William the Conqueror and the Norman Legacy



The Cleric Orderic Vitalis, drew the simple lesson that death deals with rich and poor alike. William the Conqueror, he reminds us, had been a powerful and warlike king, feared by many peoples in various lands, yet in the end he was left naked and needing the charity of strangers. In life he had ruled wide dominions but in death he had no free plot in which to be buried, while his shameful burial showed how vain was the glory of the flesh. Orderic did not, however, seek to make any link between William’s death and his character – quite the reverse, for he had begun his account of the king’s last days by praising him as a good ruler: a lover of peace who had relied on wise counsellors, feared God and protected the Church.

But no judgement on the Conqueror could be separated from the Conquest, and here naturally Orderic found praise more difficult. He accepted the Norman argument that William’s claim to the throne was sound and that the invasion had been justified by Harold’s perjury. But, as we have seen, as an Englishman he could not condone the way that the new king had mercilessly crushed the opposition to his rule. The Harrying of the North in particular Orderic saw as a terrible stain on William’s record. ‘I chastised a great multitude of men and women with the lash of starvation, and was, alas, the cruel murderer of many thousands’ – such are the words that the chronicler puts into the king’s mouth in his deathbed monologue. Orderic also distinguishes between the Conqueror, whom he thought noble and peace-loving, and the Normans as a whole, for whom he reserved less favourable language:

They arrogantly abused their authority and mercilessly slaughtered the native people, like the scourge of God smiting them for their sins … Noble maidens were exposed to the insults of low-born soldiers and lamented their dishonouring by the scum of the earth … Ignorant parasites, made almost mad with pride, they were astonished that such great power had come to them and imagined that they were a law unto themselves. O fools and sinners! Why did they not ponder contritely in their hearts that they had conquered not by their own strength but by the will of almighty God, and had subdued a people that was greater and more wealthy than they were, with a longer history?

Other chroniclers writing closer to the time had similarly negative things to say about the Conquest, and in some cases even harsher criticism. While those in France generally took vicarious pride in the Norman achievement, seeing it as a triumph of Frankish arms, elsewhere in Europe opinion was more mixed. A Bavarian writer called Frutolf of Michelsberg, for instance, thought that William had miserably attacked and conquered England, sending its bishops into exile and its nobles to their death. Worse still was the opinion of another German, Wenric of Trier, who in 1080 lambasted Gregory VII over his relationship with certain rulers. Some of the pope’s so-called friends, he said, had ‘usurped kingdoms by the violence of a tyrant, paved the road to the throne with blood, placed a bloodstained crown on their heads, and established their rule with murder, rape, butchery and torment’. No names are named, but the new king of England is clearly the ruler intended: during the same year Gregory himself wrote to William, lamenting the criticism he was having to endure on account of his earlier support for the Conquest.

Contemporary Englishmen, by contrast, had less to say on the subject, probably because it was still too painful to contemplate. ‘So William became king’, sighed Eadmer of Canterbury around the turn of the eleventh century. ‘What treatment he meted out to those who managed to survive the great slaughter, I forbear to tell.’ The chief exception to this general reticence was the author of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, whose obituary of William has been used extensively in the preceding pages. Apparently written before 1100, it provides a long, detailed and evidently well-informed assessment of both the king and the Conquest. ‘We shall write of him as we have known him,’ the chronicler says, ‘we who have ourselves seen him, and at one time dwelt in his court.’ Like Orderic he praised William for his wisdom and power, noting that in spite of his sternness the king was kind to those who loved God. Religion, indeed, had flourished during his reign; he himself had built a new abbey at Battle, Canterbury Cathedral had been rebuilt, and so had many others. With the same note of approval the chronicler recalled that William had kept great state and maintained good order, imprisoning rebels and castrating rapists. The Domesday Survey is described in terms of awe, as is the king’s authority within the British Isles: Wales was in his dominion, and Scotland he had reduced to subjection by his strength. Had he lived only two more years, the author reckoned, William would have conquered Ireland as well.

