Norman Conquest

The Norman Conquest was the conquest of England by William the Conqueror (Duke of Normandy), in 1066 at the Battle of Hastings and the subsequent Norman control of England. It is an important watershed in English history for a number of reasons. It tied England more closely with Continental Europe and away from Scandinavian influence, created one of the most powerful monarchies in Europe, created the most sophisticated governmental system in Europe, changed the English language and culture, and set the stage for a long future of English-French conflict. It remains the last successful military invasion of England.

Normandy is a region in northwest France which at the time had experienced extensive Viking settlement. Beginning about 150 years earlier in 911 a French Carolingian ruler Charles the Simple had allowed a group of Vikings, under their leader Rollo, to settle in northern France with the intention they would provide protection along the coast against further Viking invaders. This proved successful and the Vikings, who were known as the Northmen from which Normandy is derived, held off further Viking invaders. The Normans quickly adapted to the indigenous culture, renouncing paganism and converting to Christianity, adopting the langue d'oil of their new subjects and, through the introduction of Norse features, transforming it into the Norman language, and intermarrying with the local populations. They also used the territory granted in 911 as a base to extend the frontiers of the Duchy to the west, annexing territory including the Bessin, the Cotentin Peninsula and the Channel Islands.

Meanwhile in England the Viking attacks increased and in 991 the Anglo-Saxon king of England Aethelred agreed to marry the daughter of the Duke of Normandy to cement a blood-tie alliance for help against the raiders. The Viking attacks of England grew so bad in 1013 the Anglo-Saxon kings fled and spent the next 30 years in Normandy, not returning to England until 1042.

When the Anglo-Saxon king Edward the Confessor died a few years later in 1066 with no child, and thus no heir to the throne, it created a power vacuum into which three competing interests laid claim to King of England.

The first was Harald III of Norway who had blood ties to the Anglo-Saxon family. The second was William the Bastard, the Duke of Normandy, because of his blood ties to Aethelred. The third was an Anglo-Saxon by the name of Harold Godwinson who had been elected by the Anglo-Saxons of England to be king. The stage was set for a battle between the three.

They fought at the Battle of Hastings on October 14. It was a close Norman victory but in the final hours Harold was killed and the Saxon army fled. With no living contender for the throne of England to oppose William, this was the defining moment of what is now known as the Norman Conquest.

After his victory at Hastings William marched through Kent to London but met fierce resistance at Southwark. He then marched down the old Roman Road of Stane Street to link up with another Norman army on the Pilgrim's Way near Dorking, Surrey. The combined armies then avoided London altogether and went up the Thames valley to the major fortified Saxon town of Wallingford, Berkshire, whose Saxon lord, Wigod, had supported William's cause. While there, he received the submission of the Archbishop of Canterbury. One of William's favourites, Robert D'Oyley of Lisieux, also married Wigod's daughter, no doubt to secure the lords continued allegiance. William then travelled north east along the Chiltern escarpment to the Saxon fort at Berkhamstead, Hertfordshire and waited there to receive the submission of London. The remaining Saxon noblemen surrendered to William there, and he was acclaimed King of England around the end of October and crowned on December 25, 1066 in Westminster Abbey.

Part of William's success in being crowned king so quickly was because Norman cultural and political influence in England had built up over the years prior to 1066, and William had an arguably legitimate dynastic claim to the throne of England, which enabled him to claim enough support among the Anglo-Saxon nobility to prevent a wholly united front against his ascent of the throne.

Although the south of England submitted quickly to Norman rule, resistance continued, especially in the North, for six more years until 1072 during which he moved from south to north subduing rebellion by the Anglo-Saxons and installing Norman lords along the way.

Once England had been conquered the Normans faced a number of challenges in maintaining control. The Anglo-Norman speaking Normans were in very small numbers compared to the native English population. The Anglo-Saxon lords were accustomed to being fully independent from centralized government, contrary to the Normans who had a centralized system, which the Anglo-Saxons resented. Revolts had sprung up almost at once from the time of William's coronation, led either by members of Harold's family or disaffected English nobles. William dealt with these challenges in a number of ways. New Norman lords constructed a variety of forts and castles (such as the motte-and-bailey) in order to provide a stronghold against a popular revolt (or increasingly rare Viking attacks) and to dominate the nearby town and countryside. Any of the remaining Anglo-Saxon lords who refused to acknowledge the legitimacy of William's accession to the throne or who rose in revolt were summarily stripped of titles and lands, which were then re-distributed to Norman favourites of William. If an Anglo-Saxon lord died without issue the Normans would always choose a successor from Normandy. In this way the Normans displaced the native aristocracy and took control of the top ranks of power.

Keeping the Norman lords together and loyal as a group was just as important as any friction could easily give the English-speaking natives a chance to divide and conquer their minority Anglo-French speaking lords. One way William accomplished this was by giving out land in a piece-meal fashion. A Norman lord typically had property spread out all over England and Normandy, and not in a single geographic block. Thus, if the lord tried to break away from the King, he could only defend a small number of his holdings at any one time. This proved a very effective deterrent from rebellion and kept the Norman nobility loyal to the King.

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