On October 14th, 1066, the English army, led by King Harold II, was defeated by Duke William and the Normans at the Battle of Hastings. Most people will remember this famous story from their school days, particularly the gruesome image of King Harold with an arrow in the eye. But Hastings was more than just a battle, it was the start of a new chapter in England’s history. The Norman Invasion may seem like a very distant event in our nation’s past, but it is one worth remembering.
Land and Wealth
When Duke William first approached his men with the idea of invading England, he received a cool reception. It took the promise of foreign lands and titles to persuade them otherwise. After the Battle of Hastings, William kept this promise and rewarded those who had fought alongside him at the expense of the native English aristocracy. To illustrate the full extent of this, just look at one of William’s greatest achievements, the Domesday Survey of 1086. By this point, William had been king for 20 years and whatever his motivations for completing a survey on this scale, it shows a dramatic reversal of English fortunes.
For example, in 1086 William controlled 17% of the land in England (double that of his one of his Saxon predecessors, Edward the Confessor) and the Church owned a mighty 26%. The remaining 54% of land in England was controlled by the aristocracy. Statistics from the survey show that 40% of the total land was concentrated into the hands of ten laymen and twelve members of the clergy. It was with these few men that the real power lay and not one of them was of English descent. As the historian Robert Bartlett has argued, this was “the swiftest and most thorough replacement of one ruling class by another in English history.”
Castles may seem synonymous with Medieval England but, prior to 1066, not one castle could be found in the whole of the country. It was the Normans who brought the castle to England and they commenced building within days of their arrival. Such fortifications became symbols of Norman dominance and served a dual purpose; they housed the new aristocracy and provided a base from which the Normans could effectively establish control. Estimates suggest that William I built up to 86 castles in his 21 year reign. These structures dramatically altered England’s landscape and many of these castles can still be seen today.
The Normans also remodelled many of England’s churches and cathedrals to create some of the country’s most monumental and impressive structures. The cathedrals of Ely and Durham are some of the finest examples of Norman buildings in England. William was also responsible for building the White Tower in London (pictured), with the primary function of defending his supply ships sailing up the Thames River. It was an immense structure using specially imported stone from Normandy. The building work was supervised by Gundulf, the Norman Bishop of Rochester, but the labour was provided by English men of the shires. The country had never seen anything like it.
Language and Culture
The English language suffered as a result of the Norman Invasion as French and Latin became the new languages of the government, Church and the nobility. English was now associated with the uncivilised and uneducated. The Normans also brought their drinking habits with them; gone were the days of the famous Anglo-Saxon mead-hall, eclipsed by the new French fashion of wine-drinking.
One of the most enduring cultural changes was the adoption of French names, at the expense of the more traditional Anglo-Saxon ones. In an attempt to imitate their new conquerors, many English chose to abandon the traditional names like ‘Godwin’, ‘Harold’, or ‘Ethelred’, in favour of names French names like ‘William’, ‘Henry’ or ‘Robert’. Even in the last decade, William still features in the top 10 baby names for boys in England and Wales.
These are just a few of the changes brought about by the new regime. But it was changes like these which left an indelible scar on the country and would ultimately ensure that England and her people would never be conquered again.