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The Norman conquest of England was the invasion and occupation of England by an army of Normans and French led by Duke William II of Normandy in the 11th century. William, who defeated King Harold II of England on 14 October 1066, at the Battle of Hastings, was crowned king at London on Christmas Day, 1066. He then consolidated his control and settled many of his followers in England, introducing a number of governmental and societal changes.
William's claim to the English throne derived from his familial relationship with the childless King Edward the Confessor, who may have encouraged William's hopes for the throne. But when Edward died in January 1066, he was succeeded by his brother-in-law Harold, who not only faced challenges from William but also another claim by the Norwegian king, Harald Hardrada. Hardrada invaded northern England in September 1066 and was victorious at the Battle of Fulford before being defeated and killed by King Harold at the Battle of Stamford Bridge on 25 September 1066. William, however, had landed in southern England, and Harold quickly marched south to confront William, leaving many of his forces behind in the north. On 14 October Harold's army confronted William's invaders near Hastings and after an all-day battle, was defeated and Harold was killed.
Although William's main rivals were gone, he still faced a number of rebellions over the following years, and it was not until after 1072 that he was secure on his throne. Native resistance led to a number of the English elite having their lands confiscated, and some of them went into exile. In order to control his new kingdom, William gave lands to his followers and built castles throughout the land to command military strongpoints. Other changes included the introduction of Norman French as the language of the noble elite, the court and government, and changes in the composition of the upper classes, as William enfeoffed lands to be held directly of the king. More slowly the conquest eventually changed the agricultural classes and village life: the main immediate change appears to have been the formal elimination of slavery, which may or may not have been linked to the invasion. There was little change in the structure of government, with the new Norman administrators taking over many of the forms of Anglo-Saxon government.
In 911, the French Carolingian ruler Charles the Simple allowed a group of Vikings under their leader Rollo to settle in Normandy as part of the Treaty of Saint-Clair-sur-Epte. In exchange for the land, the Norsemen under Rollo were expected to provide protection along the coast against future Viking invaders. Their settlement proved successful, and the Vikings in the region became known as the "Northmen" from which "Normandy" and "Normans" are derived. The Normans quickly adapted to the indigenous culture, renouncing paganism and converting to Christianity. They adopted the langue d'oïl of their new home and added features from their own Norse language, transforming it into the Norman language. They further blended into the culture by intermarrying with the local population. They also used the territory granted them as a base to extend the frontiers of the duchy to the west, annexing territory including the Bessin, the Cotentin Peninsula and Avranches.
In 1002 King Æthelred II of England married Emma, the sister of Richard II, Duke of Normandy. Their son Edward the Confessor, who spent many years in exile in Normandy, succeeded to the English throne in 1042. This led to the establishment of a powerful Norman interest in English politics, as Edward drew heavily on his former hosts for support, bringing in Norman courtiers, soldiers, and clerics and appointing them to positions of power, particularly in the Church. Childless and embroiled in conflict with the formidable Godwin, Earl of Wessex and his sons, Edward may also have encouraged Duke William of Normandy's ambitions for the English throne.
When King Edward died at the beginning of 1066, the lack of a clear heir led to a disputed succession in which several contenders laid claim to the throne of England. Edward's immediate successor was the Earl of Wessex, Harold Godwinson, the richest and most powerful of the English aristocrats, who was elected king by the Witenagemot of England and crowned by the Archbishop of York, Ealdred, although Norman propaganda claimed the ceremony was performed by Stigand, the uncanonically elected Archbishop of Canterbury. However, Harold was at once challenged by two powerful neighbouring rulers. Duke William claimed that he had been promised the throne by King Edward and that Harold had sworn agreement to this. Harald III of Norway, commonly known as Harald Hardrada, also contested the succession. His claim to the throne was based on an agreement between his predecessor Magnus I of Norway, and the earlier King of England Harthacanute, whereby if either died without heir, the other would inherit both England and Norway. Both William and Harald at once set about assembling troops and ships for an invasion.[a]
In early 1066, Harold's exiled brother Tostig Godwinson raided southeastern England with a fleet he had recruited in Flanders, later joined by other ships from Orkney. Threatened by Harold's fleet, Tostig moved north and raided in East Anglia and Lincolnshire, but he was driven back to his ships by the brothers Edwin, Earl of Mercia, and Morcar, Earl of Northumbria. Deserted by most of his followers, he withdrew to Scotland, where he spent the summer recruiting fresh forces. King Harald III of Norway invaded northern England in early September, leading a fleet of over 300 ships carrying perhaps 15,000 men. Harald's army was further augmented by the forces of Tostig, who threw his support behind the Norwegian king's bid for the throne. Advancing on York, the Norwegians occupied the city after defeating a northern English army under Edwin and Morcar on 20 September at the Battle of Fulford.
