On December 25, 1066, William the Conqueror was crowned King of England. His claim to the throne had largely been assured by his victory at Hastings ten weeks previously, but even at his coronation, there remained some work to be done before his new country was wholly pacified. England was not, however, his only country: he was also the Duke of Normandy, a powerful French lord, and this fact was to have significant consequences in the military, administrative and cultural realities of his kingdom.
The victory at Hastings was a military victory, of course, and so it is natural that it would have military repercussions. A key component to Norman success was the use of heavy cavalry, while the Saxon forces fought on foot. It was not that the Saxons were unable to ride; the huscarls who were the Saxon equivalents of knights often rode to the battle, but then fought on foot. This was a difference in tactical doctrine, much like the difference between the Macedonian phalanx and the Roman legion. Norman victory was not a foregone conclusion at Hastings, but once the Normans were in power, it would change the English military system from an infantry-based force to one that depended upon the heavy cavalry.
The Norman military system depended on the cavalry for its offensive power, but it was equally dependent on the defensive power of castles. As with cavalry, defensive fortifications were hardly unknown to the Saxons, but they were comparatively simple and few in number. One of the biggest changes that occurred during the consolidation of Norman power was the construction of castles all across the English countryside, 78 in number during William’s lifetime alone. At first, they were a vital necessity, enabling a relatively small group of foreign warriors to dominate an often hostile native population, but they became a normal part of life. They would be the focus of military campaigns during periods of unrest from the eleventh through the seventeenth centuries, but for the rest of the medieval period they would also take on administrative and economic roles.
Thus, the military changes alone altered the face of England. Medieval England would be a land dominated by knights and castles precisely because of the Norman Conquest. Knights and castles were not solely military phenomena, however. They were also major parts of a new administrative system, one largely carried over from the continent and grafted onto the indigenous system. Knights and the lords above them served as judges, tax collectors, and royal representatives, while the castles they maintained became the focal point of the feudal economy.
The feudal system was one of personal rule, rather than institutional rule, and persons who did the ruling were greatly altered by the conquest. Many Norman knights were rewarded for faithful service by the grant of lands and titles that made them a part of the king’s administration. Barons, Counts and Dukes were placed by the king, and were Norman in origin. Native nobility focused around Earls and Sheriffs continued to exist on a greatly diminished basis; Normans might also be appointed to vacancies in these lordships as time went on. Thus, the Saxon nobility was not completely wiped out, and eventually bloodlines would merge anyway, but taken as a whole, Saxon lords were sidelined by Normans. In a startling statistic, there were some four thousand Saxon landowners in 1066, but only two in 1087, with the rest of the land being held by some 200 Normans.
As the administrators changed, so too did the tools of administration. Some aspects of traditional Saxon law were retained, such as the foundation of common law that is at the heart of the legal systems of the English-speaking world today. At the same time, England was viewed as a conquered country and its conquerors were keen to exploit it for their own gain. Enhanced taxation requires good recordkeeping and a realistic sense of what tax collectors can expect. A major national assessment of the land was completed in 1086, in anticipation of a Danish invasion. Commonly known as the Domesday Book, this report became the basis of the crown’s tax rolls, despite the failure of the expected Danish invasion to appear.
In the Middle Ages, the Church was an important part of administration, not least because of the fact that clergy were reliably literate, and much of the rest of the population was not. William gave the plum assignments to Norman clergy in the same way that he doled out temporal lands to Norman lords and knights. Not only did he replace bishops, but he also placed Norman monks in charge of English abbeys, which were important landholders in England until the Tudor period.
William made one significant innovation in what is generally considered part of the common law tradition: in 1076 he created the Chancery Court system, which was administered by the Church. While this system is no longer staffed by the clergy, the concept remains in the Anglo-American tradition today. Legal disputes that do not involve allegations of criminal behavior, such as real estate disputes, are handled in separate court divisions from criminal matters. In many jurisdictions, these divisions are still designated as Chancery divisions.
The most enduring consequences of the Norman victory are in the domain of culture. The Normans were essentially Vikings who settled in northern France, absorbing the French language and some of its culture; they then proceeded to carry them across the Channel to England, where they became the elite language and culture for more than two hundred years. There was never any effort to replace English with French, or to impose French culture on English subjects. It was enough for the lords to retain their privileged status, much of which was marked by French language and customs. The fact that the peasantry continued to speak English and to observe English customs actually served to reinforce Norman dominance.
Given that French language and customs became a signifier of elite status, however, it is natural that remaining Saxon nobles sought to emulate the Normans culturally. The logic of imitation created ripples throughout the English population, and Norman French words permeated the English language, to remain behind after the nobility abandoned the French language and embraced English. This is the primary reason for the status of the English language as a hybrid of the Germanic and Romance families; some Latin terms entered English directly, just as they did other languages, such as Dutch and German. The Latin influence is far stronger in English, however, and that is largely the result of Norman French being the elite language after the Norman Conquest. The Norman influence is particularly important in key sectors of the language, such as in legal administration.
The cultural shift also made itself known on the world stage. Prior to the Norman Conquest, England was effectively a Scandinavian country. While its language was from the West Germanic subfamily, rather than the North Germanic of Scandinavia, it was organized on similar lines and its dynastic disputes were mainly with Scandinavian kings. Wars were fought between England and Denmark, and for some of the time, the English king was a vassal of the Danish king.
Two battles in 1066 changed this utterly. Stamford Bridge ended the last major Scandinavian attack on England, while Hastings began the process of subjecting England to French overlords. Because the English king was also a French duke, and his vassals were also French lords, they were naturally invested in French politics. Indeed, after his coronation as king, William spent more of his time campaigning in France than in England. This turned English policy from a Scandinavian focus to a continental, especially French, one. Eight and a half centuries of intermittent conflict with France resulted. European history would be very different, indeed, if William had lost at Hastings.
1066 is rightly regarded as one of the great dates in history. It was far more than the year of a successful invasion; it marked a radical shift in the historical trajectory of England, and to a certain degree of Europe as a whole. The long-term consequences are still palpable today on a global scale.
Cantor, Norman F., ed. The Encyclopedia of the Middle Ages. Viking, 1999.
Gooden, Philip. The Story of English: How the English Language Conquered the World. Quercus, 2009.
Loyn, H.R., ed. The Middle Ages: A Concise Encyclopedia. Thames & Hudson, 1989.
Phillips, Charles. The Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Kings & Queens of Britain. Hermes House, 2006.
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