The Normans

The Norman Invasion and Conquest of England

In the year 1066, the Saxon-Dane rulers of England were overthrown and replaced by new invaders.... The Normans.  By the end of the year, the old king was gone and the fate of the country was changed for ever.

History of the Normans

When William defeated Harold in AD 1066, the future of the Isles took a major change. For hundreds of years to come, it would be embroiled in wars in Europe and the Holy Lands. Civil unrest would be rife and the once proud traditions of the Saxons would be ground under the stone of a network of castles that covered the country. However, there is much more to the new rule than this gloomy picture paints! The Normans brought a whole new society which made the country what it is today.

A common misconception today is that the Normans were "French." Strictly speaking this is not true although it is a widely held belief and, like most beliefs, has some basis in fact.
Towards the end of the ninth century, the Viking raiders from Northern Europe (commonly known as Norsemen) were regularly foraging (raiding and trading) along the coast line of the Frankish kingdoms. During these raids, the Vikings got more and more bold - even going as far as sailing up the Seine and sacking Paris. Initially the raiders would set off from their home villages in Scandinavia and return a few weeks later with any plunder they had gathered, however as the raids continued the Norsemen started establishing raiding bases away from home. It was during this time that England was invaded by the "Grand Army" (more detail in the Vikings Section). These bases were often in very good farmland and quickly grew rich with the spoils of war, and as a result of this quickly grew in size.

In AD. 911, the Frankish King Charles (the Simple), in an effort to reduce the raids and destruction offered a large amount of land in northern France to a band of Vikings led by Rollo in return for token obedience to the Frankish crown. During the years of "Duke" Rollo's reign, the local term for the "Norsemen" slowly contracted to "Norman" and this pretty much stuck for the rest of time.
As befitting the descendants of excellent seafarers, the Normans traded with most of the kingdoms and Empires. They provided soldiers to act as a papal guard and not long after the conquest of the Angle's lands (England) they turned their attention to other places. The Normans raided Italy, and were a driving force behind the Crusades.

From the British point of view, the main identifiers of the Norman invaders were the language they spoke (a variant of Frankish - French) and their tendency to build castles everywhere. Prior to the Norman occupation, both the Anglo-Saxons and the Celtic Britons before them had lived in smallish communities built on hill tops. These Hill Forts were the primary means of defense and provided a community central point for refuge etc.

Following the Invasion of AD 1066, one of the first things William I wanted to do was to establish Norman control. This was, in part, enforced by the building of Motte and Bailey castles over the land where the Norman Knights could have a base to subjugate the surrounding lands. To ease the building, these were often on the site of Hill Forts, and equally often these hill forts had been removed from the local Celtic/Saxon nobility not to long in the past. Building on hill forts is one of the reasons why so many Norman castles (especially the early ones) are of the famous motte and bailey design. This design is easy to implement over the site of a previous hill fort.

On occasion, the Norman buildings were inside even older structures - such as the Norman Castle inside the Roman Fort at Portchester

Another common trait of the Normans, was their love of Hunting. In addition to the construction of new forest blocks across the Country, the Normans established lots of new laws. These were all very unpopular with the local British - often they were now unable to hunt or farm on their own land. While the Norman hunting may have left some gorgeous forestry blocks, and been responsible for the importation of new species, it certainly was not started from ecological grounds. Another side effect of this hunting fanaticism, was the construction of hundreds of hunting lodges around the country. These mini-castles, like Luggershall  were used by the Knights and Kings as places to stay and feast while they were out hunting (which was a lot of the time). Although they were never used as fortified bases in the way the Castles were, the hunting lodges were remarkably well built. A sign of how cheap labor and materials were to the Norman overlords.

Norman Life

The Normans had an interesting mix of cultures. Historically, they were a combination of viking settlers who had married into the local Frankish cultures and as a result their society was a conglomerate of the two.

As befits their despondency from the vikings, the Normans were a warlike culture and prized mounted soldiers. The Norman cavalry were to form the basis for medieval Knights and what we now look at as "Chivalry" stems from the Norman codes of conduct on the battlefield.

The Normans were more than just mobile killing machines (although they excelled at this), and with their invasion of England they brought in some fantastic examples of architecture and style. As they were devout followers of the medieval Christian church, the best examples of Norman style can be found in the churches and chapels that still exist all over the country.

Norman Warfare

The Normans brought with them a wholly new form of warfare. The Saxons and, before them, the Celts had largely depended on armies of "brave warriors" who would band together to fight the enemy. Often battles were resolved through one on one fights between clan heroes. (Very similar to classical era Greeks).

The Normans had a warfare style that evolved from their Norse roots and was heavily influenced by the European wars of the 9th and 10th centuries AD and the Frankish kings like Charlemagne.

This resulted in the Norman armies being very organised and disciplined. The mainstay of the army was the heavy foot soldier, although the nobles and leaders were always mounted on powerful horses. During the middle-medieval period the status symbol of horses became firmly rooted and even today people think of owning a horse as being something the "rich" do

In addition to the new forms of combat, the Normans brought with them a brand new way of defending territory. The Saxons were from a culture of mobile raiders and as such tended to not rely on heavy defensive structures as we think of them today. Most Saxon strongholds were hill forts similar to the ones the Celts used, or where they had taken over an old Roman fortification the Saxons would shore up the walls and reuse it. In the mainstream of Saxon culture, it was wrong to attack the settlements where people lived (raids, however, were common place) and battles were always fought in open ground.

This changed with the arrival of the Normans. They brought with them the massive stone structures we still see today. Norman castles were a stamp of authority as much as a defensive structure and the conquerors spent little time building hundreds of them across the country.

The Norman Timeline

For the purposes of this site, this timeline is very compressed and only highlights some of the more important dates in the history of the Normans. It is not complete - as people learn more about the past, old events which may have seemed insignificant take on a new meaning. If you have any suggestions for an important event then send an email to Etrusia with the details and we will see about adding it to our list.

The Frankish King Charles the Simple grants the Viking Rollo land in what is now northern France. This land becomes known as "Normandy" and the people who live there are known as the "Normans."

The Italians request the Normans send an army to help them defend their land. On arrival the Normans like the country and invade it themselves.

Nineteen year old, William The Bastard wins his first major engagement at the battle of Val Es Dunes on the Norman / Frankish border.

Duke Willam of Normandy (obviously didnt like his old nickname) invades England putting an end to the 500 or so years of Saxon rule.

Germans attack Rome, the Norman armies drive back the Germans and save the Pope only to raid Rome themselves.

King William I of England orders the Domesday Book be compiled.

Norman led crusaders, following Pope Urban II's orders, capture Jerusalem and massacre the occupants.

King Henry I's nephew Stephen goes to war with the Empress Matilda and brings nearly two decades of anarchy to the Norman lands.

The French King Phillip II invades and conquers Normandy. Most of the Normans in England decide to stay and become English. Most of the Normans in France become French. The Normans themselves effectively cease to exist.