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1066 and all that – What did the Normans ever do for us?

October 13, 2013

Bayeux

It is the most famous date in English history but what is the real significance of the Battle of Hastings the anniversary of which falls on 14th October.  And what did the Normans ever do for us?

This was a day which changed the outcome of history.  The England which would have emerged if Harold Goodwinson had been victorious would have been very different to the one we know today.  I have a number of suggestions of how.

First the Norman Conquest initiated an 850 year long period of almost continuous hostility with our neighbours across the Channel.  At least officially, this only finished in 1914 when the dispatch of the British Expeditionary Force at the start of the First World War represented the first time a substantial British army had been sent to France in its defence, rather than for its conquest.

This rivalry with France drew Britain much more, than might have been the case, into the orbit of European affairs and, in large measure, has helped define the axis of our relationship with the Continent.

The second and most striking contribution is to the development of the English language.  Without the Normans we (and a lot of the rest of the world) would be speaking something closer to Dutch.  English’s amazing breadth of vocabulary is, in large, the product of a fusion between Old English and Norman French.

The Welsh, Scots and Irish have less to thank the Normans for than most.  It is perhaps over optimistic to claim that the Anglo-Saxons would have been content to leave their Celtic cousins in peace for ever but there is no doubt that the Normans brought a new aggressiveness to English imperialism, first through the activities of the Marcher Lords and in later times through the actions of conquering monarchs such as Henry II (who started the conquest of Ireland) and Edward (1 (about whom we Welsh know all too much).

The Normans could be claimed to the authors of the deep sense of class consciousness which is so central, even today, to character of England.  They changed the system of land ownership to a feudal model which embedded the rights of aristocrats (mainly those who came over with William the Conqueror) and the definitely subservient position of those in serfdom to them.  Not that Anglo-Saxon England was exactly the land of the free but the social gradients of that society were less marked and may have led to a different evolution of social relationships in this country.

Finally the Normans and their successors did leave a very significant architectural legacy.  The Normans were great builders, both of castles and cathedrals.  Who can fail but to be impressed with creations such as the White Tower of London and Ely Cathedral.

So 14th October 1066 was a defining day in British history and it could, easily, have gone the other way.  Despite the exhaustion which followed a forced march down Ermine Street (aka the A1) from York where they had defeated the Norwegian army of Harold Hardrada at the Battle of Stamford Bridge, Harold’s crack troops, the housecarls held their ground on the top of Senlac Hill for most of the day.  It was only a clever feint from William’s cavalry which tempted them to leave the security of their position and rush down the hill in pursuit of the supposedly fleeing Normans and which then turned the fortunes of the battle.  On such a narrow thread the fortunes of history can hang.  A visit to the battlefield site at Battle is thoroughly recommended as, even now, it’s possible to get a strong sense of the dynamics of that eventful day.

So this anniversary of the Battle of Hastings it’s worth remembering what might have been and pondering the contribution which the Norman invasion has made, for better or worse, to the history of these islands.  Yet another example of why history is a subject worth studying.

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One Comment
  1. The Conquest also led to a number of pervasive myths that coloured historical debate down into the 20th century, chiefly the theory of the Norman Yoke, that an historically free Germanic people had been subjugated into feudal servitude. According to this theory, very popular in the early 17th Century, arbitrary royal government was of Norman origin and, hence, alien to a free-born English people. I’m surprised UKIP haven’t revived it and applied it to the EU! In reality, however, the Normans were here before the Conquest, Edward the Confessor’s wife being one of them. I was on;pilgrimage in Walsingham yesterday. According to the legend the Blessed Virgin appeared to a wealthy widow called Richeldis who was herself Norman. This was in 1061. So I think there are a few more continuities than people sometime think and that, even without the Conquest, the Norman influence would have been significant.(as it was in other parts of Europe) . .

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