But then the chronicler switches to a list of bad things, saying ‘assuredly in his time men suffered grievous oppression and manifold injuries’. Top of the list were the castles that the Conqueror caused to be built ‘which were a sore burden to the poor’. Then there was his apparent avarice – the hundreds of pounds of gold and silver he had taken from his subjects ‘most unjustly and for little need’. Lastly there was his introduction of the Forest, with its harsh law that oppressed rich and poor alike. William, concluded the chronicler, was too relentless to care though all might hate him. If his subjects wanted to keep their lives and their lands they had to submit themselves wholly to his will.

Even this fairly restricted summary of the Conqueror’s reign indicates that in the space of two decades William and his followers had wrought enormous change. By 1087 no fewer than nine of England’s fifteen ancient cathedrals had been burnt down or demolished and new Romanesque replacements were rising in their place. In the course of the next generation the remaining six would also be similarly rebuilt, along with every major abbey – the sole exception, of course, being the Confessor’s abbey at Westminster, which had pre-empted the revolution. And it was a revolution, the single greatest in the history of English ecclesiastical architecture. Visit any of these churches today, and you will not find a single piece of standing pre-Conquest masonry. So total was the Norman renaissance that no cathedral was entirely rebuilt in England until the early thirteenth century, when Salisbury was moved from Sarum. The next wholesale rebuilding after that occurred in the seventeenth century, when Wren rebuilt St Paul’s.

A similar revolution had taken place in secular architecture with the introduction of castles. Again, with the exception of a handful of pre-Conquest examples built during the Confessor’s reign, England had never witnessed anything like it, which explains the bitterness of the Chronicle’s complaint. Famous royal fortresses like Windsor, Warwick, York, Norwich, Winchester, Newcastle, Colchester and the Tower of London – all of them had been founded by the Conqueror himself, along with scores of others too numerous to list. And that was just the royal ones. Across the country, wherever new Norman lords of any substance had settled, similar castles had been erected in their hundreds, to which their numerous surviving mottes and earthworks still bear witness. Because they are difficult to date with precision, the total number remains an estimate, but at a conservative count around 500 were in existence by 1100, the overwhelming majority having been built in the years immediately after 1066. When we add to the castles and the cathedrals the disruption caused by the creation of the new royal forests, which displaced thousands of people from their homes, or the deliberate devastation of northern England, which killed many thousands more and effectively reduced Yorkshire to a desert, it becomes easy to sympathize with the Chronicle’s lament.

Some modern historians, however, would dismiss such changes as short-term or superficial. Economies might have been devastated but they soon recovered; cathedrals and castles were essentially a cosmetic change. Contemporary chroniclers might complain loudly but, living through the events they describe, they lack any long-term historical perspective. At a fundamental level, say the continuists, the Conquest changed very little.

But in advancing this argument, such historians, willingly or no, are effectively siding with the Normans themselves, for the line maintained by William and his followers was precisely that nothing had changed. The Conqueror came to the throne claiming to be the true heir of Edward the Confessor. At his coronation, as the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle recalled bitterly, the new king had sworn to rule England ‘according to the best practice of his predecessors’. A short time later he assured the citizens of London that their laws would remain as they had been in the Confessor’s day. And then, of course, there was the Domesday Book, which made every new Norman landowner the legal heir of one or more English predecessor, taking as its baseline ‘the day on which King Edward was alive and dead’.

But this was all a fiction. In reality, William had succeeded not Edward but Harold, and to do so he had fought the Battle of Hastings, one of the bloodiest encounters in European history. Yet nowhere in the official record is this reality admitted, nor the changes that had taken place as a result. King Harold, for example, is almost totally expunged from the Norman account of the Conquest. Apart from a few writs issued at the very start of the reign, no official document accords him his royal title: he is simply Harold, or Earl Harold. In the Domesday Book his reign has been almost entirely airbrushed from the record, the scribe accidentally alluding to it only twice in two million words. This was not sour grapes but rigorous legal logic. If the Conqueror was the Confessor’s direct heir, it followed that whatever had happened in the twelve months between Edward’s death and William’s accession must have been an aberration.

