|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.|
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.
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.
'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.
'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.
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.
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.'
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.
This article can be found on the Internet at:
© British Broadcasting Corporation
For more information on copyright please refer to: