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The Norman Conquest of England Essay Sample

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Introduction of TOPIC

The Norman Conquest of England started in 1066, when William the Conqueror (Duke of Normandy) led the invasion. His success at the Battle of Hastings, against Harold II (the last Anglo-Saxon King of England), allowed the Normans to rule over England (although it took until 1071 for the country to be fully subdued because of numerous rebellions). William I was finally crowned and became King of England on Christmas day 1066, after he had forced the submission of the Witan and other opposition leaders. But he still faced much resistance from the locals for many years, particularly Northern England, so he had them restrained.

After, he ordered the execution of the ‘Harrying of the North’ and its impact was immense; it had enormous burden costs to the economy, society, and culture. Thousands were massacred and entire villages were burned, leading to food shortages. The survivors of the initial attack would soon perish due to starvation over the winter cold. The Domesday Book, written almost two decades later, verifies that the area was destroyed and masses were killed. This brutal act ensured that there would never be any further noteworthy defiance against William, as a result of the fear generated from the violence. This cruel deed had long-term effects, such as the difference in economic growth and equality gap, between the Northern and Southern regions, and was eventually addressed from the Late Middle Ages.

Once England had been controlled William warranted an extensive survey to be carried out, similar to a census by a government of today. His royal officers held a public inquiry into the value of all homes and what they owned, and recorded all their data into what is known as the Domesday Book, which itself was divided into two parts – Little Domesday and Great Domesday. Surprisingly, it was prepared in the space of one year and was completed in 1086. The Domesday Book is a statistical document and was used as an administrative tool; a basis for more decisive taxation of the Norman’s new realm and to fund William’s warfare. It involved the first kingdom-wide poll taken in Europe since the Roman era and it helped the Normans to integrate with their conquered territories. Despite its thoroughness, it was prepared in an unstable period when fortunes of several families were changing.1 It also briefly mentions some names that never seem to crop up in history ever again. Yet nowadays it is still used by historians as a tremendous piece of evidence and reveals an excellent insight into England’s wealth at the time. Amazingly, on rare occasions it is even used now as proof in certain law cases such as land and property disputes.

While William’s repressive measures were taking place, there were needs for fortification. Motte and Bailey castles were built commonly, both to consolidate peace and in response to local rebellions in the turbulent times. They were relatively quick and easy to build, and lots of them were erected at key strategic points on routes to the North and the Midlands, called ‘the spine’.2 The first castles at Hastings and Pevensey were vital because they provided defensive points, and also acted as a base for further expansion. These castles led as examples and catalysed the construction of hundreds more all over England at major centres. They presented clear physical evidence of Norman military and political supremacy, as well as illustrating their establishment in the country. However, due to the vast productions of castles, William was well aware of the danger posed by the rapid spread of private defences. In order to prevent anarchies, he forbade the concept of creating castles without a license. This helped to assure that he remained a strong central authority.

Over the next couple of years the wooden prototype evolved into stone castles. Most of them were situated in the North-Western (Welsh Marshes) region because there were constant revolts in those areas, whereas the South contained fewer since they were less radical. One of the best-known great stone keeps is the White Tower of London, which is still intact, demonstrating the ability to endure centuries. The impact brought by the production of these grand structures was devastating in some cases. Their imposing stature wasted large amounts of land, including the buildings within enclosures, and sometimes the destruction was so much that they became nothing of use. Nonetheless William and his vice-regents, William Fitz Osbern and Bishop Odo of Bayeux, had them developed. The presence of the Norman castles symbolised the strength and enduring legacy of their hierarchal dominance.

Prior to the Norman invasion, England’s feudal system existed in a primitive state. They could already call upon a reasonable amount of armed forces to defend them, and the monarchy was able to command support from the majority of their population through the integral assistance of the churchmen. When William took over, he was inspired to attain a substantial force that was well organised, so that he was a formidable force to be reckoned with. Previously he had horse-based Norman knights, rather than men attacking with axes from behind a shield-wall. He felt the latter was out-dated and the Norman cavalry demonstrated that they were far more mobile, tactical, and superior to the incompetent traditional Anglo-Saxon fighting technique. But many Englishmen failed to adapt to the new military style and William realised he needed a professional mounted force, so then he acted “so that the kingdom of England should always have 60,000 knights at the ready and produce them immediately at the king’s command as necessity required.”3 He achieved this by awarding his loyal supporters, who had helped him defeat Harold II.