Harold had spent the summer on the south coast with a large army and fleet waiting for William to invade, but the bulk of his forces were militia that needed to harvest their crops, so on 8 September Harold dismissed them. Learning of the Norwegian invasion, he rushed north, gathering forces as he went, and took the Norwegians by surprise, defeating them at the Battle of Stamford Bridge on 25 September. Harald of Norway and Tostig were killed, and the Norwegians suffered such horrific losses that only 24 of the original 300 ships were required to carry away the survivors. The English victory came at great cost, however, as Harold's army was left in a battered and weakened state.
Meanwhile William assembled a large invasion fleet and an army gathered not only from Normandy but from all over France, including large contingents from Brittany and Flanders. He mustered his forces at Saint-Valery-sur-Somme. The army was ready to cross by about 12 August. However, the crossing was delayed, either because of unfavourable weather or because of the desire to avoid being intercepted by the powerful English fleet. The Normans did not in fact cross to England until a few days after Harold's victory over the Norwegians, following the dispersal of Harold's naval force. They landed at Pevensey in Sussex on 28 September and erected a wooden castle at Hastings, from which they raided the surrounding area.
Harold, after defeating his brother Tostig and Harald Hardrada in the north, left much of his forces in the north, including Morcar and Edwin, and marched the rest of his army south to deal with the threatened Norman invasion. It is unclear when Harold learned of William's landing, but it was probably while he was travelling south. Harold stopped in London, and was there for about a week before Hastings, so it is likely that he spent about a week on his march south, averaging about 27 miles (43 kilometres) per day, for the approximately 200 miles (320 kilometres) distance. Although Harold attempted to surprise the Normans, William's scouts reported the English arrival to the duke. The exact events preceding the battle are obscure, with contradictory accounts in the sources, but all agree that William led his army from his castle and advanced towards the enemy. Harold had taken a defensive position at the top of Senlac Hill (present-day Battle, East Sussex), about 6 miles (9.7 kilometres) from William's castle at Hastings.
The battle began at about 9 am on 14 October and lasted all day, but while a broad outline is known, the exact events are obscured by contradictory accounts in the sources. Although the numbers on each side were about equal, William had both cavalry and infantry, including many archers, while Harold had only foot soldiers and few if any archers. The English soldiers formed up as a shield wall along the ridge, and were at first so effective that William's army was thrown back with heavy casualties. Some of William's Breton troops panicked and fled, and some of the English troops appear to have pursued the fleeing Bretons. However, Norman cavalry then attacked the pursuing troops and killed them. While the Bretons were fleeing, rumours swept the Norman forces that the duke had been killed, but William rallied his troops. Twice more the Normans fled, these times feigned, and drew the English into pursuing them, allowing the Norman cavalry to attack them repeatedly. The available sources are more confused about events in the afternoon, but it appears that the decisive event was the death of Harold, about which differing stories are told. William of Jumieges claimed that Harold was killed by the duke. The Bayeux Tapestry has been claimed to show Harold's death by an arrow to the eye, but this may be a later reworking of the tapestry to conform to 12th-century stories that Harold had died from an arrow wound to the head.
The day after the battle, Harold's body was identified, whether through his armour or through marks on his body. The bodies of the English dead, which included some of Harold's brothers and his housecarls, were left on the battlefield. Gytha, Harold's mother, offered the victorious duke the weight of her son's body in gold for its custody, but her offer was refused. Harold's body was ordered to be thrown into the sea by William, but whether that took place is unclear. Waltham Abbey, which had been founded by Harold, later claimed that his body had secretly been buried there.
After his victory at Hastings, William expected to receive the submission of the surviving English leaders, but instead Edgar the Ætheling was proclaimed king by the Witenagemot, with the support of Earls Edwin and Morcar, Stigand, the Archbishop of Canterbury, and Ealdred, the Archbishop of York. William therefore advanced, marching around the coast of Kent to London. He defeated an English force that attacked him at Southwark, but he could not storm London Bridge and therefore sought to reach the capital by a more circuitous route.
He moved up the Thames valley to cross the river at Wallingford, Berkshire; while there he received the submission of Stigand. William then travelled northeast along the Chilterns, before advancing towards London from the northwest, fighting further engagements against forces from the city. Having failed to muster an effective military response, Edgar's leading supporters lost their nerve, and the English leaders surrendered to William at Berkhamsted, Hertfordshire. William was acclaimed King of England and crowned by Ealdred on 25 December 1066, in Westminster Abbey.