The notion that nothing changed in 1066, in short, owes much to a rewriting of history by the Normans themselves. It was precisely what William wanted us to believe, such was his desire to be regarded as England’s legitimate king. And for a long time historians did believe it. Until quite recently, those who had delved into the Domesday Book emerged greatly impressed by the scale of continuity it appeared to demonstrate, with every Norman newcomer stepping neatly into the space or spaces vacated by his English predecessors. It took the advent of computer-aided analysis to reveal that Domesday’s formulae in fact conceal massive tenurial disruption. The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, summing up the Conqueror’s reign, comes closest to recognizing that there was a great gulf between what the Normans said and what they actually did. ‘The louder the talk of law and justice,’ it complains, ‘the greater the injustices they committed.’

Even if we reject (as some historians still do) the notion that the Norman settlement created a pattern of landholding that was radically different from the one that had existed before, what Domesday demonstrates beyond any question is how totally the Conquest had replaced one ruling elite with another. By 1086 the English were entirely gone from the top of society, supplanted by thousands of foreign newcomers. This transformation had almost certainly not been William’s original intention. His initial hope appears to have been to rule a mixed Anglo-Norman kingdom, much as his predecessor and fellow conqueror, King Cnut, had ruled an Anglo-Danish one. But Cnut had begun his reign by executing those Englishmen whose loyalty he suspected and promoting trustworthy natives in their place. William, by contrast, had exercised clemency after his coronation and consequently found himself facing wave after wave of rebellion. The English knew they were conquered in 1016, but in 1066 they had refused to believe it. As a result they met death and dispossession by stages and degrees, until, eventually and ironically, the Norman Conquest became far more revolutionary than its Danish predecessor. ‘In King William’s twenty-first year’, said Henry of Huntingdon, ‘there was scarcely a noble of English descent in England, but all had been reduced to servitude and lamentation.’

From this change in the ruling elite, enormous consequences flowed, because the English and the Normans were two quite different peoples. William of Malmesbury, in a famous passage, describes the Battle of Hastings as a fatal day for England, a disaster which had caused the country to exchange ‘old masters for new’. He then goes on to outline the differences. The English, he says, were abandoned to gluttony and lechery, lax in their Christianity and addicted to wassail. They lived out their lives in small, mean houses, preferring to load their tattooed skin with gold bracelets, eating till they were sick and drinking until they spewed. The Normans, on the other hand, were well dressed to a fault, particular about their food and more obviously religious. A crafty, warlike people, they built great proud buildings in which they lived a life of moderate expense.

Although narrow in its focus and infected with moral hindsight – the English here are sinners who clearly have it coming – in general this picture of two different cultures convinces. It was not just haircuts that distinguished the English from the Normans, but a whole range of practices and attitudes. Take, for example, warfare. Wherever we look in pre-Conquest England, the emphasis seems to be almost entirely naval. Edward the Confessor defends his people by sailing out from Sandwich every summer, and is appeased by a gift of a great, gilded warship. Taxes are raised on the basis of crew sizes, fleet and army are virtually interchangeable terms. We seem, in short, to be looking at a model that has much in common with contemporary Scandinavia. By way of total contrast, to read the sources for pre-Conquest Normandy is to enter a world dominated by cavalry and castles. Here the prestigious gifts are not ships but horses. Indeed, when ships are eventually needed in 1066, they have to be begged, borrowed or built from scratch.

Similarly, the fact that the Normans built castles reveals that they had different ideas when it came to lordship, which they had come to equate with control over land. They strove to acquire new estates, built castles to defend them, and endeavoured to transmit them, unbroken, to their successors. So strong did the association between lord and location become, the Normans even started to name themselves after their principal holdings. ‘I, Roger, whom they call Montgomery’ is how the Conqueror’s old friend described himself in a charter of the mid-1040s.

