Normandy, Normans and the Norman Conquest

Normandy, Normans and the Norman Conquest

Normandy was once the home of Celtic tribes in north-western France. It was the kingdom of Clovis, founder of the Frankish empire (466 – 511). It came under Meringovian rule and was invaded and occupied by the Vikings (q.v.) in the 9th century. Rollo was the Viking leader who accepted Normandy as a fief from the King of France, which was gentlemanly of him as the French King was quite powerless to do anything else but accept the norsemen’s occupation.

Rollo became Robert and was baptised. The name ‘Normandy’ comes from ‘NORth MAN.Once settled, the Vikings embraced Christianity and adopted the French language (or a version of it), but their expansion meant that their power rivalled or exceeded that of the French kings.

In 1066 Duke William of Normandy decided that England was rightfully his for the taking, and rode the seas to Hastings to take it. His forces killed King Harold, who was himself Saxon and of Viking blood, and the Duke became William I (The Conquerer) of England.

Governing England proved a time-consuming task, and William allowed Normandyto fall into lax hands. The Duchy was recovered for France by Philip Augustus in 1204, but fell back into English hands after the Hundred Years War. Later in 1450 Normandywas permanently reunited with France.

This sublimely beautiful region is known as ‘The Orchard of France’. Certainly the apple, peach and orange blossom in spring and summer, spreading across the agricultural meadows around Lisieux and Courtonne should be seen by every visitor to France.

The Normans are the inhabitants of Normandy, descendents of a mixed Scandinavian (the Northmen) and Frankish people who had established themselves there in the late dark and early medieval ages.

Under Duke William the Normans expanded their territory largely by conquering England, parts of Wales and Scotland, Ireland, and large parts of the Mediterranean. They also expanded southwards, led by a spirited adventurer called Guiscard who led them as mercenaries fighting the Muslims. France’s heroine Jeanne d’Arc was burnt by the English at Rouen, Normandy’s capital.

At one time Normans controlled extensive regions of Europe.  Norman power was at its height in 1154, with the King of Sicily’s death and accession in England of Henry II. Henry was the first Plantagenet, though he had plenty of Viking blood in his veins. The Normans managed Sicily and England very well, with efficient governments distinguished in Europe for sophisticated legal and administrative systems.

The Norman Conquestopened in 1066 with Duke William of Normandy’s victory over the Saxon English at the Battle of Hastings.  As William I (reigning 1066 – 87) he soon established military superiority over the English, crushing rebellions against his royal will with the usual Norman efficiency, speed and cruelty. For reasons of defence, William had around five thousand castles built, and it was he who ‘invented’ the ‘marches’ and the ‘marcher lords’ at the borders withWales and Scotland. Many of these marcher lords’ castles are still there, and should be seen by visitors to the theme park which is England. Fine examples are Carnafon (Wales) and Alnwick (Northumberland).

English institutions were maintained or copied by the Normans, such as the treasury, the King’s Council, the King’s Peace, sheriffs and the shire system (Hertfordshire, Gloucestershire etc.). Where English systems did not suffice, Norman systems were introduced. Many of these changes proved not at all popular with the English, who had already lost status, property, land and public office. Taxation was heavy, forest and hunting laws were bitterly contested but finally obeyed by force of Law.

Norman efficiency produced the first scan of the population in The Domesday Book (1086), thoiugh it owed much to existing English records. For a while the language of the Court and the courts was Norman French, instead of Latin. England prospered under the Normans, the towns grew larger, and so did the population. The English Catholic church was reorganized under Archbishop Lanfranc, though historical cynics say this would have happened anyway. The Norman style of architecture (rounded arches and heavy pillars etc),  greatly influencing building style and method was introduced successfully, and lastingly, after the Conquest. William I built most of what is nowWindsor Castle.

Folk in Normandy and Brittany, as well as Cornwall in western England, have and still cherish their own language and dialect, though they do not wish to inflict it on everyone else, as the citizens of Cataluña are supposed to do – though this is probably yet another fallacy of the politicians.

About the Author:

‘Dean Swift’ is a pen name: the author has been a soldier; he has worked in sales, TV, the making of films, as a teacher of English and history and a journalist. He is married with three grown-up children. They live in Spain.

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