Despite this submission, resistance continued to erupt for several years. In 1067 rebels in Kent launched an abortive attack on Dover Castle in combination with Eustace II of Boulogne. In the same year the Shropshire landowner Eadric the Wild, in alliance with the Welsh rulers of Gwynedd and Powys, raised a revolt in western Mercia, fighting Norman forces based in Hereford. In 1068 William besieged rebels in Exeter, including Harold's mother Gytha; after suffering heavy losses William managed to negotiate the town's surrender. Later in the year Edwin and Morcar raised a revolt in Mercia with Welsh assistance, while Earl Gospatric led a rising in Northumbria, which had not yet been occupied by the Normans. These rebellions rapidly collapsed as William moved against them, building castles and installing garrisons as he had already done in the south. Edwin and Morcar again submitted, while Gospatric fled to Scotland, as did Edgar the Atheling and his family, who may have been involved in these revolts. Meanwhile Harold's sons, who had taken refuge in Ireland, raided Somerset, Devon and Cornwall from the sea.
Early in 1069 the newly installed Norman Earl of Northumbria Robert de Comines and several hundred soldiers accompanying him were massacred at Durham; the Northumbrian rebellion was joined by Edgar, Gospatric, Siward Barn and other rebels who had taken refuge in Scotland. The castellan of York, Robert fitzRichard, was defeated and killed, and the rebels besieged the Norman castle at York. William hurried with an army from the south, defeated the rebels outside York and pursued them into the city, massacring the inhabitants and bringing the revolt to an end. He built a second castle at York, strengthened Norman forces in Northumbria and then returned to the south. A subsequent local uprising was crushed by the garrison of York. Harold's sons launched a second raid from Ireland but were defeated in Devon by Norman forces under Count Brian, a son of Eudes, Count of Penthièvre. In the late summer of 1069 a large fleet sent by Sweyn II of Denmark arrived off the coast of England, sparking a new wave of rebellions across the country. After abortive attempted raids in the south, the Danes joined forces with a new Northumbrian uprising, which was also joined by Edgar, Gospatric and the other exiles from Scotland as well as Earl Waltheof. The combined Danish and English forces defeated the Norman garrison at York, seized the castles and took control of Northumbria, although a raid into Lincolnshire led by Edgar was defeated by the Norman garrison of Lincoln.
At the same time resistance flared up again in western 'Mercia, where the forces of Eadric the Wild, together with his Welsh allies and further rebel forces from Cheshire and Shropshire, attacked the castle at Shrewsbury. In the south-west rebels from Devon and Cornwall attacked the Norman garrison at Exeter, but were repulsed by the defenders and scattered by a Norman relief force under Count Brian. Other rebels from Dorset, Somerset and neighbouring areas besieged Montacute Castle but were defeated by a Norman army gathered from London, Winchester and Salisbury under Geoffrey of Coutances. Meanwhile William attacked the Danes, who had moored for the winter south of the Humber in Lincolnshire and drove them back to the north bank. Leaving Robert of Mortain in charge in Lincolnshire, he turned west and defeated the Mercian rebels in battle at Stafford. When the Danes again crossed to Lincolnshire the Norman forces there again drove them back across the Humber. William advanced into Northumbria, defeating an attempt to block his crossing of the swollen River Aire at Pontefract. The Danes again fled at his approach, and he occupied York. He bought off the Danes, who agreed to leave England in the spring, and through the winter of 1069–70 his forces systematically devastated Northumbria in the Harrying of the North, subduing all resistance.
In the spring of 1070, having secured the submission of Waltheof and Gospatric, and driven Edgar and his remaining supporters back to Scotland, William returned to Mercia, where he based himself at Chester and crushed all remaining resistance in the area before returning to the south. Sweyn II of Denmark arrived in person to take command of his fleet and renounced the earlier agreement to withdraw, sending troops into the Fens to join forces with English rebels led by Hereward, who were based on the Isle of Ely. Soon, however, Sweyn accepted a further payment of Danegeld from William and returned home. After the departure of the Danes the Fenland rebels remained at large, protected by the marshes, and early in 1071 there was a final outbreak of rebel activity in the area. Edwin and Morcar again turned against William, and while Edwin was soon betrayed and killed, Morcar reached Ely, where he and Hereward were joined by exiled rebels who had sailed from Scotland. William arrived with an army and a fleet to finish off this last pocket of resistance. After some costly failures the Normans managed to construct a pontoon to reach the Isle of Ely, defeated the rebels at the bridgehead and stormed the island, marking the effective end of English resistance.
