the Norman Yoke represents a real folk memory of what happened in the 11th century ...'

One could argue that the myth of the Norman Yoke is purely the product of these 16th- and 17th-century antiquarian controversies, but our sources and our common sense tell against that idea. I have the feeling, after working in other cultures, that great events like 1066 leave a real mark on the national psyche, whose memory can be transmitted over many centuries with no problem at all.

For me, the Norman Yoke represents a real folk memory of what happened in the 11th century. The myth was part of the process by which English identity was kept alive in the 12th and 13th centuries to emerge with the full glory of English vernacular in the age of Chaucer in the 14th century.

If that sounds unlikely to you, all I can say is that I've recently worked on a series of films in South America about the Spanish Conquest of the 16th century, and everywhere we travelled people talked about that cataclysm as if it had happened yesterday - which of course, in historical terms, it did.

Norman legacy

Image of nave at Ely Cathedral
The stunning Norman nave at Ely Cathedral
So what did the Normans ever do for us? Maybe it's like the Greeks and the Romans. Like the Romans, the Normans were great organisers, great builders, great patrons, and they internationalised British civilisation. But like the Greeks in relation to the Romans, the Anglo-Saxons were part of an older civilisation than that of the Normans.

The Greeks were conquered militarily by the Romans, but their civilisation came to dominate that of the Romans because their culture was so rich, deep and versatile. I think that's the case with the Anglo-Saxons, too.

The truth is that not only did the Anglo-Saxons create England, but they also had a wonderful culture with very distinctive thought, poetry, literature, art, music, metalwork and needlework. Uniquely, in Europe, the vernacular was widely used in administration and literature, and shreds of wonderful Anglo-Saxon literature have come down to us, despite the destruction of so much by the Normans and by Henry VIII.

'Shakespeare - the best legacy of the Conquest? Now there's a thought.'

One Old English poem, Beowulf, only recently topped the best-seller lists in Seamus Heaney's marvellous translation. Another, the Dream of the Rood, is in many eyes one of the greatest of all poems in English. The Anglo-Saxons also produced the first English vernacular translation of the Gospels - long before Wycliffe and Tyndale, let alone King James. Many of its phrases have been part of English speech and thought ever since - 'you are the salt of the earth', 'seek and you shall find' and 'the gate is wide' to name but three.

Although English was driven underground as an official and literary language in the Norman period, it resurfaced, and by the 13th century was coming back to prominence with a sense of the Englishness of the English nation. In the 14th century, in the hands of great poets like Langland and Chaucer (and now mingled with French words), the English vernacular was a superb instrument of culture and civilisation.

By the 16th century, English vernacular was at the centre of what one might almost call a cultural big bang. This began its progress towards becoming one of the most influential languages of the world - and it is still, in the 21st century, a language that shows its pre-history of Anglo-Saxon, Celtic, Danish, Norman-French and so on. It's all there in Shakespeare, of course, with his vocabulary of 30,000 words drawing upon all those traditions.

Shakespeare - the best legacy of the Conquest? Now there's a thought.

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