BBC HomeExplore the BBC
This page has been archived and is no longer updated. Find out more about page archiving.

18 September 2014
Accessibility help

BBC Homepage

Contact Us

William the Conqueror: A Thorough Revolutionary

By Michael Wood
Continental influence

Image of Norman weapons and flag
The Conquest - a very military takeover ©
It would be easy to think that such racial antipathies were the simple product of prejudice born of ignorance, shaped by a complete lack of knowledge of each other's culture. But the reverse is true. For long before the Conquest, Anglo-Saxon England's relationship with continental Europe had been close. Over 200 years before, the common threat posed by the Vikings had brought the Carolingian kings of Francia and the kings of Wessex and Mercia together.

There had been royal marriages between the West Saxons and the Carolingians, and intellectuals and churchmen had frequently moved between the two courts. Later on, Ethelred the Unready had married a Norman wife, and his son, Edward the Confessor, had a Norman mother.

There were many Normans and French present in Edward's England, as there probably had been in the tenth century when there were already merchant colonies from Rouen and Ponthieu living in London. So, a certain amount of Normanisation had already happened in Anglo-Saxon England. Indeed, the English had always been receptive to foreign culture, foreign architecture and foreign ideas.

'... the rulers spoke only French and made no attempt to learn English ...'

But the Conquest was a different matter altogether. This was a foreign military takeover of an older and superior civilisation by a ruthless war leader, who had gathered support by offering his followers their share of the possessions of the vanquished. Henceforth, it was often said, the Normans seemed to treat the English as inferiors. There are accounts which say as much from as late as the 13th century, still complaining that the rulers spoke only French and made no attempt to learn English, which is how it seemed to Robert of Gloucester:

'The Normans could then speak nothing but their own language, and spoke French as they did at home and also taught their children. So that the upper class of the country that is descended from them stick to the language they got from home, therefore unless a person knows French he is little thought of. But the lower class stick to English and their own language even now.'

About the BBC | Help | Terms of Use | Privacy & Cookies Policy