Once England had been conquered, the Normans faced many challenges in maintaining control. The Normans were few in number compared to the native English population. Historians estimate the number of Norman settlers at around 8,000, but Norman in this instance includes not just natives of Normandy, but settlers from other parts of France. One consequence of the invasion was that William's followers expected and received lands and titles in return for their service in the invasion. However, William claimed ultimate possession of virtually all the land in England over which his armies had given him de facto control, and asserted the right to dispose of it as he saw fit. Henceforth, all land was "held" from the King. The distribution of land was normally in a piecemeal fashion spread out over the entire kingdom, rather than in contiguous blocks. A Norman lord typically had properties located all throughout England and Normandy, and not in a single geographic block.
To find the lands to compensate his Norman followers, William initially confiscated the lands of all the English lords who had fought and died with Harold and redistributed part of these lands. These confiscations led to revolts, which resulted in more confiscations, in a cycle that continued virtually unbroken for five years after the Battle of Hastings. To put down and prevent further rebellions the Normans constructed castles and fortifications in unprecedented numbers, initially mostly on the motte-and-bailey pattern. Historian Robert Liddiard remarks that "to glance at the urban landscape of Norwich, Durham or Lincoln is to be forcibly reminded of the impact of the Norman invasion". William and his barons also exercised tighter control over inheritance of property by widows and daughters, often forcing marriages to Normans.
A measure of William's success in taking control is that, from 1072 until the Capetian conquest of Normandy in 1204, William and his successors were largely absentee rulers. For example, after 1072, William spent more than 75% of his time in France rather than in England. While he needed to be personally present in Normandy to defend the realm from foreign invasion and put down internal revolts, he set up royal administrative structures that enabled him to rule England from a distance.
A direct consequence of the invasion was the near-total elimination of the old English aristocracy and the loss of English control over the Catholic Church in England. William systematically dispossessed English landowners and conferred their property on his continental followers. The Domesday Book meticulously documents the impact of this colossal programme of expropriation, revealing that by 1086 only about 5% of land in England south of the Tees was left in English hands. Even this tiny residue was further diminished in the decades that followed, the elimination of native landholding being most complete in southern parts of the country.
Natives were also removed from high governmental and ecclesiastical office. After 1075 all earldoms were held by Normans, while Englishmen were only occasionally appointed as sheriffs. Likewise in the Church senior English office-holders were either expelled from their positions or kept in place for their lifetimes but replaced by foreigners when they died. By 1096 no bishopric was held by any Englishman, while English abbots became uncommon, especially in the larger monasteries.
Following the conquest, large numbers of Anglo-Saxons, including groups of nobles, fled the country. Many fled to Scotland, Ireland, and Scandinavia. Members of King Harold Godwinson's family sought refuge in Ireland and used those bases for unsuccessful invasions of England. The largest single exodus occurred in the 1070s when a group of Anglo-Saxons in a fleet of 235 ships sailed for the Byzantine Empire. The empire became a popular destination for many English nobles and soldiers as it would have been known that the Byzantines were in need of mercenaries. The English became the predominant element in the elite Varangian Guard, hitherto a largely Scandinavian unit, from which the emperor's bodyguard was drawn. Some of the English migrants were settled in Byzantine frontier regions on the Black Sea coast and established towns with names such as "New London" and "New York".
Women had some rights before the Norman Conquest that were not present in England by circa 1100. The Germanic practice of the Fore-mother was brought by the Anglo-Saxons. Women would begin to lose some rights after the Danish invasion of the early 11th century, in particular, through King Cnut's revision of laws. Women may have lost the right to consent to marriage, for example, widows lost the right to remarry. The Norman Conquest gradually influenced the legal position of women in England. The Norman kings distinguished between aristocrats and commoners, and a woman's place in her life-cycle, in general, brought some changes in opportunities. Widows could remarry (even if they could not always consent to whom they were remarried) and, in general, control property in ways that married women and maidens could not. The greatest rights were generally available to women having access to land.
Before the Normans arrived, Anglo-Saxon governmental systems were more sophisticated than their counterparts in Normandy. All of England was divided into administrative units called shires with subdivisions, the royal court was the centre of government and royal courts existed which worked to secure the rights of free men. Shires were run by officials known as "shire reeve" or "sheriff". Most medieval governments were always on the move, holding court wherever the weather and food or other matters were best at the moment. England, however, had a permanent treasury at Winchester, before William's conquest. One major reason for the strength of the English monarchy was the wealth of the kingdom which was built on the English system of taxation, which included a land tax, or the geld. English coinage was also superior to most of the other currency in use in northwestern Europe, and the ability to mint coins was a royal monopoly. The English kings had also developed the system of issuing writs to their officials, in addition to the normal medieval practice of issuing charters. Writs were either instructions to an official or group of officials, or notifications of royal actions such as appointments to office or of a grant of some sort.
