How the Normans shaped world history

Last updated on August 23rd, 2023 at 01:18 pm

Bayeux, Tapestry, King Edward, Confessor, Godwinson, Normans, Saxons

The Normans crushed the Saxons and a hybrid culture evolved that became uniquely British

Britain changed forever on 14 October 1066.  In fact, the defeat of the English (Saxons) under King Harold, by the bastard Duke William of Normandy and his invaders at the Battle of Hastings is one of those events that came to have repercussions for the whole world.

Think about it: for one thing, the modern English language wouldn’t exist – the President of the USA would probably be talking some form of German…or Spanish…or French.  And they may never have ‘found’ New Zealand (not that its inhabitants realised it was lost).  So there would be no All Blacks rugby team.  Peter Jackson (if he had existed) would have had to have filmed ‘The Lord of the Rings’ somewhere else.  Without the Normans, J R R Tolkien (whose ancestors came from Germany) would have probably written a different book, and certainly not in English.  And so on.  You get the point: some things make a huge difference, and the Battle of Hastings certainly did.  The date is, rightly, one of the most famous in British history; everyone should remember it, and perhaps also pay a visit to Senlac Field, in Battle, Sussex, to see where the future was so dramatically set in motion.

Normans, castles, cathedrals, Westminster Abbey, Edward the ConfessorThe background to Hastings is fascinating.  In simple terms, there was a difference of opinion as to who should be king of England.  Should it be Harold, the son of the leading Saxon Godwinson family, who believed he had been named as successor by the previous king, Edward the Confessor?  Or should it be William, who had allegedly been promised the throne by both Harold (in a rash moment) and Edward?  Of course, it helped that both men wanted the job so much.  Harold, who had no claim on the throne by descent, had himself crowned before old Edward’s body was barely cold.  William, seriously disgruntled, set about raising enough men, supplies and ships to invade.  His ability to convince folk that Harold had broken a sacred oath that William should be king helped gather considerable support including, significantly, from the Church.  Eventually, William raised an invasion fleet of 700 ships.

William the Conqueror, Hastings, Normans, Saxons

The Norman invasion in southern England was almost immediately preceded by another in the north led by the King of Norway, Harald Hardrada and King Harold of England’s estranged brother, Tostig.  Landing in the Humber in the late summer of 1066, the Norsemen rapidly overcame local Northumbrian earls at the Battle of Fulford, near York.  Harold was expecting the Norman invasion and had been hanging around the south coast in anticipation.  But William was delayed by storms in the Channel.  So when Harold heard about t’trouble up north, he reacted quickly, marched his army 200 miles or so in 5 days, gathering more men en route, and completely surprised the invaders on 25 September at Stamford Bridge, near York (not to be confused with a football ground in Chelsea, further south).  The Norsemen were wholly unprepared and many had no time to put on any armour.  The English victory was so overwhelming that, of the 300 ships that had formed the invasion force, it is said only 24 were needed to sail the survivors home.  Both Harald Hardrada and Tostig were killed in the fighting.  Then the news came that William had landed in Sussex, at Pevensey on 28 September and was ravaging the area – Harold’s home turf; so he trudged back south again…

The Saxon army that formed up on top of a commanding ridge on the road from the Sussex coast to London was apparently well-equipped, well organised – and terrifying.  “Ut! Ut! Ut!”, they screamed the ancient Saxon war cry at the invader, clashing their weapons from their shield wall.  Facing them at the bottom of the slope was a mixed army of Normans (originally ‘Norsemen’), allies and mercenaries, including Bretons, French and Flems.  It has been suggested that the Saxons should have won.  What is certain is that it was a long battle that ebbed and flowed one way then another all day.  And the Saxons lost.  Harold, hit by an arrow in the eye, cut down, or both, was mutilated and his body left for his mistress, Edith Swan-Neck, to find the following day.

Bayeux Tapestry, Harold rex interfectus estFor William, the road was open to London and on Christmas Day he was crowned, at Westminster, King William I.  The Normans set about stamping their mark on the country they had conquered, relentlessly spreading their rule ever northward, crushing resistance. In places, the conquest was particularly harsh and barbaric – the ‘harrying of the north’ (of England) is possibly the best (or worst) example of Norman brutality, where entire villages and their inhabitants were viciously put to fire and sword, and the unburied dead lined the highways.

Battle Abbey, altar, Harold

All of the people of Britain would, in time, come to be dominated by the Norman French-speaking elite and their descendents.  In Wales, meanwhile, one unpopular neighbour was swapped for another; intermittent warfare between the two eventually came to a head 200 years later.  The situation was slightly different in Scotland.

The history of Scotland is to some extent the history of the differences between Lowland and Highland.  The rulers were based in the lowlands, strongly influenced by English customs, and wanted Norman military assistance to dominate the highlands and the clan system.  Norman power and influence in Scotland came not by conquest, but by gradual infiltration.  The Normans helped create Scotland almost as much as they did England.

Clifford's Tower, York, NormansCelts, Romans, Saxon, Vikings – the Normans were the latest in a long line of invaders that shaped Britain, culturally and politically.  The physical legacy of the Normans is perhaps most vividly seen today in the castles and cathedrals they built; they are, quite bluntly, symbols of power.  Norman-French aristocracy replaced the defeated Saxons.  The Normans introduced trial by jury and feudalism, a system that relied upon a pyramid of supporting dues and privileges, with the king at the peak.  What might be called ‘the French Connection’, inevitably moved Britain away from northern German/Scandinavian influence.  There was less regional autonomy based on the shires.  The Saxons survived, but as a kind of under-class – many of the Anglo-Saxon elite had actually fled to the Lowlands of Scotland.  The Saxon language – old English – survived too, but was influenced by the French of the court and ruling classes.  By the 14th century it is possible to see a language that is kind of recognisable as English…

“Whan that Aprill with his shoures soote, the droghte of March hath perced to the roote…” –  When in April the sweet showers fall, that pierce March’s drought to the root and all…”

[From Chaucer’s Prologue to the Canterbury Tales].

The Battle of Hastings was one of those milestone events in British history; it was not just a crushing defeat for the Saxon English, but a step toward evolving the hybrid culture that is uniquely British.

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