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William the Conqueror: A Thorough Revolutionary

By Michael Wood
King William was a hard man, determined to use force to impose his will on the nation he had conquered. He was so successful at it, the Anglo-Saxons became second-class citizens in their own country.
Norman horseman at the Battle of Hastings 


A new order

After the famous defeat of King Harold by William of Normandy at the Battle of Hastings in 1066, the lands and riches of the Anglo-Saxon ruling class were systematically removed by its conquerors. The Norman Conquest was a thorough-going revolution which, as so often happens in history, was driven by a great figure - William the Conqueror.

You may not like William (who did?) but you have to admit that this hard, inflexible and unlovable man was politically the master of his world. And the fascinating thing about the Norman invasion is that it is still known as 'the Conquest'. If you live in Britain, even now, more than 900 years on, that is all you have to say - everyone knows what you are talking about.

'They are ... trying to make sense of one of the great turning points in English history ...'

The Conquest has always been a subject of much debate between historians. They used to argue whether it was a good thing or a bad thing - whether Anglo-Saxon England was an archaic backwater only brought into the mainstream of European civilisation by the Norman invasion, or a place that would have been better off left to its own people.

These days, the debate tends to focus not on praise or blame or regret, but on the textual and material evidence for what happened in the years immediately following the Norman Conquest. Fortunately, the period is served by an incredibly rich series of sources.

There are the Norman accounts, but also valuable, if in short supply, are English reports from the time. Then there are the words which flow from various people over the next 50 years. They are looking back on events and trying to make sense of one of the great turning points in English history, much as we still do today.

Melancholy havoc

Image of Norman soldier
The military face of Norman England
All the eye witnesses and near-contemporaries agree that these were terrible events. Enslavement and devastation of the countryside, deliberate burning of fields, refugee crises, famine, people surviving on insects and rats. These were the news stories of the day. Their descriptions match the worst horror stories of modern war reporting.

Then, as time passes, we begin to read chroniclers who offer a wider overview of how things seemed to them, a generation or two later. Though these are not primary sources, written in 1066, their snapshots are fascinating insights into the way the next generation saw things.

'I have cruelly oppressed them and ... killed innumerable multitudes by famine or the sword ...'

William of Malmesbury, for example, who wrote in the 1120s, had a Norman father and an English mother, so he was caught between the two sides. He writes that this was 'a fateful day for England, the melancholy havoc of our dear country', because it fell under foreign lords. Around the same time, another historian of mixed descent, Orderic Vitalis, reports the deathbed confession of William the Conqueror. According to Orderic, this is what William said:

'I've persecuted the natives of England beyond all reason, whether gentle or simple. I have cruelly oppressed them and unjustly disinherited them, killed innumerable multitudes by famine or the sword and become the barbarous murderer of many thousands both young and old of that fine race of people.'

Did William ever say that? It seems hard to believe that Orderic really had access to an eye-witness account of the Conqueror's last words. Most likely this is what the English would have wanted him to say. But his text certainly shows us how some people felt 40 years on from William's death, 60-odd years after Hastings. And perhaps this is a pointer to why the tale persisted in myth for so long afterwards.

Brutal occupation

Image of Clifford Tower, York
Clifford Tower, York - built by the Normans in 1069 to suppress a local rebellion
The Normans were brutal, ruthless occupiers. The problem was that William had promised his allies and friends a cut of the cake, but first he had to hold on to England and consolidate his grip. This was done with a network of Norman castles right across the country, fighting platforms gouged into the landscape. From these the native population could be terrorised and intimidated, and any local risings snuffed out.

'Hereward ... an Anglo-Saxon land-owner from the fens, who led local resistance ...'

Not surprisingly there was a lot of local resistance in those opening years, and of course some of the resistance stories later became legends - legends such as the story of Hereward the Wake and the siege of Ely. Hereward has been immortalised in ballads and stories and Victorian novels, all of them based on a real person - an Anglo-Saxon land-owner from the fens, who led local resistance against the Norman oppressors.

His allies in that resistance were real people too - we can identify them and their native villages. And we can go to what was the edge of the Cambridge fens, around the villages of Willingham and Over, north of Cambridge, and still see traces of Duke William's siege causeways, which were driven through the fen to overwhelm the Anglo-Saxons on the old 'isle of eels', Ely. The duke was not a man to cross.