When all the land in England belonged to William, he retained roughly one-fifth of his land for his own use and allocated the rest to his most loyal devotees (Barons or tenants-in-chief). In exchange for this wealth (fiefs) the Barons would have to take an oath of fidelity (fealty) that would take place at a commendation ceremony, customarily religious and formal. Following completion they had a binding verbal agreement and were now the King’s ‘vassal’. This meant that because they had received land from William, they were mutually obliged to provide knights if their superior lord was threatened. The amount of troops dispensed would depend on how big the piece of land was or how much it made from its revenue. However, the Barons were not able to grant all the knights themselves, therefore they too shared their land, and gave a fraction of plots (manors) towards men who promised to serve as knights. The Baron often lived in a castle at the centre of his estates on his own province (demesne), whilst the knights stayed in their manors. In order to make profits from the grounds, the knights then rented smaller portions (glebe land) out for an agreed fee, to the church and the peasants who were freemen (Villeins). In return, the peasants had to deliver a range of services, mostly requiring the supply of labour.

Feudalism was a form of preserving government methods by securing the necessary forces, hence creating a safeguard against attacks. It can also be seen as an extreme form of decentralisation.4 It fragmented political power

and during Anglo-Saxon rule, the order of rank was as follows: King, Earls, Thegns, Ceorls, and then

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Slaves. This arrangement changed when William came to the throne and it became: King, Nobles (which consisted of Earls and Counts), Knights, and finally Serfs. This affected plenty of people within England owing to William having stripped most high-ranking titles from Anglo-Saxons to his fellow Normans, forcing the English to fall down the pecking order so most of the serfs were the lower class English. He eliminated nearly all supreme Anglo-Saxons, and as he put down rebels he confiscated their lands and passed them to his preferred Normans. By the time the Domesday Book was made, it stated that only a few English landowners had withstood the displacement.5 Furthermore, during the reign of the Anglo-Saxons different people were allowed to be promoted or demoted to either side of the feudal series. But under the Normans this was not even considered and only the King had the right to decide whether the Bellatores (fighters) and the Labratores (workers) could move ranks, only the Oratores (worshippers) were still allowed the old practice. William’s reasoning behind this was because he could only trust his faithful followers to occupy commanding positions.

The arrangement of the feudal pyramid began with the King at the top and descended increasingly, and the process of division and subdivision was known as subinfeudation.6 It assembled a sparse number of landholders, primarily Normans, with various sizes of territory. Essentially feudalism catered for the upper classes and at the same time William’s popularity and prestige rose substantially among his followers, since he was able to reward them with riches, mainly in the form of land. It initiated him to set up feudal lords who would promise to constrain the riotous natives, by building castles for instance, on the basis of incorporating William’s own control. Thus the conquest cycle was self-preserving.

Another condition that altered greatly was religion. William wanted full reign over the whole of England, and similarly to his Feudal system, he wanted to manipulate the people of England using influential posts to convey his regime. These positions were often held in Church, and they played an essential role in everyday activities. The Church would normally come into contact with people through routine church services and the collection of charity funds. But most importantly, it was their duty to fulfil the functions of a ‘civil service’ and an education system. Back then, schools did not exist and were surplus to a large peasant society, although they needed to teach groups of selected men who would join the Church and go on to help Government. This led to a filtering of Anglo-Saxon aristocracy and it became virtually extinct, and the English lost control over the Church in England. By 1096 all dioceses administered by a Bishop (Bishopric) were held by Normans instead of any native Englishman. The consequences were devastating for the defeated ruling class; nothing of this extent had ever occurred by any other medieval European conquest of the same religion.

To add to that, William converted the Christian Church into Roman Catholic, and he reorganised the old Anglo-Saxon Church by taking it apart and rebuilding it. He also made sure he controlled elections and had royal presence at Church councils. England’s Church soon became disconnected to Rome and papal influence was excluded. As for the Church’s staff members, William first got rid of Stigand (Archbishop of Canterbury) as he was excommunicated, along with other bishops and abbots. Again he continued to fill vacancies with Normans. In 1075, thirteen out of twenty-five abbots were English but in contrast, in 1087 only three were English.

William went on to appoint Lanfranc as Archbishop of Canterbury (who was also his personal abbot of St Stephen’s at Caen) who contributed hugely to the English Church. He also instated Thomas as Archbishop of York, but this subsequently led to quarrels over Thomas’s independent power, which made William determined to dispose of separatism entirely. Rules and guidelines surrounding priests’ became stricter and they were encouraged with better clerical morals. This, together with other criteria like the restructuring of dioceses, created a better organisation and increased the status of the church. These changes secured William’s divine control by bolstering his royal authority, through the spread of his influence and a supporting partnership with the church. Combined with the feudal system the boundaries of the kingdom were strengthened, as was William’s hold of it.

Even earlier some Anglo-Saxons were pagans, but the Norman Conquest opened the English Church to foreign influences, leading them to adopt Christianity as their religion. These days the UK is still mainly White and Christian although there is a much more diverse and multicultural population.

In terms of law, William consulted with his magnates to adjust it. Amendments occurred in the Canon Law, which was made by the bishops and carried out by the archdeacons. It was the law of the local churches, made by churchmen in their own assemblies, such as that which Lanfranc had summoned in 1075. Overlooking this was the underlying authority of the Pope at Rome, who would generally agree on the objectives of the local churches, but this complicated the relations between King and Church. Lanfranc’s reforms in the secular church caused concerns such as on the issue of celibacy, and selections to ecclesiastical office were made more difficult.