This sophisticated medieval form of government was handed over to the Normans and was the foundation of further developments. Although they kept the framework of the government, they made changes in the personnel, although at first the new king attempted to keep some natives in the government. By the end of William's reign, most of the officials of government and the royal household were Normans, not English. The language of official documents also changed, from Old English to Latin. One innovation was the introduction of the forest laws and the setting aside of large sections of England as royal forest subject to the newly introduced forest law. The Domesday survey was an administrative survey of the landholdings of the kingdom, and was unique to medieval Europe. This document was divided into sections based on the shires, and listed all the landholdings of each tenant-in-chief of the king as well as who had held the land before the conquest.
One of the most obvious changes was the introduction of Anglo-Norman, a northern dialect of Old French, as the language of the ruling classes in England, displacing Old English. French words entered the English language, and a further sign of the shift was the usage of French names instead of English ones. Male names changed first, with names such as William, Robert, Richard, becoming common quickly. Female names changed more slowly. One area where the Norman invasion did not change naming practices was in placenames, which unlike the earlier invasions by the Vikings and Cnut, did not significantly change after the Norman Conquest. It is unknown how much English the Norman invaders learned, nor how much the knowledge of French spread amongst the lower classes, but the demands of trade and simple communication probably meant that bilingualism was not unknown amongst both the Normans and the native English.
Approximately 8000 Normans and other continental persons settled in England as a result of the Conquest, although this is an estimate and exact figures cannot be established. Some of these new residents intermarried with the native English, but the extent of this practice in the years immediately after Hastings is unclear. A number of marriages are attested between Norman men and English women during the years before 1100, but these marriages were not common, with most Normans continuing to contract marriages with other Normans or other continental families rather than with the English. Within a century of the invasion, intermarriage between the native English and the Norman immigrants had become common. By the early 1160s, Ailred of Rievaulx was writing that intermarriage was common among all levels of society.
The impact of the conquest on the lower levels of English society is difficult to assess. The major change was the elimination of slavery in England, which had disappeared by the middle of the 12th century. There were about 28,000 of them listed in Domesday Book in 1086, less than had been enumerated for 1066. In some places, such as Essex, the decline in slaves was as much as 20% for the 20 years. The main reasons for the decline in slaveholding appear to have been the disapproval of the Church and the cost of supporting slaves, which unlike serfs, had to be supported entirely by their owners. But the practice of slavery was never outlawed, and the Leges Henrici Primi from the reign of King Henry I continue to mention slaveholding as legal.
Many of the free peasants of Anglo-Saxon society appear to have lost status and become indistinguishable from the non-free serfs. Whether this change was due entirely to the conquest is unclear, but the invasion and its after effects likely accelerated a process already underway. Likewise, the spread of towns and increase in nucleated settlements in the countryside, rather than scattered farms, was likely accelerated by the coming of the Normans to England. But the actual lifestyle of the peasantry probably did not greatly change in the decades after 1066.
Debate over the conquest started almost as soon as the event itself. The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, when discussing the death of William the Conqueror, denounced him and the conquest in verse form, but the king's obituary notice from William of Poitiers, a Frenchman, was laudatory and full of praise. Historians since then have argued over the facts of the matter and how to interpret them, with little agreement occurring throughout history. Modern historians in the 20th and 21st centuries have focused less on the rightness or wrongness of the conquest itself - instead concentrating on the actual effects of the invasion. Some historians, such as Richard Southern, have seen the conquest as a critical turning point in history. Southern himself stated that "no country in Europe, between the rise of the barbarian kingdoms and the 20th century, has undergone so radical a change in so short a time as England experienced after 1066." Other historians, such as H. G. Richardson or G. O. Sayles, take a view that the change was less radical than Southern's view. The debate over the impact of the conquest depends on what metrics are used to measure change after 1066. If Anglo-Saxon England was already changing before the invasion, with the introduction of feudalism or castles or the changes in society, then the conquest was important but not a radical change. But, if change is measured by the elimination of the English nobility or the loss of Old English as a literary language, then the change was radical and driven by the invasion. Nationalistic arguments have been made on both sides of the debate, with the Normans cast as either the persecutors of the English or the rescuers of the country from a decadent Anglo-Saxon nobility.