Famine and the sword

Image of seal
Seal of William the Conqueror
The siege of Ely was one of many local acts of resistance against the Normans. The most bitter and sustained warfare was in the north. When the Northumbrians rose against William in 1069 he punished them by deliberately devastating the entire province. He marched through Northumberland burning crops, destroying villages and driving the people off. That is what Orderic Vitalis meant when he speaks of William's murderous campaign with 'famine and the sword'.

'King William was a hard man ... sunk in greed.'

In fact we can see just how William laid waste to Northumbria by looking in the pages of Domesday Book, the survey of England made for the Conqueror in 1086. In its pages you can follow the track of William's army beyond the Humber and up the Great North Road through Yorkshire, a track visible in the devastated villages whose value had plummeted between 1066 and 1086 - and had not recovered.

Even 17 years after the devastation of the north, many of these places were worth nothing. Northumbria would take a long time to recover. And the loss was across the board. We lack, for instance, the ecclesiastical archives for Northumbria going back to the seventh century, most of which were lost in 1069. Looking back one can only sympathise with the Anglo-Saxon Chronicler, who remarks, grimly, 'King William was a hard man ... sunk in greed'. A man ruling an alien land, determined to impose his will by force.

A medieval apartheid

Image of Norman lords
Norman lords, feasting in splendour
How many Normans came over during those first 20 years or so after the Battle of Hastings? No one knows, but maybe 20,000 more troops followed the original army. How many others migrated from Normandy and Brittany is anyone's guess.

There would have been merchants, dealers, labourers, entertainers, and so on. All were needed to provide the service industries for the new settler state. What we do know now is that for the next century or more they maintained themselves rigidly apart in terms of marriage and intermixing - a form of racial separation that has been compared to the apartheid system.

'Of the 1,400 tenants-in-chief in Anglo-Saxon England, only two were still in place by 1086.'

The Old English were relegated to the lower social classes. The manors of the Anglo-Saxon ruling and land-owning classes, including huge tracts of land, were given to the main Norman leaders. Of the 1,400 tenants-in-chief in Anglo-Saxon England, only two were still in place by 1086. Of the several thousand lesser 'thegns' (freemen and women) below them, some still held their family lands in 1086, but often owing service to a Norman overlord.

A few middling families continued to hold local influence. The descendants of Thurkell of Arden in Warwickshire, for example, would be the ancestors of the great Tudor gentry family, the Ardens (of which Shakespeare's mother Mary was a distant kinswoman). But for most, the situation for the first generation or two was unremittingly grim.

There is one vivid detail in the Domesday Book which describes an Anglo-Saxon farmer at Marsh Gibbon in Buckinghamshire, a man called Aelfric. At Marsh Gibbon, the compiler noted, Aelfric had held the land freely in 1066, 'but now holds it off William, a Norman - graviter et miserabiliter [miserably and with heavy heart]'. If only we had Aelfric's autobiography.

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.'

French ruling class

Image of the Tower of London
Tower of London - established by the Normans
Another 13th-century writer, Robert Manning, says, '... the English have been held in subjection ever since the Conquest'. And the feudal system he sees as a consequence: 'For all this thralldom that now on England is, through Normans it came, bondage and distress.'

The idea of a distinct ruling class, which spoke French and reserved all the best jobs for people of French origin, was always dismissed by historians in the past as being special pleading and fantasy. But recent scholarship on intermarriage shows that this distinction was maintained for a very long time. It seems that in this case the old stories are true.

And of course, when we look at the broad spectrum of evidence, this makes sense. The archaeology, the texts, and the administrative records all show that the Conquest was a cataclysmic and traumatic event. The people of England were dispossessed and the old ruling class displaced. The likes of William of Malmesbury and Orderic Vitalis were speaking, in the 1120s, from the comfort of their monasteries. And they tell us it was a catastrophe even from the side of the relatively well off.

So perhaps today we have to be careful to understand the intense psychological impact of the Conquest upon the conquered. Anglo-Saxon society was an old society, an established and ordered state, which had created a sense of allegiance between its communities long before 1066. It is not surprising, then, that the wound was apparent for a long time afterwards.






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