This desire for land was a matter of huge moment after the Conquest of England. Some of William’s followers, like those of King Cnut, had fought for money and gone home as soon as they had received it. But many thousands of others came wanting land, and ended up staying to create a new colonial society. They settled across England, tearing up the old tenurial patterns in the process, reorganizing their estates as manors and erecting castles to serve as their administrative centres. Naturally the colonists wanted to govern and control these new lordships according to their own familiar customs, and so further change followed. New baronies developed courts of their own, and sometimes even sheriffs, which stood apart from and cut across the existing English system of shire and hundred courts. New laws were introduced to reflect different attitudes towards inheritance, favouring the firstborn son so that the patrimony remained intact. Toponymic surnames, which had formerly found no place in pre-Conquest England, suddenly appear thereafter. In their determination to carve out new lordships, the Normans treated the surviving English harshly, forcing many men who had formerly held land freely to become rent-paying tenants, often on extremely onerous terms. Frutolf of Michelsberg may have erred somewhat in saying that the Conqueror had killed off the English aristocracy, but his claim that the king had ‘forced the middle ranks into servitude’ comes fairly close to the truth.

At the same time, another different attitude meant that the fortunes of those at the very bottom of English society were perceptibly improved. Slavery, which was already a thing of the past in Normandy by 1066, had still been going strong in England. Yet by 1086 there had already been a sharp decline: where Domesday allows us to compare figures, the number of slaves has fallen by approximately twenty-five per cent. Historians have generally ascribed this change to economics, pointing out that the Normans, in their quest for cash, preferred to have serfs holding land and paying rent rather than slaves who worked for free but who required housing and feeding. This may have been part of the reason, but another was certainly that some sections of Norman society felt that slavery was morally objectionable. William himself, as we have seen, had banned the slave trade, apparently at Lanfranc’s prompting, and is said to have freed many hundreds on his expedition to Wales. The ban cannot have been wholly effective, since ‘that shameful trade by which in England people used to be sold like animals’ was again condemned in an ecclesiastical council of 1102. Significantly, however, this was the last occasion on which the Church felt it necessary to issue such a prohibition. By the 1130s, slavery was gone from England, and some contemporaries knowingly attributed its absence to the Conquest. ‘After England began to have Norman lords then the English no longer suffered from outsiders that which they had suffered at their own hands’, wrote Lawrence of Durham. ‘In this respect they found foreigners treated them better than they had treated themselves.’

And this was also true in another respect. With the sole exception of Earl Waltheof, no Englishman was executed as a result of the Conquest. Along with their belief that slavery was wrong, the Normans had introduced the notion that it was better to spare one’s opponents after they had surrendered. The English had been practising political murder right up to the eve of the Conquest, but very quickly thereafter the practice disappears. ‘No man dared to slay another’, says the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, praising William’s law and order policy, ‘no matter what evil the other might have done him.’ The last execution of a nobleman on royal orders took place in 1095, and after Waltheof’s execution in 1076 no earl was executed in England until the early fourteenth century. The Conquest ushered in almost two and a half centuries of chivalric restraint.

Lastly, the Normans had brought with them their zealous commitment to the reformed Church. ‘The standard of religion, dead everywhere in England, has been raised by their arrival’, wrote William of Malmesbury in the 1120s. ‘You may see everywhere churches in villages, in towns and cities, monasteries rising in a new style of architecture, and with a new devotion our country flourishes.’ The statement that religion was dead everywhere is, of course, an exaggeration. Historians nowadays would point to England’s existing links with Rome in 1066, and argue that the boom in the building of parish churches had begun before the Conquest. Yet there can be no doubt that the Normans accelerated these nascent tendencies enormously. William and Lanfranc saw an institution much in need of reform, and set about introducing separate Church courts, archdeacons and Church councils. Practices such as simony and clerical marriage were banned. And Malmesbury’s point about the rising number of religious houses is borne out by the figures. In 1066 there were around sixty monasteries in England, but by 1135 that number had more than quadrupled to stand at somewhere between 250 and 300; in the Confessor’s day there had been around 1,000 English monks and nuns; by Malmesbury’s day there were some four to five times that number. In the north of England, monasticism had been wiped out by the first wave of Viking invasions in the late ninth century, and there is no sign of any native attempts to reverse this situation in the century before the Conquest. Yet within just a few years of the Norman takeover – very soon after the Harrying – the north witnessed a remarkable religious revival, with monasteries founded or restored at Selby, Jarrow, Whitby, Monkwearmouth, Durham and York. There is no clearer example of how conquerors and reformers marched in step.

Herward the Wake