In addition, William sanctioned the Laws of the Forest, which limited anyone using resources from his private ‘New Forest’. The peasants, who relied mostly from that land to extract food and wood, resented Normans for their expanding poverty. If anyone broke this rule, they would be severely disciplined by being blinded for example. Corporal punishments were pretty much the same as before. People’s oaths were taken into account and allegations would be dealt through the local church, or if serious, undergo trial. This involved three kinds of ordeals (hot iron, hot water, cold water) but the Normans proposed ‘Trial by Battle’, where both the accuser and accused would duel. It was believed that God would favour the innocent but this was unfair towards inexperienced English fighters, especially peasants.

There were also fines, such as ‘Wergild’. This was civil compensation given to a victim’s family from the guilty, and it was usually demanded over heavier crimes. The amount would depend on the victim’s social status, so a nobleman would receive more than a mere labourer. In the case of murder, it was also called the ‘murdrum fine’ and this was created by the Anglo-Saxons and still used by the Normans.

Another adaptation was made from ‘tithing’, which was first fashioned up by the Anglo-Saxons. Males from around country were assigned to a nearby batch of around ten people, who they would be held responsible for. This was modified by the Normans into ‘Frank Pledge’, to maintain public order and to keep everybody in line. It was a way of policing and it held members of each village accountable for each other’s actions and behaviour.

One of the most recognisable changes occurred in the language. Old English was replaced through the addition of Anglo-Norman, a northern dialect of Old French. Alongside Latin, it became the language of the ruling classes in England (like the educated), in sectors such as the Government, Church and Law. The merchants spoke French after the conquest, whilst some people continued to use Anglo-Saxon, though this was considered as the mother tongue of lower classes.

For nearly 300 years French retained the status of a prestigious language. But both nationalities had to adapt for easier communication, so French faded later as it merged with Old English to form a new, multicultural language that we squeak today. It has had a major influence on the language overall, which is still visible in present-day English.

Even though Anglo-Saxon England was quite sophisticated, they lacked what the Normans possessed. The fact that the Normans were so easily able to mould these onto the existing structure merely tends to hide the changes which England suffered in the process.7 Developments varied in size, importance, and to what extent; on one hand feudalism affected a great deal because of the way it weaved in with other aspects of life, while on the other law was only modified.

For many reasons, the Norman Conquest was a monumental event in English history. The introduction of a Norman aristocracy (a privileged class holding hereditary titles) lessened the typical Scandinavian reputation and tied England more closely with Europe. They began trade, and soon after the battle William made London his trading centre and Winchester the capital city. The conquest brought forth a refined governmental system and created one of the mightiest monarchies in Europe. It altered several things (influenced particularly from Northern France) including the English culture, and commenced a rivalry with France that would continue sporadically until the 20th century. The Norman Conquest has an iconic role in English national identity as the last successful foreign takeover of England, and was significant for both English and European development because of the many changes that occurred. It reinforced present customs without changing local traditions. It also differentiated from the preceding looser systems and unified as well as stabilised England, transforming it forever.

Bibliography (In order of use towards essay)




Castles of the Conquest (Page 21-24) – Military Feudalism AS Britain, compiled by Dr. Michael R. Davis



The Conquest of Britain 1066 and development of the Feudal System (Page 6) – Military Feudalism AS Britain, compiled by Dr. Michael R. Davis


The Role of the Church (Page 1) – William and the Church AS Britain, compiled by Dr. Michael R. Davis

The Church and the Conquest by Geoff Boxell (Page 4-7) – William and the Church AS Britain, compiled by Dr. Michael R. Davis

In what ways did the partnership between William I and the Church work to the benefit of them both? (Page 8) – William and the Church AS Britain, compiled by Dr. Michael R. Davis

Effect of the Canon Law (Page 27-28), The Church after the Conquest – William and the Church AS Britain, compiled by Dr. Michael R. Davis Laws of William the Conqueror (Page 34-35) –

Normanisation AS Britain, compiled by Dr. Michael R. Davis



(Essay word count: 2742)

1 Notes on: On the March: A Brief History of the Welsh March (Page 3) – Normanisation AS Britain, compiled by Dr. Michael R. Davis

2 Notes on: Military Organisation in Norman England (Page 15) – Military Feudalism AS Britain, compiled by Dr. Michael R. Davis

3 Quoted in Brown: Origins of English Feudalism

4 Notes on: Feudalism (Page 2) – Military Feudalism AS Britain, compiled by Dr. Michael R. Davis

5 Notes on: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Norman_Conquest#English_cultural_development

6 Notes on: Feudalism (Page 3) – Military Feudalism AS Britain, compiled by Dr. Michael R. Davis

7 Quoted from: http://www.donaldstark.co.uk/essays/1042-1330/ncimpact.pdf

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